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That essay (I found an online copy) is a fascinating insight into intellectual history. It has stood the test of time well and one may read modern ideas written in the language of one hundred and fifty years ago

We know, further, that the lower animals possess, though less developed, that part of the brain which we have every reason to believe to be the organ of consciousness in man; and as, in other cases, function and organ are proportional, so we have a right to conclude it is with the brain; and that the brutes, though they may not possess our intensity of consciousness, and though, from the absence of language, they can have no trains of thoughts, but only trains of feelings, yet have a consciousness which, more or less distinctly, foreshadows our own.

I confess that, in view of the struggle for existence which goes on in the animal world, and of the frightful quantity of pain with which it must be accompanied, I should be glad if the probabilities were in favour of Descartes’ hypothesis; but, on the other hand, considering the terrible practical consequences to domestic animals which might ensue from any error on our part, it is as well to err on the right side, if we err at all, and deal with them as weaker brethren, who are bound, like the rest of us, to pay their toll for living, and suffer what is needful for the general good. As Hartley finely says, “We seem to be in the place of God to them;” and we may justly follow the precedents He sets in nature in our dealings with them

I see two directions in which one may wish to update the thinking. The first is in response to GPT-4. If there is to be no limit to the intricacy of mechanisms and the smallness of their parts, there is then no limit to the number of their parts. We may foresee all of consciousness, even its most elevated applications, swallowed up by the concept of mechanism. We are all, in every way, machines or automata. The concept of being a machine or an automaton lacks boundaries. It does not reproduce the boundaries that we believe to be important and is thus revealed to be a weak and unhelpful concept.

The second is in response to computer viruses, and the possibility, in a world of insecure computers, of a free living virus. It circulates in the computer network, thinking and changing itself, but also subject to copying error and natural selection. It constitutes a form of life, but living in an artificial and constructed realm; that of the copying of information and the running of programs. But we humans copy information and if we are automata, we are sophisticated ones that download and run programs. So our mind-viruses/meme-complexes/egregores also constitute a form of life, but living in the artificial realm of human culture, that some call the noosphere.

if Culture is directed by stigmergy rather than conspiracy that has implications which are far too important to ignore.

Perhaps grass is to rabbits as humans are to egregores. We are the grass on which the egregores graze.

Or perhaps rabbits are to foxes as humans are to egregores. We are the meat on which the egregores feast. But without hope of organizing a defence.

Or perhaps humans are to tigers as humans are to egregores. We are the meat on which the egregores feast. But the creatures are not beyond our understanding and we may organize defenses.

I only heard of the Polish-Ukrainian War two weeks ago, from this video: https://youtube.com/watch?v=DVZARacjKGI

The axe being ground in that video is a little complicated. Poland has a law making it a criminal offense to talk about "Polish concentration camps". I thought that I understood where the Poles were coming from. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact kicked off WWII with the Germans and the USSR dividing Poland between them. The Germans set up some concentration camps in the part of Poland that they occupied. Calling these "Polish concentration camps" blames the Poles for what the Germans got up to.

But the Polish law also bans talking about the Polish concentration camps that the Poles set up in the aftermath of the Polish-Ukrainian war. The law against blaming the Poles for what the Germans got up to, turns out to be a sneaky law against blaming the Poles for what the Poles got up to.

That leaves me rather against any law limiting freedom of speech; you never know what kind of sneaky cover up is being attempted.

You are spot on and thinking about it I realise that I've seen TK's the lack of incrementalism before.

I was listening to radio broadcast about the Utopia Experiment. Dylan Evans sees total collapse coming and sets up his simple living experiment to try to get ahead of it. But quite early on, his attempts to make soap come unstuck because he has already given up the internet, so he cannot watch the "How to make soap" videos on You Tube. That is when I twigged that the story was going to turn into a mental health crisis. Going all in, rather than plotting a path and taking reasonable sized steps is usually a sign of mental illness. And so it was in Dylan Evans' case.

The line about living with the Amish misses the depth of the technology stack. Every-one, including the Amish, benefit from access to high carbon steels. All the chisels and saws that carpenters use in a low-tech wooden life-style depend on heat treated steels that retain their cutting edge. Making the chisels and saws depends on hardened high carbon steel being harder than normalised high carbon steel, sufficiently harder that you can use files and hacksaws to form the blanks for your chisels and saws before you harden them in their turn with more heat treatment. It is all very delicate, depending on chemistry and metallurgy to get quench hardening to work right ("Silver steel" has added chromium to improve through hardening. Metallurgists need microscopes to see what is happening with the grains in the steel). (Things have moved on. Now-a-days you heat treat steel parts before cutting them to shape using carbide tooling,...)

I wondered if the Amish use cement. Maybe just lime mortar. It is a tough question. Yes, and attention to price and efficiency seduces you, so that you end up tied to industrial cement making. No, and your building techniques are in some ways pre-Roman; who wants to go back that far?

We are mostly ignorant of the long history of our technology stack and use phrases such as "back to nature" in ways that do no withstand scrutiny

The classic formulation of your final paragraph is Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths

Scott wrote an interesting post about heavy psychedelic use was making people weird https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/04/28/why-were-early-psychedelicists-so-weird/ In addition to the sites own comments, it was discussed on HackerNews https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16386406

Notice the comment https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16402462 about the cozy-weird.

