Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Social Cost of Free Disposal

An anonymous reader sends this insightful question:
Belgium and Vienna

If we look favorably upon, as a consequence of the post-60s social pandemonium, the heuristic many ancient sacred prohibitions were entirely crypto-utilitarian public policy, doesn't the taboo of suicide in both eastern and western make you want to at least want to steelman the the pro-natalist/anti-suicide position, which I've not seen on your blog? Or a piece of Freudian self-critique.

You can't remove the barriers to suicide for the terminally ill without removing them for the non-terminally ill, history has shown that the slope is slippery, and I think you want that slope to slip right? For many, the nightmare of failed suicides is a feature, not a bug. To be very generous, suppose that a state apparatus is set up so that the pills can't be stolen to commit murder and everyone not in an altered state of consciousness can use it for free on site, a perfect implementation mechanism, might there not be a domino effect? Depressed son kills self, mother follows, so does father, completely formerly healthy and well adjusted sister 1 follows, sister 2 does too, friend of sister 1 and 2, etc etc until this happens.

And now even the happiest people who don't kill themselves out of sorrow are psychologically crippled wastebaskets; In high school we talked about smart people who ended up in shitty colleges and a common pattern was "s/he had a friend who committed suicide and s/he was so depressed for a few years he only got Bs and Cs." People regret things and wish other would've stopped them from doing stupid spur in the moment things all the time.

But we haven't tried it yet. But is it not possible that the very cost of experimentation is just too damn high?

It is almost certainly the case that true Free Disposal in the Bryan Caplan sense - in which suicide actually has no cost - would result in a world no one would want to live in. For one thing, a huge reason people feel compelled to stay around is the existence of social bonds; therefore, social bonds place a major cost on suicide; a world with truly Free Disposal would not allow social bonds to form. But social bonds are among the most basic human needs; a life without them would likely not be worth living.

The chosen-ness of life is not binary but a continuum. Gruesome punishments may be heaped upon the act of suicide, making it very un-free, or it may be actively promoted, making it much more free. The suicide restrictions of old cultures give us a good idea of the degree of freedom regarding suicide that may be permitted and still maintain a functional, self-reproducing society.

Your question illustrates an important dilemma: life is unfree, and must be unfree in order for it to go on. Both at the level of culture and at the level of the individual, the freedom to end life is at odds with the evolutionary goal of self-replicaton. Some will be miserable, and societies rely on keeping miserable people alive by force in order to survive. It is my contention that they do not necessarily deserve to survive.

The Old Ways are fascinating, intricate, carefully evolved structures, and they are also not that great. Certainly they have failed us under modern conditions vastly different from the conditions under which they evolved. A person choosing to have a child now cannot really offer it a functioning, reliably self-reproducing society in which to live; but lives in past societies were not necessarily worth living, either. Keeping humans in line with evolutionary goals requires the use of both force and illusion. I am very suspicious as to whether these goals line up with eudaimonia. If the freedom to avoid the experience of life results in this, then maybe it is not such a great experience after all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Homicide Rates, Suicide Rates, and Modern Medicine

Homicide rates in the United States have been falling for decades. Some have attributed this to people becoming more civilized and peaceful, a hypothesis Steven Pinker expores in The Better Angels of Our Nature. From 1931 to 1998, the United States homicide rate dropped by about 25%. But during that time, rates of aggravated assault increased by about 700%. This calls the peacefulness hypothesis into question.

Homicide is a metric that links a behavior (a violent act) to an outcome (a death). Modern medicine has drastically increased the survival rates for serious injuries in the past several decades. Since death from a given injury has become less common, especially in urban areas close to high-tech hospitals, metrics attached to death - such as homicide - will drop even if there is no change in the frequency of the kind of violent assaults that would have been murders if only 1931 technology were available. Since those kinds of violent attacks have increased dramatically, it appears that using the homicide rate as a metric allows improvements in medical technology to mask a major increase in violence in recent decades.

This trend continues into the twenty-first century; violent attacks increase, but homicide deaths decrease because of improvements in medical technology (see graphic).

