Monthly Archives: June 2012

Good friends can make bad business partners

A new NBER working paper suggests that similar venture capitalists (VCs) are worse at making or managing shared investments:

This paper explores two broad questions on collaboration between individuals. First, we investigate what personal characteristics affect people’s desire to work together. Second, given the influence of these personal characteristics, we analyze whether this attraction enhances or detracts from performance. Addressing these problems in the venture capital syndication setting, we show that venture capitalists exhibit strong detrimental homophily in their co-investment decisions. We find that individual venture capitalists choose to collaborate with other venture capitalists for both ability-based characteristics (e.g., whether both individuals in a dyad obtained a degree from a top university) and affinity-based characteristics (e.g., whether individuals in a pair share the same ethnic background, attended the same school, or worked for the same employer previously). Moreover, frequent collaborators in syndication are those venture capitalists who display a high level of mutual affinity. We find that while collaborating for ability-based characteristics enhances investment performance, collaborating for affinity-based characteristics dramatically reduces the probability of investment success. A variety of tests show that the cost of affinity is not driven by selection into inferior deals; the effect is most likely attributable to poor decision-making by high-affinity syndicates post investment. Taken together, our results suggest that non-ability-based “birds-of-a-feather-flock-together” effects in collaboration can be costly.

Given that homophily rather than heterophily remains the norm, it seems these investors are not learning this lesson, or value working and affiliating with similar peers over maximising profits. All very well for them. But if you have a project that you truly want to succeed, you may be better off doing it with a talented stranger rather than the college mates you clicked with on day one. And if you are letting others invest on your behalf, you should beware of handing your money over to a homogeneous friendship group.

I wonder if this kind of research influences the institutional investors who often fund VCs? If not, it would suggest that even this highly competitive investment market is falling short of its potential to fund and grow promising new companies.

Some research suggests that corporations with more female board members perform better, though the direction of causality is disputed. I doubt females are innately more talented board members, so the causation, if real, could be the result of female ‘outsiders’ generating better management than a clique of natural friends. Shareholders don’t share the benefits of board members enjoying each other’s company, so if they had effective control of  the companies they owned you might expect then to appoint a diverse ‘team of rivals’ to the board to closely scrutinise one another’s ideas.  My impression is that precisely the opposite is the norm.

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Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

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Work, Play Extremes

Humanity’s mix of work vs. play has varied over the millennia. Farmers played less less than foragers, and with industry we’ve moved back to, and even past, forager levels of play. In the future, the work-play mix could move in either direction, possibly to extremes.

Pause for a moment to ask yourself: which extreme do you most fear, a mostly-work future, or a mostly-play future? Yes, all else equal play is probably better than work, but all else may not be equal – ask yourself what knowing that a world is mostly-work or mostly-play would tell you about the rest of that world.

Me, I more fear a mostly-play future. I fear a world of people so overwhelmed by the pleasures of music, movies, games, virtual reality, drugs, etc. that they don’t build for the future, or even maintain support structures inherited from the past. Failing to invest in capital or children, humanity shrinks and falls into oblivion.

Yes, there are things to fear about a mostly-work future. Mainly, the opportunity cost of fun not had. Play is often more fun, and even fulfilling, than work. Given a momentary choice, we tend to choose play over work, and for good reason. Even so, I’d expect a mostly-work world to continue to invest and grow, building to a larger population and capacity. So that if later that world devolves into most-play, at least more people will have more fun on the way down.

Notice that this issue suggests that status isn’t such a bad thing. Locally, the possibility of efforts to gain status seem to cause a market failure, as your status gains come at the expense of the status of others. This would seem to make us work too hard to gain status. But since we can more reliably gain status via work than via play, the existence of status pushes us toward work, and away from the more dangerous mostly-play extreme.

I’m not thrilled that the em future I envision is a mostly-work world. But it at least seems safer than the other extreme to which the work-play mix could have evolved.

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Frozen Or Plastic Brain?

