20: Bertrand Russell, Simulacra Levels, and Rationality with Quinn Lewandowski

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Hosted by
Will Jarvis

In this episode, we have Quinn Lewandowski on to discuss his favourite thinker Bertrand Russell, the simulacra levels concept, and how our norms around each level have changed over time. We also discuss why people today have less belief in their ability to solve difficult and complex problems, and what we can do to change that.

NOTE: There’s an audio error at about 36:13 where we drop off and drop back on for a second or two. Apologies in advance!

Links: continental philosophy, and analytic philosophy.

Bertrand Russell.


well hey folks we’re sitting here on a front porch here in wake forest north carolina it’s kind of a chilly day but due to covered precautions we thought it was best to meet on the front porch and and go from there um today on the podcast i have quinn lewandowski did i pronounce your last name right yeah but every most people get it wrong so it doesn’t matter how do people get it wrong i’m curious lewandowski lewandowski you know it’s i know what they’re trying to say so it doesn’t really matter too much yeah gotcha that’s cool so uh quinn how are you doing tonight i think i’m doing pretty good happy to be here talking with you definitely and uh just to preface i i wanted to mention that quinn is is probably one of the smartest people i’ve ever met in my life so i wanted to want to add that there as a reason why i think listeners should should pay attention you’re an extraordinarily good friend oh thank you no i i i’m just you’re also really really really smart oh thanks no no not in the same league but but i do appreciate it i do appreciate it uh so quinn i wanted to get started and i wanted to talk about a topic that we have touched on before you and i talked to zv master wits about it um i may have butchered his last name again but sorry sv if you’re listening so what is a simulacra this term it’s funny i first encountered this as in in an english class yes in college uh beaudry art yes um i know him by reputation uh most of it is not uh recommended that you take the good ideas and leave the rest particularly in factly in this case he’s a um continental philosopher the iraq war didn’t happen that was yeah that was one of his eye one of his ideas i want to say or something like that yeah well very um from the continental school so there’s a whole cluster of uh qualities that you see um there’s less of an emphasis on clarity and there’s less of an emphasis on precision and and before we we dive into that so there are two schools of philosophy yes in the west there’s there’s continental philosophy and there’s analytic philosophy yes and so analytic philosophy tend to think of england i suppose and the united states and then continental philosophy on the continent as one would imagine um and yeah so some of the defining characteristics you just mentioned are continental philosophy so let’s name a couple continental philosophers fraps and analytic philosophy camus and sartre definitely uh nietzsche usually gets thrown in there he’s interesting perhaps uh i think so yeah he definitely my brain categorizes him as continental gotcha and so beaudriard you just mentioned uh how about analytic bertrand russell my personal favorite uh jon stewart mill voltaire david hume uh emmanuel kant who i’m not sure they would have automatically classified him because i don’t find him always entirely clear and i think partly the problem is with me but not completely gotcha that’s a good point that uh so yeah kant maybe less clear yes uh analytic is is traditionally what one would think of as at least for me philosophy so uh i guess i was just raised in america so perhaps that that goes along with it but nozick uh who else i like him a lot yeah all the stuff i’ve read i ought to read more john rawls like actually you know trying to think through logically all kinds of different problems and continental seems to be more almost of a i hate to say this of a writing style yeah i i know people get a lot out of continental philosophy yes i like well i enjoy random correspondences uh they were not random more like partial metaphors so you can uh you don’t take it completely seriously i think of it like the difference between the um the myers-briggs personality test which seems to capture regularities that people care about that isn’t statistically grounded so it’s not cleaving reality of the joints anyway the correspondence i use just the sort of male suitcase handle is the sort of cliche idea of the left brain and the right brain okay continental philosophers are dreaming in a non-derogatory sense of that term they’re going into a very subjective place and this makes it much they’re harder to read and they’re it’s much easier for them to make really catastrophic mistakes that they don’t correct and so i totally respect lots of the people i respect just stay the hell away from that whole cluster i think there actually are valuable things to find but you do have to dig through them uh and you know if you go in and you accept everything they say that is not going to go very well for you right right so my classic example i think is uh i had a professor in college i absolutely loved and got a ton of value from and he was a german professor uh and he he talked political science and he uh you know one time i went to his office hours and i was talking to him and he focused on the european union which is great we could talk about that later it’s a whole fascinating subject and he you know he was a political scientist by trade and i was asking him for materials to read beyond the class you know what would he recommend and he said well there’s this philosopher named nicklos lumon and he said he’s you know incredibly popular in germany but no one really reads them over here you know i would start there i think you might get a lot of value from it so i went and i got one of his books one of the translations from the library it was just incredibly dense and and it was it’s it’s on systems theory and it was impossible for me to penetrate and i was left with this feeling that you know perhaps there’s something there but also perhaps this is just language difficult language is used to occlude yes and and it’s like yeah it definitely is i see continental philosophy as

