Monthly Archives: August 2021

Competition Cuts Spite

Psychologists are exploring spitefulness in its customary role as a negative trait, a lapse that should be embarrassing but is often sublimated as righteousness, as when you take your own sour time pulling out of a parking space because you notice another car is waiting for it and you’ll show that vulture who’s boss here, even though you’re wasting your own time, too. …

The new research on spite transcends older notions that we are savage, selfish brutes at heart, as well as more recent suggestions that humans are inherently affiliative creatures yearning to love and connect. Instead, it concludes that vice and virtue, like the two sides of a V, may be inextricably linked. (More)

Our simplest economic models assume selfish agents, and in those models market competition helps such agents, encouraging efficient allocation, adaptation, and innovation. A standard critique, however, says that real humans are more altruistic than this, which they say favors non-market institutions such as families and hierarchies which better channels this altruism.

However, while it is true that humans are often more other-oriented than in our simplest econ models, this other-orientation is as likely to be spiteful as generous. For example:

  • Given the opportunity 2/3 of subjects will act spitefully, and 1/3 of them maximally so.
  • In “public goods” experiments, where participants voluntarily contribute to a public project, letting them punish each other does get them to contribute more, but they can be worse off as a result, due to the harms from all that punishment.
  • Shame and indignation are common and powerful feelings, that often lead people take substantial risks (e.g. via violence) to hurt people around them.
  • We seem eager for war stories, and to identify with heroes who sacrifice for their war, a war not just for private gain but to right big wrongs. Yet such characters (and their readers) usually think little on if their side is really the right side, or if war is really the best way right relevant wrongs.
  • Strong racism and sexism seem to have been real things, where people paid substantial personal costs to dump on certain classes of people, in part to show loyalty to their side of some social divisions.

What if many people often see themselves as in moral “wars” with many others around them, so that they are willing to pay substantial costs to help allies and to punish or put down enemies? And what if they coordinate with allies to try to control the “high grounds” in such wars? Do such changes make market competition more or less attractive?

The big obvious implication I see, relative to a world of relatively selfish people, is that in this world people would be more wary of associating with enemies, and more eager to associate with allies. So when people are free to choose associates, they would tend to choose allies, making fewer opportunities for spite and more for altruism. That is, competition would cut spite.

However, when there exist non-competitive positions of power, moral warriors would be especially eager to gain control of those positions, to dump on their enemies. For example, if students have no choice of teachers, then becoming a teacher lets you dump on enemy students. And if residents have no control over police on nearby beats, then becoming a police lets you dump on nearby enemy residents. In contrast, when teachers and police must compete to attract and retain affiliations with students and residents, then they would expect to lose their competitions by mistreating enemies.

Thus when many people see themselves in moral wars, eager to help allies and hurt enemies, potential targets of spite should be especially worried about being subject to such non-competitive positions of power. They should be especially eager to instead have many competing choices in key aspects of their lives, and be especially wary of creating centralized government regulators and service providers.

Bottom line: while some say the existence of altruism is an argument for fewer competitive relations, the existence of spite is an argument for more choice and competition, and for  fewer centralized roles which less restrain spite, and which would be fought over by moral warriors seeking to hurt enemies.

This may not be the strongest argument for market competition; that is probably still adaptation and innovation. But I haven’t heard this argument before, and it seems especially easy for most people to understand.

Added noon: To clarify, I assume that for most people, their preference to not have a teacher who hates them is stronger than their preference for their enemies to have teachers who hate them. I’m assuming some substantial fraction of strongly spiteful (or altruistic) people, but I’m not assuming that most people are like this.

Added 9Sep: A recent article on spite.

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Be The Emperor’s Kid

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me. (Why Missouri is “Show Me State”)

Emperor’s New Clothes: Two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. A succession of officials, and then the emperor himself, visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. Finally, the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They mime dressing him and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. Although startled, the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever. (More)

My long intellectual career has in part been a search for the most important questions. I study X until I realize “No, Y is really the more fundamental issue behind X.” I have now made another step forward in this journey; I now guess that the biggest obstacle to getting the world to adopt the many institution reform proposals I favor is our status-gossip-trust system. Let me explain.

Status is respect, shared at a distance. And one of our main ways to create shared distant respect estimates is to accept the gossip-shared judgements of high status people, especially on who else to respect. Furthermore, as we all judge those who are most closely connected to high status people as being higher status themselves, we often try to create closer connections to high status people by blindly trusting them.

