Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ethical Epistemology

An ethical epistemology is when we act on beliefs for ethical reasons. Our practical epistemology is about our beliefs as measured by actions, so an ethical epistemology is about our beliefs as measured by actions when those actions seek an ethical end. In a sense, "belief" just means "practical belief" (in many contexts it does). So we can believe things ethically, according to ethical commitments. If those ethical commitments change, we will believe differently. And, to an extent, the world will be different in our eyes.

Non-elite Check on Elites re: X-Risk

This is an addendum to my review of X-Risk. In it, I mentioned that it would be necessary to provide the general populace with a sufficiently motivating culture if we want to safeguard civilization, because as long as they are in power, they can affect how assiduous we are in avoiding X-risk, and we want them to have power so that an elite doesn't form separate of them and develop an insular culture that leads to the annihilation or oppression of the non-elites.

I wondered today if there were ways we could imagine a lack of democracy not being dangerous for the general populace. One way to make this work is to have the elite mixing with and knowing personally members of the general populace, in a way that all demographics are represented among the people the elite can become close to. However, in the days of legal slavery, slaveowners were physically close to some of their slaves, and also in some ways intimate with them, without abolishing slavery. So maybe that's a count against the idea that people will be automatically attuned to people just by mixing with them.

Perhaps there could be some kind of elite education which is in the hands of the general populace, making sure that the elite are formed by non-elite. It's possible for elites to be like police officers, some forming gangs within the whole. They could pretend to be normal non-elite-respecting people but secretly think otherwise, abetted by their gang culture. But we could hope that the intervention of the vigilant non-elites might be able to prevent this from happening.

If we are going to have a check on elites by non-elites, then the non-elites still need to be on board with whatever goals are really important, such as avoiding X-risk, wireheading, or hardening. Elites may passively absorb non-elite culture, or be held in check by non-elites who are themselves affected by non-elite culture.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Believing Culturally

The Christianity of MSLN includes in it a recognition of the value of non-Christian religions, as well as other doctrinal cultures of Christianity. A religion, in all its complexity and extensiveness, is all one simantic word, and is spoken by God. To the extent that it does not conflict with a person's relationship with God (which it might do, for instance, by turning people away from believing in a God who could be a human and die, or by turning people away from obeying the true commands of God, whatever they may be), it is part of God's creation and is trustworthy to those who trust it. So it is possible to practice a non-Christian religion and still be Christian, as long as your primary allegiance is to Jesus as the son of God, and thus ultimately to the Father. It can be practiced and believed in culturally, rather than literally, literal devotion being reserved for the Christian God.

For an example, consider within Christianity. Let us suppose MSLN is correct. It conflicts with all of the already-existing doctrinal cultures on some point or other, just as all of them do with each other. If a Calvinist, seeking the supremacy of Jesus Christ, came to believe that MSLN was really the truth from Jesus, they would have to convert to MSLN (New Wine) Christianity. But they would have their whole lifetime as a Calvinist as part of their spiritual heritage. There's a whole culture shaped by belief in the unshakable and absolute sovereignty of God -- the one so sovereign that he alone decides who is saved and who is damned. They could keep that culture, and could even look on that unshakable and absolutely sovereign God as a poem, an artistic image of God -- not literally correct but beautiful in a way, and something which can teach valuable lessons, as a literary example might. Perhaps they would entertain non-literal belief in such a God, perhaps through a ritual of remembering their heritage.

It could work similarly with converts to MSLN from outside Christianity. They could still read their non-Christian scriptures, and practice the old rituals and even observe the old laws (as long as none of this conflicted with the truth), but as poetry, not as literal.

A child could be raised in any one of different "nations" or people groups. There is a people group for Islam (actually a number of them), ones for Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on. There are also many non-religious people groups (atheists, goths, Americans, Mac users, etc.). Children can be raised in many different people groups, whatever is part of their parents' heritage, as poetry, but there is only one literal truth, that of legitimacy itself.

I have used MSLN Christianity as an example of what people would convert to, because I'm writing from my perspective, with my hopes, but supposing there was something better, whatever aspires to being the actual truth probably will want to approach converts the same way I do here, or similarly.

The Actual Truth is Hard to Believe

The actual truth, we could say, is the set of beliefs that actually get us to do what needs to get done and bears witness to reality. (It is non-pathological.) It will bring about the best possible world, if we all believe it, because it's actually true, and thus can guide us to true well-being, in a way that belief-sets that are not actually true cannot. The actual truth always unites, because it takes into account all the important aspects of reality. It is not the truth that a partisan would believe, who didn't care about anybody outside his or her party. It is the belief-set that acknowledges all valid human values, and if it must invalidate any values, it does so validly. It is a judge that all can respect, and by respecting its inherent legitimacy, find that even its painful or challenging judgments are just and satisfying.

However, as desirable as the actual truth might sound, it's hard to believe. It's conceivable that that's because there is no actual truth, and it could be difficult to show that the actual truth is true, if it does exist. But even if that difficulty can be surmounted, it may still be hard to believe the actual truth, for social reasons. It is the case that it is far more likely for people to believe approximations of the actual truth, different ones, and form communities around those approximations, which then may be in conflict with other communities with their approximations. Within each partisan community, it is easy to believe the one truth shared within it, without considering outsiders' points of view. From this it is possible to go to physical or cultural war, exhausting people. One solution to the conflict that ensues is to stop caring about the truth. That way people can all think the same way, by assenting to yet another approximation of the actual truth, one of compromise. Either by "siloing" in attractive tribal approximations, or constructing a popular consensus approximation, people do not seek the actual truth.

There is the actual truth, which is right and true because it is what is actual truth, valuable like a star by which we can travel for millions of years, and then there are smaller truths, which seem far more important to us because the fit around us on earth, where we live the lives that we think are so important. We might say that we urgently need certain small truths to survive. Some of them may be necessary to even consider traveling by starlight. Maybe this is true. It is possible that there are small truths which can only be known if we seek the actual truth. Perhaps ones which can only be known if we find the actual truth.

So, difficult as seeking the actual truth is, it is a desirable and necessary thing. It does not deserve to be unpopular.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Fiducialist Epistemology

In fiducialism, it is important for us to trust more and more. A reason that could be given for this (which is at least basically stated in this booklet) is that personal being itself is trust. Personal beings are persons experiencing, and all personal experience is a trusting of reality. It could be said that all that exists are personal beings experiencing, which is trust, and thus that all that exists is trust. I wouldn't tie being (the act of being, existence) down to one definition too readily, but we could say that at least from one angle, being is trust.

If we accept this idea, then in order to be, trust is always what comes first, and we only restrict trust in order to keep from being betrayed. In that case, to the extent that we have a choice, we should believe everything, unless there is a reason not to (a defeater). Believing a proposition is a form of trusting it, so all propositions should be believed by default. Defeaters, from a fiducialist point of view, are things which inhibit trust. Trust can be inhibited by betrayal, dulling, quenching, or "easing", or perhaps other mechanisms. The rule could be "don't believe things that lead to betrayal, dulling, quenching, or 'easing', or other inhibitors of trust." Also, don't believe things that inhibit other people's trust, even if they are a form of you trusting, since their trust matters as well.

This could be (at least the beginnings of) a basic fiducialist epistemology. Actually applying this theory would take more thought than is given here, but at least we can see this as biasing us toward trusting, in our practical epistemology.

Descriptive and Practical Epistemology

What is epistemology? How we know things? Well, what do we know? I know that I exist and that there is something that is not me, and I know what that not-me looks like, sounds like, etc. -- sense perception -- as well as what I perceive of it noetically. I am a subject experiencing the moment. I don't really know what lies outside the moment, and I can be led to doubt the existence of what is outside myself and the moment.

But I know that I know these things. I'm confident of it.

Everything else, I'm not confident of. But I still believe things I'm not 100% sure of. I have learned that it is better for me to do that.

For the things that we know we know, we have a solid example of knowledge, and then we can do descriptive epistemology to describe the knowing of the things, and learn something about knowledge.

For the things that we want to figure out whether to believe, we need to do practical epistemology. This shows us how to act and trust, in the absence of perfect knowledge.

There should be some connection between descriptive and practical epistemology.

--

Interestingly enough, I am seemingly very confident that I can at least begin to know things. I can definitely try to. This is part of descriptive epistemology's domain. For it to even make sense to doubt something, some things have to be true. I know that I can try to pursue practical epistemology, and some things have to be true for that to be possible. These can also be added to descriptive epistemology's domain. Maybe other things can. So I may try to put more thought into figuring out the boundary between epistemic and practical epistemology.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Tying Shoes

Is it possible to overcome a sinful habit or negative psychological tendency? (The two can be hard to tell apart sometimes.) The question might seem dangerous. What if you think you have, but you haven't? Are humans capable of perfection?

