So apparently Richard Feynman once said:

If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

I could be missing something, but this strikes me as a terrible answer.

When was the atomic hypothesis confirmed?  If I recall correctly, it was only when chemists started noticing that the outputs of chemical reactions tended to factorize a certain way, which is to say that it took millennia after Democritus to get the point where the atomic hypothesis started making clearly relevant experimental predictions.

How about, "Stop trying to sound wise and come up with theories that make precise predictions about things you can measure in numbers."

I noticed this on Marginal Revolution, so I shall also state my candidate for the one most important sentence about macroeconomics:  "You can't eat gold, so figure out how the heck money is relevant to making countries actually produce more or less food."  This is a pretty large advance on how kings used to think before economics.  I mean, Scott Sumner is usually pretty savvy (so is Richard Feynman btw) but his instruction to try to understand money is likely to fall on deaf ears, if it's just that one sentence.  Think about money?  Everyone wants more money!  Yay, money!  Let's build more gold mines!  And "In the short run, governments are not households"?  Really, Prof. Cowen, that's what you'd pass on to the next generation as they climb up from the radioactive soil?

*Cough.*  Okay, I'm done.  Does anyone want to take their own shot at doing better than Feynman did for their own discipline?


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If this is to be taken as a sort of prophetic/religious statement that will certainly be believed, how about this:

"It is better to rely on the labour of machines than the labour of beasts, and better to rely on the labour of beasts than the labour of man".

(Based on the idea that historically, technological progress was often disincentivized by the abundance of cheap/slave labour).

That sounds amazingly Wise. I felt a strong impulse to get it done up in elaborate script and framed on my wall (seriously).

I was searching for "We apologize for the inconvenience. [,_and_Thanks_for_All_the_Fish]" I appreciate the way your subjective "better" covers this concept. edit: After a little reading [], I offer a rejoinder: is it better to rely on the labour of intellectual design - of manufactured reactions [] - than the labour of machines? Or are these two mechanics too similar to parse?
What's the next step after "the labo[u]r of machines"?
I Am Not A Mechanism Designer, but perhaps the labor of the "problems" themselves. Something like the self-raising, self-butchering bovine-like animal in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, or an economy that's somehow structured so that the advantages of high-level manipulation of economic value like high frequency trading are already manifested by the implicit financial infrastructure.

"If you perform experiments to determine the physical laws of our universe, you will learn how to make powerful weapons."

It's all about incentives.


"physical laws" and "universe" maybe suppose too much background.

I cross-pollinate your thing with EY's:

"If you test theories by how precisely they predict experimental results, you will learn how to make powerful weapons."

EDIT: My latest version is "If you test theories by how precisely they predict experimental results, you will unlock the secrets of the ancients." Which fixes a few bugs.

That parses as 'do not let others conduct experiments'. Probably not what you're aiming for.

"If everyone tests theories by how precisely they predict experimental results, the secrets of the ancients will be unlocked."
"If everyone tests theories by how precisely they predict experimental results, you will learn to cure illnesses and solve many other problems."
"If you test theories by how precisely they predict experimental results, you will have many more opportunities to have sex and look cool."
i find this unconvincing. i think i might just go wallow in the muck instead.

If you get into the practice of keeping honest and accurate records of everything, and quantifying as much as you can, then you will become much better at military logistics.

If you just want incentives then I'd go with - "In 500 years, a gamma ray burst will wipe out all humanity unless you colonize distant stars, so get to work."

Afterall, 'powerful weapons' presumably caused the problem in the first place. A burning, racially/religious/culturally rooted drive to reach the stars would be far more useful in the long run than a desire to conquer our enemies, even if it is based on a lie.