That is, they tell us that of course they love us, that they are worth $1000/hr as a lawyer, that their expensive new med treatment will cure us, that their management advice will save our firm, that the articles they write or publish are the most reliable and useful guides to their topics, that their advice given to the halls of power will guide the nation well, and that the candidates praised by their letter of recommendation are worth high salaries. And then instead of checking these claims by watching their track records, giving them financial incentives, testing their abilities, or evaluating the details of their arguments, we just believe what they say. Not only believe, but also actively resist checking their claims, for fear of not seeming to trust them.

This helps explain why we make it hard (often illegal) to give strong incentives to or collect track records about prestigious professionals like lawyers and doctors. Why we care more about potential than accomplishment. Why we prefer grants to prizes, and managed funds over index funds. And why elites so rarely give solid arguments to back their claims. Furthermore, our getting more status mad over the last few centuries can help explain the decline in marriage, decline in legal sanctions against lies, and removing test scores from school applications.

I’m still quite uncertain how exactly to resist this status-trust pattern, but I expect it has something to do with raising the status of status skeptics, like the “show me” people of Missouri, or the kid who exposed the emperor.

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What Are Universities For?

We have many social institutions, which each serve many social functions. Sometimes people make arguments about how we should judge or see each one based on claims about what each one is “really” for. For example, Agnes Callard on universities:

Let me tell you now what I didn’t have the presence of mind to say [when the college-admissions scandal broke]. I’ll start with what universities are not for. First, they are not for perpetuating the ruling or elite class. Second, they are not for achieving social justice. Doubtless they do perpetuate the ruling class; many institutions do this. And probably they could do more to bring about social justice. But those things are not what they are for.

Third, universities are not for making money—though they do call for careful financial stewardship. Fourth, they are not for producing better citizens. Fifth, they are not for producing happier human beings. If I had to measure the worth of my classes in my students’ subsequent civic virtue or life satisfaction, I couldn’t afford to lose touch with most of them after graduation. I am sometimes saddened when I lose touch with them, but it never causes me to wonder whether their education was worthwhile.

Those five points cover basically all the criticisms levied against the university, which means all the critics who said it was not doing its job had failed to identify what its job was in the first place. But that is step one of the criticism process. You can’t be failing at what you’re not in the business of doing. …

Now I grant that the university is easy to misinterpret, because its innermost parts are hidden from view. What’s visible is who gets in and who is excluded; the fates of its graduates; clashes between townies and gownies; five-year completion rates; public-relations catastrophes; IRS 990 forms. If you go on a campus visit, you see the buildings, but not what happens inside them. …

That doesn’t really get the pundits off the hook, because they tend to be college-educated. The real scandal, if I may, is the fact that so many people who attended one seem to have no idea what it’s for. So let me come out and tell you what a university is for: a university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods. A university is a place of heterodidacticism. …

This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. … That’s what I wish I could’ve communicated to those embroiled in the admissions-scandal brouhaha; I wanted to break down the walls around my classroom, throw a spotlight on it, and tell everyone to stop talking, look and listen: “It is happening right here—this is what universities are for: reading Aristotle together.” All the arguments about elitism and corporatization and donations were as irrelevant as the ivy growing on the walls. I could give you a hundred more examples. …

There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction. This, in the end, is the explanation of why the innermost parts of the university are hidden from view. (more)

So while Callard has enjoyed some experiences of intellectual interaction at universities, she agrees that these experiences don’t weigh greatly on the minds of most university graduates. Yet even so she still insists that this is what universities “are for”, and seems to suggest that we should structure, fund, and analyze universities primarily in terms of this aspect. Even though she offers no evidence or argument to support this focus, beyond her positive experiences.

I posted two sets of six Twitter polls (ave. 203 responses each), asking, out of eight different social functions, which one “has pressures to achieve it most shaped the details of universities” and which one “do you most want the details of universities to be shaped to achieve it”. Here are function weights that fit their responses, relative to 100 for the most common choice:

As you can see, Callard’s fav function, “get intellectual goods” is 2nd highest out of 8 for what people want to shape universities, but 4th lowest out of 8 for what people think has shaped them. So Agnes, what can it even mean to say that your fav function is what universities “are for”? And what evidence would you offer for that claim?

It seems to me that most complex social institutions just don’t have a single thing they are for; they are for many things. And the functions that most shape our institutions are usually substantially different from the functions we wish would shape them. Just focusing on what we wish would shape them seems to be, well, wishful thinking.

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Why Taxes Or Control, Not Subsidies?

All prices are relative; a price is how many As it takes to buy one B. So we can only say that prices are generally high or low relative to some reference asset, like land or hours of work.

Relative prices says that all taxes of A are really subsidies of Not A, and vice versa. But there is an enforcement difference: it is easier to subsidize than tax, as people have to come to you the enforcer to ask for their subsidy, but they might try to hide from your tax, via a “black” market.