I think, sometimes, and in a limited sense, we are. Most adults are really, really good at tying their shoes (at least in America, or I would assume any other country where shoes with shoelaces are common). They consistently tie their shoes day after day without messing up. It really isn't a very interesting subject, and they hardly mention it. True, it's possible that on some particular day, they might not tie their shoes quite right. They aren't quite perfect. But they approach perfection so closely that for most purposes, they are perfect. This situation does not obtain for children when they are young enough, though. But eventually they learn how to be for-most-practical-purposes-perfect shoelace-tiers. And adults who really know how to tie their own shoes are generally the ones who teach those children the basics.

It's not wise to think you're 100% safe from temptation. But it is okay to be unconscious of whether you're sinful much of the time, and at some point in your life, perhaps, to be free enough from sin that the subject need concern you no more than tying your shoes.

Unconsciousness helps you in both shoe-tying and overcoming sin. If your sins are small, and are infrequent enough, your thoughts and care are better directed toward areas that are more at play. And if you think really hard about some habitual action, if you are self-conscious in performing it, you often are more likely to mess it up, or to get so stressed out you mess up other things. Being able to not be interested in yourself, either as a good or a bad person, is a good thing, and getting into a mindless habit of doing the right thing and not doing the wrong thing is a way to achieve that, in part. You only need to pay attention to yourself when you need to change something. Otherwise you are free to not think about yourself.

(It's good at this point to consider if your thoughts and feelings of guilt perhaps go beyond their functions of truth and motivation and are becoming pathological.)

I haven't helped a child learn how to tie shoes, but I can imagine that you sort of move their hands the way they should move and maybe try to explain what to do, and then encourage them as they keep trying. If they ask for help, help them, but still expect them to do the work themselves, because they have to do it. As a parent, you want them to tie their shoes, without them despairing of the task. So you don't want to shut them down in their shoe-tying (by being harsh, for instance), but you also want to make sure they learn. Perhaps you can teach yourself, or someone else, to not sin in a similar way.

Maybe this is a criterion for helping others overcome their sinful habits: If there's a sin that is as uninteresting to you as shoe-tying, and when you see it in someone in an uninteresting way, the way you see the kind of facts nobody argues about, and you can do so respectfully, then you can help. Jesus says that those without beams in their eyes can take specks out of others' eyes (Matthew 7:5). Maybe you really don't have a beam and you really can help with a speck.

God is our father and will help us learn how to tie our shoes. We can pray and expect help from him (the way children expect help when they ask for it). Like a parent, he leaves us to our own devices sometimes so that we can learn things for ourselves.

God can simply fill us with his spirit, so that we do not sin. This is probably the most effective way for us to overcome our sinful habits. But this does not happen to all of us right now. Arguably, if God wanted to end all sin right now, he could, by filling us all with the Holy Spirit. But he doesn't. I assume, because the real point of existence is our own response to him, not what he puts into us. So we go many years without being filled with the Spirit, and we still have to love God anyway, and try, difficult or impossible as it is, to overcome our sinful habits.

--

Is tying the shoes the point (is overcoming sinful / unhealthy habits the point), or is loving God the point? We want children to get over obnoxious habits, ones which would anger us if adults persisted in them. Our adult children need to not have them anymore. The situation needs to be like shoe-tying. Sinful attitudes, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, etc. are violations of legitimacy, that is, God himself and they really matter in themselves.

But suppose a parent had a child-teaching robot that cost $20,000, which would teach their children all the skills they needed, far more efficiently than by the old method where the children would ask for help from the parent. Would the children love the parent? Imagine a child crying out as they struggle to learn a serious lesson (maybe something that will look as trivial as shoe-tying in just a few years -- or maybe something the memory of which will always have some weight). A child and a parent can really grow close during such cryings-out, and comfortings. So would it be wise to buy that very-effective child-teaching robot? Would you buy it, if you were a parent? In our society, you might. But if you were counter-cultural, you might not.

I am a bit unsure what to say of such analogs to child-teaching robots as psychotherapy, meditation, economic prosperity, secular education, and so on. God did pay a generous "$20,000" for each of those things -- God who can then be distant to us, a name on a check. I certainly don't want to say that people should never trust those kinds of things. I do myself (for whatever that's worth), to some extent. But it would be sad if we never really grew close to God, for all that our lives were blessed.

This closeness with God could come through a crying-out to help us overcome a sinful habit. In our culture, where sin is often not talked about, we cry out to God for anything but that. We go long years crying out and not getting useful and desirable maturity. We wish we were not plagued by psychological ill-health. And when the ill-health is finally alleviated, we find it easy (or easier) to not act out -- for us to set aside our sinful habits. God can be close to us as we wait through those long years -- or, he can not be, or can not be to as great an extent as he would have if we were open to that or conscious of that.

There's an analog to the story of Job, an alternative where Job, instead of realizing he wants to meet God after everything is taken away from him, begins the story by wanting to meet God, and then God takes everything away, and then Job really is motivated to demand God's presence. Would you want to live that story? Again, in our society, you might not, but if you were counter-cultural, you might.

Pathological Thoughts and Emotions; Seeing the Truth

Epistemic status: provisional. Practical suggestions somewhat tested.

Two big functions of emotions: 1. motivation to do something that needs to be done, 2. bearing witness to truth. There may be other functions, but these two stand out to me right now.

If an emotion is neither practical nor truthful, it may be pathological. For instance, perhaps you feel pain over some past event (a trauma or a death). A certain amount of pain motivates you (to get out of a relationship or to seek new relationships, for instance). A certain amount bears witness to the truth -- you really were wronged, or someone who you know was really valuable is no longer with you. But beyond that, the pain is pathological.

How can you tell when a negative (or positive) emotion has crossed from truthful into pathological? One possible criterion is: does it keep you from doing what is necessary, in parts of your life more, or less, related to the emotion? Another is: does it keep you from intellectually or emotionally bearing witness to the truth? It may be possible to have a vivid pathological emotion toward a reality, which prevents you from having the one that bears witness to the truth. For instance, to be sentimental over a person rather than respectful, or triggered rather than receptive. Or, a pathological emotion can keep you from having the intellectual bearing-of-witness to a truth, perhaps in a different part of life. Truth is much bigger than just one truth. Given the complexity of truth, it may be hard to determine that a given emotion is not at all pathological, but you can more easily tell when it has definitely become significantly pathological.

There are far too many truths to bear witness to each of them, but the overall truth may be known, of all of reality, or sometimes of a society, life in general, or a person; and if a society never bears witness to a particular truth, that truth will be ignored, possibly preventing something of practical value to humans. Some truths are distant and we can have little responsibility for them, while others are things we see all the time, or have seen recently.

An emotion can fulfill one or both of the functions of motivation and truth in the area where it directly applies, but also interfere with a necessary action or bearing-of-witness to truth in another area, and thus be pathological.

--

Given what is written above, thoughts are in much the same situation as emotions. Thoughts can: 1. motivate necessary action; 2. bear witness to a truth. And there may be other functions that don't immediately come to my mind. Otherwise, thoughts are pathological. And one way to identify a pathological as opposed to truthful thought is one that interferes with motivating necessary actions, or which interferes with bearing witness to another truth. Like with emotions, it's hard to be sure a thought is not distracting from all other truths which might be more necessary to contemplate than it, but sometimes it's not so hard to identify a thought that keeps you from thinking another specific truth that is more necessary. A thought can fulfill legitimate functions but be pathological for interfering with the action or bearing-of-witness in other areas.

--

It may be more often useful to think in terms of "what practical steps or overall truths, or relevant particular truths, am I missing?" rather than "which of my thoughts and emotions are pathological?" If you are more successful with the first issue, the second is less relevant.

You can't get the overall truth of a formulaless being (such as a human being or God) by no matter how extensive a dissection. It can be helpful to meditate on people's qualities, but not necessary to figure out what makes them tick, in order to get their overall truth. In fact, being overly concerned with the mechanism risks getting lost in the poetry of something rather than its reality.

--

This all could be seen as a kind of therapy, and pursuing it can have a therapeutic effect. But the drive to therapy itself can be a pathological thought pattern (an obsession over health and well-being). So it is good to focus on truth and usefulness, more so than therapy, even if the outcome is therapeutic. (The therapeutic could be seen as a form of what is useful.)

Thinking and feeling (as well as sense perception) can be part of "seeing". Seeing a thing to see its truth is different than seeing it for the sake of personal self-interest, usefulness, place within some kind of lawyerly case, or enjoyment. The seeing itself is different.

Mindfulness has something to do with seeing the truth of something, but isn't necessarily the same. Mindfulness may or may not be pursued simply to see the truth of things, and I'm not sure from my limited knowledge of it whether mindfulness has as broad a scope as seeing the truth of something.

