Propagating Facts into Aesthetics

post by Raemon · 2019-12-19T04:09:17.816Z · LW · GW · 33 comments


  Why ‘aesthetics?’
    is an aesthetic?
    Swamps Beautiful?
    Harsh Deserts Beautiful?
    Helping Nearby People Other Beautiful?
      “Trying on” another aesthetic
    Code vs Quick Hacks
  Knobs to Turn
  Why Does this Matter?

Epistemic status: Tentative. I’ve been practicing this on-and-off for a year and it’s seemed valuable, but it’s the sort of thing I might look back on and say “hmm, that wasn’t really the right frame to approach it from.”


In doublecrux, the focus is on “what observations would change my mind?” 

In some cases this is (relatively) straightforward. If you believe minimum wage helps workers, or harms them, there are some fairly obvious experiments you might run. “Which places have instituted minimum wage laws? What happened to wages? What happened to unemployment? What happened to worker migration?”

The details will matter a lot. The results of the experiment might be weird and confusing [LW · GW]. If I ran the experiment myself I’d probably get a lot of things wrong, misuse statistics and forget to account for some confounding factors. But I don’t feel confused about how to learn better statistics, account for more confounders, etc.

But there’s a problem that seems harder to me, which is how to change my mind about aesthetics. Sarah Constantin first brought this up in Naming the Nameless [LW · GW], and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I think a lot of deep disagreements have to do with “what is beautiful, and what is ugly?”, and inability to directly address this is part of what prevents those disagreements from resolving.

In the case of the minimum wage example, you might run an experiment, and find overwhelming evidence that minimum wage helps or hurts workers. But because there’s lots of confounders, the evidence might be mixed and confusing. How you interpret it will depend on how it fits into your existing worldview.

Part of this has to do with your ontological frame. But I think a lot has to do with aesthetics judgments, such as:

These don’t directly bear on the minimum wage question, but might make it harder to resolve.

In some cases, your aesthetic taste might make it harder to update on new information properly. In other cases, your aesthetic taste might help you to notice important patterns more readily. 

Why ‘aesthetics?’

I’m using the word aesthetic in a nonstandard way. When people do that, I think it’s important to be clear and about what they’re doing and why. 

There’s a few different words I might have used here, including “feelings”, “ontologies”, “frameworks”, and “values.” 

Most obviously, I could have asked ‘is capitalism good/bad?’ instead of ‘is capitalism beautiful or ugly?’. 

I’m making a fairly strong claim (weakly held) that “is it beautiful or ugly?” is at least one of the important questions to be asking, in addition to “is capitalism good/bad” and “does raising minimum wage help or harm workers?”. Not because it’s how a flawless AI would think about it, but because it’s how humans seem to often think about it. 

What is an aesthetic?

An aesthetic is a mishmash of values, strategies, and ontologies that reinforce each other. 

The values reinforce “you want to use strategies that achieve these values.”

The act of using a particular strategy shapes the ontology that you see the world through [LW · GW].

The ontology reinforces what values seem important to you.

Together, this all creates a feedback loop between your metagoals and subgoals, where the process of using this cluster of value/strategy/ontology makes each link in the chain stronger. 

In humans (who have messy, entangled brains), this caches out into feelings, felt senses. The original goal and the metagoals blur together. I think “this helps me achieve my [generic] goals” might reinforce “these particular subgoals I have are good goals to help with my overall flourishing.”

This might be implemented via evolution over millions of years, or via human brains over decades. A Just So Story I'm not sure I endorse but hopefully gets the point across [LW · GW]:

"A flower is beautiful, you say.  Do you think there is no story behind that beauty, or that science does not know the story?  Flower pollen is transmitted by bees, so by sexual selection, flowers evolved to attract bees—by imitating certain mating signs of bees, as it happened; the flowers' patterns would look more intricate, if you could see in the ultraviolet.  Now healthy flowers are a sign of fertile land, likely to bear fruits and other treasures, and probably prey animals as well; so is it any wonder that humans evolved to be attracted to flowers? 

