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One way of explaining inconsistencies in human belief and behaviour is to model us as having multiple minds which rarely interact directly. Each set of views and pattern of thinking are brought to the fore by different kinds of questions and different ways of framing these questions. Here is a detailed post on the idea of near-far bias. Because I refer to near-far bias so often, I thought it was worth creating a post with a simple picture to refer to showing the traits which prime either way of thinking. It is from Robin Hanson’s new presentation We Don’t Donate to the Future: Do We Care.
All the recent talk about nuclear disarmament reminded me of a paper by Tom Schelling. As described by Dan Cole:
“In the Fall 2009 issue of Daedalus, Tom Schelling explains cogently why a world without nuclear weapons would not necessarily be safer world. After all, we cannot dis-invent nuclear weapons, which means that the possibility of rearming will remain; and existing nuclear powers can be expected to have rapid rearmament plans in place, should conflicts arise, to ensure that they are not left exposed should their adversaries rearm. The first to rearm might, after all, have an incentive to undertake a preemptive nuclear strike in the absence of deterrence. Thus, ironically, complete nuclear disarmament could increase the risk of nuclear war.
Schelling’s article is a direct and persuasive response to a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, by what Schelling terms the “unexpected combination” of Henry Kissinger, William J. Perry, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn, who advocate for complete nuclear disarmament (see, e.g., here and here).
Schelling’s 2005 Nobel Prize lecture focused on the fortuitous but seemingly durable “taboo” that has surrounded the use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lecture can be read here, or viewed here.”
This seems an obvious point that someone who has spent their life working on nuclear strategy should be well aware of. My standard explanation for conspicuous oversights like this is that noticing and talking about them makes the speaker look like a cynic, while ignoring the problem and advocating total nuclear disarmament makes them seem nice and idealistic. However, Schelling’s point makes him seem analytical and intelligent. Why would a bunch of generals and international relations gurus want to come across as nice rather than smart?
Alternatively the proponents of nuclear disarmament, even those who understand game theory, might be stuck in fuzzy far mode (primed here by: “self-control; ends; over-confident; theory/trend-following typical unlikely unreal global events; abstract, schematic, context-free, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic ideal moral concerns“) and so prevented from thinking about the situation concretely and strategically.
Is Schelling on to something? If so, why does this problem go ignored?
Added: Maybe there is no first strike advantage for big nations.
Food for thought from Let Their People Come (page 79):
Smart people are more likely to develop and hold new and unusual beliefs:
More intelligent people are significantly more likely to exhibit social values and religious and political preferences that are novel to the human species in evolutionary history. Specifically, liberalism and atheism, and for men (but not women), preference for sexual exclusivity correlate with higher intelligence, a new study finds. The study, published in the March 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, advances a new theory to explain why people form particular preferences and values. The theory suggests that more intelligent people are more likely than less intelligent people to adopt evolutionarily novel preferences and values, but intelligence does not correlate with preferences and values that are old enough to have been shaped by evolution over millions of years.
“General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”
Intelligent people are more likely to be able to think of their own solutions to any problem and so it is natural and adaptive for them to put more faith in their own judgement over inherited rules and habits. This reminded me of Jon Haidt’s research on our evolved ethical instincts which found liberals were more likely to prioritise harm/care and fairness/justice as moral principles while conservatives valued those two as well as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity equally. Loyalty, authority and sanctity evolved as rules which would ensure the smooth functioning of a society and the welfare of individuals within it. Liberals are usually less interested in using such rules to ensure the coherence of groups, but why? Looking at Satoshi’s evidence, it’s possible that because they are more likely to think up and embrace novel solutions to problems, they are more willing to expand the generalisable principles of care and justice to ensure social stability and cooperation, perhaps through a more expansive welfare system. Having gone through such a thought process they have less need for whatever specific rules and intuitions we evolved to ensure social stability in the ancestral environment.
Intelligent men embracing sexual exclusivity is probably a weak example of smart sincere syndrome. In near mode, men want sex and lots of it with lots of people. Just notice the Coolidge effect. In far mode though we value exclusive love. Intelligent men are more likely to suppress their near desire for sex and generalise their far value for exclusive love. Were there a long run in human evolution this impractical value would eventually disappear, as intelligent men are more attractive and have more to gain from embracing polygamy.
David Pearce endorses reprogramming nature to reduce wild animal suffering:
“A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of human well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionate global ecosystem. Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice whether intelligent moral agents opt to create such a world – or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.
Conversely, members of “prey” species can be bio-engineered to lose their currently well-justified terror of predators. Again, this re-engineering sounds technically daunting. Yet recall how rodents infected with the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii lose their normal fears and actually seek out cat urine-marked areas. Pharmacology, neuroelectrodes and genetic technologies all offer possible solutions to the molecular pathology of fear when its persistence becomes functionally redundant. In the long run, the same kinds of hedonic enrichment, intelligence-amplification and life-extension technologies available to humans later this century can be extended across the phylogenetic tree.
The technical details of such a program are of course challenging, to say the least. Nature has few food chains in the strict sense; complex food webs abound.”
I agree with David that we should worry about the suffering of animals in the wild as much as the suffering of anyone else. David is doing a great service by raising such an ignored issue. However, I think it is exceedingly unlikely that humans or their descendants will ever decide to reengineer nature along these lines.
It would be a hugely expensive engineering project which would mostly benefit animals we do not have much concern for. Humans as we are currently programmed have compassion for specific animals in order to show how empathetic and loyal we are (especially animals which look like human children) and occasionally develop more consistent compassion for animals in general as a way of showing how nice and intelligent we are or to show we identify as members of a specific group (utilitarians, liberals, consistent people).
