Watching the video of Eliezer's Singularity Summit 2010 talk, I thought once more about the 'baseball' argument. Here's a text version from How to Seem (and Be) Deep:
[...] given human nature, if people got hit on the head by a baseball bat every week, pretty soon they would invent reasons why getting hit on the head with a baseball bat was a good thing.
And then it dawned on me. Roughly half of human kind, women, are inflicted with a painful experience about once a month for a large period of their lives.
So, if the hypothesis was correct, we would expect to have deep-sounding memes about why this was a good thing floating around. Not one to disappoint, the internet has indeed produced at least two such lists, linked here for your reading pleasure. However, neither of these lists claim that the benefits outweigh the costs, nor do they make any deep-sounding arguments about why this is in fact a good thing overall. Whether or not they are supported by the evidence, the benefits mentioned are relatively practical. What's more, you don't hear these going around a lot (as far as I know, which, admittedly, is not very far).
So why aren't these memes philosophised about? Perhaps the ick factor? Maybe the fact that having the other half of the population going around and having perfectly normal lives without any obvious drawbacks acts as a sanity test?
In any case, since this is a counter-argument that may eventually get raised, and since I didn't want to suppress it in favour of a soldier fighting on our side, I thought I'd type this up and feed it to the LessWrong hivemind for better or worse.
The fact that there is a huge amount of variation in the discomfort involved, and many women do not suffer particularly in the process, probably prevents too many people from concluding that the experience ought to be unpleasant. The fact that men don't have to deal with it at all, and it doesn't negatively impact their lives, also seems like an incentive against rationalizing it as positive.
Additionally, I don't think it's all that accurate to say that the incidence of menstruation was that frequent before birth control. My understanding is that bleeding during pregnancy is comparatively rare, though not unheard of, and that significant numbers of women do not menstruate or have a reduction in menstruation during breastfeeding. It is also my understanding that women have traditionally started reproducing not long after the onset of menstruation, or even sooner (the age of menarche appears to be decreasing, but pregnancy is possible prior to a girl's first period). If these understandings are correct I would expect that the modern Western experience of roughly-monthly ovulation and menstruation is rather novel.
Plus, birth control already reduces or eliminates many women's period.
If that's the main reason, we should expect to find that many more rationalization memes existed before birth control became widespread.
Can't judge from personal experience (obviously), but I've heard some say that they could block menstruation with pills if they wanted, but prefer not to just so they know that their reproductive system is working correctly.
So well, it's not like it's a painful agony-filled experience. A minor inconvenience, but one that can be coped with. Just like any other basic biological upkeep functions like eating, sleeping, and excretion.
My understanding is that it's been practical to prevent menstruation with birth control pills for decades, but only recently have pharmaceutical companies started marketing and advertising pills for that purpose. Previously they were all sold in sets with placebos on the assumption that women wouldn't want to disrupt the cycle they were familiar with.
Another relevant example is birth control itself. There's a huge social movement just about everywhere in the world that opposes it and wishes to prevent women from having it. And unintended pregnancies might fall into the category of "baseball hits on the head", if not quite every week.
Of course the memes advanced against birth control don't explicitly say that "unintended pregnancies are good for you". They say things like "if you don't want to be pregnant, don't have sex" or "not wanting to be pregnant is itself wrong". And there are other hypotheses as to why men, and other women, want women to be pregnant unintentionally or against their will.
But I wonder - could the "baseball bat" effect have contributed to these memes?
I've definitely heard deep-sounding (well, trying-to-be-deep-sounding) period apologetics. As has been mentioned, there isn't quite as much of an incentive to justify it since it's already mostly preventable via birth control, but there have been attempts to frame it philosophically as an overall good and honorable thing. (Example including what seem to be the most common ones: "Your period. It's a rite of passage. The miracle that allows you to create life. And it's what makes you a woman.")
Those sentences are meaningless nonsense.
What about women with non-functional ovaries, or none at all? Gender is admittedly hard to define (I suspect that, like human morality, it's a built-in, highly complex, poorly formalized match predicate), but attempting to define it through spiritual non-information like that? Ugh.
Not that I'm defending this viewpoint, of course, but it is far from meaningless. Bearing children is quite literally the value of a woman - in most societies "that do not derive from the Enlightenment", as Eliezer would say. A barren woman is worthless and therefore not a woman at all, in the important sense - she is not a functional woman.
To a majority of all men who ever lived, and probably to most women who lived with them, "the value of a woman is in bearing children", or "bearing children is what makes a human being a woman", are nearly tautologies. You should not be surprised to encounter such statements. (Ugh field optional.)
