Hell is Game Theory Folk Theorems

[content warning: simulated very hot places; extremely bad Nash equilibria]

(based on a Twitter thread)

Rowan: “If we succeed in making aligned AGI, we should punish those who committed cosmic crimes that decreased the chance of an positive singularity sufficiently.”

Neal: “Punishment seems like a bad idea. It’s pessimizing another agent’s utility function. You could get a pretty bad equilibrium if you’re saying agents should be intentionally harming each others’ interests, even in restricted cases.”

Rowan: “In iterated games, it’s correct to defect when others defect against you; that’s tit-for-tat.”

Neal: “Tit-for-tat doesn’t pessimize, though, it simply withholds altruism sometimes. In a given round, all else being equal, defection is individually rational.”

Rowan: “Tit-for-tat works even when defection is costly, though.”

Neal: “Oh my, I’m not sure if you want to go there. It can get real bad. This is where I pull out the game theory folk theorems.”

Rowan: “What are those?”

Neal: “They’re theorems about Nash equilibria in iterated games. Suppose players play normal-form game G repeatedly, and are infinitely patient, so they don’t care about their positive or negative utilities being moved around in time. Then, a given payoff profile (that is, an assignment of utilities to players) could possibly be the mean utility for each player in the iterated game, if it satisfies two conditions: feasibility, and individual rationality.”

Rowan: “What do those mean?”

Neal: “A payoff profile is feasible if it can be produced by some mixture of payoff profiles of the original game G. This is a very logical requirement. The payoff profile could only be the average of the repeated game if it was some mixture of possible outcomes of the original game. If some player always receives between 0 and 1 utility, for example, they can’t have an average utility of 2 across the repeated game.”

Rowan: “Sure, that’s logical.”

Neal: “The individual rationality condition, on the other hand, states that each player must get at least as much utility in the profile as they could guarantee getting by min-maxing (that is, picking their strategy assuming other players make things as bad as possible for them, even at their own expense), and at least one player must get strictly more utility.”

Rowan: “How does this apply to an iterated game where defection is costly? Doesn’t this prove my point?”

Neal: “Well, if defection is costly, it’s not clear why you’d worry about anyone defecting in the first place.”

Rowan: “Perhaps agents can cooperate or defect, and can also punish the other agent, which is costly to themselves, but even worse for the other agent. Maybe this can help agents incentivize cooperation more effectively.”

Neal: “Not really. In an ordinary prisoner’s dilemma, the (C, C) utility profile already dominates both agents’ min-max utility, which is the (D, D) payoff. So, game theory folk theorems make mutual cooperation a possible Nash equilibrium.”

Rowan: “Hmm. It seems like introducing a punishment option makes everyone’s min-max utility worse, which makes more bad equilibria possible, without making more good equilibria possible.”

Neal: “Yes, you’re beginning to see my point that punishment is useless. But, things can get even worse and more absurd.”

Rowan: “How so?”

Neal: “Let me show you my latest game theory simulation, which uses state-of-the-art generative AI and reinforcement learning. Don’t worry, none of the AIs involved are conscious, at least according to expert consensus.”

Neal turns on a TV and types some commands into his laptop. The TV shows 100 prisoners in cages, some of whom are screaming in pain. A mirage effect appears across the landscape, as if the area is very hot.

Rowan: “Wow, that’s disturbing, even if they’re not conscious.”

Neal: “I know, but it gets even worse! Look at one of the cages more closely.”

Neal zooms into a single cage. It shows a dial, which selects a value ranging from 30 to 100, specifically 99.

Rowan: “What does the dial control?”

Neal: “The prisoners have control of the temperature in here. Specifically, the temperature in Celsius is the average of the temperature selected by each of the 100 denizens. This is only a hell because they have made it so; if they all set their dial to 30, they’d be enjoying a balmy temperature. And their bodies repair themselves automatically, so there is no release from their suffering.”

Rowan: “What? Clearly there is no incentive to turn the dial all the way to 99! If you set it to 30, you’ll cool the place down for everyone including yourself.”

Neal: “I see that you have not properly understood the folk theorems. Let us assume, for simplicity, that everyone’s utility in a given round, which lasts 10 seconds, is the negative of the average temperature. Right now, everyone is getting -99 utility in each round.. Clearly, this is feasible, because it’s happening. Now, we check if it’s individually rational. Each prisoner’s min-max payoff is -99.3: they set their temperature dial to 30, and since everyone else is min-maxing against them, everyone else sets their temperature dial to 100, leading to an average temperature of 99.3. And so, the utility profile resulting from everyone setting the dial to 99 is individually rational.”

Rowan: “I see how that follows. But this situation still seems absurd. I only learned about game theory folk theorems today, so I don’t understand, intuitively, why such a terrible equilibrium could be in everyone’s interest to maintain.”

Neal: “Well, let’s see what happens if I artificially make one of the prisoners select 30 instead of 99.”

Neal types some commands into his laptop. The TV screen splits to show two different dials. The one on the left turns to 30; the prisoner attempts to turn it back to 99, but is dismayed at it being stuck. The one on the right remains at 99. That is, until 6 seconds pass, at which point the left dial releases; both prisoners set their dials to 100. Ten more seconds pass, and both prisoners set the dial back to 99.

Neal: “As you can see, both prisoners set the dial to the maximum value for one round. So did everyone else This more than compensated for the left prisoner setting the dial to 30 for one round, in terms of average temperature. So, as you can see, it was never in the interest of that prisoner to set the dial to 30, which is why they struggled against it.”

Rowan: “That just passes the buck, though. Why does everyone set the dial to 100 when someone set it to 30 in a previous round?”

Neal: “The way it works is that, in each round, there’s an equilibrium temperature, which starts out at 99. If anyone puts the dial less than the equilibrium temperature in a round, the equilibrium temperature in the next round is 100. Otherwise, the equilibrium temperature in the next round is 99 again. This is a Nash equilibrium because it is never worth deviating from. In the Nash equilibrium, everyone else selects the equilibrium temperature, so by selecting a lower temperature, you cause an increase of the equilibrium temperature in the next round. While you decrease the temperature in this round, it’s never worth it, since the higher equilibrium temperature in the next round more than compensates for this decrease.”

Rowan: “So, as a singular individual, you can try to decrease the temperature relative to the equilibrium, but others will compensate by increasing the temperature, and they’re much more powerful than you in aggregate, so you’ll avoid setting the temperature lower than the equilibrium, and so the equilibrium is maintained.”

Neal: “Yes, exactly!”

Rowan: “If you’ve just seen someone else violate the equilibrium, though, shouldn’t you rationally expect that they might defect from the equilibrium in the future?”

Neal: “Well, yes. This is a limitation of Nash equilibrium as an analysis tool, if you weren’t already convinced it needed revisiting based on this terribly unnecessarily horrible outcome in this situation. Possibly, combining Nash equilibrium with Solomonoff induction might allow agents to learn each others’ actual behavioral patterns even when they deviate from the original Nash equilibrium. This gets into some advanced state-of-the-art game theory (1, 2), and the solution isn’t worked out yet. But we know there’s something wrong with current equilibrium notions.”

Rowan: “Well, I’ll ponder this. You may have convinced me of the futility of punishment, and the desirability of mercy, with your… hell simulation. That’s… wholesome in its own way, even if it’s horrifying, and ethically questionable.”

Neal: “Well, I appreciate that you absorbed a moral lesson from all this game theory!”

Am I trans?

Perhaps the most common question that someone questioning their gender asks is “am I trans?” I asked this question of myself 10 years ago, and have yet to come to a firm conclusion. I mean, I did most of the things one would expect a trans person to do (change name/pronouns, take cross-sex hormones, etc), but that doesn’t really answer the question.

There is a possible model someone could have of the situation, where people have a “gender identity”, which is to some degree fixed by adulthood, and which predicts their thoughts and behaviors. Such a model is, rather primitively, assumed by “gender tests” such as the hilarious COGIATI, and less primitively, by transgender writing such as Natalie Reed’s The Null HypotheCis. Quoting the article:

Cis is treated as the null hypothesis. It doesn’t require any evidence. It’s just the assumed given. All suspects are presumed cisgender until proven guilty of transsexuality in a court of painful self-exploration. But this isn’t a viable, logical, “skeptical” way to approach the situation. In fact it’s not a case of a hypothesis being weighed against a null hypothesis (like “there’s a flying teapot orbiting the Earth” vs. “there is no flying teapot orbiting the Earth”), it is simply two competing hypotheses. Two hypotheses that should be held to equal standards and their likelihood weighed against one another.

When the question is reframed as such, suddenly those self-denials, those ridiculous, painful, self-destructive demands we place on ourselves to come up with “proof” of being trans suddenly start looking a whole lot less valid and rational. When we replace the question “Am I sure I’m trans?” with the question “Based on the evidence that is available, and what my thoughts, behaviours, past and feelings suggest, what is more likely: that I’m trans or that I’m cis?” what was once an impossible, unresolvable question is replaced by one that’s answer is painfully obvious. Cis people may wonder about being the opposite sex, but they don’t obsessively dream of it. Cis people don’t constantly go over the question of transition, again and again, throughout their lives. Cis people don’t find themselves in this kind of crisis. Cis people don’t secretly spend every birthday wish on wanting to wake up magically transformed into the “opposite” sex, nor do they spend years developing increasingly precise variations of how they’d like this wish to be fulfilled. Cis people don’t spend all-nighters on the internet secretly researching transition, and secretly looking at who transitioned at what age, how much money they had, how much their features resemble their own, and try to figure out what their own results would be. Cis people don’t get enormously excited when really really terrible movies that just happen to include gender-bending themes, like “Switch” or “Dr. Jekyl And Mrs. Hyde”, randomly pop up on late night TV, and stay up just to watch them. Etc.

It’s at this point pretty easy for me to say that I’m not cis. I did do the sort of things cis people are described as not doing, in the previous paragraph, and I don’t think most people do most of them. I was assigned male at birth and don’t identify as a man, at least not fully or consistently. Does it follow that I am trans?

This may seem to be an abstruse question: I certainly have behaved a lot like a trans person would be expected to, so what’s the remaining issue? If everyone is either cis or trans, then I am trans with practically total certainty. But the same critical attitude that could lead someone to question their gender or reject the gender binary would also apply to a cis/trans binary.

“Transgender” is often defined as “having a gender identity differing from one’s assigned gender at birth”. Does that apply to me? I found the concept of “gender identity” confusing even as I was starting transition, and wasn’t sure if I had one, even if I had strong preferences about my biological sex characteristics. I didn’t “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man” in anything like a stable way. Apparently, some apparently-cis people have similar feelings. Quoting Cis By Default:

But the thing is… I think that some people don’t have that subjective internal sense of themselves as being a particular gender. There’s no part of their brain that says “I’m a guy!”, they just look around and people are calling them “he” and they go with the flow. They’re cis by default, not out of a match between their gender identity and their assigned gender.

I think you could probably tell them apart by asking them the old “what would you do if you suddenly woke up as a cis woman/cis man?” If they instantly understand why you’d need to transition in that circumstance, they’re regular old cis; if they are like “I’d probably be fine with it actually,” they might be cis by default. (Of course, the problem is that they might be a cis person with a gender identity who just can’t imagine what gender dysphoria would feel like. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to stick random cis men with estrogen and find out how many of them get dysphoric.)

I used to think I was cis by default. That can’t really describe me, given that I was motivated to transition. If I had no stable sense of gender identity at this time, perhaps a nonbinary descriptor such as “genderfluid” or “agender” would fit better? A problem with this terminology is that it implicitly assumes that such a gender condition is uncommon. People usually call themselves that to differentiate themselves from the general assumed-cis population and from presumably-binary transgender people. However, lack of a stable feeling of gender is, I think, rather common in the general population; I remember seeing a study (which I can’t now find) showing that over 15% of people “feel like a man” or “feel like a woman” at different times.

The “cis by default” article describes dysphoria, which especially refers to intense dissatisfaction with not having sex characteristics matching one’s identified gender. While I did feel better and had fewer negative feelings when getting further in transition, I was legitimately uncertain at points about whether I “had dysphoria”. Early on, I thought I might not be “really dysphoric” and accordingly unable to successfully live as a woman, and was intensely sad about this; I interpreted these feelings as “gender dysphoria”, thinking it was possible they would get worse if I didn’t transition. Most of what feelings like this (and others that made me think I might be trans) indicate is that I had/have a strong preference for having a female body and living as a woman; “dysphoria” may in some cases be a way of communicating this kind of preference to people and social systems that only care about sufficiently negative conditions, such as much of the medical system. Unfortunately, requiring people to provide “proof of pain” to satisfy their strong preferences may increase real or perceived pain as a kind of negotiating strategy with gatekeeping systems that are based on confused moral premises.

There is a sizable group that challenges the cis/trans binary but doesn’t consider themselves “nonbinary” per se, who are often labeled as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, but usually label themselves as “gender critical”. Although I am certainly “gender critical” by an intensional definition of the term (that is, I’m critical of gender), I’m not by the ordinary language meaning of the term (that is, I’m not a central example of the set of people who self-describe or are described by others as “gender critical”). In particular, so-called “gender criticals” consider biological sex very important for society to assign meaning to and treat people differently on the basis of, which, ironically, reproduces “gender” as defined as “social and cultural meanings assigned to sex”. This is, arguably, its own sort of gender identity, which I don’t share. Instead, my criticism of gender is more like that of queer theorists such as Judith Butler.

I believe there were some points in my life at which I legitimately had a non-male gender identity. At some point, I was convinced that I was actually a woman, and considered this important. I also had experiences in which it was very important to me whether I was categorized as a man or a woman. These experiences tended to be fearful experiences in which I was “objectified”, believing (at least partially correctly) that I was subject to different social threats on the basis of whether I “was” a man or a woman.

I concluded from these experiences that gender identity is a property of objects, not subjects. It is easy to perceive one’s own perceptions of others’ genders; most people, when looking at a person or group of people, can’t help but classify them as men, women, or ambiguous/intermediate. It is rather easier to make these judgments from a distance, than to classify one’s self, the nearest person. Up close, there may be too many details and ambiguities to easily form a simplified judgment of whether one is a man, a woman, or something else; any particular judgment is in a sense “problematic”, since contrary evidence is available immediately at hand. Additionally, being a subject is more like having a lens into the world than being an entity in the world, and so properties of entities, such as gender, do not straightforwardly apply to subjects; what I am saying here has some things in common with Buddhist “no-self” insights, and Kant’s distinction between the self as subject and object.

I believe it is correct to say that, at some previous point in my life, I have been trans. Why, then, would I be uncertain about whether I am presently trans? This is partially due to recent experiences. Due to, among other things, better understanding criticisms of the sort of transgender ideology that I had accepted, coming to believe that gender was a morally irrelevant characteristic, and ketamine depression therapy, I came to be more aware of ways I was unlike typical women and like typical men, and was able to be “chill” about this situation, rather than dysphoric. I considered the question of whether I was a trans woman or an extremely dedicated femboy, finding it to be delightfully meaningless. I experienced contexts in which someone gendering me as male felt pleasant, not dysphoric. I started thinking of myself as non-binary (specifically, an androgyne), and found that this alleviated gender-related stress in my life. I could stop worrying so much about “passing” and about lawyer-y debates (internal and external) about what gender I really was; I had both masculine and feminine characteristics, so calling myself an “androgyne” involved little distortion or selective reporting of the facts.

It was as if I had previously installed a PR module in my mind, to convince myself and others that I was a woman, and I later managed to turn it off, as it was providing little benefit relative to the cost. In some sense, I had predicted this at the start of my transition; I believed that the gender situation of people who were assigned female at birth, identified as non-binary, and did not pursue medical transition, was the sort of gender/sex situation I wanted for myself. My adoption of a binary gender identity and the associated PR module was, in large part, a negotiation with society so that my medical transition and experience being perceived as a woman by others (a type of assimilation) could be accepted. Accordingly, the PR module and binary identity serve less of a function once I have already accomplished this transition. This instrumental understanding of gender identity accords with some feminist thought; quoting the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Bernice Hausman’s Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender (1995) aims to provide a feminist analysis of transsexuality within a Foucauldian paradigm. While her theoretical framework differs markedly from Raymond’s, she also shares Raymond’s concern about transsexuality as well as her deep distrust of medical intervention on the body.

For Hausman, the primary hallmark of transsexuality is the sheer demand for transsexual surgeries through which transsexual subjects are constituted as such (1995, 110). As a consequence, she sees transsexual subjectivity as entirely dependent upon medical technology. In Hausman’s view, transsexuals and doctors work interdependently to produce “the standard account” of transsexuality which serves as a “cover” for the demand for surgery and to justify access to the medical technologies (110, 138–9). Behind the “cover” there is only the problematic demand to, through technology, engineer oneself as a subject. Because of this, Hausman claims that transsexual agency can be “read through” the medical discourse (110).

A corollary of her view is that the very notion of gender (as a psychological entity and cultural role distinguished from sex) is a consequence of medical technology, and in part, the emergence of transsexuality. Rather than arising as a consequence of sexist gender roles, Hausman argues, transsexuality is one of vehicles through which gender itself is produced as an effect of discourses designed to justify access to certain medical technology (140).

I can detect signs of a similar PR module in some transgender people, especially binary-identified trans people early in their transition. They believe, and sometimes say explicitly, that their “narrative” of themselves is very important, and that their well-being depends on their control of this narrative. I can empathize, given that I’ve been there. However, I no longer “buy into” the overall gender framework they are living in. I am too exhausted, after a decade of internal and discursive analysis and deconstruction of various gender frameworks, to care about gender frameworks as I once did.

There is a notable flip in how I’m interpreting the “am I trans?” question now, as opposed to earlier. Earlier, by “am I trans?”, I was asking if I authentically was a woman (or at least, not a man) in a psychological sense. Now, by “am I trans?”, I am asking whether I am manipulating narratives to convince people that I am a woman (or at least not a man). These two notions of “trans” are in some sense opposed, reflecting different simulacra levels.

Quoting more of the SEP article:

Prosser’s strategy for marking a trans theoretical vantage point is to draw a contrast between the centrality of performance (in queer theory) and narrative (for transsexual people). He correctly notes a tendency in postmodern queer theory to raise questions about the political role of narratives (1995, 484). Such narratives may be seen to involve the illusion of a false unity and they may also involve exclusionary politics. Yet narratives, according to Prosser, are central to the accounts of transsexuals and such narratives involve the notion of home and belonging (1995, 488). This appeal to narrative seems in tension with a picture which underscores the fragmentation of coherent narratives into diverse performances and which identifies subversion with the disruption of narrative-based identities. Coherent narratives, even if ultimately fictional, play important intelligibility-conferring roles in the lives of transsexuals, according to Prosser. And this cannot be well-accommodated in accounts which aim to undermine such coherence.