How would their perception of that claim differ from our perception of the mayans' claim about 12/21/12?
It would be no different than how "germs cause diseases" would be dismissed as not trusting in evil spirits, or the atomic hypothesis being the rantings of a madman. Presumably anything we tell them they'll have to take on faith until they can check for themselves. And by the time they're putting up orbital telescopes to look for possible gamma ray burst candidates, I think humanity will be in a safe enough position.
There would BE a claim, for starters... Excellent point though, you'd need some additional evidence or stagecraft to impress them, which probably counts as increasing the size of the message.
Do you think wisdom automatically follows knowledge, however?
I think we can take it as given that even with the nukes, science has been a win. Then again, we are talking about a post-apocalyptic future....
Science has been a win in cultures in which knowledge hasn't exclusively been pursued for the purposes of killing people. It's not merely that it's a post-apocalyptic future, it's a problem that there has historically been a self-selection process about who pursued knowledge, which is getting subverted here.
That's a good point. Maybe we can come up with a better incentive. "If you do X, you will unlock the secrets of the ancients."
We need some historical cites, because I don't know what you are talking about.
For the obvious example, many of the best scientists working on the Manhattan Project only agreed because they were worried about Germany getting nuclear weapons first and what it would mean; likewise, scientists in Germany were deliberately sabotaging their own research. There's a safety feature here that this quote, to the extent that it is effective at all, deliberately attempts to remove.
Brief [] research [] suggests this might not be true. I'm unconvinced that scientific progress is an existential risk, and the increased wealth scientific progress has created has funded or inspired most social progress.
Scientific progress for the explicit and deliberate purpose of killing people more efficiently is a different animal than scientific progress more generally. You're engaging in an association fallacy, specifically honor by association (although that fallacy is more often used to refer to individuals or organizations rather than abstract concepts).
Yes, that is the essence of our disagreement. You think I'm committing an association fallacy, and I think you are artificially dividing science in ways that don't reflect actual historic scientific practice.
For what reason do you believe this?
Strictly one? Or overwhelmingly one? Wisdom seems rare in all cases; knowledge, however, is common.

"Most diseases are caused by tiny little mindless creatures the reproduce and spread quickly and live in sick people's bodies, and quite a few of them can be killed be a certain mold that you can grow on bread."

Hmm, how many "and's" can I put in this one sentence? This reminds me of a competition for extra credit in one of my CS classes to write a C++ program in "as few statements as possible," where I took the obvious algorithm, completely unrolled the loop, and used logical connectives to stick every statement together into one. I skipped class the day the winner was announced, and the teacher later said he changed the rules and let the class vote for a winner, which wasn't me.

I like to think about initial application of this sentence.

"How old is this bread? A week? You fool! Look at how sick he is! Get some two-week bread immediately, and feed it to him as fast as you can! NO TIME FOR CHEWING."

Your competition story qualifies you for an upvote, for munchkinry. It's a pretty good idea for a sentence, too.
Well, if cheating is allowed, you'd want to find some way to compress more information into this. For example, you could somehow take advantage of the medium of sentence delivery. "Please divide the length of this sentence by the length of the stone block it is written on and convert to base 26 in order to reveal a code which can be cyphered using the obvious number-to-letter mapping" If this works like I think it will, you should now be able to convey an extremely large amount of information in plain english - constraints being set by the maximum length of the stone block and the accuracy of your measuring and cutting tools. The best thing about this is that more of the message gets revealed as the society's measuring tools get more you can time the release of information, putting more advanced or potentially dangerous information closer to the end. The downside is that if anything happens to the original stone before humanity 2.0 achieves the required measuring proficiency, the society loses any undecoded messages.
I don't think it would be feasible to encode even half a dozen letters with that technique.
Assuming my math is right, if your stone carving were accurate to 1 micron, in order to encode a 140 character 'tweet' using this method, you would need a stone tablet 10^163 times larger than the observable universe. (!)
ugh...I just did a rough estimate for the same problem with's not much better. So much for that idea! I wonder if there is a way to use math to squeeze more digits out of this situation...
Well, what are you trying to compress the information into, exactly? If you're trying to compress it into "one sentence", surely the easiest way is just to use the word "and" a lot. If you want to embed lots of sentences in it, then say something along the lines of "the sentence encoded by the number 1775926438157057167957252 is true, and the sentence encoded by the number 478910336475999172548926174999937 is true, and..."
That's exactly what I would've done!

"The use of semicolons will enable you to construct arbitrarily long sentences".

No, seriously. To reconstruct physics, how about "Use inclined planes to slow down motion; this will enable you to make careful measurements". That's how Galileo got started.


Future creatures, you must find ancient human DNA and revive us, or you will suffer a second apocalypse.

