Patterns and ripples

My grandmother died today. I’m not really that sad.

I think the traditional followup to a sentiment like that would be something like: “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel sad?”

I don’t really feel that either, though.

I sometimes joke about being a robot. I joke about it because I’ve always been kind of weird, emotionally. I would tend to freeze up whenever I encountered intense situations – become highly analytical, appear stoic and unemotional. And this used to cause me some distress. I really did think, “What’s wrong with me?” I would wonder why I was so apparently heartless.

But it doesn’t really bother me anymore. It doesn’t bother me because…well, because I know I’m not unemotional. No, more than that: I know that any attempt to paint myself as unemotional would be not just wrong, but patently absurd. My brain would just laugh it off. Because I’m ridiculously, obviously emotional. I mean, I probably cry once a week. Heck, I cried over a TV show earlier tonight (actually, come to think of it, it was an episode about someone losing their grandmother). I’m sentimental and I’m nostalgic and I’m idealistic and on any given day I have more emotions than I can deal with. I have precisely zero trouble feeling the pain of loss, and I know that about myself. No, I’m not worried about being a robot anymore.

So why don’t I feel sad right now?

My grandmother died years ago. That’s not me trying to be poetic – I mean it as literally and non-metaphorically as possible. It is a deeply held belief of mine – not just something I claim to know at an intellectual level, but something I feel right down to my gut – that to the extent any of us exist at all, we exist as patterns: particular arrangements of neurons or atoms or quantum fields or god only knows what’s further down. And when our pattern is gone, so are we.

Alzheimer’s erased my grandmother’s pattern. It did so a long time ago. It was a beautiful pattern, a pattern that didn’t deserve to be erased. But erased it was – slowly, painfully, over many years, until there was nothing left of it but a meaningless, empty shell.

Those years of erasure – those seem deserving of mourning. Those seem worthy of being sad about. But today doesn’t. Not really. Because nothing was erased today.

I miss my grandmother. She was a wonderful, amazing person, and I wish her pattern was still around so she could do more wonderful, amazing things. I’m not going to pretend to be sad that a collection of cells that superficially resembled her have stopped functioning, but…

But, still, this seems like as good a time as any to mourn her, and to remember her. She may have been erased, but she left ripples behind – ripples that live on in my brain, and in all the brains of those who knew her and loved her. And I can’t bring her pattern back, but I can sure as heck try to keep those ripples going for as long as I can. So that’s what I’ll do.

I hope that someday we can do better. That someday we won’t have to worry about trying to keep the shadow of an echo of a pattern alive, that someday we won’t have to deal with the people we love being erased.

But in the meantime, I’ll remember you, Nan.

On speedruns, golf, and interestingness

I find myself fascinated by video game speedruns lately. They’re not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

I mean, first of all they showcase a particular kind of technical skill that I find both enormously impressive and aesthetically pleasing. Watching a speedrun I often find myself struck by two simultaneous thoughts:

1. How the heck did they do that?


2. That was beautiful

It’s the combination of technicality and visual appeal that gets to the heart of it, I think. Speedruns probably have much the same appeal as, say, juggling, or other feats of dexterity. It’s about pushing the limits of what the human body can do, but in a unique way that emphasizes complexity and intricacy rather than maximization of a single trait, like speed or strength. And there’s beauty to it – not in the sense that speedrunners are optimizing for beauty, really, but in the sense that I don’t think people would watch speedruns if they were about players using the same button combinations to manipulate spreadsheets or something.

But there’s more to it than that. It strikes me that most kinds of races that people compete in are kind of…well, boring, for lack of a better term. There’s just not much to them. For example, I think marathon runners are extremely impressive athletes, and if I heard that someone had broken the marathon world record I would find that really cool and interesting. But would I have any desire to actually watch the race? No, of course not. Why on earth would I? For the most part I can just simulate it in my head: first they ran really fast…then they continued running really fast. I mean, yes, there might be some details you would want to know – the splits could be interesting, for example. Maybe the runner had a very weak start and then a strong finish. Or if it was an actual race and not a time trial, it could be interesting if two runners fed off of one another. But I see those as relatively minor things – they wouldn’t be enough to make me actually want to watch the race. At least for me, 99% of the information I care about when it comes to a race like that is captured by the actual finishing times. Beyond that, the act of running itself simply doesn’t have enough going on to really interest me.

Speedruns aren’t really like that, though. They have structure. The different sections of a speedrun can be wildly different from one another – not just in terms of difficulty, but in terms of the actual skills required to do them well. Maybe one section requires extreme skill with the game’s jumping mechanics. Maybe for another you need to be master the combat system. Some parts might demand extreme precision, while others might require fast reflexes.

But even that doesn’t really capture it. After all, if all you want is for different parts of your race to involve different skills, you can trivially achieve that by slapping together different skills into a frankensport – this is essentially what triathlons do. And indeed, I would probably be more inclined to watch a triathlon than I would any of the individual sports that make it up – but I still wouldn’t be that inclined. So it’s not just that multiple skills are involved – it’s that each of the skills on their own are interesting, multi-dimensional skills. Running at a world class level, as impressive as it is, does not involve that many dimensions of skill – you have to be fast, and you have to have endurance, and I guess you have to be good at managing the race and, like, being aware of your opponent’s psychology and knowing when to attack and things like that. But that’s still not that much going on – in terms of the interestingness of the skill, I would say it pales in comparison to something like the ability to dribble and maneuver a soccer ball. There’s just a lot more nuance, a lot more ways to be good or bad in the latter case. And I would say that most video game skills are much more like dribbling a soccer ball than they are like running.

Honestly, the closest comparison I can think of to make – and I know this will sound silly, but hear me out – is to golf. Golf is sort of like a race in that it’s a one-player game – no teammates, and you compete with opponents only indirectly – and you’re trying to minimize a particular quantity. In a race it’s time, and in golf it’s number of shots. Just like speedruns, though, golf has structure to it. In a running race, what differentiates one part of the race from another? Well, hills I guess, but in general not a whole lot – any one kilometer is pretty much the same as any other. Golf isn’t like that – as you go through a round you play different holes that each have their own unique challenges and opportunities (analogous to the different levels or sections of a video game). Moreover, just like a speedrun golf involves many different skills – driving is very different from iron play is very different from chipping is very different from putting. And I would say that certain of those skills are fairly multi-dimensional – chipping in particular involves a lot of nuance. So ignoring the fact that you might personally find golf to be very boring, if you can see what I mean by saying that golf has structure, you can maybe see what I’m getting at when it comes to speedruns.

Of course, golf isn’t unique in that regard – there are plenty of other sports that have this same kind of structure/intricate nature. Hockey, soccer, basketball – these are sports you might still want to watch, even after being told what the score of a game was. Maybe someone made an amazing play. Maybe something really cool or unlikely happened. Maybe one team had a last-minute comeback or collapse. Whatever. The point is, it’s not just a one-dimensional “they ran fast/they didn’t run fast” dynamic. You care about the process, how the game happened, rather than just the result.

Okay, so if these sports exist, why go on and on about speedruns being so unique? Well, basically – because those sports aren’t races. They’re team games, and more importantly they involve players competing directly against one another. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – not everything has to be a race, and I enjoy watching those sports. But I do like races. They’re a really cool class of competition – and given their wide appeal, I think it’s safe to say that they tickle some part of human psychology. But most races that exist right now just don’t have the same complexity that other sports have – they’re one-dimensional. So it’s neat to see an activity like speedrunning come along that takes the intricate, nuanced aspects that typify team sports and fuses them with the general awesomeness that is a race. It fills a niche that I think was missing from the world of competition and play.

Like, I can see why the traditional races came about in the first place, of course. Swimming, running, biking – these sports are about pushing the human body as far as it can go in certain specific directions. I can see the appeal in that, and I’m glad those races exist. God knows they’re impressive as all hell.

I just can’t really find them interesting.

Results from the Great Scotch Tasting of 2016

Two guys. Twelve kinds of Scotch. One poorly controlled experiment.

That’s right – my friend and I just did a blind Scotch tasting, and I’m here to give you all the smokey, peaty details.

Background first. I was introduced to Scotch about five years ago, as a young and maybe-not-entirely-innocent grad student. At the time I wasn’t one to enjoy the taste of alcohol much – to this day I can’t stomach a drop of beer – but Scotch I immediately took a liking to. It tasted great, and made you look classy as all hell while drinking it. What wasn’t to love? It became my drink of choice, and naturally I started to branch out, trying as many different labels as I could get my hands on. My taste developed and favourites quickly emerged – Bowmore became my go-to brand; Lagavulin and Talisker my indulgences, reserved for special occasions.

As I tried more and more brands, though, a few things became clear:

First, expensive Scotch could be really, really good. One day I was lucky enough to try some 18-year-old Laphroaig (for the uninitiated, older Scotches tend to be both more expensive and more highly regarded). I only got a small taste, but…wow. I don’t want to oversell it, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing for my bank account that it’s not available in Ontario.

Second, more expensive didn’t always mean better tasting. Plenty of the pricey brands I tried were quite good, but they still didn’t measure up to the (relatively) affordable Bowmore 12, in my estimation.

From this I concluded that there was probably something real that the Scotch market was capturing – that there was at least a trend towards more expensive Scotch tasting better, even if it could be overwhelmed by the idiosyncrasies of one’s own personal preferences. But when it came to truly mind-blowing, explode-in-your-mouth taste, it did seem as though a high price was a necessary condition, if not a sufficient one. And certainly most of the Scotches I would list as my favourites were towards the higher end of the price spectrum.

Still, though, some doubt lingered in my mind. I had heard all the standard warnings: how unblinded ratings are essentially meaningless, how people are extremely vulnerable to the power of suggestion, and how we tend to massively overrate things if we’re told that they’re expensive and/or highly regarded. There’s certainly no shortage of cautionary tales involving self-styled connoisseurs getting egg on their face when submitting to a blind taste test. A nagging part of me wondered if I wasn’t just rating the expensive Scotches highly because I subconsciously wanted to like them better. I mean, it certainly didn’t feel like that’s what I was doing – to me the more expensive Scotches just seemed to actually taste better. But I guess that’s what everyone says.