Keep that in mind when you consider that American suicide rates have been mostly flat since 1950 - not decreasing, like homocide rates, even though medical technology and injury survivability has vastly improved. In fact, suicide rates have been increasing since 1999. Suicides in the 35-64 age group increased by 28% between 1999 and 2010.

Suicide, like homicide, is a metric that links a behavior (a self-injury) to an outcome (a death). Like homicide, the reduction in death for a given injury should reduce the suicide rate even if self-injuries are constant. We do not see the suicide rate decreasing; in recent years, even as the homicide rate continues to drop, the suicide rate is increasing. Medical technology may be masking an even greater rise in suicidal behavior than the completed suicide rate would indicate.

Case-fatality rates are three to four times higher for self-inflicted gunshots than for gunshots inflicted intentionally by others; that is, suicide attempts by gunshot are more lethal than assaultive shootings. In 2007, 21% of intentional gunshot wounds inflicted by someone other than the victim were lethal; 80% of self-inflicted gunshot wounds were lethal. Gunshot is the most common method of suicide in the United States, accounting for 54% of suicides.

However, almost half of completed suicides have used methods other than firearms - and methods other than gunshot are only 10-15% likely to be fatal. Since 20% of self-inflicted gunshot wounds are currently nonfatal, the firearm suicide rate would "only" rise by about 25% of its current level if modern medicine were not aggresively saving lives that are unwanted by their possessors. But in the absence of modern medicine, up to ten times as many people who poison, cut, hang, or suffocate themselves might succeed in killing themselves.

Proximity to a hospital is a major factor in trauma survival. This may partly explain why rural suicide rates have leapt ahead of urban rates in recent decades: suicidal behavior may be similar, but rural people die from their injuries more frequently than urbanites.


Note: St. Rev hates this graphic as the graphs for weapon injury are of radically different scales (inter alia) and indeed it is probably seriously flawed but it provides a cheap and tasty way of immediately visualizing the phenomenon.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Reflections on First Encountering Ethnomethodology

Human cultures are composed, in large part, of concepts and stories (the former often being the latter compressed into metonymic or metaphoric form). These are expressed in language and seem to be the most important parts of language. Translation between languages is surprisingly easy to accomplish, suggesting that the concepts and stories used in language largely reflect the same underlying reality that is independent of culture - a reality seated in a human being and including the minds of other people.

A concept may be used in two ways. First, it may be pulled out to give meaning to experiences in the past (including the very near past just seconds ago). It helps make the experience comprehensible and relatable to others. "That was a bear attack." "That was sex." "That was fun." "That was World War II." "Stupid fairies!" Second, it may be used to give meaning to experiences in the future. As such, it both orders action and provides a framework for experiences in the future. "Let's have breakfast." "I am married." "I have a job." "Are we at war?" Frequently, concepts do both - the concepts of "love" and "global warming" both interpret experiences in the past and plan and order experiences in the future. Without expressing experiences in concepts, it is impossible to bring one's linguistically-based faculties to bear on it. To understand something is to link it up with a concept or story; to communicate it is to link it up to a concept or story that is shared (and includes the process of building these shared concepts).

Bill Ellis' "When is a Legend? An Essay on Legend Morphology" (in The Questing Beast) outlines a possible life cycle of the legend. At its first stage, a legend is an experience - though it need not be a personal experience of the creator or narrator himself. Second, it is initially translated into language, quite unpolished, with many verbal stalls and formulas. Third, it is polished into a finished narrative and shared as such. Then, when everyone in the relevant community has heard the finished narrative, it exists as metonym - a reference to the story, though the story itself is no longer performed. Finally, the legend becomes a "legend report" - no longer performed as a story, hence often collapsing into incoherence when narrative devices are removed, and lacking detail and truth-negotiation. Concepts exist in the same way when viewed across time, though the word suggests something frozen at the metonym stage.

