Timothy Chan

705 karmaJoined Aug


A while back I wrote that I agreed with the observation that some of (new wave) EA’s norms seem similar to those of the religion imposed on me and others as children. My current thinking is that there may actually be a link connecting the culture in parts of Protestantism and some of the (progressive) norms EA adopts, along with an atypical origin that probably deserves more scrutiny. The "link" part might be more apparent to people who've noticed a "god-shaped hole" in the West that makes some secular movements resemble certain parts of religions. The "origin" part might be less apparent but it's been discussed by Scott Alexander before. So, this theory isn't all that original.

Essentially: Puritans, as one of four major cultures originating from the UK, exert huge founder effects on America, which both influences parts of itself as well as other countries for better or worse → Protestant culture gradually changed to be more socially judgmental in some ways etc. → More recently, people increasingly reject the existence of a God but keep elements of the culture of that religion → EA now draws heavily from nth generation ex-Protestants/Protestant-adjacents who also tend to be more active in trying to change society (other people's actions) and approach it with some of the same inherited attitudes

That is one causal chain but a tree might show more causes and effects. For example, the Puritan founder effects probably also influenced modern academia (in part, spearheaded by a few institutions in New England) which again, EA heavily draws from. Other secular institutions might also be influenced by osmosis, and produce downstream effects.

It seems difficult to believe these attitudes just disappeared without affecting other movements, culture, and society. The Puritan legacy also seems to have a track record of being quite influential.

I think there's a connection that results from how both theories dissolve the concept of qualia. Eliminativism does this by saying qualia is actually physics and panpsychism (in its most expansive forms) does this by saying all physics has qualia. Both theories effectively make the "suffering" label less exclusive - and more processes would have a higher probability of being correctly associated with that label (unclear whether probability is the right word in the case of eliminativism). With panpsychism, processes are conscious and the only remaining question is whether they also suffer. With eliminativism, the distinction between "what we usually take to be suffering processes" and "other processes" is blurred and we're more permissive of some members of the latter being considered the former, or with a probabilities framing, less certain that some members of the latter is not the former. (Although, I guess alternatively the uncertainty can go the other way and we might be more skeptical of processes being suffering processes. But most people already put zero weight or very little weight on particles suffering so it seems like the uncertainty/blurred distinction should increase it?)

This seems similar to how empty individualism and open individualism are related. They both dissolve the common-sense concept of personal identity featured in closed individualism. Personal identity ceases to be "special": open individualism merges everyone and empty individualism atomizes everyone into individual-moments.

Tomasik also offers an analogy of how the concept of élan vital was dissolved in another article. As I understand it, the concept was eliminated with advances in knowledge of biochemistry. But alternatively people could have also said "actually everything is pretty similar to stuff we consider alive - let's just say everything falls under the term 'alive' then" (while not making any unscientific claims; it just means expanding the definition of "alive" to include everything) and élan vital would be similarly dissolved. The final result seems similar and the concept doesn't distinguish processes from one another in a way previously thought as meaningful.

From the study it looks like participants were given a prompt and asked to "free-list" instead checking boxes so it might be more indicative of what's actually on people's minds.

The immoral behaviors prompt being:

The aim of this study is to learn which actions or behaviors are considered immoral. Please provide a list of actions and behaviors which, in your opinion, are immoral. Please list at least five examples. There are no correct answers, we are just interested in your opinion.

My impression is that the differences between the American and Chinese lists (with the Lithuanian list somewhat in between) appear to be a function of differences in the degree of societal order (i.e., crime rates, free speech), cultural differences (i.e., extent of influence of: Anglo-American progressivism, purity norms of parts of Christianity, traditional cultures, and Confucianism), and demographics (i.e, topics like racism/discrimination that might arise in contexts that are ethnically diverse instead of homogenous).

Oh, I see. Do you know if she is ok with eating lamb/mutton/goat? I suspect there are also grazing effects (that might reduce wild-animal suffering overall) but I don't know whether they are as significant. Maybe @Brian_Tomasik knows?

Beef consumption directly costs less suffering/kg because of the amount of meat provided per cow. It also plausibly reduces wild-animal suffering by taking up land.

Not sure why your question was downvoted.

Brian Tomasik has written a few articles on this, including

Overall, he thinks its unclear but urges erring on the side of caution: 

"This piece surveys reasons why the harvesting of wild fish might reduce as well as increase the suffering of oceanic creatures. The net impact is extremely unclear. (...) That said, I would probably err on the side of not eating fish, especially because wild-catch fishing may increase the amount of fish farming in the future."

Regarding the TCS PhD, is it possible to work on it remotely from London?

Another relevant article on "machine psychology" (interestingly, it's by a co-author of Peter Singer's first AI paper)

You seem to have written against proposing norms in the past. So apologies for my mistake and I'm glad that's not your intention. 

To be clear, I think we should be free to write as we wish. Regardless, it still seems to me that voicing support for an already quite popular position on restricting expression comes with the risk of strengthening associated norms and bringing about the multiple downsides I mentioned.

Among the downsides, yes, the worry that strengthening strong norms dealing with 'offensive' expression can lead to unfair punishments. This is not a baseless fear. There are historical examples of norms on restricting expression leading to unfair punishments; strong religious and political norms have allowed religious inquisitors and political regimes to suppress dissenting voices.

I don't think EA is near the worst forms of it. In my previous comment, I was only pointing to a worrying trend towards that direction. We may (hopefully) never arrive at the destination. But along the way, there are more mild excesses. There have been a few instances where, I believe, the prevailing culture has resulted in disproportionate punishment either directly from the community or indirectly from external entities whose actions were, in part, enabled by the community's behavior. I probably won't discuss this too publicly but if necessary we can continue elsewhere.

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