PS: find enclosed our "Voyager Golden Record" that unlocks the coordinates of the Alcor facility in which we stored our bodies. Please take great care to exactly recreate our mind states. DO NOT REVIVE BEFORE YOU HAVE DEVELOPED THE NECESSARY TECHNOLOGY.

P.P.S. Humans revived with the aid of the Voyager Golden Record may use what appears to be totally illogical magic. Do not be alarmed; this merely demonstrates their superior grasp of physical law.
Seems like cloning ancient humans wouldn't really do any good in preventing a second apocalypse. Unless you were positing that there would still be a preserved body around and you were talking about that.
It's a self-serving statement. Or a joke.

If we're talking about knowledge the ancients could immediately use, why bother with physics or macroeconomics? "There are tiny creatures too small to see that spread between living things, and make you sick if too many get into you, but there are ways to kill them" seems a lot more practical.

I would amend that to "soap will kill them". "Ways to kill them" sounds to me like a perfect way of starting a Voodoo Medicine cult, wherein the wisdom of the ancients is used as evidence that the shaman's dance works.

"soap will kill them"

You'd ... lie to them? Good idea: "soap will kill them" would be more instrumentally useful than some actually true but more complicated explanation, and once they figure out you weren't truthful (at which point they'd probably have figured out other ways to defend against microbes besides the hygiene hypothesis) you would've taught them another implicit lesson: Don't trust the authorities!

So, two for the price of one, with the latter unlocking after the first lost its usefulness. Smart!

OK, but soap does not work by killing germs: it makes it impossible for them to continue to cling to a surface, so they get washed away.
I wouldn't mention soap. Depending on the particular period of antiquity, it's possible no one would know what you're talking about, apparently: [] And I have to wonder whether that soap would serve as a disinfectant. Further concerns: they don't have experiments, randomization, or statistics - why should they believe that soap works even if they use it?
I hadn't thought about the voodoo risk! If I wanted to get more specific, I probably wouldn't list ways to kill germs — I'd draw a connection to the decomposition of animals instead. Then whoever's listening could probably figure out the connection to existing food preservation methods [] for themselves, and ask themselves whether there were other methods.
"...and boiling water kills most of them."?
You could throw that in too, sure. (I considered listing ways to kill germs, like boiling, pickling, salting, drying, and applying alcohol or alkalis, but figured my run-on sentence was run-onish enough already. Having thought about it more I might try a more concise nudge [] about the tiny creatures digesting carcasses.)

Given the fuzziness, I'll just take it as an exercise in wit:

  • "LOCKSS: Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe." They'll figure out the science. But we lost all scientific knowledge, I don't want that to happen twice.

  • "Rub dry wood until it makes like sun." Hopefully the taste of good steak will get them going.

Speaking of copies, I keep meaning to write a LOCKSS [] plugin for LessWrong. This comment will be my note-to-self, or anyone else who wants to do it first.
For God's sake, if you want to remind yourself to do things, keep all your reminders in the same place. A reminder that you don't remember to look at is useless.
Oh, yes, I've agreed with you about that for a long time. The grandparent comment wasn't actually my (only) reminder.
Lots of copies;)

Before constructing the answer, it's usually good to clarify the problem. First, it's probably good to re-frame it in terms of past and present, not the (unknown) future. For example, assuming there were an extinct civilization 100,000 years ago which managed to pass that one sentence on, what bit of wisdom to the ancient Greeks/Babylonians/Etruscans/... would you expect to be most useful? How and why? What does it mean to be useful, anyway? Useful to whom? To them? To us?

Did they come up with that bit of wisdom by themselves and rejected or ignored it, anyway? Would it have been different if it was unearthed as a relic of a past civilization?

Even though innovation, trade and competition in labor, product and capital markets can sometimes harm individual businesses and workers, restricting these forces almost always reduces the total prosperity of a society.

"The world is not made of things with minds, but of small mindless things that obey regular patterns."

Physicalism is the radical notion that people are made of things that aren't people.
What about "minds are made of small mindless things that obey regular patterns"?

As far as major scientific facts go, I am surprised that evolution has yet to be mentioned. Let me try:

"All the complexity of Life on Earth comes from a single origin by the following process: organisms carry the plan to reproduce and make copies of themselves, this plan changes slightly and randomly over time, and the modified plans which lead to better survival and reproduction tend to outcompete the others and to become dominant."

