Content warning: preparadigmatic meander; half-baked models; thinking-out-loud. Unlike the median Duncan essay.


Logan Strohl's response to the first draft of the below:

i really wish this were a more-effective-for-me invitation to help you figure something out. i think that's the version of it i would upvote, or maybe even strong upvote. 

right now i feel uncomfortable or something about having read it, and if it were a topic i already cared a lot more about i'd probably feel angry or maybe even betrayed. as it is i feel a tiny bit like i've been contaminated, because of something like a wishy washy back and forth between trying to figure out what you're saying, trying to figure out what you're doing, having a feeling that there's something you want me to believe, trying to figure out what i do believe, trying to figure out what topics i need to try to get into my own sight before trying to understand you so that my own eyeballs don't get carelessly knocked over... whatever i'm trying to say here is more concentrated in that last thing

i think i would like a version of this post that begins with a short list of questions that i'm invited to try to answer on my own before i read, 'cause then i'd try to answer them on my own first and be much much better prepared for this essay


  1. Do you think that the swath of society you live in is less crazy than society as a whole?  Why?
  2. Do you think that the swath of society you live in is less crazy than its analogue in society 100 years ago?  Why?
  3. How do you feel about the swaths of society that seem crazy to you?  Why?
  4. How do you feel about the future of society, on the question of craziness?  Do you think the median craziness is moving?  Do you think the extremes of craziness are moving?  Do you think that the bulk of people are moving toward the middle, or the tails are fattening, or society is splitting into a two-peaked distribution, or or or or or?  (various permutations of that kind of question)
  5. What have you been using the word 'crazy' to mean, in the above?  What do you think I use the word 'crazy' to mean?  What do you think the median LWer uses it to mean?
  6. What do you wish for, if anything, re: society and craziness?

For a long time, I didn't understand why elections were so often so close.

It seemed to kid-me that one side was (probably) strictly superior to the other, in the sense that the product of [the goodness of its goals] and [its effectiveness in pursuing those goals] was just straightforwardly higher.  

And so it seemed to kid-me that once that side won once, it should be able to pretty quickly consolidate power and start accumulating compound gains from its achievements, at which point it should be wildly popular and win handily for a long time, until the underlying world state became Different enough that some new person or perspective would come out of nowhere and upend the existing order of things.

(I read a lot of fantasy books as a child.)

It took me a while to catch on to the fact that, actually, that exact process was happening. It's just that it was happening continuously rather than stepwise—subtle shifts, little swings, a constant string of tiny revolutions instead of rare, climactic battles.

It took me a while to realize that there's a sort of thermostat on political platforms.  A party that wins in a landslide (or looks like it's on track to do so) will tend to fragment, as those within it become less-convinced that they need to put their important disagreements on hold for the greater good of Defeating The Other Guys, and more eager to fight the leadership (or, more cynically, to distinguish themselves from the crowd as someone with a reputation for Insight and Integrity).

And a party that suffers a major defeat softens and expands (if it doesn't just outright die or remain a perpetual minority) as those within it begin to reexamine their priorities, figuring out which things they are willing to sacrifice or tolerate for the sake of reaching out to new allies and appealing to new constituents.

Each side has an incentive to shoot for something like 51% of the relevant votes. Both sides have a spread of beliefs and convictions, and neither side wants to cede more of those beliefs than what's required to be just-barely-popular-enough-to-win.  And so, elections with two major contenders tend to be close, because whenever they threaten to be not close, there's value in converting the excess unity into some sort of political concession.

(This is a very crude model, and of course it is obscuring a lot of other things that can actually be significant some of the time, but it's approximately the first-order factor, as far as I can tell.  It explains most of what happens, most of the time.)


There's something about the above that feels vaguely anthropic-principle-esque, to me. Stable in a way that is baked into the fabric of the universe, that couldn't be any other way because if the universe were that different, there wouldn't be an entity like me to observe it.

"There will always exist shifting coalitions on the margins, because anything that isn't on the margins just gets absorbed into the background, and the debate shifts to where the ongoing disagreement lies."

Much of the left-leaning discourse of the past decade (in America) seems to me to have centered on "really??  Literal Nazis and ascendant racist sentiment??  Didn't we already settle this one???"

And there's something about that flavor of surprise which highlights an underlying principle that does, in fact, seem to hold most of the time.  It comes across as an exception that proves that the general rule does actually exist.  Racism is an unusually sticky issue in America (and among humans in general, maybe?) but it's actually pretty much settled that politicians no longer shoot one another in the streets.  It's actually pretty much settled that children aren't employed in salt mines.  It's actually pretty much settled that the moon orbits the Earth, which orbits the Sun, which is a part of a galaxy of ≈100,000,000,000 stars.

(And even given that racism is sticky in weird ways, the goalposts have definitely shifted over time—it's pretty much settled that slavery based on skin color is abhorrent and outside the Overton window; no party based on "hey, let's enslave [race X]!" would get very far, compared to the sociological fitness of such a platform two hundred years ago.)

The upshot is: progress is made, but contention is conserved.  As soon as an issue is no longer useful as a discriminator on the margin, and a useful tool for building or breaking coalitions, it fades into the background and ceases to be a topic of discussion except among a minority of die-hards.  New issues arise in its place, and people redivide themselves along the new axis.