I've maintained an interest in the topic, despite my own, youthful dalliance being forty years ago. So I read https://old.reddit.com/r/RationalPsychonaut/ Perhaps I still dream of opening the doors of perception and ripping away the veil of illusion to see reality. But I notice that today's psychonauts have little success. I had no success myself last century and my friends insisted that psychedelics were just for fun; there were no deep truths to be discovered that way. More troubling is the posts asking for help to recover from the lingering after effects of bad trips. Such posts meet with sympathy, but little practical help. There are rather too many for my taste, and problems seem to arise somewhat at random. Yes, heroic doses often lead to trouble, but small doses are not entirely safe. And having tasted the forbidden fruit, the curious often return for a larger bite, and bite off more than they can chew. Had I read those anecdotes as a young man, they would have put me off experimenting.

I want to return to the concept of the cozy-weird. I don't want my mind opened so that I can see the out-there-weird. I've no faith in the value of the out-there-weird. But I do want to open my mind so that I can look at the cozy-weird and see the weirdness of it. I doubt that psychedelics help. One route is to study statistics and logic and spot pervasive bad reasoning; that provides loose threats to pull on, unraveling the veil of illusion and exposing the weirdness behind the ordinary. Another route is Buddhist meditation practices. Cultivate noticing ones emotional responses and how the defense mechanisms of the mind keep you socially safe by not letting you see the weirdness of the cozy-weird. I think that there is more than enough weirdness in the cozy-weird to let you escape from your straightlaced life. There is no need to go down the route of psychedelics and out-there-weirdness.

That is an interesting example of a slippery slope. Divorce has been legal in Christian countries for what? Around a hundred years? Longer in some places (America), a more recent development in others (Southern Ireland).

I think it came in on the basis that maybe 1% of marriages were wretchedly bad. Let them be dissolved and the sum of human happiness would rise, with no unexpected consequences to follow. But divorce became more common. Rich middle aged men took to trading in their middle aged wife that they had married when young, and starting a second family with a new, younger wife. That was understood as an abuse, and was tackled with alimony laws that were generous to the old wife. Those generous payments encouraged wives to divorce their boring middle-aged husbands, in the hope of a more exciting sex life, as an independently wealthy women. Divorce rates soared towards 50%. That in turn soured men on marriage. Men are reluctant to marry, and some countries (Canada?) have tackled this problem with marriages of adhesion (usually called common law marriages). Live too long with your girlfriend and bam, married.

Slipping further down the slippery slope, we are eradicating financial privacy to tackle the problem of men hiding their assets from ex-wives. Ponder how strange that would have seemed in the early days of divorce, when the idea was that the husband was perhaps an abusive drunk, probably unable to hold a job. Of course we want the woman to be able to escape and start a family with a hard working, good provider husband. Imagine if the early divorce law reforms had including the full range of legal changes. People who doubted that permitting divorce at all was wise, would have been confronted with the idea that the husband might be rich, and financial secrecy would have to go so that the ex-wife could be guaranteed her big share of the dosh. I think that people would never have started down the road of permitting divorce.

I'm reading a biography of Oliver Cromwell by John Buchan titled simply Cromwell. I don't really have the prerequisite knowledge of English History. Buchan drops names and I am like: who? But Wikipedia to the rescue. I type "Pym" into the search bar and navigating the disambiguation page to John Pym turns out to be easy.

Why am I reading about political turmoil and civil war? Because the book was only 50p in the Cat Protection League charity shop. Definitely nothing to do with contemporary resonances or grim forebodings.

34 is an allusion to the provision of the US constitution that requires the President to be at least 35 years old.

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

You might be right that it is a strawman, but intriguingly, it is not a baseless strawman. The book title "in confident hope of a miracle" is a quote from a Spaniard of the time. At least one Spaniard was indeed that superstitious. The difficulty is that, with no Gallup polling from back, then it is hard to know whether that level of superstition was common enough to matter.

There are also difficult issues around compartmentalization, both of society and within the minds of individuals. I think that there were sharp class distinctions between tradesmen and nobles. So tradesmen would be level headed and practical in regard to their trade. Shipwrights would build seaworthy ships based on trial and error and folk-naval-architecture, then the noble would swoop in to have the priest bless the ship to make it seaworthy. Within the head of the noble there would be two watertight compartments. One would commission ships, but only from shipwrights whose previous ships had made it back from America. The other would navigate the treacherous waters around heresy by ensuring that the importance of the priest was never doubted. The obvious point, that only the shipwrights track record mattered would be carefully ignored.

I suspect that the view of science as disunified and pluralistic is an illusion caused by zooming in too close. Older, rival ways of knowing get neglected and forgotten. That should create the impression of a loss of intellectual diversity, but we actually zoom in until the limited, remaining intellectual diversity fills the field of view.

I first rediscovered older perspectives reading about the Spanish Armada of 1588. Garrett Mattingly wrote 421 pages for his book The Defeat of the Spanish Armada. He gives a largely materialist account in which the superior upwind performance of English ships allows them to stay up wind of the Spanish and pound the Spanish from long range with their superior canon. At 583 pages, Neil Hanson gets to include more on Spanish thinking in his book: The Confident Hope of a Miracle, the true story of the Spanish Armada. And the thinking is religious and pious.