Oh, I'm not surprised. It just feels so... sad and cheap to see the value of a person reduced to purely their reproductive value. Is this the "logic" behind haters of childfree people?
Desrtopa mentioned this in passing, but I think it's probably the key factor: there's a big difference between the way we'd culturally deal with everyone getting hit on the head once a week, and some people getting hit on the head once a week. The latter leads more to the feeling of "somehow cosmically unfair".
It seems that most of the arguments as to why having a period is good came around after it became possible to avoid it (Birth control).
Is it also true that the arguments for why death is good started appearing around the time when science starting theorizing the possibility of eternal life?
That has a simple explanation: before it was possible, the question simply didn't arise; there was no reason to discuss it! It doesn't tell us if opinions changed at that point.
But if the hypothesis is that the arguments exist to rationalize the existence of the problem, we should expect just as many, if not more, of these arguments before the problem was solvable.
Good point. In light of that my hypothesis isn't very good.
A related more painful, if not quite as frequent, example is the pain of childbirth.
It is interesting to note that the Bible attributed this to collective punishment for Eve's sin but didn't try to explain why it was good for the woman.
When the first analgesics and techniques for relieving the pain of childbirth became available, in the 19th century, there was a very big movement in Western society against using them. The arguments given were that the pain 1) is natural 2) is God's just punishment. For decades, these analgesics were not used nearly as widely as they might have been.
Incidentally, IIRC, among the biggest opponents of analgesics were midwifes.
Why should it be good for the woman? It's a punishment. A punishment is supposed to be bad.
Punishments are supposed to be rehabilitative.
The thinking today has evolved somewhat, away from thinking the pain of childbirth is a punishment. Yet there is still a widespread tendency (including amongst nonreligious people) to claim that a painful childbirth is a natural childbirth, and to overemphasize and invent dangers of epidurals.
The idea of rehabilitation is relatively recent. Punishment is just a disincentive: people who do X get hurt, so don't do X or you'll get hurt.
Both recent and ancient; people have gone back and forth between rehabilitation/disincentive as punishment's goals for millennia. Look at confession/penance and the theologic justifications for that. Various penalties described in Ancient Rome and the Old Testament filled either or both those roles. We've had phrases like "teach him a lesson," "now, this is for your own good," and "spare the rod, spoil the child" for quite some time.
Rather than a counterargument, it just seems like confirmation of Eliezer's argument to me. Nature imposes regular pain on humans, humans invent reasons why it shouldn't be otherwise. Yes, not everyone spends a lot of time justifying it, but how many people spend a lot of time justifying death?
Yes, people may try to alleviate the suffering somewhat, and even have some success, but they also tried to treat diseases (with even some occasional success) back in the day when they thought those were a good thing, too.
Well the key to the argument is that we come up with reasons why death is good because we can't prevent it. But we can and do prevent periods- especially when they involve an high amount of discomfort. Many, probably most, forms of hormonal contraceptive come with placebos for every fourth week-- this is partly a relic of a time when the pill was new and drug companies wanted introduce the least change into the lives of the consumer; and partly the result of hesitancy to not intervene in a biological process when you don't know what the long term results are. But as more people try it we'll get that data.
Part of the problem with evaluating this hypothesis is that the naturalistic fallacy is often coextensive with it-- and they're not quite the same thing. And in this particular case there are sorts of purity instincts that might throw off people's reactions.
Well, I argue that death is good even in counterfactual hypothetical societies that aren't afflicted by it, like Tolkienian elves.
You choose an interesting example. Tolkien (or his writings, at least) are a pure, quintessential example of glorifying death, mysteries, the 'ordained' or 'natural' feudal order, a past golden age, being wise, etc. He's responsible for a lot more than just Gandalf. I wonder if you gave that example out of snark?
To make sure everyone here's talking about the same thing, here's some background on Tolkien's views of mortality (in the context of Middle-Earth).
Tolkien elves who were killed got reincarnated, and most of them knew this. Granted, there was still separation from everyone you knew - they were reincarnated in the West and most of them could not ever return home. Still, they couldn't really die, not even if they wanted to.
Tolkien called death the "Gift of Men" - given by God - and his elves envied men for it, and wanted to "escape the world" as men did. He wrote that the fear of death and desire to escape it was purely an evil corruption and due to the original Fall of Man. Uncorrupted Men, the ideal to which all of his heroes aspire, love death and welcome it.