Thus, we no longer have people fighting tooth-and-nail over whether a Catholic president is likely to betray the interests of the United States at the behest of the Pope. Instead, we have people fighting tooth-and-nail over border walls, abortion, and vaccination.

(Again, these are bold oversimplifications.  Other factors can certainly be decisive in given instances of social conflict.  I nevertheless think that there's something real about the cartoonishly simple version, just like there's something real about claiming that force equals mass times acceleration, or that price is inversely proportional to supply.)


For another angle on the conservation of contention: it used to be the case that people could have really quite heated arguments over which film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955, or just how long the Trans-Siberian Railroad is, end-to-end.

This entire class of disagreement has been largely obsoleted by the development of the internet, and of resources like Google and Wikipedia in particular.  In places where people have access to those resources, such questions are usually settled in a matter of seconds.  This is unquestionably progress, in an absolute sense.

However, it does not seem to me to be the case that the multiple-orders-of-magnitude increase in the ready availability of information has led to an overall reduction in the frequency of disagreement, or a meaningful decrease in the heat/intensity/urgency of that disagreement.

A cynical model would posit something like "people act on a desire to disagree, and in the moment search for a pretext to justify that desire; they used to easily find that pretext in the realm of facts but now that agreement-on-questions-of-fact is largely forced they must reach slightly farther afield. Overall, nothing has changed."

I don't know about that precise causal model, but it does seem to me that you get something pretty closely approximating the behavior of humans if you posit a baseline level of fighteyness, normally distributed around an average that lies somewhere in between "doormat" and "reddit troll."

A more charitable explanation for unchanging contentiousness might look more like "people have extensive struggles and dissatisfactions, which compete for their limited time and attention.  As the highest-urgency items get resolved, and people are no longer e.g. fighting for their literal survival, they turn to the next-highest items on the list with basically the same available energy. Thus, even as disagreements seem to have lower and lower actual stakes, the enthusiasm with which people prosecute those disagreements remains more or less constant, because the highest-priority disagreement is always the highest-priority disagreement, whatever its absolute magnitude, and that's what matters."


"But isn't contentiousness actually down, in the sense that people are way less likely to e.g. kill another human being, than at approximately any time in the past?"

This is exactly the thing I'm attempting to point at, and am personally confused about.

By objective measures, it seems to me that contentiousness is down.

By felt sense, it seems to me that contentiousness hasn't changed.

People don't fight about facts in the way that they used to.  But it doesn't feel like they fight less than they did when I was eight, pre-widespread-internet, or less than they did a hundred years ago?

(Thinking here about ~ten hours of reading I did, once, into the political climate of America in the run-up to the Civil War.  What the rhetoric in newspaper articles looked like, that sort of thing.)

People don't outright assault one another as often as they used to.  But it doesn't feel like they're less likely to feud and fight and scream and shun with every bit as much verve?

(Thinking here about social justice/cancel culture, or the way pro-Trump crowds behaved toward poll workers, or the discourse on Facebook and Reddit and Twitter.)

People's transgressions seem straightforwardly smaller than they used to be, mainly by virtue of times being less desperate and fewer sorts of violence being inside the Overton window.  Yet people's responses to the violations that nevertheless occur seem no less strident?

It's as if there exists some "reasonable reaction to a 90th-percentile transgression" quantity that does not really change, over time, despite the fact that the categorical boundaries are shifting, and thus a 90th-percentile transgression in 2021 is very very different from a 90th-percentile transgression in 1971.

I'm unsure about all of this—am much more confused here than in e.g. my typical LW essays.  But it looks this way, to me.  Like you will get in more trouble, in a healthier and more-resourced society, for [action X], than you would in a less-healthy and less-resourced society.

And this seems good in one sense, in that this is what progress is.  We-as-a-society couldn't afford to mount meaningful pushback to [action X] back in the day, because we were too busy trying to deter [action Y] and [action Z] which were much, much worse. Now that Y and Z are taken care of, we can turn our attention to X, and then to W, and eventually to V and U and T in turn.

But it seems broken in some other sense that I can't quite put my finger on.


One framework that feels live to me here is the distinction between counting up and counting down.

If I'm counting up, I'm starting from a modest sort of place where I don't really expect anything good, and am ready to be pleasantly surprised by any progress whatsoever.  I'm tracking how far we've come, from zero.

"Oh, geez, we cut murders down from 15-per-100,000 to 12-per-100,000?  That's fantastic!"

If I'm counting down, I'm starting from a standard of perfection, and docking points for anything that fails to measure up.  I'm tracking how far we still are, from one hundred.

"We still have twelve murders per hundred thousand citizens.  That's twelve murders too many."

In my mind, this is primarily about expectation management.  There are some domains in which perfection is unattainable (either fundamentally or at least any time soon), and therefore too much focus on it is demoralizing rather than motivating.  Hence, counting up, and celebrating progress as it comes in, separate from attending to how much distance is left to cover.