Literary poems (by one definition) use words to try to create an intuitive whole, and can bring up just about anything in the process. Seeing the truth of something can work the same way. A literary poem may try to accomplish something, have an agenda, but seeing the truth does not, beyond seeing the truth. A literary poem uses words, but seeing the truth of something doesn't have to. What is important is, in one whole, to think, feel, experience, but also intuit, in order to experience the truth of something. This can be seen as really listening to a simantic word, on the "face" or "side" of it that you have experienced.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Process of Maturity, Salted With Fire

Mark 9:

47 If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out. It is better for you to enter into God's Kingdom with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire, 48 'where their worm doesn't die, and the fire is not quenched.' 49 For everyone will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, with what will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Sometimes it can seem like the world is mostly divided between flippant, irresponsible jerks who seek conflict, and overly-responsible, sad, hopeless people who do not. One can see why society would prefer the latter over the former, and it's natural for people to drift into the latter category over time. We get beaten down by life, broken, and come out, not with new wisdom, but with the inability to cause trouble. But this can be taken for wisdom.

Liberalism is about taking what's messed up about people and using it to disable them so that they can live in harmony. It assumes that you can't have the really good thing, not reliably, so you have to get people using a messed-up substitute that's more effective in the here-and-now. A liberal thing to do would be to break people's youthful pride (and their self-respect, their hope, their true personhood) through some kind of process of exposing them to things that overwhelm them and break them down. I don't think anyone consciously designed the process of maturity in our culture, but it almost seems like the kind of thing designed by a liberal theorist to keep people effectively docile (no matter how sad they might get over the status quo). Let people go off into the wilderness without education and support, and let them lose their taste for seeing things for themselves. Then they can be nominally free, free to speak, write, assemble, etc., while "magically" not using that freedom to attack the state or set up a rival to the secular order.

Yet, Jesus sees value in "fiery salt" keeping us living at peace with each other, and Jesus does not seem like the kind of person who would want us to end up mutilated or debased for the sake of peace. Salt is a good thing in Jesus' point of view. So can we distinguish between Jesus' salt and our culture's alternative to salt?

One possible difference is courage. Neither flippant, irresponsible jerks nor overly-responsible, sad, hopeless people have courage in a defining way. In general, we know things through their fruits. So what is the fruit, in you and your life, of the "brokenness-wisdom" (or the thing that could be mistaken as brokenness-wisdom)?

It's possible that what makes something salt is how things turns out. If you are broken but then go on to be fertile, then the fire became salt. (For the sake of the metaphor, salt is something that preserves and flavors.)

The secular order is not all bad, and Jesus didn't come to set up a kingdom on earth to replace it. The fear of religiosity that political people had in setting up liberalism does not have to be borne out. Religion does not have to be the cause or excuse of war, even ardent religion that puts God ahead of political, cultural, human-based things-to-be-trusted or objects of allegiance. So there doesn't have to be an overt conflict between Christianity and a this-worldly social and political order, and to an extent, there can't be for Christianity to really be true to the prince of peace. Perhaps Christianity can only be allowed to be supreme in the unofficial, non-established culture when it learns to not use any kind of coercion to establish itself, leaving coercion in the hands of the secular government.

But having said all that, the secular culture that liberalism helped set up does mire some people in hopelessness and discouragement, and turns people away from loving God. There is work to be done to combat the damage done to us either by liberalism, or some less-intentional, evolved culture of maturing. Culture is not just what we say, but also how we live and what happens to us. We each have a part to play in how maturing works in our society, and if maturing worked better, we would be better able to seek God, and better able to make society better.

How can we help people mature? It's good to respect younger people. Also, it is good to not tempt young people, but rather to anti-tempt them.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Belief Different From Trusting

Adopting the official intellectual beliefs that God loves you, is trustworthy, and will take care of you does not necessarily mean that you trust him.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Guilt is When We Look Bad

Guilt and shame are when we look bad to ourselves, when we feel like (see ourselves such that) we deserve to look bad to ourselves. Maybe God (truth and legitimacy) agrees, maybe not. But God loves us more than we do, or than other people love us. You can ask yourself, when guilty or ashamed "Does God care about this? Or is this my idea, or other people's idea?" Sometimes you do the wrong thing, and it really is wrong. But what do you think God thinks of it?

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Book Review: X-Risk by Thomas Moynihan

22 April 2021: see this addendum.

See also this review's preview and postview.

I would characterize X-Risk, by Thomas Moynihan, as a kind of sermon exhorting people to take X-risk more seriously, perhaps becoming "longtermist" effective altruists. He "preaches" by talking about the history of ideas that led up to our realizing that (as it appears), we are completely responsible for maintaining all that is good, for even the possibility of having the perception of anything as good, having any kind of concept of goodness. Thus, we must do whatever is in our power to avoid X-risks. X-risks are "existential risks", which threaten the existence of human civilization or even the human species itself.

I am not competent to judge history writing (in terms of being able to be critical of his use of evidence). I did find the book to be fairly well-written. Moynihan obviously gets some enjoyment out of writing (for instance, his humorous section titles and the panache with which he says things like "not the sense of an ending, but the ending of sense").

As to the history, I did appreciate learning about concepts like plenitude, seeing the non-biblical but non-modern worldview that was replaced by modern science. Also it was interesting to see how far back people were seeing trends develop that we're still in the grips of. (For instance, seeing humans as parasites on their machines, and machines as parasites on us.) Things that a few people saw generations ago, but which generally were not discussed and were not decisively addressed, as though people just forgot about them in the course of living their lives.

I do agree with Moynihan that the future is something worth investing in, and I generally agree that avoiding various kinds of existential risks is a good thing. In order to explain why I give this book three stars instead of four, I mention that I disagree with Moynihan's worldview. I don't think that expansionary values are obviously better than those of rest, nor that humans (individually or collectively) are in any (implicit or explicit) sense obligated to try to live forever, unless there is something outside human judgment that compels us to keep living even if we don't feel like doing the work to make it happen. I do think that Moynihan's point of view does well as an atheistic rationale for motivating work -- at least for many atheists. But not everyone is an atheist.

If Moynihan's basic project is to motivate people to pursue a vision of superlative human well-being in the far future, requiring that they oppose X-risks, I think that human well-being is better described by (a certain kind of) theism, valuing quality of people more than quality of people's lives, and that theistic metaethics / motivational structure stands a chance of motivating the average person (and even many of the not-so-average people who are probably Moynihan's intended audience, or adjacent to it) to care about superlativeness, motivating action, while atheistic metaethics / motivational structure does not. Moynihan may wish to arouse a sense of value by describing some sort of superlative future we could someday bring about, and a sense of "iniquity" if we don't, but I find that I don't really care about what he says, and that I don't have to. But this is not as true if I am concerned what an active and worthy God thinks, or one who will respond negatively to me if I don't care.

I think Moynihan may hope for a future atheistic moral realism to present itself, but absent that hoped-for realism, what I see left is moral anti-realism that's vulnerable to us hacking our own biology to rewrite our moral intuitions to something cheap and convenient, so that we can maximize some variable we choose (likely for its maximizability), on the one hand; or, on the other, (a certain kind of) theistic realism which holds a higher view of human nature (higher than being wireheads, certainly) as being necessary for human survival on some level, and thus something that we must include in what we try to maximize. (I'm also aware of one attempted atheistic moral realism, that of Sharon Hewitt Rawlette, which (I think) if adopted implies that we should wirehead to produce the positive normative qualia she favors.)

Perhaps Moynihan hopes that the hoped-for atheistic moral realism never needs to be brought to light -- even if one doesn't exist, we can hope that there will be one, and the hope will get us to do whatever Moynihan thinks is good. But people might just say "Well, I want to do what I want to do, so let me know if there's ever a moral realism that actually constrains that". Certainly some people may say that theistic moral realism is tangible and present (if someone can offer one), and prefer that, and to the extent that that conflicts with Moynihan's axiology, then it might come to fruition in contradiction to him.

It occurs to me that Moynihan may not really care what the majority of people think, but only those who might form the elite that can do anything about X-risk. Perhaps most people will only be consumers in the future, patients but not agents. Will they still be voters? If they are disenfranchised, then there is some risk that the elite will lord it over the non-elite, a risk factor for the abuse or annihilation of the non-elite. The average person should have some power, and thus needs to understand why X-risk matters. Therefore it is best if we have an ideology that motivates the greatest number of people to avoid X-risk.

Thinking pragmatically, perhaps it is best to offer atheistic anti-X-risk ideologies to those atheists who can (or will only) be motivated by them, and theistic ideologies to those who can (or will only) be motivated by those. Perhaps there need to be ideologies based in each of the major religions.

For more detail on what I think about this book, see these notes below, which I took while reading. (They also get into my own intellectual project.)

--

X-Risk notes

[Quotes from Moynihan set off by --.]

p. 11 --And the more we accept responsibility for this truth, the more we are compelled to do what is prudent and righteous within the world of the present.--

A way I might put this is "good futurism makes for a good present". I agree broadly with Moynihan that if we are to have a future, it has to come from a better sense of history, of having a project as civilization.