providing some useful space to people who are actually truth-seeking but being incredibly abusable yes and because it’s incredibly abusable you find lots of people abusing it right that that’s a really good point so i i guess we circle all the way back around to uh what is a simulacra well um in beaudilard’s definition uh it relates to profound reality which is not very uh entirely clear what he means but it seems to relate to what we would think of as object level reality if uh tsv’s example if there is a lion across the river that’s either true or it’s false that statement corresponds to an animal that could be across the river could be elsewhere or it could be a different animal

so i’m actually i think i’m sort of going to skip over belgium lord’s original language if that’s okay yeah definitely

it was adapted um and i think you could argue about how faithful the adaptation was it wasn’t a blatant trance i have read uh excerpts from both of our large essays about it to try to audit whether there was more good stuff there but basically it’s a way of looking at symbols and language and their relationship to reality

uh when zv was on here he focused uh his definition on motivations which i can’t really fault i’ve tended to go out more in terms of its structural relationship to reality okay like um there’s the object level reality there’s the uh the world out there then there are the words that we would use to communicate about this i remember uh when i was a child um this was my model of language i was very small i didn’t understand lying for a while so you said things because they were true then being true combined with you wanting our people to know that they were true was the motivation for saying them so how could you say something that was false right uh where would you even start it was like those old proofs that nothing heavier than air could fly yeah those were level two around off to lying but it’s really uh making statements with indifference to the truth um so if

you cannot pick pretty much any politician i think and you’ll almost certainly with you know a couple of exceptions both of which to my knowledge are dead um the fact that they say something is not a reason to think that it’s true it doesn’t really bear on the question very much um they might be embarrassed to be caught out in the lie but uh if there was no way to verify it if um so embarrassment wasn’t an issue they’re not intrinsically motivated to tell you things that correlate with the truth gotcha um and it’s interesting to think about where that motivation comes from it certainly has a moralizing tinge a lot of the times when we talk about it but i think for us to get to morality we have there has to be some structure underneath there uh it was pointed out to me once that lying is very computationally expensive because you need your mental map of the world and you need your map of someone else’s map and you need your record of their divergences between what they believe the world is like and your mouth of what you believe the world is like and you need to track that so that you don’t uh give away that the world is like the way you believe it’s like and it’s sort of an ongoing computational drain as long as you interact with them and you don’t want them to find out right um

at level level one and level two make sense to me intuitively the reason i’m so fascinated by this the place where it really gets interesting is level three and level three is a statement that everyone knows is a lie or everyone knows it’s not true but where there isn’t uh common knowledge where not everyone knows that everyone knows and so it’s not really out in the open that’s not uniformly understood so um

could you give an example of this because we talked about you know the four levels yes you know i’ve gotten some feedback well it was really interesting but it was perhaps like not broken down enough to be super understandable and it’s a cop it’s a complex thing right after the uh financial crisis yeah uh there was a politician who said in public that the fundamentals of our economy were strong and he was embarrassed by that it was bad for him um because the fundamentals of our economy were not strong apparently so he’s like so the federal reserve train chairman i i think was ben bernanke he might not been but he’s trying to instill confidence yeah so people don’t go take all their money out the banks and everything collapses i think it was john mccain john mccain interesting but he said um

i think he wasn’t expecting people to go wait what are the fundamentals of our economy are they strong um he was operating at level three and the reason we can tell it was three and not four is that it was bad for him when it came out that it wasn’t true i mean not even when it came out that wasn’t true but people point out that it wasn’t true and that was embarrassing for him it was a way to score points against and so i mean i could be misdiagnosed in any given particular example a lot of the times with level three it’s where people stop um really paying attention to does the statement correspond to reality i might just be lacking the skill to interpret it but most things most politicians say um seem very information-like they don’t seem like an honest attempt to explain how they’re thinking both how they’re modeling the world and what principles they use to act i don’t um have the sense they have with bertrand russell or david friedman or scott alexander or that i’ve seen the heuristics they’re actually using to make decisions right um and pointing this out does not uh it seems like this is sort of generally known like a while ago there was a politician who said something and people were saying that she had violated a social taboo on one of the isms and i spent like half an hour trying to figure out whether she had or not and i decided that it was different than other people i’d heard accused of it because i had no idea what she meant i could not translate the statement she had made into any kind of empirical proposition or even really attitudinal you could get a feeling from it but i love it yes and level four is where it’s common knowledge and it’s open and i go back and forth in my own head about um

