What weird beliefs do you have?

post by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-04-14T10:29:16.322Z · LW · GW · 77 comments

This is a question post.

We know that mainstream thinking gets a lot of things wrong. Many of us have experienced being mocked because of our concern for AI extinction-risk. There are plenty of other examples of times where now well-evidenced beliefs were seen as crazy in some way. This post was prompted by my reading around meditation and mindfulness - twenty years ago if you said that meditation had a number of mental and even physical health benefits and was worth practicing for non-religious reasons, then you would be laughed at as a New Age type who probably believed in crystal healing and astrology too. Now there's stacks of scientific evidence supporting that view.

I would like to keep an open mind and not dismiss fact-claims just because they pattern-match to weird people or because they don't pass the absurdity heuristic. On the other hand, there are a lot of crazy people out there and I don't really want to wade through dumb stuff by flat-earth types. So I figured posting this question here is a good way to find some interesting ideas. Fellow Rationalists, what beliefs do you have that would cause the average member of society to laugh at you or call you weird? 

I have at least one such belief, but I'll post it as an answer to this question, because I want the focus to be on the question and not on my specific belief.

Edited to add: please include a summary of why you believe what you do - what evidence or chain of reasoning led you to this belief?


answer by CellBioGuy · 2021-04-15T21:12:18.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there could be a 5% chance that the paleocene-eocene thermal maximum 55 million years ago was the result of a prior global industrial civilization.  Conditional on that being the case, high probability they were birds and a decent possibility they lived on Antarctica.

We are an existence proof for smart industrial animals being a thing that can happen on Earth.  We are not an existence proof of smart industrial animals lasting for geologically long periods of time.  There is not necessarily reason to think that just because you are successful in an epoch that you burn the black rocks that you will continue to be so.

As you go back in time the fossil record degrades drastically and many species at this time are known from single digit numbers of specimens.  The PETM resembles what we are doing to the earth system entirely too closely, from a large release of biogenic carbon within a few thousand years to the spike in mercury levels to ocean anoxia.  At the time primates did not exist in significant diversity and any that did exist were tiny, but birds, whose brains differ from the default tetrapod brains in ways quite similar to the way that of primates do and allows very easy increase in neuron number, did exist in profound diversity. 

We are tropical animals and spread across the entire world because we came from the hottest place on Earth and you can keep us warm just by wrapping us in clothes in a low-tech way.  If somebody evolved on the coldest parts of Earth, you need high technology (refrigeration) to survive anywhere else and they could be limited to polar latitudes, including the only continent we have almost no geological record of and has been poorly explored - Antarctica.  Antarctica and nearby continents also bore multiple great-ape-sized flightless bird lineages at this time, and was temperate while Canada was full of Amazon-style rainforest and the equator bore stifling hot supertropics.

Corollary:  Industrial civilization is an unstable self-limiting phenomenon and will be gone in centuries to millennia.

comment by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-04-16T23:22:09.631Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love the idea, but I’m sceptical based on genetics. Our civilisation has moved a lot of species around, from stuff like bringing placental mammals to Australia to things like exporting food crops around the world. Potatoes evolved in the Americas, now you can find them everywhere. Soy beans came from Japan / East Asia but now they’re heavily cultivated in Brazil. 

I assume that any previous industrial civilisation, even if it were less adaptable than humans, would probably have spread outside of its home continent, if only to look for oil and minerals. And they’d end up introducing species all over the place, like we have, and modern day geneticists should be scratching their heads and trying to figure out all sorts of mysteries about what evolved where. But so far as I know (I’m not an evolutionary biologist) we just don‘t have those sort of mysteries where species categories suddenly jump continents.


So, sadly, I don’t think that the Earth has had a previous industrial civilisation at least since Australia separated from the other continents. I wouldn’t rule out previous pre-industrial civilisations, though. In fact, given the wide variety of species today which demonstrate at least some tool use - not just great apes but also capuchin monkeys, corvids, even octopuses - I’d be surprised if no previous species ever got to at least homo erectus level.

Replies from: CellBioGuy
comment by CellBioGuy · 2021-05-14T04:47:24.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My brain goes interesting places from here.

Would there be wild descendants of the soybean all over the world if we disappeared, can the domesticates go wild without us?

The PETM was associated with a mixup of plant and animal ranges, but it is generally explained as being the result of the 5+ degree C temperature spike shifting all their ranges poleward and this then allowing them to wind up at different longitudes when they shifted back towards the equator, plus the general chaos of a minor extinction churning the ecosystems.

If we go with the least likely part of the scenario mentioned above (antarctic habitat), Antarctica and South America and Australia all were faunally related after the breakup of Gondwana...

Replies from: Dumbledore's Army
comment by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-05-15T19:57:50.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe the crop plants weren’t the best example to use. If we all disappeared tomorrow, there would still be rats and dingos and feral hogs in Australia. There would be rats on almost every island worldwide. There would be Japanese knotweed and buddleja and rhododendrons everywhere. There would be bougainvillea across all the tropics. There would be American crayfish and Pacific oysters in Britain. There would be Asian carp in North America. There might be hippopotamuses in South America! Ie it’s not just domesticates, it’s the far larger number of wild species we’ve moved around (probably thousands or more - I couldn’t find an estimate with a quick google search)

If any comparable thing had happened in the past, palaeobiology and genetic taxonomy should be a godawful mess instead of dovetailing nicely with the geological evidence on continental drift. Now maybe I’m just ignorant, and evolutionary biologists are going round scratching their heads and wondering how ancestral koalas suddenly showed up on Madagascar 55 million years ago, or some equivalent mystery. But I’m not aware of any such problem. Maybe the Antarctic habitat explains that, but I have trouble squaring the idea of a civilisation large-scale enough to cause runaway global warming with one that leaves no trace 55 million years later. 