If taxes and subsidies are in a sense equivalent, but subsidies are easier to enforce, we should expect to see a lot more formal subsidies than taxes. But in fact we see the opposite, not just in total revenue, but also in terms of the number items covered. Why?

Well even if we rarely see subsidized market items, we do see “subsidies” in the form of direct government provision. Instead of subsidizing private schools, hospitals, roads, libraries, parks, etc. we often see government instead hire workers to build and run such things, exercising detailed control over exactly how such things are done. In contrast, we see many broad taxes, which allow market participants to make detailed choices as long as they pay the broad taxes.

So why do we see so many market taxes, so few market subsidizes, and so much direct provision, which combines a subsidy with high levels of government control? I can think of two explanations, but I’m not very confident in them, and so am interested to hear more theories.

First, taxing and controlling things looks like you are dominating them, while subsiding things looks like you are submitting to them, as if you were paying tribute to a lord. So my first explanation is that government seeks to appear dominant over citizens, instead of submissive to them, and gives this a higher priority than having more efficient market influence.

My second explanation is that government employees have an unusual influence over government policy, and they prefer to have cushy jobs where they control society without taking many personal risks, and they want taxes raised to pay for their jobs. Sure, if we subsidized parks instead of having government run them, similar jobs would exist in private park firms, but those jobs would be less secure or cushy than government jobs, and give employees less control over the public.

Neither of these theories is very flattering of government. But as I said, I’m not very sure of these; what else ya got?

Another way to say this: why doesn’t government more often directly control the provision of stuff that it taxes? Like soda, gambling, luxury goods, polluting cars, etc.?

Added 11:30a: Bryan Caplan suggests its citizens or employees prefer government to be closer to good things, and more distant from bad things. So they want direct provision of things to subsidize, market provision of stuff to tax.

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Why Not Innovate More?

When investigating specific policy changes to test for evidence of whether stronger patents induce more R&D, a number of papers have failed to uncover such a relationship. (more)

Economists widely believe that failing to sufficiently promote innovation is one of humanity’s biggest, if not the biggest, social failure. While innovation is the main cause of growth in population, wealth, and satisfaction over time, the people who put in effort to create and diffuse innovations on average gain much less from their efforts than what everyone else gains. So they do too little.

Yes, we do have some laws and policies that we say promote innovation. Such as intellectual property, research tax credits, and government funded research. But our total spending on all of these is quite small as a fraction of the economy. Even given these efforts, we still have a huge underinvestment in innovation. Why?

One theory says that we still don’t sufficiently understand innovation. Yes, we know roughly what social process we have in mind, and we can roughly agree on which events and things around us represent more or less innovation. For example, we can hand out awards for unusually good innovation. But if we funded a government agency tasked with promoting innovation, or if your org funded a special office to do similarly, they wouldn’t actually know enough about what to do to justify a large budget. Which suggests that we don’t actually know enough yet about which are the more useful innovation efforts.

Another theory, however, says that we know plenty of other ways to promote innovation, but just aren’t willing to pay their costs. Our world would be more innovate with lower levels of regulation, especially re new products and services. There’d be more innovation with less variety in products, services, languages, and cultures, and with more emphasis on capital and engineering over labor and design. We’d also have more innovation diffusion if we weakened our “not invented here” biases, and other biases to celebrate invention more than diffusion. And if we celebrated innovation more, compared to other accomplishments, such as activism.

We know of many ways to make changes in these directions. But for all such changes we have sacred-like values that oppose them, and which we prioritize over innovation. The obvious but hard solution: change our priorities.

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What is ‘Elite Overproduction’?

Elite overproduction … describes the condition of a society which is producing too many potential elite-members relative to its ability to absorb them into the power structure. … a cause for social instability, as those left out of power feel aggrieved by their relatively low status. … explained social disturbances during the late Roman empire and the French Wars of Religion, and [Turchin] predicted that this situation would cause social unrest in the US during the 2020s. (More)

Toynbee argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a Universal State, which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force – against all right and reason – a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. (More)

There’s a simple and plausible income interdependence scenario where inequality matters little for policy: when [welfare] outcomes depend on [income] rank. … This applies whether the relevant rank is global, comparing each person to the entire world, or local, comparing each person only to a local community. [A] 2010 paper … makes a strong case that in fact the outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (More)

I often hear about how many elite areas have become more competitive, and more stressful. People have to do and be more than they once did to succeed. There are ominously more hopefuls who will be disappointed, and becomes disgruntled. But people have always cared a lot about status, and tried hard to rise in status. And if status is mainly about one’s percentile rank in some overall ranking, what could have changed?

