“How much do you make?”
“Go screw yourself.”
Even though egalitarianism is one of my terminal values, there’s one case of the egalitarian instinct that should be abolished, and that’s the taboo against talking about money.
I’m instinctively curious about everything — I remember many cases where I was inquisitive about someone’s financial position, only to have them react with anger. You can get seriously hated for asking how much someone earns, or in turn, telling people how much you earn.
I suspect that one of the reasons people get upset is because it feels like a case of power assertion. In any conversation between two people, one person is going to be more successful than the other, or more attractive, or intelligent, or physically stronger, etc. — there are all of these invisible “ranks” where one of you has risen over the other on society’s ladder.
But yet we’re not allowed to mention them. If I told you tomorrow that I’m much smarter than you are, you’d be pretty upset and hate me for it, even if it were true.
And in the case of money, pretending that it doesn’t exist is a common temptation to both the rich and the poor. The rich get to pretend that they’re just ordinary hardworking people, and the poor get to fit in. Isn’t an obvious solution to income inequality to pretend it doesn’t exist?
But that’s not true egalitarianism. It’s running away from the issue; and it leads to less egalitarianism, not more. How can we be egalitarian if no conversation about income occurs?
And ignoring differences in income further increases our susceptibility to the just world fallacy. We subconsciously assign positive traits to people who are better off, even if they absolutely don’t deserve it, and are better off only due to luck. That’s because we subconsciously want to believe that the world is fair.
“Lerner also taught a class on society and medicine, and he noticed many students thought poor people were just lazy people who wanted a handout.
So, he conducted another study where he had two men solve puzzles. At the end, one of them was randomly awarded a large sum of money. The observers were told the reward was completely random.
Still, when asked later to evaluate the two men, people said the one who got the award was smarter, more talented, better at solving puzzles and more productive.
A giant amount of research has been done since his studies, and most psychologists have come to the same conclusion: You want the world to be fair, so you pretend it is.”
And the more you believe that the world is just, the more shame you feel having a low income (or the more righteous you feel at having a high income), which further contributes to the desire to not talk about money, which leads to a feedback loop.
But the world is not just. And so we shouldn’t act like it is. I don’t mean this in the sense of “The world is unfair, deal with it”, as this addage is commonly used to imply. I mean this in the sense of “The world is unfair — but it doesn’t have to be! But if you want to change it, the first step is to acknowledge that it’s currently unfair!”.
But if we accept that the just world fallacy exists, then we can start talking about income. I can say that even though I may earn more than you, you are still a better person than I am. Conversely, we can also accept that differences in income, intelligence, strength, and conscientiousness exist — but why should that stop our loving friendship? To be friends with someone who is an identical clone of yourself is boring — like talking to yourself. It’s these differences between us that make our friendship exciting and novel!
Not talking about money is also unoptimal. We pay a huge premium if we keep how much we earn a secret.
Discussing a problem is one of the most effective ways to frame, understand it, and come up with a solution to solve it. Most people are significantly more creative and think more critically when discussing a problem, regardless of the discussion partner.
Problems such as: “How much of our pay should we be saving?; Are stocks as safe as the “experts” are telling us? Why are we taking on so much debt even though we earn more than our parents or grandparents did?; Does it make sense to pay off the mortgage early?”
It’s impossible to start discussing any of these issues if you don’t share your income. And yet most people don’t. That’s why most people are utterly horrible at personal finance; 30% of people have no savings, one third don’t have money for retirement, and about half of us have less than $500 dollars in savings.
Not talking about money also hurts us because we can’t get customized money advice on our situation. Sure, there are books out there on personal finance, but none of them are customized; we can only get that from people who genuinely know us. To give that up over the taboo of talking about money is silly.
And furthermore, not discussing income leads to a severe case of information asymmetry, and you getting screwed out of your wallet. By knowing how much your peers make, you’re in a much better position to demand pay raises, and greater income from your bosses. It’s basic economics — if you don’t know how much your co-workers are getting for the same job, then your boss can pay you the bare minimum needed to make you stay, rather than how much he actually wants you there.
This leads to things such as:
“Several minority groups, including Black men and women, Hispanic men and women, and white women, suffer from decreased wage earning for the same job with the same performance levels and responsibilities as white males (because of price discrimination). Numbers vary wildly from study to study, but most indicate a gap from 5 to 15% lower earnings on average, between a white male worker and a black or Hispanic man or a woman of any race with equivalent educational background and qualifications.
A recent study indicated that black wages in the US have fluctuated between 70% and 80% of white wages for the entire period from 1954–1999, and that wage increases for that period of time for blacks and white women increased at half the rate of that of white males. Other studies show similar patterns for Hispanics. Studies involving women found similar or even worse rates.
Overseas, another study indicated that Muslims earned almost 25% less on average than whites in France, Germany, and England, while in South America, mixed-race blacks earned half of what Hispanics did in Brazil.”
If we don’t talk about money, we can’t assist each other in times of financial troubles. There’s even a common philosophy that says My money is mine, and yours is yours, but that sounds unoptimal. The old adage “shit happens” is true, because unexpected situations really happen. Your house might burn down, or you may get a serious illness, or your car might fail and you desperately need to buy a new one. One doesn’t “choose” to have these things happen to them, and it is in these cases that friends need to help one another. As someone who has experienced temporary homelessness, I know this firsthand. It’s a classic case of game theory cooperation (that’s what friends are for, right?).
Furthermore, there’s also the hedonistic treadmill to take into consideration — beyond a certain level of meeting basic needs, spending more money doesn’t make you happier; with only one exception, and that is spending that money on friends. The Ayn-Randian trend is silly because humans are naturally social creatures, our happiness is dependent upon how much we are needed by others.
We should also start talking about money because we all need reassurance in our decisions to make them succeed.
As emotional creatures, we need reassurance.
Financial advisors get paid a lot of money for assuming these hand holding duties. And they do not always give the best possible advice. Sometimes that’s because they are compromised by having goods and services to sell. Other times it is just because they do not know the people they are trying to advise well enough.
Our friends know us well. And our friends have our best interests at heart. We should be talking about money with our friends a lot more than we do. They have the ability to give us what we need to deal with the emotions attached to money problems and wouldn’t think of charging a big hourly fee for doing so.
Furthermore, sharing your plan helps turn thoughts into actions. Books tell us the benefits of buy-and-hold; talking about money supplies the reassurance needed to make it happen in the real world. Speeches explain the benefits of saving; talking about money permits the back-and-forth that expands the good idea into a workable plan that inspires changes in human behavior.
Finally, not talking about money should irk you because it’s a case of shying away from knowledge; it feels irrational.
If my friend has a higher income than I do, I desire to believe that he has a higher income than I do. If my friend has a lower income than I do, I desire to believe that he has a lower income than I do. I wish to know the truth; for knowing something does not change the territory, only my map of the territory. And having a more complete map is always desirable. I will not shy away from the truth because I fear it.
You should care less about income being a case of power assertion, and more about the fact that talking about income will help all parties involved. The truth should never be offensive.
Furthermore, I dislike keeping secrets from friends; ever since my Transhumanist coming of age, I’m trying my best to keep as few secrets as possible from others. So I have decided to discard this taboo in favour of optimization — those that matter won’t care, and those that care won’t matter.
I Reject your Reality and substitute my own!
“What is your true fear?”
I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t I… fail…
“What happens if you fail?”
“What happens if you fail?”
I don’t know!
“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”
I DON’T KNOW! BUT I KNOW THAT IT’S BAD!
There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.
“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies…”
No, Harry thought desperately, no, it’s something more, it comes from somewhere else, I know there’s something out there to be afraid of, some disaster I have to stop…
“How could you possibly know about something like that?”
Fear is an incredibly powerful motivating force. In equal amounts, it’s a lot stronger than ambition or hedonism. The fear of losing something is a lot more powerful than the pleasure obtained by getting something equally as valuable, even if that’s economically irrational.
In social situations, it’s common to ask someone about what they like and enjoy, in an attempt to understand more about him. But since fear is such a powerful motivating force, more than “enjoyment”, perhaps it might be just as valuable to ask someone about their greatest fear? Our fears are just as powerful in shaping us to becoming who we are today.
My third biggest fear is going blind. As someone who’s identity is shaped by my ability to comprehend and analyze complex ideas, becoming blind would destroy reading for me. Sure, it may still be possible to obtain ideas from non-visual sources, but ultimately, reading is the medium that holds the highest information density for me, since I read at around 1k words per minute.
My second biggest fear is death. As a transhumanist and an Atheist, I believe that death is the ultimate annihilation. There is no salvation. There is no afterlife.