Here are some things that you might find beautiful, or distasteful:

(If you’re like me, you might find it distasteful when people make moral arguments that seem rooted in distaste... and then feel kinda self conscious about the contradiction)

Sometimes you’re doublecruxing with someone, and they’ve explained their model. And their model… makes sense. But the conclusion just seems so damn ugly. You want to take 5x the time to write beautiful code, and they just want you to get the job done and ship it.

One thing you can do is push aside your aesthetic judgment, shut up and multiply. This may be useful for expediency.

But sometimes, I think the correct thing is for one or both people to backpropagate facts through their aesthetics.

I do not think you should rush or "force" this. Your sense of beauty is there for a reason. But I have a sense that figuring out how to do this well is a key open problem in applied rationality.


Are Swamps Beautiful?

Compare the swamp with a verdant forest. 

If you're like me, swamps seem ugly. Forests seem pretty.

My associations with swamps come largely from stories (and perhaps most concretely, from the game "Magic the Gathering"), where they're often presented as places of disease, murky horrors and corrupt magic. In person, swamps are physically hard to walk in (sometimes solid ground turns out to be algae), and full of mosquitos that bite me. 

Are these associations accurate?

Well, the solid ground and mosquito issues are definitely real. 

Swamp Thing is not real, life-stealing magic is not real.

Are there additional facts I can learn? My sister evaluates land for construction projects. She says that swamps often serve important roles as a natural way to filter water, and when you naively drain swamps, water quality in an area gets worse. James Scott in Against the Grain claims that early Sumerian civilization developed in swamps, where food and resources were plentiful and life was fairly leisureful – until empires arose and subjected people and forced them to switch to easily-taxable crops instead of the ones that grew naturally. (Speaking of which: is civilization beautiful or ugly?)

I probably find forests beautiful, in part, because they represent a lot of resources that I understand how to make use of. If swamps also supply those resources, maybe I should respect them more?

I also find forests beautiful because my experience stems from a) enchanted forests in fairytales, and b) relatively manicured national parks. If I remind myself that the last time I walked through an untamed forest, it was dense with brambles that cut me 'till I bled. It wasn't actually a much nicer experience than the last time I explored a swamp. (It also had non-trivial numbers of mosquitos)

In this example, simply mulling over the facts naturally re-organizes my feelings about them. I still find swamps ugly, but less ugly than before. I expect that, if I reflected on this periodically, over time, it would shift a bit more.

Are Harsh Deserts Beautiful?

I am in fact confused by this. My answer is "yes", and I don't know why. Deserts don't have much in the way of resources. Their stark beauty is more like the way a statue is beautiful than the way a forest is beautiful.

I mulled this one over for a while, am still confused and I note it here because "noticing the limits of a model" seems important.

[Edit: this was discussed more in the comments [LW(p) · GW(p)].]

Is Helping Nearby People Other Beautiful?

The first experience I got with aesthetic doublecrux was debating “hufflepuff virtue” with Oliver Habryka.

I had a strong sense that “people helping each other out” was good and right and virtuous. There was a beauty to the sort of community where everyone notices when someone is hurting (and reaches out to help), or when a space is messy (and cleans it up). There was a cluster of attributes that seemed to fit together in a way that was stronger than the sum of its parts.

And this was visibly lacking in the Berkeley community, and it was resulting in people feeling alienated and distrustful of each other, and many spaces being either messy, or burdening a single person with cleaning up everyone else’s mess. 

This seemed concretely harmful. But it also just seemed… ugly and bad.

Oliver had a different view, which I summarize as the “systemization and specialization” approach. (previously discussed here [LW · GW])

If everyone has to pay attention to their environment and notice things that need doing, this is a lot of cognitive overhead. If people only have seven working memory slots but they’re spending one of them on tracking the environment, that’s a dramatic cost on their ability to think. For a community that specializes in thinking, this could be quite bad.

Moreover, “everyone pitch in” is just a really inefficient way of getting things done. A better solution is to streamline and automate as much of the work as possible, hire cleaning services, and whatever remaining work needs doing, simply pay one one of the people something commensurate for their time and effort. Specialization is how things get done when you’re doing them seriously.

We argued about this over the course of three days. 

