Philosophy

Nick is a philosopher at Oxford and he has worked with Larry Temkin and Nick Bostrom.  He typed up his version of our conversation (pdf), it starts with this:

Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Tyler to learn about his perspectives on existential risk and other long-run issues for humanity, the long-run consequences of economic growth, and the effective altruism movement.

Here are a few excerpts:

Tyler is optimistic about growth in the coming decades, but he doesn’t think we’ll become uploads or survive for a million years. Some considerations in favor of his views were:

1. The Fermi paradox is some evidence that humans will not colonize the stars.
2. Almost all species go extinct.
3. Natural disasters—even a supervolcano—could destroy humanity.
4. Normally, it’s easier to destroy than to build. And, in the future, it will probably become increasingly possible for smaller groups to cause severe global damage (along the lines suggested by Martin Rees).

The most optimistic view that Tyler would entertain—though he doubts it—is that humans would survive at subsistence level for a very long time; that’s what we’ve had for most of human history.

And:

People doing philosophical work to try to reduce existential risk are largely wasting their time. Tyler doesn’t think it’s a serious effort, though it may be good publicity for something that will pay off later. A serious effort looks more like the parts of the US government that trained people to infiltrate the post-collapse Soviet Union and then locate and neutralize nuclear weapons. There was also a serious effort by the people who set up hotlines between leaders to be used to quickly communicate about nuclear attacks (e.g., to help quickly convince a leader in country A that a fishy object on their radar isn’t an incoming nuclear attack).This has been fixed in other countries (e.g. US and China), but it hasn’t been fixed in other cases (e.g. Israel and Iran). There is more that we could do in this area. In contrast, the philosophical side of this seems like ineffective posturing.

Tyler wouldn’t necessarily recommend that these people switch to other areas of focus because people['s] motivation and personal interests are major constraints on getting anywhere. For Tyler, his own interest in these issues is a form of consumption, though one he values highly.

And:

Tyler thinks about the future and philosophical issues from a historicist perspective. When considering the future of humanity, this makes him focus on war, conquest, plagues, and the environment, rather than future technology.

He acquired this perspective by reading a lot of history and spending a lot of time around people in poor countries, including in rural areas. Spending time with people in poor countries shaped Tyler’s views a lot. It made him see rational choice ethics as more contingent. People in rural areas care most about things like fights with local villages over watermelon patches. And that’s how we are, but we’re living in a fog about it.

And:

The truths of literature and what you might call “the Straussian truths of the great books”—what you get from Homer or Plato—are at least as important rational choice ethics. But the people who do rational choice ethics don’t think that. If the two perspectives aren’t integrated, it leads to absurdities—problems like fanaticism, the Repugnant Conclusion, and so on. Right now though, rational choice ethics is the best we have—the problems of, e.g., Kantian ethics seem much, much worse.

If rational choice ethics were integrated with the “Straussian truths of the great books,” would it lead to different decisions? Maybe not—maybe it would lead to the same decisions with a different attitude. We might come to see rational choice ethics as an imperfect construct, a flawed bubble of meaning that we created for ourselves, and shouldn’t expect to keep working in unusual circumstances.

I’m on a plane for much of today, so you are getting Nick’s version of me, for a while at least.  You will find Nick’s other conversations here.

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.

The source is here, via the excellent Ted Gioia.

Yes doing things now can have good side effects, but unless something changes in the side-effect processes, doing things later should have exactly the same sort of side effects. And because of positive interest rates, you can do more later, and thus induce more of those good side effects. (Also, almost everyone can trade time for money, and so convert money or time now into more money or time later.)

For example, if you can earn 7% interest you can convert $1 now into $2 a decade from now. Yes, that $1 now might lend respectability now, induce others to copy your act soon, and induce learning by the charity and its observers. But that $2 in a decade should be able to induce twice as much of all those benefits, just delayed by a decade.

In math terms, good side effects are multipliers, which multiply the gains from your good act. But multipliers are just not good reasons to prefer $1 over $2, if both of them will get the same multiplier. If the multiplier is M, you’d just be preferring $1M to $2M.