Despair can only exist if hope exists. If we believe that death is inevitable, then death seems far less scary, because nothing is lost by dying. On the other hand, if a 25% chance of living forever exists, then death would be far more intimidating, for to die is to lose an eternity of experiences and fun. It is the slim hope of indefinite life extension that motivates me to do everything in my power to obtain it.
That’s why I write extensively on death, and my life’s plans revolves around maximizing the lifespan’s of myself and those I value. Before I became aware of Transhumanism, I did not fear death, and was willing to risk my life in many ways. Only after becoming aware that this hope exists, did I fear dying.
However, the largest and most interesting fear that I have is Failure. I am far more afraid of failure than death or blindness.
I want to achieve greatness by saving the world. There’s an altruistic aspect that motivates me to do this, but there’s also a selfish desire to win embedded within. I want to contribute to humanity, to make a breakthrough in economics, to be the Marx or Keynes of the modern world. I want my ideas to be highly valuable to humanity, and to surpass Eliezer Yudkowsky in brillance. I want to find a way to solve the Economic calculation problem, and to invent a new economic system that surpasses anything that has been previously tried.
I haven’t achieved any of these, of course. These are mere fantasies, arbitrary goals that allow me to label myself a non-failure.
I’m utterly terrified of not achieving any of these things. What if hard work and intelligence can only get me so far? The chips on the board are years of my life. How would I cope with wagering them and losing? What if I ended up being merely above average, and become forced to work in a mediocre 9-5 job, until old age forces me to retire? What if I end up succumbing to weakness of the flesh, and get married and have children?
Despair can only exist if hope exists also. It’s incredibly terrifying because I have an IQ (143) that rivals many throughout history that have achieved greatness. I have an incredible amount of passion and conscientiousness, especially after hacking my body with nootropics. In my youth, I have displayed many prodigial traits that are associated with those who have achieved greatness. (A vast majority of people who have achieved mastery at a field have displayed a propensity for it at a very young age.) Above all, I have an obsession with economics. Many people don’t hold a passion for any particular field, and remain relatively undecided about a career choice until they are forced to make one. But I’ve desired to be involved with Economics since I was 12, and have never changed my mind since.
It’s scary because I know I have the potential to do it. I can imagine a world where my ideas are incredibly valuable to human society. But there are so many who have these traits and still fail. Collapsing that world and replacing it with one where I achieved nothing would be far more painful, than being inevitably mediocre. One could say that Fate herself is teasing me – I have enough brilliance to potentially win, but not enough brilliance to definitely win. It may be better had I been born with either average competency, so I could be average without worrying, or had I been born an absolute genius, with self-control that could make the Buddha flinch, so I could achieve greatness naturally.
What happens if I fail?
It cannot be that bad. Billions of people live mediocre, average lives. It’s also pretty enjoyable. To be extra-ordinary means to shoulder extra-ordinary burdens and extra-ordinary concerns. To want to save the world is to bear the entire weight of the world on your shoulders. To acquire mastery at a field requires more than effort and interest, it requires obsession. The price of that obsession is often to disregard many other pleasures life has to offer.
And yet I cannot even imagine myself disregarding all these responsibilities for a life well-lived. An average life is an abyss of failure, and as I stare into that abyss, the abyss stares back at me.
It’s not anything rational. I can justify my fear of death and blindness by saying that it diminishes utility by a significant amount. Sure, failure diminishes utility too, but not anywhere close to that of dying. Rationally, I know it’s better to fail than die.
And yet I am utterly terrified.
I’m utterly terrified of losing my fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in me. I’ve already done it once — it was horrible. Still, I cling on to the faint hope that I can achieve greatness through other means.
I think I’m going to be hit incredibly hard when I’m 35, when I realize I haven’t achieved anything noteworthy, that I’m merely above-average in competence, and that I’ve been a failure.
But I’m terrified of failure. So I’m going to allow this fear to motivate me. I’m going to feed this fear, and let the feedback-loop continue. I will let this fear flow through me, and define me as a person.
Have you ever read one of your old blog posts or journal entries that you wrote when you were a kid, and cringed in embarrassment and horror at how stupid your post was? I have, and from what I know, it’s quite a common phenomenon, especially amongst those that read and write a lot.
I remember reading my old blog written when I was 14, and it felt particularly embarrassing. It felt incredibly pretentious and needlessly philosophical, a bunch of incredibly obvious epistemological mistakes were made; and as a result, I asked myself; wouldn’t I regret writing this blog when I’m 30 or 40 years old as well? I probably would. Hell, I feel slightly embarrassed reading most of the stuff I posted merely a year ago, nevermind a decade ago. Two years ago, I genuinely believed that I was good at writing, only realizing recently that I have a lot to improve on.
But I’ve decided to keep on writing anyway, even if I’m making a lot of foolish mistakes. Even if the probability of me regretting this is high.
It’s essentially the same problem as the reputability of science. Most of the scientific theories in the past about how the world worked was wrong, and the most intelligent people in the past were wrong about pretty much everything. They were wrong about reality, wrong about science, wrong about quantum mechanics, chemistry, philosophy, physics, wrong about politics, about the universe itself. That’s why some argue that because science has been wrong pretty often in the past, current scientific theories are probably wrong as well, even if we can’t explicitly reason why they are so.
How can science be trusted after it’s been proven wrong so many times?
How can I be trusted after I’ve obviously been wrong so many times?
The answer is that hard Bayesian evidence is a lot stronger than weak Frequentist evidence. So most of my theories about the world, and the world’s theories about the universe were wrong. Therefore using Frequentist inference, it’s true that current theories are likely to be wrong as well. But reasoning can provide a much better answer than mere correlational evidence can.
Consider for example, a turkey on a farm. For the first thousand days of its life, the farmer has given it food, and treated it exceptionally kindly. The turkey has been warned that it was in danger, for the farmer has expressed several times that for next thanksgiving, turkey will be eaten. But the Turkey disagrees, claiming that it has extrapolated those one thousand days of kindness, and therefore it has come to the conclusion that it will never be slaughtered. The Turkey is then slaughtered next thanksgiving.
Science is the same. Although correlational evidence is still evidence, it is considered a “weak” form of evidence as compared to logical reasoning from experimental data. So long as we cannot use reasoning to explain how exactly it is wrong, the probability of it being correct is still much higher than wrong.
We should trust in our current theories, because to trust in anything else would be to privilege the hypothesis, a logical fallacy. Right now, our theories are the one best guess amongst all possible ones, the explanation with the highest possibility. To discard the highest possibility answer for no answer at all is akin to saying a 70% chance of achieving something is not good enough, therefore we should switch to a method with a 0% chance of achieving something.
I should trust in my current beliefs, because if I discard them in fear of being wrong, then I will definitely not get it right. Only when I have been presented evidence that my beliefs are wrong, and evaluated them rationally to find them to be true, should I discard my beliefs, and replace them with a belief with a higher likelihood ratio.
Finally, we should trust in science because it is progressive, rather than random. Science is not so much flipping a coin to obtain a theory as it is using old theories to climb to better ones. Even wrong theories have uses — they are the stepping stones from which newer and more correct theories emerges. Just as quantum mechanics have been inspired from Newtonian mechanics, germ theory inspired from miasma, and chemistry from alchemy, it cannot be said that Newtonian mechanics and miasma should never have been invented, for that would imply that Quantum Mechanics and germ theory could never exist in the first place.
I should therefore also trust my current theories, because personal philosophical growth is not a random process. In order to obtain a worldview that better reflects the universe, it is necessary to stick my ideas on the chopping board. If that means being humiliated and having my weak epistemology exposed, all the better.
There is no such thing as a universally optimal political system. Name any one political system, even your favorite, and I can give you an example of a possible society that the political system would be horrible under. For example, the answer to “Democracy” would be a large open country, the size of the United States, where literacy is low, and people travel by horse. There is no electricity, and no systematized education, and the majority of inhabitants are farmers. The answer for why is immediately obvious: one of the prerequisites of democracy is that the populace is educated and well-informed about politics. A society where this is impossible would also be unable to function with democracy. This is the reason why historically speaking, democratic societies did not exist. Even the Greeks did not really have democracy, only a small population of the wealthy slave-owning males could vote.
Utilitarianism does not count, because it is a meta-political system, rather than a true political system. It is essentially by definition “A political system that is the best political system.”
The fact that there is no universally optimal political system seems like a really obvious fact, but when it comes to debating politics, it is incredibly easy to forget about it. People can debate about which political system is better for hours and hours, but within their minds, imagine two different societies, and as a result, never come to agreement. This happens more often than you think, because most of us live in completely different societies. Even within the same country, there are different subcultures and clusters and philosophies and ways of living. When you factor in completely different countries and cultures, and perhaps even start to contemplate societies far into the future, disagreements arise quickly.