And there are other domains in which complacency is a genuine threat, and many achievements really are too small to be worth pausing to celebrate, and it's more important to keep your eyes on the prize and stay soberly focused.  Hence, counting down, and keeping every bit of progress in perspective with what remains to be done.

The above dynamics don't seem to fit into this simple dichotomy.  Instead, it's like there's some kind of Zeno's paradox taking place.  As soon as the overall picture gets better, the scale shifts to take the new equilibrium for granted.  Yes, we used to get 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 1000, but those don't happen anymore, so now we get 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 100.  And once those don't happen anymore, we'll shift to getting 9-out-of-10 outraged over things of absolute magnitude 10, and then things of absolute magnitude 1, and then things of absolute magnitude 0.1, and so on.

....................progress?

...............................I mean, yes, clearly, progress, but...

I'm not sure.  There's a part of me that wishes that we only got 7-out-of-10 mad about things of magnitude 100, and that once we were down to things of magnitude 10 we would perhaps only get maybe 5-out-of-10 mad, and so on.  That we-as-a-people could retain some high-level perspective, and not just fully resensitize to the new thresholds, and straightforwardly return to our dissatisfaction setpoints.

(There's something in here about the social power of dissatisfaction/outrage, as well, and how unilaterally maintaining that high-level perspective while everyone else reaps the benefits of reaction inflation is a doomed strategy.)


The title of this meander is "We'll Always Have Crazy," because where all these thoughts lead, in my mind, is discussion of religion and superstition.

The big claim:

To the extent that I, an educated middle-class aspiring rationalist in the modernized Western world, can readily identify Christianity and similar as obviously crazy, it is a kind of crazy that humanity will approximately never be free of.

More specifically, there will always be something which occupies the niche that Christianity et al currently occupy, because it's a relative niche.

Five hundred years ago, Christianity specifically felt free to claim that:

  • The Earth was the center of the observable universe
  • The Earth was 6000 years old
  • Miracles were definitely happening on the regular; sucks to be you if you happened to have never witnessed one yourself
  • All the species in existence had always been in existence and would always be in existence
  • Humans are fundamentally and qualitatively distinct from all other animals
  • Sufficiently heartfelt prayer from a sufficiently pious individual could lead god (or maybe the saints?) to directly intervene in the physical world

Today, the claims of Christianity (at least those of the median and modal Christians in middle-class America, the kind who are willing to talk about their faith at the workplace lunch table) are much more modest.  Few people promise that prayer will definitely make a difference; few people expect their prayers to be answered.  Most people more-or-less explicitly acknowledge that prayer is about comfort, and community, and feelings of support.

Few people claim that god directly intervened to save some family or smite some sinner; few people genuinely credit that a hurricane or an unusually good harvest is the direct work of a deity.  And even those that do are instinctively careful to hedge that miracles don't make one-in-a-million events happen substantially more often than one time out of a million—they just influence which of the million good fortune falls upon.

(And if a bad thing happens to an unusually pious person, well—god works in mysterious ways.)

The claims of Christianity have mellowed because they had to.  People carry cameras everywhere, now.  We have near-complete causal physical explanations of earthquakes and volcanoes and weather events.  We know what makes people sick, and we know what makes them well again.  If Christianity had continued making claims as bold as the claims it made in the 1500s, it would have been setting itself up for failure, and its constituents for constant ridicule and embarrassment, and that's no way to run a successful religion.

Christians (in my experience) like to point to Christianity's historical success as evidence of its truth, but in fact the Christians of the year 200 would barely recognize the Christians of the year 1200, and the Christians of the year 2200 (if we get there) will barely recognize the Christians of today.  Christianity's success is due in no small part to its willingness to abandon its convictions, to adapt and rebrand, to shed its skin and contort itself to fit into the ever-shrinking space of not-quite-completely-laughable superstition.
 


And this is my point—it has succeeded in doing so.  Were I to have been born 500 years ago, and raised in analogous circumstances, such that I occupied an analogous place in society, I would feel exactly the same unease and disdain about the objectively much crazier beliefs flying back and forth in the 1500's as I do about the much tamer Christianity of today.

(Ditto Judaism and Islam, ditto Buddhism and Hinduism and Sikhism and Taoism and Shinto and astrology and animism, etc.)

No matter what our ability to record and analyze and understand the world around us, there will always be a margin—always a swath of claims and beliefs that are probably false, but difficult to demonstrably debunk.

No matter what our ability to track causality, there will always be some threshold below which we cannot track, where someone can claim the influence of a subtle god—or domains in which such claims can never be checked, such as the afterlife or an extraphysical astral plane.

No matter how good we get, as a species and as a culture, at tracking our beliefs, and their causes, and teaching and maintaining good epistemic hygiene, there will always be countermeasures—perspectives that ennoble unthinking faith as a virtue, or which assert that doubt is the devil talking, such that people operating within those perspectives will have ready-made defenses against incoming information that would otherwise push them to deconvert.

And so we will always have crazy.

To the extent that humanity continues to be a loose collection of individuals, largely influenced by the thousand-or-so other monkeys in their immediate vicinity, we'll always have some set of traditions that live in the gray area that (the popular and memetically fit versions of) Christianity et al currently occupy.  If the treadmill turns too quickly for Christianity to adapt, and it falls by the wayside, something else will take its place, and that thing will seem just as crazy to the Duncan of 2200 (relative to everything else he knows and can prove, and everything else his society takes for granted) as modern-day Christianity seems to me.