It's In The Way That You Use It

Concepts are socially created and maintained, but they are real enough to affect the world by ordering human thought and behavior. The concepts that best reflect reality - again, reality including the mutually-aware minds of human beings - will be those concepts that have been ground against the rough stone of this reality. (The excellent example given is that the person who knows most about concepts like femaleness and womanliness is the genetic male who is passing as female. This was also Dave Chappelle's joke in the selection of "contestants" in the game show skit "I Know Black People.") When a concept has frequent contact with reality, with fast feedback and a lot at stake, it will be honed to the shape of reality. The universal phenomenon of the formation of jargons reflects that frequently, when ordinary, widespread concepts rub up against a particular reality, they do not express its important parts and processes adequately. Becoming better at expressing reality, within a specialization, means becoming more opaque to outsiders. Synthetic concepts - concepts that are built out of other concepts, including other synthetic concepts - are particularly difficult to translate into the ordinary language of non-specialists.

Religions and aesthetics are composed of concepts and stories. These frequently touch on subjects not ripe for meaningful reality feedback. As they are not regularly pruned by reality, they instead optimize for other things, such as social transmissibility, organizing behavior, and providing experiences. It may be good (in terms of our own interests as experiencing beings) for them to optimize for providing experiences; it can be seen as unfortunate that frequent honing by reality probably shears off the most fun, interesting, satisfying outcroppings. It should be noted that this type of honing operates at a completely different level from the honing that natural selection accomplishes on the physical organisms that maintain the religion, aesthetic, or concept, though similar losses must have occurred on that level as well. The most fun way to perceive the world is not likely to be the most accurate.

This process of culture reaching into our minds and organizing our experience and thinking is creepy, horrifying even. But luckily our experience of this has the positive quality of averageness, everydayness, to make it work smoothly.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ourselves as Experience Machines II

Ourselves as Experience Machines I

Sexual perversion, according to Nagel's 1969 essay, must be defined by what it is not. And non-perverse sexual relations, according to Nagel, involve a kind of infinite recursion: each person is at once aroused by the other (experiencer), and aroused by the other's arousal about him (Experience Machine), and also aroused by the other's arousal about his arousal about him, and so on indefinitely.

While Nagel sees the recursion as the essence of non-perverse sexual relation, it seems that another factor that is present is the balance between perspectives of experiencer and Experience Machine. Two mirrors, to display an infinite hallway, must be turned toward each other just so; similarly, the perspectives of experiencer and Experience Machine must be balanced in order to give the erotic experience of infinite mutual reference.

Non-erotic relations might also be described in this way. An ideal (even by Kant's standards?) interaction would presumably involve a balanced perspective between that of an experiencing being and that of someone who is creating experiences for others, an awareness of the inside and outside perspectives - including the other's awareness of one's own inside and outside perspectives and our awareness of the other's balanced perspectives, infinitely or thereabouts.

What I suggest is that there is an imbalance - not pure or perfect, but easily detectable - between male and female perspectives, such that males seek to be (and are) more experiencers, and females seek to be (and are) more Experience Machines. More males than females are willing to have sex with an unconscious partner - but most of those who are willing would not choose unconscious sex over sex with a conscious partner. To prefer an unconscious partner is an aberration, but for a male to be willing to have sex with an unconscious person if no other sex is available is not so unusual. Similarly, the vast majority of patrons of both male and female sex workers are men. This is the case even though few men prefer sex with prostitutes to sex with an unpaid partner - sex that thereby validates their pride as a valuable Experience Machine. Both men and women desire both experiences, but there is a measurable imbalance in the orientations of men and women.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fairies and Terrorists

Subversion myths, and beliefs about powerful enemies in general, serve the same needs as fairy beliefs: they provide comfortable explanations for experiences that don't fit into one's worldview. If a subversion myth begins to be supported by rituals (and other parts of a plausibility structure), it may spread and exist stably for a long time.

The Gentle People are ambiguous; they do frightening deeds and benevolent deeds, force those in their thrall to commit murder but also help out around the house. They represent a worldview that is violated in both good and bad directions, one with unexpected misery but also unexpected boons. A widespread subversion myth, however, suggests a worldview that is mostly violated by bad experiences. The motion from ambiguous, inscrutable mythic beings to purely evil mythic beings is notable. One possibility is that it accompanies a worldview that is much too nice and positive, and hence mostly needs gap filling when bad events occur. It may be a feature of the Experience Machine that it co-exists with. The more utopian the vision, the more purely evil the gap-filling creatures must be.