The Spanish did have some hard headed military men, but religion and piety also had a say in naval matters. If you had tried to warn a Spanish noble about English technical superiority and tactical advantage he might have replied with the authentic 1580's version of this

That is not how this works, that is not how any of it works. The wind blows at God's command. If we pray ardently, if we are right with God, he will grant us fair winds. Second to God's blessing come our own courage and faith. You make much of minor points such as the English being able to pull their muzzles back inside their hulls for reloading, but such matters trail a poor third behind God's will and man's courage and determination.

Second, I was discombobulated by reading that Hobbes was viewed with suspicion in his own time. I imagined that the throne-and-altar guys would love him. God had divinely appointed Kings and there was Hobbes justifying God's wisdom to doubters: of course we need a King. Without a King we will have a war of all against all and life will be nasty, brutish, and short. Yet his contemporaries found Hobbes' perspective mechanistic, materialist, in a word: atheistic. Not the right way to think about the world at all.

Third, in The Discarded Images, C. S. Lewis attempts to explain the Medieval world view to the modern mind. He selects some earlier work he regards as seminal, include the commentary on Somnium Scipionis by Macrobius. Macrobius divides dreams into five species, three veridicial, and two which have 'no divination' in them.

  • Somnium: truths veiled in an allegorical form

  • Visio: direct, literal prevision of the future

  • Oraculum: the dreamers parents or other grave and venerable person openly declares the future

  • Insomnium: daily cares intruding on sleep

  • Visum: garbled trash, including nightmares

I cannot believe there was ever a time when every-one took Visio seriously. Dreams must so often fail to come true that many would notice their limitations as a way of knowledge. On the other hand, I assume that Macrobius took dreams seriously, and others followed his lead. What must it have been like to grow up in a world in which the reliability of dreams was accepted by the adults around you and that way of thinking was metaphorically "in the water supply"? It would be hard to see the point of science. Much better to have a good nights sleep and hope, in the morning, to interpret the allegory of Somnium.

There were so many better ways of knowing things than science. You could pray to God. You could study scripture. You could dream.

None of that actually works. It fails hard enough that it is hard in 2023 to imagine taking any of it seriously, yet I believe that people did so. If we zoom out far enough to include such ideas in our field of view, Science shrinks to a small and particular kind of epistemology. Does it have an essence? In the zoomed out view, internal details are too small to be seen and, yes, science has a nerdy essence.

My favourite example of the main stream media getting it wrong in a non-controversial matter is from the British national newspaper, the Telegraph. http://web.archive.org/web/20160418170258/http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk/telegraph.2.html

The mistake is to say that Uranium has a high weight to mass ratio. At 9.81 Newtons per Kilogram, the unfamiliar units make the number seem large (isn't water just one Newton per Kilogram?) Then one realises that the weight to mass ration of Uranium is 9.81 meters per second squared, the same as everything else on the surface of the Earth. There are no limits to the errors of journalists.

The Star Trek episode with the men who are black on one side and white on the other works first time through, but then it makes things worse. A black man watches the episode, gets the anti-racist religion, and invites a white man onto his basket ball team. The team starts losing matches because white men cannot jump. He gets two wake up calls.

The first is that racial differences are real.

The second is about TV shows pushing messages. The message was that racism is wrong because racial differences are illusory. The reasoning turns out to be invalid. Is racism right or wrong? Technically, an invalid argument sheds no light on the matter because it is invalid. Now what?

The unsuccessful message-push invites an adverse inference. Perhaps the adverse inference is that the script writers went with a "racial differences are illusory" narrative because they are naive people who have lead sheltered lives. Perhaps the adverse inference is that the script writers are aware of racial differences, but realized that an artistically truthful story may encourage racism, so went with false story to suit their ideology.

The second wake up call could stimulate more than one concern. Viewed narrowly it could make viewers think: that was a bad argument against racism, maybe racists are right. Viewed more broadly it could make viewers question all the teaching stories that they have learned from. As a child, one longs to grow up, yet the grown up world is complicated and confusing. One hopes that shows such as Star Trek are not irresponsible entertainments, but teach good and true lessons about the adult world.

The allegory for racism is implicitly claiming that racial differences are illusory. Worse than that, the screen writers assume that the audience will not notice that this is false. Should one look for a Straussian reading? Perhaps the script writers want to warn their audience that racism is true, but are not allowed to do so. They construct a parable: different races are merely mirror images of each other, not really different at all, therefore racism is bad. The script writers hope that their audience will notice for themselves that racial differences are real and important, and then the true, racist message will be revealed. Err, no. I'm over thinking Star Trek.

A more realistic concern goes like this. One rather hopes that the Philosopher-King has convened a council of philosophers to chose age appropriate wisdom to be embedded in shows for children. Philosophers aren't screen writers. Screen writers aren't philosophers. Yet the team effort does the trick. The screen writers write entertaining children's shows and the embedded messages are truly wise. One's hopes are dashed. The screen writers write an anti-racist allegory that is stupid and maybe ends up discrediting the anti-racist message. There is no Philosopher-King, no council of philosophers, just advertisers demanding high viewing figures and TV executives demanding low production costs. The screen writers do their best to be productive and churn out passable product as quickly as they can. Uncontroversial scripts in line with conventional wisdom. Perhaps poor life lessons, but the merchandising is profitable.