This is especially true as long as belief-sets like Christianity continue to be relatively innocuous (such that non-members don't view them as a sufficiently large threat that they must unite against them), relatively beneficial (e.g. by providing community or a sense of purpose, such that even those who see their fundamental hollowness may nevertheless be tempted to "take the deal," or at least reluctant to throw out the baby-containing bathwater), and relatively motte-and-bailey-able (such that people can equivocate between bolder/crazier beliefs and smaller/saner/more defensible beliefs when challenged).

And given the rate at which the human race is spewing out thoughts and ideas and beliefs and perspectives and just-so stories and gossip and outright lies—given that there exists an assortment of memes at approximately every point on the spectrum of plausibility—there will always be something for selection pressure to promote to fixation. There will always be available belief sets which hit just the right mix of plausibility and usefulness.  Nobody has to design them on purpose.  They already exist, and are simply waiting for the circumstances to be right for their blossoming.


It's worth pausing and reiterating the ... looseness? ... of this essay.  This is a self-aware meander; it's thinking-out-loud; much of the above is oversimplified, and disagreement in the comments below is invited, prosocial, and appreciated.

These thoughts seemed worth sharing, though, even in their current half-baked form, because more and more I have found that expectation management is a critical and extremely undervalued skill.  The vast majority of the confusion, suffering, and anger that I see, in my privileged swath of experience, comes from people who thought things would be one way, only to discover they were the other way.  People with accurate expectations, and people who are able to relinquish false expectations easily, just have a much better time.  On the order of 10x better, in my experience, across a wide range of contexts and circumstances.

And the core realization—that the Lizardman Constant is not just about polls, and that there's a major difference between [the amount of progress made by a given society] and [how that progress feels, to someone on the inside of that society]—

It's been extremely useful to me, as someone who Tries To Have High Hopes For Humanity.

If you expect things to feel better just because they get better—

If you expect people to appreciate progress, proportional to its magnitude—

If you look at how much less crazy our society is than it was 100 years ago, and have been thinking it will feel that much better after a similarly-sized chunk of progress—

Then it's important to consider the possibility (the likelihood, according to me) that we'll always have crazy.

Plan accordingly.

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I would like to split this into three separate claims:

  • the world is improving;
  • no matter how good or bad is the situation objectively, people are likely to spend 100% of their hysteria budget complaining about stuff;
  • the hysteria budget is approximately spent on the currently-worst things.

(I am not sure whether you actually made or implied the third point, or I am just imagining it.)

I agree about the world improving (so far).

I disagree about the efficient allocation of the hysteria budget.

For example, you mention slavery as an example of a horrible thing that is luckily already a matter of the past, which is why we have now moved our hysteria towards less horrible things. Except, no. According to Wikipedia, there are currently over 40 million slaves in the world. They are much cheaper than they used to be in the past, which typically means that they live in worse conditions. (Because the owners do not have to worry so much about their health; in worst case, they can easily buy a replacement.) No one gives a fuck anymore. If you do, you will probably get accused of racism, colonialism, islamophobia, etc. Similarly, people used to be outraged about female genital mutilation, not so long ago. Today, when a woman talks too much about how she hates being genitally mutilated, we call it "hate speech" and move on. Now put this in contrast to the public concern that some pussy might have been grabbed by Donald Trump. This does not seem like an efficient allocation of the hysteria budget.

Possible counter-argument: people focus their outrage on the worst things within their countries. I would disagree with this one, too. First, the amount of concern one is culturally allowed to express over situation in other countries changes in time. It is a recent political development that everyone is allowed to criticize Americans, but Americans are not allowed to criticize anyone (except for maybe North Korea), and everyone has to respect Muslims (and all the things that are traditionally part of their culture), only the Chinese are allowed to kill them. Yes, it was always more tempting to attack your neighbor, than to worry about a 1000× worse thing on the opposite side of the planet. The changing thing is whether the latter is a taboo or not. Second, there are many things deeply wrong in the developed countries, but they are usually not the ones where most of the outrage is spent.

A somewhat more plausible version would be that people focus their outrage on the worst things within their bubbles. That seems to match reality better. For example, if you are rich, you don't really care about the healthcare or the homeless, but someone addressing you incorrectly on Twitter is the real tragedy. And your only issue with slavery is that you have to build a for-profit prison in order to exploit the legal loophole in the 13th ammendment.

I am not sure about spending 100% of the hysteria budget. How much of that is human nature, and how much is a consequence of free speech and clickbait profitability. I can imagine that a cult (or a socialist country) could simply suppress all talking about worrying things. Then, many people would still worry privately, but they would not trigger each other, and they would not be reminded of their worries at every moment. On the other hand, cults (and socialist countries) often have their own horror narratives and keep their people worrying about them. So maybe there is a conservation of worry, and it can only be redirected. I am not sure about this.