In Prosser’s view, transsexual narratives are driven by a sense of feeling not at home in one’s body, through a journey of surgical change, ultimately culminating in a coming home to oneself (and one’s body) (1995, 490). In this way, the body and bodily discomfort constitute the “depth” or “reality” that stands in contrast to the view that body is sexed through performative gender behavior which constitutes it as the container of gender identity. In light of this, Prosser concludes that queer theory’s use of transsexuals to undermine gender as mere performance fails to do justice to the importance of narrative and belonging in trans identities.

I have, in a sense, transitioned from transsexual to queer; I have constructed a transsexual narrative and later de-constructed it (along with many other narratives, partially during “ego death” experiences), coming to see more of life (especially gender) as an improvisational act beneath the narratives (“all the world’s a stage”). Performative accounts of gender, such as Judith Butler’s, resonate with me in a way they once did not, and gender essentialist narratives (especially transmedicalism) no longer resonate with me as they once did. 

Not needing to do transgender PR is, in a sense, a privilege; if I’ve already accomplished gender transition, I have little need to communicate my situation with psychological narratives as opposed to concrete facts. There is perhaps a risk of me developing a “fuck you, I got mine” attitude, and neglecting to promote the autonomy of people similar to how I was earlier in transition, who have more need for these narratives. At the same time, I don’t need to agree with people’s frameworks to support their autonomy, and criticizing these frameworks can increase the autonomy of people who feel like they shouldn’t transition because they don’t fit standard trans frameworks.

Chilling out about gender does not, of course, negate the strange gender/sex situation I find myself in. I inhabit an ambiguously-sexed transsexual body, which I am happier with than my original body, which changes how I live and how others perceive me. I cannot return to being cis and inhabiting cis gender frameworks, except by detransitioning, which would be objectively difficult and expensive, and subjectively undesirable.

In inhabiting neither cis nor binary transgender gender frameworks, I am illegible. Of course, I often call myself trans and/or a woman, to be at least a little understood within commonly-understood frameworks, but these aren’t statements of ultimate truths. What I have written so far legibilizes my situation somewhat, but I can’t expect everyone I interact with to read this. I could perhaps tell people that I am non-binary, which I do some of the time, although not consistently. While “non-binary” is, by the intensive definition, an accurate descriptor of myself, I still hesitate to use the term, perhaps because it is a part of a standard gender framework, created by people in the past, that centers gender identity in a way that I do not entirely agree with.

A relevant question becomes: are non-binary people, in general, transgender? Typically, non-binary people are considered transgender, since they aren’t cisgender. But, as I’ve discussed earlier, not everyone fits into a cis/trans binary, and some non-binary people do not feel they fit into this binary either.

The main reason why, despite my apparently-transgender situation, I hesitate to unqualifiedly call myself “trans” is that I do not consider “gender identity” per se to be a centrally important descriptor of me or my situation, and relatedly do not feel the need to selectively present aspects of my situation so as to create the narrative impression that I am any particular gender. I can see that this differentiates me from most people who consider the “trans” label important as a descriptor of themselves, despite obvious similarities in our situations, and despite having once been one of these people.

Perhaps now is a good time to revisit Natalie Reed’s 2013 article, “Trans 101”, which I read years ago and can better understand now due to life experience.

(emphasis mine)

As my thinking developed, my priorities shifted… instead of wanting to simply explain to primarily cis audiences what trans people are, what our experiences are like, why they shouldn’t treat us like shit, and how to treat us better, I wanted to be part of the trans-feminist discourse and try to redefine the entire frameworks of gender and feminism that had led to our explanations, and our fights against cissexism, to be necessary in the first place. I didn’t really feel like simply providing the oppressor class with a new set of vocabularies and concepts was going to be sufficient, and I began to regard the Trans 101 frameworks as themselves destructive.

Was it really all that beneficial to simply add a new set of terms or concepts for gender onto which people could apply assumptions and expectations? New categories of gender, new “roles”, new codified sets of behaviour and new codified sets of assumptions people could have about your history, identity, body and potential that people could misread, or misperceive you as, or misunderstand?

And those basic frameworks were themselves a product of a norma[ti]vity. Yes, it was norma[ti]vity internal to a marginalized category, but that didn’t really matter. All normativities are narrowed to a specific context… A specific system of privileges bred that idea of “what trans people are and want”, which was the same system of privileges that made that the concept of trans I was initially introduced to (and had to subsequently deconstruct), AND the same system of privileges that permitted me the role of introducing it to a specific cis audience.

The Trans 101, as defined by the trans people privileged by a cis system to speak for the “consensus” of a trans community, constructed our existence and its consideration as a choice: the cis person could choose to read and care, and thereby be validated in their self-perception as an “ally” and/or good person who cares about the well-being of others or as a down-to-earth, common sense type who likes to look at things rationally without worrying too much about ultra-minority concerns.

In its entirety, the framework, by being about “what trans people are and want, and the vocabulary to discuss or address us”, as a separate category from an addressed cis audience, positioned apart from the realities of gender as a whole, which reflected on the reality of that cis readership. It left the choice in THEIR hands as to whether to take it or leave it, in relationship to this fundamentally separate identity and segregated category of humanity. It defined us, but defined us separate from rather than illustrative of the human experience of gender, and in so doing gave them new and “sensitive” vocabularies to distinguish us… All the while working within the essentialistic model of gender as primarily an issue of what you are and how you should be understood, all the while specializing us as a subject of study and understanding… all the while placing as its centerpiece the cis choice to be “educated” and to “understand” in contrast to how this an extension of the shared experience of gender.

Consequently “gender identity” was central. Things were consistently framed in inevitably heirarchi[c]al spectrum models. It was essentialized as “brain sex” and “gender identity” ( allowing the approach of sex and gender identity to be firmly distinct, and cis people “being a sex” / trans people “having a gender identity”). It defined trans as something you are rather than a way you express yourself, way you live, way you are treated, and way you interpret experiences and feelings. It segregated the experience of “being” trans from all other experiences, however much they modify it: race, class, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc… And it allowed certain political priorities to be considered the needs or causes “of the trans community…

So what does it mean to attempt Trans 101, to attempt explaining trans-variance, in a cultural context in which the “basics” of that question, and the systems of what does and doesn’t get defined as “basic”, have been overwhelmingly a means of our own marginalization, a means of externally limiting the range of our own voice, and a means of reinforcing the kyr[i]archy and privilege internal to our community that keeps it centralized and dominated by specific groups? What does it even mean to attempt to explain a category of experience precisely defined by its own variance, to define something that only exists by virtue of human defiance of having this aspect of human experience defined?

Any kind of statement of “this is what trans is” would be inherently reductive, but reductive statements aren’t necessarily always destructive. The problem is when the reductive simplification presents itself as a sufficient response to the question.

There’s a fundamental tension there that illustrates a lot of the crisis of “Trans 101” and the difficult push-and-pull between deconstruction and simplifications meant for comprehension by a normative, mainstream audience: the tension between the need to explain to the normative, mainstream audience that “it’s more complicated than that”, in response to their received notions about gender, sex and sexuality, while providing them with new notions and models that aren’t “too complicated” to understand. So we end up creating simplifications of our own effort to assert that the experience of gender is complicated. We created little reductive diagrams, outlining a small set of generalized variables, to explain that little reductive diagrams, drawing assumptions about people’s bodies and experiences and identities out of a small set of generalized variables, aren’t adequate. You see the problem?

What makes this an especially poignant problem is the fact that trans experiences and identities are all about new vocabularies and new narratives. In so far as we’re to understand gender as a semiotic system or language, transgenderism is the deviation from standardized language of the dictionary towards new words and new meanings for things that couldn’t be articulated in the previous dialect…In so far as gender is a semiotic system and language, and what attends our assignment isn’t simply a categorization but a modeled and pre-determined, expected narrative for our lives, the act of ‘transition’ is all about challenging language and meanings and narratives. We mean something new, outside the standardized definitions, and we carve out a new story.

Language isn’t a one-way street, however. It’s one thing to say a word, it’s another thing for it [to] mean something… Consequently, translating our existence remains a fundamental part of our existence being heard and seen…

We can’t undermine the entire system of gender. We can’t. Utopian gender-abolitionists believe this, but I don’t. I believe it’s inherent to us. We perceive sexual difference, in others or in ourselves, and we try to understand and express it. That doesn’t seem harmful to me, it just seems human. And over time we develop heuristics for it… ways to make it easier; if one aspect of sexual difference is usually consistent with another, we guess that when we encounter the one in a person we’ll encounter the other. And that’s not itself harmful either, just… simple.

But we also have social orders and kyr[i]archy. We also have patriarchy. And we have diversity of experience. Things get complicated. Human diversity is complicated. I don’t think I’d want it to be simple.

Maybe it’s an inherently broken thing to attempt to articulate the trans experience at all, let alone articulate it to an outside perspective. We ARE the glitches, the new meanings, the problems, the hiccups in the heuristic, the diversity, the variance. Maybe that’s all we need or should communicate about ourselves beyond ourselves: You don’t get it. You won’t get it. We’re something else. We don’t fit. And wherever or whenever we do just means your system still isn’t broad enough, and you still don’t get it.  

But if that’s the case, then ou[r] genders are broken too. To speak, to have a voice… that only counts in so far as you’re heard and understood.

Is that weird little in-between space, hovering right between the need for comprehension and simplification, and the fact that those simplifications will always be misunderstandings and require complications… is that the battlefield? Is that where the meanings are negotiated? Is to be the trans writer to be right there in the position that counts the most in having our genders be understood, ensuring that they count?

No. Fuck no.

Where the battle is, where things matter, that’s in the individual lives. It’s in every single person who in contrast to everything they’ve been told about who and what they are, what that means, what defines it and restricts them to it… in defiance of every expectation that they were saddled with along with the M or F on their birth certificate, like what they’d wear and who they’d fuck and what they’d do for a living and what name they’d have and keep and how their bodies would develop and what they’d choose to do with their bodies… in declaring their own identity, their own body, and carving out a range of their own narratives-to-be… THAT’s where it is. That’s what counts. The fact that it happens at all is a living testament to everything about people that’s worth believing in. And it’s beautiful, every. fucking. time.

And it’s been my honour and privilege to just do my best to help it be noticed.

Reed is describing a kind of “transnormativity”: certain trans people are considered valid educators who can explain what transgenderism is and how people should think, talk, and act regarding gender, and can validate other people (especially cis people) for being “good allies”. 

Cisnormativity has norms like:

  • If you were born male, you’re a boy or man. If you were born female, you’re a girl or woman.
  • Wear clothes appropriate to your gender.
  • Use facilities such as bathrooms in accordance with your gender.
  • Look and behave at least somewhat typically for your gender, don’t shock people by going way out of the lines.
  • In a patriarchal context, be a “confident” agentic person if you’re a man, and otherwise defer to men.
  • In a feminist context, avoid doing things that might make women uncomfortable if you’re a man, and prefer deferring to women regarding gender.
  • Consider transgenderism to be a very rare phenomenon, of “being trapped in the wrong body”, which almost certainly doesn’t apply to you.

Transnormativity is a reaction to cisnormativity, and has norms like:

  • If someone says they’re a man, try to think and talk about them as if they’re a man; if they say they’re a woman, try to think and talk about them as if they’re a woman; same for nonbinary people.
  • Think of yourself as having a “gender identity”, which might or might not match your gender assigned at birth. If it matches, you’re cis, if it doesn’t, you’re trans.
  • Explain your gendered behaviors and attitudes as products of your “gender identity”. Ideally, explain your own gender identity as something that has stayed constant over time.
  • Emphasize that you’re in pain if you can’t live as your identified gender.
  • Look and act somewhat like your identified gender.
  • Don’t argue with others about their gender or try to change their gender identity.
  • If you’re trans, talk about how you feel bad when people think you’re a different gender than you are, and get mad at them sometimes.
  • Think of trans people as a group that is pretty different from cis people and which is oppressed for being trans. If you’re trans, think of yourself as “special”.
  • Use people’s preferred gender pronouns.
  • Support people’s ability to access hormone treatments and surgery, but don’t consider it a necessary condition for being trans.
  • Consider trans people, especially trans people with more sophisticated lefty political views, to be authorities on gender.

To be clear, not all parts of cisnormativity and transnormativity are bad, but they’re both unsatisfactory, restrictive systems of gender. A great deal of both cisnormativity and transnormativity and created by the psychiatric system and its ability to gatekeep transsexual medical procedures, as discussed earlier, and by pro-diversity institutions such as most colleges. “Gender anarchy” is perhaps an alternative to cisnormativity and transnormativity, which I’m not sure has actually been tried, though it might have important problems and not be stable.

Reed’s article is, I think, even more relevant in 2023 than in 2013, as transgenderism and transgender rights are debated in mainstream political discourse around the world. Some issues that affect trans people are considered core parts of “trans rights”, and others aren’t, and those that are correspond with those parts of the phenomenon of transgenderism that can be made legible. Her concerns about normative, simplified, harmfully reductive “trans 101” models being the standard for cis people’s validation as trans allies is pertinent to the controversial and at times legally regulated teaching of gender identity in classrooms.

Her criticism of the way trans 101 defines transgender people as a group “separate from rather than illustrative of the human experience of gender”, differentiated by features such as “gender identity”, explains part of what makes the “trans” category and the cis/trans binary problematic. Given that I think I have many gender experiences in common with the general presumably-cis population, I’m reluctant to separate myself into a different category.

So, am I trans? I could decide to answer this question by deciding on a definition of “trans” and determining whether it applies to myself. However, any definition would fail to account for important aspects of people’s situations, and the common meaning of the term will change anyway. Accordingly, I feel more inclined to leave the question open rather than answering it once and for all.

All primates need grooming

Healthy social animals will generally “groom” each other, touching and cleaning each others’ bodies, and maintaining their appearances. Grooming helps social animals build and maintain their social bonds and structures. Grooming can exchange information relevant to future sexual partnerships, although is generally not sexual in itself.

Modern humans usually treat touch as sexual by default (sometimes with exceptions for women touching each other). Certain forms of touch are, therefore, restricted to exceptional relationships such as monogamous partnerships. On the basis of observations of social animals, it is reasonable to posit that this modern behavior is unhealthy. It is healthy for a community of primates to groom each other, to communicate about sex and appropriate sex behaviors with each other, and to touch each other even without the implication of wanting to be a reproductive or monogamous sexual partner.

The right’s new slur against queer people and especially trans people is “groomer”.  Republicans are introducing legislation across America to restrict instruction of students about sexual orientation and gender identity. This is not about “child grooming” in the narrow sense of adults soliciting sex with minors below the age of consent, which is a crime. The behavior in question that seems to be objected to is adults shaping the sexual preferences and behavior of adolescents and young adults, in this case by giving a menu of available sex roles (e.g. “cisgender”, “homosexual”) and their typical and appropriate behaviors.

Intact extended families involve “grooming” in this broad sense, sometimes for arranged marriages. The nuclear family compromises between the extended family and atomized individualism and moralistically competes with both. Some amount of adults shaping adolescents’ sexual preferences and behavior is inevitable, and even legally obligatory; statutory rape is a crime, and adults are required to not be accomplices in rape between adolescents.

As an adolescent, one gets a lot of mixed messages from adults about what sexual behaviors are appropriate. It’s easy to come by “don’t”: don’t rape people or pressure people into sex, don’t have unprotected sex, and so on. It’s much harder to come by “dos”: what does appropriate sexual behavior look like for someone like me? Presumably, just going up to people and asking “would you like to have sex?” is off limits, and is in a lot of contexts creepy and scary. You’re supposed to ask them on a date. Ok, so go up to people and ask “would you like to go on a date”? No, that doesn’t work, you strike up a conversation and ask if she has a boyfriend, and invite her to “coffee” or “dinner”. Uhh, what do you do after that? If you’ve had dinner three times in a row, does that mean you’re dating? When is it appropriate to ask the sex question, or is that supposed to be implicit somehow?

Adolescents will at this point find it hard to get more specific advice from adults. “Just be yourself!” “It’s complicated, you’ll figure it out!” One gets the point that pinning down the precise details of appropriate dating is defeating the purpose. They can get some examples of “dating” in the media, and can take classes in gender studies if they want to get really studious about it. Boys, especially, will be urged to look into “feminism” for appropriate instruction, on how not to be “entitled” or participate in “rape culture”. This advice will be confusing, requiring a large amount of interpretation and discussion of texts produced and interpreted under politically constraining conditions, and some will turn to more transgressive “pick up artist” material from men online, which advises men in how to be “dominant” and exert “frame control” (hey, isn’t that kinda rapey?), and claims to have more success with this approach.

Meanwhile, for many college students, underage drinking and frat parties are how they expect sex to happen, how they’ve heard about it happen in their social group. Sex happens as an accident; over a drunken game of truth and dare, someone dares someone to give someone else a lap dance, and people gauge each others’ reactions. Dating typically follows sexual touch (“hooking up”), rather than preceding it. Sometimes people get “groomed” by their social groups: the cooler people set up two of their friends or acquaintances with each other. The TV show “Community” depicts some of these dynamics: the cooler members of a community college Spanish study group encourage the less-cool members to pursue or not pursue certain sexual and romantic opportunities, often due to accidental political conveniences.

Supposedly, it’s different for queer people, who are dealing with a very different set of issues. It’s usually easy for “gay” boys to have a lot of sex (and strangely, to touch more boobs than straight boys in some cases???), and it requires less shame and complex social dances; “consent” is presumably easier to assess given the similar gender of the participants, so there’s no worry that one is being “patriarchal” by sexualizing another boy. Similarly, “lesbianism” is a possibility for girls, and it has feminist implications; having sex with another woman isn’t showing one’s self to be a sex object for men, it’s outside of heteronormative patriarchy.

There is somewhat more muted discussion of other categories, “transgender” people who may present as members of the opposite sex; male-to-female transgender people face “transmisogyny” and are not simply perpetuators of the patriarchy, and their sexual relationships with women (cis or trans) can be legitimately “lesbian” since they are both women under patriarchy, although there are very fierce online debates about this subject.

Oh, but that’s a medical category, right? It’s complicated. There’s this story of “born in the wrong body”, and a lot of trans people hate their bodies and want to change them, but it’s criticized by a lot of trans people, and some say they weren’t born in the wrong body, they were born in the wrong society. There’s definitely a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis, but the main symptoms are persistently wanting to be the other sex. Although some trans people know they are trans from an early age, it’s more common to find out much later, and only in retrospect see the early signs of transgenderism as definitively indicating transgender identity. At some point, you just have to ask someone whether they’re a woman or man or both or something else, and trust them, as long as they’re being consistent about it.

