(a journey in epistemic helplessness)
[Content note: throwback to my first two posts, published this month last year. On politics but I don’t know enough politics to make a “political” post per se. A few issues listed in tags.]
First, a “meta” note. I’m pleased that I got some substantial ideas down in writing here last year, however imperfectly, but I feel that I went very slightly astray of what I originally envisioned for this blog. Therefore, I’ve made a resolution to steer my writing in a direction away from posts on mostly-impersonal abstract rationality concepts and towards posts on more concrete and personal issues.
The primary purpose for me in writing essays for this blog has always boiled down to something akin to self-therapy, as I tried to make clear from the start. I think I succeeded in this at the beginning, but eventually my focus got slightly bogged down elsewhere. I don’t regret focusing on the ideas I tried to express here last year, since it felt necessary to give myself a framework to explain why I think in the way that I do. However, I’m beginning to wince at how many of my previous essays read like long-winded cerebral wanderings through subtle abstract questions with so much talk of “rationalism this” and “rationalist community that”. It was never my intention to sketch out a dingy addendum to Yudkowsky’s Sequences.
It should be understood that my “rationalisty” essays aren’t meant to be persuasive in the sense of arguing that my approach to certain questions is objectively the best one; they’re instead meant to describe the way my mind works. What I’ve ultimately wanted to do all along is jot down in writing the feelings and perceptions that guide my current approach to getting through my life both socially and on a more epistemic level (much of which, clearly, is tied in with rationalism). And of course, I should feel free to go through with this kind of jotting-down even if I’m afraid what I have to say comprises ideas that are poorly defined, obviously incomplete, or even very likely invalid. That way, I can more easily analyze my own beliefs, and with any luck, a few other people with whom these questions resonate with can analyze them as well.
Eventually I want to lay out some content that is way more personal. (I feel like my writing flows more easily and less effortfully when I get a little more personal and less lofty anyway, but we’ll see.) There are issues that I feel uneasy talking about that I already find myself putting off even though I’ve laid out most of the necessary framework (hopefully stating this intention now will help me to eventually follow through on it). The evolution won’t be sudden or drastic — for instance, there’s definitely one more essay of the long-winded, cerebral, “rationalisty” type that I want to write here — but as I said, I’m starting to consciously push in the direction of personal stories and rants… And that begins with this entry, a throwback to the essay I wrote a year ago on the evolution of my attitudes through different periods of my life. (And I’m not going to quit explicitly tying everything into rationalism just yet.)
Before I get started, I have to make it clear that this is a far cry from what anyone could call a “political article”. This blog could never be a political blog, because, to put it bluntly, I’m somewhat of a political ignoramus relative to the writers who run such blogs, or even compared to many people of similar intelligence to me but no formal expertise in public policy. I would love to understand more about macroeconomics, environmental policy, our electoral system, world history and events, and many other things, and I believe I have the intellectual capacity to do so (especially the more mathematical areas among these). Yet somehow I’ve never managed to muster the necessary focus. Clearly I’m interested in politics as a whole and many political issues (as evidenced by frequent references on this blog), but this is apparently an interest versus Interest thing. I am, on the other hand, quite engaged with gaining an intuition for a lot on the main characters on the political stage and their personalities as well as the broad mentalities guiding the supporters of particular policies or entire parties. This is not ideal but so far has been my best guide to understanding concrete issues and feeling sure of which sides of them to fight for. So my journey is not one of direct understanding but of groping around trying to understand the convictions of others and why they feel as they do.
I. My apolitical beginnings
As most readers have probably figured out by now, I grew up in America. I also grew up in a fairly liberal household, politically speaking. I remember my first explanation of the difference between America’s two major parties being, “It’s all very complicated, but the Democrats often try to make poor people richer, while the Republicans often try to make rich people richer.” As I got older, I asked more questions and learned that the Republicans favored tax cuts for the wealthy and tended to favor fewer restrictions on pollution by big businesses despite what scientific evidence was telling us, while Democrats stood up for things like a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body and increased funding for education and the arts.
At that fairly young age, my skeptical thinking skills had not yet caught up to my innate “believe sufficiently developed-sounding narratives put in front of me” tendency that I’ve alluded to before. So it’s no surprise that I didn’t subject my initial Democratic sympathies to much critical thinking.
(Warning: if you’re expecting a gripping saga detailing how I swung from this spot on the political spectrum to authoritarian populism, then the alt-right, finally stopping to rest at anarcho-communism or something like that, then you’re in for a disappointment. Spoiler alert: I’m still mostly sympathetic to the Left.)
