Max Tegmark’s list of ASI futures

via @danielfagella

Quote max tegmark asi futurism

Frank Ramsey on the view from somewhere

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.

Quote frank ramsey impartiality

A Christmas message from Walter Benjamin

Humanity’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

via Curtis.

Quote walter benjamin

Tyler Cowen on Malthus

Whether or not you obsess over the particulars of overpopulation, Malthus’s theory is more broadly one of human pressures on the environment, and the lack of suitable equilibrating mechanisms at anything other than extremely high human costs.

The simplest version of Malthus is an account of how the world runs when all essential factors do not grow at the same rate, and in particular those growth rates diverge in a roughly consistent and sustained manner. At some point one of those factors becomes too scarce and the system crashes, leading to a plunge in living standards and possibly a population crash as well. In this sense Malthus is presenting a general rather than a special case, as it would seem that roughly equal rates of growth for the essential factors is the unusual setting, not the default setting.


For Malthus it could be said that the idea of equilibrium triumphs over that of progress.


It is also striking that Malthus was a major influence upon both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and their path breaking theories of evolution varying, and groups of people popping in and out of existence, helped them both formulate their theories of natural selection. Malthus thus helped to drive the very existence of modern evolutionary biology.


Quote thomas malthus tyler cowen economics futurism

Mill on Bentham and Coleridge

Tyler Cowen recommends Mill’s essays on Bentham and Coleridge as among the best essays ever written, a great introduction to Mill’s thought, and the most sophisticated perspective on a form of neo-Benthamism today, namely the effective altruism as a movement”.

I found the key ideas familiar (partly because Tyler is constantly recommending them), but I was glad to read them from the man himself.

According to Mill, Bentham’s chief contribution was to exemplify and spread the idea that we should demand detailed, systematic reasoning in political philosophy. The principle of utility was not original to Bentham, but his attempt to systematically apply it to evaluate existing institutions, and to generate proposals for reform, was singular. Bentham’s strength was not in his conclusions, but his approach:

The questioning spirit, the disposition to demand the why of everything, that had gained so much ground and was producing such important consequences in these times was due to Bentham more than to any other source. […] In this age and this country, Bentham has been the great questioner of things established.


He was not a great philosopher, but was a great reformer in philosophy. He brought into philosophy something it greatly needed, for lack of which it was at a stand-still. It was not his doctrines that did this, but his way of arriving at them.

Getting back to politics: Mill takes a dim view of Bentham’s actual assessments and proposals. He sees Bentham as unusually narrow in thought and sensibility, and remarkably uninterested in the philosophy and political thought of others (he failed in deriving light from other minds”). One of Bentham’s biggest mistakes, according to Mill:

Man is never recognised by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end, of desiring for its own sake the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from any source but his own inward consciousness.


He only faintly recognises, as a fact in human nature, the pursuit of any other ideal goal for its own sake: • the sense of honour and personal dignity—that feeling of personal exaltation and degradation that acts independently of other people’s opinion or even in defiance of it; • the love of beauty, the passion of the artist; • the love of order, of congruity, of consistency in all things, and conformity to their end; • the love of power, not in the limited form of power over other human beings, but abstract power, the power of making our volitions effective; • the love of action, the thirst for movement and activity, a force with almost as much influence in human life as its opposite, the love of ease.


Man, that most complex being, is a very simple one in Bentham’s eyes.

My Hansonian side raises an eyebrow: was Bentham more right than Mill on this point?1

The it’s mostly signalling” model is compatible with the claim that people do, in fact, have motives like those Mill lists above; it does not make them unreal, or factors we can ignore in our political philosophy. And at the normative level, there’s nothing to stop us cultivating and doubling down on our dispositions to pursue excellence, even while recognising that those dispositions are rooted in status competition. We can choose to see the motives we have as noble, even if we think the forces that shaped them are not. But—Bentham would ask—how, exactly, can we justify this choice? Why not some other motives?

Conservatives have an easier time here than progressives, because they are willing to reject the question. Elsewhere, Mill tries to justify claims about higher pleasures” with mostly teleological arguments. These would not satisfy Bentham—teleological arguments appeal to contingent facts about the kind of beings we happen to be, which would strike Bentham as too unprincipled, too contingent, too lacking in selflessness. The pursuit of higher pleasures” which shapes Mill’s progressive ambitions is, ultimately, based on a conservative commitment to a local ideal of high culture and human excellence.

In Mill’s reading, Coleridge agrees with Bentham that political philosophers must employ careful reasoning to justify their positions, and laments the tendency of conservatives to overlook this. By contrast, he thinks that progressives tend to overestimate their powers of reason and understanding, and should recognise that the conservative inclination to trust tradition over explicit reasoning has merit. Reformers should be recognise that existing traditions have merits that they do not understand, having been exposed to selection pressures that we can think of as a form of historical and collective reason. Reformers should also recognise, of course, that the reforms they propose will have consequences they cannot foresee.