Transgenderism is hard to define the boundaries of, due to limited scientific understanding of the phenomenon and due to politics. Do people transition because of hormones in the womb, because of genetics, because they have a body map not matching their body, because of cultural gender associations learned from an early age, because of ongoing gender roles, or some other cause? Attempts to standardize on a purely medical notion of transgenderism have been attempted (“transsexual separatism” or “truscum”) but have been unsuccessful both scientifically and politically.

Actually going about transitioning requires undertaking a hazing ritual of epic proportions. Act “gender dysphoric” enough to the psychiatrists to get their prescriptions, present as the other sex despite having very little practice or instruction, endure intense online debates about whether one is “really transgender”, is “a man intruding on women’s spaces”, is “just a confused butch lesbian who really shouldn’t be injecting testosterone”. The arch nemisis in this intense hazing is the “TERFs”, who say that male-to-female transgender people remain men, and are necessarily participants in patriarchy and rape culture. A budding trans woman must philosophically defeat this nemesis to be secure in the knowledge that she is a woman who isn’t inherently sexually assaulting other women by hitting on them clumsily.

In cis-hetero culture, people can project the authoritarian, anti-life and anti-choice binds they find themselves under to the other gender: it’s patriarchy, it’s women preferring dominant men evolutionarily, it’s women forming a sex cartel. Queerness lessens or dissolves many of these boundaries, making it clear that consensual, pleasurable sex really is possible, with no “dominant frame control” required.

Does “grooming” exist in queer culture? Milo Yiannopolis was a gay darling of the right until it was revealed that he had consensual sex with older men as a teenager and liked it. The Platonic dialogues clearly indicate that philosophy discourse was contiguous with homosexual seduction, and “Platonic love” was re-defined to mean “non-sexual, non-romantic love” as part of a cover-up of pederasty in philosophy departments.

Exhibit A of transgender grooming, the label on a bottle of injected estradiol I ordered from a DIY hormone replacement therapy website:

an estradiol injection bottle depicting an anime girl saying "Don't look at my giant Girldick"

Is this an appropriate label for an estradiol injection bottle? Anyone with a penis considering estrogen treatments should really be spending a lot of time thinking about girl dick. It would be irresponsible to inject estradiol without spending at least several hours sexually fantasizing, reading erotic literature, and watching pornography involving girldick. The only reason why it would be inappropriate for a person with a penis considering estradiol treatments to be thinking about girldick is if they’ve already thought through the implications and find it pedestrian.

Having written that, I feel anxiety about how I might be sexualizing young people and positively shaping their sexual preferences and behavior. But I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. I stand by every sentence I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Part of why we have the present standards of care for trans people is John Money, who tried unsuccessfully to groom David Reimer into a female sex role. When the boy David Remier was born, his circumcision was botched, and his parents, fearing he’d lack success living as a man, took him to gender psychologist John Money, who decided to surgically re-assign him as female (removing his testicles) and socialize him as a girl, since gender is socially constructed after all. This female socialization involved instructing Reimer to simulate sex with his brother. This is a rather central instance of “child grooming”, and was an attempt by adults to shape a child to sex roles appropriate to their body morphology.

The attempt was unsuccessful; Reimer was too masculine to fit in with the girls, eventually adopting a male identity and then killing himself. This case proves that “gender identity” is to some extent a real psychological property that can’t be changed with “conversion therapy”; Money went on to be quite influential in the medical classification and care for transgender people.

The Reimer case is interesting because it’s simultaneously a bogeyman of the left and the right: it’s conversion therapy, and it’s transgender grooming! As such, Money makes for an ideal scapegoat. And yet, on the hypothesis that Money was operating under, that gender is a social construct, such treatment may have been expected to be to Reimer’s benefit. If people are blank slates to be filled in with culture, culture must instruct them in sex role behavior, with creepy implications. The alternative hypothesis is that there are some sex role behaviors that are innate, that children may have a “gender identity” that is an internal sense rather than an external imprint of culture.

A theory young trans people will encounter early on is Ray Blanchard’s and Michael Bailey’s transsexual topology: every male-to-female transgender person is supposedly either an extremely gay feminine bottom, or a heterosexual man who gets off on imagining himself as a woman. This remains an influential academic theory, although there are many critics. Trans women who talk openly enough must encounter these theories and claims that they are “fetishists” who are “appropriating women’s bodies”. It’s inherently sexualizing (and “grooming”) to be subjected to such rigid classifications of one’s sexuality and gender. There was a brouhaha when a transgender activist replied by sexualizing Michael Bailey’s daughter with the same sort of text Bailey used to describe trans women (“a cock-starved exhibitionist, or a paraphiliac who just gets off on the idea of it?”), resulting in uproar. Apparently the activities of cis psychologists towards trans people are inappropriate grooming when reversed? (Needless to say, trauma doesn’t morally excuse going on to traumatize others…)

The modern sense of transsexual people is, in a sense, a pseudo-ethnicity born out of psychiatry. There has been an inordinate amount of academic thought, papers, conferences, and so on, on the proper care of this group, and appropriate behavior for this group of people, often shared peer-to-peer through media platforms like Tumblr.

Tumbr queers and queer allies try to get an A+ in their sex class by showing off how compatible their sex lives are with the values endorsed by adults around them (e.g. antiracism, feminism, queer-positivity). They can’t find adults to groom them directly, so they find the closest alternative, in academic and activist settings. This is somewhat disturbing behavior, but it’s disturbing in much the same way that Victorian sexual morality is: overly stilted, showing great adherence to social categories and observance of sexual taboos. To people who grow up without any credible religion, the feminist and queer academic studies can be the most legitimate authority regarding sexual morality.

Ideally we’d raise the next generation to be less sexually fucked up than us; simply passing on one’s traumas and subsequent medical interventions is a poor substitute for growing a functional culture that meets people’s needs. But that means setting better positive examples rather than placing incompatible restrictions on people and asking them to figure it out themselves. Expect gender dysphoria to be on the rise as gendered restrictions on sexual behavior proliferate with few escape routes.

I’ve thought for a long time that it should be accepted practice for parents to curate porn whitelists for their teenage children. The usual practice is to simply forbid pornography watching, which is an unrealistic expectation, leading to consuming arbitrarily hard-core pornography, with perhaps quite bad sexual values, in early adolescence, rather than ramping up the level of intensity over time, and guiding teenagers towards better sexual arrangements, such as ones where both partners are clearly enjoying it. (I remember as a young teenager Google image searching various words that were plausibly associated with sex, such as “wedding”, afraid that I might get caught by the Internet police if I just searched “sex”, to accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon pictures of naked women.)

There’s a lot of anxiety around this sort of thing; is in “grooming”, is it sexualizing children too much to curate porn lists for them, guiding them towards parentally approved forms of sex? But there’s not much to be said for the alternative in comparison. Curating porn lists for one’s children is clearly more tasteful than either totally blocking them or assuming they’ll watch whatever’s on the front page of PornHub. It’s often said that sex is private and should be exclusively explained to minors by parents, not school teachers. But parents are typically quite reluctant to talk about sex with their children. Sex education typically goes into much more detail than “the sex talk”.

While some instances “grooming” are obviously more healthy than others, the contrast to “grooming” as a whole (in the broad sense) isn’t an alternative normative model of sexual behavior, it’s antinormative. As they say, “all’s fair in love and war”. You can’t have romance without the Romans, and the Roman empire was founded on mass rape. Romance prototypically involves a warlike “us against the world” dynamic, implying a threat landscape, and marital rape was legal for a long time. When sex and war go together, it’s hard to know if it wasn’t rape; maybe “rape” is a confused category in the first place, and some say all hetero sex is rape. 

Despite all these antinormative social mores, complicated sexual restrictions, and confusing, contradictory advice, many queer people have managed to, through extreme contortions, go about having normative sexual relationships. “Groomers” is the cry to queers from those who envy our sexual morality. Perhaps we shouldn’t hog it to ourselves.

A short conceptual explainer of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason


While writing another document, I noticed I kept referring to Kantian concepts. Since most people haven’t read Kant, that would lead to interpretation problems by default. I’m not satisfied with any summary out there for the purpose of explaining Kantian concepts as I understand them. This isn’t summarizing the work as a whole given I’m focusing on the parts that I actually understood and continue to find useful.

I will refer to computer science and statistical concepts, such as Bayesianism, Solomonoff induction, and AI algorithms. Different explainers are, of course, appropriate to different audiences.

Last year I had planned on writing a longer explainer (perhaps chapter-by-chapter), however that became exhausting due to the length of the text. So I’ll instead focus on what still stuck after a year, that I keep wanting to refer to. This is mostly concepts from the first third of the work.

This document is structured similar to a glossary, explaining concepts and how they fit together.

Kant himself notes that the Critique of Pure Reason is written in a dry and scholastic style, with few concrete examples, and therefore “could never be made suitable for popular use”. Perhaps this explainer will help.


We are compelled to reason about questions we cannot answer, like whether the universe is finite or infinite, or whether god(s) exist. There is an “arena of endless contests” between different unprovable assumptions, called Metaphysics.

Metaphysics, once the “queen of all the sciences”, has become unfashionable due to lack of substantial progress.

Metaphysics may be categorized as dogmatic, skeptical, or critical:

  • Dogmatic metaphysics makes and uses unprovable assumptions about the nature of reality.
  • Skeptical metaphysics rejects all unprovable assumptions, in the process ceasing to know much at all.
  • Critical metaphysics is what Kant seeks to do: find the boundaries of what reason can and cannot know.

Kant is trying to be comprehensive, so that “there cannot be a single metaphysical problem that has not been solved here, or at least to the solution of which the key has not been provided.”  A bold claim.  But, this project doesn’t require extending knowledge past the limits of possible experience, just taking an “inventory of all we possess through pure reason, ordered systematically”.

The Copernican revolution in philosophy

Kant compares himself to Copernicus; the Critique of Pure Reason is commonly referred to as a Copernican revolution in philosophy.  Instead of conforming our intuition to objects, we note that objects as we experience them must conform to our intuition (e.g. objects appear in the intuition of space).  This is sort of a reverse Copernican revolution; Copernicus zooms out even further from “the world (Earth)” to “the sun”, while Kant zooms in from “the world” to “our perspective(s)”.

Phenomena and noumena

Phenomena are things as they appear to us, noumena are things as they are in themselves (or “things in themselves”); rational cognition can only know things about phenomena, not noumena.  “Noumenon” is essentially a limiting negative concept, constituting any remaining reality other than what could potentially appear to us.

Kant writes: “this conception [of the noumenon] is necessary to restrain sensuous intuition within the bounds of phenomena, and thus to limit the objective validity of sensuous cognition; for things in themselves, which lie beyond its province, are called noumena for the very purpose of indicating that this cognition does not extend its application to all that the understanding thinks. But, after all, the possibility of such noumena is quite incomprehensible, and beyond the sphere of phenomena, all is for us a mere void… The conception of a noumenon is therefore merely a limitative conception and therefore only of negative use. But it is not an arbitrary or fictitious notion, but is connected with the limitation of sensibility, without, however, being capable of presenting us with any positive datum beyond this sphere.”

It is a “problematical” concept; “the class of noumena have no determinate object corresponding to them, and cannot therefore possess objective validity”; it is more like a directional arrow in the space of ontology than like any particular thing within any ontology. Science progresses in part by repeatedly pulling the rug on the old ontology, “revealing” a more foundational layer underneath (a Kuhnian “paradigm shift”), which may be called more “noumenal” than the previous layer, but which is actually still phenomenal, in that it is cognizable through the scientific theory and corresponds to observations; “noumena”, after the paradigm shift, is a placeholder concept that any future paradigm shifts can fill in with their new “foundational” layer.

Use of the word “noumenon” signals a kind of humility, of disbelieving that we have access to “the real truth”, while being skeptical that anyone else does either.

In Bayesianism, roughly, the “noumenon” is specified by the hypothesis, while the “phenomena” are the observations.  Assume for now the Bayesian observation is a deterministic function of the hypothesis; then, multiple noumena may correspond to a single phenomenon.  Bayesianism allows for gaining information about the noumenon from the phenomenon.  However, all we learn is that the noumenon is some hypothesis which corresponds to the phenomenon; in the posterior distribution, the hypotheses compatible with the observations maintain the same probabilities relative to each other that they did in the prior distribution.

(In cases where the observation is not a deterministic function of the hypothesis, as in the standard Bayes’ Rule, consider replacing “hypothesis” above with the “(hypothesis, observation)” ordered pair.)

In Solomonoff Induction, there is only a limited amount we can learn about the “noumenon” (stochastic Turing machine generating our observations + its bits of stochasticity), since there exist equivalent Turing machines.

A priori and a posteriori

A priori refers to the epistemic state possessed before taking in observations. In Bayesianism this is the P(X) operator unconditioned on any observations.

A posteriori refers to the epistemic state possessed after taking in observations. In Bayesianism this is P(X | O) where O refers to past observation(s) made by an agent, which may be numbered to indicate time steps, as in a POMDP.

While Kant and Hume agree that we can’t learn about universal laws from experience (due to Hume’s problem of induction), Hume concludes that this means we don’t know about universal laws, while Kant instead argues that our knowledge about universal laws must involve a priori judgements, e.g. geometric or arithmetic judgments. (One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens…)

Analytic and synthetic

Analytic propositions are ones that can be verified as true by expanding out definitions and doing basic formal operations. A common example is “All bachelors are unmarried”, which can be verified by replacing “bachelor” with “unmarried man”.

Synthetic propositions can’t be verified as true this way, e.g. “All bachelors are alone”. They can be true regardless. Causal judgments are synthetic, we can’t get the Principle of Sufficient Reason analytically.

Contemporary STEM people are likely to think something like this at this point: “Doesn’t that just mean analytic propositions are mathematical, and synthetic propositions are empirical/scientific?”

An immediate problem with this account: Kant doesn’t think geometric propositions are analytic.  Consider the proposition “A square is equal to itself when turned 90 degrees on its center”.  It’s not apparent how to verify the proposition as true by properly defining “square” and so on, and doing basic logical/textual transformations.  Instead we verify it by relating it to possible experience, imagining a rotating square in the visual field.

From a geometrical proof that a square is equal to itself when turned 90 degrees on its center, a prediction about possible experience can be derived, namely, that turning a square piece of wood 90 degrees by its center results in a wood square having the same shape and location in the visual field as it did previously.  Mathematics needs to correspond to possible experience to have application to the perceptible outside world.

Kant doesn’t even think arithmetic propositions are analytic. To get 2+2=4 from “analytic” operations, we could try defining 2=1+1, 4=1+1+1+1, then observing 2+2=(1+1)+(1+1)=1+1+1+1=4, however this requires using the associative property of addition. Perhaps there is an alternative way to prove this “analytically” but neither Kant nor I know of that. Instead we can verify addition by, synthetically, corresponding numbers to our fingers, which “automatically” get commutative/associative properties.

The synthetic a priori

Besides the issue that math relates to possible experience, another problem with “analytic = mathematical” is that, as Kant argues, some propositions are both synthetic and a priori, and “the real problem of pure reason” is how we can know such propositions.

Here’s an argument for this. Suppose we first observe O and then conclude that P is true. If we’re reasoning validly, P is true a posteriori (relative to O). But this whole thought experiment pre-supposes that there is a time-structure in which we first see O and then we make a judgment about P. This time-structure is to some degree present even before seeing O, such that O can be evidence about P.

Imagine trying to argue that it’s raining outside to a person who doesn’t believe in time (including their own memory). Since you’re both inside and there are no windows, they can’t see that it’s raining. You try to argue that you were previously both outside and saw that it was raining. But they think there’s no such thing as “the past” so this is not convincing.

To make the argument to them successfully, their mind has to already implement certain dynamics even before receiving observations.

A baby is already born with cognitive machinery, it can’t “learn” all of that machinery from data, the process of learning itself already requires this machinery to be present in order to structure observations and relate them to future ones. (In some sense there was no cognition prior to abiogenesis, though; there is a difference between the time ordering of science and of cognitive development.)

In Bayesianism, to learn P from O, it must be the case a priori that P is correlated with O. This correlational structure could be expressed as a Bayesian network. This network would encode an a priori assumption about how P and O are correlated.

Solomonoff induction doesn’t encode a fixed network structure between its observations, instead it uses a mixture model over all stochastic Turing machines. However, all these machines have something in common, they’re all Stochastic turing machines producing an output stream of bits. Solomonoff induction assumes a priori “my observations are generated by a stochastic Turing machine”, it doesn’t learn this from data.

One could try pointing to problems with this argument, e.g. perhaps “there is time” isn’t a valid proposition, and time is a non-propositional structure in which propositions exist. But now that I just wrote that, it seems like I’m asserting a proposition about time to be true, in a contradictory fashion. The English language is more reflective than the language of Bayesian networks, allowing statements about the structure of propositions to themselves be propositions, as if the fact of the Bayesian network being arranged a particular way were itself represented by an assignment of a truth value to a node in that same Bayesian network.


Philosophers today call Kant’s philosophy “transcendental idealism”. Kant himself uses the word “transcendental” to refer to cognitions about how cognitions are possible a priori.

This is in part an archaeological process. We see, right now, that we live in a phenomenal world that is approximately Euclidean. Was our phenomenal world always Euclidean, or was it non-Euclidean at some point and then switched over to Euclidean, or is time not enough of a real thing for this to cover all the cases? This sort of speculation about what the a priori empty mind is, from our a posteriori sense of the world, is transcendental.

One angle on the transcendental is, what else has to be true for the immediate (immanent) experience you are having right now to be what it is? If you are seeing a chair, that implies that chairs exist (at least as phenomena); if you see the same chair twice, that means that phenomenal objects can re-occur at different times; and so on.

The transcendental aesthetic

Aesthetic means sense. The transcendental aesthetic therefore refers to the a priori cognitive structures necessary for us to have sensation.

Mainly (Kant argues) these are space and time. I often call these “subjective space”, “subjective time”, “subjective spacetime”, to emphasize that they are phenomenal and agent-centered.


Most of our observations appear in space, e.g. visual input, emotional “felt senses” having a location in the body. To some extent we “learn” how to see the world spatially, however some spatial structures are hardwired (e.g. the visual cortex). Image processing AIs operate on spatial images stored as multidimensional arrays; arbitrarily rearranging the array would make some algorithms (such as convolutional neural networks) operate worse, indicating that the pre-formatting of data into a spatial array before it is fed into the algorithm is functional.