You can say that both debaters are talking about this particular society, the one we live in, but even that does not solve the problem. Due to the affect heuristic, it is impossible not to imagine that the inhabitants of this hypothetical society are more similar to us than they really are. After all, if you could perfectly simulate every single human being on earth in your mind, you would be powerful enough to take over the world and impose the ideal political system at that point of time, rather than argue with people on the internet about how Libertarianism is stupid and Socialism is smart (Or how Socialism is stupid and Libertarianism is optimal).
Perhaps the person arguing for socialism is picturing the inhabitants of this hypothetical society as being similar to himself, and the person arguing for libertarianism is picturing the inhabitants of this society to be similar to himself. Therefore, both may be completely correct when saying that “Libertarianism/Socialism is optimal. (for a society comprised of inhabitants similar to myself)”
This simple concept is one of the primary factors that influences my political views. It is a lot easier to understand political ideology when we understand that when people assert that one political ideology is “best”, they are referring to that political ideology being “best” for a society comprised of people most similar to them.
It’s why I can talk freely about Anarchism, Anarcho-Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Marxism, Libertarianism, Liberalism, Moderatism, Futarchism, Theocracy, Fascism, Democracy, Direct democracy, Social Democracy, Progressives, Reactionaries, ad infinitum, without being as mindkilled as most people do (that is not to claim I am completely rational. I still get mindkilled to a certain extent, and I have slight problems understanding right-wing christian neoconservatism). I acknowledge that each of these political ideologies have societies where they are optimal in, and that each of these ideologies have societies where they would fail terribly at. I also acknowledge that I cannot model society with perfect accuracy, and I could see each of these ideologies having the possibility of working, in our current society. (Because probability is a part of the map, from having imperfect knowledge of the territory.)
The inability to conceive that society, as well as its political requirements, change over time, is also one of the common reasons why most people are incapable of understanding Marxism/Socialism/Communism/Extropianism. In order to understand Marxism, it is important to understand dialectical Materialism, which essentially is a prediction of how society will change over time as our ability to harness technology increases. I’m not necessarily saying that Communism is right. I’m saying that you cannot even begin to argue if Communism is right or wrong if you don’t understand dialectical materialism, or the fact that not a single Communist since the invention of Communism until today actually believes that full Communism is feasible with our current society.
Thus, it just happens that many people think that Communists are stupid or irrational, because nobody ever told them that Communism is about a hypothetical political system being ideal for a certain hypothetical society, not about Communism being ideal for our current society. Some Communists I know are the most ardent supporters of Capitalism, including Marx himself, who claimed that Capitalism is absolutely essential for the its raw production power in advancing society forward.
So before talking about what political ideology is optimal, it is important to model the society that the political ideology is optimal in. Make sure your opponent has a similar type of society in mind. If you wish to find the truth, doing so is necessary.
People tend to be incredibly unimaginative when it comes to ideas they don’t like.
Take for example, indefinite life extension. When told that people can and should live forever, some accept that doing so is possible, but then give some ridiculous argument like “If everyone was immortal, wouldn’t the world be overpopulated? (Therefore we should let people die.)”
This is a testament to your lack of imagination. There are thousands of possible solutions that are easy to imagine, and many times better than proposing we let people die, but instead of trying to do so, you immediately refuse to think of any, and instead say something like “But overpopulation!”.
Let’s try to name some.
We could colonize outer space.
We could impose legal policies that forbid too much reproduction.
We could require licenses to give birth, and make babies only when necessary.
We could mandate that all immortal beings are not allowed to reproduce.
We could drill holes deep into the earth, and build extra living space there.
We could randomly sterilize a portion of the population from young.
We could upload billions of our minds into quantum computers and be simulated rather than stay in the physical world.
We could mandate a birth tax, in order to discourage people from giving birth.
We could all maybe spontaneously agree not to reproduce too much.
We could use nanotechnology to engineer massive generation ships, and have a significant portion of humanity live in space.
We could use genetic engineering to create humans that can only reproduce at age 500.
We could use genetic engineering or other forms of technology to lower the necessary resources a human has to consume.
We could cryogenically preserve and store a large portion of the human race until we are capable of sustaining them.
We could create more efficient technology to increase the number of resources humans can obtain.
We could collectively attempt to reduce the amount of resources we consume.
Do some of these policies sound worrying, like imposing government regulation over reproduction? Kind of.
But are all of them better than killing 150 000 people a day? Definitely, and many times over.
Are some of them possibly hard to achieve? Might be.
But the probability of all of them being impossible is impossible.
The above solutions are not anything well-researched, I merely spent a minute or two thinking about how overpopulation from indefinite life extension can be solved. Even if you’re not a particularly imaginative person, you should be able to think of at least one or two ideas about how to solve this.
It’s a testament to your lack of imagination that you couldn’t think of any of these.
It’s a testament to your bias that you selectively have a bad imagination when faced with ideas you don’t like, and selectively have good imagination when faced with ideas you like. You place a higher burden of proof on things that disagree with your worldview than things that do.
This happens with a range of political ideologies; nearly every one of them.
Such as Anarchism’s “If there is no Government, what’s going to prevent people from killing each other?”
Such as Anarcho-Capitalism’s “If there is no Government, who will build the roads?”
Such as Transhumanism’s “If intelligence can be augmented, won’t there be greater wealth inequality as money can buy intelligence?”
Such as Social Democracy’s “If people were given welfare, wouldn’t they not be motivated to work?”
Such as Right-Wing Libertarian’s “If corporations were not regulated, what incentive would they have to protect the environment?”
Such as Statism’s “If the Government is in charge of X, wouldn’t they be corrupt and abuse it? Who watches the Watchmen?”
Such as Leninism’s “If there is a Vanguard party, what’s going to stop them from forming a dictatorship?”
Such as State-Proxy Socialism’s “If there was no free market enterprise, how would the Government know how to govern an economy?”
Such as uncentralized Socialism’s “If there are no bosses, how would the workers know how to run a company?”
Such as Communism’s “If commodities are distributed according to need and ability, who would judge need and ability?”
I will leave these questions to you as an exercise. I can think of a number of answers to every single one of these problems in seconds. Any sufficiently intelligent person should be able to come up with a number of possible solutions to each of these problems. It doesn’t even have to be a brilliant one, just one that should be possible according to the laws of nature. It’s a testament to your lack of imagination if you’re unable to think of even one possible way of alleviating the problem.
I’m not saying that none of these political ideologies have problems. I’m just saying that I know for a fact that none of these abovementioned “problems” are the strongest argument against these political ideologies, or even arguments at all.
The problem with selective imagination happens to all humans, but we should reduce it where we can. Before immediately criticizing an idea, spend a minute or two being creative.
A coming of age story is a common trope in fiction. It features the series of adventures an adolescent goes through in order to become an adult, in a psychological sense.
This is my coming of age story.
Having said that, I don’t believe in adulthood. There is no magical finish-line that someone crosses and instantly becomes wise. Knowledge and wisdom are continuous processes, not binary attributes.
I am sure that the short natural lifespan of a human would not give sufficient wisdom to become fully mature, regardless of experience. It’s inevitable that future civilizations will scorn the wisest of us, just as we chuckle at the superstitious beliefs of ancient civilizations who perform rain dances to appease Gods for good harvest.
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence … when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis
My real coming of age story, just like everyone else’s, has not even begun. It is inevitable that I will one day stumble upon new-found knowledge that will change my beliefs dramatically. Instead of one single coming-of-age story, there are simply many stories that make us who we are. And this is one of many stories yet to come.
Obviously, my story begins in my childhood.
I don’t have many early memories. Most of them were bad ones. If we had psychologists with us, the unorthodox ones might suggest a case of repressed memories.
My parents were abusive – physically and emotionally. As a result of a complicated divorce, extramarital affairs, and emotional instability from both sides, I did not have a good childhood. If my parents loved me, I did not feel it. They spent more time obsessing over the divorce and division of assets than properly raising a kid.
Common wisdom says that this tends to screw people up psychologically. I think I was. Children without caregiving figures in early childhood can get reactive attachment disorder; some becoming overly-attached to strangers, some carrying these symptoms into adulthood. I’m not a professional psychologist, so I cannot self-diagnose. But if we can assume it, much of the following story makes sense.
At this point, I should state the following: It is a fact that I am a genius.
“You’re wrong!” you cry with indignation. “IQ is just meaningless points / tests are racially biased / intelligence means nothing / you’re an arrogant asshole!”
Rather than directly trying to justify this point, I point you towards research aggregated by a friend of mine, alongside concrete evidence for non-negligibility. You are free to publish your own ground-breaking peer-reviewed papers if you disagree.
