Creativity, Literature, and Compression

But first, a joke:

I was at a bar last weekend, chatting with this woman. She was decent looking. There was a lull in the conversation, so I say to her, “Hey, I’ve got this talent. I can tell when a woman was born after feeling her breasts.” She doesn’t believe me at first, but after a minute or so, she comes around. “Go on, then,” she says to me. I feel her up a bit before she gets impatient. “Well, when I was born?” she asks. So I tell her — “Yesterday.”

Dissecting and killing the joke

What’s funny about that joke? The surprise. First, there’s the set up. It’s titillating, and listeners start anticipating: this is going somewhere. And then — punchline! Outta nowhere, or at least that’s what it feels like. Cue laughter. This shock, this violation of expectation, is what comedy’s all about.

Here’s another one: “I’m not a member of any organized religion. I’m a Jew.” If the sentence had instead been, “I’m not a member of any organized religion. I’m an atheist,” there would be nothing at all funny about it. George Carlin’s, “If you can’t beat them, arrange to have them beaten,” follows the same pattern.

Brains are sort of anticipation engines and, when you violate those expectations, well, that’s comedy. It’s the difference between something original and something not. If Carlin had said, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I wouldn’t be talking about him. It’s boring, cliched. It’s not creative.

Creativity is about violating expectations.

Anticipation is compression

Anticipation and prediction are the same thing. When I drop a ball, I anticipate and predict that it will fall to the ground.

Now, let us imagine a program that can take in a few facts about you and then predict with certainty what it is that you’re going to say. In such a case, the machine wouldn’t need to remember anything about you except those few facts. If it needs to know your opinion on something in the future, it can take those facts, run them through its internal predictor, and regenerate your opinions.

You, as a human, sort of already do this. For instance, if I tell you how I lean politically, you might not need to know my stance on anything — you might be able to anticipate it. So instead of storing, “The author’s opinion on Serious Political Topic X,” in long term memory, you could just remember, “The author is a Blue.”

This difference between remembering everything and remembering just a few details is compression. It follows, then, that when you can predict something, you can compress it.

Given then, that:

  1. Creativity is about violating expectations.
  2. That which can be expected can be compressed.

I would expect that creative things are less compressible than non-creative things. Do creative books compress less than non-creative ones?

That’s what I want to find out.


The idea, then, is to take works that are creative and non-creative, compress both, and observe whether the non-creative books are more compressible. Given the theory fleshed out above, I expect the non-creative works to be more compressible.

Sorting books into creative and non-creative buckets is, by its nature, a subjective task. I attempted to grab from the most obviously creative and non-creative works. In practice, this tended to blur the line between non-creative and boring. The most mind-numbing works, I figure, are the least creative.

Creative works:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
  • Through the Looking Glass
  • Flatland
  • Beyond Good and Evil
  • Emerson, First Essays
  • A few other popular novels on Project Gutenberg.

Non-creative works:

  • The Berne Convention
  • RFC 4880
  • IRS Publication 557: Tax exempt status for your organization
  • ITunes User Agreement
  • Patent 8,322,614, “System for processing financial transactions in a self-service library terminal”
  • The Affordable Care Act

I took each of these works, ran them through the xz compressor — the strongest general purpose compressor in wide circulation, as far as I know — and then compared the “compressibility” (ratio of uncompressed to compressed data) of the two classes of files. The comparison was done with R.

Analysis and Results

Before anything else, I plotted the compressibility of the data using a dotplot, and colored each by work as creative or not. The results are visually striking:


You will notice that the works fall into two distinct clusters. Creative works (black) are less compressible than non-creative works (red), which is what I would suspect given that my hypothesis is true.

My statistics-fu is weak, but I think the Student’s t-test is the right tool for the job here. This calculates the p-value that the two groups are different, which comes out to 0.00001488 or, if the computer could speak, “I’m near certain that the non-creative group is more compressible than the creative group.” (That level of certainty is almost certainly inappropriate, though. In a trial of 10,000 analyses like these, I screw up more than one of them.)


Let’s dig in a little deeper to the creative works:

This is sorted from most compressible to least, implying that Jekyll and Hyde is the most creative novel of those tested, while Godel, Escher, Bach is the least. I find this unlikely.

Indeed, if I plug in Moby Dick, I get a ratio of .3353, or less compressible than Alice in Wonderland, Breakfast of Champions, and others. Now, I’ve read Moby Dick and it’s a terrible, boring affair. I much prefer Godel, Escher, Bach or Alice in Wonderland. And internet reviewers largely do, too.

So it seems that compressibility can classify novels from technical works, but it’s not — at least using xz — possible to separate very creative works from just creative works.