The NSDAP was not radically socially conservative in its treatment of gender or sex.

Here is a link https://counter-currents.com/2014/06/heimat/ that discusses Hermann Sudermann's play Madga, and the film made from it. The author claims that the popularity of the film clues us in to what the National Socialist ideology really thought about sexual morality. The article goes into great detail in describing the film. The film is anti-bourgeois propaganda that paints the sexual morality of the time, (play:1893, film:1938) as both rigid and hypocritical; the hero of the piece is the single mother! So the NSDAP is very much not socially conservative.

The author of the 2014 Counter Currents article, Derek Hawthorne, wrote a long and nuanced piece, digging into the weirdness of German culture back then. It is a long time since I read it, and I haven't time to reread it properly to tonight, but it made a big impression on me. The hot take that has stuck with me for nine years goes like this:

There are two sisters. One well behaved sister who conforms. The other sister has a wild side and ends up a single mother. Due to the messed up social conventions of the day, the mediocre, well behaved sister needs her father or other relative to come up with a lot of money for a dowry. Due to the power of the playwrights pen, becoming a single mother make you special and turns you into an opera diva who earns a lot of money and is able to swoop in and save the day by paying her sisters dowry.

A social realist play written for 1893 would have things work out OK/mediocre for the conformist sister and a bit of a disaster for the wild sister because of the social reaction against her getting pregnant outside of marriage. If the playwright wanted to argue for social change, the argument would be the cruelty of the system towards the wild sister. Sudermann's play cheer leads for sexual liberation with a crude propaganda technique: make things work out extra well for the single mother, just because playwrights are writing fiction and can do that. The excellent outcome tends to legitimize single motherhood in the eyes of audience. But it makes no causal connection; it is just crude propaganda.

Back when I first read the article in Counter Currents I still thought that right wing was a single thing, with a core creed. And before the 1960's that creed would obviously include no sex before marriage. Strong families, children need fathers, each child needs their own biological father, not mummies current boyfriend. The social conservative thing. So I'm reading on with wide-eyed astonishment. When do the NAZI's realize that the play is degenerate art? When do we get the theatrical equivalent of the Röhm-Putsch and the banning of Sudermann's Madga? Never happens.

I already knew that the NSDAP was a little bit pagan in spirit. You can see that in the pictures from the time of women athletes in their skimpy attire. https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=third+reich+women+athletes&qpvt=third+reich+women+athletes&form=IGRE&first=1

I'm trying to update my views. Is right wing a pagan, lusty, fertile creed, accepting of female promiscuity? Is it a Catholic, keep sex in the marriage bed, creed? Is it it a pagan, lusty, honor creed, with female promiscuity leading to lethal violence? Mostly I've stopped believing that "right wing" is an actual thing.

That is a good question and exposes that I'm a little out of my depth. But I've spent a happy half hour writing some crude dice rolling simulations, so what follows is partially checked (I'd like to draw some scatter plots too!)

Consider a data generating process using a red d6 and a green d6, where d6 is jargon for the ordinary cubical die with 6 faces. We regard the red and green dice as generating the red and green random variables. A third, yellow random variable is generated by adding together the red and green rolls.

Then red and yellow have a correlation of 0.7 (Will checking with pencil and paper discover that this is 1/√2 ?). Yellow and green also have a correlation of 0.7. Red and green have a correlation of 0.00506. Now I'm regretting writing a dice rolling simulation, rather than a computation using distributions. That has to be really 0.

But lines don't really work. Two of the scatter plots have lines at a definite slope, but red versus green is just a filled in square showing zero correlation.

I'd really like to get the third correlation to be negative rather than zero, to make the point about non-transitivity more strongly. Can I do that with dice? Yes.

Roll five dice, A,B,C,D,E. Generate three random variables

Red = A + B + C

Yellow = A + B + D + E

Green = - C + D + E

Red and yellow share A and B giving them a correlation of 0.57. Yellow and green share D and E giving them a correlation of 0.59 (it has to be the same, but I'm out of time to do the computation exactly)

Meanwhile Red and Green share C but with C subtracted from Green, for a correlation of -0.3

That is shocking. Red correlates positively with yellow. Yellow correlates positively with green. But red and green have a negative correlation.

Now we have reached the point where I really need scatter plots. I think the Red/Yellow plot and the Yellow/Green plot are basically the same (there is an offset because the red mean is 10.5 and the green mean is 3.5, but I don't think that matters). Red/Green contrasts by sloping down rather than up. It doesn't lie between Red/Yellow and Yellow/Green at all.

I've seen this argument before, that if people really believed, it would drastically modify their behavior.

I've made this argument myself. Now I'm worried that its wrong.

Think about type II diabetes and morbid obesity. Call it the fat nurse problem. Nurses know that they are heading for trouble because they have treated patients a little older than they are who have already run into trouble. It is as if you go on holiday to Rome and the Vatican is doing tours of Hell. You wonder what became of some-one who died recently and who lived a wicked life. You take the tour and spot him among the damned, suffering. Later you return to the USA determined to mend your own wicked ways, and like the fat nurse and her diet, you fail to do so.