So, naturally, I did what any curious person would do: I tried an experiment. I enlisted a friend who also appreciates Scotch, and one night we set out to do a blind taste test: we would try a range of Scotches without knowing which was which, and rate them. We both saw it as a win-win situation: if it did turn out that we preferred the more expensive brands, then that would be vindication of a sort – what we had said all along about our preferences would be born out by the evidence. On the other hand, if it turned out we actually liked the cheaper labels just as much (or more than) the expensive ones, then that would be fascinating – we would get to experience a cognitive bias at work first hand, like when you see an optical illusion revealed for what it is.

(plus, from then on we would get to switch to buying cheaper Scotch, which would be a nice bonus)

Yeah, yeah, okay, I can hear you saying, just get to the results! Did you embarrass yourself or not?

Alright, fair enough. As it happens we didn’t totally embarrass ourselves, but we definitely had some surprises. So without further ado, I’ll get to the experiment.

(Oh, and before you ask: yes, I’m drinking Scotch as I write this. Of course I’m drinking Scotch as I write this)

The setup we decided on was pretty simple. We chose 12 different Scotches from our combined collection, varying widely both in price and in terms of our personal preferences. They were, in order of cost per bottle:

  • McClelland Islay – $45
  • Glenfiddich 12 – $55
  • Glenlivet 12 – $57
  • Bowmore 12 – $60
  • Aberlour 10 – $60
  • Glenfiddich 15 – $77
  • Bowmore 15 – $93
  • Talisker 10 – $100
  • Glenfiddich 18 – $112
  • Glenlivet 18 – $120
  • Lagavulin 16 – $122
  • Bowmore 18 – $127

Blinding was straightforward – we each left the room in turn as the other poured out the twelve Scotches in a random order. Then we went through them one by one, rating each out of ten and taking notes (we also tried to identify which Scotch was which, although that was less of a priority).

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer – here are the results:


Of course, it’s hard to get much from looking at a table, but a few things jump out. In my case, probably the most noticeable trend is…the lack of a trend. My ratings were fairly uniform across the board, with an 8 being the most common rating (which I used to indicate a “very good but not amazing” Scotch). Apparently my reaction to most Scotch is basically “yeah, tastes great”, and variations on top of that are relatively minor – it seems I just like the stuff. Still, there were some interesting datapoints. In my favour, I’ve always said that Bowmore was my favourite Scotch, and indeed two of my top three rated whiskeys ended up being different ages of Bowmore (the third Bowmore rated a solid 8/10, although embarrassingly this was Bowmore 18, the most expensive of the three). Also somewhat in my favour, my other top-rated whiskey was Glenfiddich 18, which is a fairly high-end Scotch. I previously would have pegged Glenfiddich 18 as excellent, although I don’t know if I would have said it was my favourite. Less to my credit, two expensive Scotches that I would have said were among my absolute favourites – Lagavulin and Talisker – rated a mere 7 and 8, respectively. Lagavulin in particular surprised me – I would have been willing to bet it would have ended up with an above average rating, so having it come in near the bottom was a big shock.

Overall, I didn’t come off too terribly, but given that I rated most Scotches as essentially the same, I didn’t exactly knock it out of the park, either. Apparently my “preference” for more expensive Scotch had a lot more social conditioning to it than I would have guessed.

My friend’s ratings were, I think, much more interesting than mine. The most obvious difference is that he had a much wider range of ratings than I did (3 to 9, compared to 6 to 9 for me). And I don’t think he was just using a different scale than I was – I think he genuinely disliked certain Scotches to a degree that I didn’t and rated them accordingly. He also took much more detailed notes than I did, which leads me to believe that he has a more attuned sense of taste than I do. Intriguingly, he too picked out Bowmore 15 as his top-rated whiskey, which I don’t think either of us would have predicted at the outset. His other top picks – Glenlivet 18, Lagavulin 16, Bowmore 18 – were all quite high-end, which reflects pretty well on him. He did have some surprises, though, even bigger than mine. Two of his favourite Scotches – Glenfiddich 18 and Talisker 10 – fared quite poorly, garnering ratings of 6.5 and 4 out of 10, respectively. And previously he would have said that he really liked those two, so it was a fairly unexpected outcome. Those surprises notwithstanding, though, I think my friend came out of the experiment looking pretty good – his ratings tended to align more with his pre-experiment rankings than mine did.

That’s all just verbal analysis, though, and I know you all came here for the math (admit it, none of you can resist the allure of sweet, sweet, data analysis). So let’s dig into the data a bit further.

The first thing we’ll want to do is compare my set of ratings to my friend’s, to see how well the two agree. Of course, even two of the world’s most experienced whiskey connoisseurs could simply have different taste, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect the ratings of two different people to match up perfectly with one another. But still, going in my friend and I would have said we had pretty similar preferences, so it’d be strange if the ratings were completely uncorrelated. With that in mind, we can pull up the scatterplot:


And…yeah. Looks pretty random. Whoops. Granted, the best fit line does at least have a positive slope, so our ratings were positively correlated. But when I run the correlation I get a coefficient of 0.19, which is…pretty low. I mean, it’s not zero (or negative!), but it’s pretty low. So charitably you could say that we just have very different taste (and didn’t realize it before), or you could say that our ratings have a lot of randomness to them. Take your pick.

From there we move on to the more interesting question – how well did our ratings correlate with price? As I alluded to above, going in to the experiment I wouldn’t have expected a perfect correlation. I would have said that more expensive whiskeys tend to taste better, but that still leaves plenty of room for personal preference. After all, some Scotches are just going to have a flavour that you really like, for whatever reason. And you can age another Scotch as much as you like, but it still won’t necessarily be able to compete with that cheaper Scotch you simply have a taste for.

Of course, with that being said, my friend and I both went in claiming to like more expensive Scotch, so some kind of correlation with price was expected. If it didn’t show up, or was much smaller than expected, there would certainly be some egg on our faces.

So how did we do? Well, here are the scatterplots:



The first thing you might notice about my scatterplot is that it’s very flat – the best fit line has a positive slope, indicating a positive correlation, but the slope is very small. However – statistics to the rescue! – it turns out this doesn’t actually mean all that much. When your data has low variance along one axis, as mine does, the slope of the best fit isn’t a very informative quantity. Instead you want to look at the correlation coefficient. And when I run a correlation between my ratings and the cost per bottle, I get a coefficient of…


Now, how you interpret that number will depend on your field, but a correlation of 0.32 is…probably decent at best. It’s certainly not nothing, but it’s not huge either. If you want an intuitive sense of what a correlation coefficient means, you can square it, and that will give you the fraction of the variance in the data that’s explained by the dependent variable. What does that mean? Well, in my case, 0.32 squared is 0.104. This means that price accounts for roughly 10% of the variance in my ratings – in other words, 90% of what makes me like a given Scotch is coming from something other than price. If you like, you can picture ten different equally important factors that contribute to my Scotch preferences – maybe the smokiness of the Scotch would be one, or the peatiness – and price would be just one of those ten. So the bottom line is, at least for the 12 Scotches that we happened to pick out, price isn’t extremely important when it comes to determining my preferences. It’s definitely a factor, but I’ll admit that it’s a smaller factor than I expected.

Okay, so what about my friend? Well, right off the bat his scatterplot looks more promising than mine. You can see a clear trend towards more expensive Scotches having higher ratings. And indeed, when you run the correlation you get a coefficient of…(drumroll please)…0.53. Not bad! When you square that you get 0.284, so over 28% of the variance in his ratings is coming directly from price. This means that, for my friend at least, if you want to answer the question “what makes a good Scotch?”, a decent fraction (more than a quarter) of the answer is going to be price. Whereas I would need nine other equally important factors (aside from price) to fully account for my preferences, my friend would only need two or three. Which is pretty cool! This is more the level of correlation I expected going in to the experiment.

But here’s where it gets interesting. So far I’ve been using price as a proxy for the “overall quality” of the Scotch, and judging our ratings against this standard. But there’s another metric that’s commonly used to judge Scotch, and that’s age – common wisdom holds that the older a Scotch is, the better it is. Of course, age tends to correlate with price, but there are exceptions – the Talisker we sampled, for example, is only 10 years old but costs $100. Overall the correlation between age and price for our 12 whiskeys was 0.76. Given that, I initially figured that there wasn’t much point in running a correlation between age and rating – I guess I thought that price would reflect the quality of the Scotch pretty well, and I doubted our ability to pick out any effect age might have beyond that.

But boy, was I wrong. Recall that the correlations between rating and price were 0.32 for me, and 0.53 for my friend. However, if you instead look at the correlations between rating and age, they jump up to 0.47 for me and 0.70 (!) for my friend. All of a sudden we’re starting to get respectable correlations, ones even a physicist might not scoff at. In my friend’s case that’s fully half the variance in rating being explained by one quantity, age.

I did not expect this at all, and I find it fascinating. Going in I would have been willing to bet that whatever correlations we saw, they would have been stronger for price than they were for age. I had in my head the idea that age was a very noisy measure of Scotch quality: sure, older Scotches were usually better, but there were plenty of exceptions (Talisker 10, for instance, I would have rated above plenty of 18-year-old whiskeys). Price seemed like a better indicator of quality because it could correct for those exceptions – if it turned out that some young Scotch was particularly good, well, then a lot of people would say “hey, this is really good,” and they would want to buy it, and it would end up with a high price. In other words, price would reflect quality even when the age heuristic broke down. So if we were going to pick out anything with our ratings, I thought, it would be price.

But the opposite happened, and that’s interesting. It suggests that age really is a good indicator of Scotch quality, and that once you take age into account, price is possibly only adding noise. So if you’re ever in the liquor store shopping for some Scotch, you might do better ignoring the price tag and just looking at how old it is.

