You’re allowed to fight for something

My cliffs notes from You’re allowed to fight for something

This series is all about removing guilt. But certain forms of guilt are easier to remove; others are easier to first shift to these easier-to-remove forms. And to that end:

‘Tis better than to feel guilty for a specific reason — say, playing video games all day instead of practicing resistance — than to feel “listless” guilt for no particular reason — guilt that maybe there should be something to feel guilty for not doing.

The listless guilt comes from intuitively knowing there can be something more — more good that you’d like to do, for non-selfish reasons. The Nihilist trap convinces some that it is impossible to want to take some altruistic action because you care about others, without any selfish reasons, but listless guilt is the disproof of this.

A thought experiment: Imagine someone offered you a deal to shoot your pet, erase your memory of the pet (without any fallibility; they would also alter the memory of those around you and your environment), and give you a dollar. You don’t take the dollar. Why? That’s proof you can care for something outside yourself, when there’s no selfish motivation.

And you are allowed to want something for non-selfish reasons, without needing to understand or explain.

To shake the listless guilt, ask what you’d like to be different in the world, and look for ideas that compel you to make a difference if you can.

The listless guilt is a guilt about not doing anything. To remove it, we must first turn it into a guilt about not doing something in particular.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Let altruism be altruism

My cliffs notes from The Stamp Collector:

This is an argument against nihilism, the belief that nothing does or can matter. Dispensing with nihilism is necessary to make altruism accessible as a source of intrinsic motivation, to offset listless guilt — the guilt of doing nothing when it seems like there should be something more to life.

People will tell you that humans always and only ever do what brings them pleasure. People will tell you that there is no such thing as altruism, that people only ever do what they want to.

People will tell you that, because we’re trapped inside our heads, we only ever get to care about things inside our heads, such as our own wants and desires.

But I have a message for you: You can, in fact, care about the outer world.

And you can steer it, too. If you want to.

Evidence for this are the analogy of the stamp collector — a robot designed to take actions that increase the number of stamps in its inventory — and the analogy of human altruists working from the same principle.

“Naïve philosophers” fall to the homunculus fallacy when attempting to understand the robot. They refuse to see what it is in fact doing: Taking actions that result in the outcome it seeks, with its best available information. Differentiating between its internal representation of its inventory and its actual inventory is fallacious, because it doesn’t have any more meaningful access to its internal representation of inventory than its external inventory.

Similarly, the naïve philosophers mistake human altruistic behavior as pleasure-maximizing. But behaviors such as giving away all of your money to charity, or jumping in front of a moving car to save a child, stress that theory to the breaking point.

We can and do choose to care about things outside of our heads. Don’t get bogged down in whether altruism is real; just accept that it’s accessible to you.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

To Derek Sivers, success means helping others

Yesterday (well, late last night) I wrote about the danger in equating one’s wealth with one’s value.

I set aside all metrics for a person’s value besides money, because it was convenient for my point. In fact, I believe wealth has very little to do with one’s value to society.

A similar question is, what makes a person successful?

Tim Ferriss’s two recent interviews with Derek Sivers are both excellent. One highlight from the second episode is Derek’s definition of success.

The more you think it through, the more you realize that you have to define success first by your inner game, not some outside measure of money or fame, right? Mastering yourself, your mind, and your actions.

But now if you only master yourself, and you don’t help anyone else, well then we’d call you happy, but no one would define you as successful. So the very definition of success must include how much you helped others.

The point is, if you want to be undeniably successful, you need to both master yourself, and help others.

This has the ring of sage truth to me.

