Values, Reason, Epiricism, and Identity

Rather than hijack (and, I'm realising, necropost) a 2018 thread any further (, I thought I'd run with a concept I'd come up in an earlier reply.

Suircrasia Online rightly notes that self-labled rationalists should consider their motivations and methods if what they're saying is paining others. And at least learn some of the tools of their self-proclaimed trade: formal logic.


... which is, as they note, not itself sufficient, but merely a tool.

(I blundered into the conversation nine months later to redundantly make the same point....)

And, mind, this on the tails of discovering I seem to have been blocked by someone I'd hoped I wouldn't have, though of course, that's their decision. Though I apologise if I've offended.

Back to point: I've been exploring a number of questions under the label of: Progress, Models, Institutions, Technology, Limits, Values.


Which frames (models) the more general question "What are the Big Problems?" An inquiry I've mostly let lead me where it may.

Of the components, I'm sorry to say that "values" struck me last, several years after the others. (Themselves a somewhat frustrated attempt to answer ceaseless questions of "what are you studying / researching / writing about?" It's still not a satisfying answer, I think.)

But _given_ or _contextualising_ the first five items, "values" gives them *direction*.


That is, unless you can come up with good answers to what is good or bad (an earlier question on the road to "values"), discussing what progress is (literally: what is the _goal_ or _destination_ of progress -- what does it *value*), what models seek to show or exclude, what purposes and results institutions and technology serve, and what limits preclude, without *values* the whole quest is pretty meaningless.

(And may still be, though at least values give it a context.)

Disclaimer: ...


... I'm absolutely still working my way through this, and may (probably won't?) ever finish. But just the process of exploring, asking questions, researching, thinking, reasoning, dreaming, and talking with others, is part of this. There's a ... value ... to bearing witness, even if you can't reach a solid conclusion or effect change yourself.

But the thing about values -- and how this dovetails with Suricrasia's earlier toots -- is that _they seem to transcend logic itself_.


Possibly not always, but ... in a whole lot of cases.

What I mean is that it's hard to _reason_ your way to values. You kind of just have to pick something. And maybe see how that works out empirically, to an extent.

Not that the landscape is _entirely_ without waypoints -- there seem to be certain values which are almost uniformly seen as bad. But there's a large set where you can pick from a pretty generous suite. Studying history, without presentist blinders, is a humbling ...


... reminder of this. There are a _lot_ of different value systems that have been adopted over the years. Many of the past would get you killed or arrested today. Many of today's would get you killed or, if lucky, merely arrested, then. And even today there are mutually incompatible value systems, which make any sort of universal community organisation a challenge.

Maybe there's an advantage to systems which retain the frictions of time and space, and we're in the midst of a terrible...


... interactive online mistake....

Mind too: I'd really _like_ for there to be some rationally, empirically-derivable set of universal values. My hunch is that either there isn't, or it's a small set with enough exclusions and realm for arbitrary choices that it wouldn't be particularly useful. Much as the laws of physics tell us the absolute speed limit for any physical mass-possessing object, but not whether we can mix stripes and plaids, beef and milk, eat pork or dog, or define ...


... the allowed and intolerable bounds of intimate interpersonal relations. Those have to be decided upon.

Shit's complicated, yo.

And no, you don't need me to tell you that.

There are a few heuristics I've somewhat worked out, though even they are far from perfect.

For example: if you're within a system, whether living in it or just visiting, it's generally frowned upon to act in ways that are manifestly destructive to it. Though that's hardly universal.


Antiestablishmentarianists, revolutionaries, abolitionists, and White Roses were certainly not looking to preserve or improve the health of the systems they countered. Some change precludes survival of the encompassing system.

The principle of favouring the underdog, serving the case of the less-empowered, of punching up rather than down, seems at least somewhat more helpful. That provides strong guidance in the face of intolerant extremists. It founders somewhat in cases where ...


... _both_ sides have adopted, perhaps due to very long and storied histories, extreme positions. British and Irish, Germans and French, Jewish and Palestinian, Pakistani and Indian, Sunni and Shia, Hutsi and Tutsi, Serb and Kosavar, PRC and ROC, Bloods and Crips.

Those are exceedingly hard cases to judge. I won't pretend to, now.

Some people don't have a choice _not_ to judge, or take sides, whether because they're in the middle of the battle or have found themselves tasked with ...