The world would be a more interesting place if there was a previous industrial civilisation. I just don’t think there is evidence to support that proposition, and even 55 million years later, there should be some traces. But if someone digs up fossil plastics in Antarctica or something, I will be delighted to be proven wrong.

comment by Phil Scadden (phil-scadden) · 2021-04-16T05:00:16.868Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, that does sound wierd. Do I understand correctly, that you postulate a PETM civilization that had developed sufficient technology to extract fossil fuels (as source of negative D13 carbon) to explain the observed carbon and climate? What population and per capita energy extraction rates did you factor? And if they let no trace, presumably they somehow found all this FF very close to Antarctica? If so, I think I would struggle to assign even 0.1% weight to this hypothesis compared to competing hypotheses. It has the feel of an invisible dragon in the garage to me.

Replies from: CellBioGuy
comment by CellBioGuy · 2021-05-14T04:51:38.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I propose very few details and a low probability (and as I add more details from 'someone burned a lot of carbon' I give even less), and the scenario outlines above total carbon release could be split between an artificial release and later positive feedbacks (seafloor clatherate and the like).  As for no trace, finding bedding planes within the PETM itself is a celebrated event in many places and trying to hit a bedding plane within a short period is hard, and I would need to look into the work of a scientist I really like about erosion rates across continental crust to see what the odds of a carbon deposit near the surface now being near the surface millions of years ago would be...

Replies from: phil-scadden
comment by Phil Scadden (phil-scadden) · 2021-05-19T22:01:49.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well Australia is right beside Antarctica at that time. Its coal deposits are Permian/Jurassic and the continent has hardly changed geologically. Would seem like an obvious place to mine. A civilization mining and burning coal on large enough scale to impact climate is also going to have to manage quick a bit of other tech (esp metallurgy) as well, with the evidence also conveniently hidden. So from Baysian perspective we have quite a number of competing hypotheses for PETM founded on evidence but hard to constrain as to relative effect. The "ancient civilization" hypothesis has no evidence supporting it that I can see. I would of course shift my beliefs rapidly if evidence of past civilization appeared.  Calculating sedimentary flux (proxy for erosion rate) through time is routine input into basin modelling. I would guess data exists for practically all sedimentary basins with any potential for hydrocarbons. (And paleogene flux from Australia is really low). Can you be more specific about what carbon deposit you are talking about. (Erosion rates are also estimated from fission-track dating and similar techniques but this is really only relevent to high erosion rate features  ie mountain chains). I should say that I am deep in accumulating this kind of data for whole of NZ as it is input into models for surface heat flow that I am helping out with.

Replies from: phil-scadden
comment by Phil Scadden (phil-scadden) · 2021-05-19T23:12:44.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should add that constraints on d13C of source for PETM are getting better. eg https://www.pnas.org/content/117/39/24088 - favouring volcanic (-6) rather than coal (-25) or gas (-60).

comment by Randomized, Controlled (BossSleepy) · 2021-04-16T20:44:58.301Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Amazing. This is the best thing I've read all week. How do I subscribe to your newsletter? When is the novelization coming out?

Replies from: CellBioGuy
comment by CellBioGuy · 2021-05-14T04:50:36.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should start up that astrobiology and evolutionary biology blog again shouldn't I...

comment by waveman · 2021-04-23T09:58:57.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good post.

I have wondered about this myself actually. 

The sad thing is that if we mess it up, there is not enough time before the sun renders multicellular life untenable on earth to restore fossil fuels. So for earth we are the last roll of the dice.

comment by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-05-16T11:48:49.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thinking about this some more, if there was an industrial civilisation at the PETM I think it would be most likely marine based. (Maybe cephalopods?)

I previously asked myself what evidence we would see if there was a prior industrial civilisation on Earth and I came up with 1) transfer of biological species to other continents as per my previous comments 2) depletion of fossil fuels (I don't remotely know enough geology to begin to answer the question of whether we are 'missing' fossil fuels that ought to be there) and 3) technofossils especially plastics. I only commented about 1) because that's the one I thought the most compelling argument.

But actually, a marine civilisation accounts for all three arguments. The oceans were and are connected, so it's not a surprise to find the same species in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. And the oceans are severely under-studied so we'd be much less likely to notice any oddities. We're also much less likely to notice missing fossil fuels under water (yes our civilisation drills in the sea if it's shallow enough but it's less explored and less understood than the land). And the odds of us finding fossils under the seabed are practically zero. (Unless there's a good area where what was seafloor at the PETM is now uplifted into a landmass?)

We still have a complete absence of evidence that any such civilisation existed, but I might join you in giving it a 5% possibility. 

And now my mind goes down more speculative routes - what does the tech tree of a marine civilisation look like? They couldn't have fire, therefore no metalworking or pottery. Is there some other basic technology, as hard-to-imagine for us terrestrials as fire would be to a stone-age squid? (Maybe: can you exploit large changes in water pressure to change the properties of wood or other materials? Could a marine civ drop or lower objects a couple of kilometres down, leave them for a while, and then retrieve them, and would that produce useful changes?) How would a civilisation without fire invent combustion engines or steam turbines or other ways to get energy out of fossil fuels? Hmm. I will stop now before I spend all day going down this rabbit hole.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2021-04-16T09:56:22.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is weird.

answer by supposedlyfun · 2021-04-15T03:14:56.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jeffrey Epstein didn't commit suicide. Two cameras malfunctioned, the normal procedures weren't followed, and it's silly to think he didn't have compromising information on important people. And it was an incredibly high-profile prisoner. 