My post Monday on donating $5K to a Brain Preservation Prize testing fund has induced commentary (here, here, here, see also here). They’ve raised many issues on the choice between freezing brains or fixing them with chemicals.

Some prefer the term “chemopreservation” over “plastination”, which some artists have used to describe approaches that don’t try to preserve fine spatial detail. But I don’t like to replace clearer short terms with long vague awkward ones, just to avoid a weak association. If needed, I’d clarify by saying “ultra plastination”.

Some worry that we can’t prove plastic brains will last a long time. But brain researchers have looked at samples preserved many decades ago, and see almost no change. Tissues preserved in amber seem to have remain unchanged for forty million years. We have pretty good chemistry reasons to expect these plastics to last a long long time.

Some worry that plastic forgoes the prospect of reviving brain tissue directly after thawing, and relies instead on transferring its info to a new substrate, as with emulation. But direct revival seems extremely difficult given freezing and anti-freeze damage, and I think brain emulation is the future anyway.

Some worry that tests on fresh brains won’t show how well the techniques preserve less that fresh brains. But we could cheaply do tests now on not so fresh brains, after we test fresh ones.

The big issue, I think, is that plastination probably merges and diffuses some relevant chemical densities. If we knew about the minimal sufficient sets of chemicals to track, we could probably design dyes to mark such a set before we sent in the plastic. But since we aren’t sure which chemicals to track, we’ll have to make educated guesses, guesses that could be wrong.

Now many of us expect an awful lot of redundancy in brain cell spatial shape and various chemical densities, such that it will probably be enough to know the cell shapes, connection strengths, and the chemical densities that happen to be preserved in the first otherwise good plastination approach. If we go out of our way to tag a few more chemical densities, this can increase our odds. This is hardly a guaranteed approach though, so you might think freezing is safer, at least if anti-freeze can be shown to preserve more chemical densities.

But the much bigger risk, however, is that cryonics organizations won’t last long enough to keep brains frozen long enough. Most cryonics customers signed up a while ago, and their age distribution is slowly aging. If they can’t restart exponential growth, they’ll have more and more old dying customers relative to young paying supporters, and then may have a declining customer base. In addition, a great many managerial, political, social, etc. surprises could result in patient thaws even in a growing healthy organization.

Thus we unfortunately must choose between two unwanted risks – we must either suffer a plastination risk of not saving enough chemical densities, or suffer a cryonics risk of thaw by organizations with limited long term reliability. Since I judge the info saving risk to be mild, and the organization reliability risk to be severe, I’d choose the former.

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Does life flow towards flow?

Robin recently described how human brain ‘uploads’, even if forced to work hard to make ends meet, might nonetheless be happy and satisfied with their lives. Some humans naturally love their work, and if they are the ones who get copied, the happiness of emulations could be very high. Of course in Robin’s Malthusian upload scenario, evolutionary pressures towards high productivity are very strong, and so the mere fact that some people really enjoy work doesn’t mean that they will be the ones who get copied billions of times. The workaholics will only inherit the Earth if they are the best employees money can buy.

The broader question of whether creatures that are good at surviving, producing and then reproducing tend towards joy or misery is a crucial one. It helps answer whether it is altruistic to maintain populations of wild animals into the future, or an act of mercy to shrink their habitats. Even more importantly, it is the key to whether it is extremely kind or extremely cruel for humans to engage in panspermia and spread Malthusian life across the universe as soon as possible.

There is an abundance of evidence all around us in the welfare of humans and other animals that have to strive to survive in the environments they are adapted to, but no consensus on what that evidence shows. It is hard enough to tell whether another human has a quality of life better than no life at all, let alone determine the same for say, an octopus.

One of the few pieces of evidence I find compelling comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research into the experience he calls ‘flow‘. His work suggests that humans are most productive, and also most satisfied, when they are totally absorbed in a clear but challenging task which they are capable of completing. The conditions suggested as being necessary to achieve ‘flow’ are

  1. “One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her ownperceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.”