[I would suggest the project of seeking kinship with God, being set apart to God (holiness). My idea of God being this.]

p. 22 --There is untold scope for self-improvement, self-exploration, and self-expression across such time frames, in ethics as much as politics, in the arts as much as in the sciences. Our current capacities to do good, to pursue justice, to comprehend nature, and to produce beauty may be just a vanishing fraction of our full potential.--

Moynihan is painting a picture of high expected value, if we should manage to not kill ourselves off. In what way could we really have "untold scope for self-improvement, self-exploration, and self-expression, across such time frames, in ethics as much as politics, in the arts as much as in the sciences."? I can see that we could pile up works of art and scientific discoveries, but why would we care? And ethics and politics are both things that it seems like you would just want to get right, from which point they could only get worse, like how you cease to be able to climb higher than the peak of a mountain, and can only go down if you want to change your location.

Could we care about piles and piles of art and science? Maybe if we modified ourselves to care. At some point, there's something silly about that. We are trying to create meaning (one meaning of "meaning", importance to us) apart from meaning (the other meaning of "meaning", communication from the ultimate). We avoid reality (that communication) in favor of wealth. Moynihan talks about our great responsibility. But the future he looks forward to is one where most or all people would lose touch with reality, and instead live in dream worlds engineered to be superlative by the standards humans naturally fall for. If there is a God, and that is a real possibility, we should be concerned about hearing from him (God). He is the being in which ultimate reality has its concrete ontological instantiation. Therefore a vision of human-engineered superlativeness is risky, if we do not also listen for God.

[Re: silly self-modification. Progress Quest is a game where you leave your computer running and your character keeps on leveling up without you doing anything. Before Progress Quest, it used to be that playing, putting in attention, got you a level up. And a level up felt like an accomplishment. So surely, leveling up is what makes the game good? Similarly, getting cool items that make you more effective makes a game good. So Progress Quest just gives you the cool items and levels, more and more. So on a certain level, we are playing Progress Quest with ourselves when we engineer ourselves to like more and more art and science and whatever, the things which are civilization will provide in abundance. We choose to play an easy game, setting ourselves up to be rewarded without having to go through the inner motions that accompany accomplishment, which are, to recognize reality and rise up to meet it. The engineers and the engineered alike play an easy game in their respective pursuits. The inner motions are a personal reality. The engineers who make people such that they fit into a world of easy rewards knowingly avoid the personal reality, even if the engineered don't know what they're missing. One way around this, if we absolutely have to engineer reality, is to engineer a reality of frightfulness and the desert experience for people to go through, not knowing it's only a simulation -- but we can make it a different kind of frightful and a different kind of dry, so that it does not have the evil consequences that life can have on people as personal beings, in our world where we can have a kind of raw, chaotic and even evil frightfulness and dryness.]

p. 43 --This brings us neatly to the core claim of this book: that the discovery of human extinction may well prove to have been the very centrepiece of that unfolding and unfinished drama that we call modernity. Because, in discovering our own extinction, we realised that we must think ever better because, should we not, then we may never think again.--

Moynihan may get into this later (a page later, he mentions a future chapter on "extinction is the inevitable culmination of technological modernity"), but it occurs to me to point out that the insecurity that makes humans think harder makes them think hard enough to come up with anthropogenic X-risks. [When we think harder, for instance come up with basic research, we feed uncontrolled or insufficiently-controlled competitive dynamics which are why we have anthropogenic X-risks. You have to have all of technology or none of it, more or less.]

And anthropogenic X-risks are the most urgent. We could have had a history where we solved our social problems, and thus didn't have Molochian dynamics pushing us. (Apparently Moloch was not as strong in the pre-Enlightenment days, since we didn't have to think as hard, lulled by theistic and perennialistic assumptions.) At some point in the future, we could have devised the technology to ward off asteroids or survive supervolcanoes.

Which would be better, to spend 10,000 years overcoming Moloch through cultural change, and then turning our attention toward asteroids and the like, or our current course, where we figure out technology without adjusting human nature first? A lot depends on how much we really could accomplish through culture alone in adjusting human nature, and how strong culture can be in the face of warfare. [Warfare being able to conquer "nicer" civilizations, though they are superior in the sense of being more humane to themselves. So conquering cultures supplant humane ones, at least in principle.] Culture is enough of what makes a person who they are that it seems like maybe culture could create a society immune-enough from Moloch.

We could say that the Enlightenment was the moment when humanity really started going crazy with fear, and it seemed like we might drive ourselves to death in our unstable state. Whether this craziness was a necessary part of our development (the view that culture couldn't have tamed Moloch) or unnecessary, is an empirical question that we may not be able to answer. But if in some unexpected way, we find a way to make culture stronger than technology, we could prove that Moloch can be tamed by culture. And if we find a way to believe in God, we see that the Enlightenment was the moment where we ran away from our father, taking our inheritance with us, out on our own in the world, trying to make it without him. [Is it really a mark of maturity to reject your parents? Maybe we should see Enlightenment maturity as a somewhat sad thing. Even if atheism is correct, we have to live in the world we live in, and while the Enlightenment sense of maturity has its good points, and, on atheism, may simply be the truth, something that's always valuable, there's something sad about us, striving so hard to live.]

[Maybe a more defensible way to try to argue this point would be to say that theistic and perennialistic assumptions, or ones which might tend to go with them -- the overall sense that things work out in the end, the sense that things do not change, the sense that there is justice inherent in the universe and so we couldn't (as much) imagine abusing people and being abused, the sense that there really is a way things should be which we can expect of humans -- were things that we increasingly lost in the modern era. As we lost our old beliefs (our relationship with God), we entered a precarious world, where we used our freedom to try to maximize our wealth and power, and also increased our anxiety, a process (the maximizing and increasing) that is out of our control. The world always had some element of the "there is no God -- rejoice in your freedom (to do good and bad), and be afraid (of bad people or blind circumstance)", but it had the theistic and perennialistic (and other similar, I suppose) things as somewhat of a counterweight.]

pp. 94 - 95 --A key driver behind the philosophy of the Enlightenment was a growing realisation that moral values are questions of self-legislation. That is, we do not inherit them unquestioningly from divine fiat or the state of nature. We render them through our own -- fallible and revisable -- search for what is right. What, after all, is any 'decree' that is not the result of our own deliberation, except for an imposition of arbitrary -- and thus immoral -- force? The key idea of the Enlightenment was this: only that which has been given a justifying reason is to be considered as legitimate -- in belief as in action, in epistemology as in ethics, in science as in politics.

This master idea of the Age of Reason reached its culmination in Kant's mature philosophy of the 1780s and 1790s, where Kant realized that values are maxims by which we elect to bind ourselves and are, accordingly, always dependent upon this ongoing election. Such values are not part of the furniture of the natural world -- they do not exist apart from our active upholding and championing of them. This entails that our values are entirely our own responsibility, and that we are accountable for everything we care about and cherish.--

But why should anyone care about the above paragraph enough to inconvenience themselves? Our culture has a kind of nihilist strain to it. Is that less valid than Moynihan's urgings that we be responsible? It's the product of his reason, the way he deliberates -- he feels a certain way and therefore acts on it. Maybe he will make a case for moral realism in this book (such as Rawlette's). But if he doesn't, and to the extent that that's a controversial topic, people will take the self-legislating option to be anti-realists, and then, if they do not happen to feel like saving the world, they won't.

Moynihan strikes me as being like a preacher. He uses turns of phrase (like his "instead of the sense of an ending, the ending of sense" device) like a preacher would. Moral anti-realism breeds preaching. The preacher has to use the force of rhetoric to move his or her audience, to create the inner urges that cause them to have the same moral values as the preacher. If not, something terrible will happen -- from the preacher's perspective.

[Part of the notes starting here seemed about equally relevant to Rawlette's project, so I split them off for easier linking. See here.]

--

It's possible to want humans to care about getting whatever it is they care about. But, do the things we care about really matter? Is it that when we care, we are of the opinion that something really matters? I think so. But then, does it really matter, in fact? Is there any way a thing can inherently matter, in an absolute way, apart from human judgment?

--

"Teaching children to care" [I have a book by that title, by Ruth Sidney Charney, which I intend to read someday] -- instilling reason in people who might not naturally have it -- are these educative acts justifiable? If we know the value of reason, then they may be. If by reason we see that reason is valid and implies certain things, we can teach it and its deliverances to those who are irrational or nihilistic, using means other than reason (since irrational and nihilistic people aren't interested in reason). Unfortunately, this sounds like it is justified or even obligatory to use relatively impolite means of inculcating reason and caring, by contrast with the relative politeness of reason. So there is additional nuance needed, to not traumatize people as we teach them apart from reason.

--

Plenitude is a potestas clavium [term taken from Lev Shestov's Potestas Clavium], [in the limited sense of] a reason which is taken to save. If it is a comforting illusion, then it does so based on the prestige of reason. People who trust in reason, at least to some extent, are the ones who need comforting reasons, as opposed to just not caring about, for instance, the cold sterility of space and the utter contingency of human evolution and culture.

