We’ll Always Have Crazy

Content warning: preparadigmatic meander; half-baked models; thinking-out-loud. Unlike the median Duncan essay.

Logan Strohl’s response to the first draft of the below:

i really wish this were a more-effective-for-me invitation to help you figure something out. i think that’s the version of it i would upvote, or maybe even strong upvote.

right now i feel uncomfortable or something about having read it, and if it were a topic i already cared a lot more about i’d probably feel angry or maybe even betrayed. as it is i feel a tiny bit like i’ve been contaminated, because of something like a wishy washy back and forth between trying to figure out what you’re saying, trying to figure out what you’re doing, having a feeling that there’s something you want me to believe, trying to figure out what i do believe, trying to figure out what topics i need to try to get into my own sight before trying to understand you so that my own eyeballs don’t get carelessly knocked over… whatever i’m trying to say here is more concentrated in that last thing

i think i would like a version of this post that begins with a short list of questions that i’m invited to try to answer on my own before i read, ’cause then i’d try to answer them on my own first and be much much better prepared for this essay

  1. Do you think that the swath of society you live in is less crazy than society as a whole? Why?

  2. Do you think that the swath of society you live in is less crazy than its analogue in society 100 years ago? Why?

  3. How do you feel about the swaths of society that seem crazy to you? Why?

  4. How do you feel about the future of society, on the question of craziness? Do you think the median craziness is moving? Do you think the extremes of craziness are moving? Do you think that the bulk of people are moving toward the middle, or the tails are fattening, or society is splitting into a two-peaked distribution, or or or or or? (various permutations of that kind of question)

  5. What have you been using the word ‘crazy’ to mean, in the above? What do you think I use the word ‘crazy’ to mean? What do you think the median LWer uses it to mean?

  6. What do you wish for, if anything, re: society and craziness?

For a long time, I didn’t understand why elections were so often so close.

It seemed to kid-me that one side was (probably) strictly superior to the other, in the sense that the product of [the goodness of its goals] and [its effectiveness in pursuing those goals] was just straightforwardly higher.

And so it seemed to kid-me that once that side won once, it should be able to pretty quickly consolidate power and start accumulating compound gains from its achievements, at which point it should be wildly popular and win handily for a long time, until the underlying world state became Different enough that some new person or perspective would come out of nowhere and upend the existing order of things.

(I read a lot of fantasy books as a child.)

It took me a while to catch on to the fact that, actually, that exact process was happening. It’s just that it was happening continuously rather than stepwise—subtle shifts, little swings, a constant string of tiny revolutions instead of rare, climactic battles.

It took me a while to realize that there’s a sort of thermostat on political platforms. A party that wins in a landslide (or looks like it’s on track to do so) will tend to fragment, as those within it become less-convinced that they need to put their important disagreements on hold for the greater good of Defeating The Other Guys, and more eager to fight the leadership (or, more cynically, to distinguish themselves from the crowd as someone with a reputation for Insight and Integrity).

And a party that suffers a major defeat softens and expands (if it doesn’t just outright die or remain a perpetual minority) as those within it begin to reexamine their priorities, figuring out which things they are willing to sacrifice or tolerate for the sake of reaching out to new allies and appealing to new constituents.

Each side has an incentive to shoot for something like 51% of the relevant votes. Both sides have a spread of beliefs and convictions, and neither side wants to cede more of those beliefs than what’s required to be just-barely-popular-enough-to-win. And so, elections with two major contenders tend to be close, because whenever they threaten to be not close, there’s value in converting the excess unity into some sort of political concession.

(This is a very crude model, and of course it is obscuring a lot of other things that can actually be significant some of the time, but it’s approximately the first-order factor, as far as I can tell. It explains most of what happens, most of the time.)

There’s something about the above that feels vaguely anthropic-principle-esque, to me. Stable in a way that is baked into the fabric of the universe, that couldn’t be any other way because if the universe were that different, there wouldn’t be an entity like me to observe it.

“There will always exist shifting coalitions on the margins, because anything that isn’t on the margins just gets absorbed into the background, and the debate shifts to where the ongoing disagreement lies.”

Much of the left-leaning discourse of the past decade (in America) seems to me to have centered on “really?? Literal Nazis and ascendant racist sentiment?? Didn’t we already settle this one???”