The first time there was a political story I really followed was the election of 2000. At the time I couldn’t really understand how a system which allowed someone to win the popular vote but lose the election could possibly be justified, and the whole thing seemed like a ridiculous mess. Then the September 11th attacks happened, which finally triggered a habit of following the news regularly. I remember feeling some sense of loyalty to our then-fairly-new Republican president in the immediate aftermath, which eventually eroded as he for some reason pushed us into Iraq (I didn’t like war, and it seemed that he rushed us into it without obtaining an appropriate amount of evidence, but of course my views were still being colored by those closest to me who were pretty anti-Bush).
Then in high school I began to examine the political climate in America much more closely and critically. In last year’s post “My Evolving View of Rationalism”, I expressed a belief that most people first form their personal worldviews in high school. This includes position on the political spectrum (not based on what one is told by parents, etc. but deeply-held beliefs arising from honest questioning). I remember one defining moment in American History class when I felt this happening to me. We were watching some video about I-don’t-remember-what, and (I think) a very wealthy CEO was asked whether he considered himself greedy. He denied it, explaining that he had created thousands of jobs and claiming that he had done more to help the world than Mother Theresa. I was stunned, not because the man was obviously kind of a jerk (I was expecting that anyway), but because it properly occurred to me for the first time that putting more money towards big businesses might actually help the poor in some way. Prior to that, I had never made a genuine effort to examine why so many people were in favor of tax cuts for the rich or for big businesses. I guess I’d been leaning on the assumption that fiscal conservatives were either rich themselves or uneducated (never mind the fact that the most conservative guy I knew growing up was on reduced lunches and had a parent in academia).
It was at around the same time that I began to actually care a lot about religion and why people believed in it in contrast to my earlier religion-is-silly-and-boring stance, as I’ve described elsewhere. And I put two and two together and realized that religion was playing a major role in politics, and that in fact the stronger sort of religion that I was especially philosophically opposed to was being embraced by the Republican party. (Another even more significant defining moment I remember that history class is arguing with my mildly conservative teacher over same-sex marriage, when it really hit me that religious belief could lead to moral values that I couldn’t relate to at all and that these could be used to decide moral policy.) So at around the same time I was realizing that there were other sides to the whole fiscal policy debate, my support for social liberalism was beginning to solidify. But I remained for the time being not especially outspoken overall when it came to politics.
And then, we entered another presidential election season.
II. How America could have done better in 2004
By 2004, I had cemented myself into a certain political mould, as had many of my high school peers. Mid-to-late-adolescence, after all, is a period of radical beliefs for many. I was surrounded by radical Marxists, radical libertarians, radical Christian conservatives, radical anti-Zionists… so what type of radical was I? Well, by now my budding rationalist sensibilities had instilled in me a distrust of any political ideology that claimed extreme answers to all problems, so I was determined to stay as far away as possible from the periphery of the space of political positions and maintain an openly critical attitude of everyone’s positions. Of course, what I didn’t have the maturity to see then was that I was being at least as blindly ideological as anyone else — in fact I was essentially masquerading as a radical Centrist. I still knew that I held a number of partisan positions deep down, but bent over backwards trying not to acknowledge them (some of this was out of a healthy concern that I might be biased towards my parents’ beliefs. And once again, this was paralleled by how I chose to present my religious views. I identified as agnostic, which I often defended as the most moderate, open-minded view. But in retrospect, I was a rather militant agnostic — granted, I still am somewhat — and my attempts to dole out equal criticism to theistic religion and to straight-up atheism were pretty silly.)
And so I was no fan of George W. Bush, but when John Kerry first emerged as Democratic frontrunner, I was determined to conclude that he was probably almost as bad, despite having heard very little of what he had to say. Then they debated, and my attitude towards him, and the whole electoral contest for that matter, changed completely.
I should back up for a moment and explain one aspect of philosophy that I was very passionate about at the time. I had become a great follower of what one might pejoratively call “scientism“. In other words, I valued the scientific method very highly and regarded a general version of it as the best means to reaching empirical truth. This was the very cornerstone of my philosophical worldview and my brand of rationalism at the time. I think what spoke to me particularly emphatically was the idea of keeping one’s mind open to all possibilities and then putting them through very rigorous testing — what Carl Sagan called “a marriage of skepticism and wonder” — which required the ability to recognize and admit one’s own mistakes. It implied a system of self-correction which I considered to be a very beautiful concept.
I had made the connection that the American constitution was an embodiment of a similar concept (very revolutionary for its time): an system of laws which evolved through acceptance of new ideas, testing them by running them past the people; and accordant self-correction. Of course this was only an ideal and the American government didn’t quite work this way in practice. But the way I saw it, America was founded upon this principle, the same great principle that governed scientific research, the same concept that separated open-minded rationality from blind dogmatism. During those years many people were arguing over what it meant to love one’s country in the midst of a war that many of its citizens didn’t support. I knew where I stood: I loved America regardless of the decisions its politicians made, because its abstract defining ideals formed the very foundation of my creed. And nothing was more un-American than defending whatever America did on a principle of “my country, right or wrong”.
