How to un-kill your mind - maybe.

by APMason4 min read19th Jan 201255 comments

7

Personal Blog

 

It has been the case since I had opinions on these things that I have struggled to identify my “favourite writer of all time”. I've thought perhaps it was Shakespeare, as everyone does – who composed over thirty plays in his lifetime, from any of which a single line would be so far beyond my ability as to make me laughable. Other times I've thought it may be Saul Bellow, who seems to understand human nature in an intuitive way I can't quite reach, but which always touches me when I read his books. And more often than not I've thought it was Raymond Chandler, who in each of his seven novels broke my heart and refused to apologise – because he knew what kind of universe we live in. But since perhaps the year 2007, I have, or should I say had, not been in the slightest doubt as to who my favourite living writer was – Christopher Eric Hitchens.

 

This post is not about how much I admired him. It's not about how surprisingly upset I was about his death (I have since said that I didn't know him except through his writing – a proposition something like “I didn't have sex with her except through her vagina”) - although I must say that even now thinking about this subject is having rather more of an effect on me than I would like. This post is about a rather strange change that has come over me since his death on the 15th of December. Before that time I was a staunch defender of the proposition that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was an obvious boon to the human race, and that the war in Iraq was therefore a wise and moral undertaking. Since then, however, I have found my opinion softening on the subject – I have found myself far more open to cost/ benefit analyses that have come down on the side of non-intervention, and much less indignant when others disagreed. It still seems to me that there are obvious benefits that have arisen from the war in Iraq – by no means am I willing to admit that it was an utter catastrophe, as so many seem convinced it was – but I have found my opinion shifting toward the non-committal middle ground of “I dunno”.

 

Well, Mrs. Mason didn't raise all that many fools. It could be that what's happening here is I'm identifying closely with the Ron Paul campaign, and that since I agree with Paul on many things but not on American foreign policy (and, as it happens, I'm British – but consider myself internationalist enough that American arguments significantly influence my views), and so am shifting towards his point of view. But I think it's rather more likely – embarrassing as this is to admit – that the sheer fact that the Hitch could no longer possibly be my friend – could no longer congratulate me on my enlightened point of view, or go into coalition with me against the forces of irrationality – has freed up my opinions on the Iraq war, and I have dropped into the centre-ground of “Not enough information”. This, as I said, is embarrassing – whether or not the best writer in the world approves of your opinion is no basis for sticking to it. But this is the position I find myself in: weak; fragile; irrational – at least as far as politics go.

 

So here is my half-way solution: extreme and not perfect, by any means, but I think, given the unearthing of this appalling weakness, necessary: from this point onwards, until January 1st 2013 (yes, an arbitrary point in the future), I am not allowed to settle on a political or moral opinion (ethics – the question of what constitutes the good life - I consider comparatively easy, and so exempt). Even when presented with apparently knock-down arguments, I am forbidden from professing allegiance from any moral or political position for the rest of the year. Yes, it is going to be hard to prevent myself from deciding on moral questions, or on political questions – but I am hoping that if I can at least prevent myself from defending any position for the rest of the year, I will, at the end of it, no longer be emotionally attached to any particular ideology, and be able to assess the difference at least semi-rationally. I don't want to believe anything just because Hitchens believed it. I don't want to be motivated by perceived-but-illusory friendship. I want the right answer. And I'm hoping that depriving my brain of the reinforcement that becoming part of a team – no matter how small – gives, I will be able to consider the matter rationally.

 

Until 2013, then, this is it for me. No longer are Marxism, fascism, anarcho-syndicalism etc. incorrect. They're interesting ideas, and I'd like to hear more about them. This is my slightly-less-than-a-year off from ideology. Let's hope that it works.

 

7

55 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:05 PM
New Comment
[-][anonymous]10y 7

This is my slightly-less-than-a-year off from ideology. Let's hope that it works.

Up voted because of this. If LW has convinced me of anything is that an apolitical mind is a better mind.

Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.