So, the theory predicted that non-creative works would be more compressible than creative ones, and that panned out. This is far from confirmation of the model, but it’s still evidence, and I’m pretty confident that the average novel is less compressible than the average piece of technical work.

It would be much more impressive if this could distinguish more specific degrees of creativity. If I compared some of the novels produced by first time authors (or bad fan-fiction) to those on the Modern Library’s top picks and it found that the Modern Library picks were more creative, well, that’d be neat. (Maybe I will try this out in a future post.) We can imagine such a technique becoming more and more powerful — to the point where it can distinguish between the relative merit of different works by the same author.

The limiting factor here, of course, is the power (or intelligence) of the compression technology. The compression algorithms that we all use are not that complicated. I can feed them sensory input and they won’t compress it down to the laws of physics. Instead, they’re relatively crude-but-effective attempts at deduplication, which means that they’re an imperfect measuring sticks for how creative something seems to a human.

For instance, if I feed a compressor a cliche or a clever play on that cliche, the compressor doesn’t have the intellectual context necessary to ding the cliche. If I could, instead, train an algorithm on a huge corpus of English text, of the sort that Google possesses, I’d be able to better construct a compressor that’d evaluate originality.

Even then, there are theoretical limits on this. I could feed a compressor random input, which cannot be compressed, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything of interest to humans. And we can wonder: how much can word alone, surface level characteristics of text, be representative of creativity? At some point, a sufficiently intelligent compressor must understand the content, too.

In that final sense, humans are the ultimate compressors — at least for now.

Further Reading

Love Is Not A Choice And Other Tools For Thinking

I’m not much of a romantic. If I wanted to hack romance I’d start with going through all the literature on the mate preferences of chimpanzees, bonobos, and great apes generally. Only after I’d taken in the unfiltered humans-are-big-monkeys view would I turn to something with a more human emphasis. It’d be a few months before I started, you know, dating.

When I do listen to other people speak about passionate love — mostly internet people — it’s surreal. Things like, “Love is always a choice.” What, I wonder, are these people on about? The emotion I would describe as passionate love is not this tame, controlled thing. If love were a mode of transportation, it’d be more like surfing in a hurricane than a leisurely bike ride.

Some Thinking Machinery

Love-as-drug is a cliche. If I told you, with a serious face, that love is like being on drugs and you responded by vomiting all over me, well, I would deserve it. But hang on. Imagine if love were literally a drug — a pill you could take.

Say Pfizer releases a new product tomorrow, Passionil, shaped like a heart, no less. The drug, when consumed, results in the consumer imprinting on and falling in violent love with the next person that they maintain eye contact with. It lasts three to six months. Would you take such a drug?

We can turn all sorts of knobs on this machinery. Maybe the drug comes in different forms: fast-acting, short release, standard release, and extended release. The fast-acting love might last a night, the short release a couple of weeks, and the extended release for a year. Would you take any of these drugs?

What if these drugs prove so popular that Pfizer creates an ever-increasing variety of them: a light edition which provides a gentle buzz — a weak infatuation — the standard strength, and an extra strength version for those who really want to lose their minds.

But maybe the drug frame is too suggestive. We can exchange drugs for a type of tropical island fruit. Maybe it can be brewed like coffee, some cups stronger than other. That sounds more natural and maybe a little more palatable.

All of these scenarios center around something — a drug — fruit — that can be controlled, but love is often not something we intend. We can liken falling in love to catching a cold, or being bit by a love mosquito. How do those scenarios make you feel about love?

What if you think about love as evolution’s way of screaming, “have children, have children!” — not so much the product of our own free will, and more the demands of an alien god. The other side of that coin: falling out of love is evolution’s way of telling you to try your chances with a different mate. Real romantic.

There are still more knobs — reciprocal and unrequited love. We can imagine that the pills don’t last a set amount of time, but instead have a one percent chance of ending each day. If you take the drug with another person, you’re running the risk that one of you will fall out of love much sooner than the other. This would not matter if you could just take another pill, so we can imagine side-effects. Maybe the pill zonks out for a while after use.

Intuition Pumps

What we’ve just done is built what Daniel Dennet calls an intuition pump — or at least gathered the parts for one. These are thought experiments that aid the intuition in grappling with a problem or phenomena. In Dennet’s case, he builds them to deal with the consciousness problem. We built a few to deal with love.

The fun thing about building intuition pumps is that you definitely can try this at home. It’s not too hard to get started. The easiest knob, and one of the most useful, is the more or less knob. Should we have more love or less love? Stronger love or weaker love? And so on.

Try it out. Build some of your own.