What does it mean to send "one sentence" to the future? Does the future understand English? How precise of a concept can we give them?

Typically, I interpret that as "what concept would you like people to have instinctually?", which most people respond to with "here's something that I wished my contemporaries understood, and so I'm going to inflict it on imaginary future post-apocalyptic humans," apparently because they haven't suffered enough.

When was the atomic hypothesis confirmed? If I recall correctly, it was only when chemists started noticing that the outputs of chemical reactions tended to factorize a certain way, which is to say that it took millennia after Democritus to get the point where the atomic hypothesis started making clearly relevant experimental predictions.

Mmm. I don't think it's that terrible, but it does appear designed to put people at Alhacen's level on the right track, rather than to put people at Aristotle's level on the right track. For example, I seem to recall the correct understanding of heat being held up by the atomic hypothesis not being widely accepted; if you know that atoms exist, then calculating everything co... (read more)

What does it mean to send "one sentence" to the future? Does the future understand English? How precise of a concept can we give them?

This is, of course, correct. Always question and argue with the genie until you find an exploit, then encode Wikipedia into a run-on.

eventually the judge finds you in contempt.

"there is a copy of all the knowledge of the ancients buried at the "

At first I was like, "lulz I can just insert coordinates", but then I realized they don't have GPS. Serious dark ages...

The only unambiguously specifiable terrestrial spot I can think of is the south pole, but there must be something better.

If you have the resources to put something at the south pole, you probably have the resources to scatter a couple dozen stonehenges/pyramids/giant stone heads around; then you don't have to specify unambiguously, plus redundancy is always good.

then we hack the judge too.
Kleinert [] disputes the attribution to Galileo, though Galileo did emphasize measurement in other epigrams. You didn't make an argument from authority, but I might like one, to avoid hindsight.

If they can understand English, perhaps they can understand math, the supposedly universal language. With that in mind, here is a single equation by Sean Carrol that completely describes the fundamental physics of what he calls "everyday life on Earth".

In general, I'd expect sentences that convey information about the scientific process to be much superior to sentences that contain merely some clever concoction of facts. Analogous to teaching a man to fish versus just giving him some fish he would have caught anyways given the right method. The only exception would be information that is extremely unlikely to be experimentally discovered* (yet the previous generation stumbled upon) but the expected value of which would outweigh some optimization of the scientific method. (*Before a cataclysm)

Come to thin... (read more)

Thou shalt not make pipes out of lead, for God hates that.

Imperial Rome already knew that.
So did we, actually. And yet we still put lead in machines which dumped it into our atmosphere for everybody to breathe.
And it's still news [] just how bad an idea this was. (HT to BBC Radio 4, which had an item on the story this morning.) Further academic references (which I haven't read) cited here [].
Aretae linked some of the science recently; it's quite possibly the only situation in which a single article has, provided all the evidence holds true, completely convinced me on an issue. Usually I have reservations, but AFAICT, the researchers have done the due diligence in this case, they've -tried- to prove it wrong with new and different data sets, and keep coming back to the same conclusion.
So why did you suggest it?

I'd be thinking along the lines of "keep heating different rocks up a lot, you'll eventually get really useful stuff for building things out."

This is assuming we get fire pretty easily (so we don't have to transmit that knowledge) but reflecting the millenia before our tech included metal.

Wow, I'm missing the more important surplus: "find the plants you can eat and figure out how to grow them yourself in one place."

I'm not enough of a prehistorian to know which came first: metal or agriculture. My principle in choosing one of the... (read more)

The map is not the territory, but if you keep paying attention and checking, you can improve the map.

And thus began a society of literal-minded and meticulous cartographers.

Best sort.

What's wrong with admitting you can't produce such sentence? Note, I'm not saying there isn't one, Kolmogorov complexity and all, only that chances are extremely low that any human now can produce it.