There’s a common temptation amongst people to deny or downplay that humans differ in intelligence, on both sides of the bell curve. People on the left don’t want to feel inferior to the mean, and people on the right want to avoid criticisms of narcissism and elitism. The unfortunate truth is that intelligence really exists. I won a genetic lottery; despite doing nothing to earn it, and unlike the objectivists, I’ll make no claims about any sort of moral superiority.
But reality doesn’t care about who deserves what – I got the long end of the stick, and I feel like denying this is an insult to anyone less intelligent than I am.
Like all other overly-ambitious, narcissistic, teenage geniuses, I never really fit in with people my age when I was young. This wasn’t voluntary. Like every other child prodigy, I did really well in school, but was terrible at social relationships. It took me a long time to learn to make friends; I was 12 before actually having anything that could be described as a “friend”. I learned to live with the feeling of constant isolation.
The problem with this is that I got into a death spiral about my own intelligence. When your entire world was fellow adolescents, mere geniuses might begin to imagine themselves more important than anyone else.
As long as I can recall, I’ve had a natural affinity for Politics and Economics. I’ve always been interested in the way society had been structured, and kept thinking of ways to improve it. Between the ages of 11 – 13, and contemplating the world around me, I independently came up with many of the principles of Marxism, epistemology, liberalism, and other things. I won’t go into detail about my early childhood political ideology – it is not important.
What I took away from this was that I am more competent than my peers, who were sheep and did not think about such things. I was young and wiser than most adults, nevermind my peers! Surely when I grew up I would become one of the smartest people on earth!
I began to attribute my achievements to intelligence, and solely intelligence, rather than a hundred other factors that could have influenced this, one of them being sheer luck. People have a tendency to attribute their achievements to sheer intelligence or ability, whilst discounting their failures as the result of external factors beyond their control.
One of these successes was being placed in position of power a few years later, once again, through sheer luck. Not a lot of power, but enough to inflate the ego of any child that age. It was a rag-tag group of about 40-50 political activists trying to prevent ACTA from taking place. And for a really brief period of time, I was leading it.
One thing let to another. Because of the connections I had already made, it was easy to exert influence on others, and gain even more connections. Over a period of two and half years, I became involved in several hacktivist groups, the details of which are irrelevant.
But the important part was that this luck made me influence events in such a way that I indirectly caused global news. I changed the world. I got people to rise up in an act of rebellion. When I saw the stuff I wrote plastered all over TV, I shat myself, and my ego inflated once more.
I felt directly responsible for what had happened, and that it was my skill and my talent alone that made this happen. I didn’t say this, of course, publicly. But deep inside my heart, I became aware of the fact I was a big deal.
Of course, the territory differed from the map inside my head. True, I created this. But it wasn’t like I masterminded it (even though it really felt as though I did). In retrospect, I wasn’t the one doing the coding. I wasn’t the one running exploits. I wasn’t the one herding bots. I I wasn’t the one that got the media to pay attention. Truth be told, I didn’t really do anything. Nothing important anyway.
I was merely the spark that started the fire, and then pretended as though he WAS the fire. It could have been anyone. It just happened to be me.
Because of the Internet’s anonymity, it was easy to appear older, wiser, and more sophisticated that I am. You wear a mask long enough and you begin to assume that the mask was you. Part of my role was to pretend to be larger, greater, more influential that I was, for the sake of theatrics, for the sake of appeasing the media.
I wonder if actors sometimes face identity crises with the characters that they play. Play a character long enough, and you begin to imagine yourself as them. Their thoughts, personalities, and characteristics carry over to your daily life. I slowly became the character I played.
And since this event, I constantly compared myself to my peers. Every success I gained, I attributed to talent over my peers. Every failure I received, I attributed to bad luck.
Why aren’t my peers as smart as me? Why was I special enough to change the world? If I can accomplish this at such a young age, how much more will I be in the future?
This was my childhood affective death spiral.
I was more intelligent than the average person. I don’t think that was a matter of debate. I just overestimated how much more intelligent I was.
It needs to be included that during all of this, I read all the cognitive biases out there. I was aware of the pitfalls of irrationality. I was already a Rationalist, having escaped from my deeply religious background at the age of 11. I knew all the logical fallacies. I knew what the Dunning Kruger effect was.
I knew what an affective death spiral was; and even that didn’t prevent me from falling into a dark pit.
It just wasn’t enough.
What do you think happens when you take a narcissistic, delusional, attention-seeking child and make him believe himself to be far more competent than he actually is?
He begins to desire the impossible.
“I am fond of prideful individuals. Individuals who harbor grand ambitions, not knowing they aren’t fit for the task. Simply observing such people gives me great enjoyment.
There are two kinds of pride. One where you aren’t fit for the task, and one where your desires are too grand. The former is commonplace stupidity, but the latter is rare and difficult to come by.
Those who have renounced their humanity for the superhuman wishes they harbor despite being born human…I never grow weary of watching their grief and despair.”
What was my impossible dream? I wanted to save everyone.
I took my utility function, and divided it equally onto every human on earth.
It’s not impossible. It’s not even really hard. All it takes is a form of selflessness caused by a stunted emotional development, and being raised by the collective consciousness of humanity.
I wanted to save everyone; without regard for my personal safety.
I saw people die in wars.
I saw people die to poor socioeconomic circumstances.
I saw people die to the stupidest and most preventable reasons.
And I resented that. I wanted to save each and every one of them.
And I began to realize that in order to save every single person, it wasn’t enough to individually help each one, there wasn’t enough time. The solution could not have been donating to charity either, for I would never acquire enough money to save each and every person.
I began to realize that in order to save everyone, I had to optimize things on a much grander scale. Eliezer Yudkowsky, someone who resembles me in many ways, choose AGI research as a method in his youth. The method that was the most intuitive for me was in politics. I had to obtain power to make sure everyone could be saved. I needed to rule the world.
I told myself I would do this or die trying.
I knew that realistically, that was impossible, so I settled on simply saving as many people as I can. I knew that ruling the world was seriously improbable, so I made backup plans, and backup plans for those backup plans. I made strategies and allies. I did my research.
I knew that politics was the mindkiller; of the difficulty of fighting irrationality in politics. I was naive, but not that naive. I do not think I have ever fell victim to partisan-politics, of defending your side against all opposing evidence. I understood all the arguments on all sides, and understood the difficulty of knowing which side was right. I tried to find the winning strategy. I read as much as I could, on every single political book I could find, by every political ideology. I constantly sought the truth on the internet, I joined political movements, I fought as much as I could.
No, my problem was not irrationality in politics. It was something far more fundamental. I analyzed the outside world so much that I had forgot to analyze myself. I’ve always been bad at introspection, feeling far more comfortable taking the macro-cosmic view.
It is written in the Sun Tzu’s art of war; “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. ”
I did not know myself. Thus I was defeated.
I thought myself more intelligent, with more willpower, with more strength than I actually had.
I did not underestimate my task. I overestimated myself.
I was 16 years old when my hubris reached its highest point.
I reasoned that if I managed to accomplish as much with the limited amount of time I had, I could do so much more had I been given more time. Reading on politics was not something that could be done in the incredibly limited amount of time I had, and with hundreds of books on my reading list, and many other activist groups I began to neglect, I had to obtain more time. The answer became clear. I had to drop out of school.
Normally, dropping out of school is a bad move. I acknowledged this. After all, I was the type that researched everything possible, for knowledge, I had said, was power.
The issue here was that if you divide your utility function equally amongst all humans, your own utility function is going to end up really, really small. I would only fulfill my own biological needs on the basis of my existence fulfilling the utility functions of others.
Tuxedage(16), had he been given two choices, between a 1% chance of saving 102 people, and 99% chance of dying, or a 100% chance of living, would have chosen the first.
Was that wrong? To most people, this was insanity. Was Tuxedage(16) insane? For him to love humankind so much, that he could treat every person as he treated himself? To apply the Golden rule to its logical extreme?
I acknowledged that dropping out of school was a risky move for my future. But I didn’t care about my future. I cared about the future of everyone else, and I figured that I would take this risk.
In retrospect, merely dropping out of school was not the end of the world. It does carry an inherent risk, but one can always go back to school, even if his education is delayed by a few years. But put yourself in the mindset of a 16 year old, especially one that has incredibly unsupportive parents. Imagine that you’ve been raised in an asian culture that strongly valued education, and deemed anyone without an education an utter failure. Imagine being raised in a culture that regularly bred children who committed suicide if their grades were deemed not good enough by their parents.
