Novel opinions



‘Do what your heart tells you’ means ‘stop making up excuses and do what my heart tells you’. ‘Clearly’  means ‘so unclearly I don’t want to explain it’. ‘We’ means different things to those with different political leanings, which helps them disagree. ‘I believe X’ means something more complicated than ‘I have enough evidence for X that X is likely to be true’.

Aphorisms tend to be cynical because only knowledge you don’t want to believe is short and easily verifiable enough to be an aphorism. People are more inclined to praise long, poorly written writing than short well written ones because it is easier for the former to cheat quality heuristics. It’s embarrassing to say things that are too obvious, which makes it hard to tell what the true distribution of opinions on a controversial topic is

We don’t say much about things that are only inside our heads, because it is hard to coordinate such concepts. I suspect this means we have a greatly impoverished conceptual vocabulary for thinking about such things.

Thinking is more fun than reading because it is more like ‘chasing’ than ‘searching‘. It’s interesting that reading isn’t better suited to chasing. I like to think that thinking is better than reading as a first step to understanding a topic, but I haven’t read a lot about this.

Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought is full of other interesting thoughts about language, a few of which I wrote about. I’m still curious about why we use poorly veiled language so much. Potential veiled meanings are abundant because it is hard to get rid of connotations.


Calling your mother on Mothers’ Day tells her less about your affection than calling her any other day of the year. In general if you want to seem caring, it can be best to do things you know to be useless.

If you want passengers to relax about flying, manage every trivial thing with authoritative ordered carefulness. If you want drivers to worry more about driving, do not advertise trivial things at them with authoritative ordered carefulness. Focus on subsidising the real expression of sorrow resulting from road accidents.

Several communities of rural Bolivians given a cheap method to disinfect water and save their children mostly failed to do so. This was put down to the social costs of demonstrating oneself so poor as to require such a method. If this is the reason, the desire to look good must be remarkably strong.

In almost every social circumstance it is important to hide this desire and feign something less than intense preoccupation with oneself, with the as yet unexplained exception of social networking sites. A popular way to tell people about yourself without appearing self-obsessed is to evaluate things around you and communicate those evaluations, leaving inferences about your personality to the listener. It is best to celebrate unimportant things, so that everyone else doesn’t also love them and remove the information from your signal.

Blog comments are much more negative than other blogs responding to a given post. I hypothesise that this is for reasons of status dynamics, though my readers have good alternatives too.

‘Signaling’ is a big part of human behavior. Much of it is ‘costly signaling’ – where a cost prevents sending dishonest signals from being worthwhile. Costly signaling can be cheap however.


When women feel comparatively unattractive they quickly lose interest in attractive men, and weigh less superficial characteristics more highly. It seems then the advertising industry is a force for devaluation of looks in favour of personality etc. However the advertising industry’s effect on societal trust is less clear. When people feel more attractive, they become more trusting when they think they can be seen. Attractive people fill advertisements in part because people automatically like things more if they see an attractive person looking at them, which is probably an attempt to be more compatible with said person. Advertising often makes products more environmentally friendly.


It is idealistic to expect true love to conquer all impediments, except other true love. Romantic idealists hope instead for one love to last for a long time, not a series of gradually improving relationships. Romantic relationships are probably not worth a million dollars very often, which leads me to ask whether so many people really find the internet more valuable than their partner. Romance doesn’t seem to have been innovated much over time.

Of all the goods and services traded in marriage, ongoing love is the one which is hardest to truthfully promise, hardest to tell if the promise is kept, and yet the single one which people are most keen to make promises about for the indefinite future. In spite of such commitments, or perhaps because of them, many women would much prefer their husbands to die than be frozen for later medical treatment, which surprises me greatly.

People mostly like to pair with people of at least their own social status, so uncertainty about the status of others might help cause more people to get together. I’m not so sure about this one. Height makes men much sexier. Which makes the fact that they don’t gradually come to wear high heel shoes puzzling. When people are interested in sex, their apparently innocent interests change in fields such as cars and charity. If it becomes commonly known that certain behaviours are strong signs of unconscious desire to woo mates, those behaviours will become treated like other unconscious signs of sexual interest.


Conflicts over equality in domestic cleanliness compromises often remain despite good intentions because cleaning is triggered by a dirtiness level being met.