Another possibility is that it is a feature of the experiences that get through and affect people - a feature of the experienced world - rather than a feature of the theory. A theory will need more patches for bad information if the world gets a lot worse, even if the theory remains the same.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Subversion Myths

There is one particular story that is among our most resilient pieces of cultural information. It arises spontaneously on all continents at various times, and quickly spreads. The story can facilitate a revolution, or it can protect the status quo, depending on its specifics and its messenger.

The story is the one about bad people doing bad things, and how they are responsible for the problems in the world. These bad people must be rooted out and stopped for the sake of the country and - often quite literally - the children.

A folklore term for this kind of story is a "subversion myth." Historical examples abound; here are a few from Jeffrey S. Victor's paper "Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend," in Western Folklore 49:1 at page 51:

In Ancient Rome, the stories commonly claimed that Christians were kidnapping Roman children for use in secret ritual sacrifices. Later, during the Middle Ages, the stories claimed that Christian children were being kidnapped by Jews, again for use in secret ritual sacrifices....In France, just before the French Revolution, similar stories accused aristocrats of kidnapping the children of the poor, for use of their blood in medical baths. [Citations omitted.]

Police in modern Saudi Arabia routinely hunt, arrest, prosecute, and execute witches. In a similar vein, Christian religious programming on state-run television in Benin, Nigeria, in the early 1980s generally condemned Western influence and blamed the country's problems on corruption and witchcraft. "It is particularly appropriate that the church explains both individual and societal misfortune in simple, personalized terms, not only because such explanations are politically expedient and coincide with official doctrine, but also because they reflect the prevailing though patterns of those who still inhabit [a world of magic]," say Lyons & Lyons in "Magical Medicine on Television: Benin City, Nigeria," Journal of Ritual Studies 1:1 (1987).

The Benin example highlights that the vilified class need not exist in reality for the story to be effective, as with the satanic cult ritual abuse panics of the 1980s and to some extent the modern wars on terror and bigotry.

What makes the story of bad guys so popular? Mainly, it provides a universally applicable justification for why things are not going well. In human societies, things are generally not going well in a variety of ways, at least from the perspective of individual members, but subversion myths arise in times of special trouble; as Victor puts it, they "usually arise at times when a society is undergoing a deep cultural crisis of values, after a period of very rapid social change has caused much disorganization and widespread social stress."

This justification for things not going well satisfies people's need for an explanation for the troubles. A story that vilifies those in power may precede (and perhaps help bring about) the revolution, as in France. (Revolutions are particularly likely to occur when things are really, really not going well in a society in the first place, hence there is a great perceived need for an explanation.)

A story that vilifies others, however, is useful once the revolutionaries have seized power and become the government, with an interest in maintaining the status quo. When religious movements like Islamism, democracy, Christianity, and communism first come into power, things are generally pretty bad; the new government has something like regression to the mean on its side. Unfortunately, political societies are delicate, carefully evolved systems and it's amazing that they limp along at all; attempts at reform, like mutations in DNA, usually make things worse. The story offers hope. Millions of scapegoats have been executed by governments in service of this story.

Despite its flaws, the story is certainly more comfortable than suddenly accepting that large human societies just can't be very good or wise or fair or free, and that attempts to manipulate the intricate yet lumbering social ecosystem, no matter how well-meaning and carefully researched, usually make things worse.

Friday, September 13, 2013

EMTR VII: Ourselves as Experience Machines

Note: I substantially expanded the object permanence/fairy thing so it might be comprehensible now.
Ourselves as Experience Machines

Humans do not exist alone. We are only constrained toward consciousness by other human beings (see, for more, Philippe Rochat's Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness). In relationships, each person has both the character of an experiencer and of an experience provider. In interactions with each other, we are each always experiencing the other and being an Experience Machine for the other. This is the core of humanity, and the reason consciousness exists.