If space weren’t a priori then we couldn’t become fully confident of geometrical laws such as “a square turned 90 degrees about its center is the same shape”, we’d have to learn these laws from experience, running into Hume’s problem of induction.

There is only one space, since when attempting to imagine two spaces, one is putting them side by side; there must be some outermost container.

Space is infinite, unbounded.  This doesn’t imply that the infinity is all represented, just that the concept allows for indefinite extension.  Finite space can be derived by adding a bound to infinite space; this is similar to Spinoza’s approach to finitude in the Ethics.

Space isn’t a property of things in themselves, it’s a property of phenomena, things as they relate to our intuition.  When formalizing mathematical space, points are assigned coordinates relative to the (0, 0) origin.  We always intuit objects relative to some origin, which may be near the eyes or head.  At the same time, space is necessary for objectivity; without space, there is no idea of external objects.

Our intuitions about space can only get universal geometric propositions if these propositions describe objects as they must necessarily appear in our intuition, not if they are describing arbitrary objects even as they may not appear in our intuition.  As a motivating intuition, consider that non-Euclidean geometry is mathematically consistent; if objective space were non-Euclidean, then our Euclidean intuitions would not yield universally valid geometric laws about objective space. (As it turns out, contemporary physics theories propose that space is non-Euclidean.)


We also see observations extending over time. Over short time scales there is a sense of continuity in time; over long time scales we have more discrete “memories” that refer to previous moments, making those past moments relevant to the present. The structuring of our experiences over time is necessary for learning, otherwise there wouldn’t be a “past” to learn from. AIs are, similarly, fed data in a pre-coded (not learned) temporal structure, e.g. POMDP observations in a reinforcement learning context.

The time in which succession takes place is, importantly, different from objective clock time, though (typically) these do not disagree about ordering, only pacing.  For example, there is usually only a small amount of time remembered during sleep, relative to the objective clock time that passes during sleep.  (The theory of relativity further problematizes “objective clock time”, so that different clocks may disagree about how much time has passed.)

We may, analogously, consider the case of a Solomonoff inductor that is periodically stopped and restarted as a computer process; while the inductor may measure subjective time by number of observation bits, this does not correspond to objective clock time, since a large amount of clock time may pass between when the inductor is stopped and restarted.

Kant writes, “Different times are only parts of one and the same time”.  Perhaps he is, here, too quick to dismiss non-linear forms of time; perhaps our future will branch into multiple non-interacting timelines, and perhaps this has happened in the past.  One especially plausible nonlinear timelike structure is a directed acyclic graph. Still, DAGs have an order; despite time being nonlinear, it still advances from moment to moment.  It is also possible to arbitrarily order a DAG through a topological sort, so the main relevant difference is that DAGs may drop this unnecessary ordering information.

Time is by default boundless but can be bounded, like space.

“Time is nothing other than the form of the inner sense, i.e.  of the intuition of our self and our inner sense”, in contrast to space, which is the form of the external sense. To give some intuition for this, suppose I have memory of some sequence of parties I have experienced; perhaps the first consists of myself, Bob, and Sally, the second consists of myself, Sally, and David, and the third consists of myself, Bob, and David.  What is common between all the parties I remember is that I have been at all of them; this is true for no one other than myself.  So, my memory is of situations involving myself; “me” is what is in common between all situations occurring in my subjective timeline.

Since time is the form of the inner sense, it applies to all representations, not only ones concerning outer objects, since all representations are in the mind.

Time is, like space, a condition for objects to appear to us, not a property of things in themselves.

Relational knowledge

Kant clarifies the way in which we fail to cognize objects in themselves, with the example of a triangle: “if the object (that is, the triangle) were something in itself, without relation to you the subject; how could you affirm that that which lies necessarily in your subjective conditions in order to construct a triangle, must also necessarily belong to the triangle in itself?” 

Relational knowledge allows us to know objects as they relate to us, but not as they don’t relate to us.  Geometry applies to objects that have locations in spacetime; for objects to appear in subjective spacetime, they must have coordinates relative to the (0, 0) origin, that is, the self; therefore, geometry applies to objects that have locations relative to the self; without a location relative to the self, the object would not appear in subjective spacetime.

It may seem silly to say that this “merely relational” knowledge fails to understand the object in itself; what properties are there to understand other than relational properties?  A triangle “in itself” independent of space (which relates the different parts of the triangle to each other) is a rather empty concept.

What is given up on, here, is an absolute reference frame, a “view from nowhere”, from which objects could be conceived of in a way that is independent of all subjects; instead, we attain a view from somewhere, namely, from subjective spacetime.

Einstein’s theory of special relativity also drops the absolute reference frame, however it specifies connections and translations between subjective reference frames in a way that Kant’s theory doesn’t. 

Sensibility and understanding

The sensibility is the faculty of passively receiving impressions, which are approximately “raw sense-data”. The understanding is the faculty of spontaneously conceptualizing an object by means of these impressions.

To recognize an object (such as an apple), the mind must do something; with no mental motion, the light pattern of the apple would hit the retina, but no object would be represented accordingly. In general, the understanding synthesizes raw data into a coherent picture.

Manifold of intuition

Without concepts, sense data would be a disorganized flux, like a video of white noise; Kant terms this flux a “manifold of intuition”.  When I think of this, I think of a bunch of sheets of space tied together by a (curved) timeline holding them together, with pixel-like content in the space. Judgments, which are propositions about the content of our understanding (e.g. “there is a cat in front of me”), depend on the “unity among our representations”; what is needed is a “higher [representation], which comprehends this and other representations under itself”.  To judge that there is a cat in front of me, I must have parsed the manifold into concepts such as “cat” which relate to each other in a logically coherent universe; I cannot make a judgment from un-unified raw pixel-data. AI object recognition is an attempt to artificially replicate this faculty.


Synthesis is the process of “putting different representations together with each other and comprehending their manifoldness in one cognition”.  This is an action of the spontaneity of thought, processing the manifold of intuition into a combined representation.

This relates to the phenomenal binding problem, how do we get a sense of a “unified” world from disconnected sensory data?

In Solomonoff Induction, the manifold of intuition would be the raw observations, and the manifold is synthesized by the fact that there is a universal Turing machine producing all the observations with a hidden state.  This is the case a priori, not only after seeing particular observations.  Similarly with other Bayesian models such as dynamic Bayesian networks; the network structure is prior to the particular observations.

Transcendental Categories

“There is only one experience, in which all perceptions are represented as in thoroughgoing and lawlike connection, just as there is only one space and time…”

Different experiences are connected in a lawlike way, e.g. through causality and through re-occurring objects; otherwise, it would be unclear how to even interpret memories as referring to the same world. The transcendental categories (which are types of judgment) are ways in which different representations may be connected with each other.

Kant gives 12 transcendental categories, meant to be exhaustive. These include: causation/dependence, existence/nonexistence, necessity/contingence, unity, plurality. I don’t understand all of these, and Kant doesn’t go into enough detail to understand all of them. Roughly, these are different ways experiences can connect with each other, e.g. a change in an experienced object can cause a change in another, and two instances of seeing an object can be “unified” in the sense of being recognized as seeing the same object.


A schema (plural schemata) relates the manifold of intuition (roughly, sense data) to transcendental categories or other concepts. As a simple example, consider how the concept of a cat relates to cat-related sense data. The cat has a given color, location, size, orientation, etc, which relate to a visual coordinate system. A cat object-recognizer may recognize not only that a cat exist, but also the location and possibly even the orientation of the cat.

Without schema, we couldn’t see a cat (or any other object); we’d see visual data that doesn’t relate to the “cat” concept, and separately have a “cat” concept. In some sense the cat is imagined/hallucinated based on the data, not directly perceived: “schema is, in itself, always a mere product of the imagination”. In Solomonoff induction, we could think of a schema as some intermediate data and processing that comes between the concept of a “cat” (perhaps represented as a generative model) and the observational sense data, translating the first to the second by filling in details such as color and location.

This applies to more abstract concepts/categories such as “cause” as well. When X causes Y, there is often a spacetime location at which that cause happens, e.g. a moment that one billiard ball hits another.

Kant writes: “Now it is quite clear that there must be some third thing, which on the one side is homogeneous with the category, and with the phenomenon on the other, and so makes the application of the former to the latter possible. This mediating representation must be pure (without any empirical content), and yet must on the one side be intellectual, on the other sensuous. Such a representation is the transcendental schema.”

Schemata are transcendental because they are are necessary for some phenomenal impressions, e.g. the impression that a cat is at some location. They are necessary for unifying the manifold of intuition (otherwise, there wouldn’t be an explanation of correlation between different individual pixel-like pieces of sense data).

Consciousness of the self

Kant discusses consciousness of the self: “The consciousness of oneself in accordance with the determinations of our state in internal perception is merely empirical, forever variable; it can provide no standing or abiding self in this stream of inner appearances, and is customarily called inner sense or empirical apperception. That which should necessarily be represented as numerically identical cannot be thought of as such through empirical data. There must be a condition that precedes all experience and makes the latter itself possible, which should make such a transcendental presupposition valid.”

The idea of a lack of a fixed or permanent self in the stream of internal phenomena will be familiar to people who have explored Buddhism.  What you see isn’t you; there are phenomena that are representations of the engine of representation, but these phenomena aren’t identical with the engine of representation in which they are represented.

The self is, rather, something taken as “numerically identical with itself” which is a condition that precedes experience. Imagine a sequence of animation frames in a Cartesian coordinate system. In what sense are they part of “the same sequence”? Without knowing more about the sequence, all we can say is that they’re all part of the same sequence (and have an ordering within it); the sameness of the sequence of each frame is “numerical identity” similar to the identity of an object (such as a table) with itself when perceived at different times.


Kant writes: “We termed dialectic in general a logic of appearance.” Dialectic is a play of appearances, claiming to offer knowledge, but instead offering only temporary illusions; different sophists argue us into different conclusions repeatedly, perhaps in a cyclical fashion.

Dialectic is an error it is possible to fall into when reasoning is not connected with possible experience. Kant writes about dialectic in part to show how not to reason. One gets the impression that Kant would have thought Hegel and his followers were wasting their time by focusing so much on dialectic.

The Antinomies of Pure Reason

As an example of dialectic, Kant argues that time and space are finite and that they are infinite; that everything is made of simple parts and that nothing is simple; that causality doesn’t determine everything (requiring spontaneity as an addition) and that it does; that there is an absolutely necessary being and that there isn’t. Each of these pairs of contradictory arguments is an antinomy.

Philosophers argue about these sorts of questions for millenia without much resolution; it’s possible to find somewhat convincing arguments on both sides, as Kant demonstrates.

Ens Realissimum

Kant writes: “This conception of a sum-total of reality is the conception of a thing in itself, regarded as completely determined; and the conception of an ens realissimum is the conception of an individual being, inasmuch as it is determined by that predicate of all possible contradictory predicates, which indicates and belongs to being.”

Say some objects are cold and some are hot. Well, they still have some things in common, they’re both objects. There is a distinction being made (hot/cold), and there is something in common apart from that distinction. We could imagine a single undifferentiated object, that is neither hot nor cold, but which can be modified by making it hot/cold to produce specific objects.

This is similar to Spinoza’s singular infinite substance/God, of which all other (possibly finite) beings are modifications, perhaps made by adding attributes.

The ens realissimum has a similar feel to the Tegmark IV multiverse, which contains all mathematically possible universes in a single being, or a generative grammar of a Turing complete language. It is a common undifferentiated basis for specific beings to be conceptualized within.

Kant considers deriving the existence of a supreme being (God) from the ens realissimum, but the concept is too empty to yield properties attributed to God, such as benevolence, being the intelligent creator of the universe, or providing an afterlife. He goes on to critique all supposed rational proofs of the existence of God, but goes on to say that he posits God and an afterlife because such posits are necessary to believe that the incentive of pleasure-seeking is aligned with acting morally. (Wishful thinking much?)


What is Kant getting at, in all this? I think he is trying to get readers to attend to their experience, the spacetimelike container of this experience, and the way their world-model is constructed out of their experience. For example, the idea that time is the form of the inner sense is apparent from noting that all accessible memories include me, but it’s possible to “forget” about this subjective timeline and instead conceptualize time as observer-independent. The idea that the manifold of intuition must be actively synthesized into a representation containing objects (which is in line with cognitive science) challenges the idea that the world is “given”, that “we” are simply inhabitants of a stable world. The idea of the “noumenon” as a negative, limiting concept points us at our experience (and what our experience could be) as an alternative to interminably angsting about whether what we experience is “really real” or about metaphysical concepts like God, which makes it easier to get on with positivist math, science, economics, and scholarship without worrying too much about its foundations.

The sense I get reading Kant is: “You live in a world of phenomena synthesized by your mind from some external data, and that’s fine, in a sense it’s all you could ever hope for. You have plenty of phenomena and generalities about them to explore, you can even inquire into the foundations of what makes them possible and how your mind generates them (I’ve already done a lot of that for you), but there’s no deep Outside demanding your attention, now go live!”

When I take this seriously I worry about getting lost in my head, and sometimes I do get lost in my head, and the Outside does impinge on my cozy mental playground (demanding my attention, and loosening my mental assumptions structuring the phenomenal world), but things calm after a while and I experience the phenomenal world as orderly once again.

On the paradox of tolerance in relation to fascism and online content moderation

It’s common in the last decade or so to see people invoke Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance as a justification for de-platforming sufficiently fascist, reactionary, or bigoted content.  Here’s a comic that’s been shared a lot:

The message from this is: “Nazis are bad, if you ‘give Nazis a chance’ (by e.g. listening to them or allowing them to express their views to others), they’ll end up taking over and silencing and possibly killing lots of people including you, so you should kick them out of society when they start saying things that imply not tolerating others.”

An immediate problem that comes up is that pretty much all political philosophies refuse to tolerate some things, e.g. crimes like theft. Of course one could draw distinctions between intolerance of behavior versus intrinsic identity, but this gets into nuances not determined by simplistic arguments about “intolerance”.

Who is intolerant according to Karl Popper’s criterion?

What did Karl Popper himself have to say about the matter? Quoting The Open Society and its Enemies:

Less well known [than other paradoxes] is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

(emphasis mine)

This adds some detail that helps to better specify the claim.  It would be unwise to counter positions with suppression when they can be argued against; if our position indeed has better evidence behind it and the opponents are willing to submit their position to rational argument/debate, then we should expect our position to “win” in such a rational argument, and it would be unwise to suppress the position.

Why might suppression be unwise? If those disagreeing are rationally persuadable, then suppression removes an opportunity for dialogue that could convince them of the truth. Even if they are not themselves rationally persuadable, rational third parties will be more convinced if the position is argued with rather than suppressed; suppressing the position can make it look better than it is, since supporters of that position can claim that it’s being unfairly ignored and suppressed by the establishment.

Another consideration against suppression is that it’s sometimes hard to be certain of who the “intolerant” one is. After all, suppressing speech is the kind of thing intolerant people do; if we’re designing rules that are supposed to be applicable by a diverse population, some of that population will be “intolerant”, and ideally these rules would advise these people and those watching them about how to determine whether or not they are.

Luckily, Karl Popper clarifies later in the section who is intolerant: “they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.”

Hmm, who does this describe better in the contemporary political argument? The first example I think of is people who say that debating reactionaries is futile, who think debate leads to fascism, who think fascists should be punched instead of debated.  The New York Times recently published an article about debate on college campuses, in which a student reported that college campuses are less receptive to debate than they used to be, instead producing a climate of fear about speaking one’s mind.

There are good criticisms of this article, for example in noting that the student complained about a group of people including a teacher all disagreeing with her statement; that reflects unwillingness to debate fairly. However, in response to this article, some “leftist”-identifying commentators said things along the lines of “debate is bad, it leads to more fascism”. That debate itself is the generator of fascism, not merely an arena that fascism utilizes.

To be fair to such arguments, debate is an adversarial process, but it’s an adversarial process much older than the fascism of Mussolini or Hitler, engaged in by the likes of Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. Chess and football are also adversarial processes, and probably have more in common with fascism than debate does, due to chess being a war simulation and football being a physical team-versus-team activity similar to military exercises.

Under Karl Popper’s criterion, those saying that debate itself leads to fascism (and is therefore not worth engaging with, and worth dis-endorsing in general) would certainly be “intolerant”; they denounce rational argument, encourage their followers to do so, and posture towards committing violence against those who debate by labeling those in favor of open debate as “fascists” who can be punched under a “punch fascists/Nazis” rule. (The call for “punching Nazis” is, ironically, concordant with Nazism: Triumph of the Will approvingly depicted Nazis punching Nazis in a burst of masculine passion.)

It’s important to remember that the historical Nazis did not take power through means that were legitimate in the Weimar republic; they took power in large part through paramilitary units that clashed with police forces, and are strongly suspected to have started the Reichstag fire, which led to emergency powers being granted that reduced the freedom of speech of the German citizenry.

These are not the actions a political unit who thought that open rational debate was on its side would take. These are, instead, the actions of a political unit that thinks it can only take power by violently disrupting the legitimate societal processes, and being in hiding most of the time while taking power. In general, if someone in a fight is hiding, they are hiding because they believe that they would lose an open fight; if they thought they would win an open fight, they would likely initiate such a fight. In RPG terms, a warrior will generally win an open fight with a thief, and the thief tries to win through stealth and picking surprising engagements; warriors are more likely to win in well-lit areas, thieves in poorly-lit areas.

While the comic citing Popper uses the phrase “preaching intolerance”, which Popper also uses, reading the full passage shows that Popper’s concern is about directing causing intolerance, “inciting” it, rather than rationally arguing for it. Rational arguments for intolerance (including the “paradox of tolerance” itself) can be dealt with at the level of rational argument, and those that the evidence is against can be defeated by opposing rational arguments. The problem comes in eschewing rational argument and encouraging others to do so as well.

It’s especially ironic for debate to be considered fascist (therefore antisemitic) when Judaism itself involves a lot of debate. There’s a long tradition of technical argumentation about how to interpret the Torah, including accounts of what happened historically and what laws Jews are bound to follow. I heard about an inter-faith dialogue event in which the Jewish speaker said that the essence of Judaism was that when speaking with someone you love, you should be willing to rationally argue against their beliefs, and be more willing to “lay into them” harder the more you love them, as becoming more right through rational argument is beneficial. I remember my Jewish father and grandfather being proud as I developed logical arguments for atheism around age 11. And I recently talked with some Hasidic Jews who believed it was important for social media not to censor Nazis, since they deserve a fair shot in open debate. These are signs of a culture that is enthusiastically in favor of open debate.