whether that actually gets achieved in a relevant sense i think beat poetry would be an area where no one expects that at least some beat poetry that the words actually are intended to communicate anything but i think maybe when we talk about we may be looking at gradations of level three politicians uh going closer to level four but not quite making it gotcha interesting yeah i don’t um i have trouble intuitively understanding why common knowledge is so powerful that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows i’ve read some of the stuff about and at this point i’m willing to accept on not even really on faith because i’ve seen the examples but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around why common knowledge is so important yeah as opposed to mutual knowledge gotcha um if everyone knows and everyone suspects that everyone knows intuitively feels like that should get you most of the way there right but it seems like it there’s some sort of phase transition like water turning into ice that happens when um everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows ad infinitum gotcha

that’s really interesting sorry gears are spinning yeah so

what do you think you know we talked with v about this for a while do you think there has actually been a phase transition over time around how people talk i think it has changed i’m not sure it’s that kind of wire into ice really clear thing um perhaps it’s more subtle yeah nixon uh president nixon was accused of involvement in the break-in and it was huge and i talked to my parents and yeah i talked to some other i have i’ve talked to some other people who are around and they say it really was huge they weren’t pretending to be outraged they didn’t believe that the president was involved in break-ins crime

that’s a little bit hard for me too i mean there might be context i’m missing but i’ve read about and i don’t think there is um it sort of assumed um when i grew up that people in power were probably doing some shady stuff behind the scenes right and a lot of it was probably technically illegal and you know really illegal in the sense that if you weren’t the president you probably would not be well advised to be doing it right and that seems like something that really um has changed well and we also see this in the media right do you ever watch old movies sometimes yeah have you ever noticed that

they can be really on the nose yeah does that make sense like yes in a way that’s very direct like movies today i’m just thinking like uh tenet or you know these that are commonly watched and everyone sees i feel like it would really blow people’s minds back then i don’t know there’s a clarity to i’ve seen quite a bit of hitchcock and stuff from the 60s and 70s i wasn’t quite sure how old you were talking about uh yeah not a lot of silent movies um although i have seen a couple to sort of evaluate the form yeah try to understand what people are doing um but it’s very the dialogue in psycho covers ground um it feels less murky and i’m not even sure that that’s a there are some very murky movies i think are wonderful artistically yeah um i sort of wonder

but yeah i see it and um there’s also a movement into meta references of references of references which is not necessarily a bad thing i i love my humor i really am it pokes me someplace

but uh we do seem to have moved this is a cliche and i’m repeating it partly because it’s a cliche and because it’s a cliche i’ve heard from people i trust not to repeat things just because they’re cliches right um but we seem to have moved into sort of ironic detachment

there’s less um

maybe less straightforward emotion i’m not totally sure that there’s less genuine emotion but it’s more tied up in layers of meta an ironic distance gotcha uh

i think

some of this probably goes to uh john nursed everything stays the blog everything stays he writes about um how in the ancestral environment uh i don’t think i’m butchering this but uh i apologize to him if i am in the ancestral environment um you had physical reality and you had social reality but everyone you knew you’d known for your life and they knew you for your life and it’s this very closed environment and so unless something was actually a secret that only you knew or maybe only you and your best friend knew it was common knowledge you could um his he’s talking about uh christmas in this context some people uh and he says that we used to be able to assume that everybody celebrated christmas and now lots of people still celebrate christmas but not everyone celebrates christmas and that changes things in a way that so i think partly um

our brains sort of almost by default treat aspects of social reality the way they treat physical reality um the taboos that will get you stoned aren’t very different from the laws of gravity right except and increasingly we’re in a very a multicultural society and we’re encountering people who don’t take those things for granted and this is fascinating i mean we have a lot to learn from it but it’s also really disquieting for a lot of people right and i think um i don’t know i’ve got i’ve got two thoughts there yeah uh one thought so i i live kind of between two worlds a little bit so you know i’m from deeply rural eastern north carolina yeah and i went to a you know i went to the university of north carolina chapel hill and then and now i’m kind of been transformed into you know culturally into this other social class right yeah um like what you would call the american elite so to speak right yeah like to a certain extent um that might be a big you know coastal elites like they’ve got all these different words for them right um well and that’s so i go back and forth between these circles every once in a while and it’s amazing it’s a it really is amazing because culturally they seem so different now and i don’t think this was always the case yes uh perhaps it is um and no i think it’s do you think it’s a real phenomena yes um and and i i want to bring up this example of trump and truth yes okay so i think this is incred i think this is really important yeah uh so