It took a lot of courage to decide to drop out and take the third option. Everyone but me thought it was insanity. If my parents didn’t hate me before, now they definitely did. If I did not live my life exactly the way they wanted me to, they couldn’t accept me as a son. I couldn’t stay with them any longer. This was the first time I experienced homelessness.
It’s not a very pleasant experience. The good news is that I anticipated it, and left home prepared, on my own volition. I went couch-hopping, and managed to keep living long enough to fulfil the next step of my plan.
Long before I dropped out, I kept optimizing and refining my strategy. I tried to research historical figures who achieved the same things I wanted to achieve, and tried to emulate them; by joining political groups, and by gathering my own set of allies.
Half my time came to be spent in the acquisition of knowledge and political experience. The other half was spent trying to make connections. Networking was important, I told myself. It was about who you knew as much as what you knew. Naturally, it wasn’t easy.
Since I didn’t believe that the political change I desired could be obtained by working completely within the system, I had to persuade people to work outside the system too. Some people perceive this as an act of rebellion. For my strategy to work, the kind of person that I needed (at the start) were not mindless sheep for obeying orders, but intelligent and initiative-taking people, ones that could be described as natural born leaders. I wanted brilliance. But above all, I wanted people with a high amount of dedication to this. From my political experience, people had a tendency to drop out of projects prematurely, especially if it were on the scale of years. I couldn’t have that, after all. There was a world to be saved, and every single of my ally should be willing to sacrifice the chips of their life in this lottery of politics.
Obviously, such people are not easily found. The combination of intelligence, interest, and suicidal dedication was rare. I used every possible strategy I could come up with. I made contact with a lot of people, both online and offline. I had to make a lot of promises, to assure them that I would get this done, and to get them to trust me.
To accomplish this, I needed money. For the sake of my own survival, as well as the sake of the group’s plans. I needed an Engels. It cannot be understated that it is really difficult to secure the means of provision by living off donations, but I tried to obtain this nonetheless. This is a fairly long story that I will not dwelve into, but suffice to say that due to a number of biases such as the just-world fallacy, or the availability heuristic, the ones who desired political change the most are often the ones least capable of financially supporting me.
Was this what made me a failure? No. I was ready to do what I could to achieve this, or die trying. I knew the risks, and did it anyway. I willingly choose an unstable and dangerous lifestyle despite being more than capable of living in relative comfort.
There were three major realizations that made me go back on my past ideals; that made me break my promises to my friends.
The first realization that hit me was my LessWrongian enlightenment, the culmination of the most important enlightenment understood by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Nominally, LessWrong is a community of people dedicated to studying Rationality, based on a series of essays totaling one million words, written by Eliezer Yudkowsky about how to think more efficiently.
Eliezer Yudkowsky calls this imparted knowledge a “Bayesian Enlightenment”, but I prefer the term Lesswrongian Enlightenment because I was already a dedicated rationalist before I joined LessWrong. I made no obvious mistakes, I was careful to understand that politics was the mindkiller. I always questioned my own side, and made friends with people from every political perspective, lest I fell into a death spiral.
The biggest insight that LessWrong imparted to me was not that of these methods of Rationality, but of the technological Singularity, a period of time where we manage to create a feedback loop of intelligence.
It was this click of insight that started me on my journey to Adulthood. Intelligence, I knew, was a superpower. The rise of human intelligence in its modern form reshaped the Earth, and is responsible for every single human invention and weapon in existence. It is intelligence that made humans the dominant species on this planet, and it is intelligence that sent us to the moon.
If we manage to use that intelligence to improve that intelligence, this closes the loop and creates a positive feedback cycle. If we invent computer-brain interfaces that improve our intelligence, we’ll use that additional intelligence to design the next generation of computer-brain interfaces, and the next generation will create an even better one.
The key idea is that if we can find a way to improve intelligence even a little, the process accelerates. It’s kind of like a nuclear reaction, it only takes a few atoms to spark a chain reaction.
If I could poetically describe it, it would be the victory condition for the human race.
The possibility of an intelligence explosion needed me to reconsider every single one of my plans. I had always assumed the ability to save everyone would come from political, rather than scientific means.
Related to this was the concept that the rate of scientific discovery was exponential, rather than linear. In retrospect, it would be immediately obvious to anyone who sincerely analyzed human history, but somehow this had never occurred to me. Technology is a self-recursive feedback loop; the more technology we have, the easier we can utilize it to invent more technology. The rate at which humans discover new innovations is not linear.
One measure of how fast things are changing is that within the United States and Canada, GDP per Capita , even adjusted for inflation, doubles every 15 years. If the average person earned $30 000 annually when he is 20, and stays at the same job for the rest of his life, he will be earning $60 000 by the time he is 35, $120 000 by the time he is 50, and by the end of his life, he will be earning half a million dollars per year.
As someone who was attempting to save everyone using politics, it was impossible to ignore technological determinism; technology changes what political system and decisions are feasible and unfeasible.
For example, many forms of democracy would be impossible in the past. Currently, our voting system itself relies on many technological innovations. The invention of cars allow for quick transportation of ballot papers. The invention of wireless communication allows for the votes of millions of citizens to be totaled, counted, and for a winner to be chosen within days, and the news spread instantaneously. The invention of the printing press, the Radio, the television and Internet allows for informed decisions regarding candidates to be made.
It could also be argued that the popularity of Monarchism and Feudalism in the olden times could be attributed to political limitations due to the impossibility of Democracy and a knowledgeable population. In addition, every time a King died, a new ruler could come about without sparking a massive civil war of various warlords fighting for command!
I had subconsciously assumed that it was possible to extrapolate linear technological trends into the future. It turns out that I had severely underestimated how much technology would change in my lifetime. The political systems that I had thought optimal were useless, and the political systems I thought impossible suddenly became optimal.
Moreover, there was a further possibility that had been revealed to me. The possibility of indefinite life extension, through methods such as cryonics, biological repairing, or mind-uploading. The evidence for each of these methods being possible was overwhelming, and aggregated, there is a significant chance that I could live forever.
People usually have a tendency to reject immortality for ridiculous reasons. I firmly believe that Life is good, death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad, and that there is no critical age where it suddenly flips polarity, and living becomes bad. When most people say they want to die, what they actually want is to end their suffering, not life itself. If the sickness and weakness associated with aging would be cured along with aging itself, if a person were to find life free of suffering and full of fun, there would be no logical reason to die.
I’m not a fan of compartmentalization; of conveniently putting conflicting ideas into different boxes, and never bothering to update on your beliefs. I had to reconcile utility-maximizing strategy to include this possibility.
After all, if I were to live for 80 years, but die at 30 for the sake trying to save everyone, that would be 50 years lost. A large number to some people, but in the grand scheme of things, negligible.
But if living for billions, even trillions, of years were possible, I would lose billions of times greater utility than if living forever was impossible.
Similarly, if I wanted to maximize utility, if I wanted to save people, my old tactic couldn’t work. If I could extend a single person’s lifespan by 1 million years, and consequently add that much utility, it may be worth more than saving a hundred thousand people, and extending their lifespan by 5 years.
Did you feel an emotional reaction to this statement? Trust in math, not intuition. This isn’t about your feelings. A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of millions of years, is worth far more than your brain’s feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan. Does computing the expected utility feel too cold-blooded for your taste? Well, that feeling isn’t even a feather in the scales, when a life is at stake. Intuition is not the most reliable guide for what policies will actually produce the best results, particularly in cases where we can actually do calculations with the relevant quantities.
Just shut up and multiply, even when it feels wrong.
My second enlightenment came out of my LessWrongian Enlightenment. It was the realization of existence of the level above mine. For the first 16 years of my life, I (falsely) believed that I was the most intelligent person I knew, especially in the fields that I had a natural aptitude for.
I knew that it was physically impossible for me to be the most intelligent person on earth. I wanted to find people more intelligent than I was, in the fields that I cared about. I wanted to measure the distance between them and me.
Being able to vocalize the words “There is someone more intelligent than I am, even at the best thing I can do.” is one thing. Being shown the magnitude of your folly, having your “genius” ideas beaten to the ground again and again, being drop-kicked and humiliated, and your idiocy revealed, is another.
The brain is a chemical calculator. For you to factor your priors into your decisions, you have to “feel” them, rather than think them.
And for the first time in my life, I genuinely felt incompetent. Small. Insignificant compared to the intellectual heavyweights that I challenged.
Like just every other child prodigy, I grew up being constantly reminded of my own intelligence. Forced into overwhelmingly inefficient systems of outdated learning, I couldn’t help but compare myself to my peers, and look down upon them.
But if I was a one in a thousand genius, there remained 7 million people more intelligent. Even factoring in specialization and a natural aptitude for a specific field, there will exist people whose competency far exceeds my own.