(also, not to put too fine a point on it, but – how cool is it that result? We did a blind taste test and our ratings ended up correlating well with age. I’m gonna go ahead and call that a little bit of vindication for the “Scotch quality is a real thing” camp)

Finally, just as we were curious as to how our unblinded ratings would hold up under blinding, we were also curious as to how our blinded ratings would hold up once we were unblinded again. So one of the first things we did after the tasting was over was to re-taste some of the “surprise” Scotches – the ones that rated much higher or lower than we expected. We were worried that with the blinding removed, we would revert back to our earlier, preconception-laden opinions. But surprisingly this didn’t end up happening. When my friend tried Talisker, and I tried Lagavulin, our two big underperformers, we both said “hey yeah, I guess this really isn’t as good as I always thought it was”. And when we both tried Bowmore 15, our surprise winner, it turned out to be every bit as good as our ratings suggested. In other words, the blinded assessments really did carry over – they made us notice things that we hadn’t noticed before, but once noticed the blinding wasn’t necessary.

Which means we won’t be treating this as merely an academic exercise. Both my friend and I intend to change our buying habits based on these results. In my case my highest rated “affordable” Scotch was Bowmore 12, which was already kind of my go-to, so I won’t be changing anything there. But from now on I will absolutely be getting Bowmore 15 as my “special occasion” Scotch, rather than any of the more expensive bottles I used to buy sometimes. For my friend’s part, he also plans to start buying Bowmore 15 for special occasions, and is considering switching to Glenlivet 12 as an “everyday” Scotch.


Okay, so what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, I would say that we got sort of a middle-of-the-road result from the experiment. On the one hand our ratings both ended up correlating with age and price, and many of the ratings we gave agreed roughly with our previous, non-blinded assessments. So we didn’t totally embarrass ourselves – no Bottle Shock for us. On the other hand, some of those correlations were fairly small, and we were both humbled when some of our purported favourites ended up getting quite low ratings. So neither complete vindication, nor abject humiliation – just some fascinating results, and a whole lot of Scotch.

I’d call that a successful experiment.


One Year In

I started this blog a year ago, which somehow seems like the wrong amount of time in both directions – half of me can’t believe it’s been a year already, and the other half is certain I’ve been here for far longer than that. It has been a year, though – 365 days on the dot – and I figure that makes this as good a time as any for a retrospective.

(I’ve said before that all blogging is ultimately narcissistic, but sometimes you just have to drop all pretense and write about yourself directly)

Anyway, we’ll start with the exciting stuff: stats! Over the past year I’ve published 17 posts (including this one), which amounts to a post every 3 weeks or so. In total I wrote just under 29000 words, which works out to an average of roughly 1700 words per post (if you’re trying to make me sound impressive), or roughly 79 words per day (if you’re not). The median post was only 848 words, but then you have to expect some skew when you’re posting zero-word Dinosaur Comics.

In terms of readership, I managed to attract about 3100 visits to the site, and just over 5300 views. I’m not entirely clear on what the difference between visits and views is – I initially thought that the former referred to the number of unique visitors to the site, and the latter to the total number of page views. But I’ve definitely seen my visit count for a given day increase while my view count stayed the same, which seems like it shouldn’t be possible. In any case, by far the most popular post was Restricted Range and the RPG Fallacy, which accounted for roughly half of all views by itself. It was also the most commented on post and the most shared, although interestingly not the most liked – that honour belongs to a short post I wrote (a poem, of all things) called Commonplace. I was confused about this for a while – I’m assuming/hoping that most people don’t come to this blog for the poetry. What I think happened there is that by tagging the post as “poetry” it ended up on some kind of WordPress feed, and was then seen and liked by the kind of people who follow poetry feeds on WordPress.

(Incidentally, I gained several new followers that day. I can only assume they followed me with the expectation that there would be more poetry at some point, and are now getting increasingly frustrated by the rambling 3000-word posts about AI that keep showing up on their dash)

In terms of the posts that I’m proudest of, it would have to be a tossup between the aforementioned Restricted Range, and The Cost of Humility, which I just put up a few weeks ago (they actually bookend the year nicely, now that I think of it). Both of them are too long for their own good, probably, but they’re things that I needed to write. The thoughts that led to those posts had been bouncing around in my head for a long, long time, and it was an immense relief to finally get them down on a page. Honourable mentions go to a series of three posts I wrote on what I called P and NP intelligence – basically a framework for talking about creativity. Yes, they were practically the definition of non-rigorous armchair psychology, but I think it was at least interesting non-rigorous armchair psychology.

Overall I’m very happy with how the first year of this blog turned out. I produced a decent amount of writing, clarified and crystallized many interesting new thoughts, and got more traffic than I had any real right to expect. I’m even reasonably satisfied with the quality of what I wrote. Not even close to totally satisfied, of course – there’s a bunch of stuff that makes me cringe looking back on it, and I should probably just stop rereading my old posts altogether. But I’m cringing much less than I used to, and that seems encouraging.

So what’s on tap for next year? Well, hopefully more of the same. My number one priority is to up my posting frequency. Official stated goal for the year is 20 posts (I even wrote it down on a napkin and everything) but really I’d like to get to 26 – a post every two weeks. I don’t think that’s too unreasonable of a goal, since I basically had a four-month period with zero posts in the middle of last year.

I’d like to increase my traffic as well, of course, but I’m less clear on how to go about doing that. Probably my best bet is to engage more with the nebulous “rationalist” community that I’m sort-of a part of – historically that’s where I’ve gotten a good chunk of my traffic. So I might start commenting more on other people’s blogs, weighing in on the popular topics du jour, linking my posts at rationalist hubs, that kind of thing. Heck, maybe I’ll even start using tumblr (although that seems like the kind of sentence I might point to years down the line, when I want to show someone exactly where it all started to go wrong for me).

As for topics, I’m not sure what I’ll write about this year, but I’m sure it’ll continue to be in the intersection of “areas that I find interesting” and “areas where I think I might actually have something interesting to say”. If nothing else, you can definitely expect more in the way of philosophy, rationality, pun-based Dinosaur Comics, and armchair psychology (but probably not poetry – sorry, random followers).

Although maybe I can be a bit more specific than that, actually. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve gotten older is how often our thoughts can have…I guess trends would be the best word for it, or maybe themes. Sometimes I’ll notice that my thoughts keep returning to a few specific subjects that I find confusing, or a few inconsistencies or puzzles that I find particularly nagging. And they don’t seem obviously connected to one another, at least not at first. They just seem like…things my brain keeps coming back to. But then I’ll keep thinking about them, and they’ll start to seem a little more connected, and eventually I’ll arrive at some grand or not-so-grand insight that explains everything, and realize: of course! All along they were part of the same confusion, the same complicated mess that my brain was trying to make sense of. I may not have known about the connection consciously, but some part of my brain intuited that it was there. And so the seemingly disparate thoughts I was having were all part of a trend, a trend towards some larger piece of understanding (this is more or less what happened with the P and NP intelligence posts, for example).

Anyway, when I ask myself which way my thoughts are trending these days, my brain spits out two main themes. The first is sort of a continuation of the train of thought that led me to write The Cost of Humility, involving things like self-charity and validation. It goes beyond just that, though – mixed in there are thoughts about growth mindset, choosing “safe” options, relationships and dating, confidence, timidity, and self-identity. I don’t know how much I’ll write about all this – it’ll likely be heavily personal, and I don’t think that’s really the direction I want to take the blog. But part of me senses something big lurking beneath all these thoughts, and I’m excited to see where they lead.

The second main theme, and the one I hope to write about here, is all about opinions and beliefs. Again, it’s typified by a bunch of semi-connected thoughts that I keep running up against. Some are just basic questions, like how to know when having a strong belief is justified, or when it’s okay to go against expert consensus. But there’s also a lot to do with politics – things like how to get past the tribal mindset that underlies most politics, how to stop viewing political opponents as enemies, and how to have more productive disagreements that lead to people actually changing their mind. And then that bleeds over into thoughts about disagreements in general – for example, I think that many of the disagreements we have with one another are due to differences in worldview and life experiences. But if that’s true, that makes it very difficult to privilege your own opinion over someone else’s – after all, they had a set of experiences that led them to their position too. Are your experiences somehow “better” just because they happened to you?

Essentially, I think this theme is my brain trying to tell me: hey, epistemology seems really important, and right now when it comes to epistemology you basically have no idea what you’re doing. I think so far I’ve just been handwaving away all of the problems I encounter like this, but a lot of them can’t really be dismissed so easily. Now my brain is making me confront them, and it’s all coming to a head.

Of course all of this is necessarily somewhat hazy, and I don’t know if I’ll end up writing about exactly these topics. That’s the nature of these trends – you can’t really tell where your thoughts are going, just that they’re probably going somewhere. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few posts along these lines pop up here in 2016.

When I started this blog I was afraid it wouldn’t last – that I would just post here a few times, and then let it drift off into the state of chronic disuse that is the sad fate of so many blogs. Well, it’s been a year, and it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not ready to declare victory, but I am ready to at least declare optimism – optimism that I’ll keep writing here and having new ideas; optimism that the year 2016 will be a good one for me and for this blog. And optimism that a year from today I’ll be putting up another post, just like this one, titled “Two Years In”.

The Cost of Humility

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

-Matthew 5:5

What do you care what other people think?”

-Richard Feynman


I’ve been thinking a lot about validation lately – how we get it, why we crave it. My thoughts on the matter are still in flux, but the one thing I keep coming back to is:

Man, we sure do need a lot of it.

Seriously, the average person spends a truly prodigious amount of time and effort seeking out reassurance that they’re well-liked and popular. The rise of social media has certainly made this more obvious – look at the constant search for Likes, Retweets, and Shares – but by no means did it originate the phenomenon. We’ve always been obsessed with our image, our reputation, and our standing among our peers. And we don’t just need validation – we need a constant stream of validation. Praise almost seems to come with a built-in half-life: a compliment from five seconds ago is worth more than a compliment from five days ago, and a compliment from five months ago may as well have not happened.

What I find interesting about this is not so much that we care what other people think – that seems unsurprising and even expected, given that humans are social creatures. No, what I find interesting is how often we seek out validation for things that, at some level, we already know about ourselves.