I still think there are some things habryka was missing here. But eventually my worldview shifted in some significant ways:

But this all left me with a nagging, frustrated sense that something important and beautiful being lost. I want to live in a world where people help each other out in small ways. It’s the particular kind of beauty that a small town in a Miyazaki movie embodies. It feels important to me.

Under what circumstances should I change how I feel about that?

There’s a sense in which aesthetics can’t be proven wrong, or at least “trying to prove it wrong” isn’t really the right frame of mind.

But… I have an aesthetic preference for consistency, and for believing true things (whether this is good is another question, but I’m taking it at face value for now), which informs my other aesthetics. Aesthetics can turn out to be built out of contradictory pieces, and they can turn out to hinge of false beliefs.

“Trying on” another aesthetic

While talking to habryka, I tried to get a sense of what it’s like to live in the world where systemization and specialization are obviously good and right. What was it like to be habryka? How did this fit together with his other beliefs and values? 

Then, once I had a good handle on that, I tried to inhabit “what would it be like to be a Raemon who found systemization and specialization good and right?”. Without actually adopting the aesthetic, I tried fitting it into my existing model. This was a bit of an aesthetic process of its own – like trying on a new outfit and seeing how I reacted in the mirror.

I’m not sure if habryka endorses considering those as an ‘aesthetic’, per se. But I found this process valuable.

I gained some ability to see systemization as beautiful. My sense of hufflepuff beauty became more nuanced and caveated.

Clean Code vs Quick Hacks

Humans have (an instinctive? Learned? I'm not sure) sense that when you smell fecal matter or rotting flesh, there is probably disease nearby. It's digusting.

Dogs... well, I'm not 100% sure what's going on with dogs but I think it's something like "strong odors that mask my scent are more useful than disease is bad", and for some reason fecal matter is joyful to play around in.

Programmers often learn that spaghetti code is evidence of bugs, even if they don't know exactly what the bug is yet. It acquires a bad code smell.

Young programmers often do not have this sense of distaste, and it is important for them to acquire it.

On the flipside: there is also a thing where, well, sometimes you're rushing to ship an Minimum Viable Product and you don't have time to do everything right. It can be legitimately hard to figure out how much effort to put into "doing things right." But it seems at least sometimes, experienced coders either need to learn to "hold their nose" and do the quick fix, or to develop alternate aesthetics that they can shift between depending on circumstances.

Knobs to Turn

There are a few different directions this kind of process might go:

I have some sense that these are subtly different processes, although not much evidence to back that up. I also feel like in each case, going from Zero to N, or N to Zero, is different than dialing an existing aesthetic response up or down. 

Gaining a new appreciation for why something is beautiful feels different than gaining a categorically new form of disgust. In particular, gaining a new form of beauty mostly makes my life feel nicer, whereas gaining a new form of disgust increases the unpleasantness 

Why Does this Matter?

In Naming the Nameless, Sarah Constantin references [LW · GW] this comment by Scott Alexander:

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. 

Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement."

Sarah notes:

Now, I could say "just don't do that, then" -- but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure.  Good intentions aren't enough. [...]

I think it's much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

Scott's comment gets at what I mean by "An aesthetic is a mishmash of values, strategies, beliefs, and ontologies that reinforce each other." He starts with a belief, then adopts a strategy for how he relates his communication to that belief, and then ends up with a vague sense that the belief is "cringey", and later collapsing it to "cringey and wrong".

This quite worrying epistemic horror.

I think most of what needed saying, Sarah already said, but it's worth concluding with here:

If you take something about yourself that's "cringeworthy" and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it's cringeworthy, what that's made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you -- then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.

There's an "elucidating" move that I'm trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say "let's back up a second" and bring the entire situation into view.  It's what double crux [? · GW] is about -- "hey, let's find out what even is the disagreement between us."  Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I'm trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious.  But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing.  Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins?  What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?

Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you're going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.

I'm hoping this post gives some nuts and bolts on how to actually make progress on that goal.

Again, I don't know that the specific techniques I list in this post are the best ones, or how often exactly aesthetic concerns are most relevant. I think it's usually good form to start with an attempt to take arguments at face value, and debate about concrete beliefs. 

