Propagating Facts into Aesthetics

Epistemic sta­tus: Ten­ta­tive. I’ve been prac­tic­ing this on-and-off for a year and it’s seemed valuable, but it’s the sort of thing I might look back on and say “hmm, that wasn’t re­ally the right frame to ap­proach it from.”

In dou­ble­crux, the fo­cus is on “what ob­ser­va­tions would change my mind?”

In some cases this is (rel­a­tively) straight­for­ward. If you be­lieve min­i­mum wage helps work­ers, or harms them, there are some fairly ob­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments you might run. “Which places have in­sti­tuted min­i­mum wage laws? What hap­pened to wages? What hap­pened to un­em­ploy­ment? What hap­pened to worker mi­gra­tion?”

The de­tails will mat­ter a lot. The re­sults of the ex­per­i­ment might be weird and con­fus­ing. If I ran the ex­per­i­ment my­self I’d prob­a­bly get a lot of things wrong, mi­suse statis­tics and for­get to ac­count for some con­found­ing fac­tors. But I don’t feel con­fused about how to learn bet­ter statis­tics, ac­count for more con­founders, etc.

But there’s a prob­lem that seems harder to me, which is how to change my mind about aes­thet­ics. Sarah Con­stantin first brought this up in Nam­ing the Name­less, and I’ve been think­ing about it ever since.

I think a lot of deep dis­agree­ments have to do with “what is beau­tiful, and what is ugly?”, and in­abil­ity to di­rectly ad­dress this is part of what pre­vents those dis­agree­ments from re­solv­ing.

In the case of the min­i­mum wage ex­am­ple, you might run an ex­per­i­ment, and find over­whelming ev­i­dence that min­i­mum wage helps or hurts work­ers. But be­cause there’s lots of con­founders, the ev­i­dence might be mixed and con­fus­ing. How you in­ter­pret it will de­pend on how it fits into your ex­ist­ing wor­ld­view.

Part of this has to do with your on­tolog­i­cal frame. But I think a lot has to do with aes­thet­ics judg­ments, such as:

  • Is cap­i­tal­ism ugly and/​or dis­taste­ful? You might have very salient ex­am­ples of how cap­i­tal­ism can re­sult in ex­ploita­tion, pol­lu­tion, or peo­ple be­com­ing trapped in un­healthy power struc­tures.

  • Is cap­i­tal­ism beau­tiful? Alter­nately, it might be salient that cap­i­tal­ism cre­ates su­per­mar­kets, gains from trade, and vast sur­plus. Eco­nomic effi­ciency isn’t just pretty num­bers on a graph, it’s real value be­ing cre­ated.

Th­ese don’t di­rectly bear on the min­i­mum wage ques­tion, but might make it harder to re­solve.

In some cases, your aes­thetic taste might make it harder to up­date on new in­for­ma­tion prop­erly. In other cases, your aes­thetic taste might help you to no­tice im­por­tant pat­terns more read­ily.

Why ‘aes­thet­ics?’

I’m us­ing the word aes­thetic in a non­stan­dard way. When peo­ple do that, I think it’s im­por­tant to be clear and about what they’re do­ing and why.

There’s a few differ­ent words I might have used here, in­clud­ing “feel­ings”, “on­tolo­gies”, “frame­works”, and “val­ues.”

Most ob­vi­ously, I could have asked ‘is cap­i­tal­ism good/​bad?’ in­stead of ‘is cap­i­tal­ism beau­tiful or ugly?’.

I’m mak­ing a fairly strong claim (weakly held) that “is it beau­tiful or ugly?” is at least one of the im­por­tant ques­tions to be ask­ing, in ad­di­tion to “is cap­i­tal­ism good/​bad” and “does rais­ing min­i­mum wage help or harm work­ers?”. Not be­cause it’s how a flawless AI would think about it, but be­cause it’s how hu­mans seem to of­ten think about it.

What is an aes­thetic?

An aes­thetic is a mish­mash of val­ues, strate­gies, and on­tolo­gies that re­in­force each other.

The val­ues re­in­force “you want to use strate­gies that achieve these val­ues.”

The act of us­ing a par­tic­u­lar strat­egy shapes the on­tol­ogy that you see the world through.

The on­tol­ogy re­in­forces what val­ues seem im­por­tant to you.

To­gether, this all cre­ates a feed­back loop be­tween your metagoals and sub­goals, where the pro­cess of us­ing this cluster of value/​strat­egy/​on­tol­ogy makes each link in the chain stronger.