Some ideas:

  • The variance in money or popularity has changed; it is now more “winner-take-all”, so status gets you more.
  • There is more, or less, mobility in status over time, perhaps to different degrees at different status levels.
  • What were once many disconnected status hierarchies have merged into fewer more global rankings.
  • The relative weight on prestige versus dominance has changed; the one that is now bigger is more stressful.
  • As we get rich, we more satisfy our basic needs (and get more status drunk), and so care more about status.
  • We have gotten better at measuring status (e.g., via social media), making it more visible, so we care more.

Here is my related hypothesis: we now put more weight on many smaller lower-noise status markers, instead of fewer bigger noisier markers. In particular, we put more weight on markers of connections to statusful people and institutions.

For example, early in ancient empires, many rose in status via winning military battles, or perhaps by building new trading regimes. But later in such empires, status was counted more in terms of your connections to other statusful people. Which led to neglect of military success, and thus empire collapse.

So early on, ambitious soldiers tried to figure out how to win battles, and to get involved in promising battles. But it was hard to guess just how to do this, and outcomes were noisy functions of efforts. So no one could be very sure of their future status, or with whom to associate to gain status. But later on, ambitious soldiers would need to come from the right family, and make good new social connections. So they worked to make sure they wore the right clothes, went to the right events, flattered the right people, joined the right groups, and so on. In this world, they could more easily see who was higher status.

As another example, back in my day physics classes gave lots of hard problems that most students couldn’t do. So there was a lot of noise in particular grades, and students cared as much or more about possibly doing unusually well as doing unusually badly. One stellar performance might make your reputation, and make up for lots of other mediocre work. But today, schools give lots of assignments where most get high percent scores, and even many where most get 100% scores. In this sort of world, students know it is mostly about not making mistakes, and avoiding black marks. There is otherwise little they can do to stand out.

For a third example, it seems to me that in academia people now care more about the status of your journal articles and job institutions, and less about what exactly you said in those articles or did in those jobs. And theory, where a new entry might surprise everyone with its great power, has been displaced by lower variance empirics, where success depends more on access to funding and data, on mastering hard in-fashion stat techniques, and on having the right social connections.

In all of these examples, the new focus is on the low, not the high, end of the distribution of outcomes for each event or activity. The new focus is more on social connection and less on the non-social world. And people can better see their current status, and estimate their future status. All of these changes seem to me to naturally feel more “competitive”, producing more “anxiety”.

Added 22Aug: As status marker weights and groups sizes are always changing, there are always groups rising and falling overall in status. Yes, a high status group that is rising in size and falling in status might see that as a time of “elite overproduction”, but since that sort of thing is happening quite often why would we say it happens overall especially more at certain times?

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Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

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Douthat’s God Argument

Ross Douthat argues for God:

idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art. …

idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why [you are] … obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment. …

assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained … incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand. …

speculation about a multiverse in part because [we have] … repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. … “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, … our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. (More)

So the phenomena (P) to explain are:
A) our part of the universe seems tuned to allow life, which exists here, and is ordered,
B) humans now exist, are conscious, and have particular concepts of beauty and morals
C) humans think big thoughts, and have made some progress understanding the universe
D) humans also come across some weird stuff we don’t understand

The usual “science” (S) theory says:
A) a big enough dumb universe can have many differently-tuned parts; in one life arises
B) lasting life eventually creates order and minds with abstract intelligence
C) intelligence naturally creates concepts of consciousness, beauty, and morality
D) intelligence will try to and can understand some but not all of its universe

The alternative “God” (G) theory says:
A) A “perfect” mind exists without a universe, or even time, needs no resources, has no mental limits
B) Just by thinking, this mind can learn anything and create universes, life, creatures, and minds
C) This mind has particular concepts of beauty and morals, and gave them to humans
D) This mind makes some humans see strange things for various mostly-unknown reasons

So which of theories S or G does better at explaining P?

Theory S should be discounted to the extent that it seems a priori unlikely that a dumb universe would be that enormously big. Also discount S to the extent you doubt (much more than I) the usual theories suggesting why enough dumb matter might create life, and some creatures might gain abstract intelligence, seek to understand their universe, and develop concepts of feelings, beauty, and morality. Also discount S if you think the human level of understanding vs. not of its universe differs greatly from what you’d expect from the most intelligent creatures to evolve in the particular-sized societies we have seen. I don’t, and don’t see how humans understanding some things but not understanding others can both be taken as evidence for G over S.