Our general disregard is shown by the fact that most humans are comfortable torturing animals far away from themselves, merely to make their products especially cheap to eat. We don’t have to worry about looking bad eating factory farmed meat because (i) most people do it so we won’t stick out (ii) are not friends with farm animals, unlike pets, and so don’t need to show we are loyal people by caring for them (iii) we almost never see them, so paying for them to be tortured doesn’t make us look unempathetic (iv) most people are do not reflect on their core values in detail and so don’t notice when they are hypocrites (consistency isn’t a trait much valued by others anyway).
If we care so little for the welfare of animals under our direct control, it is hard to believe we will ever care so much for animals far away that we will dedicate vast resources to reengineering the world’s ecosystem.
Noticing this, we might be optimistic that future humans will reprogram themselves to using either biotechnology or computers if we exist as emulations. Transhumans could choose to become more compassionate or loyal (which is really just extra compassion for people close to us) in order to better succeed in society. More loyalty would work against far away animals, while more raw compassion would work in their favour. Some compassion is useful for helping us to avoid a bad reputation in society, but too much is bad for us because it causes us to sacrifice ourselves for others or at least feel bad about their suffering. Because of this downside, it is unlikely that future humans will choose more empathy than is needed to prevent us breaking the laws and norms of society. If running as emulations makes our character traits more transparent then we will need compassion for animals even less – we mostly use our attitude towards animals as a signal of other traits. Either way, wild animals are unlikely to get much love from future ‘transhumans’ unless we can find no way to make ourselves more desirable to interact with without inadvertently also increasing our compassion for those animals. If we start by increasing our intelligence alone, it is likely that animals will get more compassion because intelligent people worry more about consistency. I expect intelligent people would run themselves in circles trying to consistently implement all of their conflicting values and so would also want to program themselves to become more self serving, but that’s harder to predict.
There is another path to ending animal suffering in nature which is much more likely to predict. We are on track to destroy nature and turn its resources over to beings like humans and their descendants who have the skills needed to create a lot of wealth and buy whatever they need to be happy.
Robin Hanson confident predicts humans will absorb and destroy nature once they work out how to produce for themselves the resources what they currently derive from nature:
“With familiar competitive habits, this growth rate change implies falling wages for intelligent labor, canceling nature’s recent high-wage reprieve. So if we continue to use all the nature our abilities allow, abilities growing much faster than nature’s abilities to resist us, within ten thousand years at most (and more likely a few centuries) we’ll use pretty much all of nature, with only farms, pets and (economically) small parks remaining. If we keep growing competitively, nature is doomed.
Of course for we’ll still need some functioning ecosystems to support farming a while longer, until we learn how to make food without farms, or bodies using simpler fuels. Hopefully we’ll assimilate most innovations worth digging out of nature, and deep underground single cell life will probably last the longest. But these may be cold comfort to most nature lovers.”
If our descendants ever do get rich enough that reengineering nature is a cheap project they would want to pursue, they will probably already have destroyed most wilderness in the process.
Given the vast suffering that exists in nature, and the fact that our descendants will probably be able to reengineer themselves to be happy even on very low incomes and even replicate the joy they experience when in nature, maybe we shouldn’t be as sad to see it go as most would be today. I would, of course, rather see thriving, happy herbivorous animals in the wilderness. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like the realistic alternative.
There are moral reasons we might think this isn’t the case. Many, if not most people, think that nature has intrinsic value – this would have to be weighed against the suffering in nature. Deontologists may believe that potential future wild animals have a right to exist that we would violate by shrinking the wilderness. There are also practical uncertainties, such as the risk that we will shrink the wilderness while we still need it, and inadvertently destroy ourselves in the process. The quality of life of animals in nature is also uncertain, both because we don’t understand animals’ experiences, and because we don’t know how those translate to sensations. Despite regular risks of hunger and predation, it may nevertheless be the case that wild animals have a good quality of life.
Evaluating these arguments is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I would love to see more debate about them.
Robin Hanson explains idealistic outliers:
“Humans are built to be hypocritical, i.e., to give lip service and soft thought to high ideals, while mostly acting to achieve low practical personal ends. We manage this disconnect both by being stupid, and so not noticing our hypocrisy, and by being insincere, and so caring less when we notice.
Now human characteristics vary quite a bit, and so some folks are both unusually smart and unusually conscientious about their ideals. More than most people, these folks notice their hypocrisy, and try to avoid it. And since far ideals tend toward incoherence and impracticality, this has led smart sincere folks to invent a wide range of “ideologies” to substitute for their jumbled intuitions, with matching actions that range far from the norm.
But the more recent invention of near-mode-based math/logical style analysis, applicable to far abstract problems, has made it easier for humans to notice and avoid inconsistencies. So today, the smart sincere syndrome especially afflicts many folks with high math ability.
Now a modest dose of smart sincerity, limited by time, topic or temperament, is a good sign, as it indicates the positive qualities of intelligence and conscientiousness, qualities most any organization can put to good use. So everyone wants to seem ideological to some degree. And even a large dose of smart sincerity, if bundled with complements such as beauty, stamina, or charisma, can bring success as a “movement” or spiritual leader. But without such complements, an overdose of smart sincerity tends toward evolutionary failure, typically achieving less success relative to ability.”
Islamic terrorists fit the pattern:
“…three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.
Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.
Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children. Those who were not married were usually too young to be married.”