But, if that isn't working, I think digging into aesthetics is one of the tools that's important to have in your toolkit.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by johnswentworth · 2021-01-07T04:21:27.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I revisited this post a few months ago, after Vaniver's review of Atlas Shrugged [LW · GW].

I've felt for a while that Atlas Shrugged has some really obvious easy-to-articulate problems, but also offers a lot of value in a much-harder-to-articulate way. After chewing on it for a while, I think the value of Atlas Shrugged is that it takes some facts about how incentives and economics and certain worldviews have historically played out, and propagates those facts into an aesthetic. (Specifically, the facts which drove Rand's aesthetics presumably came from growing up in the early days of Soviet Russia.) It's mainly the aesthetic that's valuable.

Generalizing: this post has provided me with a new model of how art can offer value. Better yet, the framing of "propagate facts into aesthetics" suggests a concrete approach to creating or recognizing art with this kind of value. As in the case of Atlas Shrugged, we can look at the aesthetic of some artwork, and ask "what are the facts which fed into this aesthetic?". This also gives us a way to think about when the aesthetic will or will not be useful/valuable.

Overall, this is one of the gearsiest models I've seen for instrumental thinking about art, especially at a personal (as opposed to group/societal) level.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2021-01-07T05:33:45.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Reverse engineering the facts out of an aesthetic" is an interesting takeaway. I guess it's actually not that different from the original "aesthetic doublecrux" idea that generated this post, but applying it unilaterally to a work of art without an artist to argue with is an interesting approach.

comment by bendini · 2019-12-19T18:25:55.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this post a lot, but the example debates that seem like intractable aesthetic disagreements seem to be missing a 2 key ideas that are preventing resolution:

1. Shared verbal acknowledgement that regardless of the aesthetic considerations, the status quo is not working. If you're debating the merits of "everyone pitch in" vs "specialise and outsource" and you've failed to recognise that people are generally not clearing up after themselves or funnelling money towards the problem, your first order of business shouldn't be to get into a long-winded philosophical debate over aesthetics.

2. Overlooking resource constraints and avoiding fuzzy quantification. In the case of clean code vs quick hacks, unless you are writing the code just for fun, what each person prefers is much less relevant than the business-world constraints you are under. If you are under extreme time pressure and the thing must be done, the choice is quick hacks or death. If you are trying to "scale up" but there are no impending deadlines, whether a piece of code should be written cleanly depends on how reliant you expect to be on that code in future, how clearly you understand the problem it is solving, how much longer it will take to do things properly and the opportunity cost of that time. While you won't have precise answers to these things, they will be a lot more tractable than reconciling aesthetic disagreements.

comment by lionhearted · 2019-12-20T20:10:53.504Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great post.

Martial valor is another interesting one that people tend to find beautiful or ugly, and rarely if ever neutral.

I wonder if there's some component of simulating yourself either participating in an environment or activity and imagining how you'd feel.

Deserts — though there's counterintuitive things like them being cold at night — probably seem more tractable on how to navigate them than swamps.

I wonder if people see a patriotic rally and implicitly attempt to simulate "what the hell would I be doing if I was there, like, waving a flag around???" — and mentally encode it ugly. Vice-versa being at a spiritual retreat for people who'd enjoy a rally.

There's quite likely some "implicitly mentally trying it on" going on, no?

Replies from: lionhearted
comment by lionhearted · 2019-12-20T20:12:29.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Relatedly — I used to find motorcycles swerving through traffic dangerous/ugly.

After I learned to ride a motorcycle, it (1) now is more predictable and seems less dangerous and (2) now seems beautiful/reasonable/cool rather than ugly/random/annoying.

Replies from: lionhearted
comment by lionhearted · 2019-12-20T20:20:16.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, one more — Grimes's "We Appreciate Power" is an electro-pop song about artificial intelligence, simulation, and brain uploading among other things:

A lot of the kids that like it no doubt enjoy it for the rebellious countersignaling aspect of it, combined with catchy beat.

But I like it on, I think, a different level than a 15 year old that'd like it. When I was 15, I listened to Rage Against the Machine — I had no idea what the heck RATM was talking about with Ireland and burning crosses or whatever, it was just, like, loud and rebellious and cool.