And there’s something about that flavor of surprise which highlights an underlying principle that does, in fact, seem to hold most of the time. It comes across as an exception that proves that the general rule does actually exist. Racism is an unusually sticky issue in America (and among humans in general, maybe?) but it’s actually pretty much settled that politicians no longer shoot one another in the streets. It’s actually pretty much settled that children aren’t employed in salt mines. It’s actually pretty much settled that the moon orbits the Earth, which orbits the Sun, which is a part of a galaxy of ≈100,000,000,000 stars.

(And even given that racism is sticky in weird ways, the goalposts have definitely shifted over time—it’s pretty much settled that slavery based on skin color is abhorrent and outside the Overton window; no party based on “hey, let’s enslave [race X]!” would get very far, compared to the sociological fitness of such a platform two hundred years ago.)

The upshot is: progress is made, but contention is conserved. As soon as an issue is no longer useful as a discriminator on the margin, and a useful tool for building or breaking coalitions, it fades into the background and ceases to be a topic of discussion except among a minority of die-hards. New issues arise in its place, and people redivide themselves along the new axis.

Thus, we no longer have people fighting tooth-and-nail over whether a Catholic president is likely to betray the interests of the United States at the behest of the Pope. Instead, we have people fighting tooth-and-nail over border walls, abortion, and vaccination.

(Again, these are bold oversimplifications. Other factors can certainly be decisive in given instances of social conflict. I nevertheless think that there’s something real about the cartoonishly simple version, just like there’s something real about claiming that force equals mass times acceleration, or that price is inversely proportional to supply.)

For another angle on the conservation of contention: it used to be the case that people could have really quite heated arguments over which film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955, or just how long the Trans-Siberian Railroad is, end-to-end.

This entire class of disagreement has been largely obsoleted by the development of the internet, and of resources like Google and Wikipedia in particular. In places where people have access to those resources, such questions are usually settled in a matter of seconds. This is unquestionably progress, in an absolute sense.

However, it does not seem to me to be the case that the multiple-orders-of-magnitude increase in the ready availability of information has led to an overall reduction in the frequency of disagreement, or a meaningful decrease in the heat/​intensity/​urgency of that disagreement.

A cynical model would posit something like “people act on a desire to disagree, and in the moment search for a pretext to justify that desire; they used to easily find that pretext in the realm of facts but now that agreement-on-questions-of-fact is largely forced they must reach slightly farther afield. Overall, nothing has changed.”

I don’t know about that precise causal model, but it does seem to me that you get something pretty closely approximating the behavior of humans if you posit a baseline level of fighteyness, normally distributed around an average that lies somewhere in between “doormat” and “reddit troll.”

A more charitable explanation for unchanging contentiousness might look more like “people have extensive struggles and dissatisfactions, which compete for their limited time and attention. As the highest-urgency items get resolved, and people are no longer e.g. fighting for their literal survival, they turn to the next-highest items on the list with basically the same available energy. Thus, even as disagreements seem to have lower and lower actual stakes, the enthusiasm with which people prosecute those disagreements remains more or less constant, because the highest-priority disagreement is always the highest-priority disagreement, whatever its absolute magnitude, and that’s what matters.”

“But isn’t contentiousness actually down, in the sense that people are way less likely to e.g. kill another human being, than at approximately any time in the past?”

This is exactly the thing I’m attempting to point at, and am personally confused about.

By objective measures, it seems to me that contentiousness is down.

By felt sense, it seems to me that contentiousness hasn’t changed.

People don’t fight about facts in the way that they used to. But it doesn’t feel like they fight less than they did when I was eight, pre-widespread-internet, or less than they did a hundred years ago?

(Thinking here about ~ten hours of reading I did, once, into the political climate of America in the run-up to the Civil War. What the rhetoric in newspaper articles looked like, that sort of thing.)

People don’t outright assault one another as often as they used to. But it doesn’t feel like they’re less likely to feud and fight and scream and shun with every bit as much verve?

(Thinking here about social justice/​cancel culture, or the way pro-Trump crowds behaved toward poll workers, or the discourse on Facebook and Reddit and Twitter.)

People’s transgressions seem straightforwardly smaller than they used to be, mainly by virtue of times being less desperate and fewer sorts of violence being inside the Overton window. Yet people’s responses to the violations that nevertheless occur seem no less strident?

It’s as if there exists some “reasonable reaction to a 90th-percentile transgression” quantity that does not really change, over time, despite the fact that the categorical boundaries are shifting, and thus a 90th-percentile transgression in 2021 is very very different from a 90th-percentile transgression in 1971.