What Makes Something Interesting?

Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and maybe best known for his work on intelligence, was a bit obsessed with the idea that people have certain innate traits. You know the movie Minority Report, where a special police department tries to predict crime before it happens? He sorta tried to invent it — in 1883.

He had this idea, see, that you could predict whether or not someone was a criminal based on the structure of their face. He devised a technique of composite photography, which allowed him to create averages of many images. While he didn’t manage to identify criminals, he did find that the average of several faces tended to be more attractive than any of the individual faces he used as input.

More than 100 years later, it turns out Galton was on to something — regarding both crime and attractiveness. Men with wider faces are more aggressive hockey players, less trustworthy in laboratory games, engage in more aggressive behavior, and are more successful CEOs. Computer averages of faces are more attractive than the people used as inputs, and this result holds not only for faces, but for averages of cars, fish, and birds. A wide face is a dangerous face and an average fish is an attractive fish, it seems.

The Beautiful is the Compressible


We can think of human beings as agents who take in information from the environment, run that information through a compressor module, and then store that information in long-term memory. This is not rocket science. Our brains can’t hold all of the information in the world. We forget. We are forced to compress experience down to a few relevant details and store those. Indeed, a fair amount of evidence now supports the hypothesis that memories are reconstructed during recall. Each time you remember something, you’re modifying that memory. The brain is not a high-fidelity recorder.

In our man-as-compressor model, what sets the beautiful, averaged face apart from a typical face? It’s easier to compress. Consider all the information the brain has to store about a hideous face: a giant nose, a lazy eye, a unibrow, scars, maybe a teardrop tattoo. When the brain encounters a beautiful face, though, the compressor says something like, “Ah, a face so face-like that I need not spend any more processing time on it. I can relax.”

This idea is taken to its logical extension in low-complexity art. The aim of low-complexity art is to create images that can be described by a short computer program — a measure of complexity known as Kolmogorov complexity. The picture at the beginning of this section is an example of this style of art.

The Interesting is the Unexpected

Consider two facts:

When I speak to people, they find the second fact a lot more interesting than the first. This is, I think, because it violates their model of the world. They think of evolution as pushing us toward ever increasing complexity, but this is not true. Consider venereal sarcoma, which is today an infectious cancer, but used to be a dog.

This notion of surprise, the violation of expectation, is at the core of interestingness. If you already know something, if you anticipated it, it’s boring. The first time you hear a joke, it’s funny. The second time, not so much.

But not all unexpected data is interesting. If I published random sequences of numbers instead of words on this blog, well, no one would read it, and I wouldn’t blame them. What separates the interesting from the uninteresting?

If we consider our man-as-compressor model, interesting facts are those that improve the future performance of the compressor. Here’s an example: marriages are more likely to dissolve during periods of unemployment, but this only holds for unemployed husbands. For someone unaware of this fact, it improves their compressor — in this case, predicting when a couple will get divorced. (If you can predict something, you can compress it. They’re the same construct.) Depending on the person, this fact might further propagate through their compressor, updating beliefs about human mate preferences.

Indeed, a discovery is “just” a large improvement in the compressor. Consider Darwin’s theory of evolution. It connects and explains a huge amount of the phenomena around us. Where did humans come from? Why do fats taste good? Why do whales have organs similar to those of humans — and not fish? Talk about a compression upgrade.

We can even tie this into curiosity. After all, what is curiosity if not the pursuit of one’s interests? Given that what is interesting are those things that upgrade our model of the world, curiosity can be thought of as a drive to improve the compressor — a drive to improve our understanding of how things work.

Creativity, too, can be understood through the compressor model. Creativity is the consistent violation of other people’s expectations. Consider this poem:

Roses are red,
And ready for plucking,
You’re sixteen,
And ready for high school.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Notice how it violates the expectations of the compressor? That’s creativity.

All together, then:

  • Humans can be thought of as agents who take in information from the environment, run it through a compressor, and store the result in long-term memory.
  • Something is beautiful insofar as it can be compressed. Example: an average of faces is more beautiful than any individual face.
  • How interesting something is depends on how much it improves the performance of the compressor. When a fact violates expectations and improves one’s model of the world, that’s interesting. It improves the compressor.
  • Curiosity is the pursuit of the interesting — action designed to improve the compressor.
  • Creativity is the consistent violation of the expectations of the compressor.

Further Reading

Why Replication Is Important

Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.
—Carl Rogers

Here’s why replication is important.

We know what is true based on evidence. The more evidence for some belief, the more confident in that belief you ought to be.

This is where replication comes in. If you have one study that says something, this is not all that much evidence that this something is true. After all, parapsychology keeps churning out results, and we all know that is bullshit.