In hu­mans (who have messy, en­tan­gled brains), this caches out into feel­ings, felt senses. The origi­nal goal and the metagoals blur to­gether. I think “this helps me achieve my [generic] goals” might re­in­force “these par­tic­u­lar sub­goals I have are good goals to help with my over­all flour­ish­ing.”

This might be im­ple­mented via evolu­tion over mil­lions of years, or via hu­man brains over decades. A Just So Story I’m not sure I en­dorse but hope­fully gets the point across:

“A flower is beau­tiful, you say. Do you think there is no story be­hind that beauty, or that sci­ence does not know the story? Flower pol­len is trans­mit­ted by bees, so by sex­ual se­lec­tion, flow­ers evolved to at­tract bees—by imi­tat­ing cer­tain mat­ing signs of bees, as it hap­pened; the flow­ers’ pat­terns would look more in­tri­cate, if you could see in the ul­tra­vi­o­let. Now healthy flow­ers are a sign of fer­tile land, likely to bear fruits and other trea­sures, and prob­a­bly prey an­i­mals as well; so is it any won­der that hu­mans evolved to be at­tracted to flow­ers?

Here are some things that you might find beau­tiful, or dis­taste­ful:

  • Mozart

  • Punk Rock

  • Read­able, well-writ­ten code

  • Clever hacks that got the job done quickly

  • Cities built on rec­t­an­gu­lar grids

  • Wind­ing alley­ways in villages where no­body has con­sis­tent names

  • Peo­ple be­ing phys­i­cally af­fec­tionate in public

  • A harsh, bar­ren desert

  • A lush valley with a river

  • Swamps /​ wetlands

  • Na­ture in general

  • Man­icured gardens

  • Books

  • Throw­ing away books

  • Peo­ple speak­ing in lan­guages differ­ent from yours

  • Dense spread­sheets laden with ac­cu­rate data

  • Minimalism

  • Frugalism

  • Patriotism

  • Peo­ple go­ing out of their way to be kind to their neighbors

  • Peo­ple go­ing out of their way to solve small-but-com­mon prob­lems us­ing math

(If you’re like me, you might find it dis­taste­ful when peo­ple make moral ar­gu­ments that seem rooted in dis­taste… and then feel kinda self con­scious about the con­tra­dic­tion)

Some­times you’re dou­ble­crux­ing with some­one, and they’ve ex­plained their model. And their model… makes sense. But the con­clu­sion just seems so damn ugly. You want to take 5x the time to write beau­tiful code, and they just want you to get the job done and ship it.

One thing you can do is push aside your aes­thetic judg­ment, shut up and mul­ti­ply. This may be use­ful for ex­pe­di­ency.

But some­times, I think the cor­rect thing is for one or both peo­ple to back­prop­a­gate facts through their aes­thet­ics.

I do not think you should rush or “force” this. Your sense of beauty is there for a rea­son. But I have a sense that figur­ing out how to do this well is a key open prob­lem in ap­plied ra­tio­nal­ity.


Are Swamps Beau­tiful?

Com­pare the swamp with a ver­dant for­est.

If you’re like me, swamps seem ugly. Forests seem pretty.

My as­so­ci­a­tions with swamps come largely from sto­ries (and per­haps most con­cretely, from the game “Magic the Gather­ing”), where they’re of­ten pre­sented as places of dis­ease, murky hor­rors and cor­rupt magic. In per­son, swamps are phys­i­cally hard to walk in (some­times solid ground turns out to be al­gae), and full of mosquitos that bite me.

Are these as­so­ci­a­tions ac­cu­rate?

Well, the solid ground and mosquito is­sues are definitely real.

Swamp Thing is not real, life-steal­ing magic is not real.

Are there ad­di­tional facts I can learn? My sister eval­u­ates land for con­struc­tion pro­jects. She says that swamps of­ten serve im­por­tant roles as a nat­u­ral way to filter wa­ter, and when you naively drain swamps, wa­ter qual­ity in an area gets worse. James Scott in Against the Grain claims that early Sume­rian civ­i­liza­tion de­vel­oped in swamps, where food and re­sources were plen­tiful and life was fairly leisure­ful – un­til em­pires arose and sub­jected peo­ple and forced them to switch to eas­ily-tax­able crops in­stead of the ones that grew nat­u­rally. (Speak­ing of which: is civ­i­liza­tion beau­tiful or ugly?)