Take the amateur artist, for example. We’re all familiar with the general archetype: they draw in a sketchbook while on the subway. They’re sort of superficially protective of said sketchbook – they put up a show of not wanting to let anyone see it, but will hand it over given some light prodding. And they’re preemptively self-deprecating about their work – they try to talk it down when they show it to anyone, saying “oh, they’re just some silly drawings I did” or “I was just messing around”.

Of course, the self-deprecation is almost always unwarranted. I don’t think I’ve ever looked in someone’s sketchbook and not been deeply impressed with what I saw. Amateur artists are usually really good. And why wouldn’t they be? If you’re going to go to the trouble of buying a sketchbook and then spend dozens or hundreds of hours drawing in it, odds are you have some talent. People don’t tend to go out of their way to embrace a hobby that they’re terrible at. I would wager that anyone who draws for pleasure can fully expect to impress any random person they show their work to, unless the person happens to be a professional artist.

And the strange this is, I think they already know this. I think amateur artists know, on some level, that what they’re producing is impressive. And I think they also know – again, on some level – that if they were to show their work to people, they would receive only praise and positive feedback.

But if this is true, then we have a puzzle on our hands. Because amateur artists do seem to care deeply about receiving compliments and praise. And they still care about receiving compliments and praise, even if they already expect to receive them.

Take a moment to think about how strange that is. If you already expect for something to happen, then having it actually happen should not cause any change in your thinking. It was…what you expected to happen, after all. You certainly don’t gain any new information when your expectations are confirmed. And yet somehow when it comes to praise, expectations aren’t enough – anticipating that you’ll get a compliment is a very different thing from actually hearing the compliment said aloud. It’s as though praise doesn’t “count” until you’ve actually received it from another person – even if you fully expect to receive it, and in fact would be very surprised not to receive it.

It’s not just amateur artists, of course – we all do this. And it’s hard not to find that a little frustrating. Because it’s one thing for us to have a deep need to seek out praise when we’re feeling insecure – that at least makes a certain amount of sense. But to find ourselves in situations where we’re not feeling particularly insecure – where we in fact have pretty confident knowledge of our own praiseworthiness – and yet still have a deep need to seek out praise anyway? That seems impressively pointless, even by “somehow-evolved-to-have-intrusive-thoughts” brain standards. It would be nice if we could just cut out the middleman, so to speak, and use our expectation of being validated as a source of actual validation. I mean, surely if you knew deep down that someone would compliment you, if they saw your work – surely that should be just as good as actually getting the compliment, right?

Unfortunately, validation doesn’t appear to work like that. We seem to be wired to accept praise only from outside sources, and discount anything we might say or think about ourselves.

And again, this is kind of frustrating. But it’s also interesting – I’m always intrigued when I notice my brain doing something seemingly pointless, because there’s usually some underlying logic to what it’s doing that I haven’t seen yet. This case is no different: I think there’s a reason we can’t self-validate at will, as much as we might wish we could at times. I want to go into what that reason is, why it ends up being a less than good reason in certain cases, and whether or not there’s anything we can – or should – do to work around it.


So let’s talk about humility.

Humility is one of those universally admired virtues. We all like humble people, and aspire to be humble to some degree. We want our heroes to be humble – think of Gandalf, or Frodo (or Sam, for that matter…or Aragorn…or Faramir – man, Tolkien really liked humility). There are exceptions, of course: Sherlock Holmes comes to mind as a character who’s well-liked despite being arrogant. But such cases are rare, and rely on the character or person in question having a very specific set of compensating characteristics. I think it’s safe to say that, all else being equal, we like arrogant people much less than we like humble people.

Now, why do we value humility so much? That’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. I mean, yes, we all have an intuitive sense that arrogant people are jerks. But where does that intuition come from?

My own guess is that humility functions as a kind of sanity check on society. Without humility, people would have an incentive to talk themselves up – to brag about themselves as much as possible; to exaggerate their own worth without limit. Worse, in such a world people wouldn’t just talk about how great they were – they would actually have an incentive to believe they were that great as well. If you’re trying to convince someone that you’re amazing and deserve a promotion or a raise or whatever, you’re going to be much more convincing if you actually believe what you’re saying. And people are absolutely capable of this – it’s been proven again and again that we can change our own beliefs when it’s favourable to do so, without ever noticing that we used to believe differently. You can even see a variant of this in our own society, in the form of overconfidence bias, and that’s with a pretty strong norm of valuing humility. So I think the end result in a society without humility would be a bunch of people who had maximally high opinions of themselves going around bragging all the time. In other words, it’s probably a good thing that humility exists, all things considered – it keeps us tethered to reality.

But it’s important to note that it does so by taking the drastic step of essentially cutting us off from having opinions about ourselves. The idea behind humility seems to be that it would be really dangerous to allow people to self-validate at will. And so to avoid the problem altogether, we just say: okay, everything you think about yourself doesn’t count. Sorry. Doesn’t matter if you’re a very nice person who’s always been extremely humble in the past. Doesn’t matter if all you want is to feel good about one tiny little drawing you did, and you’re really really sure that the drawing is actually good anyway. Still: no self-validation for you. There’s just too much of a conflict of interest at play, and we can’t allow for any exceptions because humans are notoriously good at convincing themselves that the exact situation they find themselves in just happens to warrant an exception.

In practice, what we do allow is a strange sort of quasi-belief. You can think positive things about yourself, and you can know on an intellectual level that they’re probably true. But the beliefs have no force, no ability to provide validation. They don’t really count. The only thing that does count is validation that comes from another person. And the reason we allow that is because other people presumably don’t have the same perverse incentives that we do, incentives that would lead us to a runaway ego explosion if left unchecked.

So that’s what I think is going on in the puzzle I outlined above. Remember that the puzzle was not why we seek out validation from others – that makes perfect sense. The puzzle was why we still seek out validation even when we already know we’re worthy or meritorious or talented or whatever.

And the above picture of humility provides the answer. The reason we crave validation in such cases is because we simply can’t get it from ourselves. You can think you’re as worthy or meritorious or talented as you want, but it doesn’t really matter – when it comes to yourself, your own thoughts are always going to be discarded. In essence, humility is all about decoupling self-worth from self-assessment. And that means no matter how highly you assess yourself, you’re still going to have to look to others for praise.

Or, to put it another way: no matter how well you draw, you’re still going to have to show off your damn sketchbook.


If that were all that was going on here, I would say: good for humility. Clearly it serves a very important purpose, and I’m not sure our society would even be able to function without it. Forcing people to seek out a little external validation seems like a small price to pay for that.

But I don’t think that is all that’s going on here.

People internalize norms in very different ways and to very different degrees. There are people out there who don’t seem to internalize the norms of humility at all. We usually call these people “arrogant jerks”. And there are people – probably the vast majority of people – who internalize them in reasonable, healthy ways. We usually call these people “normal”.

But then there are also people who internalize the norms of humility in highly unhealthy ways. Humility taken to its most extreme limit is not a pretty thing – you don’t end up with with wise, virtuous, Gandalf-style modesty. You end up with self-loathing, pathological guilt, and scrupulosity. There are people out there – and they are usually exceptionally good, kind, and selfless people, although that shouldn’t matter – who are convinced that they are utterly worthless as human beings. For such people, showing even a modicum of kindness or charity towards themselves would be unthinkable. Anti-charity is much more common – whatever interpretation of a situation puts themselves in the worst light, that’s the one they’ll settle on. And why? Because it’s been drilled into their heads, over and over again, that to think highly of yourself – even to the tiniest, most minute degree – is wrong. It’s something that bad, awful, arrogant people do, and if they do it then they’ll be bad, awful, arrogant people too. So they take refuge in the opposite extreme: they refuse to think even the mildest of nice thoughts about themselves, and they never show themselves even the slightest bit of kindness.

Or take insecurity (please). All of us experience insecurity to one degree or another, of course. But again, there’s a pathological, unhealthy form it can take on that’s rooted in how we internalize the norms of humility. When you tell people that external validation is the only means by which they can feel good about themselves…well, surprisingly enough, some people take a liking to external validation. But in the worst cases it goes beyond a mere desire for validation, and becomes a need – an addiction, even. You wind up with extreme people-pleasers, people who center every aspect of their lives around seeking out praise and avoiding criticism.

Both of these descriptions resonate a great deal with me. I mean, thankfully I rather emphatically do not think of myself as utterly worthless. But if I were to be honest, I would have to place myself somewhere in the “unhealthy” camp when it comes to humility. I find it extremely difficult to think thoughts that are charitable towards myself, or to ever give myself the benefit of the doubt. It just feels viscerally, cringe-inducingly wrong to take my own side like that. Heck, even describing myself in that manner – showing myself the charity of saying I deserve more self-charity, essentially – is hard for me to do. And the less said about my need for validation, the better.

This isn’t really about me, though. There’s a spectrum of unhealthiness when it comes to humility, and yes, I’m probably on it somewhere. But I got off relatively easy compared to what some people are saddled with.

I think some people have a picture of humility as this unalloyed good; something with no downsides whatsoever. And because of this they see no reason not to extol the virtues of humility as often and as widely as possible. After all, it could only lead to people being more humble, and what could be wrong with that? So we’ve ended up with a culture which is absolutely saturated with pro-humility messages, where every single hero you see is humble and every single villain you see is arrogant, where being humble is seen as almost synonymous with being good (Tolkien, anyone?). And this isn’t viewed as any cause for concern, because hey – it’s just humility, right?

But what I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t true. There’s a cost to humility. When you canonize the humble and hold them up as paragons of virtue…well, yes, maybe you manage to make society a little bit less arrogant, on average. But you also push some people who were already too humble for their own good into genuinely unhealthy places. The unhealthiness might not always be obviously related to humility – I’d bet that a good number of people who praise humility don’t make the connection, and complain in the next breath about how today’s Facebook-using teens are far too obsessed with what other people think of them. But the connection is there nonetheless.


All of this does strange things to the concept of self-esteem.