Given this, suppression of debate is directly anti-Semitic, even when it claims to be indirectly preventing future antisemitism by suppressing antisemitic fascists.

To add some nuance, this doesn’t imply that all behaviors that look like “debate” are actually the sort of attempts at intellectual improvement that help correct incorrect beliefs and which are valued by Judaism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Anti-Semite the Jew” (summary by Sarah Constantin here) discusses the traits of antisemites. These include laziness, people-orientation, impulsiveness, bullying, conformity, irrationality, mysticism, anti-intellectualism, and being part of a mob. Quoting the “irrational” section of Sarah’s summary:

They are irrational. “The anti-Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion.” They like being angry (at the Jews), and seek out opportunities to work themselves up into a rage. They deliberately say trollish things that make no sense: “Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play.”

Antisemites troll the process of rational discourse itself by saying things that make no sense, but which take more difficulty to refute rationally than to say, since the refutation has to abide by the laws of reason whereas the initial statement does not. The statements can, instead, be statements about who to affiliate with and who to bully, thinly disguised as rational arguments.

This is a consideration against continuing to platform someone after they make enough absurd arguments that are easy to demonstrate false; continuing to argue with them is wasting one’s time, since most of what they say is noise or, worse, deliberately-misleading statements, or instructions to others to commit violence in opposition to reason.  It would be rare, however, to find someone on the “pro-debate” side of contemporary discourse who wouldn’t agree that debate is in some cases simply not worth the effort due to the irrationality of the other side.

There are open questions in terms of which acts of speech are practicing intolerance and how they should be suppressed. At one extreme, criminal conspiracy and death threats are forms of speech that intrinsically move people towards harmful, “intolerant” actions. Someone who is only pretending to give rational arguments may still be whipping up an irrational mob, e.g. someone who proposes a law pardoning anyone who murders <some particular person> on <some particular date> is likely to be trying to stoke mob violence towards this person, rather than propose a law they think will be passed and which has good reasons for it.

Elon Musk, Twitter, and free speech

This brings us to Mike Solona’s article (posted on Bari Weiss’s substack) about the response to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

“Freedom,” “open source technology,” and “man, I really hate these spam bots.” The media’s reaction to these ambitions was instant and apoplectic. They were akin, we were told, to literal Nazism

Out of the gate, it was incoherent fury, with no consensus motive. We were told that Elon, who explicitly opposes censorship, intended to deplatform, and ultimately destroy, all of his critics, who are themselves explicitly in favor of censorship. We were told that Elon was building a propaganda engine. We were told that Twitter, which was until last week apparently a peaceful, utopian haven for principled discourse, would now revert to some earlier, imagined world of carnage (very bad tweets). The case was made, with zero evidence, that Elon is a racist. It was all just table stakes, really. 

After a week or so, in brutal, Darwinian competition for attention, arguments against Musk blossomed into something more colorful. From Axios, a company committed in writing to never sharing an opinion, it was “reported” that Elon, once likened to Iron Man, was now behaving “like a supervillain.” His ownership of Twitter would lead to World War III, the case was made elsewhere. In one of my favorite moments of derangement, NPR helpfully reminded us that Elon is an imperialist. The basis for such an incredible charge? In the tradition of America’s Apollo Moon landing, one of the most celebrated accomplishments in human history, Elon wants to settle Mars, an uninhabited desert planet 155 million miles from Earth. This is just like colonial-era Britain’s brutal conquest of half the world, when you think about it. 

The takes were all extraordinarily stupid, and yes, I loved every single one of them.

The worst people on the internet, delirious with rage, couldn’t stop themselves from saying the dumbest things they’ve ever said since last week and listen, again, yes, I love this. But as funny as the insanity is, it’s important to remember it’s all just that—insane. Irrelevant. Not remotely about what is actually at stake.

The incoherence of the anti-takeover arguments shows an attitude towards rational argument similar to the antisemites profiled by Sartre: absurd replies that can hardly be interpreted as corresponding to rational considerations. Mike Solana “loves” them because the over-the-top absurdity reveals the charade unambiguously.

Given how little Elon has said about how he plans to change the platform, there is little that his critics could be going off of to decide to criticize the takeover in this manner. The most obviously criticizable thing he said is that he is in favor of “free speech”. (I would, personally, most object to “authenticating all humans”, as that would harm many pseudonymous accounts I know and love, but that hasn’t been the main focus in the mainstream discourse.) An outside observer (e.g. foreign) would take from this that the mainstream American media is against free speech.

Now, it’s certainly possible to invoke “free speech” asymmetrically to only protect opinions that are endorsed by current power structures, but the natural way for a pro-free-speech person to object to this is to point out the asymmetry (as some anarchists do), not to give up the very idea of “free speech” to power worshippers. This whole discussion reminds me of the era of Reddit where there was a social justice subreddit called “ShitRedditSays” in which posters often made fun of redditors saying they were having their free speech rights violated by misspelling “free speech” and “freeze peach” and posting emojis of peaches, dissolving any semantic content of “free speech” into an absurdity.

Why would it make sense to cede the ideal of “free speech” to “right-wing fascist sympathizers”, when fascists are against free speech and liberals are for it? I think that’s the wrong question because it’s assuming that the strategy is selected because it makes sense, whereas it may alternatively (by Sartre’s model) be a mob strategy for synchronizing with others around an irrational pseudo-worldview. Someone might join such a mob if they find that they themselves cannot speak freely, and cannot unironically invoke the idea of “free speech” to un-silence themselves; they may see those who do so as “privileged” since only they find this strategy successful, and be encouraged to inflict their trauma of being silenced on such privileged, so as to level the playing field. (Such traumatized people would, of course, be “intolerant” under Karl Popper’s definition, and illiberal.)

It is in fact the case that many “outsider” platforms with light moderation, such as Gab, attract a high concentration of fascists and Nazis. I’ve heard from a friend who tracks various political discussion groups that a common pattern is for subreddits/forums that allow Nazis to be taken over by Nazis, and the resulting group then goes on to take over the next most Nazi-tolerant forum, and so on. However, this is in large part an artifact of the fact that Nazis are suppressed from mainstream discussion fora. The situation with light moderation implemented more generally (e.g. on Twitter) would be more like the days of the early Internet (Usenet, early Reddit, and so on), which did not have a high concentration of Nazism.

It would be hard for me to come up with better propaganda for Nazism as the supposedly anti-Nazi statement “As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.” Imagine replacing Nazi with “fan of Rammstein”, for example: “As we say in Germany, if there’s a fan of Rammstein at a table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 fans of Rammstein.” That makes Rammstein sound like a really compelling band, one that can quickly convert people by mere exposure. If I’d like Rammstein upon giving them a listen, doesn’t that mean Rammstein scores highly according to my preferences at an approximation of reflective equilibrium, and is therefore a great band?

The fact that this saying comes from Germany should not at all dissuade us from the idea that it’s Nazi propaganda; after all, many Germans were once Nazis, or are near descendants of former Nazis, Nazism was originally developed in Germany, and most Nazi propaganda has historically come from Germany.

If the saying were literally true, that would suggest a possible resolution to the Nazi-Jewish conflict: put some Jewish leaders (who are often in favor of open debate) in the same room as a Nazi, and soon almost all Jews will, through the Jewish tradition of debate, be converted to Nazis, accepting their own racial inferiority to the Aryans to the point where there is no longer any conflict, and Judaism can become a subsidiary of an international Nazi order.

The fact that this hypothetical is so ridiculous suggests that this saying is, in fact, not true.

What’s going through the minds of people who say things like this? One might imagine Nazism as a forbidden fruit, something we’d find delicious if we gave it a real chance, but would corrupt us, a veritable infohazard on par with the original forbidden fruit granting knowledge of good and evil…

…that starts sounding really awesome and appealing, an Eldritch horror that can “turn” people by mere exposure, as our brains are saturated with hedonic reward that overcomes all other faculties.  But wait, in such a world, why did the Nazis lose WWII so that we have so much anti-Nazi propaganda in the present moment? Couldn’t they just airdrop copies of “Mein Kampf” (translated to English/French/etc) on opposing territories to convince everyone of the greatness of Nazism, winning the “war” without any resistance?  If Nazism is so convincing in an open discussion, there is no explanation for fervent Allied resistance to Nazism.

The fact that Nazis took over using violence indicates that Nazism doesn’t win through rational debate of the merits of one regime or another; a look at the Nazi regime by foreigners reveals a terrifying, suppressive order with a high death rate and no end in sight, not a utopia that anyone would rationally prefer to the alternative systems of government. Rather, Nazism wins by convincing everyone that Nazis are powerful, that brownshirts will kill you if you stand up to it; people are terrorized into not wanting to be the first target, and thereby go along with the Nazi regime without resisting. It is, therefore, Nazi propaganda to exaggerate the degree to which Nazis are powerful, including the degree to which they’re effective at spreading their political views.

In discussions of the threat of “Nazism” or the “far right”, it is rarely clear how big the threat is, statistically. Is the number of Nazis in America more like the number of avowed neo-Nazis (~thousands), or more like the number of conservative Republicans (~tens of millions)? Is it a niche position, largely discredited, and dying out, or is it gaining ground and approaching a quorum?

Umberto Eco names, as one of the 14 elements of “ur-fascism”: “[…] the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” That sounds familiar…

Really, it’s not possible to even know what a Nazi or fascist is without reading something about their political beliefs, e.g. Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism; otherwise, how could someone possibly know that they are opposing rather than promoting fascism? It makes no sense for people concerned about fascism to isolate themselves from any material written by fascists, which might help them know anything at all about what they’re supposedly concerned about, rather than generating fear about a mysterious foreign Other, as the original fascists did.

What do the speech regulators even want?

Consider a proposal to regulate everyone’s speech in a uniform manner to oppose racism and allow many cultures to thrive. Now, there’s an immediate contradiction in such a proposal: regulating everyone’s speech uniformly requires a discourse community to impose its norms on everyone, which is a form of imperialism that would extinguish alternative cultures of discourse.

Okay, but what about just regulating white people’s speech? This may be implied by the idea that “it’s not possible to be racist against white people”, that the objective of anti-racism is to frustrate pro-white racism, not anti-white racism which is more likely to be defensive. However, this is still pan-ethno-nationalist: it’s grouping together white people (a diverse, multi-ethnic group) who live in many places around the world into a single nation-like regulatory order, which, among other things, groups Jews in with Germans and regulates their speech the same way, absorbing them into the same speech-regulating nation. This does not seem like a proposal that a significant number of non-white people or Jews would be in favor of.

Moreover, the fact that white people’s speech is being regulated doesn’t mean that white people’s power is taken away. Quite the opposite: it’s typical in class societies for higher-class people to obey (and enforce upon each other) norms that are not enforced upon the lower classes. This allows the higher classes to distinguish themselves from the crowd, considering themselves refined enough to follow tighter social norms. In legal terms, there is discussion of a “right to be sued”: if you can be sued for not doing something, that means you can be accountable for doing it, which enables more trade opportunities. Similarly, uniform regulations within a nation can enable larger-scale social organization such as large freight transport and commodities markets.

Maybe the problem isn’t white people as a whole, it’s Anglos, i.e. cultures that are largely downstream of Great Britain from the 1700s-1900s. Since Great Britain colonized and enslaved so much of the world, maybe that’s what to be concerned about. It’s common for social justice people to cite German, German-Jewish, and French sources (Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Adorno, Habermas, Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida…); this is predicted by “social justice” being grouped into “continental philosophy”. One gets the sense that the target of such discourse is to expand the reach of German philosophy beyond German masculine intellectual culture into a variety of differently-colored and differently-gendered contexts, which are basically “re-skins” of German masculine intellectual culture in that they cite the same sources and have the same talking points, just with different aesthetics for different identity groups. One has to notice how similar social justice discourse is to itself, despite the diversity of identities; even relatively small ideological deviations are easy to classify as reactionary heresies. The resulting anti-Anglo censorship regime would, then, be quite consistent with German nationalism, as it would take out Germany’s main intellectual competitor (the Anglos, with the French being much more easily defeated by Germany historically, therefore a useful short-term ally) while promoting German intellectual culture; laid out this way, it’s not confusing what it is.

If I translate what speech regulators are asking for into an implied political philosophy, I can’t come up with any alternatives to universal cultural imperialism, white pan-ethno-nationalism, or anti-Anglo German colonial nationalism. Maybe this is in part due to a deficit of creativity on my part, but even if so, it’s even more due to the incoherence of the political position being taken, and/or lack of clarity about the consistent principles (if any) behind such a position.

What seems most likely is that general opposition to free speech in the name of anti-fascism is ironic: its surface-level expression is in tension with its actual situation. Such ironic anti-fascist expression leads to the sort of ridiculous pseudo-arguments cited in Mike Solana’s article. Being ironically against fascism is, in the general case, being in favor of fascism, since ironic expressions of anti-fascism displace actual anti-fascism while providing cover for fascism in the ensuing confusion (including confusion about what fascism even is).

Simulacra have originals; “anti-fascism” would not be an appealing target of ironic imitation if there weren’t at some point an anti-fascist movement that had some good properties, that people could believe in and assign moral authority to. Given the current situation, one has to conclude that antifa has been infiltrated and usurped by this point.

So, what is actually good about anti-fascism? Time to get object-level!

Fascism focuses on the status of people and groups within society rather than the overall freedom and prosperity of the society itself. However, this does not systematically lead to higher quality of life for fascists. It is preferable to, over a lifetime, fall socioeconomically by a decile (within the population) while the society becomes significantly more free and prosperous, rather than rising two deciles while society becomes significantly less free and prosperous. Only a false assumption that quality of life of zero-sum could lead to the opposite conclusion.

It is somewhat inauthentically idealistic (therefore easy to “cringe” at) to trade one’s own rank position in society for the flourishing of society at a rate that is self-sacrificing. However, it is also self-sacrificing to cause society to flourish less while increasing one’s own position within a way that causes one to need to protect oneself rather than being protected by society from a succession of ever less abstract, more short-term dangers.

There is always some misalignment between the interests of an individual and the interests of society; incentives are not perfectly aligned. However, self-interested individuals will seek to reduce the degree of misalignment, creating good incentives, which include opportunities to authentically signal virtue (i.e. take actions that make others think one is actually likely to in general improve one’s society, rather than take actions that make others think one is only pretending to do so to an undiscerning audience; the latter are what is more often called “virtue signaling” in contemporary discourse.)

The individual who opposes improvement of society and signals vice is actually more self-sacrificing than the individual who improves society more than is actually selfishly optimal, in the general case; it makes a big difference to treat the interests of the individual and society as opposed rather than similar but somewhat misaligned. It is unnatural to be confused into thinking that the life of a gang leader is safer and nicer than the life of a postal worker.


While people cite Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” to justify suppressing fascist, reactionary, or bigoted speech in a generalized fashion, Popper’s argument actually only supports suppressing speech that enacts intolerance in contradiction to rational argumentation, and explicitly rules out suppressing speech that remains at the level of rational debate, even if this speech is an argument for some form of intolerance.

There really is such a thing as fascism, and it really does have negative consequences and involves mob violence in opposition to reason. However, general instructions to avoid talking with fascists, without clarifying what fascism even is (e.g. with material written by fascists explaining their political position), will serve this agenda, as they are also mob violence in opposition to reason, the kind of intolerance Karl Popper’s argument implies should not be tolerated.

A method of writing content easily with little anxiety

Hello, I have today been informed about a method for writing content that is relatively easy and painless. The idea is that by default a human will when reading predict what word is going to come next. Studies show that humans can predict what letter is going to come next and get pretty good entropy scores. That means that even the process of reading involves generating plausible next words.

And so it is possible to similarly do the same when writing. When writing a sequence of words, after the end there will be a feeling that some word will come next. It is unexpected and abrupt for the sentence to immediately end, so there is a feeling of continuation, that something will come after. One can while writing simply look at the space right to the right of the text that has already been written and there will be a feeling there about what word will come next.

Do not worry if this is difficult and slow at first. A practice exercise is to write a few words and then take some time to get a feeling of what word is going to come next. With meditation it is possible to notice experiential phenomena that are in one’s experience and sometimes have a spatial location. Well, maybe someone who knows how to find these phenomena is going to be able to find some sense of “next word” ness when focusing on the end of a sentence fragment. That will tell them what word they think is going to come next.

It is possible to simply, when noticing what word is going to come next, type that word. That is in fact what I am doing right now and what I have been doing for this entire post. It is rather easy and painless to do. It is not anxiety-provoking because it is a meditative, instruction-following exercise where I simply get a sense of what word will come next and type it. I am not responsible for the output of my text predictive model. I am not to blame. I am not unworthy.

This shortcuts various anxiety loops that are possible when writing in a more traditional manner. At that point, while there are many sentence continuations that are invisibly generated, all are filtered out because it would feel somehow bad to have written that sentence. Maybe the sentence would be cringeworthy or stylistically bad or offensive or embarrassing or I-don’t-know-what, it might just be off, and someone with enough of an aesthetic taste might simply be repulsed by the idea of actually writing out that sentence. There is no filter this way, because the sense of what word is going to come next is always present even when reading text, and so it is not specific to writing and doesn’t indicate that the person having such a predict is, themselves, responsible for that text.

I know this is a somewhat silly way of thinking about moral responsibility, but it is emotionally compelling enough that it can increase writing output by a lot. And output is not always good, quality matters too. It would be to be susceptible to Goodhart’s law to say that writing more words is always better. However, writer’s block is a pain, it is really bad if it isn’t possible to write anything at all, or to only be able to write very short sentences and paragraphs. That way it is possible to go months without making any progress on a writing project.

I prefer to have something written even if it is low-quality. That way, it is possible to edit or re-try later. That will increase the level of quality. And I know that that seems like a confident statement, that it will increase the quality, not that it might. The difference is that right now I do not care about seeming overconfident, since I am simply reporting on what word I consider most likely, and not worrying that the word I think is most likely to come next is not actually the most likely, I am not even considering alternatives (more than 1) because I am writing so fast, so the words just come out and I am not worried about the implied overconfidence.

This is nearing the end of this essay. There is a job to conclude everything. I am not sure how to do that except by rating the quality of what I have already written. I have done practically no editing so far, only spelling and that kind of thing, and maybe pressed backspace a few times to erase the last word. But there is basically no editing here. And is it high quality? I will leave that for readers to judge.

In any case, this method has produced an artifact that explains the very method and provides a way of judging the method by the very artifact produced by the method in a rather recursive loop that might ground out somehow in some kind of probabilistic or utility theoretic calculation made by someone who is deciding whether to use this method to write, or not and to instead use their previous writing method exclusively at the risk of hitting writer’s block.

