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Dec 3, 2023Liked by Robin Hanson

It's an interesting turn from the earlier post; going from a sense that distasteful communities might win in the end - the sort of 'cockroach after global thermonuclear war' vision - to the idea that virtue might actually be grounded in sustainability and health, and thus evidence of sustainability should guide the search for the aesthetic.

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I am glad you continue to pursue this train of thought, but after spending most of my adult life studying progress, I am not following you. I can certainly see why the rate of progress and productivity might be expected to decrease with a smaller and older population, but I think it is jump to suggest it will stop, let alone drop.

The essential constricted source is new ideas. Here, historically, a tiny percent of people in a small share of nations have done all the heavy lifting. As the population drops, all that is needed is to make sure some people in some places continue to be rewarded for knowledge creation, innovation and entrepreneurial experimentation. I think this is very likely to be the case, and the total number of innovators in a century will be greater than it is even today, but certainly more than most of the 19th and 20th centuries which saw rapid growth.

What factors contribute to the rate of progress:

1) The population

2) The percent of the population capable of innovation (intelligence, specialization, education, freedom)

3) The rate of innovation based upon institutions and technologies to discover, test and select good from bad

4) The ability of ideas to propagate and spread once discovered (communication and transportation)

5) The ability of the population to work together and compete constructively to solve problems and NOT create problems for each other (positive vs negative sum)

6) The availability of cheap energy to drive the above

If I understand your position, you are focusing on #1. I think the others are just as, or more important, and these are not necessarily getting worse, and will quite possibly get better. Some (#3,4 and 6?) may get incomparably better. With smart AI and fusion, our problem is more likely to be excessive speed of change, not stagnation.

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Also, just because you've found one trait where Amish style cultures have an advantage doesn't tell you that they are overall advantaged. Quite plausibly the reason they haven't been engines of economic growth is that they lack beneficial (or even have harmful) traits in other areas.

So it seems weird to recalibrate respect until we actually see what comes out on top. Quite plausibly what will happen is that either some fusion of the cultures will be necessary or some totally new culture will come to dominate.

You've already recalibrated respect for having a high birthrate but beyond that I don't see why you would want to increase respect for these subcultures since, for all you know, you are boosting respect for the aspects of the subculture that have inhibited their economic growth.

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I will posit a negative recalibration.

When I went to STEM magnet school with a bunch of East Asians in high school in the 90s, I had a high estimate of East Asian culture.

Today its economy has been stagnant for two decades and its TFR has cut in half.

I’ve done the same thing in reverse, what about East Asian culture has caused such a failure mode.

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Wow, I really like this! Regarding: "raw emotional energy due to adults being surrounded and respected by so many basically happy children, kids who are themselves happy due to being around so many other kids. I can see a strong communal bond and lack of resentment of communal obligations due to their pretty egalitarian practices and strong communal autonomy..."

I appreciate what you said about having to recalibrate; you helped me understand why I'm more recalibrated already. One, I'm a psychologist, and we've long been wondering about the rise in depression and anxiety over the last 50 years. I appreciate "lack of resentment of communal obligations due to their pretty egalitarian practices." I teach cross-cultural psychology; in class we try to figure out why people in traditional societies made sacrifices for each other; we talk about the ills of American hyperindividualism. My students note how Americans do superficial and low-cost shows of caring for each other, like, the norm of holding a door open for the stranger behind you (this practice is unexpected for my students from East Asia); but don't (as often) do deeper ones.

I have examples of how American culture worked over a century to reduce / mute natural human feelings of interdependence. By what was the advantage for reducing human natural communality; cut bono? Answer: It served the larger economy. remember that in mid-20th century the colossal company IBM was called "I've been moved." Industry needed workers who could be relocated to different branches around the country for just-in-time business needs.

Mechanisms for muting interdependence include forbidding bed-sharing between toddlers and family members. One mother on a toddler-sleep internet forum wrote (some years ago), "My mother in-law was always yelling at me not to bed-share because how would my son ever learn to be independent; well, he just shipped out to Afghanistan last week. "

My students note: Anglo-Americans go to college 1000 miles away from their home; more recent immigrants either live at home or attend college near by *because they want to see their family on weekends.* When a culture spends 18 years telling children to be independent and self-reliant, well, they'll grow up to be that way.

My students want hyperindividualism to end. Funny, we just had a two hour discussion about that in my other course, Psychology of Poverty, Wealth and Inequality. But a cultural change that took hundreds of years to produce can't be changed back to communalism and interdependence so easily.