The Downfall of Numenor (Atlantis) happened because Sauron "corrupted" its king; the nature of this corruption was that the king stopped wanting to die of old age. Anyone who stepped on the Western Islands where the gods (Valar) and the highest elves lived, became immortal; of course, the Gods forbade men from ever going there (so as not to take away the Gift of death). The king was told by Sauron he was as good as any elf, so he sailed there.
The creator God (not one of the minor Valar gods) intervened directly, destroyed not just the king's army but sinking the whole island of Numenor, killing everyone who lived there except the rebels on a few ships who remained righteous (i.e., kept saying they wanted to die). The tsunami from sinking the island killed off several whole nations on the mainland for good measure, and changed the coastline.
There's lots more where that came from. If you cherry-pick a bit, Tolkien ranges from Norse mythology to explicitly Catholic Christan legends.
Now, I'd love to hear your thesis that those stuck-up elves would benefit from dying - for some other reason than "death is explicitly good in that setting" :-)
You're factually wrong on several minor elements. The people of Numenor had been wanting to stop dying for several generations -- the particular corruption that Sauron inflicted on the king wasn't that desire, but rather that he made him think the proper way to go about actualizing this was to worship Melkor (essentially Satan), do human sacrifice in his name, and go about conquering the world, including the land of men. Sauron also argues that immortality should not be given to all, he just convinces the King of Numenor deserves to steal it from others and take it to himself.
Also, it's explicitly said that Men did NOT become immortal by stepping on the Western Islands -- they were called the Immortal Lands, not because they made people immortal, but because the immortal peoples had gathered there. The Elves and Valar indeed said to Men, that Men would die faster if they went to the Immortal Lands, like moths burning in too bright a fire.
The "righteous" weren't righteous by "saying they wanted to die" -- indeed, it's described that this part of the shadow they didn't escape from, and it followed them to middle earth (it's noteworthy that the only king of Gondor or Arnor who gave up his crown to his son and surrended his life by willing himself to die was Aragorn -- that leaves dozens of kings, good ones, who failed to follow their ancestors' death-embracing example)
The righteous, the Elf-friends, were primarily "righteous" by not engaging in human sacrifice, and by not supporting the wars of conquest.
I think Tolkien is actually pretty sympathetic to those people that desire immortality (as long as they DO NOT go about killing other people to ensure it) -- he even has Arwen not being cool over Aragorn's death, wishing him to go on living a bit longer despite all their lore proclaiming dying was the right thing to do. There were likewise many many centuries of Numenoreans that wanted to avoid death, and they weren't punished as long as they didn't go about conquering the world in order to do so.
I omitted some details to simplify things. But now let's enter into full Tolkien geek mode! Unfortunately I gave away my Tolkien collection years ago when I realized how un-humanistic it was, so I can't provide quotes and page numbers, but I do rely on my memory.
True - I omitted this part to make things simpler.
Not quite. He made him think that to be immortal he had to go to the land of the Valar and possibly fight them. I don't remember if it's stated explicitly what purpose the human sacrifice had. And conquering the world was something the Numenoreans had been doing for generations, without Sauron, and anyway it's hard to see how they could have expected that to grant them immortality.
That may depend on what version of the Alkallabeth you're reading. I don't remember which version(s) this is, but after Eru caused the Downfall, the punishment of the King and his army who had disembarked on the shore of the Undying Lands wasn't death. They were "imprisoned in a cave beneath the earth", IIRC, and there they would not die until the end of the world and the Last Battle.
In other words, they became so immortal that even Eru couldn't kill them, although he killed everyone else in Numenor...
Yes, of course, I realize this is reading out of context. Firstly it's an older story left from before the legendarium became much more explicitly Christian. And second it makes no sense for Men to become immortal just by stepping on the shore of the West.
But considered as a legend told by later Men, it's illuminating.
And you believe them? They're obviously speaking in their own self interest :-) Incidentally, these are the same guys who said that they had no idea what death was for, except that it must be good for something since it was a gift of Eru.
The Light Elves and the Valar are an evil, immoral bunch who never helped others when they saw them suffering. They abandoned Men for the first several millenia of their existence to Melkor (and later Sauron), and then blamed Men for "falling". Later they abandoned all non-Numenorean Men to Sauron, and then blamed them for becoming "corrupted and evil", and supported the Numenoreans in enslaving them. All this was before the Fall of Numenor, so they hadn't had the excuse of the West being "removed from the circles of the world".