Take me, for example. Whenever people have asked me about my own self-esteem in the past, I’ve never known quite what to say. Usually I’ve just ended up mumbling some vague and half-contradictory response that didn’t really answer the question.

Because there are two different sides to me. On the one hand, you have my insecure side. This is the side that’s obsessed with what people think of me; the side that is desperate for validation and praise. It’s because of this side that I write blog posts and Dinosaur Comics, that I always try to get a laugh out of people, and that I try to be as clever and insightful as I can be in conversations. Insecurity is this side’s middle name: think “cross between a teacher’s pet and a class clown”, except turned up to 1000.

(For what it’s worth, I don’t really disapprove of this part of myself – the instinct to do praiseworthy things can be a good one, as long as it’s channeled in the right direction. I have a problem with the insecure side of myself not when it spends all its time looking to earn praise, but when it spends all its time looking to avoid embarrassment. That I think has done more harm than good for me over the course of my life)

On the other hand, though, I also have a confident side. This side is made up of the quasi-beliefs that I talked about above – the beliefs that I suspect, deep down, are true, but that I don’t really allow myself to fully accept because they come from my own brain. If you were to ask this side of myself what I’m like, it would say that I’m an exceedingly smart, funny, kind and thoughtful person. In fact, it would probably be fair to call this side of myself not just confident but arrogant. This is why I’ve always felt vaguely guilty when people I know call me modest – because they don’t know about the arrogant side that I have. Granted, the arrogant side may not have any real access to how I feel about myself, but it’s there all the same.

(I should also note that most of the time the two sides roughly cancel out, and I manage to approximate a normal, functioning human being. Not always, though)

Okay, so then the question is: do I have high self-esteem, or low?

And my own answer would be that I have no idea – it depends entirely on what you mean by self-esteem.

If self-esteem refers to that deep down set of quasi-beliefs that I have, then I guess I’d have to concede that I have high self-esteem. Certainly that side of myself doesn’t lack for confidence. But if so, it’s a very strange and almost hollow sort of self-esteem: it doesn’t help me feel particularly good about myself, or stop me from seeking out validation, or really do any of the things that you might expect having high self-esteem to do. So I’m not sure that this definition really fits.

On the other hand, if self-esteem refers to the insecure, validation-seeking side of myself – well, that makes a little more sense, since at least this side of me actually has access to how I feel about myself. And in that case, I suppose you could say that I have low self-esteem. But I’m not sure that this definition really fits either. Yes, my insecure side constantly seeks out praise, and worries about whether or not people like me, and does other things you might typically associate with low self-esteem. But it is also fundamentally outward-focused – the means by which my insecure side is able to affect my feelings is through other people, not through anything I think about myself. So yes, getting praise from another person can make me feel very very good – but it’s a good feeling that’s coming entirely from someone else’s opinion of me, and it seems strange to call that self-esteem.

No, I may be generalizing too much from my own experiences here, but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to see “self-esteem” as anything other than a contradiction in terms. As far as I can tell, the only way I ever truly get to feel good about myself – indeed, almost the way “feeling good about myself” is defined – is through external validation. Sure, I can have positive thoughts about myself, and some of those thoughts might even make me feel a little better about myself. But to the extent that they do make me feel better about myself, they do so by…well, by making it easier to imagine myself receiving praise and validation from others. Self-worth always seem to ground out in external validation eventually, if you dig deep enough. So talking about self-esteem, at least in terms of “feeling good about yourself as a result of your own thoughts and opinions”, doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like talking about getting water from something other than H2O – you can’t just separate out self-worth from validation, because they’re basically the same thing.

I bring all of this up because there’s a particular strain of thought I’ve seen floating around – exemplified by the Richard Feynman quote included at the outset – that says you shouldn’t care what other people think of you. You’ve probably heard the platitudes: “Be comfortable in your own skin. Do what you want, and don’t worry if everyone else is doing it. Just be yourself.” The idea is that you should just try to feel good about yourself on your own terms, and not define your worth based on other people’s opinions.

But my problem with this line of thinking is that for most people, this simply isn’t possible – the only way they can feel good about themselves is through other people. The choice isn’t between external validation and self-validation – it’s between external validation and nothing. So when you tell someone “stop caring what other people think of you”, what that amounts to in practice is saying “don’t ever feel good about yourself again”. And needless to say, I don’t think this is a realistic – or even desirable – ideal for people to strive for.

No, I think we might just have to accept that we’ll always reside in a world where external validation is the fundamental currency of self-worth. And yes, that might mean we’ll always be saddled with a desire for praise – but it doesn’t mean there aren’t more and less healthy ways of seeking out that praise. I mentioned this above, but I think the best way to handle a need for validation is not to fight it but to channel it – to use it to shape our own behaviour in ways that we endorse. Even if praise is your ultimate motivator in some or even most situations, there’s still a big difference between praise motivating you do something you approve of, and praise motivating you to do something you disapprove of. The key is to try as much as possible to move yourself away from the latter and towards the former.

Mind you, I have no idea how to actually do that. But it seems like a good thing to try for.


Whenever I think about all of this, my thoughts always seem to be drawn, with puzzling regularity, to one subject in particular: the internet. That may sound like a strange connection to make, but I think there’s something important going on here – so bear with me.

Time and time again, I’ve seen someone put in the unfortunate situation of having to prove to the internet that they’re a good person. Take the infamous “nice guy” debates that periodically sweep the internet, for example. They always start off when some blissfully oblivious young man decides to ask The Question:

“I’m a nice guy, so why can’t I get a girlfriend?”

No doubt this seems, to him, like an innocuous question.

(ah, to be so innocent, so naive)

Anyway, so this promptly sets off a fight that makes World War II look like a minor schoolyard scuffle, accusations of sexism and misogyny and entitlement are hurled in every direction, and after the dust has settled everyone on the internet hates each other just a little bit more. Pretty much a normal day online.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of the nice guy debate here – that’s been done to death, and it does horrible things to my psyche anyway. But I would like to highlight one aspect of the situation that really bothers me. During these arguments, there’s always an attitude of…let’s say mild skepticism that the guy in question really is all that nice. The prevailing thought seems be that anyone who would say that they were nice couldn’t actually be nice.

And hey, fair enough. Probably this skepticism is often warranted – it’s very easy to claim to be nice online, after all. But let’s say for the sake of argument that, in this one particular case, our guy really is that nice. Like, super nice in fact – he wins niceness awards and has a PhD in Niceness from Nice University. My problem is that in a situation like that, where he actually is a nice guy, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything at all he could do to convince the internet of this.

Seriously, how would you do it? Anything you say about yourself is suspect right from the start – repeating “No, really, I swear I’m nice!” isn’t going to cut it. At best, claims like that are just going to be unconvincing, but at worst they’ll be anti-convincing – nice people don’t usually go around saying they’re nice. And if you try to back up your claim to being nice with specific examples – “But I volunteer at eight different soup kitchens!” – well, that’s probably just going to come across as more defensive than anything else. Not to mention that people will take it as further evidence that you’re conceited, because now you’re the kind of person who goes around talking publicly about all the nice things you’ve done.

So I have a great deal of sympathy for our hypothetical nice guy here, because I really don’t know if there’s anything he could do.

And it goes way beyond just the nice guy thing. I actually dread the thought of ever having to convince the internet that I have any positive quality – that I’m smart, or funny, or likeable, or anything like that. The notion of being put in that situation instills a feeling in me that is equal parts frustration and hopelessness. Because it’s basically a no-win scenario – practically anything that I could say would just sound like boasting, so it would either be dismissed, or taken as evidence against whatever I was trying to prove. It’s essentially being asked to brag while subject to the constraint of not being allowed to brag.

(hey, I think I just figured out why I hate writing online dating profiles!)

What it comes down to is that the internet is the ultimate context-free environment. Most forums are more-or-less anonymous, which means that anything you post pretty much has to stand on it’s own – you don’t really get to build up a reputation over time, or earn people’s trust. In a setting like that, faced with a skeptical audience who doesn’t know you, it’s practically impossible to credibly say something positive about yourself – you’re just going to come across as someone who’s lying or full of themselves. In the real world, you can always show people that you’re nice by doing things that are hard to fake – if you buy someone you know a thoughtful gift, or help them out when they’re in need, those are things you’re only likely to do if you’re actually a decent person. But that option isn’t available to you online – on the internet, there’s no such thing as hard to fake, because anyone can claim anything they want at no cost to themselves. There’s nothing to back up any boastful-sounding claims that get made, and so they’re inevitably met with either skepticism or hostility.

Okay, so that’s maybe kind of interesting, but you might be wondering what the big deal is. So it’s hard to convince people of things online – is that really worth getting so worked up about? After all, online dating aside, how often is it that you’re faced with the task of proving to the internet that you’re a worthy person?

And this is true – on it’s own it is kind of a niche problem to focus on. But I bring it up because it actually gets right down to the heart of what humility is all about to me, and how I experience it.

When I say that I dread the thought of having to prove to the internet that I’m smart, it’s not at all that I expect to ever encounter that situation. That does indeed seem unlikely, and not worth worrying about. No, the thing that bothers me is just knowing that if I ever did have to prove that, I wouldn’t be able to.

See, I have a very strongly-felt sense that everything I believe or think should ultimately be defensible. To me, it feels as though I’m not allowed to hold any opinion unless I can justify it to anyone imaginable, even the most skeptical of critics. This goes double for thoughts that I have about myself. And my brain doesn’t go halfway with this – no, in the interest of being “fair” (read: anti-self-charitable) it has to construct and defeat the worst skeptics it can imagine. But of course the worst skeptics it can imagine are exactly those context-lacking internet commenters I described above. And so they’re exactly who I have to convince if I want to have an opinion about myself.

That’s why I find the nice guy scenario described above so frustrating. I may not have literally experienced something like that, and don’t really expect to – but I run through it in my head about a billion times a day when I’m trying to justify things to myself.

It may sound silly, but every time I’m tempted to think something charitable about myself, an anonymous internet commenter pops up in the back of my head and demands that I justify it to them. And unless I can, I don’t get to think the thought.