i go and i talk to everyone um that lives in this metropolis right we live in and uh you know everyone’s like you know trump he lies all the time he’s always lying and you know he says things that are not true like he says things on our trade like you know we can pull he could pull up counsel as examples um but he’s very you know someone had a campaign speech late in the late in the campaign right before election that illustrated this perfectly and i can’t quite remember it but the gist of it was you know and then i go back to eastern north carolina in these different circles and you know they’re like well trump he’s like he’s he’s so true to himself yes so there’s like the there’s truth as in matching the territory right and then there’s truth as in he is like in some really weird sense so true he’s like the most true person to himself right yes like there’s no executive function or like i don’t know what it is benjamin hoffman has a blog post that yeah i it’s awkward when you think you know what someone’s talking about and you get it wrong and i want you to tell me if i get it wrong sure he says um he is not a fan of trump so he’s probably not phrasing this charitably but he’s not being hyperbolic i mean needlessly hype yeah i have a category for that where you’re not making an effort to be charitable but you’re also not saying trump eats babies when there’s no reason to think he needs babies um clinton voters think honesty is reciting a list of literally true statements trump voters territory yeah he calls that the perjury standard trump voters think honesty is poor impulse control because they don’t trust that you would actually recite the true statements if you have the chance to think about that right i’m not sure i blame them for that i mean if you actually go sense by sentence they’re not meeting by a standard i mean i worry that i harp on that too much and i’m irritating everyone but the last politician i know of to actually

meet either the literal accuracy or the good faith communication thing you know the way that i would look for someone to do it if they were someone i would have a you know beer west right right was bertrand russell and he never got elected right they called him uh his donors called him into the back room early in his campaign and asked if it was true that he didn’t go to church and he said yeah that’s true this was uh i think in the 30s yeah definitely well before the 50s because

and they asked if he would be willing to start and well no that would be dishonest and you know i don’t

i really don’t mean that to be a christian non-christian thing it’s it’s about not um that would be dishonest so i’m not going to do it right and that is something you would see in a comedy today i mean it’s not in the hypothesis space it’s not um it isn’t just that they’re trying to meet that standard or fail and failing or pretending to try and meet that standard and suddenly not doing it right we don’t have that standard on and i doubt russell was typical for the time but um i yeah that’s really interesting i also wanted to the second point i wanted to cover was have you heard of jim flynn you know the philosopher jim flynn he has this idea that we’re just getting better abstraction capability yes um and so like because more of the things we do are abstract like it’s just like something we’re getting more used to and more used to do you think that plays into it like increasing attraction levels uh throughout our society and in everything we do i think so yeah i mean i mean that’s a complaint right like yes you know there’s like this abstraction from used to be the guy who made the violin yes you make one part of it or something alienation from labor which i think is a real not a fan of marx but i think that’s a real psychological effect it’s probably wonderful

but yeah um yeah it really feels like that’s on to something uh increasing abstraction increasing symbolic manipulation and the other half of it in the simulacra model is that at levels three and particularly for you’re not looking at the physical world at all so

covet is the best example i hope we will have in our lifetimes of something that

you know you can’t talk to it you can’t persuade it is totally totally immune to any kind of social manipulation um it’s just ground level reality right which doesn’t mean that people aren’t doing the social manipulation on top of that

so i think well it almost makes sense like the i remember scott alexander had blog post about them race cars the myers race car i think about how if you optimize a race car to go really fast it’s not going to be very comfortable oh wow as as the mechanics say uh uh in in eastern north carolina you can make it go fast or make it last a long time you know like pick one of them right yes yeah exactly so if people’s brains are better at manipulating abstract symbols that aren’t attached to physical reality yeah they’re worse at looking at physical reality um someone unless wrong i forget exactly who this is another one of those correspondences that’s exact but they theorized that human brains had sort of two different modes um one designed to not get eaten by lions in all the physical world and one designed not to get thrown out of the tribe where you will get eaten by lions which manipulates the social rights social world yeah yeah that’s really well put and these trade-offs are are very real yeah you know that joe henrich and i’d like i need to look up his pronunciation his name because i mentioned him so much but uh he wrote secrets of our success and he talks a lot about how you know language development yeah certain regions of the brain like broca’s region i believe uh you know they get bigger and other regions get smaller to compensate and like there are these real trade-offs yeah and it would make sense there’s a trade-off here as well yes i think so um i can’t figure you may want to cut this part

i’m conflicted i don’t like level three

yeah uh lies that everyone knows your lies bigger

i don’t like level three and i grew up with it and level four does not seem to me like it would be stable you couldn’t run a society like that right and so every i guess you’re really rich yes perhaps yes as you can well you can’t for a while yeah yeah i ruined the nation yes absolutely so i have a little bit of a

