How alienated should you be?

by Vaniver4 min read14th Jun 20204 comments

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Epistemic status: a post about values, where I’m confident the question is interesting but not confident my answer is correct. Factual statements are intended to be correct summaries, but I won’t be careful about citations. This post was written in January, and edited and published today.

The “correct” level and type of alienation, like a “balanced” posture, is a dynamic function of the individual and environment. Nevertheless, we can say useful things about it, as we can about posture and balance.

We often talk on LessWrong about the importance of human intelligence. Often, we mean individual human intelligence, instead of collective human intelligence, and for many topics the difference is immaterial. But when we talk about alienation, or the separation between the individual and the collective, the distinction is paramount.

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. --Kipling, The Law For Wolves

The evolutionary history of humans is inexorably tied up with their existence in bands. The drive to imitate allows for cultural accumulation, and the drive to teach further accelerated that growth. Language gave structure to thoughts, and more importantly allowed easier transmission. Trade allowed for specialization and fragmentation of knowledge.

We see some evidence that improving collective ability was worth individual costs. Much has been made out of how early farmers had clear signs of malnutrition compared to hunter gatherers, like their shorter skeletons. Note that malnutrition is bad for individual intelligence, and farming benefits collective capability primarily through the increase in population carrying capacity. (It also allows for saving of wealth in a way that means society can be arranged differently, and more reliable trade because people are more stationary, but I think those effects are small for our purposes here.)

To live with an immense and proud composure: always beyond. - To have and not have one's feelings, one's for and against, voluntarily, to condescend to them for hours, to sit on them, as if on a horse, often as if on a donkey: - for one needs to know how to use their stupidity as well as their fire. To preserve one's three hundred foregrounds, as well as one's dark glasses: for there are occasions when no one should be allowed to look into our eyes, even less into our "reasons." And to select for company that mischievous and cheerful vice, courtesy. And to remain master of one's four virtues: courage, insight, sympathy, and loneliness. For solitude is a virtue with us, as a sublime tendency and impulse for cleanliness, which senses how contact between one person and another - "in society" - must inevitably bring impurity with it. Every community somehow, somewhere, sometime makes people - "common." --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil #284

In No Safe Defense, Not Even Science, Eliezer observes many rationalists had an early experience that broke their emotional trust in the sanity of the people around them, and this made it necessary for them to form independent judgment.

Selection on collectives is done on collective, not individual, survival and popularity. This means that the incentives on the collective for the accuracy of individual beliefs and the satisfaction of individual preferences is weak at best. When collective benefit and individual benefit conflict, we should expect significant pressure to be pro-social; that is, put the collective first.

Many advances in rationality come from rejecting epistemically invalid pressures to be pro-social. From the collective’s point of view, belief in the local religion is generally not a question about the supernatural, but instead a question of “are you one of us?”, and the rare loud atheist who took the question literally instead of seriously was correctly seen as “not one of us.” Silly rules are also a more effective test of desire to be a member than sensible rules; even sinners do sensible things.

But, from the individual’s perspective, what an evil trick for society to pull! It, in its bigness, decides that your epistemology should be censored and constrained in an opaque way that is for its benefit. It might claim that it’s for your benefit also, but in a way it will only let you evaluate using the crippled epistemology.

Many advances in social technology seem like they manage this balancing act more delicately. Capitalism is often characterized as trying to harness individual ambition for pro-social ends. Liberal humanist democracy increases the incentive for the collective to take some sorts of individual benefits more seriously, but more importantly gives individuals more of a moral license to be sovereign.

>u ever sit on a train and listen to a good song and sunlight is pouring into the carriage as u pull into the city and u just,…feel an overwhelming awe and love for the human race? like we built this train!!!! we built this city!!!!! billions of hands and millions of ideas and thousands of years and now I’m here!!! sitting on this train!!! listening to music that was written between all the infrastructure and progress just because!!! human beings are clever and loving and creative and that passion moves in all directions and has inevitably lead me here!!! to this train!! going to uni!!! the most mundane thing in the world and it’s so utterly remarkable it makes me feel tiny and also enormous --bactii

Scott Alexander writes that nerds can be bees, too. Often the capacity and desire to belong are there, and just the group to belong to is missing.

So the question at the end is, what should one do with one’s time, and sense of belonging, and sense of alienation? Bryan Caplan recommends building a beautiful bubble. This seems obviously correct in many ways, but I think it fails to grapple with the ways in which one’s values are flexible and socially constructed. It is a different sort of work to ‘do what you think is right’ and ‘figure out what you should think is right.’


I’ve been thinking about this general topic for years, not with this specific name, but this post solidified while I was thinking about effective altruism, youth movements, recruiting for work on existential risk reduction, and Kolmogorov Complicity.

For x-risk reduction, it often is the case that people think someone else has it handled. And in a world that’s often adequate, that’s not a crazy thing to think!

For effective altruism, it seems like the general society’s pro-social pressure is to collude to pretend to not notice the various ways in which the world is on fire, or the child at the center of Omelas. On the one hand, this is one of the main reasons humanity has nice things at all.

Typical of this attitude is the comment that, 'If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we-" followed by whatever project the speaker favors. The fact that we sent a man to the moon is part of the reason why many other things could not be done. --Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

On the other hand, this is how mortality becomes deliberately ignored, despite the obvious individual interest in continuing to live. [And a society that ignores individual mortality through tweaks to epistemics instead of values seems like the sort of society that might end up ignoring collective mortality too!]

But it’s one thing to convince people that society is predatory, or misleading them, or generally worthy of being alien to, and another thing to create a collective that is still able to do good in the world, and worth belonging to.

For example, when I look at my psychology and values, I see both a deep individualism and a deep cosmopolitanism. That is, I want to be able to do my own thing, make my own choices, and generally be weird, and also I respect other people’s ability to do their own thing, and make their own choices, and generally be weird. You can have one without the other! One could be a would-be tyrant, accepting no limit on their own behavior whilst cruelly limiting others, or the formless follower, believing the Other is correct regardless of how it’s shaped and seeking to become whatever will fit in.

Given that those aspects needed to be paired to be good, the challenge of creating a culture, and of convincing others to join it, is more difficult than it might seem.

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