‘But’ Considered Harmful

“Chickens are fluffy and helpless, but they descended from true dinosaurs.”

Spock: “The engines are likely to fail if we stay in hyperspace, Captain.
Kirk: “But we need to save the planet Empiricus from the supernova!

If someone makes a statement of the form “A, but B.” what they typically mean is that A is true, and — even though A is evidence against B — B is true nonetheless. The chicken statement is of this form. This is a pretty useful bit of English.

But sometimes, it doesn’t effectively mean that. In arguments like the one on the Enterprise, if the first speaker asserts A and the second speaker responds “But B!” this can mean “What you said was irrelevant, because B.” Sometimes this is a legitimate correction, and sometimes it’s an attempt to not have to concede A.

I propose a tiny trigger-action-plan to consider using ‘and’ every time you want to use ‘but’. It’s the epistemically sound kin of improv’s “yes and” technique. You won’t want to replace ‘but’ every time, because one often wants to emphasize the surprise. But when it feels like it would hurt to say ‘and’, consider doing so. The engines are likely to fail if you stay in hyperspace, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. This is more painful to consider, and you are now ready to solve the problem. Can you reverse the polarity of the transducer? No, because that would take thirteen hours. The engines will soon fail, you cannot reverse the transducer, and you need to save the planet Empiricus. What will you do?

The universe is filled with unfortunate facts that are simultaneously true. It’s an essential skill of a rationalist to hold seemingly contradictory facts in their mind until they discover the resolution. Simplifications are instrumentally useful and can be used safely in context. But when the planet Empiricus is at stake, you must know what simplifications are okay and which are fatal. Star Trek is notorious for implausibly successful save-the-day actions; Kirk never gets his fact-denying comeuppance. Nature is notorious for indifference.

To bring it closer to Earth, consider a favored political policy, like minimum wage. Does your stance on the issue have any┬ánegative side effects? Does your opponent’s have any┬ápositive effects? Minimum wage violates┬áthe freedom of business owners — and some good people have trouble finding a job that will pay them a living wage. Are all low-income people lazy and deserving of their strife? Are all business owners greedy or biased in their wage setting? Certainly not; there are just two unfortunate facts, and we only have solutions to fix one of them. Let us remember this, so we know to keep working toward better solutions.

Like the mantra “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, this is a practice for your own mind. If someone avoids your true statement by responding “But B!” with another true statement, don’t tell them to say ‘and’ instead; repeat “A and B” to yourself first. See whether this loosens your beliefs.

The Boston CFAR alumni workshop

It’s wednesday morning at 8:57. I’ve just gotten into work. Kenzi texts me saying:

Anna in a curriculum development meeting: “My inner Alex Altair is really sad he’s not going to be here this weekend”

The next morning before the sun is up I’m on the BART to SFO. *Obviously* I should have decided to go to Boston for the alumni workshop. I hadn’t even considered it. My brain just filtered it out as not-local.

So why is it obvious? The previous morning, when deciding whether to go, I try to use outside view. I visualize how I think my weekend would go in either case. On one hand, I have a fairly large sample of spending weekends by myself working on projects. They’ve been going pretty well recently, all things considered. I’ve tended to get done the things I set out to do. On the other hand, I have three alumni workshops as my reference class. They were, each of them, exceptional weekends. I developed ideas and concepts, was taught new frameworks, made deeper connections with people and untangled connections in my mind. It’s like having twenty guaranteed excellent conversations in a row, punctuated by solo sessions of high-value introspection and planning. A naive application of Laplace’s law of succession says there’s a 4/5 chance this workshop will be the same.

When I hold up my average weekend next to a CFAR workshop, the deficit is obvious. I’m going. Carpe diem, try things, move fast and break things. This is my calling. The hero’s call to action isn’t a single moment where they decide to or not to follow the fairy into the cave. It’s the repeated choice to steer into the wind, because that’s where the treasure lies.

An alumni workshop is not like the first workshop. There are only about twelve participants (including the staff, because they are equally participatory). We work in one group. You’ll most likely have a significant conversation with each person there. The theme for this workshop was the Hamming question applied to our lives and the community. (That is, what is the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?) But I like to call it the “actually” workshop; we tried to understand the nature of actually trying, of actually caring about succeeding. I’m fond of this.

It’s hard to directly measure my progress during the workshops. Or at all really, at least on week timescales. I rarely find that I “fix” a problem in my life, at least compared to the measurability of fixing software bugs or jiggly door handles. I haven’t come out of a workshop having founded an organization yet. But some measures are possible. I always come out with lists of things to try, notes scattered across handouts and notebooks. After the first alumni workshop (titled Epistemic Rationality for Effective Altruists), I hosted a series of group followups. This time, I came out with two major things.

1) For the first time I had strong evidence that my S1’s major wrong belief had changed.

Over the years I’ve accumulated an understanding that a major part of my worldview is a false (!) belief which I nicknamed “world is safe”. It means that to ensure my happiness I only need to take immediate actions. This causes some problems.

I’ve engaged a considerable amount of resources into aligning this belief with reality. But it’s awfully hard to tell whether I’ve made progress. …Am I more motivated now? …How about now? I’ve gotten a few bits of evidence that this belief has shifted, but nothing where I couldn’t chalk it up to small sample size or some other story. Whenever I checked in with S1, it still believed.

One technique for checking S1 beliefs I learned at Leverage. Basically, you just say a statement out loud. If it “rings true”, you believe it. It’s a bit tricky to catch the feeling of “ringing true”, but you can calibrate using statements you already know you believe. Say a statement you definitely believe like “This is my computer.”. Then say the negation, “This is not my computer.”. Actually saying it out loud seems to strongly increase the effectiveness. Feel the difference between them. One of them will feel something like a lie, and the other will feel like “well, yeah, of course”. Once you feel confident you can detect “ringing true”, you can try it with statements which you don’t know whether you believe.