There is no correlation between the verdicts of different wine competitions because if there were, there would be space for fewer wine competitions, and consumers can’t tell when competitions are inaccurate anyway. Maybe people drink to safely lower their standards anyway.

We feel more affinity to people from distant times than distant places because the latter are generally in competition with us.

People give small amounts to many charities instead of large amounts to a single one. A new explanation for this seeming irrationality is that people are continually assaulted by a large number of charities asking for small donations, and would like them to go away.


People and groups mostly don’t make lists of the most important questions, though such a thing would seem useful for those apparently trying to answer them. People often prefer not to receive information, though it would help them act appropriately. I have some ideas about that.

People don’t seem to research the merits of their supposed dream jobs and high ambitions nearly as much as would seem sensible.

People rarely split restaurant bills by flipping a coin.

Magical abilities to heal people are much more widely claimed than magical abilities to fix organizations or computers.

Old men and young women in relationships together are expected to be superficially attracted, though for instance a young man liking the same young women is not seen as superficial.

Since people care less about groups of people than individual people, and also care more when they aren’t part of a huge group who could act, it’s interesting that charities do not match donors and donees one to one.

Many social curiosities can be explained by either innocent failures or hidden motives. Which of these is usually to blame seems an open question. Which gets blamed is sometimes motivated.


Social Equality

We generally don’t respect men for being feminine, but in many ways respect women for being masculine. This doesn’t mean that femininity is a disgusting thing pressed upon women. Encouraging either gender to overcome a few social pressures and behave like the other one is mostly pointless when it is unclear whether either gender has too much or not enough of the behaviour in question. Attempting to correct anti-female sexism often employs anti-female sexism. Women who pose as sex objects probably exert a negative externality on other women, but no more of one than all people exert most of the time by being seen with negative traits and being categorisable on other grounds.

If you want to increase respect toward a minority group, do not ‘raise awareness’. Attempting to correct an inequality with affirmative action may increase the appearance of discrimination.

Choosing a category to statistically discriminate according to is defining a group within which there will be externalities. Members make other members look better or worse by changing the reputation of the group. Mostly this is an unintended side effect, but some people set out to change the public appearance of their group to benefit themselves. More discrimination means less externalising, and should make things better.

Birth and childhood

Julian Savulescu’s proposal to pay parents not to have children is misguided in very many ways, even if you don’t agree with me that new human lives are worth quite a bit. If you do agree, maybe you should pay some attention to your parents wishes, to encourage people to be parents. You might also agree that mandatory paternity testing would be a net bad thing.

Bringing children up with unnecessarily obscure languages is very similar to causing them to be born deaf. Both are costly to the child and the world. They are both understandable on the part of parents, but inexcusable on the part of governments.


Science classes implicitly demonstrate the importance of paying attention to priors, instead of clearly introducing science. They would do better to pick one or the other and teach it clearly. This problem could be solved and the process of science could be taught better in the realm of unanswered questions that students care about, rather than answered questions that they don’t care about.

If university is for learning and then proving to the outside world that you have learned, these tasks could be much more efficiently done separately. It is hard to think of another purpose for university that would make the integrated system sensible. See also Katla.


Libertarian arguments support freedom at a smaller scale than the individual. Perhaps there should be greater limits on how people can constrain their later selves. If modern society has too many choices, people have the freedom to restrict them and choose the level of choice which suits them, as well as to find new ways to efficiently choose. If people place value on conformity they will not move to equilibriums where they do their most preferred activities.

Other politics

Not knowing what something is for is reason to keep it, not reason dispose of it, though on net you will often still have adequate reason to dispose of it.


If one believes people have become more wasteful over time, and shall continue this trend without technology making up for it, then one should not support smaller populations now to preserve resources for future generations. Turning your labor (an expensive resource) into energy, clean plastic, metal, tip space (cheap resources) by way of making environmentally friendly actions, then giving those cheap resources away for free to those who are using them wastefully is probably not a good strategy for improving the world.

Health, safety, and lack thereof

It is common practice amongst those who offer medical recommendations to advise extreme caution, and also not to tell you what degree or type of risk you face. This combination is terrible. Warning signs usually exhibit similar qualities.

Organ markets would not harm society.


People probably overestimate the optimal amount of awareness raising. They also probably overestimate the value of identifying with activist groups. If you want a real chance of changing the world in a big way, you will need an accurate idea of why everyone else hasn’t managed it so far, and a better method. You might also need to make better incentives. That some activity will affect everything is a very low standard for its influentialness.