The final weeks of the 2004 campaign season, and particularly the presidential debates, reshaped my ideas of where each major side of the current political spectrum stood with respect to my most deeply-held epistemic conviction. On the Democratic side, we had a candidate who spoke in a nuanced way (never mind that I didn’t understand the things he was talking about half the time, what mattered to me was that he sounded oh so nuanced!), but who was routinely criticized for being a “flip-flopper”, which sounded an awful lot to me like a disparaging term for “being able to see two sides of an issue”. On the Republican side, we had a candidate who seemed to gain appeal by stating everything in as simplistic a way as possible, whose definition of “strong leader” revolved around not questioning the course we were on, and whose overriding concern in the face of criticism was apparently “not sending mixed messages to our troops”. As someone who wasn’t exactly terribly knowledgeable about many of the object-level issues being discussed, it seemed to me like the debates were really a contest between a philosophy of questioning for the purpose of self correction and a philosophy of maintaining strong convictions for the sake of having strong convictions.
There was a particular moment in the second debate which encapsulated this for me, in which Senator Kerry was explaining why he voted against some pro-life-based laws not because he disagreed with the general stances motivating them but because they lacked certain provisions which he thought were necessary. He ended by saying, “It’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.” President Bush’s response says it all:
It’s pretty simple when they say, “Are you for a ban on partial birth abortion? Yes or no?” And he was given a chance to vote. And he voted no. And that’s just the way it is, that’s the vote. It came right up, it’s clear for everybody to see. And as I said, you can run but you can’t hide. It’s the reality.
This is why any account of my personal journey towards today’s flavor of online rationalism is incomplete without discussing how I was shaped by the 2004 election.
When the results of the contest came in, I was bitterly disappointed along with many others. But I felt like one of the only ones who was disappointed not only because Bush won, but because Kerry, who had felt to me like a voice of genuine reason, lost. And after that, I guess I sort of made peace with the fact that I felt unable to hold terribly strong or specific convictions on many political issues that weren’t social. I had a firm feeling about what mattered the most: I was in favor of politicians who operated on open-mindedness, skepticism, and above all, humility and the ability to self-correct. And the Democratic party seemed to take stances that better encapsulated that attitude and to house more politicians who had that quality.
For the record, I’ve since grown less naïve about Kerry: while I still believe that he was generally sincere and held consistent beliefs, it’s clear to me that he was shrewd about pandering to different groups of people. However, I hold that Bush, his administration, and the election of 2004 marked the pinnacle of blatant anti-intellectualism in the US during my lifetime. (Obviously we’ve just started down a new path and I’m not sure what I’ll be calling this trend in another 12 years, but as Trumpism doesn’t seem to have much of a direct relationship to intellectualism, or intelligence, or any form of coherent thought for that matter, it’s hard for me to brand it as “anti-intellectualism”.)
III. A collection of my (non-)convictions
I guess the update I’ll start with is to say that I no longer see the Left or the Democratic party as a paragon of rationalistic ideology in today’s American political scene. In fact, I’m constantly frustrated by the extent to which left-wing rhetoric seems to be based on unreasoned emotions and aversion to self-correction. To fully explain this point of view would require another, much longer post, but if you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you’re not far away (in some measure of internet-distance) from blogs which delve into the flaws of today’s liberal discourse all the time.
I still feel woefully un-savvy about political goings-on and all sides of complex issues, but I do follow a particular set of heuristics which lead me to certain (still fairly left-wing) political leanings. Below is my attempt to summarize a few of them.
First off, I knew I eventually had to link to my post on free will / determinism, with my contention that leaning towards free-will explanations versus deterministic ones corresponds in a rough way to conservative versus liberal attitudes. I suppose it’s important to mention here that my instinct from the moment I was first exposed to the free will debate was towards determinism; this feels related to my tendencies both towards “scientism” and towards empathy. I soon realized that the sort of determinism I favored was compatibilism, which doesn’t really contradict anybody’s concrete everyday intuition about either free will or determinism. And yet, in concrete, everyday situations, I do feel like I lean more towards deterministic interpretations of behavior than the average person does. This has led me to the left-wing view on many things.
Meanwhile, I have also always been somewhat of a utilitarian by instinct and have trouble interpreting ethical dilemmas using any other language. Therefore, I take issue on a fundamental philosophical level with axiomatic-looking notions like “fairness”, “desert”, and “natural rights”, even while they are useful terms on a practical level.