Pericles

[-][anonymous]10y 5

If politics takes an interest in you it is already far too late.

Respectfully, you have a very narrow definition of politics. Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone implemented your moral theory?

[-][anonymous]10y 2

Wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone implemented your moral theory?

I don't know. Are you sure you know?

Since we are talking about human minds, let me point out that Homo Sapiens is a neat ape design but something he is not good at doing is implementing his values into workable systems that do what the label says. He also isn't good at preserving his values in the long run. I have no reason at all to be confident that uploading my current values into everyone will make the universe eventually more to my liking. Nor that my values are capable of being self-sustaining without the symbiosis with slightly different or compatible value systems.

If I believed that a universal implementation of my morality would not make the world a better place, that would be a strong reason for me to change my moral beliefs.

I'm trying to dispute your assertion that it is safe, reasonable, or rational to ignore politics. To the extent that "Politics is the mindkiller" is more than a community norm in this forum, it should not be taken as a prohibition on political thought or action. That presupposes a broad definition of "politics," but I think the broad understanding is eminently justified.

[-][anonymous]10y 5

I've had this discussion before, I suggest you read these two debates.

Humans systematically overestimate the gains to be had from political activism and time spent on politics. Our brains where not made for a society of millions and thus our intuitions are not properly calibrated.

I gather that Europe may be different in this regard, but in the United States, a lot of political decisions are made at the local level. There's definitely an argument to be made that media attention overemphasizes the importance of federal politics and underemphasizes the importance of local politics -- many decisions are actually made at the level of thousands, not millions, but voter turnout for such things is lower rather than higher.

Fair enough. But your position is not necessarily implied by the OP.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

If I believed that a universal implementation of my morality would not make the world a better place, that would be a strong reason for me to change my moral beliefs.

Well knock yourself out. I don't feel that way however.

If I figure out that my morality (lets call it Orange), needs 70% of the universe to be Violet so 30% can be Orange, that seems felicitous to Violet people but dosen't really change my opinion that 30% Orange universe is pretty cool thing and far more than I should expect in a uncaring universe which has laws that weren't optimized for my values.

So what if in the 0% Orange universe is 100% up of Brown which dosen't need any other value systems? Why should that impress me? But aha brown may have some components of Orange mixed in! You may still derive value from it! Well sure, but what makes you so confident that this might prove to be enough to beat out 30% Orange?

A definitional dispute seems to be obscuring our philosophical dispute. Let's taboo morality for a moment, and talk about "social theories." The purpose of a social theory is to tell everyone in a society what principles to use to make decisions.

So there is a Orange-Violet social theory, which says that 30% of the people should use Orange principles. That can only work if 70% of the people use Violet principles, so Orange-Violet requires that condition be met. Further, Orange-Violet has a principle that everyone must think that the distribution of Orange and Violet is correct and right.

If you think that the world would be better if Orange-Violet were implemented, why wouldn't you want the Orange-Violet social theory be implemented?

[-][anonymous]10y 1

Further, Orange-Violet has a principle that everyone must think that the distribution of Orange and Violet is correct and right.

Why?

If you think that the world would be better if Orange-Violet were implemented, why wouldn't you want the Orange-Violet social theory be implemented?

My objection to Orange going to 100% was of a practical nature. I don't have a high enough confidence in my modelling of the world to impose something like that. Lets say we somehow know that Orange-Violet is basically the best possible implementation of Orange, or Orange+ upgraded for a smarter/better me.

In that case I would endorse Orange-Violet. But I fail to see what this has to do with politics. At least with activities I usually understand as political, such as devoting attention to political life or party programmes or judicial decisions or reading pundits or drafts of laws or voting or lobbying.

Political and social movements are more like the movement of plate tectonics than say having a conversation with someone. Either as an activist or voter one's impact is negligible.

At least with activities I usually understand as political, such as devoting attention to political life or party programmes or judicial decisions or reading pundits or drafts of laws or voting or lobbying.

