Minds aren't magic

Paul Crowley

Month: September, 2014

Never be sarcastic

I’m sometimes sarcastic, but I’m trying to give it up altogether. It’s bad to be sarcastic because civility over disagreements is a good idea, and sarcasm is uncivil. But there’s another reason to avoid it.

There are mistaken arguments that sound vaguely persuasive when cloaked in sarcasm whose flaws would be obvious if you tried to say them straightforwardly. People say things like “oh, yeah, I’m sure if cigarettes are in plain packets then no-one will ever smoke again, that’ll solve the problem”. What’s the non-sarcastic form of this argument? The obvious turn-around is “I think that there will still be smoking if cigarettes are put in plain packets”—but put this way, it’s obvious that it’s arguing against a position that no-one is taking, since a reduction in smoking that stops short of elimination is still a good thing.

Or “the minimum wage is great, let’s have a minimum wage of $1000 an hour and we’ll all be rich”. Here the argument is at best incomplete—we can all agree that a $1000/hr minimum wage wouldn’t be a good idea, but you’re going to have to spell out what you mean this to tell us about, say, a $15/hr minimum wage. If there’s a real argument behind what you say, you should be able to make it without sarcasm, and exactly what you are trying to argue will be clearer to all of us, including yourself.

2017 addenum: One further problem is that you put the onus on the other person to reconstruct the non-sarcastic form of your argument in order to reply to it, and you reserve to yourself the opportunity to muck them about and be uncivil some more by telling them they got it wrong while still failing to set it out.

Please do try to avoid the obvious jokes in your responses, thank you :)

Unoriginal and wrong posts ahead

I often hold back from posting first because I’m very unsure whether what I’m saying is right, and secondly because I wonder whether someone else has already said it, and better, and I’d find it if I did more thorough reading. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much better to err on the side of posting unoriginal and wrong things than to let this stop me.

For even lower quality material, I now have a Tumblr.

The size of the Universe and the Great Filter

In a small Universe, an early Great Filter is unlikely, simply because we’re evidence against it.

Suppose the Filter is early; how severe must it be for us to observe what we observe? By “severe” I mean: what proportion of worlds must it stop? Our existence is evidence towards an upper bound on the severity of an early Great Filter, while the fact that we observe no other life tells us about a lower bound. If the observable Universe is a substantial fraction of the whole Universe, then the two bounds aren’t very far apart, and so to defend an early Filter we have to believe in a great cosmic coincidence in which the severity of the Filter was just right, which is in turn is evidence for a late Filter whose severity we have no upper bound for. This argument has in the past given me real cause to worry that the Filter is late, and very severe.

However, this argument doesn’t hold at all if the observable Universe is a tiny fraction of the whole Universe.  The larger the difference between these two numbers, the bigger the gap between the bounds we have for the severity of the Filter, because intelligent only has to appear once in the whole Universe for us to contemplate this question, while it has to arrive twice in the smaller, observable bubble for us to observe it.

As I understand it, modern cosmology points towards a Universe that is either infinite, or very much larger than the observable Universe, so on those grounds alone we can perhaps worry less. But far more strongly than that, the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics gives us a many-branched Universe that is just unthinkably larger than the tiny portion we can observe; if intelligent life emerged on as many Everett branches as there are stars in the galaxy, we would still appear alone to our best ability to tell. So I now think that this isn’t a reason to worry that the Filter is late. It is however an excellent reason to expect never to meet an alien. Sorry.