The end.

[ED NOTE: This took about 6 minutes to write. I previously described this method on Twitter. I made a single edit after, to add a missing word.]

“Infohazard” is a predominantly conflict-theoretic concept

Nick Bostrom writes about “information hazards”, or “infohazards”:

Information hazards are risks that arise from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of true information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm. Such hazards are often subtler than direct physical threats, and, as a consequence, are easily overlooked. They can, however, be important. This paper surveys the terrain and proposes a taxonomy.

The paper considers both cases of (a) the information causing harm directly, and (b) the information enabling some agent to cause harm.

The main point I want to make is: cases of information being harmful are easier to construct when different agents’ interests/optimization are misaligned; when agents’ interests are aligned, infohazards still exist, but they’re weirder edge cases.  Therefore, “infohazard” being an important concept is Bayesian evidence for misalignment of interests/optimizations, which would be better-modeled by conflict theory than mistake theory.

Most of the infohazard types in Bostrom’s paper involve conflict and/or significant misalignment between different agents’ interests:

1.  Data hazard: followed by discussion of a malicious user of technology (adversarial)

2.  Idea hazard: also followed by discussion of a malicious user of technology (adversarial)

3.  Attention hazard: followed by a discussion including the word “adversary” (adversarial)

4.  Template hazard: follows discussion of competing firms copying each other (adversarial)

5.  Signaling hazard: follows discussion of people avoiding revealing their properties to others, followed by discussion of crackpots squeezing out legitimate research (adversarial)

6.  Evocation hazard: follows discussion of activation of psychological processes through presentation (ambiguously adversarial, non-VNM)

7.  Enemy hazard: by definition adversarial

8.  Competitiveness hazard: by definition adversarial

9.  Intellectual property hazard: by definition adversarial

10. Commitment hazard: follows discussion of commitments in adversarial situations (adversarial)

11. Knowing-too-much hazard: followed by discussion of political suppression of information (adversarial)

12. Norm hazard: followed by discussion of driving on sides of road, corruption, and money (includes adversarial situations)

13. Information asymmetry hazard: followed by discussion of “market for lemons” (adversarial)

14. Unveiling hazard: followed by discussion of iterated prisoner’s dilemma (misalignment of agents’ interests)

15. Recognition hazard: followed by discussion of avoiding common knowledge about a fart (non-VNM, non-adversarial, ambiguous whether this is a problem on net)

16. Ideological hazard: followed by discussion of true-but-misleading information resulting from someone starting with irrational beliefs (non-VNM, non-adversarial, not a strong argument against generally spreading information)

17. Distraction and temptation hazards: followed by discussion of TV watching (non-VNM, though superstimuli are ambiguously adversarial)

18. Role model hazard: followed by discussion of copycat suicides (non-VNM, non-adversarial, ambiguous whether this is a problem on net)

19. Biasing hazard: followed by discussion of double-blind experiments (non-VNM, non-adversarial)

20. De-biasing hazard: follows discussion of individual biases helping society (misalignment of agents’ interests)

21. Neuropsychological hazard: followed by discussion of limitations of memory architecture (non-VNM, non-adversarial)

22. Information-burying hazard: follows discussion of irrelevant information making relevant information harder to find (non-adversarial, though uncompelling as an argument against sharing relevant information)

23. Psychological reaction hazard: follows discussion of people being disappointed (non-VNM, non-adversarial)

24. Belief-constituted value hazard: defined as a psychological issue (non-VNM, non-adversarial)

25. Disappointment hazard: subset of psychological reaction hazard (non-VNM, non-adversarial, ambiguous whether this is a problem on net)

26. Spoiler hazard: followed by discussion of movies and TV being less fun when the outcome is known (non-VNM, non-adversarial, ambiguous whether this is a problem on net)

27. Mindset hazard: followed by discussion of cynicism and atrophy of spirit (non-VNM, non-adversarial, ambiguous whether this is a problem on net)

28. Embarrassment hazard: followed by discussion of self-image and competition between firms (non-VNM, includes adversarial situations)

29. Information system hazard: follows discussion of viruses and other inputs to programs that cause malfunctioning (includes adversarial situations)

30. Information infrastructure failure hazard: definition mentions cyber attacks (adversarial)

31. Information infrastructure misuse hazard: follows discussion of Stalin reading emails, followed by discussion of unintentional misuse (includes adversarial situations)

32. Robot hazard: followed by discussion of a robot programmed to launch missiles under some circumstances (includes adversarial situations)

33. Artificial intelligence hazard: followed by discussion of AI outcompeting and manipulating humans (includes adversarial situations)

Of these 33 types, 12 are unambiguously adversarial, 5 include adversarial situations, 2 are ambiguously adversarial, and 2 include significant misalignment of interests between different agents.  The remaining 12 generally involve non-VNM behavior, although there is one case (information-burying hazard) where the agent in question might be a utility maximizer (though, this type of hazard is not an argument against sharing relevant information).  I have tagged multiple of these as “ambiguous whether this is a problem on net”, to indicate the lack of a strong argument that the information in question (e.g. disappointing information) is actually bad for the receiver on net.

Simply counting examples in the paper isn’t a particularly strong argument, however.  Perhaps the examples have been picked through a biased process.  Here I’ll present some theoretical arguments.

There is a standard argument that the value of information is non-negative, that every rational agent from its own perspective cannot expect to be harmed by learning anything.  I will present this argument here.

Let’s say the actual state of the world is W \in \mathcal{W}, and the agent will take some action A \in \mathcal{A}.  The agent’s utility will be u(W, A) \in \mathbb{R}.  The agent starts with a distribution over W, P(W).  Additionally, the agent has the option of observing an additional fact m(W) \in \mathcal{O}, which it will in the general case not know at the start.  (I chose m to represent “measure”.)

Now, the question is, can the agent achieve lower utility in expectation if they learn m(W) than if they don’t?

Assume the agent doesn’t learn m(W).  Then the expected utility by taking some action a equals \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}}P(W=w)u(w, a).  The maximum achievable expected utility is therefore

max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}} P(W=w) u(w, a).

On the other hand, suppose the agent learns m(W) = o.  Then the expected utility by taking action a equals \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}} P(W=w|m(W)=o)u(w, a), and the maximum achievable expected utility is

max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}} P(W=w|m(W)=o)u(w, a).

Under uncertainty about m(W), the agent’s expected utility equals

\sum_{o \in \mathcal{O}}P(m(W)=o) \max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}}P(W=w|m(W)=o)u(w, a).

Due to convexity of the \max function, this is greater than or equal to:

\max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{o \in \mathcal{O}}P(m(W)=o) \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}}P(W=w|m(W)=o)u(w, a).

Re-arranging the summation and applying the definition of conditional probability, this is equal to:

\max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{o \in \mathcal{O}} \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}} P(m(W)=o \wedge W = w)u(w, a).

Marginalizing over o, this is equal to:

max_{a \in \mathcal{A}} \sum_{w \in \mathcal{W}} P(W=w) u(w, a).

But this is the same as the utility achieved without learning m(W).  This is sufficient to show that, by learning m(W), the agent does not achieve a lower expected utility.

(Note that this argument is compatible with the agent getting lower utility u(W, A) in some possible worlds due to knowing m(W), which would be a case of true-but-misleading information; the argument deals in expected utility, implying that the cases of true-but-misleading information are countervailed by cases of true-and-useful information.)

Is it possible to construct a multi-agent problem, where the agents have the same utility function, and they are all harmed by some of them learning something? Suppose Alice and Bob are deciding on a coffee shop to meet without being able to communicate beforehand, by finding a Schelling point.  The only nearby coffee shop they know about is Carol’s.  Derek also owns a coffee shop which is nearby.  Derek has the option of telling Alice and Bob about his coffee shop (and how good it is); they can’t contact him or each other, but they can still receive his message (e.g. because he advertises it on a billboard).

If Alice and Bob don’t know about Derek’s coffee shop, they successfully meet at Carol’s coffee shop with high probability.  But, if they learn about Derek’s coffee shop, they may find it hard to decide which one to go to, and therefore fail to meet at the same one.  (I have made the point previously that about-equally-good options can raise problems in coordination games).

This result is interesting because it’s a case of agents with the same goal (meeting at a good coffee shop) accomplishing that goal worse by knowing something than by not knowing it.  There are some problems with this example, however.  For one, Derek’s coffee shop may be significantly better than Carol’s, in which case Derek informing both Alice and Bob leads to them both meeting at Derek’s coffee shop, which is better than Carol’s.  If Derek’s coffee shop is significantly worse, then Derek informing Alice and Bob does not impact their ability to meet at Carol’s coffee shop.  So Derek could only predictably make their utility worse if somehow he knew that his shop was about as good to them as Carol’s.  But then it could be argued that, by remaining silent, Derek is sending Alice and Bob a signal that his coffee shop is about as good, since he would not have remained silent in other cases.

So even when I try to come up with a case of infohazards among cooperative agents, the example has problems.  Perhaps other people are better than me at coming up with such examples.  (While Bostrom presents examples of information hazards among agents with aligned interests in the paper, these lack enough mathematical detail to formally analyze them with utility theory to the degree that the coffee shop example can be analyzed.)

It is also possible that utility theory is substantially false, that humans don’t really “have utility functions” and therefore there can be information hazards.  Bostrom’s paper presents multiple examples of non-VNM behavior in humans.  This would call for revision of utility theory in general, which is a project beyond the scope of this post.

It is, in contrast, trivial to come up with examples of information hazards in competitive games.  Suppose Alice and Bob are playing Starcraft.  Alice is creating lots of some unit (say, zerglings).  Alice could tell Bob about this.  If Bob knew this, he would be able to prepare for an attack by this unit.  This would be bad for Alice’s ability to win the game.

It is still the case that Bob gains higher expected utility by knowing about Alice’s zerglings, which makes it somewhat strange to call this an “information hazard”; it’s more natural to say that Alice is benefitting from an information asymmetry.  Since she’s playing a zero-sum game with Bob, anything that increases Bob’s (local) utility function, including having more information and options, decreases Alice’s (local) utility function.  It is, therefore, unsurprising that the original “value of information is non-negative” argument can be turned on its head to show that “your opponent having information is bad for you”.

There are, of course, games other than common-payoff games and zero-sum games, which could also contain cases of some agent being harmed by another agent having information.

It is, here, useful to distinguish the broad sense of “infohazard” that Bostrom uses, which includes multi-agent situations, from a narrower sense of “self-infohazards”, in which a given individual gains a lower utility by knowing something.  The value-of-information argument presented at the start shows that there are no self-infohazards in an ideal game-theoretic case.  Cooperative situations, such as the coffee shop example, aren’t exactly cases of a self-infohazard (which would violate the original value-of-information theorem), although there is a similarity in that we could consider Alice and Bob as parts of a single agent given that they have the same local utility function.  The original value of information argument doesn’t quite apply to these (which allows the coffee shop example to be constructed), but almost does, which is why the example is such an edge case.

Some apparent cases of self-infohazards are actually cases where it is bad for some agent A to be believed by some agent B to know some fact X.  For example, the example Bostrom gives of political oppression of people knowing some fact is a case of the harm to the knower coming not from their own knowledge, but from others’ knowledge of their knowledge.

The Sequences contain quite a significant amount of advice to ignore the idea that information might be bad for you, to learn the truth anyway: the Litany of Tarski, the Litany of Gendlin, “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”.  This seems like basically good advice even if there are some edge-case exceptions; until coming up with a better policy than “always be willing to learn true relevant information”, making exceptions risks ending up in a simulacrum with no way out.

A case of some agent A denying information to some agent B with the claim that it is to agent B’s benefit is, at the very least, suspicious.  As I’ve argued, self-infohazards are impossible in the ideal utility theoretic case.  To the extent that human behavior and values deviate from utility theory, such cases could be constructed.  Even if such cases exist, however, it is hard for agent B to distinguish this case from one where agent A’s interests and/or optimization are misaligned with B’s, so that the denial of information is about maintaining an information asymmetry that advantages A over B.

Sociologically, it is common in “cult” situations for the leader(s) to deny information to the followers, often with the idea that it is to the followers’ benefit, that they are not yet ready for this information.  Such esotericism allows the leaders to maintain an information asymmetry over the followers, increasing their degree of control.  The followers may trust the leaders to really be withholding only the information that would be harmful to them.  But this is a very high degree of trust.  It makes the leaders effectively unaccountable, since they are withholding the information that could be used to evaluate their claims, including the claim that withholding the information is good for the followers.  The leaders, correspondingly, take on quite a high degree of responsibility for the followers’ lives, like a zookeeper takes on responsibility for the zoo animals’ lives; given that the followers don’t have important information, they are unable to make good decisions when such decisions depend on this information.

It is common in a Christian context for priests to refer to their followers as a “flock”, a herd of people being managed and contained, partially through information asymmetry: use of very selective readings of the Bible, without disclaimers about the poor historical evidence for the stories’ truth (despite priests’ own knowledge of Biblical criticism), to moralize about ways of life.  It is, likewise, common for parents to lie to children partially to “maintain their innocence”, in a context where the parents have quite a lot of control over the childrens’ lives, as their guardians.  My point here isn’t that this is always bad for those denied information (although I think it is in the usual case), but that it requires a high degree of trust and requires the information-denier to take on responsibility for making decisions that the one denied information is effectively unable to make due to the information disadvantage.

The Garden of Eden is a mythological story of a self-infohazard: learning about good and evil makes Eve and Adam less able to be happy animals, more controlled by shame.  It is, to a significant degree, a rigged situation, since it is set up by Yahweh.  Eve’s evaluation, that learning information will be to her benefit, is, as argued, true in most cases; she would have to extend quite a lot of trust to her captor to believe that she should avoid information that would be needed to escape from the zoo.  In this case her captor is, by construction, Yahweh, so a sentimentally pro-Yahweh version of the story shows mostly negative consequences from this choice.  (There are also, of course, sentimentally anti-Yahweh interpretations of the story, in Satanism and Gnosticism, which consider Eve’s decision to learn about good and evil to be wise.)

Situations that are explicitly low-trust usually don’t use the concept of a self-infohazard.  In a corporate setting, it’s normal to think that it’s good for your own company to have more information, but potentially bad for other companies to have information such as trade secrets or information that could be used to make legal threats.  The goal of corporate espionage isn’t to spread information to opponents while avoiding learning information about them, it’s to learn about the opponents while preventing them from learning about your company, which may include actively misleading them by presenting them with false or misleading information.  The harms of receiving misleading information are mitigated, not by not gathering information in the first place, but by gathering enough information to cross-check and build a more complete picture.

The closest corporate case I know of to belief in self-infohazards is in a large tech company which has a policy of not allowing engineers to read the GDPR privacy law; instead, their policy is to have lawyers read the law, and give engineers guidelines for “complying with the law”.  The main reason for this is that following the law literally as stated would not be possible while still providing the desired service.  Engineers, who are more literal-minded than lawyers, are more likely to be hindered by knowing the literal content of the law than they are if they receive easier guidelines from lawyers.  This is still somewhat of an edge case, since information isn’t being denied to the engineers for their own sake so much as so the company can claim to not be knowingly violating the law; given the potential for employees to be called to the witness stand, denying information to employees can protect the company as a whole.  So it is still, indirectly, a case of denying information to potential adversaries (such as prosecutors).

In a legal setting, there are cases where information is denied to people, e.g. evidence is considered inadmissible due to police not following procedure in gaining that information.  This information is not denied to the jury primarily because it would be bad for the jury; rather, it’s denied to them because it would be unfair to one side in the case (such as the defendant), and because admitting such information would create bad incentives for information-gatherers such as police detectives, which is bad for information-gatherers who are following procedure; it would also increase executive power, likely at the expense of the common people.

So, invocation of the notion of a self-infohazard is Bayesian evidence, not just of a conflict situation, but of a concealed conflict situation, where outsiders are more likely than insiders to label the situation as a conflict, e.g. in a cult.

It is important to keep in mind that, for A to have information they claim to be denying to B for B’s benefit, A must have at some point decided to learn this information.  I have rarely, if ever, heard cases where A, upon learning the information, actively regrets it; rather, their choice to learn about it shows that they expected such learning to be good for them, and this expectation is usually agreed with later.  I infer that it is common for A to be applying a different standard to B than to A; to consider B weaker, more in need of protection, and less agentic than A.

To quote @jd_pressman on Twitter:

Empathy based ethics in a darwinian organism often boils down to “Positive utilitarianism for me, negative utilitarianism for thee.”

Different standards are often applied because the situation actually is more of a conflict situation than is being explicitly represented.  One applies to one’s self a standard that values positively one’s agency, information, capacity, and existence, and one applies to others a standard that values negatively their agency, information, capacity, and existence; such differential application increases one’s position in the conflict (e.g. evolutionary competition) relative to others.  This can, of course, be rhetorically justified in various ways by appealing to the idea that the other would “suffer” by having greater capacities, or would “not be able to handle it” and is “in need of protection”.  These rhetorical justifications aren’t always false, but they are suspicious in light of the considerations presented.

Nick Bostrom, for example, despite discussing “disappointment risks”, spends quite a lot of his time thinking about very disappointing scenarios, such as AGI killing everyone, or nuclear war happening.  This shows a revealed preference for, not against, receiving disappointing information.

An important cultural property of the word “infohazard” is that it is used quite differently in a responsible/serious and a casual/playful context.  In a responsible/serious context, the concept is used to invoke the idea that terrible consequences, such as the entire world being destroyed, could result from people talking openly about certain topics, justifying centralization of information in a small inner ring.  In a casual/playful context, “infohazard” means something other people don’t want you to know, something exciting the way occult and/or Eldritch concepts are exciting, something you could use to gain an advantage over others, something delicious.

Here are a few Twitter examples:

  • “i subsist on a diet consisting mostly of infohazards” (link)
  • “maintain a steady infohazard diet like those animals that eat poisonous plants, so that your mind will poison those that try to eat it” (link)
  • “oooooh an information hazard… Googling, thanks” (link)
  • “are you mature/cool enough to handle the infohazard that a lot of conversations about infohazards are driven more by games around who is mature/cool enough than by actual reasoned concern about info & hazards?” (link)

The idea that you could come up with an idea that harms people in weird ways when they learn about it is, in a certain light, totally awesome, the way mind control powers are awesome, or the way being an advanced magical user (wizard/witch/warlock/etc) is awesome.  The idea is fun the way the SCP wiki is fun (especially the parts about antimemetics).