This is particularly important in sexual relationships. There is an immediately observable divide in the nature of experiences desired in a sexual relationship between men and women; these can be seen in the variety of pornography consumed by each gender, regardless of sexual orientation. For men, the (superstimulus?) pornography consumed tends to be explicit visual imagery of sex with attractive, young women or men - a substitute first-person experience of sex. That is not what women seek out and buy; what sells to women is romance novels, explicit or not, and rather than providing a first-person experience of sex, they provide a vicarious experience of being an extremely high-value female. "Valuedness" is the pornographic heart of women's romance literature; the male lover is important to the extent to which he demonstrates and supports the value of the heroine. So men desire first-person experiences with high-value women; women desire experiences of valued-ness. (Of course, the reverse is true as well, but not to nearly the same extent, as revealed in consumption patterns and of course predicted by mating strategy theory.) We might say that women (perhaps especially those of us of Northern European extraction?) are primarily Experience Machines, and experience even ourselves as such, whereas men are primarily experiencers. Intense sexual selection has perhaps made us something like a creepy autonomous RealDoll with a womb.

In all relationships, sexual or not, each person has a dual nature: experiencer and experience provider. Each of these aspects, on each person, acts as a "selection site" - in both Darwinian and memetic senses. There are, on the one hand, experiences that humans avoid or seek out; on the other hand, there are the experiences that one provides others or protects others from. Each of these has selection effects for reproductive fitness. Both one's preference for certain experiences, and one's ability to deliver certain experiences, are relevant to one's social and mating success. To the extent that cultural items give us experiences and help us produce experiences in others, these dual natures also affect the evolution of cultural items.

As an example, the book How to Win Friends and Influence People is a cultural item that demonstrates how to be a better Experience Machine for others. In friendships as well as mating, we will be accepted or get the high-status experiences we want to a greater degree if we can give those experiences to others. This cultural item (the book) has been successful at getting itself reproduced to the extent that it helps individuals create and have the experiences that they desire from and for each other.

Both of these aspects of our dual nature allow us to exercise some (bounded) control, and to have some limited effect on them. We can, to some degree, choose what we experience; again, to a limited degree, we can choose what we cause others to experience. However, the distance between what we try to cause other to experience and what they actually experience is frequently a dark chasm of longing and misery.

EMTR VI: The Protection of an Aesthetic

Humans may be taken advantage of by sneaky competitors, both biological and memetic. However, some co-evolving memetic structures, especially aesthetics, might actually protect humans from exploitation.

Human aesthetics can grow very subtle, many layers beyond naive sense impressions such as salty and sweet, melodic and upbeat. A subtle aesthetic can be a valuable cultural tool for evaluating quality of necessary physical and cultural items. An old cattleman possesses an aesthetic of cattle that cannot be communicated in a checklist; he will not be cheated easily. Tribes with sensitive aesthetics will not be bought off with glass beads for long.

In modern life, our aesthetics commonly protect us from threatening information. When we tune out or turn off a stream of information, we often do so in disgust. Pleasurable streams of information attract our attention instead. And what renders information streams pleasurable or disgusting is the aesthetic we have absorbed and created. Aesthetics, as memetically evolving items, are not "interested" in protecting us especially; they are interested in protecting themselves. They are old cognitive tools, and they are very useful, but at the same time, they tend to be conservative and to defend themselves from memetic threats.

EMTR V: The Evolutionary Biology of Experience Machines

The biological phenomenon of the supernormal stimulus (superstimulus) has a great deal in common with the Experience Machine. An Experience Machine is, in fact, a type of supernormal stimulus.

In biology, some bees are tricked into fertilizing flowers because the flower triggers the mating instinct of bees more than even a female bee. The flower is experienced by the bee as better than nature; it is a superstimulus. Of course, a stuperstimulus (like a parasite) ought not to get too good, such that it disrupts the survival and reproductive patterns of the organism it depends on.

An ideal Experience Machine like Nozick imagines would allow the user to jump in and forego survival needs and mating opportunities. Natural Experience Machines, aesthetics and religions, are generally much milder a drag on their hosts' evolutionary goals than this ideal Experience Machine. Superstimuli in nature, just like parasites and naturally evolving Experience Machines, must achieve an equilibrium in which the host species expends enough energy to support its own needs, while also expending plenty of energy supporting the reproduction of the parasite, superstimulus provider, or Experience Machine. (The reproductive needs of the Experience Machine can be substantial. It must not only reproduce by being passed to each successive generation, but must also be defended from new or invasive neighbor Experience Machines.)