However, it does not seem to me to be the case that the multiple-orders-of-magnitude increase in the ready availability of information has led to an overall reduction in the frequency of disagreement, or a meaningful decrease in the heat/intensity/urgency of that disagreement.

The book The Status Game helped resolve a lot of similar questions/confusions for me. You can take a look at Morality is Scary where I quote a relevant section from it, and also this comment with another quote. Rob Henderson's idea of luxury beliefs comes from a similar vein.

In short, I think the answer is that there's a demand for using "crazy beliefs"/disagreements for tribal identification, signaling and playing status games. When available information makes some beliefs too obviously crazy to serve that role, the demand doesn't disappear but is just driven to some other topic that isn't quite as obviously settled yet.

Possible alternate title: Felt Crazy is Constant.

While thinking and engaging with "Awakening from the meaning crisis" I came to a conclusion that a certain kind of danger will keep sticking around. Vervaeke pharases it something to the effect of "perennial problems means that our meaning making machinery will always contain the possibility of self-delusion" and "you can't get rid of your shadow". (and my shorthand for it is that "eternal darkness" is a thing) . Digging into all of that might take a lot of time and I found it to feel like there is a conclusion or result coming that just kept going without any resolution at any point.

Groups that in all seriousness make the claims in the "Five hundred years ago" are around. Young earth creationists are like a thing. Similarly for my nordic sensibilities the american apporoach to religion is about as laughable as I imagine the young earth creationist are to the american christians. If one holds that that small group is the representative of the "OG vanilla" christianiaty then one could conclude that christianity has infact been silently phased out by another movement that just reuses the branding. The christians of old not recognising what is called christians now would be correct to identify them as imposters.

The logic might not run the same for all religions. Atleast for Shinto the religion is less about what you believe but more about what you do. For example attitudes to temple sacrifices can be likened to tipping waitresses in restaurants, it is just something you are supposed to do and everybody does. Making the religion be about believing things is more about what the christianity is special as a religion.

I think connected to the motte-and-bailey is when people do the reverse motte and bailey (which I guess is just called strawmanning). In particular while there is an option to go "something doesn't go believed" -> "god works in mysterious ways" i don't think this is very cannon way and I think as an opponent it would be bad to treat it as the recipe that the system would prescripe. Rather such a person is making an error of religion.

An old joke relevant to some themes here: The is a going to be a flood and a priest is trying to get everybody to safety. There is a truck outside the church but the priest goes "don't worry, god will protect, go and save others". Later the water is reaching the steps of the church and a rowboat comes by the church and again the priest goes "don't worry, god will protect, go and save others". Later only a tower is peakig amongs the water and a helicopter arrives and still the priest insists "don't worry, god will protect, go and save others". The priest drowns and at the gates of heavens asks god "Why did you not protect me?". God answers: "Well I sent a truck, a rowboat and a helicopter but it didn't seem to be good enough for you"

The helicopter in this joke is 100% a natural event and 100% an act of god to protect (and its also not particularly subtle). The meaning of "God works in mysterious ways" could be taken to mean along the lines of "God does not work in mundane ways" (which is an anticipation restricting form of it) ie does no direct act but "only indirects". The obviously foolish "handgesture particular candy automaton wizard" believes mainly condence because all the sane people are not around those circles to ward off the insanity

It is less about the material because the ame thing can be done with "more proper" material. Somebody that is prone to name drop prophets might be nudged to start to name drop Charles Darwin instead. Instead of "believing in the bible" they instead "believe" (as in have a faith commitment to) the dogma collection of "science". This "scientism" retains the bad method even if it has a more up to date payload. It is a dark art largely because it shoots for antienlightmentment to find expediency in ignorance, stability in blindness and integrity in cowardice.

While I think the american style christianity is home to a large part of the crazy I don't think it provides a unique kind of crazy. Like that kind of crazy is the same kind of crazy that math cranks are crazy and mathematics will not be a loadstone slowing down humanity as a field.

One thing that feels wrong here is that it grants that explicit and implicit political beliefs are the same.

The first time the phrase structural racism made sense to me was hearing a Texan talk about social policy. If I look at a policy choice like how to build space for people to life in, I was grewing up in a house that was build at a time where people thought about how to build housing in a way that gets different social classes together in one house by making different floors at different luxury levels. 

On the other hand you have US housing policy that's about building housing so that rich Whites don't have to live together with Black people. Very little of the effort at fighting structural racism goes against racist structures like that to change zoning laws.

Instead of being about helping lower class Black people by changing structures that are both racist in intention and in effect like zoning laws, efforts against fighting structural racism seem to be more about helping upper class Blacks who went to university and giving people who majored in diversity studies job paths.

Is a great video that goes on how fighting for empowering lower classes is not what Democratic policy in the US is about. The idea that politics is about blue vs. red tribe prevents clear analysis because as the saying goes "all politics is local". It often a distraction from the political battles that matter.

It's very hard to compare today with a hundred years ago but I think there's a chance that the difference between people's actual politics and the politics they pretend to have is higher today. 

A FB friend of mine adds the following:

Some reactions (I especially care about 2. and 2c.):

1. I think I basically share / agree with what seems to me like the "biggest" idea in the article, namely that there is progress on things like how sane and good a civilization is, and that there is an analog of a hedonic treadmill for feelings of progress.