It's the ideal. As you note, Aragorn and some others (e.g. the early Kings of Numenor) actually achieved it.
Later men were lesser men, in keeping with the story. But I'm pretty sure someone like Faramir would say that anything done by the early Numenoreans must have been right, and would claim to want to want to die on that basis.
True. And I expect they also kept saying they wanted to want to die without protest in old age.
Where do you see even a hint of this?
The Nine Kings of Men who were given rings by Sauron became immortal - and became Ringwraiths. It's implied pretty clearly, in Bilbo's descriptions of the One Ring (he felt "spread out like butter over too much bread", i.e. had lived too long), that this is partly due to becoming immortal in itself, and not just due to being dominated by Sauron's will. Orcs and Southrons were dominated by Sauron's will and weren't wraiths. And the Nine Rings did not AFAIK confer "trivial" invisibility as did the One Ring.
Meh. She chose to became mortal to marry him. She was angsting over her own impending death. After he died, she willed herself to die just a year later - explicitly in despair. And before that, her father and family never really accepted her choice, and they "parted in bitterness", i.e. fought and never made up. Hard to say if Tolkien was sympathetic, but other people in Middle-Earth definitely weren't.
Dude, they created the whole of the Sun for Men's benefit. That's a big thing, the whole of the Sun.
As for the first fall of Men, Tolkien leaves it deliberately vague, so we can't know how much they were to blame.
And after Melkor was defeated, they raised Numenor out of the oceans, and increased the lifespan of Numenoreans to like three times the normal amount, also ensuring that there would be fair weather, their ships would never sink, etc, etc.
Both the expulsion of the Noldor, the fall of the Numenoreans, and I can assume the first fall of Men as well, all those times where the Valar seem to abandon people to their fates, it seems to be when these people deliberately rebel against the Valar's authority - and so in a sense force them to NOT help. The Valar seem to be only able to help people when people acknowledge them as authorities.
Check out the theological discussion between Finrod and the human woman Andreth in the History of Middle Earth volume "Morgoth's Ring". Andreth argues that Men aren't supposed to die, that it's a great darkness ahead of them that they correctly despise and recoil from. Finrod, though disagreeing, is sympathetic throughout -- and I can't imagine that the author disagrees with his attitude in this.
Yes -- in Tolkien's world the human spirit is designed to leave the world, so immortality within the world is like trapping it in too constrained a jail.
Huh? You're saying the Elves and Valar themselves didn't benefit from the existence of the Sun? It was an altruistic action? I don't buy that. The Sun was even instrumental in fighting against Melkor - without it, he would have been able to destroy the Moon.
Not to mention that they would never have done it if Melkor hadn't killed the Two Trees. They would have been happy to sit in their closed garden forever and let the world rot.
Whatever the Men themselves did, the Valar are to blame for leaving them to Melkor and Sauron.
Sauron made Orcs out of Men (or out of Elves in other versions), and these Orcs then became Melkor's and Sauron's soldiers for millenia. Orcs are, to put it mildly, not leading a happy life. Do you seriously suggest that anything the first Men may have done made them deserve the punishment of becoming Orcs? Did their descendants for all eternity deserve being Orcs? Did the Valar ever try to help latter-day Orcs, or just kill them on sight? For that matter, did the non-Orc descendants of those first Men deserve being "corrupted" for the sin of their ancestors? It's a Catholic Christian story, and it's unambiguously evil.
Incidentally, the story related by Andreth does say what the Original Sin of Men was: sacrificing to Melkor instead of sacrificing to Eru Iluvatar, and falsely believing that Melkor was their creator. Boo, they believed in the wrong god.
Yes, as a reward to one small group of Men for fighting on the right side in the war and for sending a messenger to shame the Valar into fighting too. Pity they left the other >90% of Men to suffer on the mainland, though, with ordinary lifespans and Sauron.
In the First Fall of Men, they didn't rebel against the Valar. They didn't even know the Valar existed! They woke up and all they knew was Sauron and Melkor!
And what about the Dark Elves? They chose not to go to Valinor, but they never knowingly chose to remain in lands dominated by an evil Vala. If they'd been warned about it, they probably would have chosen to go to Valinor. And yet, not only do the Valar never go back to help them, but they don't allow them to sail to the West themselves from the Grey Havens.
It's nowhere stated that they are restricted in this way. (They are the regents of the world, after all, not of Valinor.) Rather, it is implied they choose to be that way.
OK, I agree. The author is sympathetic with "wanting not to die". He's just not sympathetic with actually not dying.
I'm interested in your arguments.