--

[A gap of a month or two between writing the above and what follows.]

p. 349

[Whether he intends to or not,] Moynihan seems to offer a constitution for culture [to prevent cultural drift as X-risk], such that the thing that we most know to be true morally is to preserve moral agents, and if we follow this, we know what to do for the rest of our existence. (my addition:) This is the thing that we can all agree on as right, and so it may not be necessary to figure out something like moral realism vs. anti-realism. As long as there's the possibility of there being some kind of value, which we suppose can only be within the minds of humans or other sentient beings, then to preserve those minds would seem to be worth perhaps full commitment, something we could know firmly, producing an outpouring of effort.

I think maybe this meta-morality axiology ("moral agent survival necessary, all else serving this") is a "One True Axiology", a moral realism, although one that is somewhat open-ended. It would seem to be the default choice for atheists in selecting a constitution for human society.

["One True Axiology" comes from Lukas Gloor's sequence on moral anti-realism.]

But if value is only in our minds, is it real? Does value itself need to be treated with great reverence? Or could value be like a pile of old one dollar bills? -- trash, basically. What grounds value itself? That is, the value of the perception of value in human minds. Maybe, as anti-realists, we don't care about such things, and just want our desires fulfilled, with respect to value itself.

Is there a good reason for an atheist to not be a nihilist? Atheists might personally prefer not to be, but is that supported by reason? If not, then the meta-morality moral realism has an Achilles' heel.

[Meta-morality moral realism has its greatest force given an atheistic background. Theism can play the role of perennialism in blunting the meta-moral responsibility: keeping alive some kind of moral agents so that those agents can figure out what morality is someday. Assuming that atheism becomes an intellectual monoculture, it could produce both responsibility, like Moynihan's, among those who care, and nihilism, among those who don't care. Some people feel like caring no matter what, some people don't feel like caring, no matter what you try to get them to believe, but there are a lot of people in the middle, for whom a good moral realism might shift their perspective and make them care more. And given that (perhaps through genetic engineering) we will have the ability to choose how much people care, we will have to ask "should we care?" If there isn't really a solid reason why we should care, why, for instance, even the idea of value should matter, or the vocation of metamorality (keeping burning the torch of someday figuring out what morality really is) should matter, then what will we decide? And we may have the question come up for our culture as a whole over and over, once every few generations.]

[I suppose a caring atheist could engineer everyone to care meta-morally, because it fits the atheist's preferences. Note that this closes off one of the possible answers that a moral agent could come up to define what morality is -- that morality doesn't matter, or that it is moral to leave everyone to their own judgments about morality, even if that allows them to be nihilistic with respect to survival. By engineering desirable outcomes, you run the risk of closing yourself off to reality. Maybe the moral intuition to just let things happen and not control things, or to trust the universe, or even the lack of moral intuition, are all signals from some deeper reality. Is there a good reason why the urgent responsibility to preserve meta-moral ability is better than those? It seems like we need the fruits of meta-morality to really justify it. And who knows what morality is other than people more or less as they are now, with their various more or less natural moral intuitions? Similarly, a caring atheist with the ability to engineer people to care may feel like lopping off inconvenient aspects of human cognition while they're at it, like the capacity to believe in God. But maybe we are like antennae for hearing from God -- at least, many of us are.]

[Maybe more realistic (or graspable) by someone like me or Moynihan, is the more immediate situation where persuasion is not yet dominated by bioengineering, and people need to be roused not from stark, pure nihilism, but from a kind of low-key mix of nihilism and caring about what is present to them (rather than distant or future people), which seems like a plausible description of most well-adjusted people in our culture, both atheists and theists. How do you rouse those people to go beyond what is required into what would seem to them to be supererogatory before they grasp its necessity? That seemingly supererogatory thing being to care about X-risk.]

Another Achilles' heel would be, why do we have to care about reason? If we can arbitrarily disregard reason, then we can have whatever culture we want, for good or ill [this freedom allowing for cultural drift as X-risk]. I suppose any ideology is vulnerable to this. Is there a reason within atheistic meta-morality moral realism to compel people to be rational? [Maybe the struggle to survive does. But there are utopian reasons for us to forget that struggle.]

In MSLN, rationality is enforced by, if you're not looking for the truth, you might miss God, and if you throw away truth because you want to, you might be closing yourself off to God's voice, in danger of hardening and losing your personal salvation. It appears from the Bible that there is a punishment you will experience if by your self-closing to reality, you fail to fully grow up in God. So it is instrumentally rational for individual humans to be epistemically rational and thus more-expansively-instrumentally rational / altruistic. It's still possible to ignore this rationality-enforcement, but I think the warning reaches further into the pool of people who might need to hear it.

[MSLN is a set of natural theological arguments that I begin to propose. It has implications for motivation and meaning. Another, perhaps better, way to explain MSLN's position on reason is to say "If you ignore reason, you might not find God. If you have found God, you may need reason to be in tune with him." But I would add that there are practical limits on a person's ability to pursue reason, and that it is possible that in the search for more knowledge, the further application of reason, you neglect seeking to love and trust God, or fall into or fail to address some kind of already-known sin. Nevertheless, having a disposition that disregards reason (whatever your ability to exercise reason is) is dangerous, both for the non-believer and the believer.]

[People are rational in the sense of common sense, without help, but to say "I'm going to apply common sense consistently and rigorously" (which might be just what reason is) is something that is hard to do and generally not done, nor that all aspire to.]

--

Also, I could see a civilization deciding that value was very important, but that the finitude of civilization was very important, of inestimable value, of greater value than the continuance of it. (Why not locate value outside human psychology and thus its continuance?) This might be the [or a] anti-natalist way to counter the meta-morality moral realism.

--

Having a moral philosophy that is all about the survival of moral agents through time could lend itself to a Temporal Repugnant Conclusion: for every good civilization there is a civilization barely worth instantiating which lasts longer. [Maybe a better point to make would be that there's at least theoretically a tradeoff between the longevity of a civilization and its quality. So if we think "avoid X-risk at all costs" we might have to sacrifice something -- like conflict or struggle (to protect us from Moloch), or perhaps in some resource-saving way (austerity to save resources; or simplifying humans so that they are happy with less, at the expense of their capabilities).]

--

pp. 380 - 382

This section mentions that love and altruism come from nature, but they just blindly evolved. Why should we think that love and altruism are all that great? Why are they more meaningful than the tendency of water to drip from trees, or for species to go extinct? Why not say that extinction and fluid dynamics are of inestimable worth? Or say that nothing is of inestimable worth except what we feel like saying it is? [And so working hard to protect civilization isn't worth it if we don't feel like it's worth it.]

The MSLN answer is to say that worth itself (legitimacy) is what everything is made out of, and it is a person, about whom we can know some things. The things that truly would be of worth to it, are, and they are necessarily -- worth itself declares them worthy.

pp. 414 - 416

This section talks about (I think) turning humans into art- and game- -making and -consuming machines. In my personal life, I have been fortunate (or not) enough to have a lot of free time, and I have had my fill of art and games. I have been fortunate (or not) enough to be able to make art and games, and I have also had my fill of doing that. I need to pass time, and so I keep doing things. But I don't have a deep need to do things, I think from having had my fill. When I was younger, I could get into these things, but now I'm older. I think this might be considered maturity (although I don't think of it as true maturity). Why isn't this [having had my fill] maturity just as good as the maturity of "tiling the universe" with art and games, making super sure that we can do this for the maximum amount of time?

[On further reflection, I would say "I try to find, for instance, music, with which I might form some kind of connection and I begin to succeed sometimes, so maybe I haven't had my fill. But compared to my younger self, and on a deeper level, I have."]

Maybe in some objective sense, more is better, like in Total Utilitarianism. There's a total utilitarianism of artworks. But who really cares?

We might be made to care, for objective reasons (X artworks are good; the creative processes of making X artworks are good; so 10^100 artworks must be so much better), but why? And if we do make people into the kind of people who care about that thing our society was engineered to bring about, that's like making a video game where if you click "OK" on the dialogue box on the opening screen you win and get 148,297,237,923 points. We would have engineered ourselves to be easily pleased. We could have gotten that result cheaply, with some simple wireheading, without bothering with art. And, Repugnant Conclusion-fashion, we could generate even more "win states" if we go with the cheap version, even more (apparent) moral value.

[Once we start to engineer things (including humans), if we get good enough, we might as well wirehead, unless there's some reason why we wouldn't. We can engineer the definition of "win state", make anything seem like a win to humans that we want. Moynihan might say that the point of continuing civilization is so that someday we can figure out how values really work, and thus come up with that reason. As though there's something outside human engineering that ought to constrain human engineering. Is there an atheistic reason that's solid enough to prevent wireheading? Rawlette's moral realism isn't quite. (Maximizing qualia of "ought-to-be-ness" / minimizing qualia of "ought-not-to-be-ness" seems like something wireheading could accomplish, and would accomplish more cheaply even than an experience machine.)]