a lot of the i think accelerationism is a failure mode i see a lot of smart people falling into and it almost never works but i am kind of a little bit yeah let’s you know lennon let’s make things worse so that people will be motivated to make them there but if level four wouldn’t be stable um it might be better to accelerate it but i have a male level heuristic warning me that that’s a very hazardous train of thought i think people tend to overrate how much people put up like they under sorry they underwrite how much people put up with yeah in that sense right so like yes we will push to failure so that we can start again right but yes but like

what’s the saying you know the market will stay solid yeah longer market will stay rational longer than you can stay solvent yes i think that’s a real effect yes um i even had a i had fancy uh i had concept um i had this idea that we think unless i heard we didn’t have it nailed down but we think that you empathize with other people by telling your brain to emulate theirs you take yourself as a jumping off point and you modify it and so i had i was calling it nudge theory but that turned out to be something else called nudge theory yes so i think i’m going to call it shove theory or something that there’s this temptation to when someone else is being different than you in a way that’s irritating um and it’s not you know obviously physical like their leg is broken you think if you just give them a shove they will slip back into the normal default way of being which is the way you are yeah and you know we can see why that would be tempting out proportion to actually working right um

so i think that’s probably part of it that you imagine you give the system a good hard shock other people start to see things the way you say things right and um which is also i’m sort of skipping over all the ethical issues involved partly because i don’t have any power i mean it’s one of the nice things about not having a whole lot of power is you can actually think about what you want to happen without worrying that you’re going to be able to do it right well don’t underwrite your uh your power there quinn thanks it’s uh perhaps you know perhaps this is just an irrational christian morality i have but i do believe you know everyone is everyone does have intrinsic value and by god i have the shame for it very very strong the same feeling yeah um except like maybe literally brain dead people yeah perhaps i always list the exceptions so i can sincerely say that yes but no doubt uh yes i i definitely see what you’re saying

it’s interesting right things that and i look back at things that have actually gotten let’s say our act together let’s just say the us here okay well george washington after the articles of confederation perhaps you know and then probably fdr yeah with world war ii yes and like all these things were like really pretty horrible yes you know and like even like covid likes v said not not a big enough shelf right yeah so like

it seems like the level is so high right i mean how many people died in world war ii like that’s the it’s incredible and the destruction and just like the horrific human cost i don’t know it was a huge shelf i mean and it was yes world war one was a huge shelf yep

a choice

which is i

certainly hope not to see that again yeah well you know humans getting this weird we get these weird equally you know inadequate equilibrium to speak where you know these horrible horrible horrible things can happen and you know you and i you helped me with this i wrote a piece and it detailed a path forward for uyghur persecution in western china like they’re and part of that is my belief you know i i wonder how much of our current malaise is like people just not believing yes anything you can do anything and i and i got a lot of pushback on on the internet some from chinese bots which must mean i’m on the right path right yeah but that uh that it really is not possible and that why would you ever try that would be stupid but my thought is like man like that seems to be the consensus views like well you can’t really try this is too difficult to do anything about and then nothing gets done and then self-fulfilling there’s also a pattern i think it’s a useful pattern some of the time but every time i almost every time i know i said i

you propose doing something right but your proposal has a flaw i don’t mean you’re specifically i mean in general yes absolutely and so you can’t do anything and we should stop trying right and you know that’s just that’s not how we’ve accomplished practice you go down the blind alley yeah and it seems like there are people who

i can’t figure out if their heuristic is if your proposal isn’t literally perfect you stop there or if they’re looking for a reason to stop there

but there’s a very strong

i say this with people playing around with scientific hypotheses on the internet um someone will suggest a hypothesis a way the world could be and start trying to think of tests and other people will say you shouldn’t say that you have no proof right and that’s not how science works you think of the hypothesis and then you do the tests and it took seeing people do this when people were literally talking about how to do the tests right and people saying stop talking about how to do the test because we can’t prove that’s true which is what the tests are for


i i really liked that thing you wrote i liked um

i think on an emotional level believing that it can fix the problem is beyond me but the idea of propagating a culture where people try to do that stuff um