But, if a study has been replicated, this is at least twice as much evidence that something is true. The more replications, the more evidence, the more likely something is true.

Given that most published findings are false, I no longer pay too much attention to a study before it’s been replicated and, when I do find out something surprising, you better believe I’m searching Google Scholar for replications.

What Is Wisdom?

There’s an art to knowing when;
Never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes & then
20 seconds less.
—Piet Hein, “Timing Toast”

When one first learns a theory, one tends to take it a bit too seriously. I’ve heard that people who later convert to Christianity tend to be much more fervent believers than those who are raised with it, for example, or note the brain damage that first exposure to libertarianism and Ayn Rand seems to do to young people, the same with economics, or the phenomenon where people who have just taken a psychology course tend to see disorder everywhere.

These are each characterized by a lack of sophistication. It’s taking a theory, like the efficient markets hypothesis or utilitarianism, and attempting to interpret everything through that lens until you realize that something has gone very wrong, and then modifying your understanding so that it becomes more nuanced. One might abandon utilitarianism for preference utilitarianism, or realize that no, markets are not magic.

This is characteristic of what it means to be wise: not only to understand a theory, but also to understand its limitations and when it ought be applied. A psychology student who has just learned that happier people tend to engage in positive reframing will have a bad time if they try to point out the bright side at a funeral. One who has meditated on, lived with, and been burned by a theory will not make such mistakes.

But it’s not right to say that more sophistication is better, as it can be a symptom of salvage, of belief-bandaging. Take Christian apologetics, for example, the act of trying to reconcile Christianity with all of the evidence, scientific and otherwise. This field piles excuse upon excuse, explanation upon explanation, each less believable than the last. It’s a constant stream of apologies and rationalizations for all the mistakes in the Bible.

This isn’t wisdom. This isn’t a case of a useful theory being saved by an understanding of its limits, but one where a dying belief is kept alive by scheduled transfusions of excuses. Or we can trot out the proverbial dragon-in-the-garage. Let’s say someone claims that there is a dragon in their garage but, when you ask to see it, they say that it’s invisible, and then you propose throwing flour on it to reveal the shape of the dragon, but then they say that the dragon just happens to be permeable to flour. This person is not becoming more wise thanks to the increased sophistication, but rather propping up a falsehood.

I haven’t any real solution, though, other than to warn you to watch out for excess sophistication and to quote Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

Deciphering Core Human Values In A Society of Mind

Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Humans are evolutionary hacks. I’m often not of one mind, or even two, but of four and sometimes more. Our brains seem to be locked in an eternal struggle, a constant clash of warring preferences. Consider the would-be comedian who, instead of working on his act, spends the day watching Family Guy reruns. He is of two minds: one wishes to watch Family Guy while another wants to brainstorm new routines.

Many-Self Model

You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going “a most judicious choice, sire”.
—Steven Kaas

It’s interesting to listen to the way that people use language when talking about the self. People say things like, “I had to talk myself into going to the gym.” This is a normal phrase. I hear it all the time. Unremarkable.

But exactly who is talking to who? The self had to convince the self into doing something? Or the popular maxim, “Just be yourself.” Who else are you going to be? All self-talk has this sort of strangeness to it. Why would myself need to counsel myself about anything?

You’re a brain, but there’s not just one you, and these many-you are most evident when they’re in conflict. Consider the overweight man who finds himself in a familiar dilemma: chocolate cake, to eat or not to eat? In one corner, there is a piece of him who wants to eat the cake. In the other corner, there is a piece of him who wants to lose weight. The bell sounds. Fight!

Or take creative alarm clocks. There is one, Clocky, that, like a roomba, moves about the room while it goes off, so that you have to chase it down in the morning. There is another recent one for Android phones that requires you to solve a math problem before it will stop ringing. A friend told me about this. He said he’s been “using” it, but instead of solving it in the morning, he just turns off his phone.

I’ve read, too, about people — adults — who want to stop biting their nails, so they’ll coat them with something bitter. It doesn’t work, though. They just end up finding some clever way to wash it off.

I love these because they characterize the absurdity of the human condition. The present-me installs an alarm clock with every intention of getting up on time, only to be thwarted by morning-me. These two versions of me might as well be different people, each trying to control the other. Our experience is this constant struggle, every part of our brains pulling and pushing us in two or three or a thousand different directions.

Many-Selves and Many-Goals

Imagine that you throw a party for New Year’s Eve and, as part of a game, everyone must write down their resolutions for the incoming year, which you then combine on one sheet of paper. You then go around and guess which resolution belongs to which person.