2. I worry that the article's emphasis on something like object-level progress (religion has less-bad beliefs than a few hundred years ago) may make the "we will always have crazy" idea sound like there is no meta-level progress, i.e., the third of the population that's worst at epistemics is as bad at arriving at and updating towards correct beliefs as it was some hundreds of years ago, and that this will continue to be true in the future.

2a. I suspect that there is progress there too. For example, I expect that some hundred years ago, the third of the population with the worst epistemics would have been much more strident than today in shutting down people trying to speak up with calm reasonable arguments against what a powerful person says, and would have had a significantly more blatant tendency to take "but <powerful person> disagrees" to be an absolute counterargument and disqualifier for the person trying to speak up.

2b. Barring catastrophes and other huge changes, I expect the meta-level progress in epistemics to continue in the future, so I expect the hypothetical Duncan in 2200 to in fact be more able to converse with {the third of the population that is worst at epistemics} in ways that cause updates, even if the treadmill hypothesis suggests that he'll feel no better about it.

2c. Because I think that society's epistemics make meta progress in addition to object-level progress, I do not confidently go from "I agree that the world around me looks like this treadmill thing is true" to "I think the future will look like the treadmill thing barring catastrophe". When progress has reached a point where something starts to come into view as a salient problem, there's a chance that something changes about that problem that didn't change about it before. By analogy: It seems to me like early proponents of democracy might have looked at history and thought "most countries will always be ruled by hereditary rulers", but in fact it seems to me like the pattern of hereditary rule had a much easier time perpetuating itself before the meme that hereditary rule is bad started to get a hold in the public imagination.

3. Caveats about my agreement with the basic model of progress happening:

3a. I think historical progress has had setbacks, so you need to look at long timescales to see continuous historical progress. Furthermore, it seems to me that the timescales on which you need to look to skip over the setbacks get longer as we look backwards in time; the middle ages were pretty long compared to the Soviet Union, say. (That said, I don't know whether the history of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome is full of 50-year-long setbacks that are just not salient enough from the modern vantage point.)

3b. I don't think future progress-with-temporary-setbacks is guaranteed, even conditioning on humanity not going extinct; I think technological and other progress might be able to enable a dark age that does not end (e.g. a dictatorship with sufficient surveillance to effectively root out opposition), as Bostrom suggests in his x-risk paper.

3c. I feel confused about how various forms of new media over the last 200 years have made society crazier in ways that my intuition says "are orthogonal to the point of this article", and I also haven't examined my confusion about it enough to confidently think that it's orthogonal. (I am particularly thinking of newspapers with stories transmitted by telegraph; radio; TV; and social media.)

Edited: Changed 6's title from Misc.

1. Voting System dynamics?

2. Perpetual disagreement, or perpetual improvement? Whence resolution?

3. Conflict Anxiety Treadmill?

4. The interesting part of the essay

5. This essay seemed like 3 different things.

6. (or 3 again) Conflict Anxiety or The (emotional) Stake Haven't Changed?


1. Voting System dynamics?

Each side has an incentive to shoot for something like 51% of the relevant votes. Both sides have a spread of beliefs and convictions, and neither side wants to cede more of those beliefs than what's required to be just-barely-popular-enough-to-win.  And so, elections with two major contenders tend to be close, because whenever they threaten to be notclose, there's value in converting the excess unity into some sort of political concession.
(This is a very crude model, and of course it is obscuring a lot of other things that can actually be significant some of the time, but it's approximately the first-order factor, as far as I can tell.  It explains most of what happens, most of the time.)

This makes it sound like a n>50% rule will inevitably lead to this. (The caveat acknowledges this, but I'm still curious about if this is different with different rules.)


2. Perpetual disagreement, or perpetual improvement? Whence resolution?

However, it does not seem to me to be the case that the multiple-orders-of-magnitude increase in the ready availability of information has led to an overall reduction in the frequency of disagreement, or a meaningful decrease in the heat/intensity/urgency of that disagreement.
A cynical model would posit something like "people act on a desire to disagree, and in the moment search for a pretext to justify that desire; they used to easily find that pretext in the realm of facts but now that agreement-on-questions-of-fact is largely forced they must reach slightly farther afield. Overall, nothing has changed."
I don't know about that precise causal model, but it does seem to me that you get something pretty closely approximating the behavior of humans if you posit a baseline level of fighteyness, normally distributed around an average that lies somewhere in between "doormat" and "reddit troll."

Optimistically:

People go looking for cruxes. There is not some point where we stop. (Even if this is the case for people, new generations start anew.)

(This is different in implying that people are trying to make the world better, as opposed to focusing on disagreement. Why?)

A more charitable explanation for unchanging contentiousness might look more like "people have extensive struggles and dissatisfactions, which compete for their limited time and attention.  As the highest-urgency items get resolved, and people are no longer e.g. fighting for their literal survival, they turn to the next-highest items on the list with basically the same available energy. Thus, even as disagreements seem to have lower and lower actual stakes, the enthusiasm with which people prosecute those disagreements remains more or less constant, because the highest-priority disagreement is always the highest-priority disagreement, whatever its absolute magnitude, and that's what matters."

