I’m an eccentric existentialist philosopher and education mindset user, specializing in applied metacognition. I’ve devoted most of my waking time to studying and addressing problems of the mind, influenced in large part by the aspiring rationality movement.
Right now I am determined to prove that Earth can do better than the status quo, that there is a way to unlock the vast collective human potential that is currently stuck in ignorance and pointless conflict.
Over the past decade or so, I've compiled a toolbox of foundational concepts to help people express in the simplest possible terms what matters most, so they can understand each others' values and frame situations constructively. Thus empowered with a starting point for effective collaboration, we can build a world we can all be proud of.
Extradimensional Cephalopod a.k.a. ExCeph, a.k.a. XF, a.k.a. “a handsome, brooding Cthulhu” (website: https://wordpress.com/view/ginnungagapfoundation.wordpress.com)
I ended up writing a satirical poem about politicians exaggerating and perpetuating divisions in order to profit from conflict. What do you think? https://ginnungagapfoundation.wordpress.com/2022/12/11/your-party-is-not-your-friend-or-the-new-library-and-the-old-baseball-diamond/
P.S. Granted, the poem doesn't describe the process by which people are inspired to negotiate with each other and actually solve their problem. In real life I expect that process can be made easier by... having people read the poem. We'll see if the satire is effective.
That's a fair point. I should elaborate on the concept of stagnation, to avoid giving people the wrong impression about it.
Stagnation is the fundamental liability defined by predictable limitations on people's motivations.
Like the other liabilities, stagnation is also an intrinsic aspect of conscious existence as we know it. Predictable motivations are what allow us to have identity, as individuals and as groups. Identity and stagnation are two sides of the same coin--stagnation is just what we call it when it interferes with what we otherwise want.
Our identities should not become prisons, not only because that prevents us from dealing with other liabilities but also because part of being conscious is not knowing everything about ourselves. Choice is another aspect of consciousness, the flip side of conflict, defined by what we don't already know about our motivations. Part of our existence is not always being able to predict which goal will triumph over other goals, either within a person or between different people.
In short, it seems to me that we should make sure we never lose the ability to surprise ourselves. When we know everything about what we will want in the future, then we lose an important part of what makes us conscious beings. Does that make more sense?
I appreciate your questions and will do my best to clarify.
The values from the section you quoted pertain to civilization as a whole. You are correct that individual motivations/desires/ambitions require other concepts to describe them (see below). I apologize for not making that clear. The "universal values" are instrumental values in a sense, because they describe a civilization in which individuals are more able to pursue their own personal motivations (the terminal values, more or less) without getting stuck.
In other words, the "universal values of civilization" just mean the opposites of the fundamental liabilities. We could put a rationalist taboo on the "values" and simply say, "all civilizations want scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict to not obstruct people's goals." They just lose sight of that big-picture vision when they layer a bunch of lower-level instrumental values on top of it. (And to be fair, those layers of values are usually more concrete and immediately practical than "make the liabilities stop interfering with what we want". It's just that losing sight of the big picture prevents humanity from making serious efforts to solve big-picture problems.)
The concepts describing the individual motivations are enumerated in this comment, which for brevity's sake I will link rather than copying: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/BLddiDeE6e9ePJEEu/the-village-and-the-river-monsters-or-less-fighting-more?commentId=T7SF6wboFdKBeuoZz. (As a heads up, my use of the word "values" lumps different classes of concept together (motivations, opposites of liabilities, tradeoffs, and constructive principles). I apologize if that lumping makes things unclear; I can clarify if need be.
Valuing being treated with dignity would typically go under the motivation of idealization, while valuing social status over others could fall under idealization, acquisition, or control. (It's possible for different people to want the same thing for different reasons. Knowing their motivations helps us predict what other things they will probably also want.)
As for what we can do when people have different priorities, I attempted to explain that in the part describing ethics, and included an example (the neighbors and the trombone). Was there some aspect of that explanation that was unclear or otherwise unsatisfactory? It might be necessary for me to clarify that even though my example was on the level of individuals, the principles of ethics also pertain to conflict on the policy level. I chose an individual example because I wanted to illustrate pure ethics, and most policy conflicts involve other liabilities, which I predicted would confuse people. Does that make more sense?
(Your utopia isn't here because it's only easy in hindsight.)
Ah, that's where the anti-zombie shibboleths come in handy. People who are afraid of zombies "know" that zombies can't understand the values of regular, living people. (The zombies being a metaphor for a distorted view of one's ideological opponents.)
All I have to do is describe why being alive is good and being a zombie is bad, and that proves I'm not a zombie. That calms people down, to the point where we can explore some possible advantages of zombiehood and disadvantages of having vital function, and what we can do about that without losing what we value about breathing, having a heartbeat, et cetera.