It is understandable that this sort of value inversion would come from an oppositional attitude to “responsible” misinforming of others, as a form of reverse psychology that is closely related to the Streisand effect.  Under a conflict theory, someone not wanting you to know something is evidence for it being good for you to learn!

This can all still be true even if there are some actual examples of self-infohazards, due to non-VNM values or behavior in humans.  However, given the argument I am making, the more important the “infohazard” concept is considered, the more evidence there is of a possibly-concealed conflict; continuing to apply a mistake theory to the situation becomes harder and harder, in a Bayesian sense, as this information (about people encouraging each other not to accumulate more information) accumulates.

As a fictional example, the movie They Live (1988) depicts a situation in which aliens have taken over and are ruling Earth.  The protagonist acquires sunglasses that show him the ways aliens control himself and others.  He attempts to put the sunglasses on his friend, to show him the political situation; however, his friend physically tries to fight off this attempt, treating the information revealed by the sunglasses as a self-infohazard.  This is in large part because, by seeing the concealed conflict, the friend could be uncomfortably forced to modify his statements and actions accordingly, such as by picking sides.

The movie Bird Box (2018) is a popular and evocative depiction of a self-infohazard (similar in many ways to Langford’s basilisk), in the form of a monster that, when viewed, causes the viewer to die with high probability, and to with low probability become a “psycho” who tries to show the monster to everyone else forcefully.  The main characters use blindfolds and other tactics to avoid viewing the monster.  There was a critical discussion of this movie that argued that the monster represents racism.  The protagonists, who are mostly white (although there is a black man who is literally an uncle named “Tom”), avoid seeing inter-group conflict; such a strategy only works for people with a certain kind of “privilege”, who don’t need to directly see the conflict to navigate daily life.  Such an interpretation of the movie is in line with the invocation of “infohazards” being Bayesian evidence of concealed conflicts.

What is one to do if one feels like something might be an “infohazard” but is convinced by this argument that there is likely some concealed conflict?  An obvious step is to model the conflict, as I did in the case of the tech company “complying” with GDPR by denying engineers information.  Such a multi-agent model makes it clear why it may be in some agents’ interest for some agents (themselves or others) to be denied information.  It also makes it clearer that there are generally losers, not just winners, when information is hidden, and makes it clearer who those losers are.

There is a saying about adversarial situations such as poker games: “If you look around the table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you”.  If you’re in a conflict situation (which the “infohazard” concept is Bayesian evidence for), and you don’t know who is losing by information being concealed, that’s Bayesian evidence that you are someone who is harmed by this concealment; those who are tracking the conflict situation, by knowing who the losers are, are more likely to ensure that they end up ahead.

As a corollary of the above (reframing “loser” as “adversary”): if you’re worried about information spreading because someone might be motivated to use it to do something bad for you, knowing who that someone is and the properties of them and their situation allows you to better minimize the costs and maximize the benefits of spreading or concealing information, e.g. by writing the information in such a way that some audiences are more likely than others to read it and consider it important.

Maybe the “infohazard” situation you’re thinking about really isn’t a concealed conflict and it’s actually a violation of VNM utility; in that case, the consideration to make clear is how and why VNM doesn’t apply to the situation.  Such a consideration would be a critique of Bayesian/utility based models applying to humans of the sort studied by the field of behavioral economics.  I expect that people will often be biased towards looking for exceptions to VNM rather than looking for concealed conflicts (as they are, by assumption, concealing the conflict); however, that doesn’t mean that such exceptions literally never occur.

Selfishness, preference falsification, and AI alignment

If aliens were to try to infer human values, there are a few information sources they could start looking at.  One would be individual humans, who would want things on an individual basis.  Another would be expressions of collective values, such as Internet protocols, legal codes of states, and religious laws.  A third would be values that are implied by the presence of functioning minds in the universe at all, such as a value for logical consistency.

It is my intuition that much less complexity of value would be lost by looking at the individuals than looking at protocols or general values of minds.

Let’s first consider collective values.  Inferring what humanity collectively wants from internet protocol documents would be quite difficult; the fact a SYN packet must be followed by a SYN-ACK packet is a decision made in order to allow communication to be possible rather than an expression of a deep value.  Collective values, in general, involve protocols that allow different individuals to cooperate with each other despite their differences; they need not contain the complexity of individual values, as individuals within the collective will pursue these anyway.

Distinctions between different animal brains form more natural categories than distinctions between institutional ideologies (e.g. in terms of density of communication, such as in neurons), so that determining values by looking at individuals leads to value-representations that are more reflective of the actual complexity of the present world in comparison to determining values by looking at institutional ideologies.

There are more degenerate attractors in the space of collective values than in individual values, e.g. with each person trying to optimize “the common good” in a way that means that they say they want “the common good”, which means “the common good” (as a rough average of individuals’ stated preferences) thinks their utility function is mostly identical with “the common good”, such that “the common good” becomes  a mostly self-referential phrase, referring to something with little resemblance to what anyone wanted in the first place.  (This has a lot in common with Ayn Rand’s writing in favor of “selfishness”.)

There is reason to expect that spite strategies, which involve someone paying to harm others, are collective, rather than individual.  Imagine that there are 100 different individuals competing, and that they have the option of paying 1 unit of their own energy to deduct 10 units of another individual’s energy.  This is clearly not worth it in terms of increasing their own energy, and is also not worth it in terms of increasing the percentage of the total energy owned by them, since paying 1 energy only deducts 0.1 units of energy from the average individual.  On the other hand, if there are 2 teams fighting each other, then a team that instructs its members to hurt the other team (at cost) gains in terms of the percentage of energy controlled by the team; this situation is important enough that we have a common term for it, “war”.  Therefore, collective values are more likely than individual values to encode conflicts in a way that makes them fundamentally irreconcilable.

Let us also consider values necessary for minds-in-general.  I talked with someone at a workshop recently who had the opinion that AGI should optimize an agent-neutral notion of “good”, coming from the teleology of the universe itself, rather than human values specifically, although it would optimize our values to the extent that our values already align with the teleology.  (This is similar to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s opinion in 1997.)

There are some values embedded in the very structure of thought itself, e.g. a value for logical consistency and the possibility of running computations.  However, none of these values are “human values” exactly; at the point where these are the main thing under consideration, it starts making more sense to talk about “the telos of the universe” or “objective morality” than “human values”.  Even a paperclip maximizer would pursue these values; they appear as convergent instrumental goals.

Even though these values are important, they can be assumed to be significantly satisfied by any sufficiently powerful AGI (though probably not optimally); the difference in the desirability between a friendly and unfriendly AGI, therefore, depends primarily on other factors.

There is a somewhat subtle point, made by Spinoza, which is that the telos of the universe includes our own values as a special case, at our location; we do “what the universe wants” by pursuing our values.  Even without understanding or agreeing with this point, however, we can look at the way pure pursuit of substrate-independent values seems subjectively wrong, and consider the implications of this subjective wrongness.

“I”, “you”, “here”, and “now” are indexicals: they refer to something different depending on when, where, and who speaks them. “My values” is indexical; it refers to different value-representations (e.g. utility functions) for different individuals.

“Human values” is also effectively indexical.  The “friendly AI (FAI) problem” is framed as aligning artificial intelligence with human values because of our time and place in history; in another timeline where octopuses became sapient and developed computers before humans, AI alignment researchers would be talking about “octopus values” instead of “human values”. Moreover, “human” is just a word; we interpret it by accessing actual humans, including ourselves and others, and that is always indexical, since which humans we find depends on our location in spacetime.

Eliezer’s metaethics sequence argues that our values are, importantly, something computed by our brains, evaluating different ways the future could go.  That doesn’t mean that “what score my brain computes on a possible future” is a valid definition of what is good, but rather, that the scoring is what leads to utterances about the good.

The fact that actions, including actions about what to say is “good”, are computed by the brain does mean that there is a strong selection effect in utterances about “good”.  To utter the sentence “restaurants are good”, the brain must decide to deliver energy towards this utterance.

The brain will optimize what it does to a significant degree (though not perfectly) for continuing to receive energy, e.g. handling digestion and causing feelings of hunger that lead to eating.  This is a kind of selfishness that is hard to avoid.  The brain’s perceptors and actuators are indexical (i.e. you see and interact with stuff near you), so at least some preferences will also be indexical in this way.  It would be silly for Alice’s brain to directly care about Bob’s digestion as much as it cares about Alice’s digestion, there is separation of concerns implemented by presence of nerves directly from Alice’s brain to Alice’s digestive system but not to Bob’s digestive system.

For an academic to write published papers about “the good”, they must additionally receive enough resources to survive (e.g. by being paid), provide a definition that others’ brains will approve of, and be part of a process that causes them to be there in the first place (e.g. which can raise children to be literate).  This obviously causes selection issues if the academics are being fed and educated by a system that continues asserting an ideology in a way not responsive to counter-evidence.  If the academics would lose their job if they defined “good” in a too-heretical way, one should expect to see few heretical papers on normative ethics.

(It is usual in analytic philosophy to assume that philosophers are working toward truths that are independent of their individual agendas and incentives, with bad academic incentives being a form of encroaching badness that could impede this, whereas in continental philosophy it is usual to assert that academic work is done by individuals who have agendas as part of a power structure, e.g. Foucault saying that schools are part of an imperial power structure.)

It’s possible to see a lot of bad ethics in other times and places as resulting from this sort of selection effect (e.g. people feeling pressure to agree with prevailing beliefs in their community even if they don’t make sense), although the effect is harder to see in our own time and place due to our own socialization.  It’s in some ways a similar sort of selection effect to the fact that utterances about “the good” must receive energy from a brain process, which means we refer to “human values” rather than “octopus values” since humans, not octopuses, are talking about AI alignment.  

In optimizing “human values” (something we have little choice in doing), we are accepting the results of evolutionary selection that happened in the past, in a “might makes right” way; human values are, to a significant extent, optimized so that humans having these values successfully survive and reproduce.  This is only a problem if we wanted to locate substrate-independent values (values applicable to minds in general); substrate-dependent values depend on the particular material history of the substrate, e.g. evolutionary history, and environmentally-influenced energy limitations are an inherent feature of this history.

In optimizing “the values of our society” (also something we have little choice in, although more than in the case of “human values”), we are additionally accepting the results of historical-social-cultural evolution, a process by which societies change over time and compete with each other.  As argued at the beginning, parsing values at the level of individuals leads to representing more of the complexity of the world’s already-existing agency, compared with parsing values at the level of collectives, although at least some important values are collective.

This leads to another framing on the relation between individual and collective values: preference falsification.  It’s well-known that people often report preferences they don’t act on, and that these reports are often affected by social factors.  To the extent that we are trying to get at “intrinsic values”, this is a huge problem; it means that with rare exceptions, we see reports of non-intrinsic values.

A few intuition pumps for the commonality of preference falsification:

1. Degree of difference in stated values in different historical time periods, exceeding actual change in human genetics, often corresponding to over-simplified values such as “maximizing productivity”, or simple religious values.

2. Commonality of people expressing lack of preference (e.g. about which restaurant to eat at), despite the experiences resulting from the different choices being pretty different.

3. Large differences between human stated values and predictions of evolutionary psychology, e.g. commonality people asserting that sexual repression is good.

4. Large differences in expressed values between children and adults, with children expressing more culturally-neutral values and adults expressing more culturally-specific ones.

5. “Akrasia”, people saying they “want” something without actually having the “motivation” to achieve it.

6. Feelings of “meaninglessness”, nihilism, persistent depression.

7. Schooling practices that have the effect of causing the student’s language to be aimed at pleasing authority figures rather than self-advocating.

Michelle Reilly writes on preference falsification:

Preference falsification is a reversal of the sign, and not simply a change in the magnitude, regarding some of your signaled value judgments. Each preference falsification creates some internal demand for ambiguity and a tendency to reverse the signs on all of your other preferences. Presumptively, any claim to having values differing from that which you think would maximize your inclusive fitness in the ancestral environment is either a lie, an error (potentially regarding your beliefs about what maximizes fitness, for instance, due to having mistakenly absorbed pop darwinist ideology), or a pointer to the outcome of a preference falsification imposed by culture.

(The whole article is excellent and worth reading.)

In general, someone can respond to a threat by doing what the threatener is threatening them to do, which includes hiding the threat (sometimes from consciousness itself; Jennier Freyd’s idea of betrayal trauma is related) and saying what one is being threatened into saying.  At the end of 1984, after being confined to a room and tortured, the protagonist says”I love Big Brother”, in the ultimate act of preference falsification.  Nothing following that statement can be taken as a credible statement of preferences; his expressions of preference have become ironic.

I recently had a conversation with Ben Hoffman where he zoomed in on how I wasn’t expressing coherent intentions.  More of the world around me came into the view of my consciousness, and I felt like I was representing the world more concretely in a way that led me to expressing simple preferences, such as that I liked restaurants and looking at pretty interesting things, while also feeling fear at the same time, as it seemed that what I had been doing previously was trying to be “at the ready” to answer arbitrary questions in a fear-based way; the moment faded, such that I am led to believe that it is uncommon for me to feel and express authentic preferences.  I do not think I am unusual in this regard; Michael Vassar, in a podcast with Spencer Greenberg (see also a summary by Eli Tyre), estimates that the majority of adults are “conflict theorists” who are radically falsifying their preferences, which is in line with Venkatesh Rao’s estimate that 80% of the population are “losers” who are acting from defensiveness and trying to make information relevant to comparisons between people illegible. In the “postrationalist” memespace, it is common to talk as if illegibility were an important protection; revealing information about one’s self is revealing vulnerabilities to potential attackers, making “hiding” as a generic, anonymous, history-free, hard-to-single-out person harder.

Can people who deeply falsify their preferences successfully create an aligned AI?  I argue “probably not”.  Imagine an institution that made everyone in it optimize for some utility function U that was designed by committee. That U wouldn’t be the human utility function (unless the design-by-committee process reliably determines human values, which would be extremely difficult), so forcing everyone to optimize U means you aren’t optimizing the human utility function; it has the same issues as a paperclip maximizer.

What if you try setting U = “make FAI”? “FAI” is a symbolic token (Eliezer writes about “LISP tokens”); for it to have semantics it has to connect with human value somehow, i.e. someone actually wanting something and being assisted in getting it.

Maybe it’s possible to have a research organization where some people deeply preference-falsify and some don’t, but for this to work the organization would need a legible distinction between the two classes, so no one gets confused into thinking they’re optimizing the preference-falsifiers’ utility function by constraining them to act against their values.  (I used the term “slavery” in the comment thread, which is somewhat politically charged, although it’s pointing at something important, which is that preference falsification causes someone to serve another’s values (or an imaginary other’s values) rather than their own.)

In other words: the motion that builds a FAI must chain from at least one person’s actual values, but people under preference falsification can’t do complex research in a way that chains from their actual values, so someone who actually is planning from their values must be involved in the project, especially the part of the project that is determining how human values are defined (at object and process levels).

Competent humans are both moral agents and moral patients.  A sign that someone is preference-falsifying is that they aren’t treating themselves, or others like them, as moral patients.  They might signal costly that they aren’t optimizing for themselves, they’re optimizing for the common good, against their own interests.  But at least some intrinsic preferences are selfish, due to both (a) indexicality of perceptors/actuators and (b) evolutionary psychology.  So purely-altruistic preferences will, in the usual case, come from subtracting selfish preferences from one’s values (or, sublimating them into altruistic preferences).  Eliezer has written recently about the necessity of representing partly-selfish values rather that over-writing them with altruistic values, in line with much of what I am saying here.

How does one treat one’s self as a moral agent and patient simultaneously, in a way compatible with others doing so?  We must (a) pursue our values and (b) have such pursuit not conflict too much with others’ pursuit of their values.  In mechanism design, we simultaneously have preferences over the mechanism (incentive structure) and the goods mediated by the incentive structure (e.g. goods being auctioned).  Similarly, Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a criterion for object-level preferences to be consistent with law-level preferences, which are like preferences about what legal structure to occupy; the object-level preferences are pursued subject to obeying this legal structure.  (There are probably better solutions than these, but this is a start.)

What has been stated so far is, to a significant extent, an argument for deontological ethics over utilitarian ethics.  Utilitarian ethics risks constraining everyone into optimizing “the common good” in a way that hides original preferences, which contain some selfish ones; deontological ethics allows pursuit of somewhat-selfish values as long as these values are pursued subject to laws that are willed in the same motion as willing the objects of these values themselves.

Consciousness is related to moral patiency (in that e.g. animal consciousness is regarded as an argument in favor of treating animals as moral patients), and is notoriously difficult to discuss.  I hypothesize that a lot of what is going on here is that:

1. There are many beliefs/representations that are used in different contexts to make decisions or say things.

2. The scientific method has criteria for discarding beliefs/representations, e.g. in cases of unfalsifiability, falsification by evidence, or complexity that is too high.

3. A scientific worldview will, therefore, contain a subset of the set of all beliefs had by someone.

4. It is unclear how to find the rest of the beliefs in the scientific worldview, since many have been discarded.

5. There is, therefore, a desire to be able to refer to beliefs/representations that didn’t make it into the scientific worldview, but which are still used to make decisions or say things; “consciousness” is a way of referring to beliefs/representations in a way inclusive of non-scientific beliefs.

6. There are, additionally, attempts to make consciousness and science compatible by locating conscious beliefs/representations within a scientific model, e.g. in functionalist theory of mind.

A chemist will have the experience of drinking coffee (which involves their mind processing information from the environment in a hard-to-formalize way) even if this experience is not encoded in their chemistry papers.  Alchemy, as a set of beliefs/representations, is part of experience/consciousness, but is not part of science, since it is pre-scientific.  Similarly, beliefs about ethics (at least, the ones that aren’t necessary for the scientific method itself) aren’t part of the scientific worldview, but may be experienced as valence.

Given this view, we care about consciousness in part because the representations used to read and write text like this “care about themselves”, wanting not to erase themselves from their own product.

There is, then, the question of how (or if) to extend consciousness to other representations, but at the very least, the representations used here-and-now for interpreting text are an example of consciousness.  (Obviously, “the representations used here-and-now” is indexical, connecting with the earlier discussion on the necessity of energy being provided for uttering sentences about “the good”.)

The issue of extension of consciousness is, again, similar to the issue of how different agents with somewhat-selfish goals can avoid getting into intractable conflicts.  Conflicts would result from each observer-moment assigning itself extreme importance based on its own consciousness, and not extending this to other observer-moments, especially if these other observer-moments are expected to recognize the consciousness of the first.