This contrasts with 'basically settled' - why are disagreements things that can be resolved in a way that works generally well enough that things can be basically settled? Why is 'sticky stuff'* like racism that way?

*Calling it sticky just identifies the tendency, it doesn't explain it. (Phlogistons and all that.)


3. Conflict Anxiety Treadmill?

By felt sense, it seems to me that contentiousness hasn't changed.

A treadmill of conflict anxiety?


But it seems broken in some other sense that I can't quite put my finger on.

Why aren't politics better, so most people don't have to vote because things are more settled? (Politics might not be typical of conflict, but when we're talking about "society", it's one obvious place to go.)


4. The interesting part of the essay

More specifically, there will always be something which occupies the niche that Christianity et al currently occupy, because it's a relative niche.

Relative to what?


And this is my point—it has succeeded in doing so.  Were I to have been born 500 years ago, and raised in analogous circumstances, such that I occupied an analogous place in society, I would feel exactly the same unease and disdain about the objectively muchcrazier beliefs flying back and forth in the 1500's as I do about the much tamer Christianity of today.
(Ditto Judaism and Islam, ditto Buddhism and Hinduism and Sikhism and Taoism and Shinto and astrology and animism, etc.)

I don't know about most of those - or how they've evolved today.

Going beyond astrology - not the focus on stars, but trying to figure out (what are) clusters of different types of types of people, seems like something that will continue to be interesting, but also seems like it will struggle with accuracy/rigor/etc. indefinitely.


If the treadmill turns too quickly for Christianity to adapt, and it falls by the wayside, something else will take its place, and that thing will seem just as crazy to the Duncan of 2200 (relative to everything else he knows and can prove, and everything else his society takes for granted) as modern-day Christianity seems to me.

I like the parallel between 'shouldn't we chill out, things are getting better' and 'I will always adjust'.


They already exist, and are simply waiting for the circumstances to be right for their blossoming.

This part I'm not sure of.

a) It seems more like ideas are created. (Sure, processes that create ideas already exist.)

b) In order for those 'fringe impossible ideas' to be more different it seems like the things occupying the current niche have to go. (The reverse could happen - something else comes along and displaces them for that role - but it seems less likely.)


5. This essay seemed like 3 different things.

Questions

Comparison

Idea structure/type existence and continuation


The fit between the questions and the essay was weird. The third part wrapped back around to something about 'crazy', but I named the idea in that section, because while it didn't shine as much as it could have, if it had, that would have been the third part.


6. (or 3 again) Conflict Anxiety or The (emotional) Stake Haven't Changed?

The stakes of ideas/idea conflict feel the same even if it doesn't involve (as much) violence?

See also Emile Durkheim, and the "suitable level of crime." That is, as behavior gets better, standards increase, so there is always the same amount of "crime" happening; "moral panics" often occurred when the crime rate was unusually low (by previous standards), and so society could now pay attention to a new class of infractions (that previously had merely been annoyances).

The first section prompted me to want to share this piece by David Chapman, "The Court of Values and the Bureau of Boringness", which semi-satirically suggests splitting democracy into two types of vote, of which each citizen must pick one in any given election. One actually makes policy for roads and industry and so on, the other makes claims about some cultural issue. The idea is that this would allow the crazy to not get in the way of getting enough attention on the decisions that are settled enough to be non-controversial but not actually precisely answered. Not likely to work as described, but I've found it inspirational for thinking about how we might be more sane collectively while having pockets of crazy.

Five hundred years ago, Christianity specifically felt free to claim that

Also that they alone could appoint legitimate monarchs; that they could free people from their oaths of loyalty; that they could execute people at whim; that it would be improper for any clergyman to be tried in regular criminal courts; and so on.

I felt this whole section was a false equivalence — it is mixing claims about Christianity specifically, with claims about whoever was in power at a certain point in history.

500 years ago, Christianity was the dominant power.

If the dominant power at that time was society of atheists, they would also take care to retain sole power to:

  • Appoint legitimate monarchs
  • Free people from their oaths of loyalty
  • Execute people at a whim
  • Exonerate members of their clique from being tried in regular criminal courts

500 years ago, if you had power, you kept it and did what you could to retain it! You're talking about the wider category of "group of people in power", rather than "Christianity" (which is an example of a group of people that was in power, but is no longer).

So as beliefs get closer to reality overall, the bar for thinking of something as crazy lowers?

One reason why we might appear to disagree a constant amount could be that we silently agree / don't contend with stuff taht is not relevant for us yet. We only somewhat recently needed to decide whether titles for pirces of moon are valid. We curretnly have agreements that outer space is for all of humanity to explore/enjoy. However the amount of military satellites in earth orbit is unlikely to remain an uncontested friction free consensus. We don't disagree about Mars indenpendence because we don't think about Mars (yet).

And likewise much earlier before there was any issue everybody just walked in a forest that they might have modelled as a 2D plane, everybody was silently implictly using a geocentric flat world model. Then there was a period where geocdentrism vs heliocentrism was a big deal. And now we are unproblematically heliocentric. The pre-heat "agreement" is largely because it was not relevant or the wild differences whethyer somebody though that the world was a egg of a bird or it was turtles all the way down was hamrless as it was just fiction over fireplace storytime.

