30 Fundamentals – Everything Studies

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#15 In practice, there are, when assigning responsibility for life outcomes, two poles: one being a high-agency stance that treats individual freedom and responsbility as absolute, and the other a low-agency stance that treats choices as constrained so much by social structures that responsibility is best placed on the system as a whole[6][7]. I don’t have much of a dog in that fight and I think people who favor one of these approaches across the board are doing it wrong; they’re appropriate in different measures depending on the specific context[8].

#16 While inequality does not itself prove unfairness, there is manifestly a lot of unfairness even in the best of modern societies. This should not be denied, and the “just-world” fallacy is indeed a fallacy. A generous welfare state is thus justified. There’s no panacea against unfairness, but increased transparency and attempts to locate particular sources of unfairness are good starting points. Some sources of unfairness (like some people growing up with better parents) cannot reasonably be eliminated.

#17 Humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups for almost all of their evolutionary history. Agriculture and industry are late inventions that put humans in unnatural conditions, leading to many, many good things but also to a lot of problems, including large scale war, oppression, regimentation, boredom, alienation etc. Lots (not all) of social problems are both “innate” and “environmental” at once by being a product of our nature having adapt to conditions it didn’t evolve to fit into.

#18 Way more social and political problems, dissatisfactions, internal dissonances etc. than we think stem from us living in very large (as opposed to small sub-dunbarian) societies. When everyone no longer knows everyone else, we can’t rely on intuition to run society any more. Complicated issues will have to be managed, and we can’t just go by what feels right (or dismiss something because it doesn’t), because on this scale there are dynamics we don’t inuitively comprehend. The result has been the emergence of impersonal, formal institutions like laws, bureaucracy, currency, property and contracts — everything hippies hate. I sympathize. Really, I do. But it’s sheer size that demands those things, not artificial imposition. We can’t have large societies that “feel right”.

#19 Today we live in physical proximity with people who, on a subcultural or individual level, don’t share our historical and cultural reference frames the way everyone would in a small tribe. This is an overall good because of the level of self-determination, self-cultivation and intentional community it allows, but comes with costs like alienation, loneliness and communication difficulties.

#20 War, violence, genocide, conquest, exploitation and poverty are not the products of modernity, capitalism or the industrial revolution. They are as old as civilization (some are older). Western civilization as an escape from a violent, oppressive, dirt-poor past is an extraordinary accomplishment, and it has every right to feel good about itself for that. Similarly, modernity was and is a great thing that’s led to prosperity beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and we should bow down and thank it for what it has given us and continue to give us, before we start legitmately complaining about downsides that certainly do exist.

#21 Moral progress does happen, but not because we’re “becoming better people” or “discovering what’s Right” in any fundamental sense. There’s no grand arc to history. It happens because our societies are getting wealthier to the extent that we can afford to be more generous to each other: more altruism towards strangers, more principles, more personal freedom, more acceptance for nonconformity and more concern about suffering. The viability of moral progress is contingent on that prosperity continuing.

#22 Consensus morality is downstream from practicality. It does not grow into a predetermined shape dictated by some elusive “correct” ethical theory, instead it thrives and withers selectively based on the shape of the space available. We will not have morality that demands too much of us and we will not have morality that prevents us from picking low-hanging fruit. We find ways to justify the rules we need.

#23 Consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics are not substitutes. They are complements, dealing with different facets of a morality full of internal tensions. The notion of a “true” ethical theory and strong moral realism makes no sense to me.

#24 Much of our thinking is half-conscious at best and our powers of introspection are way weaker than we think. Intuitions about our own motives and behaviors are not to be trusted, and powerful feelings are to be acknowledged but viewed with suspicion. Only by studying psychology (for understanding minds annd emotions), economics (for understanding behavior), math/machine learning/cognition (for understanding properties, categories and concepts) and philosophy (for when the rest isn’t enough) can we even begin to understand what we’re thinking and why.

#25 Specialization is necessary but academically overvalued for structural reasons, and interdisciplinary work is less than 1% of what it should be. I invented the word erisology partly because I want a “science” of how argumentation and rhetoric actually works in societies where people don’t understand each other, but also because I think there should be an intellectual specialty dedicated to understanding and bridging — by translation, comparison and refactoring — the differences between other intellectual specialties.

#26 I identify with nerds (especially of the STEM variety) and instinctively tend to take their side in any disagreement or conflict. However, I’ve noted that the closer I get to such nerds the less I feel like one of them.

#27 I massively prefer creation and synthesis over other processes, I think in literally all areas of life. When I played computer strategy games as a kid I liked to place the enemies as far away from me as possible so I could build my civilization in peace. When fighting became inevitable I lost interest and started a new game. I think I actually spent more time modding such games than playing them. This has a big influence on my attitudes to everything, especially politics.

#28 No 27 also affects my sense of aesthetics. Great works of art and culture are necessarily (but not suffciently) impressive feats of creation. Unfortunately this view of art and aesthetics has gradually — over the 20th century — been crowded out by ideas that instead emphasize potential for interpretation, audience provocation and (banal) messages. The result is a lot of extremely unimpressive art, which is all too easy to satirize.

#29 Ideologies describe the world but also work to reshape it in their own image. For that to yield good results an ideology must expect a little bit more of the world than it currently delivers, but not too much more, lest the cable pulling us forward breaks from the strain. Good ideology is practical but not cynical, optimistic but not utopian.

#30 Everyone arguing has a point, even if often not a very strong one. Charity and civility in disagreement is an essential virtue, and make an effort to understand under what conditions something seemingly wrong would make sense. People are more different in how they see the world than we think, and we should practice telling ourselves stories that make the other sympathetic.

So there it is. I’m not satisfied with it but I doubt I would ever be. Some topics have received more coverage than they deserve, while some important stuff that lends itself well to concision have got less. I still think it has some value in helping readers understand where writing on this blog is coming from.

I noticed that this ended up more focused on fundamental “beliefs” than attitudes and feelings. That might have been a mistake, since I believe it’s deep-lying emotional reactions and intuitive thought patterns that determine what beliefs we’re predisposed to. In other words, there is another layer below. If I were to try this again I think I’d focus on that. I’m sure to feel even more self-conscious then.

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Notes

[1] However, this has the problem of erasing the personal intellectual background of their contributors in favor or the one represented by the publication, making it more likely that individual writers get misinterpreted. The same applies to membership in political parties or organizations.

[2] Yes, dishonest propagandists can abuse this just like they can abuse everything else, but it would increase the cost of doing so and still be beneficial for the rest of us.

[3] I don’t consider quantum indeterminacy, however interesting, to be of much philosophical consequence in practice. This is partly because the sort of non-determinism people tend to want doesn’t seem to be the kind that quantum mechanics delivers (i.e. on a human scale and relevant to choice, historical contingency etc.).

[4] I’m taking about what philosophers call synthetic claims, not analytic ones that aren’t about the external world.

[5] The word “exist” is of course highly complicated. My The Big List of Existing Things discussed its possible meanings.

[6] And sometimes by extension on everyone participating in it. I’m significantly less sympathetic to this hardline view than to its softer cousin, as I think it’s important to place well-defined, limited responsibilites on people.

[7] Thanks to Liskantope for discussing these two perspectives in detail here and here.

[8] This, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying “I am a political centrist”.