Empathy and Heroic Responsibility

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My last two posts for Applied Sentience are up:



Within, I discuss some thoughts I’ve had recently on the problems with empathy, and how we need another layer of moral feeling on top of empathy — for which I borrow the term “heroic responsibility” from Eliezer Yudkowsky — if we want to do good in difficult situations.

The posts total about 2500 words, but this post provides a brief summary.

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Interview: Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes

I recently got the chance to interview Joshua Greene, Harvard philosopher and author of Moral Tribesone of the more interesting pop-psychology books I’ve seen. Greene gets interviewed a lot, so I tried to ask questions he hadn’t heard before: It worked out pretty well!


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Utility Monsters, Part I

My latest post for the humanist blog Applied Sentience is up:


It’s a pretty strange post, but I think that the issues I raise around the utility monster problem are important. If you care more about a randomly selected human than a randomly selected chicken (and I think you should), you accept the existence of utility monsters — thinking beings which are worthy of greater moral consideration than other thinking beings.

Right now, humans are the world’s reigning utility monsters. That may not be true forever.

I think we are likely to eventually create machines which possess a kind of consciousness that is deeper and richer in certain ways than our own. Whatever metrics we can use to measure the “value” of a human life (and we all have them), we know of no reason that advanced computers will not eventually score higher on said metrics than we do, whether it’s in 50 years or 500.

And before we can make decisions about how to react to this situation — or whether we should work to prevent it in the first place — I think that we should do our best to understand what it might be like to be a superhuman utility monster. Empathy shouldn’t just extend to beings with lesser mental capabilities than our own.

The Human Spirit

My fifth post for the humanist blog Applied Sentience is now live:


Here, I talk about one of my favorite subjects — the seemingly miraculous way that a bunch of individual human beings built the world we live in over the course of a few thousand years.

The secret of our success: Even if people don’t always understand one another, our intentions are similar enough that we manage to create laptops and buildings and pencils.

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How to Have (and Remember) More Ideas

My third post for Applied Sentience is up:


Check it out for some thoughts on Srinivasa Ramanujan, David Foster Wallace, Jean-Paul Sartre, and why Quora isn’t living up to its potential (on which more later).

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Related: I cannot emphasize strongly enough that you should keep a file for your ideas (however strange or impractical) and get in the habit of writing them down. Habits that help:

  • When you have an experience that gives you a strong emotional response (laughter, joy, anger, confusion), think to yourself: “How could people have more/less of this experience in their lives? What would have to be invented or changed?”
  • Keep a journal. You’ll remember more experiences like the ones I mentioned above, and you’ll be able to notice very easily when you write phrases like “I wish…” or “If only…”
  • Sit down for a formal brainstorming session once in a while. If this doesn’t sound appealing, try it once, for ten minutes. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, but if you do like it, you might find it becoming a valuable habit.
  • Use Workflowy, which is the best tool I’ve found for quickly making lists. Evernote is also good, but not quite as fast.

If you have an idea-generating habit that I didn’t list here, put it in the comment section! I’m always looking for ideas about how to look for ideas.

How to Change Your Mind

My third guest post for Applied Sentience is up!


This one wasn’t very original, but I thought it turned out well. Essentially, I took some of Less Wrong’s fantastic material on How to Actually Change Your Mind, then threw in some examples from my own experience. Plus, you get some fun mental training exercises to go along with the stories!

Credit goes to Paul Chiari, editor extraordinaire, for the photos and captions.


Here’s an excerpt:

From the ages of 13-16, I spent a lot of time arguing with people on this political forum. I changed my mind a few times in the process, but by the time I left the site, I was pretty sure I’d found the “correct” side of every major political issue, even though I never had that thought explicitly.

If you’d asked me: “Do you actually think you’re right about everything?” I would have answered no. But if you’d asked “What are some things youactually think you might be wrong about?” I’d have stared at you for a while and then started to mope. (At least, that’s what happened whenever I asked myself that question.)


If you can only click one link from the guest post, make it “Steelmanning”, by Chana Messinger. It’s much more fun to argue with people when you pretend their arguments are better than they really are, as opposed to worse.

(It’s also a relief when other people show you the same courtesy.)


Sky Lanterns and the World of Tomorrow

I just started writing for Applied Sentience, a blog curated by the humanist chaplaincies of various American colleges. This post first appeared over there.

Whether or not you like me, the other folks at Applied Sentience write really great stuff about physics, ethics, religious policy, and many other notable topics. Check them out!

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Humanist communities need more wonder.

This isn’t the fault of the humanist communities. Most religious communities also need more wonder. Most people need more wonder.

(The words “awe” and “transcendence” could stand in for “wonder” – I’m referring to that whole category of emotions.)

Whether it comes from the high note of a gospel hymn or the highest rocket in a fireworks display, wonder might just be the single best emotion. Mix wonder with affection, and you get love. Seek out wonder in your daily life, and you might avoid the hedonic treadmill that so often exhausts the pursuers of happiness. As far as I know, wonder never gets boring.

I don’t come by the feeling of wonder easily. And when I do, it’s hard to tell whether the things that give me that feeling will also work for other people.

(For example, most people don’t see dubstep as a quasi-religious experience.)

But last November, I stumbled onto something I think could become a wonder-inducing ritual for humanists around the world. The ritual is cheap, safe, beautiful, and equally accessible to one person or a gathering of thousands.

I could reveal it now, but this essay will make more sense if I tell you a story first.

Read the rest here!