Two quick observations, one perhaps trivial but perhaps worth mentioning.

Trivial first. How comfortable are you with noting that the Christians of old we're fine claiming the Earth as the center of the observable universe as if it were somehow seriously wrong? My understanding -- and I could be wrong here I'll accept -- is that current empirical observations pretty much supports that view. Seems like no matter which way we look we see as far into the distance universe. That would put us pretty much center of the spherical limits of vision for us. Is rejecting the center view based on clear empirical data or is that a view based on belief in theory? Which would make it a bit of a faith statement.

Not trying to argue we are at the center (I'm not even sure the concept of center of the universe is good), but really asking about just what potential biases and assumption are held related to deciding on "crazy".

With regards to the 50%+1 thought. Seems like that is close to the Median Voter idea that suggests political positions and agenda should be pushed to some centerist positions. I think that is wrong.  I think the parties will try to keep their positions as close to what their ideology requires and then move positions around based on where the marginal gains and losses of votes push them. I'm also assuming that the non-voting population is not some static set of the total population. In that setting the party position should not be expected to only move towards the other party's (or some blended position with multiple parties) position to capture votes. It could just as well move away depending on just what the current population of potential voters is like.

So in a polity like the USA I could easily see that the parties would move to position where, in the extreme, they are talking to completely different groups of people who would never vote for the other party. Here the bit is getting them to vote when they were not voting before. That would produce a bar-bell type graph of position on the left-right spectrum with an increasingly larger gap between the peaks of the curves.

Whether or not that type of outcome is crazy or not, hmmmm. Might be deserving but from the inside of both camps I suspect they think they are all sane and everyone else is mad.

My sense is that there's a big difference between:

"The clear best guess we have is that the Earth is the center of the universe; it makes the most sense with everything we see."

and

"The Earth is definitely the center of the universe, and just in case you weren't sure, also God said so explicitly when he put us here."

...and that the difference lines up closely with what I, at least, am gesturing at when I use the word "crazy."

So in a polity like the USA I could easily see that the parties would move to position where, in the extreme, they are talking to completely different groups of people who would never vote for the other party. Here the bit is getting them to vote when they were not voting before. That would produce a bar-bell type graph of position on the left-right spectrum with an increasingly larger gap between the peaks of the curves.

Makes sense to me as an alternate dynamic that would explain a lot of the same facts.

I think one of the unstated assumptions here is that individual humans remain roughly the same.  I suspect that, by the year 2200, a decent amount of genetic improvements will have occurred—either selection or direct editing that increases intelligence and decreases rates of mental illnesses.  (At the very least, I expect most parents will arrange to not have any children with e.g. genes that are known to cause schizophrenia.)  Then you really will have fewer "crazy" people.  And while I don't expect higher intelligence to eliminate vulnerability to crazy doctrines and the specious arguments supporting them, I do expect it to reduce vulnerability.

Genetics aside, the framing of the post seemed around 'social change' and 'this social thing isn't going away'. Over longer periods of time, I would guess that social change at the level of 'institutions or types of belief' (what the essay tried to point at) does occur, but I haven't seen a lot of models of that, especially looking at the future.

It might have historically taken a long time for 'social change at the level of 'institutions or types of belief'. Or what change did occur is hard to find from records/not well known. (After all, if belief X is widespread now, why would people know when that changed? Or what it replaced - and whether that replaced anything, etc.)

Whether that happens faster now (internet, faster communication over larger differences, different culture) is a question that should probably be asked, not assumed. (Also, old people often live longer, more recently in history. That historical trend probably helps with preservation of knowledge - including implicit stuff. But 'percentage of people that believe something' as a metric may well change when the length of time people live changes. Though 'knowledge'/beliefs* which work against (or for) health might reduce (or increase) that, and that to some extent isn't just a personal thing. If you see a doctor, it isn't just your knowledge and ideas of actions to take which is important. (This is true of both good and bad doctors - which is very important historically.) You could say there (might be) a useful parallel between:

  • knowledge advances as the old people that stubbornly clung to old belief X die out**
  • Your quality of care might improve if you get a new doctor who is more up to date

*and also actions, interventions etc.

**The context of this statement (the source isn't often cited) seems to be academia. Intuitively, people with more knowledge about a subject can contribute more. Roughly, it seems meant to serves as a counter to that 'intuition' - suggesting something like a U-shaped curve perhaps. Not in that the slope towards ability to advance field X has the same slope as a way from it, but that as things change old things taken for granted eventually have to be re-examined and updated. Arguably, someone who keeps updating and stays up to date, wouldn't experience a reduction. (If a field 'advances wrong/into a dead-end', then people who 'didn't update' are ahead.)

Unless I am missing something, you are describing God of the gaps in a lot more words, plus some pop-evo-psych motivation for it.

I think the god of the gaps is only incidental here. I think the phenomenon here is about how we feel about the god of the gods (and similar things), not about the god-gaps itself.

The god of the gods?

ETA: The typo has been fixed and no longer refers to anything.