the idea that it could set things into motion that would cause the problem to be fixed is not beyond me right and i i want to interject hold the thought um that’s actually i’ve been working on writing the mission for like okay what is this like media project we’re doing here with narratives and i think it’s it’s that for me for me it’s like just trying to reinforce the people that big things are possible yes and that because like you know maybe this hail mary pass we’ve put together won’t work we hope it does absolutely and we’ll try as hard as we can to make it work but perhaps if everyone was doing that yeah you get to better equilibrium yeah i mean first i mean there’s just there’s the comparatively unromantic but um flat fat tails that lots of things are worth doing even if they probably won’t work and there’s also there’s this almost virtue ethic sense of if you try to do things you’ll become the kind of person who does things and eventually some of those things will succeed right exactly and and there’s this weird statistical and you know we’re both in the rationalist community you could say so like it’s uh um this is a weird thing for me to to say but it’s it’s almost like a lot of these problems can’t be looked at exactly in statistical terms and like uh so i was talking to my friend eric you know we worked on the startup together it’s been like four years and it was like this crazy hard journey yeah and we counted you know and he’s a statistician and we’re sitting there and we counted like 12 different times where there was like a 75 chance we wouldn’t make it to the next week and you start like multiplying out the probabilities that you ever get where you are and it’s like nothing right and it’s something about like well you know you just got to keep showing up and keep trying and if you do believe there will be a positive outcome and uh sometimes you can make it happen i guess um hold on i’m gonna drink a little bit just get amped up i love it

and back on without breathing i love it that’s awesome so again i feel free to tell me if i’m off yatkowski on facebook i’m so less you know visible right right it says that people do this that sometimes they um add up a bunch of probabilities and say all these things have to happen and they don’t pay any attention to disjunctive probabilities then there’s more than one way for x to happen so he says you can um that there’s a rhetorical trick you can do where you drive the probability to anything almost zero just by listing apparently essential steps that aren’t actually essential ah interesting

so yeah that’s a really good way of way of thinking about it

yeah i do think trying to think in statistics sometimes that we sometimes have hardware that works better than when we try to formally model stuff figuring out when to use which is a hard problem but right right and some of these things are so complex it’s just like if you took the time it would be impossible uh and i wanted to also talk about this issue it seems like the rationalist community is especially bad there was an article on les wrong a while back where it’s like why have okay if like if rationalists are better at seeing like all the cognitive biases like why aren’t they more successful than they are right and and i i wonder if some of this like plays into that right yes i think so i think this and

we may be thinking of the same article um scott has an article where he says that and he says um that uh most humans are actually pretty optimal at getting the things they really care about which are things like status

so he says we can expect efficient charity to be able to make big improvements because most charity isn’t really about altruism so people trying to clear up cognitive biases will find a ton there but we shouldn’t expect rationalists to necessarily very strongly outperform people uh in high competition areas where people are actually trying to do the thing this kind of ties into the secret of our success stuff i mean cultural evolution i think a lot of people aren’t modeling explicitly but they still learn to do the thing right

which i think is um you know i guess it’s i have the sense that was really depressing for people who were in the rationalist movement before i was but when i came in it was kind of already known so it’s hard to really feel it as a loss right that that’s a good point that’s a really good point do you uh do you remember the peter thiel talk i sent you yeah with uh oh god with reagan’s speech writer who was pete robinson i remember the talk i may not have all the details okay there’s this one line that i remember this one anecdote where it’s like well you know if you go to a modern rationalist and you come out of the meetup and you’re thinking oh like man i’m really a rational person and like i could remember that uh you’ve somehow gotten the wrong message yes just like if you go to a uh evangelical bible study and you come out you’re like wow i have no sin and i’m a great person you face somehow gotten the wrong message yes um there’s this pattern where there’s a group that’s decade to doing acts and the movement sort of i think chapman touches on this with geeks mobs and sociopaths or um the gervais principle the group becomes sort of diluted and it becomes more about the stuff that most groups are about which are not bad things to be about yeah but it does leave you out in the cold if you really cared about the original thing um i left a i had very bad social anxiety as a teenager so i wasn’t actually talking to them but i was reading this libertarian website and mentally identifying with the community and i left when i figured out that this particular website i am not generalizing just the people in this community um when they said skeptical they meant were critical they meant people who had come to the conclusion that government was bad and it didn’t matter how terrible the reasoning was i mean you can absolutely have terrible reasoning for a true conclusion right um but and it wasn’t just that they wanted people who agreed with them it was that you know you shouldn’t say you’re doing critical thought if your argument is terrible right i mean so there is i guess that was a free association on my part a part of one just um groups claiming to be about one thing and sort of not even it bugged me that they were using the word i mean unless wrongly talk about null 101 space how sometimes you need everyone to accept the ai as possible to talk about what to do about ai to have the next conversation and i believe in that but i don’t think you should say you’re using critical thought when you’re not right i mean and just very blatantly not i’m realizing i can’t really put into words how bad the arguments were without going into detail but there’s a difference between this is a cell flaw you might not have noticed this is an obvious vlog that might not be obvious to you and this has the sort of glaring flaw that now looking back i’m guessing was there on purpose to signal in-group affiliation right exactly

