Saturday, October 31, 2020

US Election, 2020

Election season is coming to an end. In the spirit of the season, here are some other people's opinions about whether to vote, and how to vote:

Karen Swallow Prior claims that both candidates are questionable morally, and neither is really in favor of Christian values. So she plans to vote third-party in this election.

Rob Wiblin offers an effective altruist perspective, emphasizing the high expected value of a vote in a sufficiently competitive election. Contains an interesting tip: vote for the candidate that is polling high globally, since they are affected by whoever wins -- especially true in the US.

We Are Not Saved here offers a case for writing-in (your vote sends more of a signal than if you vote for a mainstream candidate) and here predicts that the election won't change things as much as people think.


I tend to be apolitical, and can see some reason for me personally to lean that way for a while. Having said that, here is a statement from me about leadership a propos elections.

Also, since voting is like anything else, in a way, the previous post may be relevant.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Choose by the Spirit of Jesus

If you are thinking of going down a path in life (for instance, choosing a career), then you might ask, Which path causes me to become more like Jesus? Another way to look at this is to catch yourself in a moment where you are filled with the spirit (the breath) of Jesus, when you inhabit the vibe of Jesus, and see which path it permits. Can you have that spirit when you are doing a certain career? If not, if you can avoid it, don't pursue that career.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Agency and AI

There are probably other ways to come to define agency, but I come at this from the angle of thinking about artificial intelligence.

One version of our (perhaps not-so-distant) AI-affected future is that one AI will completely take over, rule the whole world. (The other version is that there will be multiple AI (and perhaps humans) which collectively, perhaps as something scene-like analogous to the international system of national governments, rule or prefer not to rule the whole world.)

If one AI takes over the whole world, we would hope that it was programmed in such a way that it was aligned with human well-being. But there's at least two problems. One is, the technical challenge of getting an AI to actually be aligned any particular way. It isn't always easy to code concepts, even ones which you can more or less live according to, yourself, as a human. The other is that people don't really know what human well-being is. I can think of a few different approaches to well-being: humans should feel pleasure, should not feel pain, should feel "ought-to-be-ness" (a concept to be discussed in my upcoming review of The Feeling of Value), should have their preferences satisfied, should have their trust maximized, should be "good people" (according to Christianity? What kind of Christianity? Or a kind of Islam? Or another religion? Or a branch of secular thinking?), should relate properly to reality (what does that mean?), should relate properly to God (which one?).

Given this profusion of options, one might conclude that it is unlikely that this is even the complete list, and also that if you wanted to code all these, it would be difficult, and you would tend to have to make a lot of decisions about how to balance goals that seemed to contradict in particular cases. And, at best, one strain of humanity would actually like what you were coming up with. As you designed your AI, you would be writing the constitution of the future world's culture and government, but it's likely that many or most people wouldn't approve of the decisions you were making.

So you might think that the wise and humble thing to do would be to try to make an AI that ceded as much decision-making ability to humans as possible. That way, over the coming centuries, humans could all participate in a process that humans have been participating in for hundreds of years, of proposing one or another version of human well-being and living by it, hoping to win over their neighbors. Perhaps someday we would have settled on one version of human well-being, and AI could maximize that. (Or maybe even then it should hang back, and we should hang back a little ourselves, because human consensus does not prove alignment with ultimate reality.) But until then, the AI would simply facilitate that process by which we make decisions.

So the AI might try to maximize agency. Agency, in this particular formulation, being "the ability to secure one's own decision-making ability and minimal physical liberty". The AI would try to keep people from dying, and help build them up to be capable of seeing things from their own point of view, so that they could make their own decisions if they chose to, and then at least minimally act on them, by not being impeded from moving their bodies. The AI would take into account the ways in which people's actions impair each other's decision-making abilities (psychological coercion, causing trauma, causing pain above a certain threshold, etc.), and do its best to create a society with fewer such impairments.

So there could be such a thing as "agency utilitarianism", whereby we try to build up the greatest number of people in the greatest way, to be able to function and make their own decisions, and sometimes to defend themselves, if they want to.