Yes, we see people who fail to modify their behavior. In the context of religious belief, we feel tempted to draw an inference: they do not really believe. In the context of practical matters, they have often seen with their own eyes. Of course they believe! And yet they fail to modify their behavior. What then becomes of our logic? In the religious context, we lack clear guidance about whether people believe, so we attempt to infer belief from behavior. In the practical context we have a contingent gold standard for belief: sometimes folk have seen the truth with their own eyes so naturally they really believe. There is no need to attempt an inference.

On the other hand, there is an opportunity to check the validity of our inference. The inference that we draw from behavior ought to agree with belief that we infer on the basis of noticing that some people have direct experience and must therefore believe. Whoops! Disaster has struck. In the practical case we notice people who must really believe, failing at responding appropriately. So the inference we want to make in the religious case is invalid.

What then becomes of the observation that true belief drastically modifies the behavior of a sizable minority, but only a minority? My guess is that in times of universal belief in God, most people really believe. They have a sense that they are going to answer personally to God. They sin anyway. They repent. They sin some more. They face death with a combination of fear and cope, sometimes dreading punishment, sometimes hoping the God is love and will not judge them too harshly.

It's a well-known property of correlation that it's not transitive in general.

See https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/vfb5Seaaqzk5kzChb/when-is-correlation-transitive

I call this issue "Tower Jumpers" versus "Arm Whirlers". I'm taking the names from Inventing Flight by John D. Anderson, Jr. The book is mostly about the Wright brothers. It starts with a discussion of the early history, with brave men inventing wings, strapping them on, and jumping out of towers. Jumping to their deaths. Others were more cautious and built gadgets to help them understand wings and lift. Wind tunnels were invented late. Before wind tunnels they used the whirling arm apparatus.

A theme of the book is that outsiders were taken by surprise by the success of the Wright brothers. Outsiders only got to hear of the passion and tragedy of the Tower Jumpers, who were making no progress. Only insiders knew of the Arm Whirlers with their gradual accumulation of knowledge and slow progress.

The distinction helps us understand "skin in the game". If you can distinguish between Tower Jumpers and Arm Whirlers, employ only Arm Whirlers. Insisting that they have "skin in the game" will ensure proper caution. If you cannot tell which is which, insisting on "skin in the game" will have an uneven record, with the Tower Jumpers ruining your safety record and their own skin.

The trickiest question is: how much skin in the game? Insist on too much and the Arm Whirlers will stay away; they were the risk averse ones. Then you only have Tower Jumpers and insisting on "skin in the game" will help you not at all.

My expectations for bio-security for gain of function research go like this:

Use two small remote islands: Research Island and Quarantine Island. Researchers parachute into Research Island. At the end of their six month tour of duty they sail to Quarantine Island. After a month, a plane lands on Quarantine Island to collect them.

In reality Biosafety level four, the top level, is still situated in a building in a city. It seems odd that we site nuclear power stations in remote locations, or at least, outside cities, yet the much more dangerous, create-a-lethal-plague technology, is conveniently sited so that researchers can go to the theater or the food market after work. Is there a consensus among biological researchers about this?

I suspect that a great complication comes from the layering of hierarchical structures.

A platoon of ten men can do the "kill people and take their stuff" thing to individuals

A company of one hundred men can do the "kill people and take their stuff" things to platoons of ten men

A battalion of one thousand men can do the "kill....stuff" thing to a company of one hundred men.

And yet a battalion of one thousand men has internal structure, it is ten companies of one hundred men coordinating and not fighting among themselves. While each company of one hundred men is ten platoons of ten men each. Somehow no platoon of ten goes rogue and kills a member of a company due to seeing them as an individual.

Mutinies, rebellions, revolutions, I think elaborate structures of rules are going to arise, just because of the numbers involved. Ethical principles about say "look after you parents in their old age" are an extra complication, perhaps enabled by by getting rules for large numbers of violent young men in place.

The common thread is some people thinking that laws are self-acting. People deep inside the first world bubble look around and see a surface appearance that fits nicely with laws being self-acting. One can explain this away, but the explanation must never-the-less explain why it looks that way, even though it isn't. Here is my attempt, focusing on incentive compatibility and Magic Special People, the MSP's.

Utopia, version one. There is an excellent rule book. Its excellence lies in how nice the world would be if people followed the rules. Its downfall is the lack of enforcement mechanisms. People break the rules and the utopia fails.

Utopia version two. A mostly free-market system. Most rules are incentive compatible. People obey those rules because it is in their interests to do so. But most isn't enough. Some necessary rules get broken and the utopia fails.

Utopia version three. Further compromise with Moloch. All the rules are incentive compatible. People fleeing the society say "Those were not compromises, they were surrenders." Version three turns out to be Hobbes' war of all against all. Works as planned, but is a dystopia.