it’s interesting and i wonder i wonder how our experience is different than like you know everyone on the west coast and it’s mostly you know because like i i get all this like feedback i guess well not all this but you know i’ve talked to people and they’re like oh you know like the rational community is like this like anybody that reads slaves and you know i was like wow like my experience has been completely different but then again there’s like five of us here in north carolina and uh we’re all pretty cool yeah you know i’ve learned a ton from these people and no one’s like got these presumptions or yeah if that makes sense and things and i wonder if because the groups are so small in comparison to the rest of the population you get a certain sense of like group identity perhaps and like you can have these real conversations and be open because the groups aren’t huge yes i think so dunbar’s number yeah and being able to model having few enough people that you can model their positions in detail that’s really good um i think that helps and i think we don’t have a lot of stuff to steal uh at least here in raleigh there isn’t a chapman’s geeks mops and here’s this model again may be butchering this i don’t think i am but the geeks set up in the subculture orient around doing something that the geeks are into that attracts mops members of the public who are not geeks about it but enjoy consuming it and the mops are resources i mean they can be you can make use of mops because they’re less fixated on the thing and that attracts sociopaths the sociopaths take over the organization and use it to drive social capital and ends up not having very much to do with what the geeks originally said you have to do yeah and you know we actually had this discussion yes probably a year ago i remember this i think you were there we were talking about and it was like uh you know like should we advertise should we publicize yeah and my conclusion was no i don’t think so yes i think i agreed with you i think things are like an optimal number right because when things get too big what you just described always seems different yes yeah it always degrades and you like and likes v said you know good founders can maybe slow that down or maybe maybe reverse that but it’s very difficult i remember this conversation i very strongly agreed with you i was trying to i remember trying to figure out how to communicate they very strongly agreed without you know feeling pressured or right and but if it sounds weird it sounds exclusionary almost to a certain extent well it it’s not arbitrarily exclusionary i think a lot of the time a lot of things are prices yeah yeah so i don’t know if this applies here but maybe being exclusionary is bad but it’s not literally worse than anything else that can happen so sometimes it will be worth doing it to get to some other goal and i think it’s a sort of um it’s what bertrand russell means sometimes when he says democratic there isn’t like a set of ironclad laws that exclude people and right there isn’t really you know a dictator crossing their names off a list right um it would never say no if anybody wants to come yeah so it you know it is open in that sense it’s just not we’re not evangelical yes perhaps yeah which i think you know

i don’t think that would be a good strategy at least for the stuff i’m trying to get out of it right exactly i think i think it would be it would not be optimal um you mentioned bertrand russell tell me a little bit about him why you find him valuable and why people should read more well partly is um i always start by acknowledging the you know the less the biases kind of so i had a collection of quotes as a child and i went through and highlighted all of the quotes attributed to that name because i loved all of them um and then i bought my mother bought me one of his books as i um we went to a bookstore and i read it and it’s difficult which one it was yeah it was uh why i am not christian it was very uh anti-religious in a sense but it was i read it and i read sam harris’s letter to a christian nation and you know i’m fine with sam harrison i think he has some valuable stuff to say kind of the new atheist the thing that really stood out was there were so much in the it was the process of reasoning in the russell buck and it was the general models that were he had the set of mental heuristics that i value in rationalists he valued logic and reason he was prepared to i learned about charity and i didn’t know that i didn’t use that scott’s word for it i don’t think you know exclusive to scott but i learned that he would often and i learned how useful charity can be as persuasion he he did this trick the zv martial it does this trick too i’ve been noticing them where you make very literally precise statements and you make positive charitable assumptions and you give breathing room and so you’re going along technically and precisely and carefully and not jumping to any conclusions and not engaging in any hyperbole and then you say something that sounds incredibly hyperbolic and the reader not me i want to say okay that’s obviously an exaggeration but you realize it’s not it’s not it’s literally true right um this is stuff about our handling of the coronavirus is a because what’s actually happened is