As for Feynman statement, yeah, it's wrong if you read it literally (I read it as "I can't emphasize enough how important this following fact is") , but Eliezer (and all commenters I read) made the same mistake really - he produced the sentence he thought would help them most, not one that would "contain most information in the fewest words"... (read more)

Actually, the sentence of highest compression contains direction, rather than information. The world already contains that information, all you need is a pointer to it.
All information is direction. Pointers are just a form of compression. Telling someone where to find a book in the Library of Babel [] is equivalent to compressing the contents of the book (probably not in a very efficient way).
Not necessarily. If you want to "cheat" the limitations, the thing to do is not to compress your thoughts down in a way that cannot be read for ages, but rather write one giant run-on sentence that lasts for pages and pages. That is to say, a good munchkin would realize that there is no word limit, just a sentence limit, and would exploit that loophole ruthlessly. Edit: I now see that Mestroyer had this exact same idea here [].

"Consider it both a threat and an opportunity that smarter-than-human beings can probably be created using machines that can do lots of calculations really fast."

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.

If I recall correctly, it was only when chemists started noticing that the outputs of chemical reactions tended to factorize a certain way, which is to say that it took millennia after Democritus to get the point where the atomic hypothesis started making clearly relevant experimental predictions.

IIRC, even then, plenty of people considered it somewhat speculative, and it didn't become universally accepted until Einstein's explanation of Brownian motion.

An intuitive, one sentence explanation of the scientific method. Come to think of it this might be handy in general. Eliezer's is already pretty good.

I wondered what Feynman was thinking, so I looked up the context. Here is an excerpt and a longer .doc. Google books. But it didn't help.


"The new basic principle is that in order to learn to avoid making mistakes we must learn from our mistakes." – Karl Popper, In Search of a Better World.

"It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach – perhaps by arbitration – a compromise which, because of its eq... (read more)

"Stop trying to sound wise and come up with theories that make precise predictions about things you can measure in numbers."

It seems a bit anthropocentric to assume that the next gang of creatures will also be interested in "sounding wise". Edit: Unless they're humans, of course.


"Use your intuition to guide you, but try whenever there's any doubt over what is correct to state what you mean in a rigorous form going back to axioms."

Does this involve too many implicitly defined terms?

Who is this aimed at? Recreating Euclid? Then, yes, I think there are too many implicitly defined terms. Post-Euclid, who is helped by rigor? What advances are driven by rigor? The only one that springs to my mind is Gauss's correct statement of the fundamental theorem of algebra. I'm also not convinced that Euclid's rigor mattered, but I don't know how to assess this.
The primary advantages of rigor are that it helps prevents one from going down blind alleys or getting hopelessly confused. Thus for example in the 17th century much ink was spilled over what 1 -1 +1 -1 +1 -1... summed to. They didn't have any rigorous notion of what the sum of an infinite series meant. And once this was answered the question essentially disappeared. Similarly, there were all sorts of apparent paradoxes and issues in calculus that were cleared up with delta-epsilon limit notions in the mid 19th century. And one can tell similar tales about early topology.
What happened in the 17th century? My understanding is that the rigorous definition of convergent series was given by Cauchy and Gregory's (much greater) contribution was merely to hypothesize that only some series should be considered to have sums. This is an advance that I think is not so well connected to your suggestion. Even if he did give a rigorous definition, I doubt it made any reference to axioms. Was all this spilled ink a bad thing? Was it a blind alley full of the hopelessly confused? Or was the exploration necessary to accept the distinction or definition? It's not like people stopped having opinions on that series. As to your second and third examples, I don't think they are examples of people spending much time in places that their successors labeled blind alleys.
Well, no, because it turns out that you have multiple notions of what it means to take the sum of the series. Abel summation [] would be one example. That said, I agree that not everything should be summable is a major insight, but even this came about as part of Cauchy et. al.'s attempt to make things rigorou. Sure, aspects of their work ended up being useful, but other times books and papers had results that relied on "theorems" that simply weren't true. For example, many took for granted that a continuous function had to be differentiable almost everywhere until Weierstrauss gave counterexamples [].
When are you claiming all this work on 1-1+1... ended? in the 17th century as in your original comment, or with Cauchy? Do you really dispute that Gregory in the 17th century claimed that not all series should be summable? You seem to be saying that sloppy proofs of true theorems are not useful.

Can I use Rule 110 as an extensional definition pointing to what is arguably the central insight of computation? "Rigorously analyze the relationship between the consequential patterns and initial conditions if, for each row of black and white stones, the next row is arranged such that a black stone is placed beneath a white stone if the stone to the right of the white stone is black, a white stone is placed beneath a black stone if the stones to either side of the black stone are also black, and a stone of the same color is placed beneath the stone in the preceding row otherwise."