It's not groundbreaking to say people can appreciate things on different levels, but I wonder how much my intellectual enjoyment of We Appreciate Power backpropagates into liking the beat, vocal range, tempo, etc more.

[Bridge: Grimes & HANA]

And if you long to never die
Baby, plug in, upload your mind
Come on, you're not even alive
If you're not backed up on a drive
And if you long to never die
Baby, plug in, upload your mind
Come on, you're not even alive
If you're not backed up, backed up on a drive

comment by Isnasene · 2019-12-20T00:49:18.983Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
But there’s a problem that seems harder to me, which is how to change my mind about aesthetics. Sarah Constantin first brought this up in Naming the Nameless [LW · GW], and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I know this isn't exactly what this post is about (and I support having more nuanced understandings of other people's aesthetics) however...

Please be careful about changing your mind about aesthetics! Especially you currently value the aesthetic as important! And if you do choose to change your mind about aesthetics, remember to preemptively build-up a Schelling Fence [LW · GW] to protect yourself!

Changing aesthetics in general isn't that hard -- I've done it myself (more explicitly, one of my core values "ate" another one of my cores values through sustained psychological warefare). Results of this process include

  • Accidentally modifying aesthetics you didn't intend to modify (since aesthetics exist as a fuzzy network of associations in a feedback loop, changing one aesthetic may interfer with the feedback loops in other aesthetic systems in unpredictable ways)
  • Accidentally modifying meta-level aesthetics you didn't intend to modify. This encomposses a number of possibilities including
    • Rendering yourself meta-level incorrigible to manage the horrifying knowledge that you can, in principle, will yourself out of existence at any time with relative ease (psychological modification doesn't trigger the same visceral response that literal death does)
    • Or rendering yourself meta-level incorrigible by becoming intellectually indifferent to whether things actually satisfy your core values (and just having whatever core values you have at the time your brain decides to do this
    • Having really weird object-level core values because your meta-level core values and object-level core values are fuzzily interlinked

IDK, in my case, modifying my aesthetic was a good decision and you may only be psychologically capable of modifying your aesthetics in situations where it's really necessary. But I'm uncertain about whether this is true in general.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-12-20T01:11:42.224Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I endorse this (albeit mostly from a position of general caution that clear experience)

comment by johnswentworth · 2019-12-19T04:37:56.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At MSFP we did an exercise along these lines called "taste swap" - basically identify a place where you and someone else differ in a matter of taste/aesthetics, try to convey to each other what the taste feels like, and then try to get into a mindset where you can experience the other person's taste. (In particular, we tried to apply this to research tastes.) Sounds like it's similar to what you went through with Habryka.

It's something I've kept in mind since then; installing (or at least showcasing) particular tastes has been a secondary objective for several blog posts over the past few months.

comment by ryan_b · 2019-12-19T16:15:50.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1. I strongly endorse this line of thinking, and I want to see it continue to develop. I have a very strong expectation that we will see benefits really accrue from the rationality project when we have finally hit on everything important to humans. Specifically, taking the first step in each of probability|purpose|community|aesthetics|etc will be much more impactful than puissant mastery of only probability.


I am in fact confused by this. My answer is "yes", and I don't know why. Deserts don't have much in the way of resources. Their stark beauty is more like the way a statue is beautiful than the way a forest is beautiful.

I think the key word here is "stark." The desert environment is elegant, because it has fewer things in it. We can see clearly the carving of the wind into the dunes, the sudden contrast where sand abuts stone, the endless gleaming of the salt. Consider for a moment the difference between looking at the forest and looking at the trees: when I zoom out to the forest level I notice the lay of the hills beneath the trees, the gradual change from one kind of tree to another, spot the gaps where rivers run or the dirt thins. Deserts smack you in the face with the forest-level view, because there isn't another one available.

3. I like the extension to disgust. My experience was also with deserts, but in this case my impression was that deserts were clean. I found myself out in the dunes of Kuwait, where there was an abundance of flies. I figured they would go for our water, or perhaps our protein bars. Then I saw they happily landed anywhere on the sand, and I thought: wait, what do flies eat?