And so our co-evolved Experience Machines are demanding, but mild. The most effective, intense Experience Machines would likely interfere with our survival and reproductive processes so much that they would never exist stably in nature, any more than an extremely virulent parasitic organism. If we are willing to enter these new (hypothetical), powerful, addictive Experience Machines, we must be willing to abandon the "evolutionary goals" of survival, organism-level status, and reproduction - to declare them not our own goals. Effective Experience Machines may mean the end of our species, as better and better Experience Machines begin to out-compete other humans (including possible offspring) for human attention. However, this need not be the case. A society that could continue to reproduce itself despite the availability of every kind of experience imaginable for its members could come very close to being a just society. Extinction or not, this is the kindest path for humanity.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Experience Machines and Their Ratification IV: A Sneaky Dualism

A Sneaky Dualism

Aesthetics and religions, those large structures that filter and contextualize the smaller units of experience, are real in the sense that they are actually experienced by participants - but this experience is exclusively social. The experiences may not be individually or scientifically discernible, as with the violins, and the "higher something" is generally not demonstrable, as with the religious experience of speaking in tongues, but the participants nonetheless take value from the magically mediated experience. Social reality is meaningfully distinct from logical or scientific reality.

The need for ultimate meaning - for base-level meaning that justifies itself and need not be further justified - seems to be a near-universal human characteristic. It makes up one quarter of Baumeister's four-part descriptive model of meaning humans require in life, which meaning they will seek out if not culturally provided. Frequently, the Ultimate End is an imagined state of future bliss; these include Heaven in Christianity and other religions, everlasting romantic love in cultures such as our own that feature love matches in marriage, and amorphous personal "success" in the modern careerist cult of the self. Ultimate Ends can also be deities or concepts (work, "rock and roll," political equality, existence itself) that feel valuable in and of themselves to faithful adherents, and do not subjectively, to them, seem to require any further justification.

In an objective sense, however, it is hard to see an end to justification. Believers in Ultimate Ends seem to be guilty of a sneaky dualism, of imposing a meaning layer upon objectively verifiable reality and then treating the meaning layer as if it were objectively, and not merely socially, real. In many cases, the Ultimate End is demonstrably pretend, not even a real thing; in other cases, the Ultimate End is a real concept, and it is only the idea that it is the base value that justifies everything that is not demonstrable.

Experience Machines vary along the dimensions of being effective (producing desirable, meaningful experiences and preventing or at least domesticating negative experiences), honest (not hiding the fact that they are cultural artifacts designed to produce experiences), and voluntary (rather than forced upon adherents). These traits are not necessarily independent; I suspect the most effective Experience Machines that have evolved in human societies are probably some of the least honest and least voluntary, and I'd expect honesty and voluntariness to generally correlate negatively with effectiveness.

The least voluntary Experience Machines are the jealous ones, described by William Burroughs as the One God Universe (though a jealous Experience Machine might just as well be polytheistic or atheistic). These Experience Machines claim not to be Experience Machines at all, but to just be actual objective reality. They frequently require the rejection (and even destruction) of competing Experience Machines, and sometimes even the destruction of their adherents for good measure. They are the sneakiest dualists, for they do not even admit their nature as a meaning layer on top of objective reality. But such denial is obviously a good evolutionary strategy, and probably even makes them more effective in presenting a believable system to adherents.

Voluntariness and honesty correlate with each other in Experience Machines, as in the case of much modern use of psychedelic drugs. To meaningfully choose to utilize an Experience Machine, one must be aware one is doing so; it would be hard for a dishonest experience machine to be voluntary. Similarly, it would be incredible if an involuntarily imposed Experience Machine were honest about its nature - to try to do so would violate, I think, strong and widely-shared (though rarely articulated) intuitions about what mere experiences, as opposed to Ultimate Ends, may justify.

Experience Machines and Their Ratification III: Aesthetics and Religions, a Minor Distinction

Aesthetics and Religions: A Minor Distinction

A distinction between the two main ultimately-not-very-distinct types of homegrown Experience Machines will help communicate the meaning of that term as I use it. The filling out of the category is more important than the distinction.