"Attorney General William Barr described Epstein's death as 'a perfect storm of screw-ups'." Yet several guards were indicted on charges of conspiracy and record falsification.

This belief is so obvious to me that I felt like I was being gaslighted by news outlets and even academics who later called the belief a conspiracy theory in the same class as QAnon and UFOs, including a guest on a FiveThirtyEight podcast about conspiracy theories (I'm a huge FiveThirtyEight fan; they laid the groundwork for me to appreciate this community, which in turn mostly increased my appreciation for FiveThirtyEight).

A majority of Americans seem to agree with me, although who knows why, so maybe it's not a "weird" belief except when compared against the mass media/"elite" narrative.

You could de-convince me with statistics about how often those and similar cameras malfunctioned and how often guards disregarded normal procedures with other prisoners, low profile and high profile. 

comment by waveman · 2021-04-23T10:06:43.106Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had some exposure to this issue a couple of years ago. I got a speeding ticket, which eventually I got off of. 

During this process I documented the government making 26 different errors in all. Starting with the speed limit sign that did not comply with their own standards for speed limit signs in 3 different ways....

So I suspect that huge numbers of things go wrong in government all the time and are not noticed. What % of prisoners get checked as required? What fraction of video cameras are out of order at any given time? So the argument "Aha! The camera just 'happened' to be out of order!" is not as compelling to me as you might expect.

Tho' it would not be surprising that JE was taken out. He seems to have operated a blackmail operation in part and no doubt a few people breathed a sigh of relief on hearing of his fate. But I don't know.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2021-05-12T07:51:37.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Add on the probability of "intentionally allowed to commit suicide" on top of that and the total odds seemingly become high indeed.

comment by Viliam · 2021-04-15T16:04:21.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would give it maybe 40%, because on one hand it was very convenient for many people... and because similar situations certainly happened in the past, I would assume there would be processes designed to prevent such accidents... and if it happened regardless... On the other hand, people are generally incompetent, so you should expect them to screw up.

(Knowing more about what is "normal" in prisons could make me change the estimate.)

so maybe it's not a "weird" belief except when compared against the mass media/"elite" narrative.

Yup, there can be a huge difference between comparing against the beliefs of:

  • average people,
  • smart people,
  • media,
  • Less Wrong.
answer by ike · 2021-04-14T13:14:12.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

External reality is not a meaningful concept, some form of verificationism is valid. I argued for it in various ways previously on LW, one plausible way to get there is through a multiverse argument.

Verificationism w.r.t level 3 multiverse - "there's no fact of the matter where the electron is before it's observed, it's in both places and you have self locating uncertainty."

Verificationism w.r.t. level 4 multiverse - "there's no fact of the matter as to anything, as long as it's true in some subsets of the multiverse and false in others, you just have self locating uncertainty."

Lots of people seem to accept the first but not the second.

comment by TAG · 2021-04-15T01:09:52.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

there’s no fact of the matter where the electron is before it’s observed, it’s in both places and you have self locating uncertainty.”

OTOH, realism isn't defined as every observable having a simultaneous sharp value.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-04-15T01:22:48.171Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What form of realism is consistent with my statement about level 4?

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-04-15T01:44:07.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That there is an external world. Which, in this case, happens to be a multiverse.

You seem to be taking an epistemology-flavoured approach, where realism depends on having a set of facts, rather than a set of things. But even at that, it's not clear that multiverses imply a lack of facts. If there is a duplicate me somewhere that didn't just type that sentence, that doesn't indicate an lack of clarity about what I did , any more than if I had a twin who didn't just type that sentence.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-04-15T02:17:26.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm tentatively ok with claims of the sort that a multiverse exists, although I suspect that too can be dissolved.

Note that in your example, the relevant subset of the multiverse is all the people who are deluding themselves into thinking they typed that sentence. If there's no meaningful sense in which you're self located as someone else vs that subset, then there's no meaningful sense in which you "actually" typed it.

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-04-16T16:27:35.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there’s no meaningful sense in which you’re self located as someone else vs that subset,

If my supposed counterparts are identical in every way, then there is no confusion about whether they write thc sentence.

If they didn't write the sentence, then they are not identical to me and don't have to accept that they are me.

You don't just need multiverse theory to be true , you need strong claims about transworld identity to be true.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-04-16T16:42:33.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>If they didn't write the sentence, then they are not identical to me and don't have to accept that they are me.

Sure, some of those people are not identical to some other people. But how do you know which subset you belong to? A version of you that deluded themselves into thinking they wrote the sentence is subjectively indistinguishable from any other member of the set. You can only get probabilistic knowledge against, i.e. "most of the people in my position are not deluding themselves", which lets you make probabilistic predictions. But saying "X is true" and grounding that as "X is probable" doesn't seem to work. What does "X is true" mean here, when there's a chance it's not true for you?  

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-04-16T21:25:34.979Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose there is no personal identity at all. Then there are still objective facts about what some bunch of atoms somewhere is doing.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-04-16T21:35:03.494Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps. It's not clear to me how such facts could exist, or what claims about them mean.

