* * *
Colin Marshall: Having come across your
blog via a link from Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen, I
was delighted to find you'd already written two archives of posts on
compelling subjects — compelling to my mind, at least. I'm still
wondering how I might characterize the entire project, and rest assured
I've plenty of questions to ask about that, but let me start with this:
do you really think about the ins-and-outs of organ sales as often as I
imagine you do? Having read through all your posts, I can't help but
feel it's been something of a leitmotif. Does that subject happen to
stand at the overlap of a few of your interests, or am I imagining
Katja Grace: Yes, organ markets are at the intersection of a few interesting things — psychology, ethics, institution design, arguing into the night. They are also one of the small number of things that make me slightly cross. I'll tell you why they are interesting for psychology and ethics.
I like things that allow a glimpse at how tenuous the connection is between reality and how we see it, and I think organ markets are one. Many of us feel instantly certain that organ markets should be prevented, and that it's for the sake of potential traders. Yet there seems no easy reason that organ markets should be worse than other exchanges. Some people argue for hours on this one, without any clear argument and a changing collection of unclear ones. Once someone read me a poem to try to get across the incommunicable wrongness I was missing, in vain. It's interesting to ask what about the situation is really so repellent, and why we are so sure our aversion is altruistic.
This leads to the general topic of the difference between being ethical and feeling ethical. Much of what our moral intuitions tell us is in contradiction with what we think are worthy principles. We like to think life is worth a lot for instance, yet in practice life more than a few miles away is worth nothing unless we are personally acquainted with the potentially deceased. Even if we calculate that organ markets would benefit users, many of us feel bad about them. What do you do when feeling virtuous comes into conflict with doing good? Most people go with their feelings.
This is what makes me slightly cross; we have reasons to believe some of our mental faculties should have evolved to be truthful, such as aspects of vision, but there is no reason our moral feelings should have evolved to make us benefit others consistently, so it is dishonest of us to pretend that following them somehow will. That people put their own comfort ahead of others receiving life saving organs while pretending it is for the good of traders irks me. As a friend pointed out, I am hypocritically motivated by disgust at others’ hypocritical motivation by disgust.
Marshall: Ah, the old "refutation by poem." I presume that the
person who tried that on you didn't know you all that well?
Even beyond the muddy thinking one finds about organ markets, the gap between attitudes as reflected in peoples' speech and attitudes as reflected in their actions seems, in my reading, to have become a larger theme in your writing with time. There's an interest there in your earliest posts, sure, but there's more of one now. How did you come to be intrigued specifically by the points where "feeling" a certain way and "being" a certain way diverge? Do you see this brand of hypocrisy everywhere, or is it confined only to certain sectors of life?
Katja Grace: There's more than one way to know someone well; for instance you can be very familiar with a person's peculiarities without the slightest clue what thoughts could prompt them.
It seemed odd that I hadn't thought of this before, but I didn't dwell on it. I figured other people would be interested to hear this great plan, as they valued human life so much. However whenever I explained to anyone they thought of some dubious sounding reason they couldn't be sure they could do anything or that their usual ethics shouldn't apply there. I didn't want to believe that everyone around me was evil, so I cheatingly decided they were probably delusional instead, and took an interest in what was going on.
I suspect most hypocrisy is somewhat like this; we act on what seems right to us and don't notice this is inconsistent and altered by situational factors we wouldn't consciously support. Verifying that your behavior isn't unconsciously bent toward hypocrisy isn't generally considered necessary for answering the question "Am I a hypocrite?", so any related knowledge can happily remain just close enough to consciousness to remind one not to look there.
Colin Marshall: Here we see a bit of overlap with the ground Robin Hanson covers in his rationality-themed blog Overcoming Bias. Reading your posts, it's easy to see that you're a fan of his, and reading the comments below your posts, it's easy to see that he's a fan of yours — his face, at least in icon form, has become a fixture around Meteuphoric.
But he's not the only influence you cite in your writing. Others named in posts include Thomas Schelling, La Rochefoucauld, Paul Gowder and Steven Pinker. Who else's work do you look to as catalysts for your own thought? Who or what, aside from the ABBA-driven curiosity you just described provided the entrée — or "pushed the gateway drug," if you prefer — into reading the sort of thinkers that you do?
Katja Grace: I like interesting ideas and don't mind who writes them, so I look for topics more than authors. I often can't even remember who writes things I like — it took a lot of liking Overcoming Bias before I noticed who wrote it at all, and more to realize Robin and Eliezer weren't both women's names.
I like most topics that can be analyzed with neat principles. Vagueness, unorganizable detail and narratives bother me, so I'm yet to find a workable way to know about history. I try to read famous things; I figure they are likely better and others can discuss them readily. I don't read the news much; I find newspapers hard to get through, and if anything happens that I'm in a position to influence, someone will probably tell me.
I like thinking more than reading (a potentially dangerous characteristic) so I try to read things that will be fun or productive to think about, or that I already think something about and want to hear the arguments against. I'm not sure about a particular entree — Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder was influential. It contained an amazing lot of interesting ideas for someone who was used to reading fiction about pre-teen girls.