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I've come to believe that such societies can only exist if they control girl/women's access to education and control of our bodies (denied access Contraception, inability to control men's sexual access to our bodies). Typically the higher the education women have access to, the lower the fertility rate which is why many experts say the number one thing all countries can do in the fight against climaten change is to educate girls.

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Recalibrating respect... I’ve noticed in myself, this last year, a recalibration of respect in regard to women and men, who have many children and like them. A friend’s daughter, still studying, got married at age 20 and had her first child. I admire her more than her peers who just study, works and parties. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and mother of seven children, I respect more than a childless career woman or mother of just two children... Ursula von der Leyen herself comes from a family of seven children, and one of her brothers, Hans-Holger Albrecht is also known to have seven children. I wonder, whether a non-insular culture that lavished admiration, status and prestige on high-energy, capable women with several children and thought a lot less of or even held childless, selfish career women in contempt, couldn’t also be a viable culture/civilisation of the future?

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You rightfully caveat the entire fertility thesis with “provided that AI /Ems doesn’t change everything”, but of course that is a very high possibility within this century, fast enough

Similarly, I fear you are underweighting the impact of change (cultural, technological), which might overwhelm fertility trends:

1. A fall in population will likely mean a fall in real estate costs, which are one of the sources of high costs of children. Reducing real estate costs will likely increase fertility

2. Similarly, many new techs are coming that are likely going to dramatically undercut parenting costs: remote work allows larger families (and many generations living in community), self-driving cars make small cars less of a problem (cars are shared, so the CAPEX is amortized across more people), artificial wombs, AI tutors... all these will come before the fertility drop will grind innovation to a halt

3. you’re assuming automation can’t make up for the reduction in innovation from fewer humans. Given the progress of AI, this might be a false assumption.

4. The sub-cultures you discuss are frequently possible within bigger cultures that support them, especially with defense. Take the defense away and such communities can easily be overwhelmed. Let’s see what happens to the Haredi culture in 30 years. My guess is it will either evolve or be suppressed (probably by Israelis, maybe by Arabs)

5. Such sub-cultures don’t scale. They fundamentally change as they become bigger. Equality notoriously doesn’t scale well.

6. Final side note: it doesn’t look like all Arab countries will fall below 2 children per woman. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/children-per-woman-un?tab=chart&time=1950..latest&country=USA~FRA~MAR~DZA~SAU~EGY~LBY~SYR

In summary, it looks like so much can happen that worrying about such a long-term issue as existential for humanity seems overweighting its risk?

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Robin, your transparent reflection on the difficulty of internalizing admiration for the Amish lifestyle, despite acknowledging its potential future significance, strikes a chord. It mirrors a universal human quandary: the effort to align our intellectual comprehension with emotional resonance, particularly in the context of lifestyles and cultures that diverge markedly from our own experiences. This interplay between cognitive recognition and emotional assimilation forms a pivotal element of human understanding and empathy. Your willingness to share this inner conflict not only adds depth to the conversation but also invites introspection.

In the early 2000s, I found Beverly Lewis' "The Secret Keeper" from her Home to Hickory Hollow series particularly insightful. This novel delves into the complexities of Amish life, juxtaposing it against the allure of the modern world. It follows the story of a young Amish woman grappling with the secrets and traditions of her community, while also being drawn to the freedoms of the outside world. This narrative could offer you a nuanced perspective on the Amish community's adherence to tradition in the face of modern societal pressures. Lewis' portrayal might help in bridging the gap between intellectual appreciation and emotional understanding, providing a deeper insight into the Amish way of life and its stark contrast to contemporary living.

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> And even though this hasn’t actually happened yet, my new estimate pushes me to recalibrate my respect.

It's not at all obvious to me that this is the correct move. It is true that humans tend to respect and admire those who succeed, and the features they suppose to have led to that success. And it's clear how and why such a tendency arose through cultural evolution. However, understanding the mechanism that produces a particular opinion does not give us a reason to hold that opinion ourselves.

The "admire the successful" dynamic is flawed in many obvious ways. It is noisy, especially susceptible to arbitrary network effects that lead to the volatile idol worship of celebrity culture. It is easy to imagine bundles of values (like blind obedience to authority coupled with high fecundity) that might lead to success in terms of propagation and stability in the medium term, but that would be disastrous for long-term propagation and stability because they suppress innovation and discovery. It is even plausible to me that some such societies could thrive in the medium term by being parasitic on other, less stable cultures which produce more genuine wealth and innovation.