[Maybe another way to put all this is: 1. Is value human-judgment-dependent? 1. a. If yes, then we can engineer value itself and if we are trying to maximize some variable, we should define value so that it can be instantiated as cheaply and numerously as possible. 2. Is value human-judgment-independent? a. We need some kind of moral realism. Does Rawlette's work? No, it's as vulnerable to wireheading (generating positive normative qualia is potentially very cheap, and she recommends simple aggregation of value). b. Is there another atheistic moral realism that can avoid wireheading? c. Should we bite the bullet and wirehead? d. If neither b. or c. work, are we left with theistic moral realism?]

["Human-judgment-dependent" comes from Rawlette's "judgment-dependent". The impression I got from her book is that there is a clear distinction between moral realism and moral anti-realism. For her, moral realism is not judgment dependent, while moral anti-realism is. But then I read Gloor's sequence on moral anti-realism (as much as has been written as of end of 2020), and now I am not so sure there is a clear distinction, at least that Gloor's version isn't clearly distinct from realism. Maybe it's anti-realist to not be clearly anti-realist. Nevertheless, the question remains, in terms of the risk of wireheading, is Gloor's anti-realism effectively human-judgment-dependent or not? Can a person hack the outputs of "what is moral?" (as processed by his kind of anti-realism) by changing human biology? And not just in the sense that if all thinkers recognize X as valuable, X is effectively valuable, but in the sense of "what is moral?" in some sense ought to be tied to human judgments, and those judgments can then be bioengineered?]

[Biocultural change takes time. By leaving the meta-moral process running longer, it's more vulnerable to drift or engineering. So it might be good to bring it to a close sooner rather than later, choose a motivational structure / find the true moral realism.]

We might want some analogue to MSLN's population ethics (the rest view), for the value of artworks.

One thing that we lose out on with an easier and nicer, even if creative [make lots of games and art] rather than narcotic [wireheading], future, is the capabilities of human beings, the moral capabilities. Humans are currently capable of undergoing childbirth to bring humans into the world, going mad alone for the sake of the truth or art, of living lives of stress and fear to resist corrupted social orders, or of willingly suffering, experiencing psychological defeat, and dying, for the sake of other people. The altruism of the cleaned-up future, whether the other for which we live altruistically is human, intellectual, or aesthetic, is pale in comparison to these things.

At the end of the movie, you can ask "was it a happy ending because the heroine got what she wanted, or because she was good, herself?" That's the question I asked myself after watching the great X-risk movie Testament, from 1983. I thought the movie had a happy ending [in a sense] in that the protagonist acquitted herself well, although by conventional standards suffering through a hopeless situation (humanity dying out from fallout after a nuclear war). [This "acquitting ourselves well" requires that we really be put to the test. Utopia tends to prevent this.] We may be unable to resist lives of ease and pleasantness, but at least we could recognize that we have lost what was truly greatest in humanity, in our idyllic future.

It's true that the cruelty and brutality of the cross is something that we shy away from, and to an extent, rightly so. But I think we could have a society that is in some sense "millennial", if not heavenly, where people themselves genuinely learn to value what is good, learning lessons that are bitter, but only bitter if necessary for learning, and for which they get adequate support. (This world may be what is depicted in the second part of "The Future of Beauty".)

[This millennial world one in which people themselves are brought up to some kind of standard, where value resides in people themselves.]

["Millennial" comes from the Millennium in Christian eschatology, a time where people are taught morally / spiritually so that they can be fit for heaven.]

[I think Moynihan might reply to this whole section on art and game making / consuming, something like: "If you find yourself teleported in time to the far future where everything is art and games, you certainly don't have to participate", although he could take what he said on p. 416 as the opposite of that:

--Instead of creating 'dead semblances of what has passed away' or 'simulations' of the currently flawed universe, art could be the genuine restitution of all the wasted opportunities that past extinctions and deaths represent. In this, intelligence will finally have justified its existence -- and thus fulfilled its vocation -- by reversing and recompensing all the countless silent sufferings and unjust extinctions that provided its past and prologue. To achieve this future is to justify its past. The implication here is that the only way to fully escape the iniquity of extinction, in this irrational universe, is for reason to rectify all the past perishings that made us possible.--
I would have to make art whether I wanted to or not, to help rectify past perishings. Since this is taken to be a moral imperative, how strictly would it be enforced? And if it is the moral imperative (if it is the deliverance of the conclusion of the meta-morality process), then how can we allow people to rebel against it, by not being wholly adapted to bringing it about? How can we be allowed to see things any other way? Moral realisms always threaten a certain amount of human freedom, but I personally would not want my freedom taken away for the sake of art and games.]

[I used to hang out with Nietzsche fans, and have read a few of his books. The Übermensch teaching I found to be kind of odd. Supposedly, once God has died, we create our own values. I've tried to think what that would mean, and would guess that values are simply opinions that X is good, maybe ones that we share with other people. So, to create our own values, we... plug in different things for X? That doesn't sound markedly better than herd morality to me. Or at least, not as revolutionary, or universe-expanding. Maybe not even new at all -- each of us already selects different things to consider good, selections which we don't share with people around us -- perhaps ones which no one else has ever valued before. So we are already übermenschen? (Maybe I don't understand Nietzsche on this point.) I think of this when I read transhumanist or posthumanist superlatives about the great things we can engineer for ourselves in the future. Art is basically just art, games are basically just games, sex is basically just sex, the feeling of well-being is basically just the feeling of well-being. You can make it more refined, but not make something really new. Experience with experience leads to diminishing returns on all experience seeming that amazing. (And if my jaded view means I need to be re-engineered, then we might as well re-engineer people to appreciate the cheapest good-feeling lives possible, and we would have closed off some important meta-moral possibilities by no longer paying attention to whatever in me seemed to need something better than super-art, super-games, and super-sex in order to not be jaded.) I guess my feeling is, why should I invest in Moynihan's cause, running so hard and putting my shoulder to the plow, if the outcome is not that much better than what we have now? It seems nice for people to keep living into the far future, but I'm not that inspired, and lack of political will is what happens when everyone thinks something (that's really important) is nice, but don't find themselves inspired to do anything for its sake.]

[One Nietzsche teaching I took to a lot more was the one about (paraphrase) one moment of true reality and joy making the rest of life, no matter how miserable, worth living. I think for some people, when stressed by terrible experiences, this is tested, and the sources of joy and reality come out even stronger. Life is affirmed even more. But for other people, when the terrible times come, they come to hate stress so much that they only want things to be happy, safe, and fun. And this comes at the risk of them perhaps hating life, or turning away from reality. But I'm not sure I can blame someone for being traumatized by life, thus turning away from it; instead of being challenged by it, thus drawn to trust it. I'm not sure what the proper treatment is for that condition (something favoring both health and strength, both mental and spiritual). But maybe someday I will know better what to prescribe for it.]

--

p. 424

--Keeping history going means acknowledging our ability, and thus our duty, to learn from our mistakes. It means acknowledging our obligation to continue and to survive, to avoid the precipice of X-risk, in order to find out where we might be taking ourselves. This remains our duty even when the world of tomorrow appears a progressively worse place; it remains regardless of immediate disillusionment, weariness, or resignation, because, as long as ethical beings are still around, there is at least potential for the world to become astronomically better.--

If we keep going in our world-birthing process despite how bad things may seem in the short term ["short term" relatively speaking -- a short term that could consume a whole human lifetime], we may have to suffer and die for what we believe in. Altruism can be bitter. There's the story of the mugger who offers a nonzero chance of giving some arbitrarily astronomical reward to someone in exchange for a measly $100. The mugger could have offered an even higher reward to someone in exchange for them experiencing a lifetime of loneliness, suffering, and madness. A rational altruist would have to take the offer, in both cases, because they knew if they won (and the expected value would justify this rationally), they would distribute the reward to benefit all living beings. There's a kind of self-giving, to reason and to morality, as we must reach for what's best, a kind of excellence here, which is both horrifying and transcendent of all that is cheap. But it seems like altruists (or at least, the ones that would follow Moynihan's basic path) are trying to make a world that can't elicit that anymore. They seem to be trying to end their own kind, by fixing the world.

Book Review Postview: X-Risk by Thomas Moynihan

Now I'm done reviewing X-Risk by Thomas Moynihan. Here are some answers to the thoughts I had when I was previewing this process.

Here are a few things I'm interested in from this book: 1) general intellectual history; 2) the history of existential risk; 3) a chance to meditate on history / civilizational development in general; 3) a chance to meditate on existential risk; 4) engage with Moynihan's "seeing existential risk is a sign that we are mature" idea.

I think I got all of those.

I don't think I'll try to read it twice, unless it seems like a good idea once I get through it once. It's a history book and not a philosophy book.