As I said, that's a parched definition of political. Deciding what charity to donate to is political. Arguing that empirical verification should be implemented if possible is political. Not laughing at a racist joke is political. Commenting on the appropriate level of politeness in LessWrong is political.

All those things are susceptible to motivated cognition. Much more importantly, all those things function as support for particular social organization.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

Deciding what charity to donate to is political. Arguing that empirical verification should be implemented if possible is political. Not laughing at a racist joke is political. Commenting on the appropriate level of politeness in LessWrong is political.

It is but I ignore the political aspect of it. In fact I find people who fixate on the political aspects of everyday actions to be a generally disagreeable personality type.

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject. --Winston Churchill

I have little interest in them. Now you may dispute the "won't change his mind" bit, but politics is not a truth seeking process, it is war by other means. Why let your enemy dictate your actions when it is at all avoidable? The LessWrong example you choose is a bad one, LessWrong has a perfectly defined purpose already, "refining the art of human rationality", ideally any debates on the proper level of politeness are not political acts but participation in truth seeking (the truth being sought is "best level of politeness for achieving LessWrong's formalized goals of "refining the art of human rationality").

Being apolitical is a political stance not complete inaction or not understanding the most relevant consequences of one's actions. If I say decide to bomb some politician's office for some reason I will be aware it will have political consequences, if I go and vote in a general election for some reason, I however won't delude myself into thinking that my vote really matters. I advocate being apolitical because I think that for the vast majority of people it is the better option. In most people's lives thinking about the political consequences of every day actions is a source of low quality entertainment and nothing more. Why not replace it with high quality activities?

I didn't pick that word out randomly. Why did your mind jump to a unusual interpretation of it?

I think the narrow definition misses out on all the ways our actions shape society. How do you decide when to say "That's not funny" if you ignore the political?

And if you never rock the boat, that's just supporting the status quo, which is a political decision as well.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

How do you decide when to say "That's not funny" if you ignore the political?

When I genuinely don't find something funny.

When I genuinely don't find something funny.

Madness! How dare you be honest! Don't you know that morality is supposed to be something you don't want to do?

Q: What do you call it when you find a Jew up to his neck in sand?

A1: No enough sand.
A2: (change subject)
A3: That's not funny.

Choosing between those answers is political. There is no unbiased stance.


Noticing that doesn't require you to delude yourself that your vote in an election will have any important influence on the result.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

I just don't find that particular joke funny. Unless I'm surrounded by a regiment of the PLA who will beat me if I don't fit in, I don't see a reason why I should bother lying about that. Do you find it funny but think you shouldn't?

Also you are ignoring the great benefit of apolitical action. By being generally apolitical, you won't be the first one picked for promotions in any system be it democracy or communism, but neither will people feel a strong urge to spend energy trying to hurt you because you belong to a different tribe. Or, for personal benefit, spread word of your nonconformity to decent norms like considering democracy the best form of government possible or believing in the Holy Trinity or the international conspiracy of Jewish bankers and Bolsheviks. I won't be dragged in front of a court for speaking my mind about the king or the party or whatever limitations on freedom of speech my society has. Neither will I be fired, nor will my friends ostracise me. If you think most people are crazy about something, well, why poke people in conversation by screwing with their "are you part of my tribe" pings, when it does neither of you any good?

Quite often if you refrain from political statements people assume you agree with their politics which means you can get more positive interactions with them than otherwise, mind projection fallacy FTW. In most situations being apolitical seems to be a net gain.

Also, if everything is politics then nothing is politics.

Well, we agree that A2 is the apolitical answer and A3 is the political answer (and A1 is the jerkwad answer).

I also agree that being apolitical is often a useful instrumental value. As you say, there's a strong tendency for people to overestimate the importance of their pet issues, and setting a high priority on non-commitment can counter-act that. But non-commitment is only an instrumental value, not a terminal value.


Further, I think you overestimate the cost of speaking up. I was once waiting in line at the airport and a young Asian man was having a lot of trouble with the automated check-in machines. The person next to me said something like, "It's strange that he's having so much trouble," obviously invoking the idea that all Asians are good at technology.