Now, consider the sheet of everyone’s goals. There’s no reason for them to be consistent with each other. One person might want to save money while another might want to buy a house.

And that’s fine. It’s no problem for these people if their goals conflict. They’re different people, each pursuing rapper Gudda Gudda’s maxim of “You do you. I’ma do me.” It is a problem for you and me, though, because we’re a lot more like a body shared by an entire party of selves (or agents or modules if you prefer) than one consistent identity. A mind is not one individual, but a society. Our goals are as contradictory as a list of the goals of a dozen or so people.

Explicit and Implicit Goal-Keeping

And our list of woes grows longer, because the type of goals that one is willing to write on a list are not the same as the desires of each self inside of us. Our selves have differing time preferences, for example, some preferring instant gratification while others want to plan for the future. I would not write “eat whatever takes the least effort to make” on a list of New Year’s resolutions, but you can be damn sure that there’s a chunk of my mind that prefers convenience over health.

The point is that the human mind is complicated, conflicted, inconsistent, and not so much one unit, but more of a group of competing modules, and this insight forces us to think differently about our goals.

Maybe this is clearer with a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presented with a genie who is willing to grant you one wish and you wish for a complete list of your goals. This list is going to look a whole lot different than a list that you make by sitting down and thinking about what it is that you want out of life. A list of your explicit and implicit goals is different than a list of just explicit goals.

Let’s make it concrete. Maybe you’re familiar with “Movember,” which is where men grow facial hair during the month of November, in order to raise awareness for men’s health issues, like prostate cancer. This all sounds very nice, yes? But what does growing facial hair have to do with prostate cancer? Nothing. Raising awareness about something doesn’t do much good at all, certainly not as much good as a direct donation. It’s more about appearing caring, convincing other people of your virtue, than about actual helping. Or maybe it’s just about funny facial hair. Either way, not about helping.

Most of us carry around this explicit goal of helping people, while the reality seems to be more sinister. The way we behave seems to be more along the lines of convince-other-people-I’m-virtuous. This is clear whenever some tragedy strikes and my Facebook feed is filled with people posting “My prayers go out to the families of those involved.” First of all, even under the assumption that prayers work, there’s no reason to post on the internet telling everyone about you praying and, second of all, prayers might be nice but a five dollar donation is a lot nicer.

Knowing Thyself

The point I’m developing, then, is:

  • Human value is complicated and often contradictory.
  • Our wants and desires are not obvious.

This leads us to the question of: How can we determine what it is that we want? As a litmus test, do you think an exercise like, “Imagine you’re looking back on your life trying to decide what was important and what wasn’t,” is going to be enough to figure out your goals? The answer is no, although thinking about such a question might give you a starting point.

What we’re after, then, is accurate means of understanding ourselves, techniques that will give us some measure of clarity if it’s to be had. We would like to — where possible — eliminate reliance on subjective experience and inject a measure of rigor into knowing ourselves. We’d like some certainty.

Understanding Why

It’s instructive to step back and survey our surroundings. Why does it matter whether or not we pursue the right goal? There are a whole lot of people at colleges across the country who are right now cramming for finals. They are soon going to forget everything. They’ve replaced the goal of learning with the goal of getting a passing grade.

We care about pursuing certain goals and not others because some will better achieve our values — for the same reason that we prefer eating cheeseburgers to eating dirt: we like cheeseburgers and not dirt.

We can continue down the rabbit hole and ask, “Why ought I prefer one thing to another?” I used to worry about this, but the question is confused. Maybe there is no good reason why you ought to prefer cheeseburgers to dirt, but it’s the case that yous do. Our brains ensure that we have preferences.

The point of a goal, then, is to achieve whatever it is that these preferences are. Over the summer, I did a literature review of the current state of the art of happiness research, because I value happiness. The trouble with the wrong goal is that it moves us towards something we don’t value. It could be the case that people care not so much about doing good than about convincing other people that they’re good. The two values suggest different goals. If I want to help people, I could apply for a consultation at 80,000 hours, while if I want to convince people that I’m a good person, I could work on becoming more charismatic.

Values as Bedrock

People, by and large, act as if goals are nebulous things that appear out of nowhere, as if whispered to them by the gods. Their striving is chaotic, less the product of thoughtful reflection and more the result of the media’s near constant attack on our senses.

Consider the man who decides to become a lawyer because he believes doing so will make him happy. If he had first considered that his ultimate value was happiness, he might first decide to research on what it is that makes people happy and the happiness of lawyers. In the process, he might stumble on Forbes reporting “associate attorney” as the unhappiest job in America, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of striving towards the wrong goal.