If you've got self locating uncertainty, though, you can't have objective facts about what atoms near you are doing.

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-04-16T22:05:00.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The existence of a set of facts is implied by the existence of a world or worlds. You are supposing be existence of a multiverse, not me.

I can have good-enough knowledge of what atoms near me are doing, because otherwise science wouldn't work.

Of course, that's only subjective, but you are the one supposing the existence of a large objective world.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-04-16T22:22:51.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I granted your supposition of such things existing. I myself don't believe any objective external reality exists, as I don't think those are meaningful concepts.

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-04-16T22:41:21.756Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They're in the dictionary.

comment by cubefox · 2021-05-04T23:07:53.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Verificationismism in the sense of the logical positivists is a theory of meaning. According to this theory, kowing the meaning of a statement p would amount to knowing the conditions under which it would be true and under which it would be false. (To give it a Bayesian slant, I like to widen this as "knowing what would be evidence for/against p). Is it this what you have in mind?

Verificationismism in this sense was used against postulating transcendent entities or state of affairs. Something is transcendent if it is beyond every possible experience. Therefore there is nothing which could verify of falsify facts about it. The logical positivists argued on the basis of verificationismism that statements about transcendent things (certain conceptions of God for example) are meaningless. Not false, but meaningless.

(Verificationismism lost a lot of popularity in the 1950s and 60s because there was very little progress in making the notion precise. Also, some apparently unverifiable theories (e.g. in astronomy) seemed to be perfectly meaningful. Whether those problems can be met I don't know. Another point is that verificationismism was meant only as a condition of meaningfulness of so-called synthetic statements. Statements are synthetic iff their truth depends not only in their meaning. In contrast, the truth of "analytic" statements only depends on their meaning. The logical positivists assumed that logical and mathematical statements were analytic. Since verificationismism doesn't apply to the meaning of those latter statements, it arguably isn't a theory of meaning in the general sense.)

But, provided you speak about this notion, why would verificationismism lead to external world anti-realism? Because statements like "there is a tree in my garden" cannot be truly "verified" -- because there might be no garden and no tree, and I might instead be deceived by a Cartesian demon?

For the "wider" conception mentioned above this wouldn't be a problem I think. Having the visual impression of a tree is at least some evidence for there being a tree, even though there might be no tree. Then the statement is meaningful.

On the narrower conception and with a strict sense of "verification" the statement "There is a tree in my garden" would indeed be meaningless. Because there is apparently no experience which would verify or falsify it definitely. The same would be true about all other synthetic statements about the world. This wouldn't mean that those statements are false and that external reality doesn't exist: It would "only" mean thst those statements are meaningless. But here is the problem for this theory: It is obviously not meaningless to say that there is a tree in my garden.

One could argue that synthetic statements aren't really about external reality: What we really mean is "If I were to check, my experiences would be as if there were a tree in what would seem to be my garden". Then our ordinary language wouldn't be meaningless. But this would be a highly revisionary proposal. We arguably don't mean to say something like the above. We plausibly simply mean to assert the existence of a real tree in a real garden.

So I would argue that "evidence verificationismism" is much more plausible than "definite verification/falsification verificationismism". The former would not lead to the conclusion that synthetic statements about the world are meaningless. Nor would it be in need of radical revisionism about the meaning of ordinary language.

Replies from: ike
comment by ike · 2021-05-06T19:45:59.158Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But, provided you speak about this notion, why would verificationismism lead to external world anti-realism?

Anti-realism is not quite correct here, it's more that claims about external reality are meaningless as opposed to false. 

One could argue that synthetic statements aren't really about external reality: What we really mean is "If I were to check, my experiences would be as if there were a tree in what would seem to be my garden". Then our ordinary language wouldn't be meaningless. But this would be a highly revisionary proposal. We arguably don't mean to say something like the above. We plausibly simply mean to assert the existence of a real tree in a real garden.

I'm not making a claim about what people actually mean by the words they say. I'm saying that some interpretations of what people say happen to lack meaning. I agree that many people fervently believe in some form of external reality, I simply think that belief is meaningless, in the same way that a belief about where the electron "truly is" is meaningless. 

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor, TAG
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2021-05-06T20:19:07.398Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anti-realism is not quite correct here, it's more that claims about external reality are meaningless as opposed to false. 

This is semantics but I'd say what you're describing fits the label "anti-realism" perfectly well. I wrote a post on Why Realists and Anti-Realists [EA · GW] disagree. (It also mentions existence anti-realism briefly at the end.) 

comment by TAG · 2021-05-06T19:51:28.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From my POV , you are external reality.

answer by Phil Scadden · 2021-04-14T21:33:05.100Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That governments should, over the long term, run balanced budgets. ie there are many good reasons for a short term budget deficit (global crisis, natural disaster) but governments should budget to return to government surplus as soon as possible and pay down debt (eg to something like 20% GDP).
This obviously doesnt seem weird to me, but people from MMT theorists to heads of world major economies think it is.
Why do I believe that? Well we (New Zealand) had major reforms of economy and government in 1980-90s. At time, (showing my age) I thought it is was madness and seriously, morally bad. However, once the pragmatists replaced the ideologues, it now seems to me that the residuals of the reforms (including the balanced budget requirement) has delivered a strong and resilient economy. Various crises have been managed well because the government has been in a strong fiscal position to start with.