I feel like I am behind my eyes because they tell me my location with respect to the wider world. Music makes me feel like I care about certain things, but evidently I care more about feeling like I care than going and doing something about them, at least at the time. I feel hopeful, but I don’t know what that is.

Many of our thoughts are accompanied by images. It seems plausible that those images would influence how we feel about the subjects of our thoughts, and hence how we would act regarding them. If so, perhaps we should choose the images more carefully.


People don’t really want to be happy above all else. People who don’t care for money generally claim that this is because they are so interested in big, idealistic things. My priors suggest that the majority of people who don’t care to get money must be disinterested because they are so interested in short term, unidealistic things, such as staying in bed. Perhaps they lie.

Being addicted to things you like should make them even more enjoyable but people mostly don’t want to do that either. Loyalty is the only commonly approved form of extremism.

Perfectionism might fuel procrastination because when imagining completing something further in the future, you are further into far mode and expect the outcome to be more perfect, which is a great temptation to the perfectionist. It often seems that I procrastinate in this way about exploiting my investments, and so continue investing.

Far away things also feel less important, so we make things seem further away when we wish they were less important. We also make them more abstract so they seem like they are further away, so they will feel less important. Death seems worse than suffering at a distance, but up close suffering seems worse than death. This is probably because death is too abstract to readily be considered in near mode even when it is near.


If you are nice to a person, they will expect you to continue, and if you stop they will often hold it against you further than they would have if you just ignored them originally. People can’t look for friends on sites like those for dating because friends are too hard to get rid of once you try them out explicitly. People rarely declare that their membership of idealistic social movements is instrumental and not that fun.

If most people really believed in determinism it would probably massively reduce interest in dealing justice to those who ‘deserve’ it, which would be a bad thing. Cooperative people like to punish group members more than outsiders, which seems related to how people often talk about those from other cultures as if they were not capable of being culpable. See people vs. things.

In many ways people seem to subconsciously confuse other people with themselves. Sometimes this seems to be for the purpose of show. It is not clear whether the result is more altruism at a subconscious level. Lying to others should help you be honest to yourself.

People’s reasonable mental modules also seem to confuse other mental modules with themselves, expecting reasoned arguments to someday get through to them. This probably won’t work well. Manipulate unreasonable parts of yourself according to the rules of how they work, not the rules of sound argument.

People commit themselves to principles that they must not ‘break’ because this gives them the bargaining advantage of a big credible cost constraining their actions. They also get a reputation for being predictable and others can easily discern that they are not hypocrites. Reputation is hard to use when seeking it out demonstrates your distrust. It can also be hard to use when it is a tragedy of the commons, though all reputation is shared in some sense. See social equality.


People are more interested in other people than the things that people do, even when they pretend otherwise. The exception is doings that closely influence the person’s life. We are more satisfied and less inclined to compare experiences we have bought than objects we have bought. This is because experiences are shared with other people often, and neither explicit judgement nor the idea of replaceability are appropriate to social relationships.

Stories vs systems

There are many differences in human thought styles for dealing with mechanistic systems and with stories. People don’t like reductionism for many topics, which may be explained by reductionism being in the style of system thought, and thus implying that the issue is not an important social matter. Refusing to be reductionist may also help with hypocrisy, which is not inconsistent with the story thought theory.

Fictional inventors are unrealistic in that they use their inventions themselves, rather than selling them. I’m not sure what this says about the difference between our conception of people and reality. People like fictional conflict more than fictional compromise, because the former lets them show their commitment to irrational ideals which it is rational to appear to have.


‘Benign norm violation’ doesn’t seem to explain humour very well, nor do explanations of the functionality of this make much sense. A theory based on status interactions looks more promising to me. People often refuse to laugh to show that they think a group should have more status, which doesn’t seem very strategic.


People often denounce a proposal on grounds that it will be difficult to estimate the relevant feature, preferring methods which must still indirectly estimate the relevant feature. This is an irrational position.

Conclusions often seem obvious because they follow easily from one’s abstract model of reality. However whether your abstraction matches reality is usually less obvious, and needs to be checked.