I think this kind of essentialist thinking is morally wrong. I could have said nothing. Your recommendation would have been that I say nothing. But I stated a rebuke. (Basically, "There's already enough trouble in the world. Why go out of your way to make more for someone else?")

I'm saying that was a political decision, and so would have been the decision not to say something.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

But non-commitment is only an instrumental value, not a terminal value.

I think I can generally agree with that.

I'm saying that was a political decision, and so would have been the decision not to say something

Recall when I said:

if everything is politics then nothing is politics.

Can we try and taboo politics? If I understand you right you are basically equating politics with morality. In other words every act has an effect, sometimes tiny sometimes large, on your expected utility (which obviously factors in any morality or set of values you hold).

But it is an important insight that everything (every social interaction, at least) really is political.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

I don't see how. It seems much more insightful to say political acts always have moral consequences.

I'd rather say "All social acts have moral consequences."

[-][anonymous]10y 1

All acts have moral consequences.

You're the one arguing for non-involvement. If every act has moral consequences, how can one justify deciding not to "get involved" without knowing the particular context?

Your original comment did not give the impression that context was important. More precisely, you seemed to assert that the average LessWronger was unlikely to ever be in a position in which the non-involvement principle would lead them astray.

Could you give an example of such a case? This:

the average LessWronger [is] unlikely to ever be in a position in which the non-involvement principle would lead them astray

seems fairly solid.

I think this is what opposing racism can look like. Or standing to allow a child and parent to have connecting seats on the subway, which both subsidizes something I think is worthy of subsidy and helps set the social norm for future situations.

It seems like the non-involvement principle says I shouldn't have done either of those things.

Ah, very good then. Clearly, we have insufficiently formalized what it means to be apolitical. I always assumed that it meant following the relevant social norms of whatever society one finds oneself in, avoiding political argument, and taking a carefully crafted "neutral-stance" on political issues.

I certainly agree that if the non-involvement principle recommends against exercising laudable virtues, then the principle is a bad one. However, I do not think anyone has in mind a principle which would forbid giving up one's subway seat.

However, the non-involvement principle does seem to recommend against that particular method of opposing racism. If you consider this a flaw, that seems to be a perfectly coherent reason to reject the principle.

I think you are right that the racism example is better than the subway hypothetical.

Konkvistador's use of the word political to only reference being active in the process of selecting public officials is quite conventional. For reasons based on feminist thought, I think this understanding artificially restricts the sorts of problems and approaches that can be addressed. In other words, I think the conventional definition is wrong, in that it doesn't actually reference everything that it seems to be trying to reference. Thus, I prefer to say that "The personal is political."

But the other issue I had with his original comment was that the OP was talking about having an open mind about ideology, not simply politics. To the extent that the OP was reconsidering his ideological commitments, I was to suggest that committing to some type of apolitical stance (either under my understanding or Konkvistador's) was not necessarily optimal.


However, the non-involvement principle does seem to recommend against that particular method of opposing racism. If you consider this a flaw, that seems to be a perfectly coherent reason to reject the principle.

Yes. Life doesn't come labelled "racism issue." If you don't think about what you'll do in ambiguous situations ahead of time (which being apolitical suggests you shouldn't), you won't act. Getting things done isn't often polite, as this comment notes.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Clearly, we have insufficiently formalized what it means to be apolitical.

A few comments up I linked to the wikipedia definition to formalize my usage:

The state or quality of being apolitical can be the apathy and/or the antipathy towards all political affiliations.

I think I'm basically pretty much at antipathy. I have a negative and I think pretty justified attitude towards those trying to enthuse me for political affiliations as people trying to hijack my goals for their own purposes.

I always assumed that it meant following the relevant social norms of whatever society one finds oneself in, avoiding political argument, and taking a carefully crafted "neutral-stance" on political issues.

That is how I intended to use the word. Considering oneself neutral in the great tribal struggles of one's time, aids one in having a better map of reality. It also helps to avoid hijacking by predatory memes.