Have I really examined or tested this belief? Nope. I find many things more interesting than economics and whether the belief is right or wrong doesnt impact on anything I do, including voting. The policy has cross-party support so unless I vote for a fringe party, then I am voting for this anyway. 

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-04-15T02:34:35.440Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: phil-scadden, aa-m-sa
comment by Phil Scadden (phil-scadden) · 2021-04-15T03:37:18.727Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which I guess is why we have Fiscal Responsibility Act to enforce it on politiicians. However, running large government surplusses seem to be regarded as fine (ie consequence free) by pollies of many nations, provided you can pay the interest. If they are correct, then my belief is indeed weird (and incorrect). The MMT argument made my head hurt.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-04-15T17:17:47.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if many countries are in insane debt and function okay... it is not obvious to me how to distinguish between "it's because debt doesn't actually harm you" and "it's because they are strong enough to survive the debt, but still would be better without it".

In my personal life, there were only three situations when I got into debt. Twice it was mortgage, which I considered rational because the prices of apartments were increasing, so if I tried to save the full amount of money, it would be "the longer I save, the more money is still missing". (Since then, the property costs of both apartments have doubled, so this policy still seems okay in hindsight.) The third time, I caused a property damage that needed to be fixed immediately, and I was insured but the insurance company took its sweet time (one year) to actually pay, so I took a small debt to bridge that period, but then I was extra frugal to pay it back as soon as possible. Generally, whenever I was in debt, I took care to pay it back as soon as possible.

Now I imagine that someone with large income, or even income at my level, could e.g. spend 30% of that income paying credit card debt, and still live a happy life. Hey, I save about 30% of my salary, so that person would in short term have exactly the same quality of life as me. It just seems extremely stupid to me, in long term. But if all neighbors did that, it would be "normal".

So my question is, essentially, whether the countries with huge-but-survivable debt are more analogical to "me taking mortgage" or "the high-income guy with 30% credit card debt". From outside, both seem similar: owing some money, living good life. The difference is in the counterfactuals: the alt-me that didn't take the mortgage now spends more money on rent than I spend on home ownership + mortgage payment combined; while the alt-credit-card-guy that didn't maximize credit now saves 30% of his salary and can maybe retire a bit sooner.

The state-level equivalent of mortgage would be like borrowing money to build a railroad connecting distant parts of the country. Perhaps this should be made explicit in the budget. Like, the government should publish the railroad-related debt, and have a temporary special tax, like 50% of the train ticket price would go to pay the debt (including interest), until the debt is paid. (Things like this actually happen in real life: there is a bridge in San Diego financed this way: the city took debt, built the bridge, collected a toll to pay the debt, and afterwards the bridge was free to use.)

So, in my "fiscal utopia", the state would only be allowed to take debt if it was (a) approved in referendum, and (b) budgeted separately until the debt is fully paid. Because the utopia wouldn't start with a balanced budget, there would also be a law to reduce the existing debt by, dunno, 0.2% of GDP every year (a number completely made up); the same mechanism would be used if it turned out that e.g. the railway is actually not able to pay its own debt -- but to do this, the government would have to publicly admit it made a mistake.

Actually, what would be bad about being a net creditor? Like, let's push the "fiscal utopia" even further, and make the law that the foreign debt needs to be decreased by 0.2% of GDP every year even if it is already below zero. So, at some moment, the entire country would be "early retired", like it could collect 0 tax and provide free healthcare and education, because everything would be financed by the collected interest. What exactly is wrong with this? -- Well, I suppose, realistically, this is when someone finds a pretext to declare a war on you.

Replies from: alexgieg, phil-scadden
comment by alexgieg · 2021-04-15T17:55:38.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One way to look at this is in focusing on what purpose money serves.

Suppose you do something for someone, and that person pays you a $1 bill. What does it mean, to have that $1 bill in your hands? After all, concretely speaking, it doesn't serve for much. It's a small piece of generic printed paper, so you can use it for same general purpose any piece of paper with something printed on it serves.

However, it has attached to a formal "possibility of" a future something, as you can eventually exchange it for something else, be it a good or a service. Hence, at its core that $1 bill is a contract, or more specifically, a promise.

Hence, when you do something and receive $1, you're exchanging that work for a promise. And, conversely, someone else is promising you a future reward in exchange for you doing something now. And, evidently, such promises themselves can be exchanged, such as when one exchanges one country's currency for another's.

Notice then that debt, in aggregate, works in a very similar way. When a credit agencies you owe money to negotiates that debt of yours with another, they're exchanging promises between themselves, tied to something eventually happening, namely, you providing them many $1 promise bills in exchange for a return of the big promise letter with your signature one of them is carrying. And thus, similarly, at higher layers, until the much higher one of debts hold by countries, which also are exchanged around.

Hence, at that very high level the movement of debts around is a form of money. Rather than moving around packs of first-order promises, aka, stored currency, they move around wide blocks of second or third-order promises, tied to their whole countries doing this or that in the negotiated time frame.

This is why holding countries to having a positive cash flow doesn't make much sense. I mean, it does make some sense, in that handing out blocks of "small promises" simplifies many things. But it also makes other movements more complex, as using debt, that is, "big promises", can be a very effective tool to move things faster when done carefully.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-04-15T22:36:47.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "fun" part of our financial system is the usury -- the idea that if I do something for you today, once, and then wait for a sufficiently long time, it afterwards makes you obligated to keep doing things for me effectively forever (if I only ask you to pay back the interest, not the principal).