Art requires obstruction; pure, limitless freedom is the death of art. An aesthetic is necessary for the creation and experience of art. This aesthetic need not be explicit or articulable, and frequently includes inarticulable elements. But even purely legible rule sets can create much of the aesthetic context that art needs in order to be meaningful. Dogme 95 (and von Trier's The Five Obstructions) illustrate the salubrious effects of even almost random limitations on art. Dennett and Hofstadter praise the practice of JOOTSing, or jumping out of the system; an aesthetic or cognitive leap requires a system to jump out of. Without any such system or any limitations, we see shark jumping on the level of contemporary fine art rather than the creation of meaningful experiences.

Religions also allow us to create meaningful experiences from the random chaos of sensory experience we perceive - especially those scary experiences in which our best theory doesn't match up with reality. They allow us to believe, and to interpret our experiences to support, that we have a meaningful role to play in the heart of something that is deeply meaningful in and of itself.

It is often difficult to tell aesthetics from religions - if in fact there is a difference. Both aesthetics and religions are created and maintained socially; they promote intra-tribal bonding in natural and synthetic tribes, and also outsider identification and rejection. Both are experience selection devices that help us produce, select, reject, and interpret particular experiences. They are culturally evolved, and are variable but display observable patterns.

The major difference is that aesthetics are much more explicit than religions about pointing to the experience itself, rather than to something higher beyond the experience. Many aesthetics demand that the experience itself be recognized as the ultimate value; food criticism (along with many other aesthetic domains) has a morality of focusing on the eating experience itself, and within that domain, focusing on anything but the experience (such as social signaling) is a shameful sin. Religions, on the other hand, generally claim to point to a higher something, an ultimate value that the experience only evidences and does not subsume. The proper pursuit of this "higher something" leads to meaningful experiences, but the point is not the meaningful experiences but the higher something. Insight porn is an aesthetic; truth seeking is a religion.

One layer of meaning, one layer of about-ness, separates the aesthetic from the religion. But wild specimens need not be tidily, lumpily categorized one way or the other; frequently they display characteristics of both. Experience Machines that are clearly aesthetics if anything may use pointing-to-something-higher in order to produce experiences, and those that clearly seem to be religions may use honest, conscious experience selection.

It is common, for example, for aesthetics, not just religions, to promote magical thinking regarding objects in order to produce meaningful aesthetic experiences. The magical history of objects motivates much appreciation and meaningfully contextualizes rapture. This summer, I was able to hear Jing Wang as concert master playing Mahler's Third Symphony. I had really never particularly noticed the first violin in that symphony, and was not informed enough to be expecting anything special in that department. Hearing Jing Wang, though, with my mouth open and tears streaming down my face, it was immediately perceptible that he was the most special part of the experience. Reading the program after the show, I learned that he plays a special violin made by a master in the year 1700; this seemed to explain and contextualize some of the awe that I'd felt listening to him.

There is a common perception among serious violin players (and many classical music snobs) that old violins produce sounds that are not duplicable by modern violins. The magical history of the object, its induplicable nonfungibility, produces a similarly magical sound. I later found out (from Will Newsome) that this idea is pretend. At least, one study found that serious violinists wearing blindfolds did not consistently prefer ancient violins to modern ones after playing both, and in fact frequently preferred modern violins while identifying them as sounding older, and identified genuinely older violins as sounding too new.

If beliefs were just "about" correctness and experimental validity, we would expect violinists and snobs to carefully update on this information. However, I would not expect nor even necessarily recommend this updating. The magical belief about old violins, I think, functions not for the purpose of making correct predictions about the world, but for social reasons, including in-group identification and bonding and satisfying the need to elevate and give meaning to rapturous experiences - experiences bought at the cost of inhuman hours of practice. It is not just any lie - it is part of an Experience Machine.

Buddhism, generally identified as a religion, seems to be on the aesthetic side of the divide in the distinction presented here. It offers cognitive techniques (such as mortality salience inductions and meditation) that are explicitly designed to cause the experience of liberation. The "something greater" that various forms of Buddhism point to (such as liberation for all in Mahayana Buddhism) seem to be more afterthoughts than central to the project, though some forms of Buddhism embrace more woo than others. At its core, though, it is not so much directed at a thing for its own sake, but for the experience (and rejection of experience, namely that of suffering) that it claims to be able to provide.

