Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nine EYRGBHTV thoughts

The recent diavlog between Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robert Greene, found here, was a pleasure to watch. Both of them are intellectual and Greene is actually more willing than Eliezer to consider his own biases when prefacing a statement, which is impressive. I actually wish the subject matter had been slightly different, and Eliezer went off a little bit too much of a tangent while discussing his views on censorship in online communities, but overall their interaction was great. Here are my thoughts:

1) Greene says that as we have moved through history power has become more and more splintered. Now there is an opportunity for anyone to have power and affect the world, such that the ethos around stoicism and meekness that previously dominated the world have become less relevant.

2) Greene would rather have power than happiness, because happiness is fleeting and unremitting. True happiness comes only from continuing to seek victory in the various battles in life. Having power without wanting to act on it is in his conception a sin. His philosophy is a complete acceptance of the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation and of the pursuit of flow as the only appropriate response to an uncertain world. In many ways it stands in stark opposition to Buddhism. It is nice to see this reasonable position explicated sincerely and consistently.

3) The 50th law is all about how you must not be afraid to lose what you have. In Colin Marshall's terms, you must cultivate risk tolerance. Eliezer said that the best piece of advice he got from the book is "always attack before you're ready," because people often never feel that they are ready to accomplish their goals. Like Fifty, you must have the risk tolerance to be willing to abandon your sense of security.

4) Greene considers himself a detective, searching for the great story that he has in his mind. He's persistent and is willing to put in time to get what he wants. Eliezer wishes there was a secret to his success, but of course there isn't! TINSTAAFL. This is kind of like when people ask for advice in school or on tests. The fact that you're asking is a good sign, but of course you already know the answer. Hard work. As happened to Greene, it is possible to come to enjoy this work. It can be addictive.

5) Eliezer states that his life is focused on the truth, but recognizes that there are other people out there with other goals, for example people interested in stories or in competition of some form. Greene is at first unwilling to answer what precisely his goal in life is, but later on he explains that his life is all about reality, accepting it and embracing it face on. Neither of them are interested in delusions from the mainstream media or in pretty lies. This seems to be a common trait in interesting thinkers.

6) With respect to censorship, Eliezer recognizes that it's tough to keep a lively debate without being willing to tolerate a few stupid comments now and then, but if you allow too many of them then you will allow too many trolls to seep in to your community. Greene says that the art of being a leader is having these kind of feelings or gut instincts and being willing to act on them.

7) Eliezer says that the basic ability to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments is a key skill of rationality. Sometimes I think that he is too willing to broaden his core tenets of rationality too wide, and that he should maybe refer to the twelve virtues more often, which remains in my opinion his best work and most concise mission statement.

8) Eliezer says, "The difference between technical problems and political problems is that technical problems are solvable." Amen. He then argues that the way to solve political problems is to turn political problems into technical problems. I think that in the interest of the division of labor the best approach to political problems for the technically-minded is simply to avoid them.

9) Eliezer notes that Greene can get both the "good" audience and the "evil" audience by presenting the laws of power without actually saying that he believes in them or not. Greene says that he is "sincere" about what he writes but then backtracks and says that he exaggerates at times and is tongue-in-cheek at other times. It is hard to say what Greene "really" thinks, but we do get one clue from this dialogue: Greene at one point says "sorry" when he and Eliezer both say something at the same time. Surely he knows that apologizing for no good reason is, for better or worse, an indication of weakness. What this small incident tells me is that, although he may not be willing to admit it, Greene is ultimately an observer into the world of power, much like Machiavelli. Instead of respecting him less, this actually makes me respect him more, as a pure intellectual. There is value in telling it how it is without necessarily acting upon such a worldview oneself.