The point I’m making, then, is that with an accurate list of your own values, you can come up with plans for achieving those values. If life has a meaning or purpose, this is the closest I’ve come to finding it.

In compelling recipe format, the meaning of life:

  1. Know what it is that you want.
  2. Plan out the best way to get it.
  3. Implement that plan.

Our trouble begins, as I developed earlier, with the first step. It’s not obvious what it is that we want. We need some way to figure it out and, given that this is the foundation on which any goal is built, it’s hard to overstate the importance of some clarity as to our values.

Identifying Values

The most direct route to understanding your own values seems to be by figuring out those of others — at least in part — and then assuming that you also value those things. One example: I don’t have much explicit interest in romantic relationships, but whenever I find myself reading about male-female mate preferences and clash-of-the-sexes-type articles, I notice that I’m fascinated. Given that most people are interested in understanding the opposite sex and that millions of generations worth of evolution has dedicated significant portions of my brain to that task, I find myself forced to update in the direction that, no, I’m not special snowflake who don’t want no woman.

In fact, that anecdote has another point. We can often illuminate ourselves by understanding how evolution has shaped our desires and motives. Indeed, there’s no need to limit ourselves to evolution. Any knowledge that illuminates humankind is useful in furthering our understanding of ourselves, whether it be neuroscience, artificial intelligence, psychology, economics, or politics, which is sort of empowering. There are many routes to self-knowledge.

Given this, what can we say about human values? Well, core human values are straightforward. Most everyone wants:

  • Happiness, positive emotions
  • Freedom from pain, good health, and an absence of negative emotion
  • Fulfilling interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise
  • A sense of meaning and purpose in life
  • A conviction that our actions make a difference and that we matter
  • The respect and admiration of other people
  • Personal growth and self-improvement, increases in our own skill and competence

Beyond these, its less obvious. I looked over the New York Times Best Sellers list, but didn’t find it all that illuminating, except I will note that people seem more interested in reading about “proof” of heaven and history in general that I would have thought.

Some values are more idiosyncratic, though. In psychology, there is a personality trait of “openness to experience,” which sort of captures how interested someone is in learning new things, trying new foods, that sort of thing. Creative types score high on openness and this trait varies among individuals. You probably know people who are not interested in reading books or any intellectual pursuits. These people are low on openness.

We could think of this value as “the exploration of one’s interest” or the value of learning about the world. This one is a bit odd because we can ask, “well, do we really care about the exploration of interests or are we interested in the exploration of interests as a means to an end?” It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes we’re interested in things because of what they can do for us, but it’s also enjoyable in and of itself to explore something interesting. This could be grouped under “positive emotions” above, but I think it’s a useful distinction. To be fair, I ought to point out that “positive emotion” and “negative emotion” cover a broad swath of human experience: awe, excitement, interest, anxiety, sadness, dread, contentment, and more.

But what else do we value and want out of life? In economics, there’s this notion of signalling. You might volunteer at a homeless shelter not because you care about the homeless, but because you care about signalling to other people that you’re caring. A fair amount of human activity seems to revolve around looking good rather than anything of substance. Robin Hanson writes quite a bit about this topic.

More troubling are those things that we value — as big, smart monkeys — that we aren’t “supposed” to value. If you’re familiar with Nietzsche, he writes a bit about the enjoyment of cruelty and vengeance. I’m reminded of a scene from Conan the Barbarian, when Conan is asked, “What is best in life?” He responds, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

In this vein, you’ll note that people seem, on the whole, more interested in winning arguments than getting to the truth of whatever it is that they’re discussing. It’s more about domination, more battle than discovery. Winning battles against opposing tribes is satisfying (politics!) and, while I have never crushed an enemy — at least not physically — I suspect it feels pretty good.

Stockpiling Self-Knowledge

To know oneself, one should assert oneself.
—Albert Camus

The general undercurrent here, then, seems to be that — in order to identify values — one ought to amass knowledge about oneself and humans in general, develop a certain sensitivity to what it that people value and desire and an accurate understanding of our own idiosyncrasies.

I have a couple ideas about how to go about this, but no silver bullet. There is no royal road to self-knowledge. It’s hard work.