I certainly agree that if the non-involvement principle recommends against exercising laudable virtues, then the principle is a bad one.

I don't know why anyone would choose to describe this as the primary use of the word "apolitical".

Edit: I didn't mean to imply you did.

I don't know why anyone would choose to describe this as apolitical.

I must confess, neither do I. I hope that I did not inadvertently imply that I endorse the antecedent of the conditional:

if the non-involvement principle recommends against exercising laudable virtues, then the principle is a bad one

Edit: I did not mean to imply that I believed that you were implying that I did. I just wished to clarify, in order to negate the small-probability that such a miscommunication had occurred.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

You're the one arguing for non-involvement.

Non-invovlement with what exactly?

If every act has moral consequences, how can one justify deciding not to "get involved" without knowing the particular context?

I have given a context (Politics) and we know much about this class of contexts. Taking an outside view getting emotionally involved in these generally produces one of the worst kinds of bias. "Political" actions generally amount to nothing but naked power struggles that rarely acheive "what it says on the label".

An apolitical mind is a better mind was my original statement. If you consider everything to be "politics" then this statement would read "a goalless or inactive mind is a better mind", to be truly goalless may indeed be impossible while having a working brain and to be fully inactive is to be irrational. Clearly one then dosen't have a something that could be called a "better mind" in any sense (unless you are negative utilitarian - Do no ill!).

If my use of "politics", dosen't match your own specific usage feel free to replace it with bjarndorf or some such word of your choosing. A-bjandorfian minds are better minds. There.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

If every act has moral consequences, how can one justify deciding not to "get involved" without knowing the particular context?

All acts have moral consequences.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[-][anonymous]10y 0

How can you prevent politics from taking an interest in you, if not by engaging in politics?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.

Sure, but taking an interest in politics doesn't mean you can do anything about it.

Pericles

Politicians talking about politics are almost as untrustworthy as philosophers talking about philosophy.

Apologies. I was giving the standard response to the standard response to someone talking about being apolitical.

So if I cite a philosopher talking about politics, you'll be more impressed?

The personal is political.

Author Uncertain

I'm trying to dispute the idea that it is safe, reasonable, or rational to ignore politics. "Politics is the mind-killer" is one part community norm for this forum and one part warning about cognitive bias. Just like "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Mindkiller is a warning, not a prohibition on political action or thought.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

The personal is political.

People's everyday lives have very little to do with the political opinions they endorse. Indeed people's lives in general have very little to do with the political opinions they endorse. The only exception is that lives tend to go better for those who identify ruling and dominant ideologies/parties and stick to them when they are ascending rather than when declining.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

I can't believe I completely forgot about "Keep Your Identity Small". If I had linked to it or mentioned it I would probably have much reduced the possibility of misunderstanding of what is meant by apolitical mind.

I think I haven't necessarily been particularly clear about what my plan is: I am not giving up on politics. I am not declaring myself, from here on out or even for this year, completely apolitical. What I'm doing is forbidding myself from expressing political positions or arguments for the year, but not from taking an interest in politics. The gambit is designed to avoid having my opinions determined by loyalty to a group or position, and the feeling that, if I change my mind, I'm a traitor - it's designed to make it so that whether or not I get the right answer, I'm not going to get credit for it anyway. I'm trying to free myself up to change my mind if I need to, without worries about what my in-group will think of my new opinions.

I've been rereading a pile of Hitchens. His essay collections are ... patchy. Some hit the spot, some look dashed off in half an hour after a boozy evening (as they frequently were). He was clearly brilliant, but relied on it rather too often.

god is not Great is probably the best thing he ever wrote. I'm listening to the audio book (read by the author) now, and it's so clearly a book written to be read aloud. A master polemicist, expertly bludgeoning bad arguments to death. If you've seen videos of Hitchens debating theists (well worth seeing too - there's lots on YouTube), it's pretty much that stuff, organised into a single philosophical steam-hammer assault.