So now I think of deserts as beautiful and filthy.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-12-19T20:52:15.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, thanks. I feel less confused about desert beauty now. :)

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-12-27T20:30:18.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Promoted to curated: I think this post is pointing at something that I expect will turn out to be obviously really important in a few years. I also think it's written in a really example-heavy way that allows people to engage with it, whereas most writing in this space usually stays abstract and as such often lacks grounding and concreteness. 

comment by Richard Meadows (richard-meadows-1) · 2019-12-20T00:42:57.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Slightly meta: I'd love to see more LW posts along these lines! It wasn't until reading Sarah's post [LW · GW] that I even realised that aesthetics matter; I've been thinking about it ever since, and I'd nominate it for the review if I could.

A common criticism of rationality/LW is that it is an aesthetic-based identity movement. I think this is true, but not necessarily a bad thing. Paul Graham's advice makes sense for politics, but he overstated the case: in my experience, 'trying on' new identities is a much better strategy for nudging the elephant [LW · GW] in a desirable direction than attempting to convince it through reasoned argument.

I've noticed that some of the most useful identities to adopt are based around beauty/aesthetics (or screening out 'ugliness'). A simple example: I used to feel a tiny bit embarrassed for being so drawn to minimalism, as a lifestyle and as a design philosophy. The severe white apartments and Swedish furniture etc seem so masturbatory, but... I kind of like that sort of thing!

Now I notice that reducing visual clutter has a surprisingly large effect on my mood and productivity[1], and also reflects values that are important to me (frugality, conscious consumerism). Aesthetics are never entirely divorced from underlying value systems, so it makes sense that values shape your sense of style. The weird part is that it goes both ways: you can also create or adopt aesthetics that nudge your underlying value system!

I don't know if this strays into Dark Arts territory or whatever, but my wild hare-brained speculation is that playing with embodiment, identity, aesthetics, and other bottom-up cues that speak directly to the elephant might generate some interesting new breakthroughs in rationality (or post-rationality, or whatever you want to call it).

[1] Related: the entire field of environmental psychology, the extended mind thesis, JBP's 'clean your room' schtick.

comment by johnswentworth · 2020-12-02T18:59:34.602Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this post remains under-appreciated. Aesthetics drive a surprisingly large chunk of our behavior, and I find it likely that some aesthetics tend to outperform others in terms of good decision-making. Yet it's a hard thing to discuss at a community level, because aesthetics are often inherently tied to politics. I'd like to see more intentional exploration of aesthetic-space, and more thinking about how to evaluate how-well-different-aesthetics-perform-on-decisions, assuming the pitfalls of politicization can be avoided.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-01-06T20:51:04.530Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I’m making a fairly strong claim (weakly held) that “is it beautiful or ugly?” is at least one of the important questions to be asking, in addition to “is capitalism good/bad” and “does raising minimum wage help or harm workers?”. Not because it’s how a flawless AI would think about it, but because it’s how humans seem to often think about it. 
What is an aesthetic?
An aesthetic is a mishmash of values, strategies, and ontologies that reinforce each other.

I suspect it's because these are really all the same thing [LW · GW], unified by [LW · GW] a common mental mechanism [LW · GW]. "Aesthetic" is as good a name for the natural category as any.

comment by Raemon · 2019-12-31T23:54:55.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Despite having written this post with Naming the Nameless in mind, I recently re-read that post and went "holy crap, there were some really important bits here I'd forgotten about." They were so important that I added a whole new section to this post, mostly just quoting them verbatim, because I couldn't think of ways to improve on them.

comment by Tim Lyons · 2019-12-31T00:55:16.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I have a particular interest in the philosophy of aesthetics and always get excited when people are willing to wade into the tricky territory of the subject.

Two questions for you:
1: In your suggested "knobs to turn" you made a distinction between the beautiful and the distasteful, are these two ends of a spectrum or are these different things?
2: In your examples there seem to be an inherent tie between aesthetics and ethical claims. What I mean by this more clearly is there is a connection between what you are describing as aesthetically good and "the good" (not a bad thing, you are in great company with that stance). In the view presented are these things separate? Can they be? Can something be beautiful, but ethically bad?

I'm new to the Lesswrong space so excuse my ignorance if these points have been touched upon by you or others in previous posts.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-12-31T00:49:07.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the questions!