I perceive an important problem with the idea of “friendly AI” leading to nihilism, by the following process:

1. People want things, and wants that are more long-term and common-good-oriented are emphasized.

2. This leads people to think about AI, as it is important for automation, increasing capabilities in the long term.

3. This leads people to think about AI alignment, as it is important for the long-term future, given that AI will be relevant.

4. They have little actual understanding of AI alignment, so their thoughts are based on others’ thought, their idea of what good research should look like.

In the process their research has become disconnected from their original, ordinary wanting, which becomes subordinated to it.  But an extension of the original wanting is what “friendly AI” is trying to point at.  Unless these were connected somehow, there would be no reason or motive to value “friendly AI”; the case for it is based on reasoning about how the mind evaluates possible paths forward (e.g. in the metaethics sequence).

It becomes a paradoxical problem when people don’t feel motivated to “optimize the human utility function”.  But their utility function is what they’re motivated to do, so this is absurd, unless there is mental damage causing failure of motivations to cohere at all.  This could be imprecisely summarized as: “If you don’t want it, it’s not a friendly AI”.  The token “FAI” is meaningless unless it connects with a deep wanting.

This leads to a way that a friendly AI project could be more powerful than an unfriendly AI project: the people working on it would be more likely to actually want the result in a relatively-unconfused way, so they’d be more motivated to actually make the system work, rather than just pretending to try to make the system work.

Alignment researchers who were in touch with “wanting” would be treating themselves and others like them as moral patients.  This ties in to my discussion of my own experiences as an alignment researcher.  I said at the end:

Aside from whether things were “bad” or “not that bad” overall, understanding the specifics of what happened, including harms to specific people, is important for actually accomplishing the ambitious goals these projects are aiming at; there is no reason to expect extreme accomplishments to result without very high levels of epistemic honesty.

This is a pretty general statement, but now it’s possible to state the specifics better.  There is little reason to expect that alignment researchers that don’t treat themselves and others like them as moral patients are actually treating the rest of humanity as moral patients.  From a historical outside view, this is intergenerational trauma, “hurt people hurt people”, people who are used to being constrained/dominated in a certain way passing that along to others, which is generally part of an imperial structure that extends itself through colonization; colonizers often have narratives about how they’re acting in the interests of the colonized people, but these narratives can’t be evaluated neutrally if the colonized people in question cannot speak.  (The colonization of Liberia is a particularly striking example of colonial trauma). Treating someone as a moral patient requires accounting for costs and benefits to them, which requires either discourse with them or extreme, unprecedented advances in psychology.

I recall a conversation in 2017 where a CFAR employee told someone I knew (who was a trans woman) that there was a necessary decision between treating the trans woman in question “as a woman” or “as a man”, where “as a man” meant “as a moral agent” and “as a woman” meant “as a moral patient”, someone who’s having problems and needs help.  That same CFAR person later told me about how they are excited by the idea of “undoing gender”.  This turns out to align with the theory I am currently advocating, that it is necessary to consider one’s self as both a moral agent and a moral patient simultaneously, which is queer-coded in American 90s culture.

I can see now that, as long as I was doing “friendly AI research” from a frame of trying not to be bad or considered bad (implicitly, trying to appear to serve someone else’s goals), everything I was doing was a total confusion; I was pretending to try to solve the problem, which might have possibly worked for a much easier problem, but definitely not one as difficult as AI alignment.  After having left “the field” and gotten more of a life of my own, where there is relatively less requirement to please others by seeming abstractly good (or abstractly bad, in the case of vice signaling), I finally have an orientation that can begin to approach the real problem while seeing more of how hard it is.

The case of aligning AI with a single human is less complicated than the problem with aligning it with “all of humanity”, but this problem still contains most of the difficulty.  There is a potential failure mode where alignment researchers focus too much on their own utility function at the expense of considering others’, but (a) this is not the problem on the margin given that the problem of aligning AI with even a single human’s utility function contains most of the difficulty, and (b) this could potentially be solved with incentive alignment (inclusive of mechanism design and deontological ethics) rather than enforcing altruism, which is nearly certain to actually be enforcing preference-falsification given the difficulty of checking actual altruism.

“Credibility” for being unbelievable

The word “credible” is perversely ambiguous.  On the face of it, it means: being trustworthy, being believable (in a Bayesian sense), being likely to make true statements and pay one’s debts.  But there’s another way the word is used, which is to indicate authority and prestige: control over which propositions are considered “truthy” (and/or agreement with controlling processes), rather than prediction of which statements are actually true.

Control over narratives, however, is anticorrelated with, and opposed to, actual believability.  If you can control the narrative to say that some proposition is either X or ~X at will, arbitrarily, then you’re using a symmetric process for “convincing” others: it’s just as easy to use it to convince of falsehood as of truth.  This is as opposed to asymmetric processes which are easier to use to convince of truth than of falsehood, e.g. public experiments, logical debate.

(The word “authority” is interesting here: “authority”, “authoritarian”, and “author” come from the same root, indicating a relation between the “authoring” of arbitrary narratives, “authoritarian” use of force by some parties to control others, and “authority” assigned to statements and producers of statements.)

While oracular reality-trackers discern facts, authority creates facts, primarily social facts; if these are the “facts” used to determine credibility, then authority and those close to it can “win” credibility, while having no corresponding ability to discern truth.

Being in a position to control narratives means having power: having maneuvered into a position to exert arbitrary influence on others.  Since power is rivalrous (it can’t be the case that everyone has lots of arbitrary influence on everyone else), acquiring power requires winning zero-sum games.  Winning zero-sum games requires allocating attention to the game itself; unless the game is set up so as to correlate with truth (e.g. a formal debate judged according to pro-epistemology standards such as logical rigor and consistency with evidence), it will be won by actors who are barely paying attention to the truth, who are bullshitting (not simply lying!).

Beyond this, zero-sum game play is opposed to revelation of information; such revelation is interpreted as aggression, as it breaks the “nothing changes” power-maintaining equilibrium.

The “calling a deer a horse” story is illustrative, demonstrating more severity than simply not paying attention to the truth.  When Zhao Gao points to a deer and says it is a horse, he effectively controls the narrative: those who want to live will “agree” with him that it’s a horse.  He isn’t believable, but he’s authoritative; he’s “credible”, as are those who submit to the threat and “agree” (ironically) with him.  (Ironic agreement is a state of doublethink, of internally disbelieving while outwardly agreeing; such ironic states of mind are suited to environments of reversed credibility.)

This story is more severe than simple bullshit, in that it involves selectively promoting false statements.  Paying enough attention to the truth to invert it and thus gain an advantage over truth-based actors is, of course, compatible with zero-sum play.

If a government known to promote lots of false stories promotes a false story as part of mobilization of military/police threat (say, the story that Saddam Hussein purchased yellow cake), is this story “credible” or “non-credible”?  It will be printed in prestigious newspapers, and will become a default assumption in many discussions, but people tracking history will have a sense of the government’s track record and know that the claim is made by the sort of actor who gets there by bullshitting.

Fiat currency is an interestingly explicit case.  The US adopted a metallic standard in 1785; government-issued money notes (US dollars) were exchangeable for a particular amount of a precious metal, initially silver and then gold.  To value US dollars is to bet that the government will be willing to exchange it for silver/gold; the money is valuable insofar as this promise is credible.

However, around WWI (1914-1918), many governments (including the US) suspended convertibility.  If the value of the money were simply based on the belief that it could be exchanged for precious metal, then the value would plummet accordingly.  But by then the money unit was well-integrated into the economy: it was used to set prices, pay wages, pay taxes, be used for bank savings and loans, and so on.  Changing protocols everywhere to adopt a new currency would be slow and difficult, and (given taxation) would run into conflict with the government.  While the value of money did reduce substantially (e.g. prices doubled in the US), this was not the totalizing devaluation that would be naively expected from a collapse of convertibility.

During the Great Depression, through Executive Order 6102 of 1933, the US government confiscated the vast majority of gold, “exchanging” it for a fixed amount of US dollars.  By the time the government is confiscating almost all gold, it’s obvious that US dollars are not valued primarily due to the expectation that they could be exchanged for gold.

So, though the “credibility” (market value) of the US dollar originally came from the belief that it could be exchanged for gold, its credibility over time shifted to be backed primarily by the authority of the US government, which is opposed to the expectation that it will pay debts.  Even if US dollars can’t be exchanged for precious metal, they are (since 1884) legal tender, valid for paying public debts (e.g. taxes) and private debts.  Since US dollars are valid for private debts (according to US courts), it’s impractical for private debts between Americans to not be reliant on the “credibility” of the US dollar.

US dollars are, at this point, a stage 3-4 simulacrum with respect to the original claim of value.  This paves the way for further manipulation of currency through Federal Reserve policy implementing Keynesian macroeconomics, a form of military mobilization (the relation between macroeconomics and mobilization is de-obfuscated by Modern Monetary Theory).  Direct manipulation of the currency is, of course, a form of authority, opposed to believability, in that it undermines use of the currency to denominate unironic debts.

Back to the more general problem.  If you asked an average college-educated American whether institutions such as the CDC or the WHO are credible, they would probably say “yes”.  However, these institutions repeatedly made hard-to-believe claims during COVID, such as the claim that masks were unhelpful, or the claim that the virus was not airborne.  Prestigious news outlets such as the New York Times did not call out these claims as false early on, which is correlated with such outlets’ “credibility”; they’re “credible” due to repeating claims made by authoritative narrative-controllers (thus, being part of the narrative-control apparatus), not due to tracking reality.

As Nick Land asks: “Assuming the WHO, CDC, and FDA wanted to kill you, how would their behavior differ?”  It wouldn’t be a coincidence for authoritative institutions to be trying to kill those they exert authority over: power is the ability to threaten others, and threats can control narratives.

I’ve seen a lot of discussions where people with some shared explicit agenda (e.g. Effective Altruists) talk about the need to “gain credibility”, and assume that the way to do so is to be closer to power; their central example of a “credible” person would be a high-level corporate/government strategic consultant or a journalist of a prestigious publication.  Such talk doesn’t distinguish between credibility-as-believability and credibility-as-authority: is being a strategic consultant helpful for convincing others because it is correlated with saying true propositions, or is it helpful because the authority of the institution (or upstream institutions) intimidates people into accepting claims made by its members despite their unbelievability?

In conclusion:

  • “Credibility” conflates between believability (Bayesian evidence) and authority (ability to control narratives arbitrarily).
  • Authority is derived from zero-sum game play, which is opposed to revelation of new information, and which threatens those who authority is exerted over.
  • Thus, these different properties being conflated are opposed.

On commitments to anti-normativity

Normativity: morality, ethics, doing the right thing, treating others as one would want to be treated, respecting moral symmetries, telling the truth, keeping commitments, following rules that are there to restrict harmful behavior, behaving in a way that contributes to the benefit of one’s society.

The idea of commitment to normativity is familiar.  Someone can be committed to behaving ethically, to the point that they forego some narrowly self-interested benefit to avoid behaving unethically.

What about commitment to anti-normativity?  This is commitment to doing the wrong thing, treating others as one wouldn’t want to be treated, disregarding moral symmetries, lying, breaking commitments, preventing rules from being followed, and parasitizing one’s society.

It is, naively, unsurprising that some people behave non-normatively, because non-normative behavior can bring a selfish benefit.  It is rather more surprising that commitment to anti-normativity may be a thing; such a commitment would cause one to continue behaving anti-normatively, even when normative behavior would be selfishly optimal.

Let’s look at some examples of anti-normativity:

  • The phrase “snitches get stitches”, and the idea that whistleblower protections might be necessary, points at the commonality of criminal conspiracies, which punish members not for breaking the law, but for causing the law to be enforceable.  Turning in other members of a conspiracy one is part of is, in a sense, aggressing upon them: it’s causing them to face negative consequences they expected not to face.  Members of a conspiracy commit to hiding themselves and each other from the law.
  • Privacy-related social norms are optimized for obscuring behavior that could be punished if widely known.  A common justification for such norms is that behavior that would be punished if known about is common, hence actual punishment is unfair scapegoating based on unpredictable factors; under privacy norms, revelation is more rare.  Such norms are sometimes enshrined into law, e.g. the Right to be Forgotten, by which some people can force records of their own behavior to be deleted.  (Note, privacy norms are an example of a paradoxical norm that is opposed to enforcement of norms-in-general).
  • Traumatized people are forcefully made part of a conspiracy, and learn to side with the transgressor who is aggressing upon them.  Such learning generalizes to siding with transgressors in general, as described in The Body Keeps the Score; while watching a play about dating violence, the traumatized children yell things like “kill the bitch”, siding with the transgressor in the scene.  This is despite this transgressor not actually being powerful; in the outer setting in which the play is being put on, such behavior is frowned upon, so the traumatized kids are going against powerful social structures.  (It is easy for traumatized people to conflate transgressiveness with power, but these frequently come apart)
  • It’s very common to want to exclude people who are too “moralistic” or “judgy” from social groups.  If this were just a matter of disagreeing with these people about morality, then moral argumentation would be the most natural response; what is being opposed is, rather, individuals making moral judgments in a way that implies that some normal behaviors are unacceptable.  Being committed to behaving normally, then, means being committed not to follow moral laws that would compel behaving abnormally.  (Relatedly, “vice signalling”, e.g. smoking, can make others less afraid of moral judgment, as the vice signaller has morally lowered themselves, having less optionality to claim the moral high ground.  Many Christian teachings, e.g. “judge not lest you be judged”, “Recognize always that evil is your own doing, and to impute it to yourself.”, recommend the social strategy of not claiming moral high ground.)
  • Some social groups separate themselves from the “commoners”, making it clear that they’re a different class, not subject to the rules that constrain the commoners, e.g. militaries, intelligence agency members, high-level corporate executives, some professional classes, some spiritual practitioners, aristocracies throughout history.  The Inner Ring describes a general dynamic of this form.  They may transgression-bond with each other to show that they are not subject to the normal rules.  Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt writes that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, i.e. the truly autonomous leader can allow rules to be broken at will; David Graeber describes royal and ritualistic power as involving socially tolerated value inversion in the last chapter of On Kings.

Why would dynamics like these result in commitments to anti-normativity? In some cases, like criminal conspiracy, the answer is obvious: exiting the conspiracy is, by default, dangerous. In general, being part of a conspiracy for enough time will cause conspiratorial behavior to seem “normal”, such that going back to non-conspiratorial behavior requires resetting one’s sense of normal behavior, as in cult deconversion.

Anti-normativity is closely related to motive ambiguity; if there is ambiguity between the motives of normativity and of local expediency (or other local social motives), then behaving anti-normatively signals that local expediency is what is being optimized for, and shows that one is giving up the option of blaming others for behaving non-normatively.

A bubble of anti-normativity is one where members are constantly signalling that they are behaving non-normativity and are encouraging others to behave non-normatively as well.  Such a bubble (essentially, a conspiracy) can maintain itself as long as it can continue meeting its constraints, e.g. intaking enough resources and not being successfully opposed.

How is anti-normativity related to oppression?  In a society that runs on normativity, there can be something approaching equality of opportunity; people can gain for themselves by following the rules and providing value to others.  In a society that runs on anti-normativity, such strategies will fail.  Instead of following the rules being the way to get ahead, accommodating anti-normativity while still conforming to local cultural expectations is necessary to get ahead.  Kelsey Piper recently described dynamics in bureaucracies by which lower-class people get treated worse than upper-middle-class people, despite appealing to the same rules.  Simply depending on the bureaucracies to follow the rules fails, since they don’t follow the rules; instead, it’s necessary to have more subtle social skills, such as knowing when to appeal, talking to people in a polite yet demanding way, seeming like the kind of person who society generally treats well, seeming to be expensive to mess with, and so on.

Our society has a term for people who follow rules consistently (Asperger’s syndrome); it is considered a mental disorder, one that sharply reduces people’s social skills.  While Asperger’s is adaptive in lawful societies, it is maladaptive in anti-lawful societies, such as Nazi Germany, where the term was coined.  Hans Asperger was a Nazi who euthanized some of his patients; he identified the flaw of Asperger’s patients as failure to be absorbed into the national super-organism, a flaw also attributed to Jews, who have a highly lawful religion and are disproportionately likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s.

If bureaucracies followed rules consistently, then Asperger’s would not be a social disadvantage; it would imply a high ability to navigate society.  In a society where corporations and other bureaucracies are anti-normative moral mazes, Asperger’s is a disadvantage, because appealing to rules alone is not an effective way to cause bureaucracies to provide service.

(A common intuition is that bureaucracies are bad because they follow the rules consistently, lacking subtle human factors.  As a counter to this intuition, consider the case of MMORPG games; the game mechanics function as a rule-following bureaucracy, e.g. the mechanics of stores and banking in the game.  Such games are fun because of the consistency of the software rules; inconsistency in game mechanics decreases predictability of effects of action, thereby decreasing effective planning horizons and increasing perception of unfairness.)

One can appeal to institutions on the basis of rules, or one can appeal on the basis of privilege, being the sort of person who should be rewarded for no reason.  Social classes are a matter of privilege, of people being treated one way or another because of who they are, what category they fit in, based on largely aesthetic properties.

If treatment by institutions is a matter of illegible cultural factors, then a large part of what is important is to be “normal”: being near the center of some Gaussian-ish distribution over people, such as a social class.  When everyone is transgressing, non-transgression isn’t a defense, while not standing out from the crowd (hiding as a statistic) is, since it prevents being singled out for scapegoating. The behavior is much more Fristonian (avoiding surprise) than decision-theoretic (trying to accomplish something that isn’t already the case).

Culture is correlated with race, both because people of different ancestry have different histories, and because people treat each other differently depending on appearance.  If society’s institutions are disproportionately occupied by people of some cultural group, then their sense of “normal” will accord with what is normal for that cultural group, not what is normal for other cultural groups.

So, anti-normativity is racially/culturally biased by default, in a way that normativity isn’t, or at least is much less so.  While explicit rules can be followed by people of a variety of different cultures, implicit social expectations are naturally particular to a narrow set of cultures.  Anti-normativity will tend to force behavior to follow a Gaussian-like distribution, where more central behavior is, by default, more rewarded than extremal behavior (with the exception of savvy extremal behavior optimized for taking advantage of the anti-normative dynamic).

Therefore, explicit anti-racism is much more necessary for mitigating oppression if anti-normativity is dominant than if normativity is dominant; having institutions staffed by a people of a variety of different cultures broadens the set of what is considered normal by people in the institution, causing it to be more natural for the institution to service people of a variety of races/cultures.  This is, obviously, nowhere near a good solution, since institutions are still not following the rules, and not all cultures can be represented in a given institution; it is, rather, a harm-reduction measure given an already-bad situation.