It’s even more stunning when you realize a person who outmatches your intelligence has undergone this exact same revelation, to reach a point where he realizes his child prodigy license has officially completely expired.
To me, that person was Eliezer Yudkowsky. He was the first person I truly measured my intelligence against, and the first person to truly make me feel incompetent, on a deep and emotional level. If at this point you have no idea who this man is or what makes him so intelligent, take a peak at the LessWrong sequences. I strongly recommend it.
I aspire to reach his level. I aspire to be as much the Master of Economics as Eliezer is in Artificial Intelligence / Reflectivity. I can even plead that I am far younger, had a far more difficult life, or that I had much less encouraging parents than he had, making a mockery of deference.
How large was the difference between us?
Might it be that Eliezer’s brain is specialized off in a different direction from mine, and that I could never approach Eliezer level competence on AI, and yet he wouldn’t do so well in human societal optimization?
Or could it be that I’m simply dumber than Eliezer, dominated by him along all dimensions? Maybe, if Eliezer had a slightly different childhood, or had reached a slightly different conclusion on how to save everyone, he would have succeeded where I had failed?
And yet Eliezer himself admits that there are vast levels above his. People like E.T. Jaynes. Von Neumann. Conway.
I’m not even sure, at this point, if I’m of above average intelligence on LessWrong itself. Despite being used to debates, despite priding myself on being epistemically vigorous, I feel as though the best I could manage is to defend my own logic, rather than win any significant argument.
And I’m sure, statistically speaking, that there are levels of competence I cannot manage to understand. As a general rule, it’s impossible to differentiate between too many levels above your own.
I couldn’t, and neither could the people who falsely believed in my intelligence.
Sure, just because there exists people far more intelligent than me, doesn’t necessarily make me unfit to play the role of a Messiah. I always knew they existed. But it contributed to me seriously doubting my abilities, for during this period of time, I had repeatedly failed in achieving a number of milestones I set for myself.
As an example, one of this was the desire to write a book about my ideas. But, of course, I failed. I didn’t have enough motivation, nor enough experience to do something like that. I also tried to create several political “operations”, and planned a number of things to increase the efficiency of political activism I was involved in, and so on. I failed at that too.
It’s ridiculous how lazy I am, even with my life at stake. This mattered more to me than my life, and I managed to botch it up anyway. It turns out that I can’t work 14 hours a day, every day. I was never really pushed to challenge my willpower in school, so I never realized its limitations. This was also the first time I discovered that I, too, am human. I’ve always thought of myself as having above-average willpower and conscientiousness. But the truth is that if you measure willpower alone, I’m probably one of the laziest people you know.
The reason why I never realized that was because I was really competent at doing things, and found shortcuts that others couldn’t. I also had the weight of the entire world on my shoulders; when something is at stake, most people find a mysterious innate strength inside them, like stories of mothers lifting entire cars when their children is trapped underneath them. Furthermore, I had an internal compulsion to understand the world around me, so things involving learning become somewhat fun.
But take away all these things, and you’re left with someone without willpower. Once the novelty of my new situation wore off, I couldn’t manage to do the necessary things I hated doing. It became a cycle of attempting a new task, before the novelty and thus the willpower dissapeared, and me failing at the task. Again and again. With the world at stake.
This really angered me. It made me feel incredibly incompetent and unworthy to play the role I wanted to. I was less intelligent than I thought I was. I had less willpower than I thought I had.
It was with this, that my childhood affective death spiral ended, and that I discovered the greatest folly of my youth, in believing that I was fit to play the hero.
The third and final realization that made me who I am today was the value of Nakama. Like I mentioned; a Japanese word with which there is no equivalent. In English, “friends” is used to describe someone you enjoy the company of. Someone whom you happen to associate with.
Nakama can go much deeper than that. Nakama can mean friend, comrade, and under some contexts, “people who are considered closer than family”. People you would save at all costs. People you may even die for.
Fiction is powerful. It can be used to gain experience that would otherwise take several lifetimes to achieve. It can teach important things and life lessons that would be impossible to understand using any other method. It can fix an emotionally stunted child incapable of empathy.
Anime was initially something that I watched when my willpower was weak, and my brain could no longer function due to stress. It was merely “something that prevented me from reading about politics”. I didn’t think much of it.
I didn’t realize it back then, but in retrospect it gradually made me less emotionally stunted, which I became as a result of a screwed up childhood. It made me feel emotions I never felt in years. It made me genuinely interested in others, rather than just being the Machine that is Tuxedage Maho.
Anime has made me more emotionally sensitive, and less of a heartless calculator.
It has taught me that there was more to being human than intelligence alone. And that, in retrospect, I was a horribly bad human being, desiring to save everyone, despite being manipulating, lying, cold, narcissistic, and denying all the qualities that made humanity worth saving in the first place.
It forced me to stop thinking of the people I met in the pursuit of my goal as pawns, and more as human beings that I truly value. Of my friends in school I looked down upon, who are in retrospect, better than I am. Of everyone I chatted with, marched with, camped in the freezing cold with, studied with. Of everyone who considered me as a friend, despite the fact that I was a prick who couldn’t reciprocate such friendship.
I think most of all, it made me understand the value of my own life, a concept I had long forgotten. Perhaps saying this will be met with ridicule, since Anime is stereotypically seen as either children cartoons, or pornographic animations, but Anime has saved my life. It made me a much better person.
It was the combination of these three realizations that had finally caused me to admit defeat. None of these alone could have made me break down, but cumulatively, it forced my crisis of faith. The final straw was that during this period of half a year, I couldn’t achieve anything substantial. I also procrastinated. Even with the world at stake, I couldn’t muster enough emotional strength to dedicate my entire self to this.
I realized that I couldn’t save everyone. I can only save a few, if any. So I needed to begin to think about who to save, to shut up and multiply. I realized that not all methods of salvation are equal; some methods are worth far more. A handful of people living indefinitely may be worth more utility than an entire country combined.
I realized that I was far less competent than I assumed I was. That there were people far more suited to my ambitions than I was, and that I needed only do what was humanly possible.
I realized that I valued my friends; the many people I have met whilst attempting to achieve my goals. Because life for me would eventually be worth living, even if it currently isn’t, and that I had to protect the people I valued whilst I still existed.
I realized that I no longer wanted to die for my ideals, and needed to break the most fundamental of promises, the one to myself: That I would never conform, never put my own life above all others, to never give in to the selfish desires I was born with.
At first I did not want to admit it. Nobody likes realizing that they failed, especially on a fundamental level.
I was wrong about how the world worked. I was wrong about myself. I was wrong about logic itself.
It took me a long time to realize this. Much longer than it should have.
But it is difficult to imagine anyone who actively questions the world around him, and not, at least once in their life, realized that they were utterly wrong about everything they took as obvious truth. Anyone who hasn’t been through this probably has never seriously pursued truth, or are still wrong, or are either incredibly lucky. Notice that Intelligence is not in this list, because one of the things I was forced to learn was that intelligence doesn’t shelter you from being wrong.
I say this because the most intelligent people in the past were wrong about pretty much everything. They were wrong about reality, wrong about science, wrong about quantum mechanics, chemistry, philosophy, physics, wrong about politics, about the universe itself. The more intelligent you are, the more you go through this process of thought-purging. Intelligence means that you think more. You observe more. You gain more ideas, and consequently have more of those ideas turn against you. A rock is never wrong, and if your goal is to never be wrong, then the best strategy is to not think at all.
But that’s not my goal. Nor should it be anyone else’s. I hate being wrong. But if not being wrong also means never being right, then I will fail as many times as necessary.
The feeling of defeat and humiliation of realizing your ideas were wrong should be welcomed. It means that you are still learning. It means that you are growing. I cling on to this idea, and it keeps the guilt of betraying my past-self at bay.
But I was a Bayesian Rationalist, goddamnit! It was for this exact reason that I trained myself to think. To avoid the affective death spiral. To avoid the sunk cost heuristic, and to face reality, to believe that a hot iron is hot, and a cold iron is cold.
I wasn’t going to rationalize away my failure of judgement, or blame it on someone else.
I wasn’t going to shy away from the truth, or refuse to update given new priors.
I wasn’t going to let my pride stop me.
So I’m going to admit freely, in this essay, for the world to hear.
I have failed. I have failed. I have failed.
I have severely overestimated my own competence.
I’ve been far too narcissistic, gambled with far too much, and I have failed.
I have failed to create the change I desire, politically, and more.
I have failed in my gamble of becoming a high school dropout.
I have failed in believing I was competent enough to contribute intellectually to
I have failed to uphold the promises that I have made, to the many who have trusted me, as well as the promises I have made to my past self.