…I think one should in general be rather suspicious of investing or donating to groups on the basis that they, or you, or now, is special. Better to just do what would be good even if you aren’t special. Because usually, you aren’t.

There is more here.

I enjoyed this book, and I recommend that you get it for your kid.  Here is one bit of many:

Good help is hard to find.  Really hard to find.  Sure, there are lots of people with the right degrees and résumés, but the kind of employee we yearn for sticks out almost immediately.

You can buy the book here.

Hi Professor Cowen,

I am a loyal MR reader and I wondered if you could comment on the following situation:

I am a 3rd year medical student, and for the purposes of this question, let’s assume I have equal interest and ability in the various medical specialties.  In order to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people through my work in medicine (i.e., the highest return to society), what specialty should I pursue?  I should add that, although I intend to practice in the U.S., I am open to devoting as much of my free time/vacation as possible to pro bono medical activities, and further, that I wish to do the interventions myself (instead, for example, or just making lots of money and then donating the proceeds to some other charitable activity).  In attempting to answer this question, I’ve been looking at DALYs and QALYs associated with various medical interventions (e.g., cataract surgery).  Am I going about answering this question the right way?  Any thoughts?

An interesting corollary would be asking what job, in any field, has the highest return to society.  Is there any literature on this?

The fundamental institutional failure to overcome is that many lives “out there” are pretty happy, and very much worth living, but those individuals do not have enough money to afford reasonable doctors.  If you are seeking to maximize social welfare, look to step into some of these gaps.

But which gap in particular?

The second binding constraint, in my view, is that most people won’t in fact go through with their plan to do a lot of social good.  That means you too.  So you wish to seek out a form of do-gooding which is incentive-compatible over the long run, or in other words which is fun for you or rewarding in some other way.  This second consideration is likely to prove decisive.

For instance you might decide the fight against dengue (just an example to make a point, not an actual net assessment) is the way to go, based on a narrow cost-benefit analysis.  But it is hard as a field worker to really, fully protect yourself against dengue.  And getting dengue can be very bad indeed.  As you age, the pressures not to go into the field will mount.  You might do more good by pledging your efforts to fight a malady which you can help fix without so much direct risk or exposure to yourself, let’s say infant mortality.

You will note a difference here between pledges of individual effort and pledges of money.  A money pledger, thinking in game-theoretic Nash terms, will realize that effort pledgers will resist the fight against dengue.  That is all the more reason why throwing money at the fight against dengue may bring high returns, namely that at the margin not enough is being done from the side of volunteer and quasi-volunteer labor.  (In general this distinction creates a problem with talking up one kind of cause over another, namely that labor and money face differing incentives and should hear different messages of encouragement.)

You will note also that in a second best optimum, field workers will appear to be “consuming too many perks.”  At the same time, donated funds should be trying to push field workers out of their comfort zones, at least on the margin.

I would add two final points.  First, if you have a reasonable chance of being a research superstar, that may be the path to follow.

Second, if you are not already attached, spent time cultivating social circles (aid work, World Bank, vegetarians, etc.) where you are likely to meet a partner or spouse who will support a similar vision to help the world.

Addendum: David Henderson adds comment.

What should you talk about?

by on March 26, 2014 at 3:02 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

Robin Hanson reports:

If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. You’ll seek topics that are important and yet little discussed, where more discussion seems likely to result in progress, and where you and your fellow discussants have a comparative advantage of expertise.

You can use this clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with, and of yourself. I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.

I would be curious to hear what other people think of this…

Or so I am told:

…those gravitational wave results point to a particularly prolific and potent kind of “inflation” of the early universe, an exponential expansion of the dimensions of space to many times the size of our own cosmos in the first fraction of a second of the Big Bang, some 13.82 billion years ago.

“In most models, if you have inflation, then you have a multiverse,” said Stanford physicist Andrei Linde. Linde, one of cosmological inflation’s inventors, spoke on Monday at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics event where the BICEP2 astrophysics team unveiled the gravitational wave results.

