it's not obvious to me that children are a good investment

I think you're engaging in nirvana fallacy. Children are not a good investment compared to what?

Again -- let's take a medieval European peasant. He has no ability to accumulate capital because he's poor, because his lord will just take his money if he notices it, and because once in a while an army passes through and basically grabs everything that isn't nailed down. He doesn't have any apprentices because peasants don't have apprentices (and apprentices leave once they learn the craft, anyway). He certainly has friends, but even his friends will feed their family before him when the next famine comes. So, what kind of investments into a non-starving old age should he make?

He can buy jars of salt and bury them. His children, if they survive, may feed their own children rather than him in the next famine. A network of friends and a high standing in the community are at least as valuable to him as investing resources in birthing and raising children who probably won't see adulthood. He can become an active and respected member of the church. The church is probably a better bet overall since there's a decent chance his own kids will die, but the church will probably survive.

I'm not an expert on 14th century investment opportunities, I just find the idea that children are clearly the best selfish investment incredible. If children are such a good investment, why did we need a modest proposal? And why are the rich, who retirements are not in doubt, so desirous of children? Why does king Priam need 50 sons? He's the king of a city. What fears does he have about retirement?

I don't know that we have access to facts. Everything is interpreted. Everything is a model.

OK. There were 3,932,181 births in the US in 2013 giving the birth rate of 12.4 / 1000 population (source). Tell me what kind of model is that, which theory does this piece of information critically depends on.

The ones digit of that number is almost certainly wrong and I'm not particularly confident about the next two. Believing that number relies on an enormous number of assumptions about the bureaucracy that generated it. Now my model of the world tells me that the bureaucratic system that calculates the birth rate in the U.S. is fairly trustworthy, compared to say the system that manages elections in Russia, but that trust is totally a function of my model of the world. The data you gather depends on your methodology. Some methods may be better established and may have more evidence in support of them, and the data they gather may really seem reliable, but we also thought that the earth was standing still for a very long time.

Fact just isn't an epistemological category that I have, and it's not one that I find useful. There are only models. Some models are more descriptive and better than others, some are more supported by evidence. But there aren't facts, there are no fixed points that I'm 100% sure are true. I consider my knowledge that 2+2=4 to be close to certain as anything just about anything else I believe, but I hesitate to call it a fact. I have that belief because it's always been true in the past and my brain has learned that induction is reliable. I could be convinced that 2+2=3, and if you believe something only because you have evidence to support it, then you must have a model that translates between the evidence and the belief.

Because the rate of climate change during the Pleistocene would have made long term forecasting difficult.

Huh? Can you, um, provide some links?

I'm hardly an expert on this, but searching for Pleistocene climate variation gives results like this:

"In addition to the well known millennium-scale stadial and interstadial periods, and the previously recognized century-scale climate events that occur during the Allerod and Bolling periods, we detect a still higher frequency of variability associated with abrupt climate change."

"The seasonal time resolution of the ECM record portrays as aspect of the climate system that consistently and frequently chnages between glacial and near-interglacial conditions in periods of less than a decade, and on occassion as rapidly as three years."

Climate Change: Natural climate change: proxy-climate data

The idea that people aren't, by nature, optimal decision makers is one of the core ideas of LW.

We're not talking about optimal decisions. We're talking about not screwing up. Humans are the most successful species on this planet -- they are capable of not screwing up sufficiently well.

We are specifically talking about the claim, "Would you seriously argue that people choose to have children as a reasonably optimal selfish way of guaranteeing that they continue to have enough to eat once they're no longer capable of working?"

I am not making the argument that there are no advantages to having and raising children from a retirement perspective. I am making the argument that it is unlikely that people choose to have children in order to obtain those advantages. I am making the argument that the decline in birthrate in unlikely to be due to people adjusting the number of children they have as part of a retirement plan. The success of a species has very little to do with the ability of individual members of that species to plan in such a way as to maximize their own well-being. Ants are collectively one of the most successful organisms in the world, but they certainly don't engage in long term planning.