Why is it considered a smart idea to be the one who needs to pay back the favors forever, instead of the one who collects the favors forever?

If you were an immortal vampire, would you prefer to be one who keeps paying 30% of his salary as a credit card debt, for eternity, or the one who is early retired?

The official theory is that the debt allows you to finance smart things that make you so much better off that having to return favors forever is definitely worth it. Instead, I suspect than most of the money is typically wasted or stolen, and does not make a difference in long term... except for the debt that the next generations inherit.

comment by Phil Scadden (phil-scadden) · 2021-04-16T00:20:37.031Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldnt pretend NZ is fiscal utopia by a long way, but actually pretty weak provisions have resulted in quite strong fiscal discipline. https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/risnzierw/2018_5f001.htm for a review. Governments may have to act faster than a referendum can be organized but so long as there is then a realistic plan to return to a budget surplus, I dont think you need one.

But your comments  have reinforced my view that my beliefs are not weird. 

comment by Aaro Salosensaari (aa-m-sa) · 2021-05-16T12:15:42.172Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with Phil that this sounds very ... counterintuitive. Usually nothing is free, and even with free things there is consequences or some sort of externality.

However, I recently read an argument by a Finnish finance podcaster, who argued while the intuition might be true and government debt system probably is not sustainable and is going to have some kind of messup in long term, not participating may put your country at disadvantage compared to countries who take the "free" money and invest it, and thus have more assets when it all falls down.

Replies from: stuart-anderson
answer by nroman · 2021-04-15T10:07:46.008Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a large number of people would benefit from temporarily adopting a mystic/magical religion. Tantra comes to mind first owing to David Chapman's writing, but Wicca, alchemy, Kabbalah and ritual magic are included as well. 

These are systems utterly at odds with normal and socially acceptable modes of living. Ideally, these could serve as shocks to break people out of major ruts in thinking or belief, or as outlets for resolving emotional hangups and releasing socially unacceptable desires. I also know a good few people who, if nothing else, could really use an injection of weirdness and wonder to break them out of self-imposed boredom. The exact system matters less than the presence of a system at all. 

The key is not to get too caught up in them or start believing they're real. So long as they maintain a playful aspect, you're probably fine. You also want to avoid getting into cults, especially Scientology. They're also weird, and they're also systems of meaning-making, but they take themselves too seriously and in the latter case it's difficult and potentially harmful to leave. 

Distinguishing cults from playful religions may be much more difficult than I'm giving credit for. Keep an exit strategy on hand and don't give out your credit card information.

comment by nim · 2021-05-04T01:17:17.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my own weird beliefs is very close to this one: Huge amounts of everything accepted by modern western medicine and psychology today was used by people in some way before being "scientifically" explained. Whether we're talking about using compounds from particular plants to treat particular ailments, or using particular psychological tricks to alter peoples' thoughts and behavior, science is literally eating magic's lunch because "magic" is often where science looks to get ideas for hypotheses to test.

Because of this history, and the history of science being very confidently wrong about many things in the past, I don't find it problematic to use personally pieces of "magic" or "superstition" as lifestyle or cognitive building blocks when they suit a particular purpose better than the available scientific ones.

Then again, I think that what "most people" need to learn from a foray into the occult is the ability to build their own systems to meet their needs, rather than just raw weirdness.

answer by Stuart Anderson · 2021-04-15T05:06:34.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Aaro Salosensaari (aa-m-sa) · 2021-05-16T12:51:31.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I sort of believe in something like this, except without the magical bits. It motivates me to vote in elections and follow the laws also when there is no effective enforcement. Maybe it is a consequence of reading Pratchett's Discworld novels when I was in impressionable age. 

My mundane explanation (or rationalization) is a bit difficult to write, but I believe it is because of:

>It gets in people's minds.

When people believe something, it affects their behavior. Thus memetic phenomena can have real effects.

As an example I feel is related to this, I half-believe that believing in magical rationalizations[1] can also enable good societal outcomes, as long as enough people believe that also other people believe them, and it facilitates trust.

Have you read Joseph Conrad's Nostromo? It deals with how valuable things and what they do affect people's behavior, both on the societal scale (how corruption in imaginary South American state of Costaguano seeds more corruption) and personal scale.

[1] "if I vote in the national elections, it somehow makes difference, maybe because then more people like me are encourage to vote in elections" and "if I obey the law of not serving alcohol to underage people when there is no probably harm to them from it, or stop at the traffic signs at deserted street in midnight, the world somehow becomes a better place because world would be better place if more people followed the laws". 

Replies from: stuart-anderson
answer by Leafcraft · 2021-04-14T21:44:32.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if it counts as a "weird belief" but I am an anarchist for relatively "usual" reasons.

I believe Plants, Fungi and even inanimate objects experience consciousness (to some extent). Consciousness is, probably, an intrinsic property of matter and it exists throughout the physical universe in some form.

comment by NormanPerlmutter · 2021-05-20T07:04:11.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I  believe there is a nontrivial chance that plants experience consciouness. Like maybe 20% or so? I haven't thought about it carefully, and it would require a more operationalized definition of consciousness to assign a solid credence. I thought of this belief before reading the comments and was somewhat surprised to find another person espousing it.

answer by alexgieg · 2021-04-14T13:18:29.910Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe in "supernatural phenomena" due to many anecdotal experiences I personally had. I do acknowledge they may all be me incorrectly evaluating ordinary natural phenomena or mental processes due to psychological quirks of mine. Hence, I make a constant effort to no let them interfere in anything I'm dealing with that has clear scientific consensus and/or hard data, or in my ethical, social, and political standings, preferring to keep both sides well separated. In short, to use LW terminology, I willfully compartmentalize.