Any expert on conflict resolution can tell you that one of the first things to do is to paraphrase and validate someone's concerns. I can tell you that if you dig deep enough existentially into someone's values, there's usually something to understand, and even agree with on some level, even if you don't agree with the methods they use to pursue those values.
As for the politicians spreading panic, they aren't literally standing around screaming at people all the time. There is plenty of opportunity to help people feel safe enough to think. The main problem that I occasionally run into is when a person just gets into a loop of regurgitating information, like they're a one-person echo chamber. Those people tend to be on the older side, and I don't think they're prevalent enough or capable enough to try and shut down intelligent discussion.
Does that all make sense?
That's a valid way to look at it. I used to use three axes for them: increase versus decrease, experience versus influence, and average versus variance (or "quantity versus quality").
I typically just go with the eight desires described above, which I call "motivations". It's partially for thematic reasons, but also to emphasize that they are not mutually exclusive, even within the same context.
It is perfectly possible to be both boldness-responsive and control-responsive: seeking to accomplish unprecedented things and expecting to achieve them without interference or difficulty. That's simultaneously breaking and imposing limits through one's influence.
Likewise, it's possible to be both acquisition-responsive and relaxation-responsive: seeking power over a larger dominion without wanting to constantly work to maintain that power.
They're not scalars, either--curiosity about one topic does not always carry over to other topics. There's a lot of nuance in motivation, but having concepts that form a basis for motivation-space helps.
These motivations are not goals in and of themselves, but they help us describe what sorts of goals people are likely to adopt. You could call them meta-goals. It's a vocabulary for talking about what people care about and what they want out of life. I suppose it's part of the basis for my understanding of Fun Theory.
What do you think?
That's where the deconstruction method comes in:
The first step is most important. You don't have to start by convincing someone there are no zombies. You just have to show them that you're not going to let any zombies get them. Sometimes that means making small concessions by agreeing to contingencies against hypothetical zombies.
You can tell someone that there's nothing in the dark basement, but to get them to make it five feet in to the light switch, sometimes it's most effective to just hand them a crowbar for defense.
People need to feel safe before they can think. I consider this technique an Asymmetric Weapon version of empathy mindset: making people feel safe helps them feel comfortable suspending their assumptions and reevaluating them.
How does that sound?
I count eight fundamental desires, but they can take countless forms based on context. For example, celebration might lead one person to seek out a certain type of food, while leading another person to regularly go jogging. It's the same motivation, but manifesting for two different stimuli.
Here are the eight fundamental desires:
The four fundamental liabilities can impede us from fulfilling our desires, so people often respond by developing instrumental values, which make it easier to fulfill desires. Some of these values are tradeoffs, but others are more constructive. Values inform a society's public policy.
Identical desires would not automatically lead to harmony if people want the same thing and start fighting over it. Identical values might help, if it means people support the same policies for society.
Using ethics to reconcile conflict is not a trivial set of goals, but it makes it much more possible for people to establish mutual trust and cooperation even if they can't all get everything they want. By working together, they will likely find they can get something just as satisfactory as what they originally had in mind. That's a society that people can feel good about living in.
Does that all make sense?
As you say, the ability to coordinate large-scale action by decree requires a high place in a hierarchy. With the internet, though, it doesn't take authority just to spread an idea, as long it's one that people find valuable or otherwise really like. I'm not sure why adjacency has to be "proper"; I'm just talking about social networks, where people can be part of multiple groups and transmit ideas and opinions between them.
Regarding value divergence: Yes, there is conflict because of how people prioritize desires and values differently. However, it would be a huge step forward to get people to see that it is merely their priorities that are different, rather than their fundamental desires and values. It would be a further huge step forward for them to realize that if they work together and let go of some highly specific expectations of how those desires and values are to be fulfilled (which they will at least sometimes be willing to do), they can accomplish enormous mutual benefit. This approach is not going to be perfect, but it will be much better than what we have now because it will keep things moving forward instead of getting stuck.
Your suggestions are indeed ways to make the world a better place. They're just not quite fast enough or high-impact enough for my standards. Being unimpressed with human philosophy, I figured that there could easily be some good answers that humans hadn't found because they were too wrapped up in the ones they already had. Therefore, I decided to seek something faster and more effective, and over the years I've found some very useful approaches.
When I say a field is "low-hanging fruit", it's because I think that there are clear principles that humans can apply to make large improvements in that field, and that the only reason they haven't done so is they are too confused and distracted (for various reasons) to see the simplicity of those principles underneath all the miscellaneous gimmicks and complex literature.
The approach I took was to construct a vocabulary of foundational building-block concepts, so that people can keep a focus on the critical aspects of a problem and, to borrow from Einstein, make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.