Indeed it the success of the human species that I would cite as evidence for my assertion that human behavior is more closely linked to genetic self-interest than to personal self-interest. Cultural and social success is a huge factor in genetic self-interest. There's a reason that humans have large brains and devote so many resources to processing social relationships and facial cues. We have equipment for obeying social mandates. We understand them intuitively. We don't have have intuitive equipment for making long-term predictions, since that was selected for.

status ... it seems to be the thing that people care most about after short term economic incentives

Evidence please. People certainly care about status, but I don't think that people always care about money first, status second, and everything else after that.

I consider the word of a Nobel Prize-winning game theorist and economist to qualify as "evidence" on the topic of aggregate human behavior. If you don't consider the opinions of experts evidence, what qualifies?

If children are such a good investment, why did we need a modest proposal?

Because, like with all investements, the future is uncertain, returns are not guaranteed, there are occasional crashes, and a lot of general variability.

And why are the rich, who retirements are not in doubt, so desirous of children?

Because children are not only investments in one's old age, they are useful for many other purposes (e.g. dynastic). And, of course, the rich have the same hardwired biological urges. Besides, sometimes children are just a side-effect that the ric... (read more)

Why people want to die

by PhilGoetz 1 min read24th Aug 2015175 comments


Over and over again, someones says that living for a very long time would be a bad thing, and then some futurist tries to persuade them that their reasoning is faulty.  They tell them that they think that way now, but they'll change their minds when they're older.

The thing is, I don't see that happening.  I live in a small town full of retirees, and those few I've asked about it are waiting for death peacefully.  When I ask them about their ambitions, or things they still want to accomplish, they have none.

Suppose that people mean what they say.  Why do they want to die?

The reason is obvious if you just watch them for a few years.  They have nothing to live for.  They have a great deal of free time, but nothing they really want to do with it.  They like visiting friends and relatives, but only so often.  The women knit.  The men do yardwork.  They both work in their gardens and watch a lot of TV.  This observational sample is much larger than the few people I've asked.

You folks on LessWrong have lots of interests.  You want to understand math, write stories, create start-ups, optimize your lives.

But face it.  You're weird.  And I mean that in a bad way, evolutionarily speaking.  How many of you have kids?

Damn few.  The LessWrong mindset is maladaptive.  It leads to leaving behind fewer offspring.  A well-adapted human cares above all about sex, love, family, and friends, and isn't distracted from those things by an ADD-ish fascination with type theory.  That's why they probably have more sex, love, and friends than you do.

Most people do not have open-ended interests the way LWers do.  If they have a hobby, it's something repetitive like fly-fishing or needlepoint that doesn't provide an endless frontier for discovery.  They marry, they have kids, the kids grow up, they have grandkids, and they're done.  If you ask them what the best thing in their life was, they'll say it was having kids.  If you ask if they'd do it again, they'll laugh and say absolutely not.

We could get into a long argument over the evolution of aging, and whether people would remain eager to have kids if they remained physically young.  Maybe some would.  Some would not, though.  Many young parents are looking forward to the day their kids leave.

A lot of interests in life are passing.  You fall in love with a hobby, you learn it, you do it for a few years, then you get tired of it.  The things that were fascinating when you were six hold no magic for you now.  Pick up a toy soldier and try to play with it.  You can't.  Skateboarding seems awesome for about five years, and then everyone except Tony Hawk gets tired of it.

Having kids might be like that for some people.  Thing is, it's literally the only thing humans have evolved to be interested in.  Once you're tired of that, you're done.  If some of you want to keep going, that's an accidental by-product of evolution.  And there was no evolutionary pressure to exempt it from the common waning of interest with long exposure.

The way to convert deathists isn't to argue with them, but to get them interested in something.  Twist them the way you're twisted.