I’m unsure about all of this—am much more confused here than in e.g. my typical LW essays. But it looks this way, to me. Like you will get in more trouble, in a healthier and more-resourced society, for [action X], than you would in a less-healthy and less-resourced society.

And this seems good in one sense, in that this is what progress is. We-as-a-society couldn’t afford to mount meaningful pushback to [action X] back in the day, because we were too busy trying to deter [action Y] and [action Z] which were much, much worse. Now that Y and Z are taken care of, we can turn our attention to X, and then to W, and eventually to V and U and T in turn.

But it seems broken in some other sense that I can’t quite put my finger on.

One framework that feels live to me here is the distinction between counting up and counting down.

If I’m counting up, I’m starting from a modest sort of place where I don’t really expect anything good, and am ready to be pleasantly surprised by any progress whatsoever. I’m tracking how far we’ve come, from zero.

“Oh, geez, we cut murders down from 15-per-100,000 to 12-per-100,000? That’s fantastic!”

If I’m counting down, I’m starting from a standard of perfection, and docking points for anything that fails to measure up. I’m tracking how far we still are, from one hundred.

“We still have twelve murders per hundred thousand citizens. That’s twelve murders too many.”

In my mind, this is primarily about expectation management. There are some domains in which perfection is unattainable (either fundamentally or at least any time soon), and therefore too much focus on it is demoralizing rather than motivating. Hence, counting up, and celebrating progress as it comes in, separate from attending to how much distance is left to cover.

And there are other domains in which complacency is a genuine threat, and many achievements really are too small to be worth pausing to celebrate, and it’s more important to keep your eyes on the prize and stay soberly focused. Hence, counting down, and keeping every bit of progress in perspective with what remains to be done.

The above dynamics don’t seem to fit into this simple dichotomy. Instead, it’s like there’s some kind of Zeno’s paradox taking place. As soon as the overall picture gets better, the scale shifts to take the new equilibrium for granted. Yes, we used to get 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 1000, but those don’t happen anymore, so now we get 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 100. And once those don’t happen anymore, we’ll shift to getting 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 10, and then things of absolute magnitude 1, and then things of absolute magnitude 0.1, and so on.


...............................I mean, yes, clearly, progress, but...

I’m not sure. There’s a part of me that wishes that we only got 7-out-of-10 mad about things of magnitude 100, and that once we were down to things of magnitude 10 we would perhaps only get maybe 5-out-of-10 mad, and so on. That we-as-a-people could retain some high-level perspective, and not just fully resensitize to the new thresholds, and straightforwardly return to our dissatisfaction setpoints.

(There’s something in here about the social power of dissatisfaction/​outrage, as well, and how unilaterally maintaining that high-level perspective while everyone else reaps the benefits of reaction inflation is a doomed strategy.)

The title of this meander is “We’ll Always Have Crazy,” because where all these thoughts lead, in my mind, is discussion of religion and superstition.

The big claim:

To the extent that I, an educated middle-class aspiring rationalist in the modernized Western world, can readily identify Christianity and similar as obviously crazy, it is a kind of crazy that humanity will approximately never be free of.

More specifically, there will always be something which occupies the niche that Christianity et al currently occupy, because it’s a relative niche.

Five hundred years ago, Christianity specifically felt free to claim that:

  • The Earth was the center of the observable universe

  • The Earth was 6000 years old

  • Miracles were definitely happening on the regular; sucks to be you if you happened to have never witnessed one yourself

  • All the species in existence had always been in existence and would always be in existence

  • Humans are fundamentally and qualitatively distinct from all other animals

  • Sufficiently heartfelt prayer from a sufficiently pious individual could lead god (or maybe the saints?) to directly intervene in the physical world

Today, the claims of Christianity (at least those of the median and modal Christians in middle-class America, the kind who are willing to talk about their faith at the workplace lunch table) are much more modest. Few people promise that prayer will definitely make a difference; few people expect their prayers to be answered. Most people more-or-less explicitly acknowledge that prayer is about comfort, and community, and feelings of support.

Few people claim that god directly intervened to save some family or smite some sinner; few people genuinely credit that a hurricane or an unusually good harvest is the direct work of a deity. And even those that do are instinctively careful to hedge that miracles don’t make one-in-a-million events happen substantially more often than one time out of a million—they just influence which of the million good fortune falls upon.

(And if a bad thing happens to an unusually pious person, well—god works in mysterious ways.)