Most work doesn’t meet these criteria and so ‘flow’ is not all that common, but it is amongst the best states of mind a human can hope for.

Some people are much more inclined to enter flow than others and if Csíkszentmihályi’s book is to be believed, they are ideal employees – highly talented, motivated and suited to their tasks. If this is the case, people predisposed to experience flow would be the most popular minds to copy as emulations and in the immediate term the flow-inspired workaholics would indeed come to dominate the Earth.

Of course, it could turn out that in the long run, once enough time has passed for evolution to shed humanity’s baggage, the creatures that most effectively do the forms of work that exist in the future will find life unpleasant. But our evolved capacity for flow in tasks that we are well suited for gives us a reason to hope that will not be the case. If it turns out that flow is a common experience for traditional hunter-gatherers then that would make me even more optimistic. And more optimistic again if we can find evidence for a similar experience in other species.

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Your existence is informative

Warning: this post is technical.

Suppose you know that there are a certain number of planets, N. You are unsure about the truth of a statement Q. If Q is true, you put a high probability on life forming on any given arbitrary planet. If Q is false, you put a low probability on this. You have a prior probability for Q. So far you have not taken into account your observation that the planet you are on has life. How do you update on this evidence, to get a posterior probability for Q? Since your model just has a number of planets in it, with none labeled as ‘this planet’, you can’t update directly on ‘there is life on this planet’, by excluding worlds where ‘this planet’ doesn’t have life. And you can’t necessarily treat ‘this’ as an arbitrary planet, since you wouldn’t have seen it if it didn’t have life.

I have an ongoing disagreement with an associate who suggests that you should take ‘this planet has life’ into account by conditioning on ‘there exists a planet with life’. That is,

P(Q|there is life on this planet) = P(Q|there exists a planet with life).

Here I shall explain my disagreement.

Nick Bostrom argues persuasively that much science would be impossible if we treated ‘I observe X’ as ‘someone observes X’. This is basically because in a big world of scientists making measurements, at some point somebody will make most mistaken measurements. So if all you know when you measure the temperature of a solution to be 15 degrees is that you are not in a world where nobody ever measures its temperature to be 15 degrees, this doesn’t tell you much about the temperature.

You can add other apparently irrelevant observations you make at the same time – e.g. that the table is blue chipboard – in order to make your total observations less likely to arise once in a given world (at its limit, this is the suggestion of FNC). However it seems implausible that you should make different inferences from taking a measurement when you can also see a detailed but irrelevant picture at the same time than those you make with limited sensory input. Also the same problem re-emerges if the universe is supposed to be larger. Given that the universe is thought to be very, very large, this is a problem. Not to mention, it seems implausible that the size of the universe should greatly affect probabilistic judgements made about entities which are close to independent from most of the universe.

So I think Bostrom’s case is good. However I’m not completely comfortable arguing from the acceptability of something that we do (science) back to the truth of the principles that justify it. So I’d like to make another case against taking ‘this planet has life’ as equivalent evidence to ‘there exists a planet with life’.

Evidence is what excludes possibilities. Seeing the sun shining is evidence against rain, because it excludes the possible worlds where the sky is grey, which include most of those where it is raining. Seeing a picture of the sun shining is not much evidence against rain, because it excludes worlds where you don’t see such a picture, which are about as likely to be rainy or sunny as those that remain are.

Receiving the evidence ‘there exists a planet with life’ means excluding all worlds where all planets are lifeless, and not excluding any other worlds. At first glance, this must be different from ‘this planet has life’. Take any possible world where some other planet has life, and this planet has no life. ‘There exists a planet with life’ doesn’t exclude that world, while ‘this planet has life’ does. Therefore they are different evidence.