However, I do not believe in separate magisteria. I'm confident that eventually either the mechanisms behind those experiences I have had will be well known, solving the confusion in a definite way, or those phenomena will be consistently observed, studied, scientifically understood, incorporated into physics, and turned into useful technologies.

Funnily, I'd have preferred not to have had those experiences, as I really like transhumanism and its projected future possibilities, such as cryonics-based resurrection, cognitive reengineering, uploading, mind splitting/remerging/backing up/restoring, and others, all of which becomes from extremely unlikely to impossible if what I've experienced is real. As such I don't see these, all things considered, as a net positive.

comment by TurnTrout · 2021-04-14T15:03:00.024Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don’t follow the last bit. If ghosts were real, the first-order news would be amazing: maybe humanity wouldn’t have truly lost the brain-information of any human, ever!

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-04-14T15:47:56.283Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, but that would (does?) also means a strict limit in how much cognitive abilities, including emotional amplitude, can be engineered. Neural engineering would has as its task improving a human body's brain up to that limit, but not beyond, as after a point it would be (is?) incompatible with "human souls".

So, the first-order news would be good, in that 42 billion or so human souls would be intact (barring something able to kill souls). The second-order news, however, is that the trillions to quadrillions of human beings that will still come to exist will all be, well, basically this, just spread around. So, for me, if those quadrillions of future human beings could have been orders or magnitude more at the price of all human beings so far existing not having a continuity into that future, the utility thus gained would also be orders of magnitude higher.

Replies from: Slider, dlr
comment by Slider · 2021-04-14T16:56:46.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure current engineering wouldn't have any idea, but discovering a new subtrate that humans exist on has also the promise of engineering that subtrate. If we discover a new field effecting muon g-factor we don't mourn for physics having an upper limit we rejoice of inclusion of new exotic stuff.

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-04-14T17:56:33.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, and I do think that'd be quite exciting. My point is that humanity not being able to develop the option of, e.g., reloading a backup of oneself, or several then merging the results into a new integrated self, would be limiting. I do enjoy science fiction dealing on those topics after all, from Friendship is Optimal all the way to Iain M. Bank's Culture series, passing through Star Trek's endless transporter accidents, I find the idea of "identity as data" quite appealing. Having it tied to some kind of substratum is comparatively a kinda meh proposition, even if said substratum were to be shown to have quite interesting properties in other respects.

comment by dlr · 2021-04-16T23:29:56.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If human souls are generated by the human brain, which seems as likely as any other mechanism of creating them, then perhaps an upgraded brain will generate upgraded souls.  

comment by CellBioGuy · 2021-04-15T19:02:19.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A significant set of possible models of such phenomena result in them being irreducibly personal and subjective, hampering detailed analysis.

comment by romeostevensit · 2021-04-17T00:00:14.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Selection effects are computationally prohibitive to back out of data. If you have a very large combinatorial space and a sufficiently permissive filter one in a million things are happening constantly.

I investigated this by wielding it with intention as a teenager. I would choose something to notice and treat as meaningful, and then watch the rest of the system pattern match adjacent things a lot (synchronicity).

answer by Zac Hatfield Dodds · 2021-04-14T11:39:46.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Taking information hazards seriously.

This can range from the benign (is it a good idea to post very weird beliefs here?) to the more worrying (plausible attacks on $insert_important_system_here), and upwards.

comment by niplav · 2021-04-14T16:46:49.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does this include extreme examples, such as pieces of information that permanently damage your mind when exposed to, or antimemes [? · GW]?

Have you made any changes to your personal life because of this?

Replies from: zac-hatfield-dodds
comment by Zac Hatfield Dodds (zac-hatfield-dodds) · 2021-04-15T03:42:43.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Excellent question!

I'm not personally concerned about what Bostrom called 'risks of irrationality and error' or 'risks to valuable states and activities'. There are costs of rationality [? · GW] though, where knowing just a little can expose you to harms that you're not yet equipped to handle (classic examples: scope sensitivity, demandingness, death). This rounds to common sense - 'be sensitive about when/whether/how to discuss upsetting topics'.

Mostly though, I'm inclined to keep quiet about data, idea, and attention hazards where my teenage self might have wanted to share interesting ideas like the antibiotic-gradient trick, at least without some benefit beyond having a fun discussion. Threat models for election security, yes - there's a clear public interest in everyone understanding the tradeoffs involved in paper vs electronic ballots, or remote vs polling-place voting. Ideas for asymmetric warfare, not so much.

comment by Zac Hatfield Dodds (zac-hatfield-dodds) · 2021-04-14T11:42:14.543Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At a more concrete level, I've spent the last ~14 months holding strong and unusual views on most pandemic-related matters, though I don't think any of them would raise eyebrows on LessWrong. A minority are probably now mainstream, the others - unfortunately - remain weird.

answer by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-04-14T10:42:53.669Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that we should be taking the possibility of UFOs more seriously. Over the last year, I've updated from thinking that UFOs are laughable to thinking there's a 10-20% chance of actual alien visitation, and about another 10-20% of something else important going on. (Ie someone - presumably China - has either made a huge leap in drone technology or is getting good at spoofing multiple US military systems simultaneously.) 