We already have world-ruling AI (of a sort), which are states. We also have elite cultures, such as those capable of designing powerful technologies or policies, or those capable of significantly influencing those designers. People in a position of power or "eliteness" are in a position where they can make decisions on behalf of other people. The greater the power, and the greater the differential between elites and non-elites, the more that elites or states resemble world-ruling AI. States and elites, like AI, also have the problem of not really knowing what human well-being is, and of not necessarily being aligned with it, whatever they take it to be. (The people who design AI are themselves part of the elite.)

It's hard to "code" a particular definition of well-being in systems made up of human beings, just as it is in AI. How would we actually get a state, an elite culture, or a culture at large (all of which rule over individual citizens) to adhere to one, correct, fully-featured definition of well-being? If we try to coordinate them all on one idea, the simpler the better. So perhaps the idea to implement should be for each citizen to be able to pursue a true definition of well-being, and to be able to pursue that and offer to share it with others, in ways that do not impede others' pursuit of the same. And thus, agency as the value for rulers to maximize, while citizens may seek anything more intense and true.


What is a scene?

Take for example an open mic scene. It might start with one cafe having an open mic night one night a week. It's fairly successful, and some of the people who attend would be willing to go to another open mic night on a different night. So another cafe nearby starts having an open mic night on a different night of the week.

If you go to one open mic, people there will talk about the other. The best way to find out about open mics is to go to one and hear from people where the others are. (In my experience, online directories of open mics exist, but are poorly maintained / tend to be out of date -- that's been true of San Diego, at least.)

Cafe 1 generally does not (or even could not) cause Cafe 2 to start their open mic, and similarly has limited ability to shut down Cafe 2's open mic.

Venues are quiet but important elements of scenes. You can have an open mic in a cafe, at a beach, in a park, a student union -- but you have to have it somewhere. And each venue has some influence over what kind of open mic can be done there. If a venue is no longer available (like a cafe goes out of business), then that disrupts the scene. An open mic can move to a different venue, but people might not follow.

Someone in the open mic scene might decide to put on a house show that is mostly attended by people from the scene, a one-off event. This isn't strictly speaking an open mic, but it's still part of the same scene.

When I was attending UC Davis, there was a monthly open mic that was led by a group of people, some students who were poets. I don't know how organized their group was, but at least they always performed a group poem at the start of the open mic nights -- they had to coordinate at least a little in that. (So, an organization can put on regular events.)

There weren't a lot of other open mics in Davis at that time, but that particular open mic generated its own small scene. I was part of a collaboration that came out of the open mic, made a song with two other artists connected through the scene. The collaboration was not caused by the open mic organizers as such, was something independent that "arose emergently" from the open mic.

A church is more like an organism, while a scene is more like a space or matrix that contains organisms. But like the Davis open mic, a church itself functions as a scene, to some extent.

A scene can contain sub-scenes. For instance, the universal church is not a single organization, but rather is a scene. But within the universal church is "the set of churches or other Christian social phenomena in San Diego County". I can't very practically interact with Christian in-person things in Los Angeles (speaking as a San Diegan), so the LA scene is mostly not directly relevant to me. But it's certainly possible for me to hear about another church in San Diego, to leave whichever one I might be attending and go to it. It's certainly possible for me to say "I'm going to go see what they have in LA" and visit, and then find a church there. Or happen to hear of an LA church from someone in San Diego, maybe someone who moved here for a job and left a church they liked. But it's less likely than getting caught up in what's happening in San Diego County.

(God's perspective on the universal church is that it is the body of Christ -- not that it is merely a scene. A body has a deep kinship and claim (whether manifested or not) to being one interconnected thing. But scenes do not, not necessarily. (The cells in a body differ though most of them share the same DNA. A diseased body could be like a poorly-connected scene.))

Scenes have definitions to them, loose as they are. The open mic scene is made up of open mics, and the people who meet each other through open mics. A Christian scene is made up of Christians, and the people who meet each other through the elements of the Christian scene. In a sense, an open mic is part of one great scene, for instance, the social life of San Diego or even the United States or the world. The boundaries of scenes are fuzzy and can be continuous with other scenes, both broader and less definite ones (San Diego's open mic scene could be continuous with the overall social life of San Diego) or narrower, more definite ones (and it could be continuous with the local drum circle scene). If you are at an open mic, you are definitely participating in the open mic scene. If you are at a house show and everyone there is from the open mic scene and they all met each other through the open mic scene, then you are part of the open mic scene. But if there start to be non-open mic people at events, perhaps at some level of non-open mic person attendance, they aren't really open mic scene events.