Letters To A Young Contrarian is very good, if you enjoyed god is not Great and want more of the good stuff. Then hit the essay collections.

Thank you very much. Letters is probably my favourite of his books, and frankly the amount of Hitchens debates I've watched on youtube is embarrassing.

Oh! The other Hitchens in the "read first" pile is HItch-22, his not-quite-autobiography.

One thing to be cautious of is that Hitchens teaches you polemics, i.e. really forceful rhetoric. This can be put in the service of anything, and sweep along everyone including the speaker. That he believed everything he said does not make this stuff not dangerous.

If you find yourself tangling with annoying theists a lot, god is not Great is just the source material you needed. However, its arguments are very easy to accept while forgetting to examine and kick them thoroughly. And bits of it do go off the rails IMO, e.g. the section on pigs.

My strategy has been to identify with "Keep your Identity Small".

Having read this site and overcomingbias.com for a while, my conclusion is that stong opinions are not at all about maximizing the accuracy of your mental model of the world. Rather they are about influencing people around you. In the social world, it is more valuable to influence other agents to work in ways you want them to than it is to be accurate in your understanding of the world! Or at least the default accuracy you get is sufficient whereas the default influence you would have without strong opinions is way below optimum.

I think people trivialize the thing they call "signalling" when they call it signalling, as if it was some decoration evolution has added to otherwise useful actions. If you influence 20 people an average of 2% each, you have increased your agency 40% over just what you could do alone. Even more than 40% if you consider much of what you are doing comes from the influence of others on you. Signalling, if that is the best word for it, is WAY more important in terms of getting things done than is understanding the world. I imagine this is true because "most" of the world is already understood at any one time, meaning there is plenty to gain using what is already understood with a bunch of influenced people, more to gain than by not influencing people and using resources to try to figure out something the rest of your peers don't already know, or have wrong.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Before coming to LW, reading politics is the mind killer and swearing off politics completely, I found some success in never identifying as any political strain, just being interested in understanding the positions and communicating them. Like "anarchism (or whatever) is about such-and-such" instead of "I am an anarchist and I believe such-and-such".

Anyways, it's probably better to just not participate in political thought.

I do something similar to this, but instead of refusing to claim a political ideology, I simply observe my own recent behavior, inventory my own positions on the relevant issues, and ask myself, "From the outside, what part of the political spectrum does it look like I belong to?" This way I avoid identifying internally with any position.

Incidentally, in Social Security discussions and the like, people usually stop listening to me at around the part in the conversation where I mention that I believe that superintelligent machines will either destroy or save humanity before any of us reach retirement age.

I simply observe my own recent behavior, inventory my own positions on the relevant issues, and ask myself, "From the outside, what part of the political spectrum does it look like I belong to?"

Have you considered using measurement tools such as the Political Compass?

Until 2013, then, this is it for me. No longer are Marxism, fascism, anarcho-syndicalism etc. incorrect. They're interesting ideas, and I'd like to hear more about them.

Can you be more specific about what reaction you'd like from us? There are interesting and insightful points in post-modern thought, but there's some junk as well, and figuring out the difference is important.

There's a tendency for mainstream thought to co-opt the best of post-modern thought. That's great, because I like this community's ability to talk about social norms, something that I assert is only possible because of theory like imagined communities. But that co-opting of ideas leaves behind a lots of dreck, and judging post-modern thought (or marxism, or fascism, etc) by what has not been co-opted leaves a skewed viewpoint.

But I'm not sure that what I've said is responsive to your post.

Okay, well, yes - I maybe chose three really poor examples. I think it's safe to predict that I'm not going to be a fascist in 2013. The problem I'm trying to solve is not being able to distinguish between the dreck and the not-dreck because I don't want to feel like a traitor to my group.

I don't know what group you refer to, but I think that Marxism and post-modern thought (particularly post-modern feminism and post-modern philosophy of science) have insights that one can accept without rejecting empiricism (i.e. finding out the truth by testing your hypothesis against the world).