Explaining Roko’s Basilisk

Before I move away from the topic of Rationalism and EA, I want to talk about Roko’s Basilisk, because WTF else am I supposed to do with this useless knowledge that I have.

From sci-fi, a “basilisk” is an idea or image that exploits flaws in the human mind to cause a fatal reaction. Roko’s Basilisk was proposed by Roko to the LessWrong (LW) community in 2010. The idea is that a benevolent AI from the future could coerce you into doing the right thing (build a benevolent AI, obv) by threatening to clone you and torture your clone. It’s a sort of a transhumanist Pascal’s Wager.

Roko’s Basilisk is absurd to the typical person, and at this point is basically a meme used to mock LW, or tech geeks more broadly. But it’s not clear how seriously this was really taken in LW. One thing we do know is that Eliezer Yudkowsky, then leader of LW, banned all discussion of the subject.

What makes Roko’s Basilisk sound so strange, is that it’s based on at least four premises that are nearly unique to the LW community, and unfamiliar to most anyone else. Just explaining Roko’s Basilisk properly requires an amusing tour of multiple ideas the LW community hath wrought.

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Effective Altruism: an outsider perspective

As readers know, I like to take retrospective looks at the New Atheist movement. What can I say, I was involved for ten years and I have grievances. But there’s another adjacent community I think a lot about, even though I was never personally involved: the Rationalist community, also known as the LessWrong community.  I also think about Effective Altruism (EA), a significant spinoff community that focused on philanthropy.

I always had issues with the Rationalist community, as well as personal reasons to keep my distance. But looking back, I honestly feel like Rationalism left a better legacy than either the Skeptical or New Atheist movements did, and that legacy came in the form of EA. I keep my distance away from EA, but at the end of the day they’re doing philanthropy, and encouraging others to do philanthropy, and I really can’t find fault with that.

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When will we learn to do remote socializing?

When I was an undergrad, I would host discussion groups with the atheist student group. We’d basically just declare and describe a topic and let people shout out their thoughts one at a time. In retrospect, there are serious issues with this discussion structure.

The first problem is division. If you have twenty people, on average each person speaks one twentieth of the time. There’s some sort of ideal fraction of time that people would like to be speaking rather than listening, and that fraction is greater than 1/20. So even if the discussion structure works adequately for 10 people, it tends to break down at 20. This caps the size of the group, as meetings become less engaging the more people join.

The second problem is inequality. On average each person speaks one twentieth of the time, but the typical person speaks much less than that, and in practice the discussion is dominated a few loudmouths. And yes, the loudmouths are disproportionately men. The loudmouths find the discussion engaging, while most other people do not, and now you’ve selected a group of loudmouths who vie for attention while crowding everyone else out.

This is now the discussion structure adopted by practically every remote social event. I hate it so much.

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After atheism, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop

In New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed, Scott Alexander explains how New Atheism was a much bigger phenomenon than younger people realize, and theorizes about its demise.  Scott’s hypothesis is that New Atheism seamlessly transitioned into the social justice movement (while leaving the remaining atheist movement behind with all the anti-social-justice folks).  I don’t entirely agree, but I’ve advocated similar theories myself.

But as much as I enjoy theorizing about the demise of New Atheism, I’d like to highlight a point Scott makes in his conclusion:

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

The “current trend”, the current paradigm of the culture wars, is social justice.  As a former atheist activist, and current social justice activist, I am perpetually concerned that social justice will crash and burn the same way atheism did.  I mean, isn’t it practically guaranteed?  Do you really think that 10-20 years down the road, people will be concerned about the same things?

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In (reluctant) defense of the atheist movement

Something I hear people say, is that self-identified atheists, and “new atheists”, are terrible. They’re racist and sexist, and their main mission is to bring about the death of religion through a series of trite “gotcha” arguments. Now, as someone who was involved in “new atheism” from 2007 to 2017, and then quit for some of those very same reasons, I always want to say, “Yes, but also no.”

Yes, the atheist movement is terrible, but no it has not always been so, and is not wholly so. In particular, you should not assume that every self-identified atheist is just a Dawkins fanboy armed with a series of atheist proverbs. I mean, I participated in the atheist movement for a decade and I was in fact never a Dawkins fan, and I spent many years complaining about atheist proverbs myself. Yes, be critical of the atheist movement, but be careful that it doesn’t veer into stereotyping and sweeping generalizations.

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The ghost of atheist past

A few days ago, PZ Myers pointed to Atheist Day, a new annual event sponsored by Atheist Republic and a handful of other organizations.  PZ didn’t care for the idea, and described Atheist Republic as

very 2005

Glancing at Atheist Republic‘s website I thought this description was apt.  However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for an atheist organization to be 10+ years behind the times.  Let me expand that thought.

Last month I looked at some postmortems of the atheist movement, and there were two main themes: 1) atheists screwed up on social justice issues, and 2) atheism is simply declining in relevance as a personal identity.  The atheist movement is dead to me, because I lived through the entirety of the atheist gender wars, and also because I live in a location where nobody cares that I’m an atheist.  However, it stands to reason that this is dependent on your personal background and geographic location.  A social movement doesn’t just go poof, and there will definitely be hangers-on for a long time to come.

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Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week bloggin’

This week was Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week (ASAW). It’s a little visibility event that has been going on for a few years, but this year there’s been more promotion, so that I actually knew about it ahead of time. Also, this month I helped organize a blogging carnival and I wrote an article for my other blog, so now I’m fired up about it. These are my responses to the ASAW question prompts.

I suppose some readers might come here and just have no idea what I’m talking about.  Aromantic, what’s that?  Luckily I wrote up some aromantic basics.

1. Discovery

I remember back in 2008 when I had a conversation with some college friends wondering why I had never been interested in anyone. My understanding based on cultural narratives was that, as a guy, I was supposed to be interested in some girl and then spend a lot of time waffling before finally summoning the courage to ask her out. I thought if it happened to me I would be courageous enough, but had hit a little snag: where was the girl? I went to an all-boys high school, and thought that I’d find someone after a few years in college, but there was nothing, not even close. My friends were completely unhelpful.

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