I prob­a­bly find forests beau­tiful, in part, be­cause they rep­re­sent a lot of re­sources that I un­der­stand how to make use of. If swamps also sup­ply those re­sources, maybe I should re­spect them more?

I also find forests beau­tiful be­cause my ex­pe­rience stems from a) en­chanted forests in fairy­tales, and b) rel­a­tively man­icured na­tional parks. If I re­mind my­self that the last time I walked through an un­tamed for­est, it was dense with bram­bles that cut me ’till I bled. It wasn’t ac­tu­ally a much nicer ex­pe­rience than the last time I ex­plored a swamp. (It also had non-triv­ial num­bers of mosquitos)

In this ex­am­ple, sim­ply mul­ling over the facts nat­u­rally re-or­ga­nizes my feel­ings about them. I still find swamps ugly, but less ugly than be­fore. I ex­pect that, if I re­flected on this pe­ri­od­i­cally, over time, it would shift a bit more.

Are Harsh Deserts Beau­tiful?

I am in fact con­fused by this. My an­swer is “yes”, and I don’t know why. Deserts don’t have much in the way of re­sources. Their stark beauty is more like the way a statue is beau­tiful than the way a for­est is beau­tiful.

I mul­led this one over for a while, am still con­fused and I note it here be­cause “notic­ing the limits of a model” seems im­por­tant.

[Edit: this was dis­cussed more in the com­ments.]

Is Helping Nearby Peo­ple Other Beau­tiful?

The first ex­pe­rience I got with aes­thetic dou­ble­crux was de­bat­ing “hufflepuff virtue” with Oliver Habryka.

I had a strong sense that “peo­ple helping each other out” was good and right and vir­tu­ous. There was a beauty to the sort of com­mu­nity where ev­ery­one no­tices when some­one is hurt­ing (and reaches out to help), or when a space is messy (and cleans it up). There was a cluster of at­tributes that seemed to fit to­gether in a way that was stronger than the sum of its parts.

And this was visi­bly lack­ing in the Berkeley com­mu­nity, and it was re­sult­ing in peo­ple feel­ing alienated and dis­trust­ful of each other, and many spaces be­ing ei­ther messy, or bur­den­ing a sin­gle per­son with clean­ing up ev­ery­one else’s mess.

This seemed con­cretely harm­ful. But it also just seemed… ugly and bad.

Oliver had a differ­ent view, which I sum­ma­rize as the “sys­tem­iza­tion and spe­cial­iza­tion” ap­proach. (pre­vi­ously dis­cussed here)

If ev­ery­one has to pay at­ten­tion to their en­vi­ron­ment and no­tice things that need do­ing, this is a lot of cog­ni­tive over­head. If peo­ple only have seven work­ing mem­ory slots but they’re spend­ing one of them on track­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, that’s a dra­matic cost on their abil­ity to think. For a com­mu­nity that spe­cial­izes in think­ing, this could be quite bad.

More­over, “ev­ery­one pitch in” is just a re­ally in­effi­cient way of get­ting things done. A bet­ter solu­tion is to stream­line and au­to­mate as much of the work as pos­si­ble, hire clean­ing ser­vices, and what­ever re­main­ing work needs do­ing, sim­ply pay one one of the peo­ple some­thing com­men­su­rate for their time and effort. Spe­cial­iza­tion is how things get done when you’re do­ing them se­ri­ously.

We ar­gued about this over the course of three days.

I still think there are some things habryka was miss­ing here. But even­tu­ally my wor­ld­view shifted in some sig­nifi­cant ways:

  • I up­dated that the “ev­ery­one pitch in” way of keep­ing spaces clean doesn’t make sense for longterm or­ga­ni­za­tions with se­ri­ous fund­ing. Spe­cial­iza­tion is real, cog­ni­tive band­width is pre­cious, and it’s gen­er­ally bet­ter to just hire a clean­ing ser­vice if you can af­ford one.

  • I up­dated a bit (talk­ing with Satvik) that my model that “helping each other out in low-key ways builds trust which later en­ables more ex­ten­sive pro­jects” wasn’t as strong as I thought. Satvik asked some­thing like “do you think startup cofounders tend to team up be­cause they’ve helped each other take out the trash? I feel like it’s more about shar­ing a clear vi­sion and prin­ci­ples or some­thing.” And I thought back to some ex­pe­riences and… yeah that seemed maybe more ac­cu­rate.

  • I gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of where and why the “ev­ery­one pitch in” ap­proach is use­ful.