Colin Marshall: I can't resist probing that bit about the potential dangers of thinking more than you read. What do you think are the problems lurking around corners for those who spend more time internally processing, modifying, testing and reflecting upon ideas than receiving intellectual input? Where do you think you currently fall on the spectrum that runs from those who only read to those who only think? Can you conceive of an ideal place to reside on that spectrum, or is it more of a matter of trial and error?
Katja Grace: The extreme of thinking with no intellectual input gets you as far as a thoughtful caveman. The other extreme is zero improvement on what exists around you. I'm not sure what the optimal compromise is, and it would depend on the topic, but I suspect I am biased in favor of thinking. It's more effort to think correct interesting things than interesting things, and hard for uninvolved listeners to tell the difference, or for that matter for you to. So if you pride yourself at all on having interesting ideas, there's an incentive to think too much.
This probably isn't a major effect in society; more people seem toward the reading end of your spectrum and like a lot of detailed knowledge, keeping up with everything that happens without trying to add much to it. These "biased" positions are not necessarily errors, but merely the results of people's goals not being to produce good insights efficiently. I'm not sure how productive a world with some people focussed on thinking and some on reading is compared to one where most people take the best personal compromise. I mostly feel like I don't read enough personally because reading seems so slow compared to thinking, but I suppose if I really cared I would have learned to speed read by now.
Colin Marshall: Which brings me to the range of topics you discuss on Meteuphoric. You've written an about page which says the blog "is about ideas that apply to lots of things for long enough to be interesting." A wide-open field, as you'd no doubt agree. As a reader, it seems to me that you write about whatever holds enough personal interest for you to compose a post about. This is super-reductive, yes, but is it actually incorrect?
And whether or not that's a perfectly suitable description, yours does strike me as an unusually successful effort — in terms of visible reader engagements, high-profile links to it elsewhere, etc. — given the broadness of its subject matter. It seems to me that 90 percent the blogosphere's population writes about whatever happens to interest them — and their words go unread. What, in your handling of a somewhat similar blogging principle, do you think attracts a readership of your readership's quality? Is it perhaps to do with the aforementioned focus on the ideas that underpin the things on whose surfaces another blogger might linger?
Katja Grace: It's true my claimed theme is a guess at what bounds my interests more than a constraint. There are more criteria though: I try to only post on things where I have a single specific insight that I haven't heard before. That cuts out rants, winding streams of thought and other broad overviews, as well as most reposting of others' ideas. I actually have about three times as many unpublished drafts as posts, mostly because there are issues I've thought a bit about, but don't have a neat single insight I'm confident in to contribute.
I'm not sure why my blog is successful. I don't try to appeal much beyond what personal aesthetics dictates, apart from some extra effort toward clear explanation. A difference from many other blogs is that I try to write dispassionately when talking about people, who are usually generic, and rarely talk about myself or my personal preferences or prejudices. I'm not sure these things help popularity — if the rest of the media is anything to go by, people like emotion, taking sides, and knowing about specific people more than ideas.
Colin Marshall: And finally, I must ask: how does the thinking and writing you do on Meteuphoric reflect back on your everyday life? An unsettling percentage of the people I know who spend sizable chunks of their time pondering and communicating, on the net or otherwise, about issues of rationality, intelligence, human behavior and how things really are versus how they seem don't seem to incorporate their own findings into their operative worldview. How much do you notice that the questions you raise and conclusions at which you arrive on the blog feed back into and shape how you live, and how much is all this stuff compartmentalized off by itself?
Katja Grace: I have to say I'm a hypocrite here to be consistent; either I apply what I write to my life, and thus interpret my behaviour as often hypocritical, or I'm hypocritical for not applying it. It's probably a mix. It's easier to tell yourself that you are delusional about your real motives than it is for that thought to seriously compete with the feeling that you aren't.
Most interesting thoughts are wrong, and normal behaviour presumably embodies a lot of previous thought and experimentation, so trying to implement everything you think of in your life can go badly. Which is a good reason to work out why people do or believe things before you write them off. I spent a lot of my childhood rescuing snails from sidewalks because I couldn't think of any good argument for their experience being less vivid than mine, and before that my imaginary friends used to "Pascal's mug" me because I couldn't prove they didn't exist, and they could threaten me with anything, being imaginary. In those cases going with popular opinion might have been better.
These days my most unusual practical application of thinking is to try to save most of my money to give to the most worthy cause I can find. It used to be all of it — my mother thought this so silly she responded by giving me an "entertainment allowance" which I was forbidden to spend on anything "worthwhile." My honours year project is about anthropic reasoning, which I blog about a bit, and my opinions on political and social things reflect what I write, though those things hardly count as practical applications.
In other ways I think there's a disconnect. It can be hard to apply abstract bits and pieces of understanding to messy reality to find better courses of action than popular opinion could give you. Also thinking about abstract things directly diverts attention from things like remembering to eat breakfast, so reduces practical competence that way. I'm at the end of undergraduate uni, so will soon get to more important decisions that I nervously hope thinking will influence to good effect.