Essentially, in the models favored by the BICEP2 team’s observations, the process that inflates a universe looks just too potent to happen only once; rather, once a Big Bang starts, the process would happen repeatedly and in multiple ways.

There is more here.  How should this change my behavior?  Should I feel more or less regret?  Take more or fewer risks?

For the pointer I thank Ami Evelyn.

Here are some options:

1. Putin is a crazy hothead who is not even procedurally rational.  Merkel received that impression from one of her phone calls with him.

2. Putin is rational, in the Mises-Robbins sense of instrumental means-ends rationality, namely that he has some reason for what he does.  He simply wills evil ends, namely the extension of Russian state power and his own power as well.

3. Putin is fully rational in the procedural sense, namely that he calculates very well and pursues his evil ends effectively.  In #2 he is Austrian but in #3 he is neoclassical and Lucasian too.  He knows the true structure of the underlying model of global geopolitics.

Putin-2

4. Putin lives in a world where power is so much the calculus — instrumentally, emotionally and otherwise — that traditional means-ends relationships are not easy to define.  Power very often is the exercise of means for their own sake and means and ends thus meld and merge.  Our rational choice constructs may mislead us and cause us to see pointless irrationality when in fact power is being consumed as both means and end.  It is hard for we peons to grasp the emotional resonance that power has for Putin and for some of his Russian cronies.  They grew up in the KGB, watched their world collapse, tyrannized to rise to top power, while we sit on pillows and watch ESPN.

Here is a former CIA chief arguing Putin has a zero-sum mentality, though I would not make that my primary framing.  Here is Alexander J. Motyl considering whether Putin is rational (Foreign Affairs, possibly gated for you).  Here is an interesting and useful discussion of differing White House views of PutinThis account of a several-hour dinner with Putin says he is prideful, resentful of domination, and hardly ever laughs.  Here is Eric Posner on Putin’s legal astuteness.

My views are a mix of #2 and #4.  He is rational, far from perfect in his decision-making, and has a calculus which we find hard to emotionally internalize.  His resentments make him powerful, and give him precommitment technologies, but also blind him to the true Lucasian model of global geopolitics, which suggests among other things that a Eurasian empire for Russia is still a pathetic idea.

Putin is also paranoid, and rationally so.  We have surrounded him with NATO.  China gets stronger every year.  Many other Russians seek to kill him, overthrow him, or put him in prison.

Assumptions about Putin’s rationality will shape prediction.  Under #1 you should worry about major wars.  With my mix of #2 and #4, I do not expect a massive conflagration, but neither do I think he will stop.  I expect he keep the West distracted and seek to turn resource-rich neighbors into vassal states, for the purpose of constructing a power-intensive, emotionally resonant new Russian/Soviet empire, to counter the growing weight of China and to (partially) reverse the fall of the Soviet Union.  Even if he does not grok the true model of the global world order, he does know that Europe is weak and the United States has few good cards it is willing to play.

Developing…

Addendum: Whatever your theory of Russians in general may be, watch this one-minute video of a Russian baby conducting and give it a rethink.

Today, March 16, is Open Borders Day, a day to celebrate the right to emigrate and the right to immigrate; to peacefully move from place to place. It is a day worth celebrating everywhere both for what has been done already and for the tremendous gains in human welfare that can but are yet to be achieved. It is also a day to reflect on the moral inconsistency that says “No one can be denied equal employment opportunity because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent” and yet at the same time places heavily armed guards at the border to capture, imprison, turn back and sometimes kill immigrants.

OB Logo

 

That is the new book by Daniel Hannan and the subtitle is How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

Oh how one can mock those subtitles about the making of the modern world, heh heh!  Yet this subtitle has a plausible claim to be…true.  Even more shockingly, the subtitle accurately describes the book.

Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty.  This is not a joke and during my trips there I never quite snap out of that feeling, though I am also well aware of all the problems those people have foisted upon the world as well.