I only read it once, as predicted. Actually, I found the philosophy (and futurist) parts of it the most interesting and useful to me, page for page. But that's not unusual, because I am more interested and educated in those subjects than in history. Futurism is somewhere between philosophy and history (a kind of speculative history). So it talks about change and events, but is imaginary, rather than based in pre-existing evidence. The history I found myself reading through as "material". I think that probably the history was where Moynihan was "earning his keep", and so he had to provide more details, ones which perhaps to a historian evaluating Moynihan's story would have seemed necessary, but which were a bit more than necessary to support Moynihan's futurism. That's not a criticism of Moynihan, but a report of my experience.

Perhaps in an ideal universe, I would have found a more philosophy- or futurism-oriented book to work against, rather than a history book with philosophy and futurism in it. Maybe in the future... But if Moynihan did a good job representing the beliefs of a large-enough segment of the intellectual culture (for instance, certain of the transhumanists or other atheistic futurists), then I think his book would have to have been a valuable one for me to read. It may be just as well that I got a version of transhumanism and longtermism intended for a more-general audience, with history, futurism, and philosophy related to each other in one book.

I recently read Unbelievers by Alec Ryrie, and it also struck me as being a history book that was trying to do philosophy (or in Ryrie's case, perhaps some psychology). Both books did some preaching, subtly or not. History is an art form, I guess.

Book Review Postview: The Feeling of Value by Sharon Hewitt Rawlette

What was it like having read and reviewed The Feeling of Value by Sharon Hewitt Rawlette?

I think it was worth it to read it twice, although the second reading was somewhat difficult -- hard for me to pay attention to the pages that I had already read. I read the first time through in October and the second time through in November (of 2020) and approaching the passes a month apart was fairly close. So with Berkeley, maybe it is good that I take a break before the second pass.

I have found that reading a book is a way to spend time in the neighborhood of a subject, and that may be value enough to re-reading. I may have had (maybe a reader can detect) cases where I picked up on something in the book in the second pass that I missed in the first.

With this book, the first that I tried to review more rigorously (with a method reminiscent of pre-registration), I wrote many things down in the preview, something that I have not kept up with all the other previews. Perhaps I had more axes to grind with Rawlette's material before I started (although X-Risk ought to have occasioned just as many metaphorical axes from me. It might just be the like how at the beginning of a foot race, people tend to run fast before they settle in for the long haul.

Here are some quotes from the preview, with follow-ups to the preview in italics. The preview was fairly long, so I may not comment or comment at length about everything.

I hope to compare Rawlette's approach to that of MSLN, especially legitimism and simantism. She may show me ways to make those accounts more specific/explicit/developed. I expect to be critical of her approach to ethics."

I don't remember if simantism came up a lot (an observant reader might see it), but certainly legitimism did. The prediction of being critical of her approach to ethics was borne out.

Here are some criticisms I have of hedonic utilitarianism which she may address:

1. How do we know what ought to give us pain or pleasure?

a. This is relevant when thinking about artificial superintelligence (ASI). An ASI programmed to be a hedonist might want to change human nature so that it is trivially easy to cause us pleasure, and to avoid giving us pain. We would say "No, I don't want to be a blob of pleasure", but why not be one?

There's some risk (similar or essentially the same as what a past version of me said here) that we find pleasure easy to consent to, and the removal of pain, so there's an incentive for civilization (including ASI) to drift in the direction of giving us more and more pleasure, less and less pain, until we have gradually simplified ourselves into blobs of pleasure. I think hedonism is not just an explicit philosophical position, but also a powerful psychological tendency.

Some people might bite the bullet and say "No, being a blob of pleasure sounds good to me". Who can say what's wrong or right? If it feels good, it's good. But what if God disagrees? You might look at your child and hope that they don't get hooked on heroin. Technically, they're happy when they're on heroin. Maybe technically we're happy when we're living painless, rich, godless lives, or when we are blobs of pleasure. But God might disagree.

I still find this kind of thinking compelling after having read the book.

b. Another point of relevance is when people construct scripts of what a life is supposed to be. When a life event is "bad" then "you are in a pity-worthy, deplorable state" -- the script wants you to feel depressed. Should you feel depressed? Maybe the script comes from other people, and is there to discourage you from doing things that are unpopular.

I don't remember this point coming up in the review. I think Rawlette might say "Well, we should just make it so that people aren't depressed, however that works out."

2. What about other goods that aren't captured well by hedonism?

a. Pleasure could be bad, if it takes us away from God, or some other reality. In an upcoming short story about the future of beauty, that I plan to release relatively soon, you may see a tension between deeper good and surface good. It may take some pain to have deeper good, and unbroken pleasure may prevent things like coming to value people apart from how they or their life realities give a person pleasure.

I was referring to "The Future of Beauty". Rawlette did address the contrast between kinds of pleasure (or, more accurately than "pleasure" in her view, positive experience), and if I recall correctly, rejected the distinction, going for flat quantity of positive qualia. So maybe she would simply not see the problem.

b. Pain could be good. Two more easily dismissed examples of this are found in the concept of purgatory (pain, in itself, purges us of sin or the guilt of sin) and the phrase "pain is weakness leaving the body". (Dismissed because you could say "what you really want is improved strength, or heaven, in the end, and both those states are basically pleasurable.") A less easily dismissed example is found when we ask "what if God doesn't care if we suffer, as long as we can bear it and connect with reality?" In other words, what if there is pain in heaven after all -- our real reward is God himself, not the pleasure or freedom from pain he might be able to give us? The pain is good because it is real, and experiencing it is part of being receptive to reality. An overall receptiveness to reality (perhaps) is the only way to really connect with God.

This is an interesting angle that I had forgotten about in the six months since I wrote the preview. I don't think this made it into the review. I'm not sure what I think about it anymore. It still basically sounds right to me, but not an idea that seems as compelling as it used to.

c. I am adding this section in later in the editing process, and don't want to make this point long so that it gives me yet more to edit, but basically I can mention fiducialism as a replacement for hedonism.

This makes about as much sense as before. I do find Rawlette's version of hedonism (qualia of ought-to-be-ness maximizing) and hedonism in general to be more plausible to me than when I began, but I still think fiducialism is better.

3. Why should we think that "ought" has anything to do with our feelings, or even our judgments?

a. Maybe "ought" is more like "I want something to be a certain way (if it's not that way), or that want is satisfied by that thing being that certain way (if it is), and that exact wanting is something that deserves to be true". (I suspect that it's hard to define "deserves" without basically using "ought" -- circularity. Maybe "ought" is a primitive of language and psychology?) Someone who ought to be able to define things is the one who can define things, and can say "pain is not necessarily bad, and pleasure is not necessarily good". The athlete who says "pain is weakness leaving the body", or the believer who says "I will accept this bitter cup" are basically exercising their ability to claim that some thing ought to be. To say that something that is, ought to be, is something that in a sense no one can argue with. But maybe some persons can even say that what is ought not to be? So in this way, good and bad come out of our taste, more so than out of our pure experience. (Out of opinion rather than feeling.) Maybe pain biases us to call it bad. But we don't have to -- we can see through that sometimes.

These topics came up in the review.

b. It could be that it seems like hedonism is a real view of things, that pleasure ought to be and pain ought not to be, because these are popular judgments. (One way to cash out the popular defining of human well-being.) (You could also say that this is why preferentialism seems to be a real view, because of course everyone likes preferences.) These might seem to be real things, because of our humanism. But why should real "ought" have anything to do with human judgments? You could say that human judgments do have something to do with it, if what we're exploring is "our strongest moral convictions" rather than something outside that. (Rawlette, p. 3: "The version of realism I present actually provides a robust metaethical justification for many of our strongest moral convictions."). But what do our strongest moral convictions have to do with real "ought"? If there is a God (in this case, in the sense of a most-authoritative being), then we might hope to be in line with his preferences, or perhaps rather with his truth, which is similar to preference but which is unlike ours for some kind of lack of "falsehood" (we call both self-justifiying explanations and lies "B.S.") or lack of partiality. If there is no God, then how are "our strongest moral convictions" anything other than "what is popular in a certain way"? (I mean this both as a rhetorical and a real question, if that makes sense.) And then I'm not sure that Rawlette's project is really realist after all. Her ultimate criterion is (may be? not sure yet) "our strongest moral convictions", not any objective truth. In other words, realism is supposedly about some grounding in reality through an argument of justification, while antirealism doesn't bother with that. "Our strongest moral convictions" sounds like the same criterion moral antirealists would use. Why not just observe the criterion, rather than adding some conceptual layer, some kind of logical justification? Unless, what we are doing (with both realist and antirealist ethics) is bending the criterion, democratically, by presenting an argument that sounds (and in a sense, is) logical, and is thus persuasive in shifting "our strongest moral convictions"? If you want to change other people's values to be like yours, you use logic, even if the real foundation of values is just values -- we can be dazzled by logic.