At this point however, note that the planets in the model have no distinguishing characteristics. How do we even decide which planet is ‘this planet’ in another possible world? There needs to be some kind of mapping between planets in each world, saying which planet in world A corresponds to which planet in world B, etc. As far as I can tell, any mapping will do, as long as a given planet in one possible world maps to at most one planet in another possible world. This mapping is basically a definition choice.

So suppose we use a mapping where in every possible world where at least one planet has life, ‘this planet’ corresponds to one of the planets that has life. See the below image.

Which planet is which?

Squares are possible worlds, each with two planets. Pink planets have life, blue do not. Define ‘this planet’ as the circled one in each case. Learning that there is life on this planet is equal to learning that there is life on some planet.

Now learning that there exists a planet with life is the same as learning that this planet has life. Both exclude the far righthand possible world, and none of the other possible worlds. What’s more, since we can change the probability distribution we end up with, just by redefining which planets are ‘the same planet’ across worlds, indexical evidence such as ‘this planet has life’ must be horseshit.

Actually the last paragraph was false. If in every possible world which contains life, you pick one of the planets with life to be ‘this planet’, you can no longer know whether you are on ‘this planet’. From your observations alone, you could be on the other planet, which only has life when both planets do. The one that is not circled in each of the above worlds. Whichever planet you are on, you know that there exists a planet with life. But because there’s some probability of you being on the planet which only rarely has life, you have more information than that. Redefining which planet was which didn’t change that.

Perhaps a different definition of ‘this planet’ would get what my associate wants? The problem with the last was that it no longer necessarily included the planet we are on. So what about we define ‘this planet’ to be the one you are on, plus a life-containing planet in all of the other possible worlds that contain at least one life-containing planet. A strange, half-indexical definition, but why not? One thing remains to be specified – which is ‘this’ planet when you don’t exist? Let’s say it is chosen randomly.

Now is learning that ‘this planet’ has life any different from learning that some planet has life? Yes. Now again there are cases where some planet has life, but it’s not the one you are on. This is because the definition only picks out planets with life across other possible worlds, not this one. In this one, ‘this planet’ refers to the one you are on. If you don’t exist, this planet may not have life. Even if there are other planets that do. So again, ‘this planet has life’ gives more information than ‘there exists a planet with life’.

You either have to accept that someone else might exist when you do not, or you have to define ‘yourself’ as something that always exists, in which case you no longer know whether you are ‘yourself’. Either way, changing definitions doesn’t change the evidence. Observing that you are alive tells you more than learning that ‘someone is alive’.

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Plastination Is Near

The biggest single charity donation I’ve made so far is ~$100. But now I’m donating $5000 to an exceptionally worthy cause. And I suggest you donate too. Here’s my cause:

People who “die” today could live again in the future, perhaps forever, as brain emulations (= uploads, ems), if enough info were saved today about their brains. (And of course if civilization doesn’t die, if someone in the future cares enough to bother, if you are your brain activity, etc.)

This is probably enough brain info: the spatial shape and location of each brain cell, including the long skinny parts that stick out to touch other cells, and two dozen chemical densities (at the skinny part scale) to help identify cell and connection types. Actually, it is probably enough to just get 95% of the connections right, and a half dozen chemical densities.

Today, the main way folks try to save such brain info is to pay a cryonics org to freeze their brain in liquid nitrogen, and keep it so frozen for a long time. Alas, this approach fails if this org ever even briefly fails at this task, letting brains thaw, an event I expect is more likely than not over a century timescale.

In addition, we don’t actually know that frozen brains preserve enough brain info. Until recently, ice formation in the freezing process ripped out huge brain chunks everywhere and shoved them to distant locations. Recent use of a special anti-freeze has reduced that, but we don’t actually know if the anti-freeze gets to enough places. Or even if enough info is saved where it does go.

The people who developed the anti-freeze published some 2D pictures that look good, but we don’t know how selectively these were chosen, or how much worse is the typical cryonics freezing process. Some good brain researchers are skeptical. (Yes, future folk might undo even very complex brain scrabbling, but don’t count on it.) And given my usual medical skepticism, I gotta be skeptical here too.