I have failed by losing my martyr complex, with the newfound prior of potential immortality.
I have failed by hurting so many members of a group that I once swore my soul to.
I have failed by being unable to produce the results I have claimed I would produce.
I have failed by overestimating my willpower and underestimating the difficulty of my tasks.
I have failed by overestimating the power of my intelligence, and underestimating the value of hard work.
I have failed by wrongly calculating the probability of certain events, even when I have compensated for my propensity for overestimation.
I have failed by being distracted by hedonism instead of the pursuits that I have previously sworn myself to.
I have failed by discarding the pursuits I have previously sworn myself to, in the desire for more hedonism.
I have failed by acknowledging the value of my own life, and gaining the fear of death in the process.
I have failed through the poor maintenance of many friendships whom I now highly value.
I have failed by having a false sense of superiority through which I have looked down upon many people that in retrospect, are better people than I am.
I have failed by not being intelligent enough, and despite that failure, being unable to realize that I am not intelligent enough, early enough.
I have failed by refusing to acknowledge my previous failures, instead relying on meaningless excuses to justify them.
There is a common folk wisdom nowadays along the lines of; do not regret your failures, because every failure is a learning experience. This is bullshit, and an excuse for the emotionally weak who can’t take responsibility for their failures. People who tend to say this, I’ve also noticed, tend to have never had any grand desires, and as a result have never truly failed, especially failures where lives are at stake. These people have no right to talk about regret.
I will not claim to not regret my failures – in the best possible world, I would not fail a single time. But what I will claim is that I want to live in the real world, in this world. If an object is hot, let me believe that the object is hot, and if it is cold, let me believe that it is cold. So in many ways, I would rather acknowledge now that I have failed, than never acknowledge that failure, and continue believing in cold fire.
This essay is an apology for these failures.
To the people I have betrayed, lied to, and looked down upon.
To the people who believed in me that I have disappointed through my incompetence.
To Tuxedage (11-17), for 6 years of my life.
And as a reminder to my future self, lest I ever forget.
My belief in the possibility of indefinite life extension explained.
There is a significant chance that indefinite life extension, in a completely healthy painless state, will be possible in our lifetime. I am using the term “indefinite life extension” rather than immortality because true immortality is impossible, at least according to the laws of physics as we currently understand it. That, and the fact that immortality has a number of negative connotations associated with it, such as being unable to die despite being in terrible suffering.
Indefinite life extension, on the other hand, is simply the ability to live until you no longer desire to live. Whether that may be in 10 years, 100 years, or a million years is simply up to the person to decide.
For me, I find living pretty fun. I enjoy life on average, even if I may not enjoy certain moments in my life. That’s why I want to live for one more day, one more month, one more year, one more century, and one more millenium. I think I may even be up for living a few billion or trillion years.
But this essay is not meant to persuade you that living forever can be fun. It’s not meant to persuade you that nobody actually hates living; when people say they want to die, it’s suffering, rather than life that they wish to escape from. It’s not meant to convince you that there are no physical laws of the universe that say that life must be suffering.
This essay is about the serious, life-changing possibility of indefinite life extension. Within your lifetime. I genuinely believe that any rational person should at least consider this, even if they reject the argument at the end. It’s important enough for you to dedicate a day or two to consider this issue.
Why? Because even the smallest probability in living a billion years is meaningful, when you multiply the expected utility. If you find living fun, and most people do (the people that don’t tend to commit suicide), you should find living twice as long twice as fun. There’s no arbitrary age when living changes from being fun to non-fun, when the polarity flips, and people should die. There ARE problems associated with aging, such as disease, weakness, and sickness, but having indefinite life extension would also mean taking care of those problems as well. People can’t live forever if they get sick and die.
If you think living twice as long should be twice as fun (after all, having fun for two days is twice as fun as having fun for only a single day), then living a hundred times as long should be a hundred times as fun, and so on. Because there is no diminishing marginal utility on living ( People don’t stop having fun after they hit an arbitrary age), then you might say that having a 50% chance on living twice as long is equally as desirable as a 100% chance of living regularly, given that everything else (such as friends, environment, family) stay the same.
You may not FEEL like living twice as long is twice as fun, but the math works out. Trust the Math, not your intuition – making decisions based on how you feel about things can be misleading, because something that doesn’t feel fun can be really fun (such as charity!) and something that isn’t really fun can feel really fun (such as winning the lottery! Research has shown that people severely estimate how fun more money would be, and most lottery winners actually end up less happy. )
The only way things can stop being fun is a change in environment, such as the death of a friend or family. That’s a problem with the environment, not a problem with living forever in and of itself. That’s why I’m trying so hard to get my friends (You) to seriously consider living forever, so that the next few billion years will be fun too.
Plus, historically speaking, the future is always more fun than the past! Our current quality of life is better than it has ever been, with not having to care about an 80% mortality rate, or being tortured for being a heretic, or not having to worry about being chased by a giant cat and eaten.
If we take a billion years as the amount of time you can add to your lifespan if you seriously consider indefinite life extension (and I have reasons to believe that it will probably be longer than that, due to things like increased simulation speed, but I won’t go into that for now), then living for a billion years will be ten million times more fun than living for a hundred years.
So we can say something like “A 0.00001% chance of living for a billion years is about equally as desirable as a 100% chance of living for a hundred years, assuming that the amount of fun doesn’t change.”
(And if it changes, it’s far more likely to increase rather than decrease, based on historic trends. )
But let’s ignore that for the moment for ease of calculation. If these two options are equally as valuable, I merely have to convince you that the probability of living indefinitely is higher than 0.00001% for you to gamble your life for this.
The good news is that you don’t have to gamble away your entire life. The most you will ever risk is a few days of your time to ponder this decision. In the most pessimistic view, you may even risk a few years of life, because the technology to live indefinitely may not be free. And since money is time, you may spend a few years working to obtain it. But even so, working is usually funner than non-existence, so comparing losing a few years of your life to having to work is not necessarily a fair comparison (And if non-existence is funner than work, I’d suggest trying a new job.)
The even better news is that the probability of indefinite life extension is significantly higher than 0.00001%. If I’m allowed to make a suggestion based on the things I know so far, I believe that it’s much closer to 30%~ or so, making this a really good investment for the level of risk incurred. (Have you ever seen an investment with an average expected ROI of 3 million? )
A list of all the potential ways death can be vanquished would be very long, so I’m only going to list the most promising ones, the combined probability of any one of them succeeding within our lifetime is about 25% or so.
These technologies are: Uploading, cryonics, genetic engineering, nanotech cellular repair, biomedical telomere rejuvenation, and creating AGI.
Furthermore, the rate at which technology is discovered in general is accelerating exponentially. More technological progress has been made in the last 20 years than all of human history before that. This is because getting technology usually allows us to advance science at a faster rate, thus increasing the rate at which new technology is discovered too!
The human genome project is a good example of this concept because it is easily quantifiable. In 1990 scientists had managed to transcribe only one ten-thousandth of the genome over an entire year. Yet their goal was to sequence the entire genome in 15 years. After seven years, only 1 percent had been sequenced. Most people said they would not finish on time.
But, in fact, the project was on track. The rate of progress was doubling every year, which meant that when researchers finished 1 percent they were only seven steps away from reaching 100 percent. The project was completed in 2003, a few years before schedule. People assumed it would take centuries because they thought scientific progress was linear.
This phonemonen is very easy to underestimate because human brains are not evolutionarily hardwired to intuitively grasp exponential growth. There are certain fields, such as computer speed, that double every year. Other technological fields are slower. Since most of the methods of indefinite life extension I have mentioned above are more difficult to quantify and chart out than genome coding, I cannot say exactly how fast they are progressing, and if progress doubles every month, or every 10 years.
However, I will use Real GDP per Capita (Real means that it is adjusted for inflation) in order to illustrate, in general, the average rate of technological progress. Because Real GDP per Capita is a measure of the average rate of all the things in the economy, it can be a good measure of how fast, in general, human society is progressing.
The World’s Real GDP per Capita doubles every 15 years, and has done so for the last few thousand years. This means that if one were to expect to live for 75 more years, he could expect to find that by the end of 75 years, the world would be in year 4400, and the equivalent of 2400 years of this year’s technological progress would have passed. ( 2^5 * 75 = 2400)
If this shocks you, then you already realize that humans are naturally bad at grasping exponential growth. If you want to accurately predict the state of the world in 75 years, you would have to imagine the world in year 4400, rather than in year 2085.
