Who are you?

Frequency: Approximately 708,000,000 Google results by 2020-08-02. The interest is currently highest in the Philippines (among countries where English queries are likely to be used) according to Google Trends.

I’m a bit fuzzy on this one. It seems broadly defensible to identify with the continuous stream of person moments that is experienced by a particular biological body. A major advantage of doing so is that it’s probably the default assumption that others are going to make when it comes to guessing what you might mean by “I.” Thus it aids in communication.

But I find it somewhat unsatisfying. An exact copy of mine would, for some time, react identically to the same stimuli. This seems like a clear case where I am implemented in two bodies. The same goes for digitized bodies of mine, or at least I’m rather confident in physicalism so that I think that they can be treated the same. (Some friends of mine might disagree about the specifics.)

After a little while, these two bodies will diverge because of the different experiences they have. (I’ve conducted an experiment to get a bit of a quantitative idea of how much I’ve diverged from my version of 2015.) But it still seems like a stretch to me not to identify with that version of me.

Likewise, if the universe is infinite (or just sufficiently large) in some temporal, spatial, or other direction, if there is infinite matter, and if it’s not distributed regularly, there are many exact and near copies of me just like my past and future mes. If these didn’t want to identify with me, in the sense of this physical body, then our interests may clash a bit here. But as it stands, I take my readiness to identify with them as evidence that they’re fine with my identifying with them.

But the fuzziness doesn’t end there. Brian Tomasik has addressed the question of what constitutes the same algorithm. It’s tricky. I suppose nature wasn’t built with such concepts as identity, algorithm, or computation in mind, so when we try to impose them onto reality, the abstraction remains leaky.

All in all, I’m left with the intuition that there likely is some sort of notion of similarity, be it one that is imposed, hard to measure, and often undefined. That would imply that I’m more some systems than others. But it probably doesn’t put any hard limits on who I am unless you introduce an arbitrary threshold. So I can’t even exclude that I’m everyone, just to vastly different degrees.

So apologies if this is a bit of an unsatisfying answer to a seemingly mundane question. I’ll update this entry when I learn more.

What is the purpose of life?

Frequency: Approximately 124,000,000 Google results by 2020-08-02. Much fewer than for “Who are you?” But then again it’s also a longer question, so fewer people have enough time to ask all of it. The interest is currently highest in India (among countries where English queries are likely to be used) according to Google Trends.

I figured I would make it about minimizing suffering. Not selecting any purpose for myself made me feel lost, and I didn’t like that. But your mileage may vary. It’s not like I’m a normative authority on the issue.

Some children seem to have this phase where they ask “Why?,” listen to your answer, and then follow it up with “Why?” I’ve certainly had this phase, lasting all my life up to now, but being introverted I just asked myself. At some point you arrive at something terminal, something ipso facto, like minimizing suffering or maximizing well-being because that’s what reinforcement learners are all about.

I don’t mean “minimizing suffering” in any exclusive sense. If you want to focus on improving your spelling, you don’t start writing just “tapir tapir tapir tapir tapir” to no end because it’s the one word that you’re most confident you’re spelling correctly. Rather minimizing suffering is something that I feel strongly about, which is motivating, and is shared among many value systems so that there are many uncontroversial ways to achieve it. That makes it attractive as a purpose. It may even be the case that the best way to minimize suffering is to do wildly unrelated things if evidential cooperation in large worlds works out. Others who are in an even better position to reduce suffering will then “reciprocate” (though potentially nonreciprocatorily) by reducing even more suffering.

Finally, the reason I say “minimize” rather than “reduce suffering” is that we may be in the sad position of only being able to, say, slow the increase of suffering or slow the acceleration of the increase of suffering. I feel like the m-term gets that across better than the r-term. But in either case, I suppose most people will know what is meant.

Are you nice?

Frequency: Approximately 1,210,000 Google results by 2020-08-02. The interest is currently highest in South Africa (among countries where English queries are likely to be used) according to Google Trends.

(Well, that’s a bit awkward to answer oneself, but maybe it’s less awkward after acknowledging its awkwardness.)

Hopefully, because I’m trying! I’ve also fallen short of my own expectations before, but I hope I’ve learned and won’t make the same mistakes twice.