In your suggested "knobs to turn" you made a distinction between the beautiful and the distasteful, are these two ends of a spectrum or are these different things?

I think they form an obvious spectrum, but I've personally found it's a fairly different operation to consider "should I change such that I find something viscerally distasteful, which I hadn't found distasteful before?" vs "should I find something beautiful that I didn't find beautiful before?".

In particular, gaining appreciation for a new sort of beauty mostly makes my life better (I now have a new way of appreciating the world, which I find intrinsically nice, in addition to the downstream epistemic value of properly appreciating a thing). 

Gaining a source of ugliness... well,  makes the world more ugly. Which feels viscerally unpleasant. I might want to do it because the ugliness is important to be able to see, and change. But the fact that it's going to be unpleasant at least gives me initial hesitation to do so (I might ultimately prefer to become the sort of person who can do this more easily, but I think I'd find it somewhat harder, and I'm not confident it's psychologically healthy to do it all the time even if the ugliness is in some sense "real").

(These are claims about what I find hard or easy, or "qualitatively different", rather than claims about what is a good or bad action to take)

In your examples there seem to be an inherent tie between aesthetics and ethical claims. What I mean by this more clearly is there is a connection between what you are describing as aesthetically good and "the good" (not a bad thing, you are in great company with that stance). In the view presented are these things separate? Can they be? Can something be beautiful, but ethically bad?

This is a good question which I was somewhat uncertain about. Some partial answers:

1. I'm pretty sure, even insofar as goodness and ethicalness are correlated, that the perception of goodness and ethicalness feel qualitatively different. (Like, the "help each other out" morality feels practically good, and also I feel romantic vibes about it's Miyazaki-Movie-Ness)

2. Also, at the very least, things like Harsh Deserts are beautiful but morally neutral at best (and possibly bad. Like, it's plausible I'd want to replace most harsh deserts with verdant land)

3. It's possible you might find a source of beauty in some bad things (like, say, romanticizing classy Jewel Thieves or charismatic con artists). This might be a case where (in light of this post), one might say "well, the correct thing is to bring that sense of beauty in line with the reality of the people who are hurt by jewel thieves and con artists." But I'm not actually sure that's a useful thing to do. (I'm on the fence about this)

comment by Raemon · 2019-12-20T22:42:00.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was the first post in what would become my doublecrux sequence. I think it's probably also the most novel contribution that it's going to include. (I can't actually take credit for the novelty, a lot of this is building off other people's thoughts, but I don't think it's been written up too explicitly elsewhere).

It... doesn't actually require much of the groundwork I ended up laying out first, and I think it's possible I should have just posted this first. But I kept feeling something like "this... is important, but it's only one piece of the overall framework I've explored, and I don't think it's the most important piece."

comment by Raemon · 2019-12-20T20:43:09.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m leaning towards changing the title of this to ‘Integrating Facts into Aesthetics’ because I didn’t really have a concrete ‘backprop’ mechanism. I do feel theres something legitimately backpropish going on but not so clearly to justify dilution of the jargon. 

comment by FactorialCode · 2019-12-19T18:41:14.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the problem this post is trying to address. Are you trying to resolve disagreements between people about 'aesthetics' as you've defined them in this post?

When you say:

But this all left me with a nagging, frustrated sense that something important and beautiful being lost. I want to live in a world where people help each other out in small ways. It’s the particular kind of beauty that a small town in a Miyazaki movie embodies. It feels important to me.

I think that something that you value is being lost, because you want to live in a world where people help each other in small ways. The cost of doing that might outweigh the benefits. For instance, if the community exists to serve some downstream purpose, and so everything must be optimized for efficiency. There's nothing wrong with noticing that comes at a cost.

Under what circumstances should I change how I feel about that?

Approximating humans as "rational agents", the same times it makes sense for an agent to modify it's utility function. For instance, if you're being offered a deal where changing your values will end up giving you more of what you currently value. Generally though, as long as your beliefs about reality are accurate, I think it's a mistake to change the way you feel about it, since that seems dangerously like ignoring you're own preferences.