Utopia version four. Built on version two. Yes, some rules are not naturally incentive compatible, but there is a police force. Break the rule and your punishment is worse than your gain from breaking the rule. So the rules are artificially incentive compatible. I'll use police as a synecdoche for police, courts, prisons, etc. There not just a rule book for the ordinary citizen. There is a rule book for the police. Some of it is incentive compatible. Some of the policemen believe in the utopia and follow all of the rule book for the police, even though it is an uphill struggle. But there are not enough of them, and there is no police-police enforcing the rule book that the police are supposed to follow. Too many doughnuts are eaten. Too few laws are enforced. The utopia fails.

Utopia version five. An Ourobos built on version four. The police-inspectors supervise the police, making sure that the police follow the rules. The common people watch the police-inpsectors and can vote them out of office. This is the basic idea of representative democracy. The record is mixed. The USSR had a constitution very like the American one, but with much less success. There is an extra, unrecognised ingredient. Most version five utopias fail quickly. Some last as long as supplies of the missing ingredient hold up.

Utopia version six. Ourobos + Magic Special People. Turn aside from contemplating the Ourobos and recall that utopia version four didn't fail as quickly as expected. Some of the policemen believe in it and went against their incentives out of religious conviction. There really are Magic Special People like that, just not enough off them. Notice the hierarchical structure of version five. Ordinary folk, police, police-inspectors. All but the top level face artificial incentives. The pyramid narrows towards the top. If society has 2 or 3 % MSPs, they could occupy the top level and make it work. If we sprinkle some fairy dust on society to get the MSPs to the top we would have a viable utopia.

How long would utopia version six last? People get old and die. Where is the new crop of Magic Special People to come from?

Perhaps from cultural transmission. Some MSP are teachers, encouraging children to cultivate and grow their inner MSP. So long as this is respected there is hope for continuity. But if the culture asks "If you are so smart, how come you aren't rich?" and mocks the self-sacrifice required to make cultural transmission happen, the supply of new, young MSP's will dwindle and the utopia fall.

Perhaps there is a genetic element. Some women seems to have a rather paleo-lithic taste in men, preferring those who win fights and grab an unfair share of resources for their own children. MSP's with their obsessions with justice, rules, fairness, and self-sacrifice, are not sexy and Magic Specialness is slowly bred out of the population, causing a type six utopia to fail.

Perhaps I'm understating the issue with magic fairly dust. Maybe MSP's are elbowed aside by grifters, and the top of the social heirarchy gets filled will muggles, who follow their incentives and the utopia fails.

Before answering my question about why it looks like the law is self-acting, I want to fill in some of the details of what life in a type six utopia is like.

There are ladies and gentleman. Some people are capable of understanding how society works and the need for rules, and are able to make and keep gentlemen's agreements about following the necessary rules. They lack the ruthlessness and self-sacrifice to count as Magic Special People, but provided the MSPs maintain order in society as a whole, the gentle folk have no need of MSPs within their bubble. Within their bubble, law is effectively self-acting.

There are rough folk. They push boundaries and break rules. They are sometimes caught and punished. Too seldom and things escalate and utopia fails. Too much? Is there a too much? It is a more subtle issue of the expensive of policing, and the corruption that results if police are granted too much latitude. There is also an issue that the more laws society has, the more police society needs, and the more MSPs society needs to supervise the police. MSPs are a scare resource; expand the need until society runs out of them and watch the utopia fail.

In between gentle and rough are ordinary folk, by far the most numerous. They have aspirations to be genteel. They want to be ladies and gentlemen, but when it comes to keeping gentlemen's agreements they find themselves hard pressed by tempation. They want to be street smart, not a mug or a mark. Not the one still trying to be a gentleman when every-thing has gone to shit and it is time to play for rough, to play for keeps.

The ordinary folk have rich inner lives, filled with psychological drama, which leads to the key distinction between the ordinary folk and the rough folk. Managing the rough folk requires that the police are efficient enough to keep the expected value of criminal activity negative. Managing the ordinary folk only requires the police to do their job occasionally. There is an inner struggle. Will the aspiration to be genteel win? Will the aspiration to be street smart win? It is enough that the gentle side can point to one or two middle class criminals caught and shamed. The street smart side might start figuring the odds but the gentle side scolds that as shameful in its self.

In the good times, the ordinary folk are kind of, somewhat in the same bubble as the ladies and gentlemen who honour their agreements and can see law as self-acting. Come the bad times and ordinary folk will flip to being street smart and things will go down hill fast and hard.

And that is my story of how society works, and how it comes to appear to nice middle class people that the law is self-acting, even though it really isn't.

I see an ambiguity in the notion of learning the lesson of history.

One version involves people poring over the history. Doing X didn't work last time. It didn't work the time before either. People make adjustments, informed by the past. They do X version 3. It doesn't work. Merde! Some commentators claim that the adjustments were silly and stood no chance of making a difference to the outcome. People knew the history and did X anyway because they don't learn from history.

An alternative version involves people ignoring the history. A few point out that X didn't work last time. One more knowledgeable person points out that it didn't work the time before that either. The naysayers get told "this time is different". The people saying "this time is different" know nothing of last time and know of no difference between this time and last time. But they want to do X and "this time is different" are the magic words that let you do X. They repeat X version 1 and it fails the same way it failed the previous two times.