Why? Because a number of senior and generally sane people seem to be taking this seriously. The US military forces in particular are seeing a number of cases of unidentified phenomena - not just aerial, also submarine - where they see things that look like craft that have capabilities not currently possible with modern technology. Some of these things like the 2004 USS Nimitz incident have been captured on multiple systems like the ship's radar, and aircraft cameras and visually spotted by the pilots. The former Direction of National Intelligence has said recently that there are a lot more sightings which haven't been made public.

Yes, I know there are still other explanations, and the track record suggests sightings will turn out to be some kind of optical illusion or something, but I'm open to the possibility that not every incident is explicable in terrestrial terms.

The link below is a good long-form read which argues that the US Department of Defence is taking the possibility seriously.


comment by ike · 2021-04-14T13:07:49.791Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How is that different than say the CIA taking ESP seriously, MKULTRA etc?

Replies from: Dumbledore's Army
comment by Dumbledore's Army · 2021-04-14T21:35:09.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would say the UFO thing is different because the defence people are reporting physical phenomena which they can’t explain. So far as I know, the CIA didn’t have evidence that ESP worked and subsequently decide to investigate it, rather someone persuaded them to spend some money looking for evidence (which they didn’t find). The UFO reports give the impression that the DoD didn’t want to take them seriously but they got smacked in the face by enough evidence that they didn’t have much choice.

Again, I’m not saying it’s definitely something weird. But if there’s a one-third chance the UFO reports are from something interesting, isn’t it worth investigating? Remember that aliens are only one of the interesting possibilities. The other ones are that China/Russia/someone has either made a big leap ahead in technology; or has figured out how to spoof multiple US military systems and is testing their abilities by generating UFO sightings. Or the third option, something we haven’t even thought of.

answer by avturchin · 2021-05-03T23:39:30.480Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Doomsday argument and quantum immortality are both true, and it means that I will be the only survivor of a global catastrophe. Moreover, it will be in a simulation.

Both DA and QI could be tested in other fields. DA was tested to predict other things besides the end of the world by Gott. QI is anthropic principle applied to the future. 
Aranyosi claimed that DA and Simulation argument cancel each other, but actually they support each other: I live (or will live because of QI) in a simulation which simulates a doomsday event with one survivor.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2021-05-04T08:26:02.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's certainly a weird combination, but I doubt it's the right way to combine those ingredients... 

answer by Dagon · 2021-04-14T17:52:58.834Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

None of my beliefs feel weird to me - I find it weird that many/most people seem to believe different things.  

For this site, I'll go with radical anti-realism.  All value is personal and relative - there is no objective view or measure about moral decisions.  Crowley had it right (on this point; he was wackadoo on others) "Do what thou wilt, and then do nothing else".

comment by alexgieg · 2021-04-15T16:30:12.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is an objective measure, but it's content free. In the 1960's psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg noticed any moral opinion, irrespective of the direction it went (for or against something), always fits into one of six different patterns, one more cognitively complex than the other, all of them organized into a hierarchical sequence individuals pass through in order as their cognitive abilities develop, which he called stages of moral development. This theory of his was then determined to be psychometrically sound, and to provide reproducible results.

Field studies all over the world since then have shown the six stages in an adult population follow a Normal distribution, with some limited variance due to culture and ethnicity, but not much. In other words, when an individual reaches full maturity, by their mid-30's or so, they've usually arrived at the maximum stage they'll be stuck with for life, which suggests there are genetic and/or environmental causes for this cognitive limitation.

Hence, while what someone will consider "right" or "wrong" isn't determined by the stage they're in (those are influenced by group affiliation, culture, personal history, formal education, and many other factors), how they go about reasoning about moral decisions does indeed follow objectively measureable patterns.

comment by MrGus99 · 2021-05-04T03:16:46.807Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>All value is personal and relative - there is no objective view...

How do you reconcile that with the invisible hand of the market, and the science of economics in general? Do you believe economics is not a science?

answer by Teerth Aloke · 2021-04-14T11:47:57.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It cannot be stated with >99% certainty that members of the Bush Administration did not have definite prior information of the events of 9/11 or played a role in it.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-04-14T12:38:32.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Untangling the multiple negatives, this says that there is at most a 1% chance that the administration had foreknowledge or involvement. Is that what you intended?

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2021-04-16T09:48:30.317Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No. Actually I meant to say that there is atleast 1% chance of foreknowledge or involvement.

Replies from: ChristianKl, NormanPerlmutter
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-04-16T13:02:02.970Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's your actual credence of it being true? 

Replies from: Teerth Aloke
comment by Teerth Aloke · 2021-04-17T08:40:29.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by NormanPerlmutter · 2021-05-20T06:55:46.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Teerth's second statement is mathematically equivalent to their original statement (modulo strict versus non-strict inequality), and Richard's untangling is incorrect. 

Let A be the proposition that members of the Bush Administration had definite prior information of the events of 9/11 or played a role in it.  Let P(X) denote the credence in a proposition X. 

The original statement was as follows:

It is false that P() > 99%.

Equivalently, P( 99%

Equivalently, P(A) > 1%.

Almost equivalently, "there is at least a 1% chance of foreknowledge or involvement"


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Eigil Rischel (eigil-rischel) · 2021-04-14T13:51:22.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lsusr ran a survey here a little while ago, asking people for things that "almost nobody agrees with you on". There's a summary here [? · GW]

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2021-04-15T06:02:08.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Starting over ten years ago, there were some similar posts about an "irrationality game", starting here [LW · GW].