    • Clean­ing ser­vices are ex­pen­sive, and if you’re a fledgling or­ga­ni­za­tion or a typ­i­cal house­hold, it’s prob­a­bly not worth hiring a cleaner more than once a week or so. Mean­while, peo­ple make messes much more fre­quently than once a week. If you want your space nice, you have to clean it your­self.

    • There’s a value that comes from hav­ing com­mu­nity spaces use the “ev­ery­one pitch in” method, in that it cre­ates a stronger sense of own­er­ship and buy-in for the space. It also is a mechanism by which peo­ple can re­late to each other more eas­ily. While this might not be that im­por­tant for a com­pany, it seems im­por­tant for a com­mu­nity that’s aiming to meet com­mu­nity-shaped-needs.

But this all left me with a nag­ging, frus­trated sense that some­thing im­por­tant and beau­tiful be­ing lost. I want to live in a world where peo­ple help each other out in small ways. It’s the par­tic­u­lar kind of beauty that a small town in a Miyazaki movie em­bod­ies. It feels im­por­tant to me.

Un­der what cir­cum­stances should I change how I feel about that?

There’s a sense in which aes­thet­ics can’t be proven wrong, or at least “try­ing to prove it wrong” isn’t re­ally the right frame of mind.

But… I have an aes­thetic prefer­ence for con­sis­tency, and for be­liev­ing true things (whether this is good is an­other ques­tion, but I’m tak­ing it at face value for now), which in­forms my other aes­thet­ics. Aes­thet­ics can turn out to be built out of con­tra­dic­tory pieces, and they can turn out to hinge of false be­liefs.

“Try­ing on” an­other aesthetic

While talk­ing to habryka, I tried to get a sense of what it’s like to live in the world where sys­tem­iza­tion and spe­cial­iza­tion are ob­vi­ously good and right. What was it like to be habryka? How did this fit to­gether with his other be­liefs and val­ues?

Then, once I had a good han­dle on that, I tried to in­habit “what would it be like to be a Rae­mon who found sys­tem­iza­tion and spe­cial­iza­tion good and right?”. Without ac­tu­ally adopt­ing the aes­thetic, I tried fit­ting it into my ex­ist­ing model. This was a bit of an aes­thetic pro­cess of its own – like try­ing on a new out­fit and see­ing how I re­acted in the mir­ror.

I’m not sure if habryka en­dorses con­sid­er­ing those as an ‘aes­thetic’, per se. But I found this pro­cess valuable.

I gained some abil­ity to see sys­tem­iza­tion as beau­tiful. My sense of hufflepuff beauty be­came more nu­anced and caveated.

Clean Code vs Quick Hacks

Hu­mans have (an in­stinc­tive? Learned? I’m not sure) sense that when you smell fe­cal mat­ter or rot­ting flesh, there is prob­a­bly dis­ease nearby. It’s di­gust­ing.

Dogs… well, I’m not 100% sure what’s go­ing on with dogs but I think it’s some­thing like “strong odors that mask my scent are more use­ful than dis­ease is bad”, and for some rea­son fe­cal mat­ter is joyful to play around in.

Pro­gram­mers of­ten learn that spaghetti code is ev­i­dence of bugs, even if they don’t know ex­actly what the bug is yet. It ac­quires a bad code smell.

Young pro­gram­mers of­ten do not have this sense of dis­taste, and it is im­por­tant for them to ac­quire it.

On the flip­side: there is also a thing where, well, some­times you’re rush­ing to ship an Min­i­mum Vi­able Product and you don’t have time to do ev­ery­thing right. It can be le­gi­t­i­mately hard to figure out how much effort to put into “do­ing things right.” But it seems at least some­times, ex­pe­rienced coders ei­ther need to learn to “hold their nose” and do the quick fix, or to de­velop al­ter­nate aes­thet­ics that they can shift be­tween de­pend­ing on cir­cum­stances.

Knobs to Turn

There are a few differ­ent di­rec­tions this kind of pro­cess might go:

  • You could shift to find some­thing more beau­tiful than you did before

  • You could shift to find some­thing less beau­tiful than you did be­fore.

  • You could shift to find some­thing more dis­taste­ful than you did be­fore.

  • You could shift to find some­thing less dis­taste­ful than you did be­fore.

I have some sense that these are sub­tly differ­ent pro­cesses, al­though not much ev­i­dence to back that up. I also feel like in each case, go­ing from Zero to N, or N to Zero, is differ­ent than di­al­ing an ex­ist­ing aes­thetic re­sponse up or down.