A focal point (sometimes referred to as a "Schelling point") is a solution that people tend to choose by default in the absence of information (according to Wikipedia). This is relevant when trying to coordinate people's actions. Maybe someone explicitly sets up a focal point (informs people), but once this is done, it just "floats" in the culture -- maybe is hard to undo. Scenes involve focal points, perhaps more so than organizations, because they don't provide explicit direction to coordinate people.

An important basic focal point is "I'm going to go there [to a particular event or venue] because other people go there." I go "there" because I think explicitly "there are going to be people there". But I also go "there" because I am in the habit of going there. I rely on the habitual nature of others to feel like there is a "there" (socially speaking, a populated space) to go to.

Something that is in the neighborhood of a focal point is the "spirit" of a scene. A spirit is an animating breath, something with both a power and a quality to it. Somewhat like a fuel: wood burns differently than natural gas. Some spirits are contagious, and can be caught within an organization or scene. The metaphor of a fire: the coal can burn outside the fire, but burns out much sooner than if it were among fellow coals in the fire. Spirits are a third reason (besides habit and rational anticipation), that people decide to show up to (or find themselves showing up to) specific events or group meetings within a scene.

The definition of a scene selects a certain kind of person to be a participant in it (for instance, the extent to which the label "Christian" is taken up by a certain kind of person who then seeks the Christian scene). Due to this, and other habits, expectations, and spirits, people within a scene behave a certain way toward each other. Scenes shape individuals in (hopefully) congruent ways, so that the individual-to-individual interactions (those farthest from conscious organization) are still affected by the fact of being within the scene as a whole.

Are scenes really spaces where impersonal forces emergently generate social interaction and culture? In a sense, no. Each thing is caused by a consciousness. A consciousness that causes has preferences and will, and in that at least minimal sense is a person. So somebody causes each thing, including the basic actions occurring in a scene. These actions may interact in ways that no one person foresaw or intended, but the choice of personal beings was operative in everything.

God chooses some things and might run parts of the world in a mechanistic, systemic way, but this is less true of social systems, which are more under our own responsibility. Some features of scenes that appear to be unchosen are the aftereffects of choices made in the past, or the choice to not choose, or the preference to not choose. Scenes behave differently when there are people making conscious choices in them versus ones in which people choose not to choose or prefer not to choose. Every element in a scene participates because someone chose to participate, so without choice, there would be no scene.

Certainly one of the virtues of a scene is that it does not control people, and another is that it is not subject to the life and death cycle of an individual organization. It is good to choose not to control scenes or their elements, to preserve the ability of individuals to make choices and test their preferences against reality. However, there are times when a person's agency is threatened by another member of a scene, and then it can be justified for someone within the scene to exert some kind of control against the other member (a group bans someone from their events, for instance). A general goal for scenes (for people thinking about scenes) can be agency-maximization.

The preceding three paragraphs together say something like: you have to choose in order to do your part in developing a scene, but generally it is best to not make other choices within a scene, to allow other people to make their own choices. If you make very many choices for other people in a scene, you start to turn it into one large organization, instead of a scene.

So maybe I can try to define a scene, having given those examples: A scene is an interconnected collection of essentially independent elements of social life (events, venues, groups, individuals), and their spirits and "institutions" (habits and expectations).

Individuals (individually or corporately) are aware of other elements of the scene and have some ability to interact with multiple elements, or to refrain from one element in order to participate in another. So a scene can include loyalty to one group, but also includes all the other possible groups, and the pathways by which people can participate in other groups. It tends to include features that seemingly nobody consciously chooses, things that are "in the air". No one person or organization is in control of a scene as a whole. Anyone can extend a scene, without permission, simply by making an element known to people in the scene that is fitting with the concept of the scene (Christianity, open mic nights, etc.) or which mostly attracts people who primarily know each other from the scene.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Change of the World and Love of God

"It needs to change", we might say or embody. But the world can't change forever. Someday it must reach a really good state.

Complacency is a bad in itself. Being complacent is being closed on a deep level. So how can we stay open?