Though cryonics has been practiced for forty years, its techniques have improved only slowly; its few customers can only induce a tiny research effort. The much larger brain research community, in contrast, has been rapidly improving their ways to do fast cheap detailed 3D brain scans, and to prepare samples for such scans. You see, brain researchers need ways to stop brain samples from changing, and to be strong against scanning disruptions, just so they can study brain samples at their leisure.

These brain research techniques have now reached two key milestones:

  1. They’ve found new ways to “fix” brain samples by filling them with plastic, ways that seem impressively reliable, resilient, and long lasting, and which work on large brain volumes (e.g., here). Such plastination techniques seem close to being able to save enough info in entire brains for centuries, without needing continual care. Just dumping a plastic brain in a box in a closet might work fine.
  2. Today, for a few tens of thousands of dollars, less than the price charged for one cryonics customer, it is feasible to have independent lab(s) take random samples from whole mouse or human brains preserved via either cryonics or plastination, and do high (5nm) resolution 3D scans to map out thousands of neighboring cells, their connections, and connection strengths, to test if either of these approaches clearly preserve such key brain info.

An anonymous donor has actually funded a $100K Brain Preservation Prize, paid to the first team(s) to pass this test on a human brain, with a quarter of the prize going to those that first pass the test on a mouse brain. Cryonics and plastination teams have already submitted whole mouse brains to be tested. The only hitch is that the prize organization needs money (~25-50K$) to actually do the tests!

This is the exceptionally worthy cause to which I am donating $5K, and to which I encourage others to donate.  (More info here; donate here.) We seem close to having a feasible plastination technique, where for a few 10K$ or less one could fill a brain with plastic, saving its key brain info for future revival in an easily stored form. We may only lack donations of a similar amount to actually test that it does save this key brain info. (And if the first approach fails, perhaps to test a few revisions.)

I don’t understand why the cryonics community isn’t already all over this. To express my opinions to them more forcefully, I offer to bet up to $5K that plastination is more likely to win this full prize than cryonics. That is, if plastination wins but cryonics fails, I win the bet, and if cryonics wins but plastination fails, I lose. If they both win or both fail, the bet is called off. Any takers?

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I Talk At Oxford Wednesday

I’ll speak at Oxford this Wednesday, 4:00pm, on:

Em Econ 101

The three most disruptive transitions in our history coincided with the introduction of humans, farming, and industry. If another such transition lies ahead, a good guess for its source is artificial intelligence in the form of whole brain emulations, or “ems.” Most who consider ems discuss their implications for the philosophy of identity, or their feasibility and development paths. Those who consider em social implications gravitate toward heaven or hell scenarios, or invent entirely new economics, etc. for this new era.

In contrast, as a professor of economics I seek to straight-forwardly apply standard economic and other social science theory to these novel technical assumptions, to sketch rough outlines of a relatively-likely reference scenario set modestly far into a post-em-transition world. I consider how ems might change: reproduction, life plans, cycles of daily life, inequality, work training, property rights, families, firm management, industrial organization, urban agglomeration, security, and governance.

Location: Oxford Martin School, 34 Broad Street, OX1 3BG

Added 29June: Here are talk slides, audio.

Added 2July: Here is Video.

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Resolving Paradoxes of Intuition

Shelly Kagan gave a nice summary of some problems involved in working out whether death is bad for one. I agree with Robin’s response, and have posted before about some of the particular issues. Now I’d like to make a more general observation.