So I sat alone during one of the work periods, and whispered to myself, “The world is not safe.” It rang true. It has never rung true, before.

2) It became clear that my plans were insufficient.

I sat with Oliver, describing my plan for the next phase of my life. He asks, “But how long will that take?”

“Um, I think about two years” I say.

“Two years?! Look how far MIRI, CFAR and FLI have gotten in two years!”

His response throws me two years into the future, imagining myself at 28.5 years old, and thinking All I’ve done in the past two years is [previous plan].

The correct sense of urgency isn’t one where the dementors are scarily approaching, and you have five minutes to figure out how to stop them. The correct sense of urgency is the one where the dementors have already come and gone. They’ve already taken people. There’s more behind them, and they won’t stop coming until you stop them.

God dammit responds my S1. He’s right.

But that which can be destroyed by the truth should be, and thus my plans must be destroyed.

So why do I book a next day flight to go to a CFAR workshop? It resembles the world I want to live in. I walk in the door, and people ask me my most important problem, and how I’m working on it. When I ask for help, they give it. When I ask for examples, they give me five. Conversations end because I have to be deliberate about sleep. I am deliberate about sleep because every hour of the next day is worth alertness and attention. So I go to bed. And when I wake up, I walk downstairs, and we start again. I grab the cereal, and start helping someone figure out how they can save the world. This is how life should be, and so I will get on a plane and make it that way.

Simon & Garfunkel and the Natural Order

One day while strolling around on the internet, I come across a comment; “…hello darkness my old friend.” I’ve never heard this before, but it seems… good. So I google it.

A few months later, I’ve got a playlist with all of their songs which I take around the block almost every day. The first thing about their music that catches my attention is the sound of it. I think Simon and Garfunkel heard a harmony at age 16 and said “hey, that sounded great — let’s do that all time time!” Turns out, that optimization target is basically just awesome. Their songs are what harmonies are for, and make me regret that I have but one voice under my own control.

The harmonies draw me in, but they’re not what make me stay. As I listen, song after song, I start to appreciate how… thoroughly unobjectionable their lyrics are. I’ve more or less given up on being inspired by the words to songs I get stuck in my head. They tend to be vulgar or mindless or downright uninterpretable. Most songs are just ornaments; just another dimension along which to set the scene of my experience. I put them on and they help evoke a mood and I go about what I was doing. But Paul and Art do not play such games. They knock on the door, and my attention is cut. They begin to speak, and I listen, because someone is speaking to me. This music is not just another dimension along which to set the scene.

Their songs don’t wrench my heart; they’re not like Harry from HPMOR speaking the thoughts that bring his true Patronus. They don’t speak about the things closest to my heart and they don’t speak in my own language. But as I listen I can tell that they are minds looking at the same world as me. Their songs span subjects modern and timeless. They speak about loneliness among crowds and the conflict people feel toward the society handed to them at birth. They paint for us life in modern cities or as a rolling stone spirit, and they never let us forget that we are embedded within the natural world. These things are beautiful. But they don’t concern me. There is another theme sewn throughout their work which does.

(If you don’t want to be spoiled or anchored, I’d recommend giving these songs a listen before reading on.)

My Little Town is sung from a character who finds no value in his place of origin. Nothing changes there and nothing has changed. His nostalgia is dull and static, lifeless to the point where the refrain of the song is “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”

Richard Cory and A Most Peculiar Man describe the lives of very different people, at least from the outside. We hear the details of their behavior and how others see them. We sink into their environments, just a bit. Then we are told that they committed suicide. No one reels from shock, and no one says comforting words. Despite heavy references to Christianity throughout their work, we are not told that these people go to heaven. We are just told that the remaining observers are sad and bewildered.

The Sun Is Burning maximizes the contrast between idyllic states of the world and the fate which awaits us all. It does this through the juxtaposition of the summer sun with a nuclear detonation, one giving life and one taking it away. The song opens with the most lulling of guitar picking and never veers. The lyrics veer. We’re welcomed with “In the park the lazy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees.” and departed with my favorite line among others; “Twisted sightless wrecks of men”. Simon & Garfunkel are ’60s hippies through and through, so it’s no surprise they would write a nuclear age song. But they don’t tell us whose fault it is; they don’t use anti-war rhetoric; they don’t tell us we should instead live in harmony, with no religion. They just tell us what life is like, and what could happen.

Sparrow is about a bird who struggles through life. It’s gorgeous and allegorical, personifying elements of the landscape. The plants give various excuses for not helping the sparrow, and when she dies it is asked;

Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

A relationship dies, a raindrop dies, a brother dies. Things don’t “move on” or “pass away” in Simon & Garfunkel songs.

To my ear, their best treatment of this theme is a song which does not mention death by name.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl.
I held her close, but she faded in the night
Like a poem I meant to write
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
That’s all there is.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.

Why is it so important what happens to the leaves? Some other song writer might tell us that the leaves are reborn next year, that pleasure requires pain, and that Heraclitus is the man. But a dead leaf will be forever gone, and the new leaves cost us precious negentropy. The song draws no such conclusions. Just that the leaves turn to brown, turn to brown, turn to brown. That’s all there is.

Simon’s corpus of lyrics uses more Biblical allusions than references to death. I’m not sure why; I like to think it’s because the Bible is a powerful source of poetry. It says a thing or two that I agree with, in exactly the way I might want one to say it. Whatever their expressed beliefs, they know that death is not a journey to another land. They know that those who die will never be seen again, by anyone. They know what the natural order looks like, and they do not sing its praises. They sing about the way things are. It does not always end on a major chord. And when the guitar stops and the resonance fades you are left to face the way things are, and judge it for yourself.