(I usually can’t – I may have mentioned that I don’t think many charitable thoughts about myself?)

What it comes down to is that I have a desire – a need, even – for defensibility in my opinions about myself. And this is very closely related to humility – in fact, it might even be the same thing. I think the way that humility manifests itself in me is as a kind of fear of being called out – there’s a sense that at any second, I could be held to account for any positive thoughts I might have had about myself, and I need to have justifications ready for each of them. What counts as a justification, though? Well, definitely not my own thoughts and feelings – those might be enough to satisfy my friends and family, but there’s no way that they would sway a stranger on the internet. Remember, we need to convince everyone. No, pretty much the only thing that might do it would be something neutral, like…well, like someone else’s opinion of me.

And hey, look at that – we’ve arrived back at external validation.

I think the reason we “count” external validation but not self-validation is because external validation can be used in self-defense. You can hold up someone else’s opinion of you and say “No look, it’s okay! Someone else thinks I’m smart too, see? It’s not just me!” It’s something you can use as justification, something that offers proof that you’re not just being arrogant. And it’s one of the few things that has half a chance of satisfying even skeptics on the internet – which I think is why I crave it so much.

Without it, though – absent a set of external opinions for you to fall back on – it really isn’t clear to me that there’s anything you could do to prove to the internet that you’re smart, or funny, or (heaven help you) a nice guy. I think people are just too good at pushing back against what they see as unjustified examples of arrogance. Without context, pretty much all self-advocacy is just rounded off to bragging, and that has a way of blocking off any route you might want to take.

If I had to describe the feeling of humility, it would be that – the feeling of having no way, even in principle, of convincing someone else that you’re a good person. And as a result, being unable to believe it yourself.


In the end, though, there are always trade-offs.

I talked about the harm that pro-humility messages do, but of course some people need to hear messages like that. Just as there are those who could do with a little less humility in their life, there are also those who could do with a little more. Any societal norm you want to set has to walk a balancing act – if you push humility too much you’ll end up with overly scrupulous and insecure people, and if you push it not enough you’ll end up with people that are much too arrogant and full of themselves.

And to its credit, I think society actually recognizes this – sort of. The way we deal with this in practice is by trying to push both pro- and anti-humility messages at the same time, and hoping like hell that they find the right kind of people. Messages promoting humility are of course ubiquitous: from a young age we have it drilled into our heads that it’s wrong to brag, that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, that “pride comes before a fall”, et cetera et cetera – there’s no shortage of examples. But it’s easy to forget that there are also messages that go in the other direction – things like “don’t be so hard on yourself” and “you’re your own worst critic” and “be kind to yourself”. The idea – or the hope – would be that people who are already too humble would hear the latter set of messages, people who aren’t humble enough would hear the former, and the world would get a little bit healthier on the whole.

Unfortunately, I have a sick suspicion that this isn’t happening – that in fact, the messages are reaching exactly the sets of people who least need to hear them.

Consider who is likely to take the message “don’t be so hard on yourself” to heart. Would it be the humble people that you’re trying to reach?

I doubt it. To think “I am too hard on myself” is not a humble thought. It is a thought that asserts one’s own adequacy, a thought that says yes, I have gone far enough in policing myself – too far, even. And humble people are not noted for the ease with which they think self-charitable thoughts.

On the other hand, I could totally see a somewhat clueless and self-congratulatory jerk hearing that message and thinking “Hey yeah, I am too hard on myself” and then going off to be even more of a self-congratulatory jerk, because there are people out there who do not have a single self-reflective bone in their body.

The problem is that humility is self-reinforcing. If you’re not already in the habit of being charitable to yourself, then it’s tough to start. To do so, you’d have to decide that you’re currently not charitable enough to yourself…but of course that itself is a self-charitable thought, which you’re not likely to think unless you’re already sufficiently charitable…

(man, meta-humility is just the worst)

I guess my hope in writing this essay was that it might break a few people free from that trap. That by laying out the whole messed-up system of thought that produces humility, it might allow some people to step outside that system for a moment, and bootstrap themselves up to self-charity.

It’s tough, of course. Even if you manage to convince yourself that you need to be more self-charitable, old habits die hard – thinking nice thoughts about yourself can feel really really awful, like you’re being a bad person. If that describes you, though, then I’d urge you to keep trying. Erring on the side of humility is always going to feel safer – when you do that you’re only harming yourself, after all. But remember that you count as a person too, and harming that person isn’t virtuous, even if no one is going to blame you for it.

All that’s putting the cart before the horse, though. Before you could even get to that step, you’d first have to convince yourself that you really are too uncharitable towards yourself. And that can be a hard thing to do. Maybe you have a suspicion that it’s true, a suspicion that you’re too hard on yourself. But that probably doesn’t feel good enough.

The million-dollar question is: how do you know for sure if you’re too humble?

And the answer is you don’t. You can’t. You can look for hints – like say if you identified with this blog post, or if you’re thinking thoughts like “oh god, maybe I’m not really humble enough for this to apply to me”. But you can’t know, not for sure.

Ultimately, you have to take the first step towards self-charity on your own. There’s always a temptation to look for permission to take that step, to find someone to reassure you that it’s okay. But you can’t do that – to do so would be to defeat the whole purpose.

No, in the end you’ll just have to make the judgement for yourself. If you really think that you should take the step, then take the step. I can’t say for certain that you’ll be justified in doing so. But I can guarantee you for sure that there are people reading this who need to be more self-charitable.

And deep down, I think you know who you are.



By the way, I’m aware of the irony of writing a validation-seeking blog post in order to decry validation seeking. So don’t bother pointing that out.

Seriously, don’t trust science reporting!

I came across an especially annoying example of bad science reporting today, and I want to make an example of it.

The article in question comes from the always-trustworthy site I F*cking Love Science, and the headline reads: If We Don’t Cut Our Carbon Emissions, This Is What The World Will Look Like By 2100.

The piece goes on to show pictures that supposedly depict what various major cities will look like in 2100 if the projections for sea level rise due to global warming are accurate. I’ve included a few of the juicy photos below:

Paints a pretty scary picture, right? I mean, heck, look at London – it’s practically half-underwater. And this is only for 85 years in the future! Clearly dire action is needed to save the world’s cities.

The only problem is, it’s not true.

In fact, the article makes a very basic science error, and the pictures do not depict what the world will look like in 2100. At all.

I’m going to explain what the error was, but as an exercise in critical reading I encourage you all to try to figure it out for yourself first. The scientific papers that the pictures are based on are all linked in the article, and the error in question is not a particularly subtle one. Give it a try!

Spoilers below:

Okay, did you get it?

The error is: the pictures depict the amount of sea level rise expected due to a certain amount of warming by 2100, but they do not depict the amount of sea level rise by 2100.

The ocean is pretty big [citation needed]. It has an enormous heat capacity, and it takes a long time for it to respond to changes in the climate. If you increase the surface temperature of the earth then the sea level will eventually rise to reach a new equilibrium value. But the key word there is eventually. The time scale for the ocean to reach equilibrium with a new surface temperature is on the order of ~2000 years. The study that inspired the above photos looked at short-term increases in temperature – in particular it looked at two cases, 2°C or 4°C warming by 2100. But the sea level increases that are quoted are not for 2100 – they’re the long-term equilibrium values, which will not be reached for several millennia.

In other words: yes, the pictures do accurately depict what the effects of 4°C of warming will be…in the year 4100. In actual fact, the projected sea level increases for the year 2100 are more like 1 meter – which is not even close to what the pictures show.

This means the article was wrong. It was not a little bit right, it did not stretch the truth or make an ambiguous error. It was just straightforwardly wrong.

(I find this especially frustrating because the case for global warming being a significant threat is already really good – you really don’t need to make shit up to sell it)

(Moreover, I hate the seemingly prevalent notion that if you’re on the “side” of global warming, it’s right to support all arguments that show that global warming is a threat. No. All I care about is supporting arguments that are true, and I’m going to work just as hard to expose bad pro-global warming arguments as I am to expose bad anti-global warming arguments.)

Okay, so what’s the takeaway?

Well, I feel like it’s safe to say that most of the people reading this will have already heard the advice, “Don’t trust science reporting.” Heck, it’s become almost a cliche at this point – there’s been an xkcd and multiple SMBC’s on the topic, which is a good indication that something has permeated the collective consciousness of the nerdy internet.

Pictured: the face of Internet Nerd Consensus

But I also think it’s safe to say that people are not nearly paranoid enough in this regard. People pay lip service to the idea that science reporting is bad, but they don’t take it to heart. I originally saw this article linked to on a forum I frequent, and in the responses not one person questioned the validity of what the article was saying. Everyone just accepted it without question. It’s worth asking yourself whether you would have done the same, if I hadn’t primed you to be skeptical of it.

Seriously, I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: don’t trust scientific reporting. Period. Don’t trust it in general, but especially don’t trust it when the topic that’s being reported on is political. And super-duper-especially don’t trust it when the topic is political, and the conclusion of the article supports the ideological bent of the source in question.

(I mean, unless you think it’s a coincidence that the site with an overwhelmingly liberal audience happened to make an error that exaggerated the potential harms of global warming)

And needless to say, super-duper-extra-especially don’t trust scientific reporting when the topic is political, the conclusions support the ideological bent of the source in question, and the conclusions support your own ideological bent.

That’s just a recipe for disaster.

Is there an echo in here?

I’m starting to wonder if I might have been too hard on echo chambers.

The standard position these days is that echo chambers are uniformly terrible; that surrounding yourself with people who agree with you on every issue can only lead to closemindedness, toxic ingroup/outgroup dynamics, and increased polarization. Many people have commented on how the rise of partisan news networks and isolated internet communities have led to a society where people never have to have their beliefs challenged, or interact with those who disagree with them. And this is obviously a very bad thing – there’s almost nothing that runs more counter to the spirit of rationality and truth seeking than the kind of self-congratulatory patting on the back you commonly see in intellectually closed-off communities. But despite all this, I still feel an impulse speak up in favour of echo chambers, at least a little bit – I now think they might also serve a useful psychological function. Just as there are people who can benefit from reading Ayn Rand, I suspect there are people out there who could use a little bit more agreement in their life.