There's tremendous untapped potential in human society as a whole, and the reason it is untapped is because humans don't know how to communicate with each other about what matters. All they need is a vocabulary for describing goals, the problems they face in reaching those goals, and the skills they need to overcome those problems. I'm not knowledgeable enough or skilled enough to solve all of humanity's problems--but humanity is, once individual humans can work together effectively. My plan is simply to enable them to do that.
I understand that most people assume it's not possible because they've never seen it done and are used to writing off humans (individually and collectively) as hopeless. Perhaps I should dig through the World Optimization topics to see if there's anyone in this community who recognizes the potential of facilitating communication.
In any case, I appreciate your engagement on this topic, and I'm glad you enjoyed the story enough to comment. If you do decide to explore new options for communication, I'll be around.
Not all human politics is low-hanging fruit, to be sure. I was thinking of issues like the economy, healthcare, education, and the environment. It seems like there are some obvious win-win improvements we can make in those contexts if we just shift the discussion in a constructive direction. We can show people there are more ideas for solutions than just the ones they've been arguing about.
It is true that the process shown in this story is not sufficient to dismantle religion. Such an undertaking requires a constructive meta-culture with which to replace religion. As it happens, I've got a basis for one of those now, but humans will have to fill in the specifics to suit their own needs and styles. (A constructive meta-culture must address the fundamental liabilities of scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict using the four constructive principles of investment, preparation, transcension, and ethics. How it does that depends on the physical and social context and on the choices of the society.)
The trick to effective communication is to start out by identifying what people care about. This step is easy enough with a toolbox of basic concepts for describing value. The next step is to find the early adopters, the first ones who are willing to listen. They can influence the people ideologically adjacent to them, who can influence the people adjacent to them, et cetera.
By contrast, if we don't reach out to people and try to communicate with them, there are limitations on how much society can improve, especially if you are averse to conquest.
For this reason, I conclude that facilitating communication about values and solutions seems to be the single best use of my time. Whatever low-hanging fruit exists in other fields, it will all run into a limiting factor based on human stagnation and conflict. I don't know if you have an extraordinary effort, but this one is mine. I make it so that the effort doesn't have to be nearly so extraordinary for other people.
So far as I can tell, the tools I've accumulated for this endeavor appear to be helping the people around me a great deal. The more I learn about connecting with people across different paradigms, the easier it gets. It starts with expressing as simply as possible what matters most. It turns out there is a finite number of concepts that describe what people care about.
There's a lot more I've been up to than what you see here; I just haven't spent much time posting on LessWrong because most people here don't seem to consider it important or feasible to introduce other people to new paradigms for solving problems.
Is there another approach to making the world a better place without changing how humans think, that I'm unaware of?
I agree that high-rung thinkers would benefit from putting forth a more collaborative and organized effort to resolve the golem problem, and not limiting themselves to the individual habit-building that Tim refers to in the Answers section of the Changing Course chapter.
There are ways that Idea Labs can reclaim territory that has been ceded to the Power Games–ways to dissolve golems. To bring down a golem, it is not necessary to seek power over policy or institution. Instead of a top-down approach, I prefer to start by deconstructing a golem's narrative.
The deconstruction method starts with a values conversation: establishing understanding of what people actually want, rather than trying to establish a shared picture of the status quo. After identifying the values at stake for people and demonstrating understanding of and respect for those values, the next step is exploring the effects of people’s current methods. This is where people start to see how they might be harming others, and even themselves. The last step is to present alternative approaches for accomplishing their goals, ones they can recognize as preferable. It’s up to them to decide what to do with what they now understand.
Deconstruction takes skill and practice to use reliably, but for quick reference I abbreviate the process as follows:
The deconstruction approach is unlikely to persuade the entire population of the golem. However, it can persuade enough people that the golem crumbles away as the people within it see the effectiveness of high-rung thinking at solving their problems.
The genie doesn’t have to defeat the golem by beating it at the Power Games. The genie can defeat the golem on the memetic level, by understanding the non-toxic values motivating the people in the golem, and addressing those values constructively, better than the golem itself can. In other words, the genie can show people it knows what they want and can deliver.
To make it faster and easier to identify people’s values, I’ve boiled down people’s motivations and the obstacles they face into some keywords. Expressing what matters most as simply as possible has the added benefit of preventing people from latching onto particular methods of accomplishing their goals. It allows people to recognize satisfactory solutions even if those solutions differ from what the people originally had in mind.
Helping people get on the same page about the criteria for a solution is an essential first step towards building more effective genies, which is my area of specialty.
For more of the tools that a genie would use to do the work of democracy and thereby outcompete golems, here is one of my more recent articles on the subject: https://ginnungagapfoundation.wordpress.com/2022/11/06/democracy-is-in-danger-but-not-for-the-reasons-you-think/.
Thanks for starting this conversation!