I therefore strongly believe that punishment should only be used for the purpose of deterrence, not retribution. When I was younger, I favored the death penalty for reasons of practicality; since then I’ve turned against it mainly because it seems barbaric, in practice not as humane as it should be in theory, prone to error, and rooted in a desire for retribution. I am in principal willing for certain drugs to be “illegal” in some sense of the term because it’s easy to demonstrate that they do great harm, but I’m completely opposed to harsh prison sentences for drug offenders as this seems absolutely counterproductive to minimizing harm. I’ve grown quite cynical about the prison system in general and would much prefer some form of mandatory rehabilitation for certain types of “crimes”.
Foreign affairs is my area of greatest ignorance (I’m truly an instance of the American stereotype of knowing a lot about my own country but little about what’s going on in the rest of the world — even recently moving abroad has not improved this much), but I have some heuristic convictions nonetheless. I believe that the US should strive to do as much good as possible for the world (and “the world” includes America), but that we are far better able to judge and manage and micromanage what goes on within our own borders than what happens in societies far away with very foreign cultures and political situations. It follows that interfering in conflicts taking place within other countries holds the risk of creating an even bigger mess and possible permanent occupation situation and should be approached with great caution even when there are potential major benefits to global well-being. Probably the best type of scenario for the US to get involved in is one where there is some united oppressed group far away without the necessary resources to overthrow their oppressors. I’m not on principle against the US throwing its considerable strength towards solving what we conscientiously consider to be great atrocities abroad. But I don’t like the idea of America acting as the world’s police force simply because of our great military power, for the same reason that I dislike unfettered monarchy or dictatorship (what happens when the well-intentioned party with overwhelming power is wrong?)
I’m inclined to oppose any ruthless and inhumane actions partaken in the context of war or for reasons of “keeping America safe”, even though dispassionate utilitarianism does compel me to concede in theory that despicable actions towards a few which seem guaranteed to prevent the deaths of many may be justified. Conveniently, however, harsh measures such as torture have apparently been shown to not be particularly effective. Moreover, it is of extreme importance to consider how the rest of the world may react to ruthless practices on the part of the American military and how this may serve to further escalate conflict rather than make the world safer. (In general, emphasis on Theory of Mind and considering how one’s actions will affect other parties’ perceptions is a big part of what guides me both in political attitudes and elsewhere.)
I still hold the process of and institution of science in highest regard when it comes to determining empirical facts, and therefore assume by default the truth of what the scientific community says regarding issues like evolution and climate change (although I’ve become a little cynical about social sciences as of late).
I continue to vehemently reject social attitudes based on conservative religious convictions such as opposition to same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or euthanasia. However, one “meta” level up, I don’t have a problem with the fact that some politicians are trying to legislate based on their religious convictions: everyone ought to base their stances on personal moral convictions, and these are based on religious belief for many individuals. As long as politicians aren’t trying to justify their religiously motivated proposals with claims like “America is a Christian nation”, I don’t consider their proposals to violate the First Amendment or “separation of Church and State”.
In the arena of fiscal policy, I’m still looking to maximize well-being for the greatest number of people. It’s clear to me that this doesn’t scale linearly with wealth, and so at least on naïve principle I’m in favor of creaming a bit off the top of the highest incomes to give to the poor or to programs which benefit the poor. However, in the actual world it’s very plausible to me that policies which aim to bring this about may weaken the economy so that everyone is worse off. My lack of expertise in macroeconomics is hurting me here: I’m not sure to what extent pumping money into the working and lower-middle class (who are likely to spend it all) would benefit the economy versus to what extent this is accomplished through benefits for big businesses. My inclination for the time being is to make sure that all full-time workers make enough to live on practically (exactly how much is a nontrivial question, of course), although the alternative idea of a universal basic income interests me very much. While I can see the attraction to libertarianism as an abstract theory and could even see myself taking libertarian stances on many issues, I utterly reject two of the arguments I most often hear for it: “poor people would become richer if they just worked harder” and its neighboring attitudes (see my deterministic inclinations above); and “Taxation is theft!” and similar statements which seem to assume some primal notion of ownership rather than regarding it as an abstract phenomenon contingent an existing State.
There are many more hotly-debated areas of policy on which I have at least some tentative opinion, but these were the main ones I thought to put down in writing at this moment. Some of them could of course change tomorrow.
Oh, and yes, our mechanisms for self-correction are still of utmost importance in my eyes. This of course is encoded in our First Amendment protecting free speech, and although I believe that both the Left and the Right have invoked it inappropriately at times, I take very seriously any genuine offense to the spirit of it. Let’s move towards a norm of listening to each other and compromise or when necessary going with majority opinion in order to work together in an effort to make progress with our policies… but always with the open-minded awareness that we could be wrong.