The reason is that I imagine the natural state as one where every individual (in the physical body over time sense) fends for the survival of themselves and their offspring (if they’re a K-strategist, otherwise it’s even worse). You live a short life at subsistence level. Just rummaging, hunting, and fighting nonstop or predation and starvation put an early end to you. Meanwhile disease and the cold may still kill you any day. I might be able to climb to safety from some predators, but not from others, and I can’t escape viruses and the cold that way. So all in all, my life in nature would be stressful, painful, and brutal. At least it would be short.

As it happens, I was born into a species in a country at a time where that’s not the case. The only explanation that I can think of for why it’s not the case is civilization.

Over the millenia, moral circles emanated outward from each of us, rippling like ripples, pulsing like a pulse. Care and trust were central to them. Going outward, trust became more guarded and care more conditional, but it took a few more ripples before it faded entirely. Over time, the circles became wider and wider. And that reduced transaction costs.

Imagine you want to buy a product online:

  1. It costs a couple dollars, comes in the mail the next day, and if it’s the wrong size, you return it, otherwise you pay the bill that’s attached.
  2. Or it costs a fortune. You wait for a few weeks until the seller’s brother has time to fly to your neck of the woods. He arrives together with his bodyguard, who has one hand on her gun while you try on the product. You find that it fits. You take it off again, careful not to pull out the tubes. The bodyguard waits a few meters away with the product while you pay the brother. The brother meticulously checks the genuineness of the bills, then makes a sign to the bodyguard. Both take off quickly and you run over to your product so it won’t get stolen.

If the store trusts with sufficiently high probability that you’ll pay, it can afford to implement the first procedure, which is much more efficient as it’s faster, cheaper, and doesn’t require special, unusually trusted staff like a brother. That also makes it more robust as business doesn’t break down when the brother gets sick.

There’s even this pretty decent correlation between trust and GDP, but I suppose there the causation likely runs both ways.

So my take-away has been that whenever we behave less nicely than our cooperation partners would’ve expected us to, there’s a risk that they’ll notice and update downward on how nicely they can expect someone like you (not just you) to act. That gradually erodes trust and increases anomie. It doesn’t always backfire, but the expected backfiring is nonzero. In the limit, it destroys civilizations.

There’s not just one civilization but many nested quasi-civilizations: families, relationships, friend groups, companies, communities, countries, etc. If they are small or young, or if you’re in a powerful position in them, the risk of destroying them is high. If the opposite is the case, the risk is lower.

Conversely, whenever someone asks more nicely than their cooperation partner would’ve expected them too, and the cooperation partner doesn’t exploit or free-ride on that niceness, you have a chance to improve civilization or your part of it. This is a bit risky, too, in that you open yourself up to exploitation and the other may overgeneralize from the experience and may be exploited by someone else later. But whenever one can afford to, it seems superior to me to err slightly in the direction of greater niceness than warranted than less niceness than warranted.

It may also be that you have to trade off great gains (say, suffering reduction) against niceness or even niceness against niceness, say, if you can only be nice to one of two parties who consider each other enemies. Here I warn of four dangers: (1) underestimating the value of civilization for you and your goal; (2) underestimating your expected negative influence especially on small civilizations like communities, companies, and relationships; (3) falling prey to a false dilemma, because usually there is a third alternative better than either of the first two; (4) not taking into account what evidence this gives you of the behavior of those others who think similarly to you but may have opposite goals from you.

So that’s why I want to be nice.

Finally, note that there are at least two different kinds of niceness, so depending on which one comes naturally to you, you need to take special care when interacting with those who are used to the other kind.

Can I ask you something?

Frequency: Approximately 1,440,000 Google results by 2020-08-02. The interest is currently highest in Pakistan (among countries where English queries are likely to be used) according to Google Trends.

Sure. I’m a bit annoyed with the usual process:

  1. Try to think of an excuse why you’re contacting the person.
  2. Try to think of social padding to cushion the question.
  3. “Can you imagine smells?”

Stage 1 kills off a felt 99% of contact attempts, stage 2 is time consuming, and so a lot of interesting questions don’t get asked.

Maybe the world would be an ever so slightly better place if more people had an entry in their FAQs to license padding-less questions. This is mine. The same goes for non-question statements, e.g., “I can’t imagine smells.”


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