... adjudicating it. I've got the _luxury_ of not having to make judgement calls, but that is, for me, and for some others, just that. Be careful in judging those who _do_ have to judge, because they may have little choice.

(See Kipling's "Shooting an Elephant" for a very partial exploration of this. I could and should probably do better, it's what occurs.)

What's worse is when you come up with values and find that *they themselves are in conflict.* Which they will be.

Asimov's ...


... "I, Robot" series was entirely based on the conceit of exploring the conflicts caused by three simple rules (slightly abridged):

1. A robot must not injure a human through action _or_ inaction.

2. A robot must obey orders, except where those conflict the 1st law.

3. A robot must protect itself, except where this conflicts with the 1st or 2nd laws.

(You might also substitute "human" for "robot" for further hijinks.)

You can create all sorts of conflicts with a very simple rule ...


... set.

Much moral philosophy (religious or otherwise) explores similar conflicts, at least putatively. And legal theory.

There's the growing realisation I've had ... though it _is_ an Old Wisdom, that much of law, including so-called moral law, is largely about the empowered choosing power-sustaining tools for the the empowered. If you've found yourself with the Precious Bits through luck or treachery, the easiest way to maintain your position is to maintain your position. Another ...


Asimov-adjacent reference: Bernhard J. Stern's "Resistances to the Adoption of Technological Innovations" ( (markdown:, which explores cases in which the Powers that Be attacked usurpers (acting through the mechanism of technogy) who challenged their positions and/or asset valuations. A young Isaac was Stern's research assistant, and I tracked down the article on account of Asimov's telling of the research.

The thought occurs that ...


... this defence-of-asset-values is actually a major (but unheralded) dynamic within economics. It certainly is _not_ wealth-forming, though it serves mightily as wealth-retaining. The Texts are curiously silent on this point.

(Or so I've come to believe. If I'm mistaken, references are wholeheartedly appreciated.)

Another illustration of the slipperyness of values comes by way of the film (or comic) "Snowpiercer".

CW: Spoilers and/or plot details follow.

In the film the last of ...


... humanity following a global cooling are aboard a highly class-segregated train as it hurtles through an icy landscape. The underclass hero battles his way to the front of the train where he confronts its captain, ultimately plunging the cars and passengers off the rail, where two survivors, young children, head out into a forbidding world, though the first possible hints of survivability are evident.

And after your ears stop ringing and the adrenalin stops pumping, you ask ...


... yourself, "Self, wait a minute, who are the heros? Who are the villains?"

Was the monomaniacal classist who fed most of his passengers on reprocessed cockroaches and maimed young children to keep a faltering machine running.

Or was it the monomaniacal rebel fighting for his people's rights and dignity, who killed very near all of them (and many of the first-class passengers along the way)?

What if we're the baddies?


That question at least gets me to one core value: if you cannot at least, _in all earnestness_, ask yourself, and your group, "are we the baddies", there's an exceedingly good chance that you are.

And like many of the great moral conundrums and tricksters' tales, the rub is that there are so many ways the question can sneak up on you unrecognised and rejected, until you realise you've uttered the cursed phrase, drunk the potion, or fallen for the wizard, and the spell is upon you.


The problem of values not being rationally derivable presents itself in another manner too. If you read through many of the Great Moral Documents -- Ten Commandments, Declaration of Independence, Communist Manifesto, Declaration of Universal Human Rights, and read them critically, you may come to the uncomfortable realisation that when it comes to _justifying_ the moral argument and values, the authors punt.


"We declare these truths to be self evident" was _not_ an acceptable proof-of-work in my maths, physics, or moral philosophy coursework.

The phrase translates as "look, this is bloody complicated moral reasoning, and we're a bit haggard and hung over at the moment, but just let us go with this right now". And that's what most other authorities fall to. The Ten Commandments are the ultimate Appeal To Authority: God his Illogical Self. Marx leans heavily on rhetoric, though adds history.


A few days ago I read this rousing critique of faulty reason in political logic:

"All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises."

If you recognise the source, and the irony beyond measure, congatulations. This is the "Cornerstone Speach" by Alexander Stephens.


Better, or infamously, known as the vice-president of the Confederacy, and putting the case for slavery -- his own fanaticism born of fancied and erroneous premises, leading to absolutely incorrect conclusions.

One wonders at Mr. Stephens' self-awareness.