terrible i mean and it’s um i i don’t really have a good our handling of it has been incredibly inept um in the literal sense of incredibly so if you just tell people why is i think i think what i had was a system that categorized any sufficiently extreme statements is hyperbole and russell could get in behind that because he was so obviously not being hyperbolic right and scott alexander does this too um i want to make it sound more malicious than it is uh i don’t think it would work if they didn’t have some drive to get to the truth right um so i feel like i kind of dodged the question russell was uh incredible he um made very important discoveries in philosophy of mathematics which i’m mostly not very educated about um relative to his other stuff he attempted to ground mathematics in formal logic which is more difficult than it sounds he published a 200-page logical proof that i think it was one and one is two and i have been two and two is four but he managed to get into formal logic but didn’t he uh was politically active and he wrote essays such that even when i disagree with his points i still find value in the logic um he actually commissioned what we know today as the peace sign as the symbol for his command for nuclear disarmament he was incredibly extroverted such that if you know anyone interested in the same sort of stuff as him yeah you google it and there’s a connection there which is nice he was childhood friends with uh a.a milton who wrote the way the poo books for instance um and you know so he pops up in the strangest places he also ran a progressive children’s school for 16 years as the headmaster um he was very he resembled scott alexander in that he was interested in literally everything and he tried to integrate everything with everything else okay i value i really respect it as a school master sorry to cut it yeah um did he write anything about that some um i think he’s written quite a bit but i haven’t read i’ve read some parts of it um i gather that he was incredibly permissive he has a early section where he says that you can’t let children do literally whatever they want to do because if you do that the very small ones will eat pens um i think he was speaking kind of brian kaplan i think just wrote a thing arguing for unschooling with math because math is something you really need to think about a lot of stuff and it’s not fun to learn um russell wrote a lot about what the school the mainstream schools were like and i actually think this there’s this weird dynamic with awful history um it seems like there’s some historical images uh auschwitz for instance that get repeated again and again and again and we fixate on and then there are things we do that they’re viscerally terrible to read and so nobody reads them and i’m not saying that’s a bad thing i mean it hurts but um

so i am

i’m pretty sure that what he was doing was a significant improvement at the time lecture that it was literally optimal but that goes to what we were talking about earlier right that a lot of the times you can do better without exactly um

which was uh

but for me he was the he taught me a lot of mental habits and i think he validated a lot of mental habits that i had that i’d find in our people afterwards but not for a long while very cool what else what’s the most valuable piece of knowledge you’ve gotten from bertrand russell that would be valuable you think to most people to to hear wow

that’s a tough question i know yeah it does many there’s many levels to that question

there’s a lot of is sort of implicit which means you can drag it out and i’m going to try to but there’s a section in a book he wrote about chinese history for him where he’s talking about i think it’s china and japan but i’m not sure it might be china and russia i’ve forgotten the other and they have this peace talk and it breaks down and this is happening in 1920 so we don’t have video of it breaking down we don’t have records the chinese say one thing and i’m going to say the japanese the other people say something else and russell says well we don’t have any sort of direct evidence there’s no way to in terms of our records or so people who are sympathetic to the chinese will tend to believe the chinese and people who are sympathetic to the japanese will believe the japanese and for my part i believe the chinese and what he was saying was um well i got out of it was sort of priors that he thought the chinese story was more plausible um i don’t think he was being sarcastic i think he was pointing to the gap between what you would do as what today i would call a bayesian and what you would do if you’re using evidence to convince other people he just admits that the evidence to convince other people isn’t there if they have different priors um but one reason i said that sort of implicit is

that when i say just that quote it sounds like he’s being sarcastic or euphemistic or um one of the things i notice reading him he has a reputation for being uh witty and sort of people say the word sarcastically and i noticed that he almost never is in the technical sense of the word he uses understatements he uses um

he uses biting turns of phrase but he almost never does that thing where you say the opposite of almost everything he says is literally true and important and relevant it’s just framed in a sardonic binding sort of way and i really appreciate that because in text being sarcastic can be very difficult yes you know like it’s like on twitter you just come across poorly and you know some people i really respect on twitter that are oftentimes sarcastic and it’s just it’s impossible for people to tell yeah well or it’s difficult and i i think it’s a poor habit in in written form we are figuring out i see people using a little bracket with sarcasm after it sometimes that’s great it’s culture i mean it’s involving the yeah that’s cool so what else about bertrand russell you know where would you recommend people start with virginia well i um

there is a very very very good chance that he has written about something that interests you i don’t mean one of the various things that interest you i mean if there’s something that interests you and they existed at all in his own day um there is a very good chance that he has at least an essay about and maybe a bulk i have no idea how he wrote that much i really don’t um he wrote a uh

introduction to the philosophy of mathematics during the three months he was in prison for protesting world war one really yeah that’s cool um but i think i might look at um

type his name and quotes into i mean i started with quotes from him in the book find a quote you like and then read the thing it’s from because the thing it’s from will be very good um and the quotes let you sample a lot of different things and if they put ellipses in the quotes the parts they’re leaving out are probably pretty significant he didn’t when he was a young boy he used to uh do this game with himself he was very lonely and very isolated he used to try to phrase a sentence to use as few words as possible while still communicating all of the information and so he doesn’t list words pretty cool that’s important to keep in mind well quinn yeah thank you so much for coming on oh thank you for having me we’ll definitely have

well that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives

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