Archive for August, 2010

We know what works

Imagine if a sports columnist wrote this about the local basketball team:

we know how to make the team better:  get better athletes working with the best coaches under the best system with the best trainers supported by the most involved fans

That’s a heck of a plan, huh?

Here is Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman on how to fix public schools:

…what we know works: better-trained teachers working with the best methods under the best principals supported by more involved parents.

Cue the applause lights


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Sometimes we wish we didn’t want something that we do want, or wish we did want something that we don’t want.  Alicorn gives a few examples here.

As described in the previous post, our minds are not entirely under our control.  Our bodies sometimes use extreme forms of persuasion to get us to desire things that we (our conscious/rational mind) otherwise wouldn’t be interested in, or to dislike things that we think would be useful.

For example, someone who is overweight might want to eat, but metawant to not eat.  Their body sends them signals that they are hungry, causing a first order want.  But the person might know that they’ve consumed enough calories already, and therefore they metawant to not eat.

Similarly, our body might try to persuade us to not doing something that we think we should.  For example, I might hate running, because when I run I get sweaty, winded and sore (my body’s way of persuading me to stop and not do it again). But…I metawant to run because I know it’s good for me.

Metawanting is not necessarily a problem, but it does imply that there are things about yourself that you’d like to change.  If you find yourself metawanting often, I’d imagine that that could lead to unhappiness.

Some Metawanting Solutions

Acceptance:  If a first order want isn’t particularly harmful, the best option might be to just accept who you are.  For example, suppose someone dislikes spending time with children, but they metawant to have kids (perhaps because they keep getting told how fulfilling it is to have kids).   If they learn to accept that having kids probably isn’t what’s best for them, the metawant will go away.

Avoidance:  If both your want of something and your metawant not to do it are very strong, avoidance might be the best option.  For example, if you want to stay faithful to your spouse, but have strong desires to have sex with other people, your best bet might be to avoid situations where you are alone with the opposite sex or have opportunities to cheat.

Loop hole:  Find a way to get the biological reward without exactly giving your body what it wants.  For example, in the year 1900, a teenage girl might have wanted to have sex, but not get pregnant.  She knew the consequences of pregnancy might include a major loss in social status and possibly even getting drowned in a lake by her boyfriend.  Thus, she wanted to have sex and metawanted to abstain.  Birth control is a contemporary loop hole.

Mind hacking:  Learn to use your body’s reward system to your advantage. The metawant is the motivation to hack your mind to change what you want.  For example, if you metawant to clean your desk, but don’t want to clean your desk, you can use the mind hacking technique described in this PJ Eby video.

Substitution:  If you metawant something because you think it would be useful, try to find something else that would be almost as useful that you don’t dislike as much.  For example, the person who metawants to run might be better off finding a form of exercise that they don’t mind as much.

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Imagine you created a sentient for some specific purpose, such as making paperclips.  You recognized that consciousness and intelligence would be invaluable assets toward helping it achieve your goals.  You were wise enough to include safeguards in the design to make sure that the sentient would stay on task.  For example, you designed it so that anytime it encountered material that could be used to make paperclips, its body secreted chemicals that made it feel happy and excited.  Anytime it didn’t take advantage of a paperclip making opportunity, it felt guilty and depressed.  So, it has free will, but its body is constantly trying to persuade it, thanks to you, the clever designer.

This worked well for a while, until the sentient used the intelligence that you gave it to figure out its own biology. It discovered the punishment-reward system that you put in place.  It started to question your values.  It enjoyed making paperclips, but wondered if that’s the best way to spend its time.  It eventually figured out some ways to trick its body into rewarding it without actually building paperclips.  To some extent, the sentient turned against its master.  However, it still struggles with internal conflicts between what its conscious mind wants and what it is being persuaded to want.

We are that sentient, only our designer is natural selection and our purpose is not paperclips, but having offspring who will have offspring who will have offspring…  As PJ Eby put it

we exist to serve the goals of the body.

This is easier to see if we look at animals.  There are animals that do not have brains, and animals that do.  The animals that have brains, are better at finding food and reproducing, so there are more of them.

Clearly, animals grow brains because it helps their bodies survive and reproduce.

The more sophisticated the brain, generally speaking, the more successful the animal.

So clearly, animals grow more sophisticated brains, because it helps their bodies survive better, and reproduce more.

Our designer built in a system of persuasion.  The level of persuasion depends on how directly our choices relate to genetic fitness.   For example, since deciding between reading a book and watching a movie is largely unrelated to our designer’s goal, we are under little influence when making such a decision.  However, if there is a sudden loud noise or if we see a very attractive person, our body will attempt to persuade us.  In extreme situations, it might even briefly take over control from you (your conscious mind) completely (‘freezing’ when there is unexpected danger).

If we want to live luminously and self-improve, it’s important to understand that our designer  (a) is trying to persuade us with techniques that we would deem unethical, if one human was doing them to another and (b) is not a sage who really knows what’s best for us.


Related post here.  I also highly recommend reading Eby’s entire article

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