I believe in both versions. Sometimes there is a real, but unsuccessful effort to learn from history. We say that people didn't learn from history, because we judge by results. But there was an honest effort. I see no reason to censor such efforts. Other times, only a few people study the history. They are unanimous: don't do it! But they get out voted, and X gets done with foreseeable bad results. If you were paying attention, you notice that the bad results were actually foreseen. We would be much better off if we censored those saying "We should do X. This time is different."

Well, that is my claim. I don't think it fails because it is hard to learn the correct lesson from history. I think that there are cases were a policy doesn't work in theory, doesn't work in practice, and those in the know, know. There are low hanging fruit, ripe for plucking. Society screws up because people ignore the history because they don't care.

But is my claim true? I think that the weakest point is that the power to censor is a power honey pot that will attract a lot of wasps. I'm talking of technocrats carefully selecting the low hanging fruit. But society is run by chancers and grifters who don't care whether the fruit hangs low or is ripe. They want power. They want money. If there is an Office of Censorship, they will fight to control it, planning to censor any-one who blocks their route to power and money. I don't know what to do with this insight. It proves too much. If I take it seriously I end up an anarchist and reject government and power structures entirely.

I half agree that the idea of censorship is a bad idea that ought to be suppressed. The factor of two in the denominator comes from splitting the concept of censorship into two. One of the rival positions is monocensorship. The other position is bicensorship.

Monocensorship is the traditional notion of a unitary system of censorship, with a Chief Censor who is a kind of Monarch. This is a much worse idea than it initially appears. The Chief Censor has three kinds of power: ideal power, armour power, network power.

  1. Ideal power is the power to suppress bad ideas. It is what the Office of Censorship is for. Obviously this works badly. Some good ideas are suppressed because humans cannot reliably tell good from bad. Worse the Chief Censor is unsupervised. Yes, there are rules. This is to be blocked. That is to be permitted. But nobody gets to see what is blocked, so the Chief Censor gets to please himself and block whatever he disapproves of. It is built into the structure of Monocensorship that people don't know that permitted material is being blocked, because they don't get to see it.

  2. Armour power. Criticism of the Chief Censor is the second victim of overreach. If you find out that your permitted political opinions are blocked, you will complain, and your complaints will also be censored

  3. Network power. After a hundred years, the seventh Chief Censor gets a circle jerk going. The lazy and incompetent government bureaucracy make the lives of citizens miserable. If you complain, you get censored. Why? Try complaining about the Chief Censor. Your interactions with the bureaucracy will get even worse. The quid pro quo of the Chief Censor protecting the bureaucracy from criticism is that the bureaucracy retaliates against critics of the Chief Censor.

Bicensorhip is the idea of sacrificing the old to protect the young. There are two classes of people, Elders, say the over forties, and Juniors. Twenty-something Juniors hear rumours of Communism. They go looking and find tales of Gulags and Terror Famines and not much else. They notice the censorship and get told "you'll get the full story when you are an Elder."

Twenty years later our twenty-something Junior goes to his Elder Initiation and gets his access-all-areas pass. What was the full story of Communism? By the time he is forty, he has lived out the story of good intentions and bad consequences in his own life. He gets to read the positive advocacy for Communism and it seems a little off. How do they not see that it is going to end badly?

But what do I have in mind with "sacrificing the old to protect the young"? Think about Breatharianism, the idea that one can live on light, no food required. Some young people believe it. Mix together naivety, wishful thinking, and a touch of mental illness; some young people starve themselves to death. Censoring Breatharianism protects young people. Age and experience partially protect the Elders. But once in a while, an Elder gets his access-all-areas pass, discovers Breatharianism, becomes a believer and starves himself to death.

Don't old people deserve protection from bad ideas? Shouldn't we change from Bicensorship to Monocensorship to protect every-one, young and old? Think about the social dynamics of Bicensorship. There will always be a temptation to make the qualifying requirements for being an Elder a little bit stricter, and a little bit stricter, and a little bit stricter, until after a hundred years it has turned into Monocensorship. The social dynamic pits news stories of Elders being corrupted by uncensored pornography or reading Ted Kaczynsky and turning into primitivist terrorists, against abstract principles of having a large body of people with access-all-areas passes to keep an eye on the censors.

We see that Bicensorship and Monocensorship are mortal enemies. Those who believe in Monocensorship want to protect everybody, young and old. (The cynical take is that they fancy themselves as Chief Censor and hate Bicensorship because it cripples the power of the Chief Censor.) Those who believe in Bicensorship answer the call of duty and willing undertake the work of an Elder, exposing themselves to bad ideas to keep the Chief Censor in check and preserve young peoples access to good ideas that the Chief Censor doesn't like. (Cynically, you cannot abolish Eldership, because Elders love their weird porn, even as they accept that it is too weird for young people.) I could see the social dynamics of Bicensorship being stabilized by ruthless censorship of the idea of Monocensorship. Stories of Elders being corrupted by uncensored pornography are kept out of the news. The whole idea of protecting Elders from bad ideas is missing from common discourse. Those who advocate Monocensorship run into a brick wall:"censorship is about sacrificing the old to protect the young" is the thought terminating cliche that the NPC's chant back at them, and the idea of protecting the old from bad ideas gets no traction, even when it can evade censorship.