Poor arguments about trade and freedom

People often want to stop ‘exploitative trade’, by taking away what is the best option for a person. They sometimes claim this is so that the person gets better options in future. Perhaps they expect society to behave like a single agent who is making a threat. People who exploit the poor are generally seen as worse than those who ignore the poor, for some unknown reason. Free actions are often hated for being the same as those actions coerced, though consent or lack is an important way to filter net benefits from net costs. Efficiency is unjustly disliked because bad people are sometimes efficient. Much of this section can be explained by the hypothesis that most people believe in value realism.


Philosophy is often defended from accusations of uselessness by pointing out that many useful sciences originated in ‘philosophy’. Whether this is relevant to the usefulness of current philosophy depends on whether the origins of those sciences were in methods that are part of current philosophy, or whether ‘philosophy’ just refers to a narrower range of subjects now.


Person-moments are not united by anything but conceptual convenience. I wonder if we believe otherwise for social reasons.

Some questions about analysis remain after reading Neil Campbell’s Brief Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, as well as the unsolved philosophical ones. The Self-Indication Assumption (SIA) suggests that an outside world exists and other people are conscious. See Indexical reasoning.

There is a theory that our streams of thought evolved so that we could explain to others what is going on inside us. This seems to conflict somewhat with the observation that another kind of complex being – the company – seems to be commonly designed specifically to avoid explaining itself.


Here’s a summary of some popular anthropic reasoning principles. Anthropic reasoning does not require you to make strange new kinds of updates, only ordinary old Bayesian conditionalization disguised by ordinary old (newly inappropriate) ideas of personal identity.

It is sometimes necessary to make a big update based on indexical information where we are intuitively uninclined to. One such situation is the Presumptuous philosopher thought experiment, which is consequently no issue, and in particular no issue for the Self Indication Assumption (SIA). SIA is also not equivalent to picking either one or great many balls from an urn, looking at the number on one you picked and saying ‘that number was much more likely under the ‘great many’ hypothesis, it must be true. Which is a mark in SIA’s favor. That SIA always says that more populous worlds are more probable is not a mark against it. Nor is it a mark against the Doomsday Argument that it always says the future is shorter than you thought.

Also in SIA’s favour is the fact that it always allows different agents to agree with one another when they share all of their information, unlike SSA.

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s anthropic trilemma can be resolved if you choose any specific meaning of yourself and your future, regardless of any beliefs you might have about personal identity.

and The Great Filter

The popular anthropic principles all suggest that more of the Great Filter is in our future, and so humanity is more likely to go extinct than we otherwise think. I explained this with SIA first. I explained the whole thing in more detail at H+ magazine.

A big artificial intelligence explosion is not part of the Great Filter. For a big AI explosion to be likely, we must be the first in our situation. SIA says it is less likely then.

SIA only removes Doomsday Argument type conclusions when all of the population differences between worlds are in the number of future people, not the number of current people. When the number of current people changes, SIA can make the conclusion stronger. The Great Filter is an instance of this.


The contrastive account of knowledge survives Jason Rourke’s criticisms.

summarized Steiner’s account of mathematical explanation, and suggested that we feel that something has been explained when it has been described in terms of concepts that are familiar enough to us. Intuitive comfort with a correlation can seem like an explanation for it in general.

While most people seem to think there are many bad people in the world, nobody seems very concerned that they may be one of them. This is puzzling, since if the bad people knew that they were bad and endorsed it, we should expect to see popular media catering to that demographic, which we don’t.


The good and bad natures of the qualia hedonic utilitarianism concerns itself with are composed of preferences and valueless qualia, so hedonistic utilitarianism will be some kind of skewed preference utilitarianism. Some say pain is just obviously really important, because when you are in pain it feels very bad, and urgent. I disagree that one should uphold to the urges one has while in intense pain in the rest of one’s life. Enjoying something and wanting something are different. It is easy to conclude that we should hesitate before going after things we want and instead aim more for what we enjoy. It’s not clear why we shouldn’t do the oppositeDignity should be traded off just like other assets.

described a high variance variant on the usual repugnant conclusion scenario, and found that people found it less repugnant. This somewhat confirmed my suspicion that large populations of low value lives are not what trigger repugnance, as usually assumed.

Population ethics

People often claim bringing children into the world is a neutral act, as the child’s preferences do not yet exist to know. This seems to imply that it is also morally neutral to bring children into the world when you know they will have lives where most people would intensely suffer. If births in general are of neutral value, but it is possible to benefit a person conditional on them existing, then specific births can have any arbitrarily value.