I’ve been going through a pretty rough patch in my life lately. I’m still trying to figure out why exactly this is, but I think part of it may be due to a feeling of intellectual isolation. Right now I feel like I’m living in an anti-echo chamber. It seems like almost everything I hear or read – either from friends, or on facebook, or on the general internet – is someone disagreeing with an opinion I hold. And it seems like any agreement people might have with my beliefs is either whispered or not voiced at all. Obviously this isn’t literally the case – it’s probably mostly just selective memory and a very human tendency to notice criticism more easily than agreement. But I do have a lot of weird and semi-controversial opinions that very few people in the world share, and people are generally not shy about disagreeing with those opinions.

Now, normally this wouldn’t really bother me – and from a purely intellectual point of view, it doesn’t. After all, why should I care if other people think I’m wrong about something? I’m pretty confident in my weird opinions (otherwise I wouldn’t hold them), but in the end I’m not afraid of any challenges to my beliefs. If someone convinces me that something I believe is wrong, I’ll just change my mind. *Shrug*. The goal is not to never be wrong, the goal is just to find the truth.

But saying these words doesn’t erase the reality that humans are social animals. We evolved to care a lot about other people’s opinions – in the ancestral environment it was probably extremely relevant to know whether or not the majority of people around you agreed with you. Having popular or unpopular opinions could literally mean the difference between life and death (or, even more relevantly from evolution’s point of view, between mating and not mating).

I worry that ever since [Bad Thing] happened last year, and I lost a major source of intellectual solidarity in my life, I’ve been feeling more and more like no one agrees with me, and that I’m all alone in believing what I do. And I worry that this has been slowly wearing me down, psychologically, and tripping some ancient mammalian brain circuits – circuits that say things like “YOU HAVE NO ALLIES” and “YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE SHUNNED AND EXILED BY THE TRIBE”.

So now I wonder if maybe people need a certain amount of agreement in their lives. If maybe perceiving everyone around you as constantly disagreeing with you is just as bad, psychologically speaking, as perceiving yourself as useless or unwanted or unattractive. If maybe – just maybe, to some tiny, infinitesimal extent – having a self-congratulatory echo chamber among friends is necessary to be emotionally healthy.

And on top of that: in addition to individual mental well-being, I wonder if agreement is more necessary for friendship than I realized. I’ve always sort of implicitly believed that it didn’t really matter if you disagreed with your friends on philosophical or political matters. All that was required for two people to be friends, thought I, was that they enjoy each other’s company, and that they have each other’s back in times of need. And I still think this is at least normatively true, in the sense that this is probably how friendships should work in an ideal world. But I’m less confident that this is how friendships really do work, in the world as it is right now. I mean, who knows? Maybe the more you disagree with friends, the more you sow subtle, barely noticeable seeds of dissent. Maybe you end up gradually weakening ties to your friends with every contrary opinion, because you subconsciously signal to them that you wouldn’t be a reliable ally if they were to ever really need you. Friendship is all about trust, after all, and maybe trust is really difficult in the face of persistent disagreement.

Or, you know, maybe not. I have no idea if any of this is true. I came up with all of this last night when I couldn’t sleep. I was lying in bed, mind racing and feeling generally frustrated about some article I had read, when I realized I was getting way more bothered by other people disagreeing with me than I used to. And so I set about trying to figure why that was, and the result is this post (which I’m not all that confident in). One natural question one could ask is: why now? Why do I all of a sudden feel so isolated when my opinions haven’t really changed that much recently? I mean, yes, I did lose that source of intellectual solidarity I mentioned (and before that I had far fewer weird and semi-controversial opinions). But it could also easily just be that I’ve been depressed lately for whatever other reason, and that in such a state I’m more likely to notice negative things like criticism and disagreement.

Either way, I definitely do feel kind of isolated right now, and all of this is why I’m so glad that [Friend Who Agrees With Me About Basically Everything] is moving to Toronto soon. I think being able to talk with him more frequently could be helpful. Although, come to think of it, despite the fact that we agree on almost everything, our discussions almost invariably end up honing in on the few topics we disagree about. Granted, I enjoy that because our 99%-shared worldview tends to allow for unusually productive disagreements. But still, since I know he’s reading this: we should probably skype sometime and vent about how obvious atheism is, or how much reality is definitely objective, or something.

You know, just so I can hear an echo.


I always used to hate it when I would overcompensate for some error I made – overcompensation just seemed like something that unintelligent, under-reflective people did. So over time I developed a habit of undercompensating for errors.

Then I realized that my undercompensation was just meta-overcompensation.

Now I don’t know what to do.

Philosophical differences

[Followup to my last post on didacticism]

[Also, I’m not sure who the audience for this post is. For now let’s just say I’m writing it for myself?]

You know what’s scarier than having enemy soldiers at your border?

Having sleeper agents within your borders.

Enemy soldiers are malevolent, but they are at least visibly malevolent. You can see what they’re doing; you can fight back against them or set up defenses to stop them. Sleeper agents on the other hand are malevolent and invisible. They are a threat and you don’t know that they’re a threat. So when a sleeper agent decides that it’s time to wake up and smell the gunpowder, not only will you be unable to stop them, but they’ll be in a position to do far more damage than a lone soldier ever could. A single well-placed sleeper agent can take down an entire power grid, or bring a key supply route to a grinding halt, or – in the worst case – kill thousands with an act of terrorism, all without the slightest warning.

Okay, so imagine that your country is in wartime, and that a small group of vigilant citizens has uncovered an enemy sleeper cell in your city. They’ve shown you convincing evidence for the existence of the cell, and demonstrated that the cell is actively planning to commit some large-scale act of violence – perhaps not imminently, but certainly in the near-to-mid-future. Worse, the cell seems to have even more nefarious plots in the offing, possibly involving nuclear or biological weapons.

Now imagine that when you go to investigate further, you find to your surprise and frustration that no one seems to be particularly concerned about any of this. Oh sure, they acknowledge that in theory a sleeper cell could do some damage, and that the whole matter is probably worthy of further study. But by and large they just hear you out and then shrug and go about their day. And when you, alarmed, point out that this is not just a theory – that you have proof that a real sleeper cell is actually operating and making plans right now – they still remain remarkably blase. You show them the evidence, but they either don’t find it convincing, or simply misunderstand it at a very basic level (“A wiretap? But sleeper agents use cellphones, and cellphones are wireless!”). Some people listen but dismiss the idea out of hand, claiming that sleeper cell attacks are “something that only happen in the movies”. Strangest of all, at least to your mind, are the people who acknowledge that the evidence is convincing, but say they still aren’t concerned because the cell isn’t planning to commit any acts of violence imminently, and therefore won’t be a threat for a while. In the end, all of your attempts to raise the alarm are to no avail, and you’re left feeling kind of doubly scared – scared first because you know the sleeper cell is out there, plotting some heinous act, and scared second because you know you won’t be able to convince anyone of that fact before it’s too late to do anything about it.

This is roughly how I feel about AI risk.

You see, I think artificial intelligence is probably the most significant existential threat facing humanity right now. This, to put it mildly, is something of a fringe position in most intellectual circles (although that’s becoming less and less true as time goes on), and I’ll grant that it sounds kind of absurd. But regardless of whether or not you think I’m right to be scared of AI, you can imagine how the fact that AI risk is really hard to explain would make me even more scared about it. Threats like nuclear war or an asteroid impact, while terrifying, at least have the virtue of being simple to understand – it’s not exactly hard to sell people on the notion that a 2km hunk of rock colliding with the planet might be a bad thing. As a result people are aware of these threats and take them (sort of) seriously, and various organizations are (sort of) taking steps to stop them.

AI is different, though. AI is more like the sleeper agents I described above – frighteningly invisible. The idea that AI could be a significant risk is not really on many people’s radar at the moment, and worse, it’s an idea that resists attempts to put it on more people’s radar, because it’s so bloody confusing a topic even at the best of times. Our civilization is effectively blind to this threat, and meanwhile AI research is making progress all the time. We’re on the Titanic steaming through the North Atlantic, unaware that there’s an iceberg out there with our name on it – and the captain is ordering full-speed ahead.

(That’s right, not one but two ominous metaphors. Can you see that I’m serious?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably back up a bit and explain where I’m coming from.

Artificial intelligence has been in the news lately. In particular, various big names like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking have all been sounding the alarm in regards to AI, describing it as the greatest threat that our species faces in the 21st century. They (and others) think it could spell the end of humanity – Musk said, “If I had to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably [AI]”, and Gates said, “I…don’t understand why some people are not concerned [about AI]”.

Of course, others are not so convinced – machine learning expert Andrew Ng said that “I don’t work on not turning AI evil today for the same reason I don’t worry about the problem of overpopulation on the planet Mars”.

In this case I happen to agree with the Musks and Gates of the world – I think AI is a tremendous threat that we need to focus much of our attention on it in the future. In fact I’ve thought this for several years, and I’m kind of glad that the big-name intellectuals are finally catching up.

Why do I think this? Well, that’s a complicated subject. It’s a topic I could probably spend a dozen blog posts on and still not get to the bottom of. And maybe I should spend those dozen-or-so blog posts on it at some point – it could be worth it. But for now I’m kind of left with this big inferential gap that I can’t easily cross. It would take a lot of explaining to explain my position in detail. So instead of talking about AI risk per se in this post, I thought I’d go off in a more meta-direction – as I so often do – and talk about philosophical differences in general. I figured if I couldn’t make the case for AI being a threat, I could at least make the case for making the case for AI being a threat.

(If you’re still confused, and still wondering what the whole deal is with this AI risk thing, you can read a not-too-terrible popular introduction to the subject here, or check out Nick Bostrom’s TED Talk on the topic. Bostrom also has a bestselling book out called Superintelligence. The one sentence summary of the problem would be: how do we get a superintelligent entity to want what we want it to want?)