What made his error and that of current adherants to similar philosophies all the harder to shake is that the stated values depart the realm of logic and enter identity.

Changing views on which we've structured our lives is beyond hard.


I'm increasingly convinced that it's the recognition that a worldview no longer works, and is invalidated, leads to grief responses. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. That grief IS the response to a change in a self-defining worldview.

Both personally and for groups. Cultures. Nations. Planets.

Which makes rational argument almost wholly impossible and ineffective.

It's possibly the wrong tool for the job. Is grief counselling is a better approach? I don't know.


The last item in my title list yet untouched: Empiricism.

If you can't rely on reason alone, or on a priori value bases, it seems to me that "shit wot works, yo" may be a more reasonable foundation.

The advantage being that it's grounded in evidence and demonstration.

The catch being that 1) social experimentation takes a long time, 2) leads to inconsistent and 3) arguable results, and 4) you're _still_ not freed of the values trap. You've still got to define what is "good".

But ...


... as one saving grace, having defined _in advance_ what your goals are, you can at least be held to them. Did your values, philosophy, and methods attain that or not?

And, possibly: was the alternative attained better or worse? Or at least, _not worse than_.

(I suspect that there's a fairly broad equipotential field for this kind of thing.)

This approach of course hews to the scientific approach: hypothesis, experimentation, observation, and assessment. That's not a perfect ...


@dredmorbius One slight clarification in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking piece - it was the **Hutu** and Tutsi.
More than 25 years after the Rwandan Genocide, it is still far too easy to mix the two names up.

@dredmorbius I have occasionally wondered how much of Asimov's Robot stories were about technoogy, and how much about the Human condition.
Depending on how you read the Second (and Zeroth) Law, substituting "human" for "robot" would give some useful guidance for living life in either a social utopia, or a totalitarian state.

@stuartb Science fiction (as with myths and sagas before it) is a safe ground for exploring contemporary dilemmas, questions, and problems in a putatively safe space.

Asimov's "Foundation" series was an exploration of theory of empire -- politics and social dynamics. I Robot far more of moral space.

Asimov *wasn't* the greatest writer in the world, his language and development are fairly crude. But many of his ideas are of great interest.

@dredmorbius I always found Asimovs writing to lag somewhat behind his ideas in terms of quality, although his Black Widowers short stories tended to be slightly better in this regard.

@stuartb I haven't read much Asimov since my teen years, though I've run across some of his later essays (and a few earlier ones), and found them more thoughtful than I'd have anticipated.

@dredmorbius several of those don’t punt, they make an appeal to the divine. whether you consider that valid or not is a subjective matter i suppose, but the authors considered it “self evident truth”

@dredmorbius that doesn’t cut it in a materialist framework, yes. but materialism doesn’t cut it for humans. in a materialist framework you let the trolly run over both tracks and harvest the organs for maximum lives saved.

@dredmorbius maybe I should actually read your thread to not redundantly make the same points

@dredmorbius Stephens would certainly have seen his worldview and defense of slavery as reasonable and based on thousands of years of history and the Bible. At the time, most science even supported racial differences. That Northerners were suddenly abandoning this based on mere feelings was irrational.

We've got better evidence now that race is skin deep, and structured our society so slavery is mostly unacceptable, so we think it's obvious, but it's not.

@mdhughes I'm not an expert on either the slavery debate, religious arguments for and against, or Christian philosophy generally.

But one of the fundamental weaknesses of the approach is that arguments can be constructed for and against virtually any position you care to think of. And most definitely were in the case of slavery.

How much of my unhesitating impulse to call Stephen's views and argument beyond wrong is part of my own acculturation, I don't know. But it's a quite firm belief.

@dredmorbius That's why sophistry, debate, and law are so arbitrary. Religions and cultures can be built around any premise, and have been.

Intuitive morals are random. I grew up in a honky christian culture, so 90% of my inoculation against racism was seeing Roots when I was a kid. Without that, who knows who I'd be?

We get better over time at doing science, and if we stick to arguing only from proven facts it's at least consistent and less arbitrary.

@dredmorbius Even before I read Dawkin's Selfish Gene, and more so after, I treat many ideas as memetic viruses. Some are helpful, some are diseases, some are inoculations against others. It's difficult or impossible to be a racist if you've seen Roots while young; Alex Haley just wanted to make a biography, but made something better.