Some other big takeaways from Tim’s two-part interview:

  • Derek may be the world’s most focused person. He claims to do one thing he is excited about at a time for hours, days, and weeks. Science suggests multitasking is terrible for productivity, and it sounds like Derek’s almost completely eliminated it in his own life. I’m sure his high output stems from that.
  • “To me, ‘busy’ implies that the person is out of control of their life.”
  • The “Hell yeah! or No” approach to life, which means only say yes to things you want to enthusiastically say “Hell yeah!” to. Derek explains in more detail here.
  • Derek is collecting lessons learned in the form of directives for a good life. It’s the core of what most of us need to read books for anyway, so why not distill things down for people to save time, and to share them with people who are too busy to read, anyway? The power of these is evident when you hear them. For instance:

How to be useful to others:

  1. Get famous. Do everything in public and for the public. The more people you reach, the more useful you are. The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to anyone.
  2. Get rich. Money is neutral proof that you’re adding value to people’s lives. So by getting rich, you’re being useful as a side effect. Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others. Then, getting rich is double useful.
  3. Share strong opinions. Strong opinions are very useful to others. Those who are undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance. But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours. So even if you invent an opinion for the sole sake of argument, boldly sharing strong opinion is very useful to others.
  4. Be expensive. People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when told that that pill was expensive. People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance. So people who spend more for a product or service value it more and get more use out of it. So be expensive.

I really enjoy that Derek’s directive #2 above directly contradicts what I wrote yesterday, which has indirectly proven his directive number #3!

Derek has a happy, wise, and yet not smug quality that I really like. Check out interview parts one and two.

To get rich quick is to steal

I have recently been pondering the idea of a person’s value.

Are people truly ‘equal’ in terms of their value to others? What makes a person valuable to society? How does society value a person? How is a person’s value made visible to others?

I believe that some inherent value exist in everyone. This is manifested through the empathy we experience for others, and the rights we codify into law. Let’s ignore the notion of inherent human value for now, though, because it is difficult for society to measure.

Let’s narrow our concept of value to just what’s easy: Transactional value. Value that can be quantified, with money.

By this simplistic view, capitalist economies clearly do value some people more than others: Those with great wealth. Exhibit A is their spending power. Exhibit B is their celebrity.

However, what makes a person valuable to society, and how society values the person, are not the same.

Ideally, society would most value the individuals who provide the greatest value to society. In practice, that is too difficult. Non-financial evaluations of a person have the major disadvantage of being less quantifiable. I am thinking here of such things as civic awards and recognitions, IQ tests, athletic achievements, social media followers, public opinion… These are measurements that don’t stack up easily for clear comparisons of peoples’ across-the-board value.

So, we let wealth be a proxy for value.

Consequently, many of us would like to be rich. We can rightly expect that if we can achieve wealth, society will treat us as more valuable. And, we think that will tell us that we are valuable.

This has been true of me.

But this is a trap.

Acquiring wealth is a very unreliable indicator for the value you have created. Sometimes a person becomes wealthy by stealing or transferring value to themselves, instead of creating it.

To illustrate that concretely, I need to better define ‘value’.

Let’s say I sell you a cup of coffee for $2. Let’s also say that you would’ve spent as much as $3.00 for that coffee, because you really wanted it.

Since I charged you $1.00 less than the coffee was worth to you, in a way I have created $1.00 of value for you.

(I’ve actually created more value for you than just that: You also have the inherent value of enjoying the cup of coffee. But, remember that we’re ignoring anything we can’t easily put a price tag on.)

The point is, you’ve received at least $1.00 of value for my efforts.

Meanwhile, the cup I sold you only cost me $0.25 cents to brew. Thus, I’ve also created $1.75 of value for myself, in the form of profit.

All told, that’s more than $2.75 of value I created, of which I kept $1.75.

This illustrates how when transacting business in a capitalist society, we generally don’t earn value without creating more value than we receive.

This non-zero-sum aspect of transactions motivates us to do business together. Everyone benefits.

The person who scales up this coffee business model enough to get rich doing it will be both valued by society (through their amassed wealth) and be valuable to society (through the value given to customers).

I realize that this is a simplistic example that you could poke holes in. For instance, you could argue that I’m carelessly conflating coffee customers with ‘society’. I am giving economists and capitalism the benefit of the doubt here, which perhaps they don’t deserve.

But if it holds true for the coffee capitalist, this model of value also works for those of us collecting a paycheck. Our employers pay us because they get even more benefit than we cost, i.e. we create value for them.

Note how the process of becoming wealthy through this value creation happens gradually over time.