So—one of the most fundamental disagreement between conservatives and progressives is about how to weigh tradition (historical reason) against explicit reason.

So—yay to Bentham’s demand for careful, systematic reasoning in philosophy, but boo to those who forget that, often, tradition is smarter than you are.

There’s another narrowness to Bentham’s method: reason is about what we have in common. The demand of reason is both an opportunity and a threat, and Coleridge, Mill and the German Romantics all want to resist this demand at some margins.

There’s a lot more in both essays, but I’m out of time. I’ll close with one of Mill’s opening remarks:

Theoretical philosophy, which to superficial people appears so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth that most influences them, and in the long run outweighs every other influence except the ones it must itself obey.

I agree—with emphasis on the last seven words.

  1. The big insight of evolutionary theory is that very simple algorithms can generate very complex systems. It’s impressive that Bentham saw this possibility, decades before Darwin.↩︎

Writing philosophy epistemology political philosophy conservatism metaphilosophy john stuart mill jeremy bentham samuel taylor coleridge

Joseph Heath on Kantian evolutionary naturalism (rationality, pragmatism and deontic constraints)

One way to approach the puzzle of deontic constraint is to ask whether rational action necessarily has a consequentialist structure, or whether it can incorporate nonconsequential considerations.


Unfortunately, many theorists (philosophers and social scientists) have been misled into believing that the technical apparatus of rational choice theory, introduced in order to handle the complications of probabilistic reasoning, is also one that prohibits the introduction of nonconsequential considerations into the agent’s practical deliberations. In other words, it is sometimes thought that decision theorists are necessarily committed to consequentialism, or that consequentialism is simply the expression of Bayesian reasoning, when applied to practical affairs. Deontic constraint, or rule-following behavior, according to this view, is either not mathematically tractable, or else violates some elementary canon of logical consistency.

There is absolutely no reason that a rational choice theorist cannot incorporate deontic constraints—or any other type of rule-following behavior—into a formal model of rational action as utility-maximization (although, in so doing, it would perhaps be prudent to shift away from the vocabulary of utility-maximization toward that of value-maximization, given the close connection in many people’s minds between utility theory and consequentialism). The commitment to consequentialism on the part of many rational choice theorists is the result of a straightforward oversight that arose in the transition from decision theory (which deals with rational choice in nonsocial contexts) to game theory (which deals with social interaction). Early decision theorists adopted a consequentialist vocabulary, but did so in a way that made consequentialism trivially true, and thus theoretically innocuous.

Since I am inclined to put rules on the preference” rather than the belief” side of the preference-belief distinction, what really needs to be shown is that the preference through which an agent’s commitment to a rule is expressed may also be rational. In order to do so, it is necessary to challenge the prevailing noncognitivism about preferences, or the view that desires are somewhat less susceptible to rational reevaluation than beliefs.


My goal is to take what I consider to be some of the best thinking done in the past couple of decades in epistemology and philosophy of language, and show how it fits” with some of the most important work being done in evolutionary theory, in order to reveal the deep internal connection between rationality and rule-following. One of the major forces aiding and abetting the noncognitive conception of preference, for well over three centuries, has been a commitment to representationalism in the philosophy of mind (i.e., the view that representation” constitutes a central explanatory concept when it comes to understanding the contentfulness of our mental states).

The alternative strategy, which has recently been developed with considerable sophistication by pragmatist theorists like Robert Brandom, is to start with a set of concepts that are tailor-made for the explanation of human action, and then extend these to explain belief and representation. This is based on the plausible intuition that human action in the world is more fundamental than human thought about the world.


This analysis serves as the basis for my defense of what I call the transcendental necessity of morality.”

Reading the philosophical literature, it has come to my attention that Kantian evolutionary naturalism” is not a particularly well-represented position in the debates over the foundations of human morality. This is a deficiency I hope to remedy. The basic Kantian claim, with respect to moral motivation, is that there is an internal connection between following the rules of morality and being a rational agent.


I would like to defend the rationality of deontic constraints at the level of action, but am not committed to defending deontology” as a theory of justification.


There is also an inclination among moral philosophers to draw a sharp distinction between moral” and what are called conventional” obligations, such as rules of etiquette, or social norms” more generally. I reject this distinction, not because I think morality is conventional, but rather because I follow Emile Durkheim in thinking that all social norms (or conventions” in this way of speaking) have an implicitly moral dimension.

Quote rationality pragmatism evolution joseph heath