I think Eliezer outed himself as an anime fan in this post. It’s ok, I’m a pretty big one myself.
“If I want to make a funny political cartoon, I have to put in some effort. Go beyond the cached thought. Use my creativity. Depict Bush as a tentacle monster and Science as a Japanese schoolgirl.”
Yikes. This is scary because a tentacle monster and a Japanese schoolgirl would have been my first thought.
Hmmm. I used to be a Southern Baptist and since my turning to atheism I most certainly have lost much of my sense of morality. I’m far more of a moral relativist than I ever thought I could become and I find myself seldom convinced by anything that attempts to appeal to morals based on tradition. But by and large my actions in my day to day life have not changed one bit. God (and what my parents taught me) was my moral compass. Now that compass is gone and I have no moral navigation, but I’m still walking in the same direction I was before out of habit. I’m not sure how I feel about that at all. =/
woah. thanks for the links about the evolved wheels. that’s pretty awesome stuff right there hah.
“According to biologists’ best current knowledge, evolutions have invented a fully rotating wheel on a grand total of three occasions”
Eliezer, what do you mean by this? I think my brain is not working today or something cause this seems like it’s either a joke (which I do not get) or a reference to something in biology (which I am not aware of).
Other than that bit of confusion, this was a fantastic post. I think the last few things you’ve written on evolution should be required reading in every biology class (especially high school ones). So many well intentioned people have a severe misunderstanding of evolution and what you’ve written I think can clear it up.
Daniel: Judging ancient works by modern standards is a Freshman Comp 101 mistake.
Only if you’re trying to be fair. Isaac Newton was one of the great discoverers of the ages. He is no longer a good physicist. This is right and proper. All arts should move forward, and if they don’t, something is wrong. If no one had ever done better than Shakespeare—as evaluated by a blinded judge who didn’t know Shakespeare was supposed to be great—it would be cause for deep concern. Not all arts are like the art of science, but artists should still learn from each other.
Eliezer, I think you hit the nail square on the head here. I’ve argued with many an english teacher throughout my life about classic works and their merit but I’ve never succinctly stated what I wanted to say like you just did (the Newton example is perfect haha). If the pinnacle of human literary achievement is a loose collection of writings made by various authors over hundreds of years over several thousand years ago then you’re right, something is horrendously wrong, and we all collectively fail at literature as a species.
I think the same of many older works of art and literature. Sure they are important in that they moved human achievement forward, but I’d like to think people have learned from them and improved. For his time Shakespeare was an absolute genius and moved the entire English language forward (admittedly my experience with Shakespeare’s contemporaries is limited, but I’ve read works from earlier authors and found them to be nowhere near as good), but like Eliezer said I can, off the top of my head, think of a dozen things that I think are more beautifully constructed and more emotionally moving than any of Shakespeare’s work. As awesome and totally enthralling as I find The Lord of the Rings to be I sincerely hope that 400 years from now someone will have written something that far surpasses it.
Influence is great and all (and should never be ignored), but I firmly believe art of all sorts needs to be constantly re-evaluated and examined based on what is currently being produced to determine its merit. Some things that are old maintain their value while others have been eclipsed by greater more recent works.
I can understand the reasoning behind the saying that death gives meaning to life. But I’ve never been able to fully agree with that sentiment. If I could I would live forever. Death certainly gives me reason to want to do as much as I can while I am still able. But that desire doesn’t give my life any more meaning than if it was not there. I can agree that death makes life precious, for without death life would be abundant.
I often imagine what it’d be like to live 200 years or 1000 years. I know like Eliezer I would do so if able (assuming my mind was still intact the entire time). I can’t even begin to imagine the things I would be able to understand with a lifespan like that. I’m only 22 years old and I know and understand quite a bit, but what I don’t know and don’t understand is far greater. To me living a longer than what is currently natural life would be an opportunity to soak up even more knowledge and experience. That’s what I’m doing now with my life and I hope by some advancement in technology I’m able to do so for far longer than 78 years (or whatever my life expectancy is).
I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard anyone say exactly why they think death gives meaning to life. Anyone got a link to something that explains this?
I had to look at the html source where you said “Try to say aloud the color—not the meaning, but the color—of the following letter-string: “GREEN”″ because I’m colorblind and I couldn’t tell what color it was. Small amounts of red or green appear to be BOTH red and green simultaneously haha (show me a giant field of green and I can tell it’s green most of the time, but show me a dot of green on a field of white and I have no clue, same with red). I guess that really isn’t relevant to anything said here, I just thought it was funny considering the point of the exercise.
Fantastic post Eliezer, many of your recent posts have been articulating thoughts that I’ve been mulling about in my head over the last year or so. This one especially since I had an argument with a friend on this very subject not even a week ago haha. When you get around to publishing all of this as a book I will definitely buy a copy for myself and for my friend.