Theory G should be discounted to the extent that you (like me) see minds like ours as way too complex to be the primitives that one postulates for a scenario, and find the idea of unconstrained minds out-of-time that make things via their thoughts to be strange and borderline incoherent. After all, all the minds we have ever seen in detail have been in time, with a great many limitations (e.g., memory, speed, mistakes, sensor input) tied in detail to the limitations of particular complex localized physical objects (i.e., particular brains). If this perfect mind can make minds more like itself, why does it make these very limited minds tied in such detail to these limited brains?

Yes, theory S may fail to predict many details of human beauty and morality concepts; according to S some details are arbitrary and random, based on contingent features of the species involved. And yes, theory G predicts that these features come from the perfect mind. But G also fails to predict those same details; it just assumes them as part of the perfect mind.

Furthermore, I don’t at all see how strange stuff that some humans see but can’t explain is support for G over S. Under both theories, there would sometimes be strange stuff that humans find hard to understand. Some claim that particular variations of the perfect mind is the best explanation of particular strange stuff, but there are many conflicting such claims. As there are variations of both S and G that predict more strange stuff, and variations that predict less strange stuff, I don’t see how the existence of strange stuff supports one over the other.

Me, I find it far easier to believe in an enormous dumb universe than in unlimited minds that can make anything by thinking, yet choose to make minds with limits tied in such detail to the limits of particular brains. Seems far simpler to me to just see the minds we see as the activity that results from the evolved brains we see, with no non-brain-based minds existing.

Added 18Aug: I should note that perhaps the most common objection to G is the “problem of evil”. If the idea of this perfect mind sharing your moral ideals is a key part of the appeal, you can indeed be put off by their appearing not to act in the way this would suggest.

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Why Does Reason’s Reach Vary?

Where does reason have the most and least reach in our lives? That is, where are we most and least able and expected to give reasons for our conclusions and actions?

Math seems like a max reason case. Every math claim must be backed up by a proof. But even then, I know that in many math literatures papers are usually rejected not for having incorrect proofs, but for not making the assumptions that referees would have preferred. Such referees are usually not expected to or able to articulate well why some assumption sets are preferred, and paper authors can only imperfectly predict their choices.

Romance and art seem near to min reason cases. There we are consistently unable to give reasons to account for our choices, or even to predict our and others’ choices. And we don’t even like to be pushed to try. But why? You might explain this as due to complexity, but math and many other reason-filled areas of life can be quite complex.

I suspect mixed strategies and hidden motives. That is, our being able to give reasons and predict choices would allow others to infer our motives, or to control us via threats and promises. And so such issues must be especially important in romance and art. But this is just speculation, and I’m honestly curious: why exactly does reason have so little reach in romance and art?

Added 10a: It seems obvious that we want to be unpredictable and to hide our motives in romance. We don’t want others to control such an important choice, and we sometimes want to cheat. The fact that reason also has little reach in art suggests that art and mating are strongly linked. We use art to solicit mates and we use art to pick with whom to mate, but we deny these things and claim we just love art for its own sake.

Is charity another area with a low reach of reason?

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Seeking Status Fashion Stats

Some societies are more healthy, productive, innovative, and stronger than others. We now understand many factors that contribute to this difference, and we collect and track many stats related to these factors. To predict future changes in social health, it is especially important to track well the stats that change the fastest. After all, for slowly changing factors infrequent noisy measures may do fine.

However, I see one factor which is important, which can and does change rapidly, and yet where we do very little tracking of related stats. That factor is: fashions in the status markers seen as determining who is more elite. Let me explain.

All cultures and subcultures distinguish people by their status, via agreed-upon markers, such as wealth, power, attractiveness, credentials, wit, and much more. While the weights that different cultures put on these things usually have the same signs, their magnitudes can differ greatly. I’ve seen such weights vary greatly over my lifetime, and across the many social worlds I’ve inhabited. For example, societies that put more weight on military valor are likely to fight more wars, those that put more weight on business profits will see more wealth, and those that care more about music will hear more music.

These differences have huge consequences, as a big fraction of social energy is devoted to seeking higher status. Especially among the “best” people. These difference probably vary not only by nation, but by city and region, by industry and profession, and by ethnic and other subcultures. And over time, status marker fashion changes not only with overall fashions, but also with the status of subareas, such as recently when tech got rich and was then taken over by traditional elites.

Changes in status fashion have the potential to bring great societies crashing down, and to raise up once low societies. Such fashions do in fact often seem to change a lot over time timescale of decades. And yet I know of no attempts to create data series to measure these crucial changes. Seems a hole worth filling.

We should also put a lot more thought into how to change our status markers to be promote social health. And to prevent the rise of unhealthy markers.

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