Author Archives: Kip

The Meta-Human Condition

Consider these points:

  1. Our entire life stories are fixed by our genetics and our childhood environment (nature and nurture, more broadly), both of which we did not choose;
  2. Our bodies are slowly growing more frail and debilitated until we die of something such as heart disease, cancer or stroke (or accident before then);
  3. Even if someone develops a cure for aging, most of the experts who have studied the issue estimate about a 50/50 chance that our species will survive this century;
  4. We live on a giant rotating planet, in an unimaginably large universe that is almost all empty space, and appears to be lifeless;
  5. The fact that we were designed by evolution to value or desire certain things doesn’t seem to justify actually valuing or desiring them;
  6. While most people believe in some sort of religion that provides cosmic context, the thousands of religions contradict each other, and all appear to be fictions created by men;
  7. While most people believe in an “afterlife,” people don’t believe that parts of a crazy person’s mind go to Heaven when he loses them; by extrapolation, all of a person’s mind doesn’t go to Heaven when you lose all of it.

My point is not to push these beliefs onto anyone who resists them.  I suspect, though, that most OB readers already think they are facts.  And I suspect that many otherwise religious people, in their heart of hearts, already believe the above too.

My point, instead, is to make an observation about the above set of facts, which I’ll call “the human condition,” in the pessimistic sense.  My observation is this: while all of the above facts can be considered an insult or injury, there is one more that goes largely unnoticed.  The final insult is that we are not supposed to talk about the human condition.  Indeed, we are not even supposed to acknowledge its existence.  I call this last insult the “Meta-Human Condition”—the salt in the wound.

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Show-Off Bias

It seems to me that self-identified smart people are biased towards complex or counter-intuitive answers to problems.  The reason is simple: complex or counter-intuitive answers allow one to show off intelligence.  So let’s call this bias “show off bias.”

Axelrod’s Tit-For-Tat may provide a good example of show off bias.  Tit-For-Tat is a simple decision algorithm for an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In deciding whether to cooperate or defect, Tit-For-Tat states: just do whatever the other person previously did.  If the other cooperated, you cooperate.  If the other defected, you defect.  Tit-For-Tat. 

The algorithm works surprisingly well.  Wikipedia tells me that “tit for tat was the most effective, winning in several annual automated tournaments against (generally far more complex) strategies created by teams of computer scientists, economists, and psychologists.”

Why didn’t these smart scientists think of Tit-For-Tat?  They probably did, or could have.  But something made Tit-For-Tat unattractive to them.  I’m suggesting that part of what made Tit-For-Tat unattractive was a smart person’s natural desire to show off.

Let me relate two other possible examples of show off bias: one well known, and one personal.  I’ll begin with the personal anecdote.

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