  • Read and learn about different fields that shed light on what it is that humans want. There are a lot of possibilities here, as I mentioned earlier, from psychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, ethics, and more. Really, any field that deals with some aspect of humanity has something to offer. (This looks like a good place to start.)
  • Careful observation of ourselves and others. How do we act and feel in different situations? What do our actions and words suggest about our goals and values? When do we clash with other people? What are others striving for? What do people spend money on? Notice what’s popular and why. (Cultivating mindfulness might be useful for this.)
  • It’s instructive to consider what chimpanzees want and how humans are similar and different.
  • Take a different point of view when considering someone. If a stranger did the same things that you do, what would you think about them? If someone does something that you don’t understand, ask why you would do that in their situation. Everyone feels normal from the inside.
  • Try getting honest feedback from others. What do they think about you? How does this differ from your self-concept. One study found that other people were better at predicting the length of a relationship than those in the relationship.
  • You might try keeping a journal, or any other of the thought experiments that people suggest when considering values. What do you want for your children? What makes you jealous? All of these suggest possible values.
  • Some research suggests if we know about our biases, we may be better able to control for them.
  • Reflect. How much would you pay to prevent a chicken from being tortured? Would you rather have more technology or less? Would a happiness pill be a good thing? Construct counterfactuals and intuition pumps. Ask yourself, “Is this my true motive? Is there something deeper here?”
  • In an uncertain world, there’s a great deal of value in preserving your options and hedging your bets. Maybe you don’t think you care about social status or money, but — given that there’s a not insignifcant chance you could be mistaken — invest in something that’s either transferable or that will move you towards many different things simultaneously. Paul Graham writes about majoring in math instead of economics, since a math major can get a PhD in economics, but an economics major can’t get a PhD in mathematics.

World War II: Not a Moral Triumph

I’ve started reading through some of the works of Mencius Moldbug. I figure that politics is a waste of cognition but, hey, it’s entertaining and I enjoy being exposed to different points of view. Moldbug is a bit long-winded (understatement), but the guys at More Right have put together PDF copies of the “essential Moldbug,” which makes reading it a whole hell of a lot easier.

I guess I better set this up. Mencius has been churning out millions of words criticizing progressivism, a movement which is perhaps best exemplified by the drivel that gets thousands of upvotes on Reddit. It’s the sort of political ideals embodied by academia and all those who describe themselves — without a hint of self-loathing — as an intellectual.

Anyways, I’ve been reading through Moldbug, and was struck by a passage where he points out an important piece of unquestioned and no doubt revisionist history: World War II was a struggle of good versus evil and good won. The popular narrative goes something like, “Hitler was an evil man, committing gross human rights violations by rounding up and slaughtering Jews. The Allied powers wouldn’t stand for this, so we put a stop to it.”

But this ignores:

Makes you wonder about this whole moral progress thing.

“Not A Real Christian” Is Real Rhetoric

Perhaps Sarah Palin will actually read about what that Jesus guy kept talking about and her head will explode.
Reddit user Popcom

I have spent the past couple of weeks spending 15 minutes chunks on Reddit, leaving when I become disgusted enough to get back to working through my topology textbook. The experience has, however, been enlightening insofar as it sheds light on the opinions of the masses. Hence, this post.

Discussions will often go something like this: some religious group deviates from Reddit-brand progressivism (which is almost a caricature of the United States left). Then, some commenter denounces them as not a real Christian and receives several hundred upvotes. The Westboro Baptist group, infamous for protesting funerals, is a common punching-bag in these discussions.

Now, I hope the brain damage here is already evident, but the reasoning seems to go that real Christians cannot believe anything that the typical Redditor finds morally repugnant. Otherwise, they’re not following Jesus! If it’s not my personal brand of Christianity, then it’s not Christianity.

You’ll often see something like, “Any real Christian supports equality for gays,” but let’s be honest here. The Bible’s position on homosexuality is about straightforward as these things get. So, if you’re going to argue that the One True Christianity supports homosexuality, you’ll find yourself scrambling for justifications as to why certain parts of the Bible don’t count.

But such an enterprise is circular. People who are arguing about what makes a real Christian are not interested in what the Bible says. It’s rhetoric. They’re interested in picking and choosing pieces of the Bible that support the belief system that they already have in place.

How do people construct their initial belief system, the one they’re using to fence off the real Christians from the fake ones? Through osmosis. It’s a patchwork of influences of peers, parents, the media, etc. The user who writes, “Not a real Christian!” means something more like, “Boo! Not a member of my tribe!” and is not making a point about what does or does not make a Christian.

Unreasonable Doubt: Legal Certainty is Impossible

The line about “what if he’s guilty?” made me almost throw my laptop across the room. Who the fuck cares? It’s better to ensure 0 innocent men face punishment than to ensure all those guilty go to prison.
User RPIAero on Reddit, 172 upvotes

You’ve been called for jury duty and you’re sitting in on a murder trial. The evidence is strong and you feel that, even after correcting for overconfidence and coming at the issue from every possible point of view you can think of, there’s a 99 percent chance that “he done it.”