(Trust me, this is much much harder than it sounds)

So: why then am I so meta-concerned about AI risk? After all, based on the previous couple paragraphs it seems like the topic actually has pretty decent awareness: there are popular internet articles and TED talks and celebrity intellectual endorsements and even bestselling books! And it’s true, there’s no doubt that a ton of progress has been made lately. But we still have a very long way to go. If you had seen the same number of online discussions about AI that I’ve seen, you might share my despair. Such discussions are filled with replies that betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem at a very basic level. I constantly see people saying things like “Won’t the AI just figure out what we want?”, or “If the AI gets dangerous why can’t we just unplug it?”, or “The AI can’t have free will like humans, it just follows its programming”, or “lol so you’re scared of Skynet?”, or “Why not just program it to maximize happiness?”.

Having read a lot about AI, these misunderstandings are frustrating to me. This is not that unusual, of course – pretty much any complex topic is going to have people misunderstanding it, and misunderstandings often frustrate me. But there is something unique about the confusions that surround AI, and that’s the extent to which the confusions are philosophical in nature.

Why philosophical? Well, artificial intelligence and philosophy might seem very distinct at first glance, but look closer and you’ll see that they’re connected to one another at a very deep level. Take almost any topic of interest to philosophers – free will, consciousness, epistemology, decision theory, metaethics – and you’ll find an AI researcher looking into the same questions. In fact I would go further and say that those AI researchers are usually doing a better job of approaching the questions. Daniel Dennet said that “AI makes philosophy honest”, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that idea. You can’t write fuzzy, ill-defined concepts into computer code. Thinking in terms of having to program something that actually works takes your head out of the philosophical clouds, and puts you in a mindset of actually answering questions.

All of which is well and good. But the problem with looking at philosophy through the lens of AI is that it’s a two-way street – it means that when you try to introduce someone to the concepts of AI and AI risk, they’re going to be hauling all of their philosophical baggage along with them.

And make no mistake, there’s a lot of baggage. Philosophy is a discipline that’s notorious for many things, but probably first among them is a lack of consensus (I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not even a consensus among philosophers about how much consensus there is among philosophers). And the result of this lack of consensus has been a kind of grab-bag approach to philosophy among the general public – people see that even the experts are divided, and think that that means they can just choose whatever philosophical position they want.

Want. That’s the key word here. People treat philosophical beliefs not as things that are either true or false, but as choices – things to be selected based on their personal preferences, like picking out a new set of curtains. They say “I prefer to believe in a soul”, or “I don’t like the idea that we’re all just atoms moving around”. And why shouldn’t they say things like that? There’s no one to contradict them, no philosopher out there who can say “actually, we settled this question a while ago and here’s the answer”, because philosophy doesn’t settle things. It’s just not set up to do that. Of course, to be fair people seem to treat a lot of their non-philosophical beliefs as choices as well (which frustrates me to no end) but the problem is particularly pronounced in philosophy. And the result is that people wind up running around with a lot of bad philosophy in their heads.

(Oh, and if that last sentence bothered you, if you’d rather I said something less judgmental like “philosophy I disagree with” or “philosophy I don’t personally happen to hold”, well – the notion that there’s no such thing as bad philosophy is exactly the kind of bad philosophy I’m talking about)

(he said, only 80% seriously)

Anyway, I find this whole situation pretty concerning. Because if you had said to me that in order to convince people of the significance of the AI threat, all we had to do was explain to them some science, I would say: no problem. We can do that. Our society has gotten pretty good at explaining science; so far the Great Didactic Project has been far more successful than it had any right to be. We may not have gotten explaining science down to a science, but we’re at least making progress. I myself have been known to explain scientific concepts to people every now and again, and fancy myself not half-bad at it.

Philosophy, though? Different story. Explaining philosophy is really, really hard. It’s hard enough that when I encounter someone who has philosophical views I consider to be utterly wrong or deeply confused, I usually don’t even bother trying to explain myself – even if it’s someone I otherwise have a great deal of respect for! Instead I just disengage from the conversation. The times I’ve done otherwise, with a few notable exceptions, have only ended in frustration – there’s just too much of a gap to cross in one conversation. And up until now that hasn’t really bothered me. After all, if we’re being honest, most philosophical views that people hold aren’t that important in grand scheme of things. People don’t really use their philosophical views to inform their actions – in fact, probably the main thing that people use philosophy for is to sound impressive at parties.

AI risk, though, has impressed upon me an urgency in regards to philosophy that I’ve never felt before. All of a sudden it’s important that everyone have sensible notions of free will or consciousness; all of a sudden I can’t let people get away with being utterly confused about metaethics.

All of a sudden, in other words, philosophy matters.

I’m not sure what to do about this. I mean, I guess I could just quit complaining, buckle down, and do the hard work of getting better at explaining philosophy. It’s difficult, sure, but it’s not infinitely difficult. I could write blogs posts and talk to people at parties, and see what works and what doesn’t, and maybe gradually start changing a few people’s minds. But this would be a long and difficult process, and in the end I’d probably only be able to affect – what, a few dozen people? A hundred?

And it would be frustrating. Arguments about philosophy are so hard precisely because the questions being debated are foundational. Philosophical beliefs form the bedrock upon which all other beliefs are built; they are the premises from which all arguments start. As such it’s hard enough to even notice that they’re there, let alone begin to question them. And when you do notice them, they often seem too self-evident to be worth stating.

Take math, for example – do you think the number 5 exists, as a number?

Yes? Okay, how about 700? 3 billion? Do you think it’s obvious that numbers just keep existing, even when they get really big?

Well, guess what – some philosophers debate this!

It’s actually surprisingly hard to find an uncontroversial position in philosophy. Pretty much everything is debated. And of course this usually doesn’t matter – you don’t need philosophy to fill out a tax return or drive the kids to school, after all. But when you hold some foundational beliefs that seem self-evident, and you’re in a discussion with someone else who holds different foundational beliefs, which they also think are self-evident, problems start to arise. Philosophical debates usually consist of little more than two people talking past one another, with each wondering how the other could be so stupid as to not understand the sheer obviousness of what they’re saying. And the annoying this is, both participants are correct – in their own framework, their positions probably are obvious. The problem is, we don’t all share the same framework, and in a setting like that frustration is the default, not the exception.

This is not to say that all efforts to discuss philosophy are doomed, of course. People do sometimes have productive philosophical discussions, and the odd person even manages to change their mind, occasionally. But to do this takes a lot of effort. And when I say a lot of effort, I mean a lot of effort. To make progress philosophically you have to be willing to adopt a kind of extreme epistemic humility, where your intuitions count for very little. In fact, far from treating your intuitions as unquestionable givens, as most people do, you need to be treating them as things to be carefully examined and scrutinized with acute skepticism and even wariness. Your reaction to someone having a differing intuition from you should not be “I’m right and they’re wrong”, but rather “Huh, where does my intuition come from? Is it just a featureless feeling or can I break it down further and explain it to other people? Does it accord with my other intuitions? Why does person X have a different intuition, anyway?” And most importantly, you should be asking “Do I endorse or reject this intuition?”. In fact, you could probably say that the whole history of philosophy has been little more than an attempt by people to attain reflective equilibrium among their different intuitions – which of course can’t happen without the willingness to discard certain intuitions along the way when they conflict with others.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: when you’re discussing philosophy with someone and you have a disagreement, your foremost goal should be to try to find out exactly where your intuitions differ. And once you identify that, from there the immediate next step should be to zoom in on your intuitions – to figure out the source and content of the intuition as much as possible. Intuitions aren’t blank structureless feelings, as much as it might seem like they are. With enough introspection intuitions can be explicated and elucidated upon, and described in some detail. They can even be passed on to other people, assuming at least some kind of basic common epistemological framework, which I do think all humans share (yes, even objective-reality-denying postmodernists).

Anyway, this whole concept of zooming in on intuitions seems like an important one to me, and one that hasn’t been emphasized enough in the intellectual circles I travel in. When someone doesn’t agree with some basic foundational belief that you have, you can’t just throw up your hands in despair – you have to persevere and figure out why they don’t agree. And this takes effort, which most people aren’t willing to expend when they already see their debate opponent as someone who’s being willfully stupid anyway. But – needless to say – no one thinks of their positions as being a result of willful stupidity. Pretty much everyone holds beliefs that seem obvious within the framework of their own worldview. So if you want to change someone’s mind with respect to some philosophical question or another, you’re going to have to dig deep and engage with their worldview. And this is a difficult thing to do.

Hence, the philosophical quagmire that we find our society to be in.

It strikes me that improving our ability to explain and discuss philosophy amongst one another should be of paramount importance to most intellectually serious people. This applies to AI risk, of course, but also to many everyday topics that we all discuss: feminism, geopolitics, environmentalism, what have you – pretty much everything we talk about grounds out to philosophy eventually, if you go deep enough or meta enough. And to the extent that we can’t discuss philosophy productively right now, we can’t make progress on many of these important issues.

I think philosophers should – to some extent – be ashamed of the state of their field right now. When you compare philosophy to science it’s clear that science has made great strides in explaining the contents of its findings to the general public, whereas philosophy has not. Philosophers seem to treat their field as being almost inconsequential, as if whatever they conclude at some level won’t matter. But this clearly isn’t true – we need vastly improved discussion norms when it comes to philosophy, and we need far greater effort on the part of philosophers when it comes to explaining philosophy, and we need these things right now. Regardless of what you think about AI, the 21st century will clearly be fraught with difficult philosophical problems – from genetic engineering to the ethical treatment of animals to the problem of what to do with global poverty, it’s obvious that we will soon need philosophical answers, not just philosophical questions. Improvements in technology mean improvements in capability, and that means that things which were once merely thought experiments will be lifted into the realm of real experiments.

I think the problem that humanity faces in the 21st century is an unprecedented one. We’re faced with the task of actually solving philosophy, not just doing philosophy. And if I’m right about AI, then we have exactly one try to get it right. If we don’t, well..

Well, then the fate of humanity may literally hang in the balance.