Should we love the world? That may mean that we love the status quo. Both the good and the bad come from the status quo. Sometimes you can separate the bad from the good, but the default assumption is that it's a package deal. A system is one thing, is what it is with all its parts. So if we love any one existing thing, maybe we have to keep the status quo. If we love (or "love") any one thing enough, we can't risk changing the system, at the risk of losing that thing. Does this mean that people who want to see change can't love? Can't trust?

Perhaps this is why the world is so messed up (in part). People can't sustain "it needs to change". They crave to love, can't refrain from loving, though refraining might make things better in the long run. Maybe to make things better, you need to hate some specific thing. Hate evil -- but then, hate can be evil, and is definitely unbearable in the end, a maintaining of lack of trust. So the hate that brings about good comes intermittently. And refraining from love is hard to sustain as well.

I think it's good to say "this world is not all there is", which is akin to "this world as it is not as it should be". Both say "the world, everything that adds up to my own satisfactions, my own wealth, is insufficient."

God exists outside this world. The love we have for God is not the love we have for the world, the love for all the gifts that give us satisfaction and security. We can love and trust God, and thus take weight off of seeing the world as it is as a good thing, which we might feel is necessary to keep from cutting ourselves off from loving and trusting as activities that are good for us.

Hate and alienation are akin. We are sometimes alien in ways that are natural and familiar to us. But God's alienness is not our alienness. God is a father (a familiar image), but also an alien. To love an alien as its child requires that you become an alien yourself.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Mental Health and Holiness

A lot of times, when you do something wrong, it's because you're crazy, not because you're sinning. You operate from a place of poverty when you're crazy, but from a place of wealth when you're sinning. Sometimes people use the place of wealth as a way to mask their sense of poverty -- I'm not sure what to think there.

Does God care only about your intent, or also about your actions themselves? I think both can go against his preferences. So while you may have been crazy when you did something desperate to someone else, which harmed them, if you don't do anything about being crazy, maybe that is a problem of intent, since you may not have regard for God's feelings (nor the human victim's).

There's a connection between mental health and holiness. Holiness involves mental health. But mental health by itself does not cause you to be or become holy, to love God or set yourself apart for him.

There's a lot out there about mental health, by qualified people. I think it's important to add to what they say a concern with integrating God into your mental health practices, so that they do not become purely humanistic.

For instance, practicing journaling can be a way to understand how your life works, so that you can make interventions to reduce mental problems. You might want to evaluate different areas of your life, to see what situation you are in. One of those areas can, or should, involve God. So you might say, "What's the situation? in financial, mental, physical health, in my relationships with humans, with God". You are interested not only in mental health, but in your whole life.

By talking about what they talk about, and not about what they don't, thought patterns can imply that there is this, that, and no other thing, though they don't rule those other things out explicitly. Something to avoid is a vision of life that doesn't include God, explicitly or implicitly. Perhaps it is good to bring God's existence to mind whenever you try to use some sort of therapeutic technique on yourself, or whenever you visit a therapist. This technique of remembering God can be applied to other pursuits, such as thinking. (Thinking in partnership with God can itself be therapeutic.)

We find our treasure in what we work for, and our life of securing what we treasure becomes our real life. So if we do not make our pursuit of mental health theistic in some way, we will fail to develop our connection with God in that part that seems so real to us. We treasure our well-being -- and what else?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Work For Treasure

We have a tendency to treasure the things we work for. As an experiment, you can try this and see if it's true for you. Pick something you don't care about, then work to preserve it. You may find yourself caring about it. I have found this to be the case for me with house flies and with computer game monsters.

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also". It is when we are doing the work to secure our treasures, or when we spend time in the presence of our treasures, that we live real life.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Knowing and Seeking to Know

If you are really open-minded, people can scam you. And you may not be able to commit to what really needs to be done.

But if you close your mind in order to be effective, you participate in another evil, not being aligned with reality.

It's a hard balance. But you can certainly aspire to both know, and seek to know.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Broken and Stuck

I used to have a cassette player when I was younger, maybe a little fancy, that had different modes. It could play in reverse, but there were other modes as well. It's been a while since I had it, so I don't remember specifically what they did. I do remember that there were some switches that, after many years of use (or abuse), were either broken, so you could move them without changing anything, or they were jammed to one setting, I can't remember which -- either way, you couldn't affect the cassette player on that dimension. The cassette player was broken and stuck.