I found many parts of this book to be superficial, or perhaps well-known.  Yet often they were superficial and…true.  Here is one excerpt:

To put it another way, the distinction was not between Catholic and Protestant individuals, but between Catholic and Protestant states.

Here is from an Amazon review:

Author Daniel Hannan is a person of English ancestry who was born and raised in Peru then relocated to the United Kingdom as an adult and made a career in politics, including becoming one of the U.K.’s representatives to the European Parliament. His global experience has shown him how unique is our “Anglosphere” heritage of representative democracy, protection of property rights, the sanctity of law, and the inalienable rights of the individual.

This is in some ways an important book, though I do not think it is a book which will satisfy everybody.

For the pointer I thank Daniel Klein.

That is the new forthcoming Charles Murray book and the subtitle is Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Murray by the way just published a review of Average is Over in the latest Claremont Review of Books which I enjoyed very much.  It is not yet on-line but cited here.

For the pointer I thank Alex.

When I blame people for their problems, Democrats and liberals are prone to object at a fundamental level.  One fundamental objection rests on determinism: Since everyone is determined to act precisely as he does, it is always false to say, “There were reasonable steps he could have taken to avoid his problem.”  Another fundamental objection rests on utilitarianism: We should always do whatever maximizes social utility, even if that means taxing the blameless to subsidize the blameworthy.

Strangely, though, every Democrat and liberal I know routinely blames one category of people for their vicious choices: Republicans…

Personally, I strongly favor blaming Republicans.  I think 80% of the blame heaped on Republicans is justified.  What mystifies me, however, is the view that Republicans are somehow uniquely blameworthy.  If you can blame Republicans for lying about WMDs, why can’t you blame alcoholics for lying to their families about their drinking?  If you can blame Republican leaders for supporting bad policies because they don’t feel like searching for another job, why can’t you blame able-bodied people on disability because they don’t feel like searching for another job?

Democrats and liberals who expand their willingness to blame do face a risk: You will occasionally sound like a Republican!  But why is that such a big deal?  Maybe you’ll lose a few intolerant hard-left friends, but they’re replaceable.  By taking a reasonable step – broadening your blame – you can avoid the vices of moral inconsistency and moral nepotism.  To do anything less would be… blameworthy.

That is from Bryan Caplan.  As Robin Hanson once opined, “politics isn’t about policy.”

My own view is to minimize blame in all directions, but of course Bryan is correct in pointing out this inconsistency.  Most people are willing to blame those whom they seek to lower in relative status, though I can’t say I really blame them for that.

Horse head squirrel feeder.  Who could possibly want such a thing?  Is that the result of a fixed point theorem?  Aren’t fixed costs God’s way of keeping such nasty stuff away from us?:

You have a Creepy Horse Mask, why not the squirrels in your yard? It turns out it’s even funnier on a squirrel. This hanging vinyl 6-1/2″ x 10″ squirrel feeder makes it appear as if any squirrel that eats from it is wearing a Horse Mask. You’ll laugh every morning as you drink your coffee while staring out the window into your backyard. Now, if only the squirrels would do their own version of the Harlem Shake video. Hole on top for hanging with string (not included).

horse-head-squirrel-feeder-930x709-480x365

For the pointer I thank John De Palma.

What I worry about

by on March 3, 2014 at 4:56 pm in Philosophy, Science | Permalink

LATimes: A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.

The original research is here. Have a nice day.

Via Kottke, here is Abby Haglage:

In 2002, only 194 babies were named Colt, while in 2012 there were 955. Just 185 babies were given the name Remington in 2002, but by 2012 the number had jumped to 666. Perhaps the most surprising of all, however, is a jump in the name Ruger’s (America’s leading firearm manufacturer) from just 23 in 2002 to 118 in 2012. “This name [Ruger] is more evidence of parents’ increasing interest in naming children after firearms,” Wattenberg writes. “Colt, Remington, and Gauge have all soared, and Gunner is much more common than the traditional name Gunnar.”