Is 99 percent confidence enough to send a man to prison for the rest of his life? What if it’s a death penalty case? Then how much evidence do you need? I suspect, for most, 99 percent sounds pretty good. It sounds like enough to put a man in prison or even sentence a man to death. 99 percent is beyond a reasonable doubt.

But, of course, it’s never that simple and, like the quote above, there will be intelligent-but-confused people who will claim that one needs absolute certainty in order to sentence a man to death. You need to be 100 percent certain, or else you must vote not-guilty.

When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man. —Bertrand Russel

They have a point. After all, on the scale of bad-things, sending an innocent man to his death is up there: worse than cheating on your husband, but not “literally worse than Hitler.” It’s easy to imagine standing before Saint Peter at the pearly gates, and Saint Peter going through the list of your sins and saying, “Oh, yeah, Troy Davis was innocent, and section 3.a.III.j of the Heavenly code says that sentencing an innocent man to death is unforgivable, unless you’re a 7th Day Adventist. Tell Judas I said hey,” because, you know, heaven is full of bureaucrats and what-do-you-know, now you’re spending eternity in hell.

But these people are confused. There is no absolute certainty. There’s always some absurd, highly improbable way in which you might be wrong about everything. When people say that absolute certainty is necessary for sentencing a man to death, they really mean that you need to be closer to 99.999% certain than 99% certain of guilt in a death penalty case. If someone insists on absolute certainty of the 100% variety, no one can be convicted of anything. We’ll have to let all prisoners go. There’s that one in a trillion chance that everything you think you know is the product of a vast conspiracy, like in the movie The Truman Show.

All is not lost, though. Presumably, people don’t care so much about absolute certainty, but rather about not convicting people of crimes they did not commit. You don’t have to be absolutely certain, just certain enough that only criminals go to jail.

How certain do you need to be to prevent an innocent man from being imprisoned? What about 99 percent? Well, that doesn’t work because, on average, one out of a hundred prisoners is going to be innocent and, remember, our goal is no innocent people in prison whatsoever.

We want a level of certainty such that, given all of the people in the prison system, we can be confident that none of them are innocent. As of 2011, there are 2,266,800 adults incarcerated in the United States. With a bit of math, we find that even if, on every single trial, the jury was 99.999956% (1 in 2,266,800) certain of the defendant’s guilt, there’s a 37% chance that at least one innocent man will be sent to prison.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever met a human before, but none of them are 99.999956% right about anything. There is no way for someone to reach that level of certainty in every single trial. It’s an unpleasant truth that it’s more-or-less impossible to prevent innocent people from being convicted.

Instead, it’s a tradeoff. If we only require 85% certainty before convicting someone, more innocent people go to prison, but we also catch more guilty people. Or we can push the necessary evidence in the other direction: if we want 99% certainty, fewer innocents will go to prison, but more criminals will walk. The only possible system where no innocent men go to prison is one where no one at all goes to prison.

Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop  terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.
—Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

But despair not, gentle reader! There is hope yet on the horizon. Why is it wrong to send innocent people to prison? Because it leads to suffering. The wrongness of something is decided by the amount of harm that it does to the world. While you can’t prevent every innocent person from going to jail, it’s within your power to prevent someone from dying of malaria. Hell, a kind word is enough to reduce suffering. The possibilities for doing good and improving the world are endless, and no doubt there are easier ways to go about it than fixing the justice system. Go find them.

Fecund Universe and The Blind Universemaker

Imagine that there are many universes, not just the one we live in, and that they can reproduce; that one universe can have many children. If there is some mechanism that universes can use to pass on their “genes,” we would expect universes to evolve.

Think of it this way. Say we start with two universes, one who births four universes and one who births twelve. These universes would in turn reproduce, passing on some of their “genes.” The very fertile universes would in turn produce many fertile children who would produce many fertile children and so on, until most of the universes are very fertile universe.

Or, to put it in terms of humans, imagine a world where stupid people have many more children than smart people and that stupid people tend to have stupid children. Given that this is the case, the earth will soon come to be populated by stupid people.

This idea was proposed in 1992 by Lee Smolin, who speculates that universes reproduce via black hole formation; each black hole contains the seed of a new universe. If this is the case, we would expect that most of the universes in the multiverse are fertile ones, ones selected for black hole formation. Thus this theory is pseudo-testable. If it’s true, we would expect our universe to be tuned for black hole formation.

This speculative theory leads to the intriguing hypothesis that intelligence is selected for because it somehow aids black hole formation. Maybe the reason that we look up into the night sky and fail to observe alien life monopolizing the universe’s resources is that they’re busy producing black holes.

You can read more about it here. There’s also a book on the theory called The Life of the Cosmos.