First I’ll summarize Kagan’s story. The problems are something like this. It seems like death is pretty bad. Thought experiments suggest that it is bad for the person who dies, not just their friends, and that it is bad even if it is painless. Yet if a person doesn’t exist, how can things be bad for them? Seemingly because they are missing out on good things, rather than because they are suffering anything. But it is hard to say when they bear the cost of missing out, and it seems like things that happen happen at certain times. Or maybe they don’t. But then we’d have to say all the people who don’t exist are missing out, and that would mean a huge tragedy is happening as long as those people go unconceived. We don’t think a huge tragedy is happening, so lets say it isn’t. Also we don’t feel too bad about people not being born earlier, like we do about them dying sooner. How can we distinguish these cases of deprivation from non-existence from the deprivation that happens after death? Not in any satisfactorily non-arbitrary way. So ‘puzzles still remain’.

This follows a pattern common to other philosophical puzzles. Intuitions say X sometimes, and not X other times. But they also claim that one should not care about any of the distinctions that can reasonably be made between the times when they say X is true and the times when they say X is false.

Intuitions say you should save a child dying in front of you. Intuitions say you aren’t obliged to go out of your way to protect a dying child in Africa. Intuitions also say physical proximity, likelihood of being blamed, etc shouldn’t be morally relevant.

Intuitions say you are the same person today as tomorrow. Intuitions say you are not the same person as Napoleon. Intuitions also say that whether you are the same person or not shouldn’t depend on any particular bit of wiring in your head, and that changing a bit of wiring doesn’t make you slightly less you.

Of course not everyone shares all of these intuitions (I don’t). But for those who do, there are problems. These problems can be responded to by trying to think of other distinctions between contexts that do seem intuitively legitimate, reframing an unintuitive conclusion to make it intuitive, or just accepting at least one of the unintuitive conclusions.

The first two solutions – finding more appealing distinctions and framings – seem a lot more popular than the third – biting a bullet. Kagan concludes that ‘puzzles remain’, as if this inconsistency is an apparent mathematical conflict that one can fully expect to eventually see through if we think about it right. And many other people have been working on finding a way to make these intuitions consistent for a while. Yet why expect to find a resolution?

Why not expect this contradiction to be like the one that arises if you claim that you like apples more than pears and also pears more than apples? There is no nuanced way to resolve the issue, except to give up at least one.  You can make up values, but sometimes they are just inconsistent. The same goes for evolved values.

From Kagan’s account of death, it seems likely that our intuitions are just inconsistent. Given natural selection, this is not particularly surprising. It’s no mystery how people could evolve to care about the survival of they and their associates, yet not to care about people who don’t exist. Even if people who don’t exist suffer the same costs from not existing. It’s also not surprising that people would come to believe their care for others is largely about the others’ wellbeing, not their own interests, and so believe that if they don’t care about a tragedy, there isn’t one. There might be some other resolution in the death case, but until we see one, it seems odd to expect one. Especially when we have already looked so hard.

Most likely, if you want a consistent position you will have to bite a bullet. If you are interested in reality, biting a bullet here shouldn’t be a last resort after searching every nook and cranny for a consistent and intuitive position. It is much more likely that humans have inconsistent intuitions about the value of life than that we have so far failed to notice some incredibly important and intuitive distinction in circumstances that drives our different intuitions. Why do people continue to search for intuitive resolutions to such problems? It could be that accepting an unintuitive position is easy, unsophisticated, unappealing to funders and friends, and seems like giving up. Is there something else I’m missing?

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Story Rules

Pixar Storyboard Artist Emma Coats has 22 Rules of Storytelling (as told by David Price, via Joshua Cohen). Here is my spin on nine of those rules:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
16. Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

That is, we like stories where someone is thrown into a difficult situation. We don’t care much about what caused that situation. We care more about admiring the way they handle the situation than if their approach works.

3. You won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

That is, we care lots about how the way a story ends affirms our core beliefs on who should be admired for doing what in a crisis.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

That is, our stories need lots of believable detail, so our subconscious minds of viewers can more easily see the story events as evidence supporting those core beliefs about what to admire.

All of which supports the idea that one of the main functions of stories in our lives is to help us create and signal our moral beliefs about how people should act – especially in crisis. After all, we have far more moral beliefs about how people should act in a crisis than how they should act in ordinary times.

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