Treating people as only valuable after their lives have begun is also hard to square with the view that personal identity is a matter of convenient conceptualisation rather than anything more fundamental. Valuing the creation of new good lives doesn’t require believing non-existent people exist in some other sense. If you think about it, you will probably agree that creating preferences then satisfying them is a good thing to do.

I went to a dinner ‘debate’ on population size. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that a larger population may have the benefit of more good lives, even as a consideration to disagree with. This seems very oddTwo errors account for most popular arguments against counting non-existent people in one’s moral calculations. Thinking of costs as events that happen at a particular time and place, rather than comparisons between worlds also account for confusions around dead people. I offered some considerations for deciding whether to care about the desires of dead people.

Condemnation of female-specific abortions as injurious to women should not be offered by pro-choice advocates. That it is is evidence of sexism on their part.

Moral intuitions

In general we do not consistently and efficiently seek moral goals. We are each guided by a ‘moral thermostat’, but it only regulates moral issues we consider unimportant. We feel guilty when choices driven by less noble motives fail,though the failure was not the fault of the motive. At the extreme of arbitrariness in moral value seeking, we are more concerned to save people on our left than our right. This must be related to our expectation that more dominant people and things will be on the left, and that action take place in a left to right direction.

People who have sacrificed for a cause are often less interested in non-sacrificial solutions than one might expect. We care more about having altruistic jobs than altruistic hobbies. My guess is that this is because we receive money for jobs, and are weird about fairness with money. Consequently we have more compulsion to feel like we deserved the money. We are aware of some of our inconsistency on some level: generous people take more care to avoid situations where their generosity will be triggered. Despite all these less than altruistic conditions on our kindness, visible altruism is more likely to be for show than invisible altruism, so from our observations we must overestimate this motive.

Most people would be murderers if our use of the term reflected concern for other people’s lives rather than our own social standing. In general, ‘kind’ people respond to vivid emotional triggers, even at the expense of causing less vivid suffering. Thus kind people condone imprisonment but will not stand for the lash.

Many are in favor of more altruism when the cost is giving up cryonics, probably because cryonics involves many far mode triggers. If you want to improve the world through your job, it’s hard to know which to take, but heuristics might help.

Our moral intuitions appear to be self serving more than beneficial to others in many respects. One example is that we blame broken promises entirely on the future person who breaks the promise, not the past person who bound them, without any information to suggest that the earlier one had good grounds for promising.

The Strategy in Relationships section above contains more on moral intuitions.

The Future

In the future, as now, most of the ways people enhance themselves will be pressed upon them by others. This is good, and should be allowed.

Trying to predict the future helps us notice what’s happening now, and more importantly what’s not.


A large, sudden jump in AI capability is unlikely. Giving AI the wrong values by mistake is unlikely unless there is a large, sudden jump in AI capability, and not inevitable even if there is.

Law might protect humans from powerful AI and for most people rules are a better bet than values for controlling AI. AI is unlikely to explode unless it is given extremely expensive goals. There are other things it is also likely to do under many circumstances.

‘Robot ethics’ encompasses a set of problems which are neither especially important nor especially related to one another, so it is hard to see why they are studied together. My guesses are that people overestimate the effect of ethics on the value of a creature’s behaviour, or enjoy the quirky or eerie combination of unconscious machines and ethics.

My life

moved to WordPress from Blogger. I moved to my family’s Tasmanian goat farm from Fairfax, VA. Then to ANU where I wrote a thesis. Colin Marshall interviewed me at length about some of the other bits, among other things. I summarised all of my posts on this page, and then asked asked you all to guess what kind of a thinker I am (voting remains open). There were meetups. I irrationally avoid evidence, but I don’t know how to fix it. I moved to Overcoming Bias.


I made podcasts with Robin Hanson on signaling, idealismschool and the futuresaving the world and Robin’s big question,


My impetuous hot-blooded friend Katla thinks it is horrid of you all to want to see people killed all the time for entertainment, especially as it interferes with her own entertainment. She thinks she’s qualified to advise others on their undergraduate educations, and blogging habits.


Nerves, emotions, morality, and prices all serve to coordinate larger entities by sending costs and benefits from outlying regions to the decision making parts.

Karma is like a working market, but the target of none of the market’s criticisms. Perhaps because with karma everyone will get what they deserve, while with markets everyone deserves what they’ve got.

Originally on my blog.

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