Also SF reference: John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, and The Sky So Big & Black, where memes become literal AI weapons infecting and inoculating people.

@mdhughes Thanks. I've arrived at largely similar conclusions, though with a slightly different twist.

The reason that the spread of _ideas_ and _genes_ or _diseases_ is so similar, with so many common or analogous concepts (vectors, incubators, susceptible populations, epidemics, spread, transmission, etc.) is that *they are manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon*.

That is: Information which changes population behaviours as it spreads, sometimes for better, sometimes worse.


@mdhughes I'm familiar with Roots and Dawkins, need to follow up on the other references.

Very much appreciated.

Trading you one: Kyle Harper's history "The Fate of Rome" traces the spread of not only culture but disease through the Roman empire driven by both cities and trade, the one incubators, the other vectors.

He adds the idea that diseases *co-evolve* with populations and niches -- Rome essentially bred its own plauges as it developed, as well as importing them from abroad.


@mdhughes Oh, and of course, Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash" with the drug / malware / virus metaphor.

@dredmorbius Sure, one of my favorite books, tho he's mostly riffing on Julian Jaynes. Where it's more clear: Pre-bicameral mind (or whatever happened; his history's fine but it probably wasn't brain structure changes) most people accepted any commandment from priests and could be largely programmed. Then ~5kya most of them woke up/developed their Corpus Callosum/heard the Nam-Shub of Enki and have to be persuaded, or indoctrinated as kids, for memes to spread. Modern culture starts.

@dredmorbius Good lord, that speech:

<< We allow the imposition of no duty with a view of giving advantage to one class of persons, in any trade or business, over those of another. All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. >>


<< its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] >>

@dredmorbius I feel like this speech needs to be taught widely as an example of.... what kind of logic led to holding both of these values simultaneously???

@natecull @dredmorbius the same logic that led to the election of the current president.

@natecull @dredmorbius i’ve been wrapping my head around it, but the more I learn, the more I am lead to the conclusion that all the weird fucked up things about america inevitably lead back to the original sin: the USA’s rationale for slavery.

@natecull @dredmorbius (this glimpse into the past is why I think Americans now have a reputation for being assholes to service workers the world over. can i talk to your manager?)

@zensaiyuki I'm cautious about One Cause Explains All theories of social injustice, though I'll take a look into that.

Tipping is a twisted practice. Especially where management steals the tips.... (Which "sharing economy" company is it that's doing that now?)

There's a whole mass of economic, legal, social, and cultural bullshit that's directly tied to US Southern Methods of Business, though. And still very much alive.


@dredmorbius @natecull I wouldn’t claim that all social injustice has this root. But the grand bulk of uniquely american injustices seem to be.

@zensaiyuki @dredmorbius

Certainly that speech seems to have a strong and VERY familiar smell, compared to arguments from today's commercial world.

"Obviously some people are Just Born Better than others [meritocracy!], but all those nasty Elites just better keep their hands off my sovereign wealth fund"

@natecull @dredmorbius yep, once you read enough pro slavery arguments, a lot of modern arguments start looking like the same exact arguments, just euphemised to fool the casual observers into thinking it’s reasonable-ish, and after all, everyone is entitled to their views aren’t they?

@natecull Yeah, those two 'graphs are quite the one-two whiplash punch.

The speech turned up in a Reddit thread -- someone had compiled a bunch of talking points about how so many of the frequently-retreaded Confederacy talking points, particularly the claim that the CW was _not_ about preserving slavery, were complete and total bullshit.

This puts paid _that_ lie.

And I swear this week is the first I've ever read or even heard of it. For which I blame something or another.


@natecull Oh, and I am absolutely and most definitely a fan of self-directed _principled_ research and study of history. Preferably going directly to primary documents and sources.

And this one is a _doozie_.


@natecull Keep this in mind: the same sort of logical looney-bin-ism is still very much alive.

"Ten Reasons Not to Abolish Slavery"

The zinger's at the end, BTW.

@dredmorbius or a cyber gruef councelor, as i was tooting about the ither day. an algorithm that runs a constraint solver on every value system to derive a therapy. anyhow, i have the attached image saved to my favourites to post every time this topic comes up. terry pratchet.

@dredmorbius ah jeeze, hard to walk and phone type at the same time

@zensaiyuki Never get into a battle of wits with a Sicilian^W^WDeath when Death is on the line!

A great scene from an awesome film.

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