Sometimes things become less stable when they're broken. But other times, being broken makes you more stable, by making you stuck. Maturity is (in part) a process of becoming more stable. But it may come through being broken. There can be an emotional meaning to "broken", a sense of being messed-up. But there's also a functional sense. Things just don't work the way they used to.

When do you need to be right? When you have something valuable to say. Nobody is right about everything, but if you're in an environment where people are trying to shut you up, and will use your mistakes as reason to discount you as a voice, overall, and you have something valuable to say, you had better act like you're right about everything. So you gravitate toward being stuck.

Can you forgive people? You need to be on your own side, if you're in an environment where people are trying to shut you up. You can forgive people on some levels. But like the word "listen", there's a stronger and weaker version of the term "forgive". To listen to someone is to really take into account what they're saying, which in some contexts is to act in accordance with what they say, not just be able to make sense of the words they say. To forgive someone can mean, in its stronger form, "to enter into a relationship as close as or closer than the one that was lost". If you do that, there is no doubt that you have forgiven someone. Do all relationships need to be restored? Maybe not. But if there is a good reason to restore a relationship, can you do that? Or are you stuck, unable to let go of your threatenedness?

Can you deal with your own contradictions? In the old days, we would have called these hypocrisies. Being a hypocrite is too much fun for our days. Nowadays, we are self-contradictory, holding contradictory views, and not living out the views we have, out of fatigue and brokenness. We want to move the switch that makes us turn toward consistency, but as it's broken, it moves too easily, disconnected from the mechanism that really changes us on the inside.

Can you convert to a religion or worldview -- to any religion, or any worldview? Can you see things as being true that you didn't see as being true before? On what level? Can you deeply change as a person, even if it is merely to acknowledge the facts? If your will and intellect can't affect the rest of you, because the switches are broken or stuck, then it is not so easy.

Can you hold to a religion or worldview? You may try to stay in tune with your religion / worldview, by repeatedly moving the switches back to "ADHERING". But if the switch is broken, you may not really adhere, no matter how often you get the switch in the right place.

You can feel stuckness in your brain, a physical sense of rigidity. And the broken switches can be felt. For some people, just recognizing that there are these problems can help to fix them.

Friday, October 2, 2020

News: 2 October 2020

A while ago I had a Twitter account that was both for writing and personal. I wanted to split it into two, one for writing, one personal. I did, and the writing one got suspended, probably because it was too sparse and may have looked like a spam account or something like that. I appealed the suspension, and recently (a few weeks ago), Twitter unsuspended the account. So now I have a writing Twitter account.

I don't really like Twitter that much anymore and don't expect to invest a lot in the account unless someday it has more followers. So far it's just for announcements.


I started two reading projects, as you may have seen: reviewing Rawlette's The Feeling of Value and going through a reading list on population ethics from the EA Forum.

I probably shouldn't start any more projects right now. I do have Moynihan's X-Risk pre-ordered, should get that in early November. I might be able to finish the reading projects I've started before then (we'll see). If so, I may have a gap where I can consider starting another project. I think I may get through X-Risk quickly, maybe read it concurrent with something else.

Two philosophy projects occur to me. One is re-reading I and Thou by Buber and Totality and Infinity by Levinas: a showdown between two different theories of intersubjectivity. I like the toughness of Levinas, but I generally think that Buber is saner. At least, that's based on a couple of maybe-adequate readings of Buber and one not-so-good reading of Levinas. (I will definitely look into secondary literature if I try this project.) Can I come up with a take on intersubjectivity that is in keeping with my existing project?

The other is to read Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge. I have read about Berkeley and assimilated some of his ideas, but have never actually read anything by him. I expect to get some unexpected ideas, likely enough. But also I expect to be interested in his attempt to be skeptical of material substance.

Also I saw an Emily Dickinson poem that I liked, and may check out her work.


The philosophy projects sound kind of heavy. I'm conscious that getting committed to something heavy might be a waste of my time. Maybe I'm better off doing a lot of light work, rather than a few heavy projects. Rawlette isn't too bad -- clearly-written book, and the ideas are fairly straightforward, so far. But the other three philosophers mentioned wouldn't be like her.