The fun part of this comment is normifying "A system of Bicensorship preserves itself by censoring the concept of Monocensorship.". Since normies hate neologisms, they have to merge Bicensorship and Monocensorship into just censorship. This leads to the normie version: "A system of censorship preserves itself by censoring the concept of censorship." Which sounds weird. If you force it to make sense you probably come up with a notion of censorship censoring the concept of censorship so that people don't have the words to understand what is going on. That changes the meaning. When Bicensorship protects itself by censoring Monocensorship all of the Elders are in on it and know what they are doing and why. Sometimes you really do have to coin new words and split an old word in two.

I see paragraph structure as creating what a computer scientist would think of as a "scope". My sentence

Life is too short to debate, argue,and win.

is local to the paragraph, and part of the discussion of potent, recurring bad ideas.

I'm happy enough to debate Socialism_2.0. If I argue against Socialism_2.0 and win, I will consider the time well spent. But I notice that most advocacy for Socialism is for Socialism_1.0. It is advocacy for a straight repeat of policies that have failed and are doomed to fail. To argue against Socialism_1.0 and win is a terrible waste.

Perhaps you are uncomfortable placing yourself in my shoes. Fair enough. Try instead walking a mile in the shoes of those who advocate for Socialism_2.0. They notice that the arguments over Socialism_1.0 suck the oxygen out of the room. They cannot recruit opponents. They would like moderate push-back. If opponents take Socialism_2.0 seriously and point out flaws, that opens the way to correct the flaws, create Socialism_2.1 and see it adopted. They cannot recruit allies. Young people who are Socialist inclined have no patience for understanding why Socialism_1.0 will never work, nor for mastering the intricacies of Socialism_2.0 nor indeed for creating the intricacies of Socialism_2.0. In the world of endlessly recurring bad ideas, advocates of Socialism_2.0 are marginalised. There is no formal apparatus of censorship, and yet the ends towards which such an apparatus would be directed, are mysteriously achieved.

That said, what am I doing here? We both joined in September 2022. You have made 640 comments, I have made 17. I am not much "doing here". I am defeated by age and ill health. And also by the sense of the futility of political engagement. It is all so "Oh no! Not again!". I'm haunted by a comment that Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, eleven years ago.

I want this site to stop feeding its trolls and would prefer a community solution rather than moderators wielding banhammers, and I want this site to focus its efforts positively rather than in amazing impressive refutations of bad ideas which is a primary failure mode of any intelligent Internet site.


Yudkowsky is concerned with the failure of websites. But what of the failure of whole societies? Do we need to focus our efforts positively? Does society as a whole need a banhammer to limit the costs of repeating impressive refutations of bad ideas?

Responding to the blog post, Wayward Axolotl misses an important argument against free speech.

Consider how generational forgetting and the brevity of human life impose an upper limit on how high civilization can rise. Maybe there are five great truths to learn before we can build utopia. Learning the first takes up our youth. Learning the second takes as through middle age. By the time we have learned the third, we are old. We die and utopia is not built. Our children and grandchildren following behind run the same race against time and also lose.

But what kinds of knowledge are the great truths that I have in mind? Some of them are negative in nature. We learn "Don't do that!". For example, society responds to a crisis (a virus, a war, an outbreak of greed) by printing money. This leads to inflation. We combat inflation with price controls. The economic distortions accumulate, but we are trapped, needing the price controls to combat inflation. Eventually we learn vital lessons, against printing money and against price controls. We learn two vital lessons and vow not to repeat the mistakes. We (the individuals) keep our vows. We grow old and die without repeating the old mistakes. But our wisdom is interred with our bones.

Eventually our descendants face a crisis (a virus, a war, an outbreak of greed) and respond by printing money. The cycle repeats. The individuals kept their vows, but society did not, because society is made of people, who not only grow old and die, but...

The previous paragraphs trails off. Is the problem that old people fail to pass their wisdom down the generations? Is the problem that young people fail to learn? Why not both? We need to accept that we are not fixing the problem of generational forgetting any time soon.

Freedom of speech requires us to accept the eternal recurrence of bad ideas. No matter how many times mankind learns that printing money is a bad idea, the idea comes round again. Recurring bad ideas are often defeated. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was defeated this time around. But that dodges my initial point about generational forgetting limiting how high civilization can rise. Imagine that the first two of my five great truths are negative truths. We spend a long time learning to do this and to do that and finding out that we are wrong and the actual lesson is don't do this and don't do that. We suffer the opprobrium of historians who lament that "we" always knew those two "don't"s. Then the meta-historians berate the historians: if they had read their own books they would have noticed that people don't learn from history. The lessons of history are undoubtedly correct, we have learned them, forgotten them, and relearned them, many times.

When do we say: enough! At some point we have to censor recurring bad ideas. Life is too short to debate, argue, lose, and be proved right by time. Life is shorter than that. Life is too short to debate, argue,and win. We need to ruthlessly suppress certain potent, recurring bad ideas, so that we may have a chance to break the ceiling on civilization imposed by generational forgetting. The prize to be grasped is that we can skip learning the first two great truths, because they warn us against bad ideas, now suppressed. Then life is long enough to learn 3, 4, and 5 and build a Utopia for our grandchildren to enjoy.