Or maybe she really could be a moral realist (the appeal to strongest moral convictions doesn't rule that out), one who just says "our strongest moral convictions are real and we should act on them", as opposed to the antirealist, who says "our strongest moral convictions are fictions and we should act on them". (I think I do not yet understand moral realism vs. antirealism, especially moral antirealism, and hope the book will help me understand.) Can you act on something as much as you should if you don't feel it is real? Maybe that's the essence of Rawlette's project, to say "No, so since we know we ought to act on certain things, we need to figure out a way to see them as real". I know that there is a kind of quixotic task that philosophers take up (and scientists, I think), which is the search for truth but which is actually really wanting something to be true and figuring out a way to find out that it is true (if possible). If it's true that we just know that certain things are good, and we have to change our perspective on reality so as to fully pursue those goods, then maybe reality is most deeply known not by whatever science or philosophy says, but in those things we know we have to think are good, and have to pursue as good. We want things to be true, but in a way, that could be that they just are true.

Or maybe Rawlette would be willing to say "No, those deep things aren't true since they don't line up with philosophy" -- philosophy is the real authority after all -- but doesn't happen to have to say that because of the book she wrote, showing how they do line up.

(If "our strongest moral convictions" can be modified with rhetorical or logical force, then does it become "what is right is what psychologically strong, motivated people reprogram people to see as right"? -- something that the coming powers of AI and genetic engineering can intensify. So then such convictions might not be some kind of immutable standard.)

One could say that the deep things, and hedonic utilitarianism, are two different aspects of the same being, the latter being the former's expression in the world of ethical philosophy. That doesn't feel intuitively correct to me, though. I could see maybe fiducial utilitarianism getting closer to that function than hedonic utilitarianism, but even that doesn't feel right. Maybe because ethical philosophy itself is a such a strange shard.

Still, we are left with "should it be true that deep human convictions are reliable judges or creators of 'ought'?" -- a philosophical question. And philosophy, as a whole, the general pursuit, has some grounding in deep human convictions, comes from the outworking of them. We might wonder if philosophy suggests that we should consider God's point of view, either that God shares our convictions, or that his differ from ours and that we should align ourselves with his -- in other words, it's ultimately his convictions as the founder of reality (or as most-authoritative for some other reason than founding things) that are truth, while ours are feelings or opinions.

That's a nice essay that I had forgotten about. I'm not sure at this moment that "deepest moral convictions" really do cash out to "what the majority of people think (really or officially)". But I guess it seems true -- I would want to think about it more before endorsing it. I am still not sure what moral anti-realism really is. I thought I understood from Rawlette, and thought that it was something very much like "humans get to make up what is moral" (I could be wrong, but I think that's more or less what "judgment-dependence" would be). But Gloor's anti-realism doesn't sound exactly like that, and Gloor's sounds like a more competitive belief system in the marketplace of ideas. There's something slippery about it, though, which prevents me from grasping or trusting it, at least for the time being.

c. I mentioned "truth" in the previous section. We might say that truth is inherently something that is indifferent to popularity. In fact, Rawlette's project is to use truth to change people's minds (fellow philosophers who are moral antirealists, for instance). So why shouldn't "ought" be indifferent to popularity as well? Ought could be a form of truth.

d. Some of the above might boil down to: "we want truth, independent of popularity -- does it come from God, or from qualia?" I would want to defend "God", and Rawlette "qualia" or something in the neighborhood of "qualia". I would say "if ought is -- and I think it has to be -- then it is an opinion", while Rawlette might say "if ought is, then it is a feeling" -- not "we know it through feelings", because then what is it in itself if not an opinion? (Mostly not a rhetorical question.)

If you're looking for a way to criticize my own project, then you may find something fruitful here.

--

One thing I am thinking of addressing in the review (maybe more than I am about to here), is the question of "What does this matter?" Certainly the truth matters in itself. But how much money can we devote to understanding the truth? Is there a way that an altruist could benefit from a book like Rawlette's?

As an (amateur) philosopher myself, I share the dilemma of Rawlette (as I currently guess it to be, not having yet read her book). I want to get some truth that makes a difference in the world. But the expression of that truth, in the way I know how to express it, is only going to be heard by philosophically-inclined people -- maybe not a lot of them, only some of whom will change what they do as a result. A project like Rawlette's (which, I see from p. 1, involves the term "motivational structure", a term I also use) might hope to get people to feel and thus behave differently -- maybe causing a release of cultural energy to cause more work or more deeply felt caring (or the metaphor might be one of putting people to work to build up cultural structures and institutions of caring). But are philosophers or the philosophically-inclined the right people to try to motivate to care more and work harder? Or is it better to speak to people in general, there being so many more of them?

Francis Schaeffer was disheartened at how philosophy trickled down to the masses. But to me it seems like philosophy may not have much potential to undo the undermining of moral realism (part of what Schaeffer lamented) through the same process. That is, it doesn't seem as clear to me that philosophy trickles down to the average person, the way it used to in Schaeffer's day. I hope to be proved (or help prove myself) wrong some day, in some way, but it seems to me that the default assumption is that philosophy is a game for philosophers, and few others pay attention. Schaeffer thought that the artists could communicate philosophy-derived truths, but it seems to me that most artists are either roughly as obscure as philosophers, or not concerned with philosophy themselves. And what can art do that is fresh? Where are the new philosophies that are different from all the old ones that have already influenced art? Again, I can hope that somehow I could find or create ideas or approaches to things that are fresh, in some way, which inspire artists (or myself) to create philosophically-informed art. But my default assumption remains that philosophy doesn't affect the average person, that there isn't a trickling-down through art into the average person's culture.

(Maybe a counterpoint is: nihilism as evinced in recent TV.)

For those of you who have not read Francis Schaeffer, he was dismayed by how secular thought patterns trickled down to the average person in his day, undermining Christianity and what I could call "realism" (as opposed to anti-realism).

While I might hope to someday, somehow, reach average people with philosophically-derived ideas or spirits, I can see right now a group of people who take philosophy seriously, and perhaps would take Rawlette's philosophy seriously, who put philosophy into action, or at least generally aspire to. These are the effective altruists (EAs). Would effective altruists be the kind of people who need to be motivated to work harder and care more? Maybe some of them? There's a term they use: "value drift", the way that a person's priorities change and they no longer work as hard for the cause, save as much money to give, etc. Could something like Rawlette's philosophy, a bolsterer of motivational structure, be something that could prevent value drift in some individuals? It sounds plausible. The effective altruists are already aware of the possibility of being moral realists. (Many of them already are.) Maybe her book would cause some of those who are moral antirealists to become moral realists, causing them to stick with their first love.

Would it be possible to cause people on the margins of effective altruist ideology to shift into being effective altruists, or EA-aligned? For instance, a moral antirealist might think "Yeah, giving money to help people is good... I should do that... but, then, morality is kind of a social construct, right? Yeah, whatever." and not do it. This person being driven by self-interest and logic, if they had better beliefs, they might say "Giving money to help people is good... and what is good really is good... I should do that..." and do it. A very self-interested person might shy away from accepting what Rawlette said in the first place, or use some kind of self-deception in order to both hold Rawlette's views and not act on them. They would not be on the margin of EA-aligned behavior. But there might be a lot of people who are on the margin, who can be philosophically literate, or are as much as EAs are, who just haven't heard of Rawlette's argument. They might even have heard the EAs' pitch (Singer's Drowning Child Argument, perhaps), and yet vitiated it with moral antirealism. But an effective argument for moral realism might make a difference. One would think that EAs would be looking for new ideologies to prevent value drift and aid in recruiting people from social spaces adjacent to them. From a few months' reading of the EA Forum, I don't get the impression that this is something they seriously pursue to a great extent. (I might be wrong -- but something that was a particularly burning issue, I wouldn't have missed.) This might be because they know better than to be into ideology (it's something they're past, as individuals, and something they don't expect enough people to really be changed by), or it might be that many EAs are not really into human resource questions, and this is essentially a human resource question -- or some other reason.

I remember a philosophy professor saying something like "people aren't bad, it's just that the system is bad". So maybe Rawlette can't do much good, since everyone is already moral and good, and we're just in horribly ill-coordinated systems. I hope to discuss this in the future at some point, show a way that if you really care, you can do something about systemic problems, so as to provide benefit from improved motivational structures. (This already has some other ideas that might apply.) I have (and I think Rawlette may possibly also have) the sense that it is required of us to do what is best, not just a socially-acceptable half-effort. It is wrong of us to not be heroes or "anointed ones", at whatever scale we can and should be. Perhaps that is a message which could resonate with the average person. In other words, with the right support beliefs and ideas, Rawlette's may be able to function as one might intend them to.

One thing I don't know from not having read Rawlette's book yet is how possible it is to convert her book into a form which can be adopted by people who don't read academic philosophy.

That was a nice note which I had mostly forgotten about. I do think that the cause area of moral realism is underrated. I think it is unpopular, for reasons I have not fully figured out. I think if people wanted to hear it, people would have figured out a way for them to hear it. Something like "Just don't have perspectival bias!". Preaching would be enough, without the need for philosophy. But my pessimism may be at least sometimes inaccurate, and motivating even a few people might have high impact, depending on what they go on to do.