The claims of Christianity have mellowed because they had to. People carry cameras everywhere, now. We have near-complete causal physical explanations of earthquakes and volcanoes and weather events. We know what makes people sick, and we know what makes them well again. If Christianity had continued making claims as bold as the claims it made in the 1500s, it would have been setting itself up for failure, and its constituents for constant ridicule and embarrassment, and that’s no way to run a successful religion.

Christians (in my experience) like to point to Christianity’s historical success as evidence of its truth, but in fact the Christians of the year 200 would barely recognize the Christians of the year 1200, and the Christians of the year 2200 (if we get there) will barely recognize the Christians of today. Christianity’s success is due in no small part to its willingness to abandon its convictions, to adapt and rebrand, to shed its skin and contort itself to fit into the ever-shrinking space of not-quite-completely-laughable superstition.

And this is my point—it has succeeded in doing so. Were I to have been born 500 years ago, and raised in analogous circumstances, such that I occupied an analogous place in society, I would feel exactly the same unease and disdain about the objectively much crazier beliefs flying back and forth in the 1500′s as I do about the much tamer Christianity of today.

(Ditto Judaism and Islam, ditto Buddhism and Hinduism and Sikhism and Taoism and Shinto and astrology and animism, etc.)

No matter what our ability to record and analyze and understand the world around us, there will always be a margin—always a swath of claims and beliefs that are probably false, but difficult to demonstrably debunk.

No matter what our ability to track causality, there will always be some threshold below which we cannot track, where someone can claim the influence of a subtle god—or domains in which such claims can never be checked, such as the afterlife or an extraphysical astral plane.

No matter how good we get, as a species and as a culture, at tracking our beliefs, and their causes, and teaching and maintaining good epistemic hygiene, there will always be countermeasures—perspectives that ennoble unthinking faith as a virtue, or which assert that doubt is the devil talking, such that people operating within those perspectives will have ready-made defenses against incoming information that would otherwise push them to deconvert.

And so we will always have crazy.

To the extent that humanity continues to be a loose collection of individuals, largely influenced by the thousand-or-so other monkeys in their immediate vicinity, we’ll always have some set of traditions that live in the gray area that (the popular and memetically fit versions of) Christianity et al currently occupy. If the treadmill turns too quickly for Christianity to adapt, and it falls by the wayside, something else will take its place, and that thing will seem just as crazy to the Duncan of 2200 (relative to everything else he knows and can prove, and everything else his society takes for granted) as modern-day Christianity seems to me.

This is especially true as long as belief-sets like Christianity continue to be relatively innocuous (such that non-members don’t view them as a sufficiently large threat that they must unite against them), relatively beneficial (e.g. by providing community or a sense of purpose, such that even those who see their fundamental hollowness may nevertheless be tempted to “take the deal,” or at least reluctant to throw out the baby-containing bathwater), and relatively motte-and-bailey-able (such that people can equivocate between bolder/​crazier beliefs and smaller/​saner/​more defensible beliefs when challenged).

And given the rate at which the human race is spewing out thoughts and ideas and beliefs and perspectives and just-so stories and gossip and outright lies—given that there exists an assortment of memes at approximately every point on the spectrum of plausibility—there will always be something for selection pressure to promote to fixation. There will always be available belief sets which hit just the right mix of plausibility and usefulness. Nobody has to design them on purpose. They already exist, and are simply waiting for the circumstances to be right for their blossoming.

It’s worth pausing and reiterating the … looseness? … of this essay. This is a self-aware meander; it’s thinking-out-loud; much of the above is oversimplified, and disagreement in the comments below is invited, prosocial, and appreciated.

These thoughts seemed worth sharing, though, even in their current half-baked form, because more and more I have found that expectation management is a critical and extremely undervalued skill. The vast majority of the confusion, suffering, and anger that I see, in my privileged swath of experience, comes from people who thought things would be one way, only to discover they were the other way. People with accurate expectations, and people who are able to relinquish false expectations easily, just have a much better time. On the order of 10x better, in my experience, across a wide range of contexts and circumstances.

And the core realization—that the Lizardman Constant is not just about polls, and that there’s a major difference between [the amount of progress made by a given society] and [how that progress feels, to someone on the inside of that society]—

It’s been extremely useful to me, as someone who Tries To Have High Hopes For Humanity.

If you expect things to feel better just because they get better—

If you expect people to appreciate progress, proportional to its magnitude—

If you look at how much less crazy our society is than it was 100 years ago, and have been thinking it will feel that much better after a similarly-sized chunk of progress—

Then it’s important to consider the possibility (the likelihood, according to me) that we’ll always have crazy.

Plan accordingly.