In order to convince you that indefinite life extension is entirely within our grasp, I will need to talk about it’s methods. If you know nothing about how we can live indefinitely, and yet try to calculate the odds of not dying in the next 75 years, your mind will come up with a blank page. As a result, you may severely underestimate its likelihood, because you may subconsciously believe that your lack of knowledge can be extended to all of humanity’s lack of knowledge, when this may not be the case.
The first method is uploading. To do a thorough scan of the brain, and simulate all neurons in your brain in a computer. If there is a part of you that is responsible for consciousness, we can take that too, and simulate it. If we have to simulate you to the quantum level, there’s no reason that cannot be done as well.
Yes, even if we upload you, you are still you. You are not a copy. Your identity is a mathematical algorithm, a rather complex one, but still a mathematical algorithm nonetheless. This is because the universe (including you!) is turing complete, and any turing complete language can be simulated by any other turing complete language. Your identity isn’t in specific atoms, because if you die but the atoms in your body still exist, you do not exist. You are a collective of thoughts, feelings, ideologies, and emotions. Your identity is conserved regardless of what hardware is running you. We know this to be true because most of the atoms in our body are changed every few years, and yet we do not treat this as a form of death.
We know that we will have enough computational power to fully simulate a person in a few decades. This is because of Moore’s Law; computational power doubles every year, and has doubled for the last 100 years. The main factor limiting this method of life extension is the ability to scan the human brain at a deep enough level to allow for simulation to occur.
I will be plotting these factors and the odds of any of these problems interfering with this method of life extension. I will put the approximate date that these probabilities are calculated with to be 2085.
Sufficient computational power for simulation, and simulations can be run relatively cheaply: 0.82
Humans are turing complete entities: 0.92
The capacity to scan the human brain to the necessary ontological level exists: 0.1
Science-interfering societal collapse does not happen: 0.90
Government interference with uploading does not happen: 0.75
Other unforeseen black-swans do not happen: 0.80
Total odds: 0.04073, or 4%
The second possible method of life extension is through cryonics. In simply terms, this means that after you die, but before cellular damage has occured, your body is frozen, but in a way that preserves the cellular structure to a near-atomic level. It is not merely “freezing” a corpse, but doing so in a way that preserves the detail of every cell and organelle. In the future, you will be revived, either through uploading, or by scanning you at an atomic level, and rebuilding you through nanotechnology and atomic engineering.
Some people argue that if all the atoms in your body are reassembled, it will not still be you. They are wrong, because it has been scientifically proven in Quantum Mechanics that atoms are indistinguishable, not just empirically, but philosophically (not just as far as we can observe, but as a mathematical certainty) Atoms are simply probability amplitude distributions, the result of the universal wavefunction factorizing (a fancy term for saying “an illusion created by something more fundamental” )
Consider that the definition of death has been before throughout history, as our medical knowledge, and therefore our ability to extend lifespan, increases. For thousands of years, humanity has assumed that when the heart stopped, a person died. However, after the invention of defibrillation and pacemaker, this was no longer the case, because it became possible to artificially stimulate the heart. Therefore the current definition of death is “brain death”, when the brain is no longer operational.
It is exceedingly likely that this current definition will soon be revised; the laws of physics do not prevent us from reviving people who are brain dead. Consider that although the brain no longer works, all the information that makes the brain do what it does still exists, down to the atomic level. A far better definition of death is informational-theoretic death, or when it is physically impossible to revive a person, because the necessary information in order to revive that person has already been lost.
The probability of Cryonics being successful has been calculated by a number of people, I like this particular estimate, which is neither overly-optimistic nor pessimistic, by Robin Hanson (Economist).
Civilization still exists and has kept growing in technical capability. 0.8
Your cryonics org and it successors have kept you continuously frozen. 0.8
Someone is willing and allowed to pay modest costs to revive you. 0.8
Brain science has workable input/output models of relevant brain cell types. 0.5
Usual freezing quality preserved relevant model-needed details. 0.8
Cheap scanning tech slices & 2D scans brains at model-needed spatial, chem resolution. 0.8
Error correction codes reconstruct most connections across slices, fractures. 0.8
Cheap computers can real-time sim entire scanned sets of connected cells. 0.8
Sim life seems worth living enough that they don’t prefer suicide. 0.8
Such sims of you are as worthy as your kid of your identifying with them. 0.8
Total Probability: 0.9329, or 9%
Is that all to cryonics? No, there is much more I will not cover. But I will direct you to these two FAQs if you wish to find out more, or you may ask me directly.
The third method that is Genetic engineering, cellular repair, and Telomere rejuvenation. These three, although slightly different methods, are so interconnected that it is easier to lump them all together, and call it the “biological” methods of solving aging.
We know that it is entirely possible for biological lifeforms to live indefinitely, because there are a number of animals that are not biologically programmed to die, and therefore can live indefinitely. One example is the Turritopsis nutricula, also known as the immortal jellyfish.
According to scientists studying the proccess of aging, there are currently seven major problems that are to be overcome before allowing indefinite life extension. They are:
Mutations in Chromosomes causing cancer due to nuclear mutations/epimutations:
These are changes to the nuclear DNA (nDNA), the molecule that contains our genetic information, or to proteins which bind to the nDNA. Certain mutations can lead to cancer. Non-cancerous mutations and epimutations do not contribute to aging within a normal lifespan, so cancer is the only endpoint of these types of damage that must be addressed.
Mutations in Mitochondria:
Mitochondria are components in our cells that are important for energy production. They contain their own genetic material, and mutations to their DNA can affect a cell’s ability to function properly. Indirectly, these mutations may accelerate many aspects of aging.
Junk inside of cells, aka intracellular aggregates:
Our cells are constantly breaking down proteins and other molecules that are no longer useful or which can be harmful. Those molecules which can’t be digested simply accumulate as junk inside our cells. Atherosclerosis, macular degeneration and all kinds of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease) are associated with this problem.
Junk – outside of cells, aka extracellular aggregates:
Harmful junk protein can also accumulate outside of our cells. The amyloid senile plaque seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is one example.
Cells – too few, aka cellular loss:
Some of the cells in our bodies cannot be replaced, or can only be replaced very slowly – more slowly than they die. This decrease in cell number causes the heart to become weaker with age, and it also causes Parkinson’s disease and impairs the immune system. Another example are neurons, which our body does not replace.
Cells – too many, aka Cell senescence:
This is a phenomenon where the cells are no longer able to divide, but also do not die and let others divide. They may also do other things that they’re not supposed to, like secreting proteins that could be harmful. Immune senescence and type 2 diabetes are caused by this.
Extracellular protein crosslinks:
Cells are held together by special linking proteins. When too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue, the tissue can lose its elasticity and cause problems including arteriosclerosis and presbyopia.
Once these problems are addressed, biological immortality is obtained.
I will freely admit that I do not know enough about human biology to calculate the probability of solving all of these problems. It would be fairly arrogant to claim otherwise, as I am not a full time gerontologist. However, I do know that the people alive today most knowledgeable on this, such as Aubrey de Grey, believes in a 90% chance we obtain a significantly increased lifespan within the next 100 years, as most of these problems become solved, and “robust human rejuvenation”, 50% probability, within the next 25 years.
I do however, admit that it’s probably very likely that he is overly optimistic, due to a wide range of biases such as the affect heuristic. For this reason, I will give an overly-pessimistic adjustment on his probability estimated by a factor of ten. Therefore the probability of biological immortality is 0.09. I admit that this is fairly arbitrary, and done for the sake of obtaining a more accurate final probability estimate, than merely guessing.
The final method is self-recursive AI, also known as the technological singularity. The logic is simple
A: We will build computers of at least human intelligence at some time in the future, let’s say within 100 years.
B: Those computers will be able to rapidly and repeatedly increase their own intelligence, quickly resulting in computers that are far more intelligent than human beings.
C: This will cause an enormous transformation of the world, so much so that it will become utterly unrecognizable, a phase Vinge terms the “post-human era”. This event is the Singularity
Self-recursive AI, sometimes also called AGI, once created, will almost definitely solve the problem of aging.
“However, I strongly support the goal of AI, because success in that area – if, as Luke says, it’s done right – will indeed solve all other technological problems, including the development of medicine to defeat aging.” -Aubrey De Grey
The question then is the probability of AGI being invented in the next 75 or so years.
This has already been calculated through Bayesian inference and statistics by a wide variety of different people far more knowledgeable than I am.
The absolute reasonable lower probability estimate on AGI being invented is 0.01, and I will be using this figure for calculation purposes.
Uploading Success: 4%
Cryonics Success: 9%
Biological Methods Success: 9%
AGI success: 1%
Total Probability of any one succeeding: 24.798%
Therefore a reasonable estimate of the possibility of indefinite life extension is approximately 25%.