Also, Jacob, I glanced at your blog and saw the post on human evolution, if that is any indication of the quality of proof you have for Orthodox Judaism I don’t think I need to read any further.
Having worked on several large software projects I have experienced first hand overly optimistic goals. Just because you think you have a clue about what it is you’re supposed to do doesn’t mean that when you actually sit down and start working that you know even 1/10th what you need to know. For me personally that is the reason why the projects I’ve worked took longer than I (and everyone else involved) thought at first. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. It wasn’t long before half my work days were spent simply reading and learning about what it was I was trying to do before I actually got around to doing it.
This is a pretty interesting discussion. While the overall topic of this blog is the worthwhileness of overcoming bias, I think how that relates to “evil” is a pretty important facet of what we should talk about. Some of the comments on this post reminded me of a passage from a novel (a fantasy novel if you must know) on the nature of evil. I found it to be very profound and I think everyone here might find it sort of interesting. You’ll have to excuse the use of some of the plot specific names, the beginning of each chapter of the book opens with a few paragraphs from the point of view of a historian who lives several thousand years after the events in the story take place.
“What is the nature of evil?
Evil is mistakenly portrayed as a unified force. Tresserhorn, Stromgald, the Adnates of Soldevi, Varchild, all of these, we are told, were cut from the same cloth and share that same corrupted fabric. Yet these forces have battled each other as often as they have fought the forces of “good” and so can hardly be considered members of the same side.
Some researches state that all who bear the stamp of evil are imperfect or faulty beings from the onset. The more generous scholar might classify them as being merely weak, corrupted by potent forces that poisoned them. Yet in the end, the historians label them all as “evil,” as if that state were a disease that could be contracted through mere proximity.
So goes traditional thought. In reality, the various “forces of evil” all chose their paths for reasons that sounded good, even beneficial, at the time. They might have chosen their paths for personal advancement, for a particular belief or religion, for the desire of power, or even for patriotism or devotion. What unified them all, from Lim-Dûl to the Adnates, was usually the belief that they had “the answer” to whatever problem beset them. This answer often had the advantage of requiring minimal sacrifice on the part of the solver. Further, when the solution did require some degree of sacrifice, that sacrifice would be on the part of others who were unaware of a need for sacrifice in the first place.
These other people, the ones making the sacrifices, often took umbrage when they learned of their situation. As a result, such unpleasant information was kept from them until the last moment. In this fashion, the first steps of deception, regardless of the reason, was evil born.”
I tend to agree with what the author of that passage said about evil. When you look at people like Hitler, Mao, and Stalin it is clear they believed they had “the answer” or “the solution” to the problems they faced. But they lacked the ability to objectively see that their plans called for suffering on levels few people alive today can fathom (I know I certainly can’t). They let their biases close their eyes to the deaths they caused because they simply had to be right in their own mind. Teaching everyone to be compassionate and to empathize with others will certainly help people become less cruel, but overcoming our biases is no less important a step.
Haha, that’s a pretty good analogy. Unfortunately I think most people (myself in the past included and probably even still now) by default have their mouse cursor hovering over wherever the Ignore or Worship buttons appear when such a dialog shows up. And they click it in much the same way my grandparents would click a popup that installs malware on their computer, without thinking or paying attention. Clicking the Explain button requires effort (moving your cursor to a different spot and then waiting for an explanation), and knowing that it will bring up another dialog sooner or later makes it easier for people to just press Ignore or Worship.
I hope I’m not misunderstanding Hopefully Anonymous’ question here, but it would seem to me that a society whose laws are based solely on rationally minimizing harm would have to be a society with little or no freedom. I guess it depends on what is defined as the maximum risk the society is willing to endure to the physical safety of the individuals (and I presume the structure of the society as a whole). I think Eliezer certainly hinted at what I feel the main problem would be with a society whose laws are made to counteract individual irrationality. In doing so you would have to take away individual choice for the most part. That can be argued as a good thing to a point perhaps. But if you follow the goal of reduction of risk of harm far enough (which it would most certainly be rational to do so if that is your goal) you’d end up in a place where no one can do much of anything because nearly every activity we engage in on a daily basis has some amount of risk associated with it.
Driving a car for example would most certainly have to be done away with then, your risk of serious injury or death is pretty good, and the amount of overall harm to society in terms of wages lost, damage to property, and productive lives lost is quite high. Although I doubt the benefits to the society as a whole of driving would not outweigh the costs, so in such a society perhaps it would be allowed.
I’m not sure I understand how such a system could come about extragovernmentally. Could you elaborate? While social norms certainly appear outside of government influence, laws are a function of government and really only carry weight because the government has the right (or at least ability) to enforce them. For your example of compulsory medical trials (or anything similar to that) I think it would take a very drastic changing of social norms to make such a thing work without a government forcing people to take part in a medical experiments.
I did not mean to write this much at all. But it’s an interesting topic for sure and it’s not one I’m well educated on unfortunately. The above was just my initial reaction to the question.