I suppose something like:

Competition and creation, the former stopping the insane forms of the latter, are responsible for pretty much everything you see, and, if you foster them in your society, can - eventually - give you more than you can possibly imagine.

In my discipline? I guess

Write code that's easy to update without breaking dependent code.

That'll save the ancient programmers of the 1950's some time.

If I were trying to build up programming from scratch, it'd get pretty hairy.

Build a machine that, when "x = 1.1; while (10. - x*x > .0001) x = x - ((x * x - 10.) / (10.*x)); display x" is entered into it, displays a value close to the ratio of the longest side of a right triangle to another side expressed as the sum of 0 or 1 times the lengths of successive bisections.


"Write down numbers by using ten symbols called digits for the numbers zero through nine, and writing XY, where X is a number and Y a digit, for the number equal to ten times the number represented by X, plus the number represented by Y."

Maybe this could be optimized by picking a better base to work in (2? 8? 12?), but if post-apocalyptic humans have the same number of fingers, then base 10 has its advantages as well.

"Your dirty lying teachers use only the midnight to midnight 1 day (ignoring 3 other days) Time to not foul (already wrong) bible time."

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Taboo "paranormal".
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"Rub dry wood fast until it makes like sun."

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I guess we have to specify how far back we are going.

How many semicolons are we permitted?

More seriously:

"Study processes whose inputs are also their outputs."

"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. " -

(Not actually)

Prosperity depends on trust, especially trust that the fruits of one's labour won't be arbitrarily taken away; therefore there should be clear and reliable property rights.


For all X, either X xor not(X) holds, now start deriving things.

I don't think that's enough. And it's not even true. "this sentence is false" does not fit your "all X".
It may not be enough to derive everything, but if nothing else it's a starting point. If people can't derive, they'll experiment to verify or falsify. If thinking of the liar paradox causes people in the hypothetical future to stop deriving/experimenting, I give up on them.
Well we cold generalize this approach and go beyond feeding them true facts. "What sentence would cause the denizens of future dark ages to pull themselves out their hole?" Then we send them some crazy basilisk that drives them to invent all sorts of math and theory in the course of trying to crack it. Maybe the Riemann hypothesis or Fermat's last theorem.
If they were a future of LW users that may work, but a person at the average intelligence level doesn't understand either of those. To ensure future understanding of complex ideas, it is (I believe) best to start with something simple that enables them to derive the complexities for themselves.
I can think of some effective religious basilisks, but I'm pretty sure they're too close to those which have already been forbidden from being posted here.
This has the same problem as Feynman's example, replacing Democritus with Aristotle, who wrote in the same era, "of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate".
That's sort of like saying "the sum of angles of a triangle is 180 degrees." It's only true in some axiom systems, and not even necessarily the most useful ones.

Political disputes are usually terminal value disputes, and pretending otherwise leads to confusion of facts and preferences.

Alternatively, something about hidden complexity of wishes and its relevance to defining legal and moral obligations.


Political disputes are usually terminal value disputes, and pretending otherwise leads to confusion of facts and preferences.

Wow, what? No.

We are nowhere near the point where the only thing left to argue about in politics is terminal values. There are so many strict Pareto improvements available in the world that can't possibly be true.

Modify it and say "instrumental values", then maybe. That leaves a lot of room for the usual mechanisms of human stupidity to produce contradictory results, even with identical terminal values.

I'd say a more accurate characterization of political disputes is people failing at the is-ought distinction: how much of the controversy aroud racism, feminism, authoritarianism, etc is derived from the naturalistic fallacy and disagreeing with the facts because of supposed moral implications? (hint: nearly all of it.)