I noticed a similar move in your discussion of "fertile factions" where you give an explanation for why a particular value preference might become widely held as a reason to hold it. I was confused then and I am confused now.

Far better, in my opinion, for people such as yourself, who seek to understand the mechanisms by which values, opinions, and preferences emerge and propagate, to attempt to see beyond these mechanisms to perceive, however vaguely, the kinds of values we ought to have, and why.

In a future dominated by stable and fecund, but boring and insular cultures, I would much rather be someone who figured out how to help preserve, and hasten the re-appearance of, the values that lead to genuine, long-term success, rather than someone who was early to adopt bad-but-self-perpetuating values.

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After posting I gave it some more thought and landed up at the question you’re posing in your reply. The answer is uncomfortable though. In the end a community has to tell itself that it’s way of life is better than that of the outsiders.

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What’s the best of these documentaries that you have seen? I’m kinda curious about the topic, especially having a bunch of Mennonite ancestors, but not curious enough to go seriously research things, more like the level of curiosity that would lead me to watch one documentary.

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I think this is the point you might want to connect your Sacred series of posts with this specific topic, with the notion of what makes religious sacred thingies into sacred thingies, as opposed to non-religious types of sacred.

One key concept I think would be relevant is the notion of the Numinous: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numinous

In a gross over-generalization, "numinous" is that which religious people sensorially perceive when they get into contact with whatever it is that causes that feeling in them. It's a qualia without a corresponding measurable quanta, so from an objective reductionist perspective it isn't really there, but for those who perceive it, it definitely is, and that perception in turn strongly motivates them into supporting whatever it is that accounts for and makes sense of it.

Numinous perception may be an inheritable trait. Small insular communities who are also strongly religious may be the later due to everyone in there inheriting it and this binding them together more powerfully than extrinsic cultural or behavioral factors might, the later being more accessories to that perceptual binding than fundamental causes of their distinction.

If that's the case, then the first aspect to recalibrate for would be admiration towards the possession of numinous perception as a core precondition for high-fertility social arrangements, even if it alone isn't by itself enough, meaning admiration for a trait most religious people have, and most non-religious people may either lack, or even have, but redirected towards non-religious or weak-religious explanatory worldviews.

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My guess: A lot of it is due to the costs of children (both direct financial costs and opportunity costs of caring for children vs advancing one's career). Both poor people (who often don't have career ambitions and who often fail to plan ahead and thus don't fully consider financial costs) and wealthy people have higher fertility than middle-class people.

Middle-class people want a good house in a good neighborhood with good schools to raise children, and this has been increasing unaffordable for many people. As the population decreases, the cost of housing should go down, so that aspect is self-correcting in a sense. Lack of good neighborhoods and good schools is significantly caused by failure to seriously punish or exclude misbehaving individuals; the Amish do a lot better in this regard than most cities. Middle-class non-Amish people also generally want to have money to send their children to college, which is not a cost that the Amish budget for.

As AI advances in the coming decades, I expect most people will not be able to perform economically valuable full-time jobs. Assuming this doesn't cause a violent revolution against AI and that we don't all get paperclipped, this will reduce the opportunity cost (w.r.t. career ambitions) of having children.

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Ultimately you're respecting only power. The faction that you see as winning - the more powerful faction - receives your approval. If Nazi Germany had won WW2, would Nazi Germany have received your approval as well?

If a plague destroyed humanity, would you view *the plague* with approval, because it won and humanity lost?

What matters more than power is how the power is used. If the power is used to enlighten and raise up humanity, and solve our collective problems, then it is good. If the power is used to oppress and deceive humanity, then it is bad. Fundamentalist religious communities oppress and deceive their members, because fundamentalist religion is actually just incorrect. Even if that brings them power, it does not make them good. (This oppression and deception *may* bring them happiness, but whatever can be destroyed by the truth should be destroyed by the truth.)

Anyway I don't think it will bring them power in the long run. The technological people - the ones with guns and tanks - are cruel enough to massacre the fundamentalists who just have high population, if it comes to a conflict. Declining population in the technological society won't be a serious problem for hundreds of years even if it does follow your prediction. Meanwhile, the threat from AGI is far more severe and urgent.

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As someone who is very much a creature of the old world who has made various efforts throughout my life to become something more like the new world and failed totally due to how much harder it is to change root culture than merely updating preferences, I find it difficult to viscerally experience much admiration for people who are temperamentally and culturally different and who therefore are enjoying life in a different way without ever having had to struggle to achieve this.

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