Something different happens when someone gets rich (relatively) quickly.

Consider hedge fund trading, exorbitant corporate officer pay, government and corporate corruption, tax evasion, scams, cons, and Ponzi schemes.

From society’s viewpoint, getting rich through these kinds of methods can be viewed as a form of stealing. It skips value creation. Instead, it generates wealth through value transfer.

The person who would like to be valuable to society should avoid get-rich-quick methods. They should pay attention to the value they create for others, and ensure that it well exceeds the value ending up in their own bank account.

Maturing as an avalanche

Sometimes maturing isn’t gradual, but an episode. You’re going along in life, comfortably set in your ways for some time, when something shifts your perspective. And quickly (over days, weeks, or months — but relatively quickly) a lot of thoughts are set in unstoppable motion and you may be unsettled for a while, until decisions and new habits condense and you arrive at a new static equilibrium and realize that You Are Different and you can point back to it and say “That happened.”

Occam’s Razor is less simple than you think

I was talking with my good friend Will this morning about the tension between valuing faith and having many good, intelligent friends and colleagues in the developer world who make persuasive arguments for skepticism and atheism.

Will thought of the film Contact and its dialog about the role of faith and science. Palmer Joss, the Christian philosopher played by Matthew McConaughey,  votes against the protagonist as a representative to meet aliens because her atheism puts her out of step with two thirds of humanity.

Two thirds of humanity is a lot of people to be wrong — if indeed they are wrong about the existence of god(s). On the other hand, I can’t rule out that many of us believe through shear force of cultural momentum, rather than something inherent and true.

I told Will I’m tempted to apply Occam’s Razor in their defense: Between “The believers are correct on some level” and “there are sociological, cultural, and perhaps evolutionary forces at work to trick believers”, I think I find the former to be a simpler theory to explain the number of believers in the world today.

This post isn’t about that, though. In a moment, you’ll see see why that’s not a fruitful way to think about this at all.

I didn’t really understand Occam’s Razor. Will pointed out that in popular wisdom, the Razor means “the simplest theory is usually true”. This is what I thought it meant. But in fact, Occam’s Razor is better stated as “Amongst competing theories supported by evidence, go with the one with the fewest assumptions”.

Nothing about that means “simple usually wins”.

And in the Faith and Reason debate, I don’t see how the Razor can even be applied. Reason is marked by logic and objective observation of evidence. Faith is marked by intuition and subjective experience. Only one of these involves evidence (which the side of Reason exploits in their arguments, but that is lazy, and that is still not what this post is about). When comparing “there are gods” and “there are not gods, only reasons we think there are gods”, we don’t have two theories supported by evidence, so the Razor can’t be applied.

In case I’m not explaining that well, I’ll point anyone interested to Wikipedia. The level of nuance and detail involved in Occam’s Razor surprised me. (I also learned we’re apparently all doing wrong by William of Ockham spelling it the way we do.)

Thoughts on “Analogy is the Core of Cognition”

This is a great talk at Stanford from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. It taught me to recognize the essential analogy-nature of just about every new understanding, and the essential category-nature of (nearly?) all words and phrase structures in language.

I also found this illuminates why building satisfactory taxonomy systems in databases (like those that power CMSs like WordPress) might be so difficult: Categories in our minds are essentially analogies, with varying degrees of complexity, but which grow and morph in meaning as we gain experience and learn. The edges are inherently fuzzy, and our mental hardware is optimized to make connections between them easily. In computer systems with fixed data structures, categories must have to be fixed, with clear hard yes/no lines, and (unless you have the benefit of complicated machine learning algorithms) connections between them must be intentionally and explicitly crafted by programmers.

At first this appeared to me as a fundamental alienating difference between biological and machine minds: Fixed, binary thought, versus flexible, analog (with its delicious shares root with analogy) thought. But, I suppose our own minds are built up of their own (however elegant and complicated) logic gate hardware — is the axon firing, or not? — and perhaps machine minds will come to work much like our own when sufficiently advanced, with layers upon layers of software on top of our contemporary primitive ones.