I want prostitution legalized. Most people don't. This is because I don't think selling sex is immoral. I don't terminally disvalue it. I could make arguments like "Prostitution would be a lot safer if it was legal," which are correct. But it would also probably be more common, and I bet some of my opposition thinks that the extra sex-selling is worse than the STDs legalization would get rid of (especially because they would be inflicted upon people who "deserved" it.). So this is a terminal value disagreement. I suspect a lot of the other political issues where my opponents say "immoral" are basically just terminal value disputes. Gay marriage springs to mind. Drugs are less of terminal value dispute, because most of the arguing I've heard is either "If they are legal, they will be less dangerous," or "If they are legal, more irrational people will foolishly hurt themselves." Economic issues appear at first glance to be mostly factual disputes, but I think the factual arguments people give are rationalizations, and terminal value disputes between fairness and property rights are a big part of them too. These are just the arguments I hear people talking about today in the US. There are much bigger disputes in the past. For example, the argument over slavery in the US was basically one over terminal values. Do you care non-negligibly about brown people or not? The people who whipped slaves were probably more familiar with the facts than the abolitionists. Most of them probably thought something like "This is the natural order of things." or "God approves," but the natural order and gods approval are not terminal values for a lot of people.
See the other thread descending from parent where TimS and I discussed a bit. I think we dissolved the "terminal values" thing nicely.
What counts as an improvement is a question of terminal values. If all we cared about was money, selling babies ought to be legal []. (btw, the second author [] is a federal appeals court judge in Chicago - it's probably only essays like this that prevented him from being a Supreme Court justice). Failing the is-ought distinction is a predictable effect of failing to realize that one is having a terminal value dispute.
Yes, but Pareto improvements are things that everybody can agree are better. Maybe we can relax this to "most people", because I'm sure there's some jerk somewhere with the "terminal value" of "all change is very bad". As for valuing money, why are you bringing it up in a discussion of terminal values? Explain. I don't see it. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I'm not sure, but I don't think it's coherent to talk about humans having non-negotiable terminal values at all. A year ago, I was anti-authoritarian, practically an anarchist. I had a strong negative reaction to anything approaching infringement of liberty, exertion of authority, etc. I saw people saying they wanted strong leadership and a stronger state and more rule of law, and I was disgusted. How could people be so evil? Surely this was just plain incompatible values. Then something interesting happened. I encountered non-straw arguments for why more authority and some infringement of people's autonomy is sometimes for the better. I changed my mind. Where are the terminal values in all of this? I think rather than terminal values, which imply non-negotiability, we should talk about a moral dynamic created already in motion (as explained in EY's metaethics sequence). This accounts for some things being changeable with moral argument. With this in mind, I can maybe see where you are coming from with the "politics is about terminal values" thing, but I'd say instead "politics is often about moral disagreements, so you should find the source and argue about morality instead." This may not be a good assesment of how you are using it, but I think "fundamental terminal value differences" is often used as an excuse to stop thinking about moral questions that you really should be thinking about.
Political disputes are usually about moral disagreements is an improvement over what I said. If my meta-ethics is right, that assertion and my original are isomorphic. And if your metaethics is right, my assertion risks being very misleading. Absolutely. This is one of the central lessons my sentence was intended to impart. On reflection, I think I was over-hasty here. Failing to notice that a political dispute arises out of a moral dispute tends to cause people to treat moral propositions as facts - to gain political advantage (aka mindkiller). But "is-ought confusion" is usually used as the label for treating facts as moral conclusions. Since that doesn't function as naturally for political advantage, it probably isn't as direct a consequence of artificial divide of politics & morals.
I would actually go the other way and argue that most cases of what seem like terminal value disputes are actually disputes about hermeneutics and intersubjective truths [] if you scratch far enough.
That might help with some modern political issues but for most of history political disputes are usually about political power.
I would rephrase the first part like this: "The characteristic that distinguishes holy wars from normal technical disputes is that in a holy war most of the participants spend their time trying to pass off personal value choices and cultural attachments as objective technical evaluations." - from 'The Jargon File'
Hahaha no. Seriously, you want to try and defend that claim? EDIT: Waitasecond. Did you mean disputes about what our terminal values are? Because if so, that doesn't seem to have come across very well.
I meant that most political disputes are actually about moral disagreement. So I can improve in the future, what did you think I meant?
Conflicting terminal values. Kinda embarrassed now; I must be more charitable in future.
Don't get too stressed about it - I do believe in intractable value conflicts [] - that should naturally affect your interpretation of my statements. But nyan_sandwich correctly noted that this commitment of mine is irrelevant to the point I was trying to make.
I'm afraid I was primed by a similar ... discussion ... I was having in meatspace :(

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