Gain­ing a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for why some­thing is beau­tiful feels differ­ent than gain­ing a cat­e­gor­i­cally new form of dis­gust. In par­tic­u­lar, gain­ing a new form of beauty mostly makes my life feel nicer, whereas gain­ing a new form of dis­gust in­creases the un­pleas­ant­ness

Why Does this Mat­ter?

In Nam­ing the Name­less, Sarah Con­stantin refer­ences this com­ment by Scott Alexan­der:

Some­times I can al­most feel this hap­pen­ing. First I be­lieve some­thing is true, and say so. Then I re­al­ize it’s con­sid­ered low-sta­tus and cringe­wor­thy. Then I make a prin­ci­pled de­ci­sion to avoid say­ing it – or say it only in a very care­ful way – in or­der to pro­tect my rep­u­ta­tion and abil­ity to par­ti­ci­pate in so­ciety. Then when other peo­ple say it, I start look­ing down on them for be­ing bad at pub­lic re­la­tions. Then I start look­ing down on them just for be­ing low-sta­tus or cringe­wor­thy.

Fi­nally the idea of “low-sta­tus” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems ter­rible and ridicu­lous to me, and I only re­mem­ber it’s true if I force my­self to ex­plic­itly con­sider the ques­tion. And even then, it’s in a con­de­scend­ing way, where I feel like the peo­ple who say it’s true de­serve low sta­tus for not be­ing smart enough to re­mem­ber not to say it. This is en­demic, and I try to quash it when I no­tice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my no­tice all the way to the point where I can no longer re­mem­ber the truth of the origi­nal state­ment.”

Sarah notes:

Now, I could say “just don’t do that, then”—but Scott of 2009 would have also said he be­lieved in be­ing in­de­pen­dent and ra­tio­nal and not suc­cumb­ing to so­cial pres­sure. Good in­ten­tions aren’t enough. [...]

I think it’s much bet­ter to try to make the im­plicit ex­plicit, to bring cul­tural dy­nam­ics into the light and un­der­stand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

Scott’s com­ment gets at what I mean by “An aes­thetic is a mish­mash of val­ues, strate­gies, be­liefs, and on­tolo­gies that re­in­force each other.” He starts with a be­lief, then adopts a strat­egy for how he re­lates his com­mu­ni­ca­tion to that be­lief, and then ends up with a vague sense that the be­lief is “cringey”, and later col­laps­ing it to “cringey and wrong”.

This quite wor­ry­ing epistemic hor­ror.

I think most of what needed say­ing, Sarah already said, but it’s worth con­clud­ing with here:

If you take some­thing about your­self that’s “cringe­wor­thy” and, in­stead of cring­ing your­self, try to look at why it’s cringe­wor­thy, what that’s made of, and di­alogue hon­estly with the per­spec­tive that dis­agrees with you—then there is, in a sense, noth­ing to fear.

There’s an “elu­ci­dat­ing” move that I’m try­ing to point out here, where in­stead of defend­ing against an alle­ga­tion, you say “let’s back up a sec­ond” and bring the en­tire situ­a­tion into view. It’s what dou­ble crux is about—“hey, let’s find out what even is the dis­agree­ment be­tween us.” Dou­ble crux is hard enough with ar­gu­ments, and here I’m try­ing to ad­vo­cate some­thing like dou­ble-crux­ing aes­thetic prefer­ences, which sounds ab­surdly am­bi­tious. But: imag­ine if we could talk about why things seem beau­tiful and ap­peal­ing, or ugly and un­ap­peal­ing. Where do these prefer­ences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still en­dorse them when we know their ori­gins? What hap­pens when we bring tacit things into con­scious­ness, when we talk care­fully about what aes­thet­ics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or differ­ent from per­son to per­son?

Un­less you can think about how cul­tural mes­sag­ing works, you’re go­ing to be a mere con­sumer of cul­ture, drift­ing in what­ever di­rec­tion the cur­rent takes you.

I’m hop­ing this post gives some nuts and bolts on how to ac­tu­ally make progress on that goal.

Again, I don’t know that the spe­cific tech­niques I list in this post are the best ones, or how of­ten ex­actly aes­thetic con­cerns are most rele­vant. I think it’s usu­ally good form to start with an at­tempt to take ar­gu­ments at face value, and de­bate about con­crete be­liefs.

But, if that isn’t work­ing, I think dig­ging into aes­thet­ics is one of the tools that’s im­por­tant to have in your toolkit.