A further set of examples will demonstrate the enmeshment of aesthetic and religion. (Hopefully, reviewing outsider edge-cases will help us more clearly see our own, possibly more subtle religious and aesthetic Experience Machines.) The Five Percent Nation of Islam is an explicitly racist Islamic heresy that became a popular religious movement in the United States over the past few decades. Its doctrine provides that there is a tiny elite - the titular five percent - who are the Good Guys, aware of the truth and trying to spread light. Then there is a slightly less elite set of Bad Guys, and below that, a giant mob of sheeple (in Five Percent Nation speak, the eighty-five percent). Only black people (referred to as the "Asiatic Blackman") are truly people; white people are the devil. Despite its being an incredibly goofy religion, the Five Percent Nation managed to spawn one of the most productive religious artistic movements since the damn Shakers, including the Wu Tang Clan, Erykah Badu, and others among the most interesting, original musicians of the end of the last century. In this case, the religion serves as a social background upon which a musical aesthetic evolves, within which geniuses flourish. *

Another religious movement has recently evolved that is also explicitly racist and also utilizes the Nation of Islam's model of a tiny elite, an evil adversary group that is somewhat less elite, and an irrelevant mob of proles. This is the thing where a few modern humans (the elite good guys) evolved directly from Neanderthals, the evil less-elite humans evolved from Cro-Magnons, and the irrelevant mobs are, surprisingly, descended from an army genetically engineered by the ancient Cro-Magnon bad guys. The introductory come-on of this religion is the invitation to perceive an in-group aesthetic: as with n-rays, novices are invited to aesthetically perceive facial differences between modern humans to identify them as either Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon. This is a brilliant religious innovation, as aesthetic agreement over ambiguous stimuli can create a feeling of both understanding (insight) and connection to fellow perceivers.

Of course, the Five Percent Nation did not invent the Elite/Less elite/Prole masses structure (it shows up, among many other places, in Orwell's 1984, minus the existence of good guys). It is merely one of many common patterns that exist within the patterned variation of religion and aesthetic, selecting and shaping the experiences most people accept as genuine and real enough to justify life itself.


*The author was once personally laughed at by Busta Rhymes when Mr. Rhymes played a concert at her institution of undergraduate education; Mr. Rhymes asked the crowd if anyone was representing the Five Percent Nation of Islam on that particular evening and the author's enthusiastically positive response caused Mr. Rhymes to nearly crap himself laughing.

Experience Machines and Their Ratification II: Friendly Neighborhood Experience Machines

Friendly Neighborhood Experience Machines

In the Experience Machine hypothetical in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick assures us that we would not plug into an Experience Machine that could simulate great experiences for us. This is because experiencing life through this Experience Machine would not be real; it would not entail contact with the deepest reality, and would be limited to the creative power of human beings. It would not provide us with pleasing signals about our true selves, but only fictitious signals about an imaginary self.

Of course, contra Nozick, many people (myself included) would be more than happy to enter a nice Experience Machine rather than undergo the allegedly real slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But my contention here is that we all utilize one or more genuine Experience Machines all the time. These real life, friendly neighborhood Experience Machines include, most notably, religions and aesthetics. These are socially created, culturally reproduced information artifacts that provide a framework for our experiences, allowing us to select experiences to some degree and to give meaning to all our experiences, selected or not. They are created solely by humans, further selected and shaped by generations of cultural evolution. They seem to suffer from the same problems as Nozick's hypothetical Experience Machines in terms of connection to deepest reality, offering information about the true self, and limitation by human creativity. To the extent that you buy that this is so, I argue that you must either deny the realness and desirability of experience mediated by these culturally evolved aesthetic and religious frameworks, or on the other hand allow for the choice to utilize other Experience Machines that may be superior to existing ones in the dimensions of effectiveness, voluntariness, and honesty. This manner of viewing human existence has implications for the desirability of suicide and of bringing new humans into existence.

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