It seems to me that a persons preferences for a thing should be factored into what they value and their beliefs about that thing. I can see two parties coming to an agreement about the reality of a thing. I can see them coming to an agreement about what each of them finds valuable. I can't see them coming to a consensus about whether a thing is beautiful/ugly, good/bad, or tasteful/distasteful.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-12-02T13:23:51.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aesthetics being partially fact-based seems like an important part of the cluster of ideas about how minds and values work that things like Focusing, IFS and Coherence Therapy are all about.

comment by maia · 2019-12-30T03:29:59.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
do you think startup cofounders tend to team up because they’ve helped each other take out the trash?


To expand on this a little bit: I do think that sharing a vision and purpose and stuff is important, but that doing little things together and for each other can also make or break a long-term relationship. This applies to both marriages and founding startups. If your co-founder helps you take out the trash, you'll be a little less pissed off at them for whatever important stuff you're disagreeing about this week, which in turn will help resolve those disagreements more smoothly.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-12-30T06:27:45.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I agree with this bit, but the question at the time was "empirically, do the founders get together because they help each other take out the trash?", which I think is a bit different from "does their relationship work better, once started, if they help each other with the trash?" (which is what the linked article seems to imply)

My thought (at the time I was chatting with Satvik) was "hmm, when I think of what sort of people end up having the opportunity to consider becoming founders, do I expect small acts of trust-building to be relevant?" and upon reflection... I dunno I don't expect most potential founders to even really have the opportunity to take out the trash for each other before they get into business with each other. (Unless they were, like, roommates beforehand)

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-12-29T16:51:17.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my experience, forests might be scary or safe. Uplifting or tiring (e.g., when there's a lot of light falling mosaically which makes it harder to distinguish shape and colour, or simply if the terrain is difficult). Trashed or robust, etc. And a scary, trashed, tiring forest might take your breath away all for an accident of the sun.

What I mean, when you have seen enough of something, your aesthetics go places you never meant them to. You begin to avoid calling it "beautiful" or "ugly", you just want more of it because you know it.

comment by dspeyer · 2019-12-28T00:36:37.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In addition to modifying the perceived beauty or distastefulness of a given concept, there are knobs you can turn related to the concepts themselves: nudging, splitting, merging, or even destroying (and assigning all remaining aesthetic value to other, related concepts.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-12-28T01:29:27.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, can you give some examples of what you mean? Not quite sure I understood.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-12-19T11:04:02.562Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Speaking of which: is civilization beautiful or ugly?


comment by mike_hawke · 2021-04-21T18:19:24.402Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
In particular, gaining a new form of beauty mostly makes my life feel nicer, whereas gaining a new form of disgust increases the unpleasantness 

This resonates for me, and I sometimes end up with an 'ignorance is bliss' attitude toward the latter.


I gained some ability to see systemization as beautiful. My sense of hufflepuff beauty became more nuanced and caveated.

Can you say more about this? Did this aesthetic shift feel good/bad/neutral, either in the moment or upon reflection? I have such shifts occasionally, and it sometimes makes me feel...tired. Like I just get weary at the thought of permanently increasing the amount of nuance that I track. Rereading the excerpt, I feel like some part of me is insisting that adding nuance and caveats is costly and unsustainable.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2021-04-21T21:50:22.291Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, I mostly see the nuance as rich/positive. (there might be some sort of meta-aesthetic-preference here that could also be updated based on facts).

Anecdote: when I went to university studying Computer Animation, one of the things I studied was how to render images with realistic lighting. In the process of doing that, I came to be able to notice lots of things about lighting and surface-texture in my environment, which made them both more beautiful, and beautiful in a wider variety of ways.

There are some cases where I add nuance to something, and the nuance mostly comes in the form of "I need to grieve over a particular type of beauty I thought I had." (For example, I think the sort of person who wants a hufflepuff aesthetic that doesn't require them to have backbone and to have to watch out / protect themselves, will have to grieve over something precious being lost). But, in this case I think I mostly saw it as deepening my understanding of something, rather than giving something up.

comment by Pattern · 2019-12-20T17:10:22.895Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
nice a week

once a week

Are Harsh Deserts Beautiful?

Perhaps it's the open space.

comment by wizzwizz4 · 2019-12-19T16:26:42.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


became more nu