Beliefs about how things are and how they should be
Author: Buster Benson
What is this document? This public, living, document was created as an experiment one Sunday in April of 2012. Maintaining it has become one of the most treasured activities in my life. It’s a way for me to remember who I am, catch inconsistencies in how I respond to different events in the world, react to current events from a position of how I believe the world is, should be, and will become. I've updated it at least once a year since 2012, and all changes are tracked. Rather than attempting to avoid all errors in this doc, I'm attempting to be as specific as possible and to quickly correct errors when they become apparent.
Why does it exist? My main goal here is to get smarter over time by identifying new connections and inconsistencies so I can course-correct when necessary. A secondary goal is that I'd also like to extend an invitiation for others to spark conversations with me about anything they find interesting and to also help keep me accountable.
Who's beliefs are these? I'm Buster Benson. These beliefs are my best guess and articulation of my own beliefs, which were inherited and molded partly by the environment I've lived in and partly by my own interpretation of life experiences. Your mileage may vary. Caveat lector.
A belief is a personal interpretation of available experience and data on a given subject. The subject can be anything, from "what is the best burrito in SF?" to "how did the universe begin and how will it end?" to "how easy should it be to buy a gun?" and beyond. I've broken them up into three broad categories: 1) beliefs about how things are / seem to be (both objectively and subjectively), and 2) how I believe things should be (aka the change I want to see in the world).
HOW THINGS ARE: On the nature of reality and how things are
How nature, consciousness, and the universe seem to be to me (both objectively and subjectively).
Earth: climate change
- Human-influenced climate change is real, and it's appropriate to panic.
- Climate change is of particular importance to humans, because it poses an existential risk to our survival.
Earth: civilization's arrow of progress
- Technology has or will eventually disrupt all other human-created institutions (politics, religion, identity, economics, energy).
- As history progresses, power will tend to be more quickly redistributed when it gets too heavy at the top.
- When power is redistributed (through disruption, revolution, or disaster), it will have undesirable short-term consequences.
- Being good/moral increasingly becomes our default state as we learn more about the world and are more connected with others.
- Non-carbon-based life forms exist.
- Aliens exist, but for the same reaon most sci-fi adopts faster-than-light travel, cryogenics, and wormholes to facilitate travel, humans and physics as we currently understand them are not going to make this easy. More likely, I think we will discover their creations (ie. long-lived, patient robots they made) before we discover their biological species.
- Aliens will probably discover our own long-lived, patient robots before they discover us.
- The vast majority of intelligent beings throughout the universe are probably more similar to robots and cyborgs than organically evolved life.
- Aliens are unlikely to be aggressive. Any sufficient reason to come specifically to us is unlikely to be motivated by typical warlike intentions, because we don't have anything special in the universe that they can't get elsewhere for cheaper.
Life: consciousness and free will
- The sensation of consciousness is real.
- Free will exists within constraints, in the same way a goldfish has freedom and autonomy within its fishbowl.
- A lot about health and medicine is mental, which opens the door for things like placebo effect and fake remedies.
- Acupuncture works, somehow.
- We were not created in the way described in any of the major holy texts, if you take a literal interpretation.
- Within this universe, we evolved through natural systems that required no outside intervention.
- Micro and macro evolution really happen.
Life: existential threats to us
- Disrupting the world's ecology (through deforestation, overfishing, monocultures, etc) poses a 5% existential threat to us.
- Climate change poses a 5% existential threat to us.
- Nuclear war poses a 3% existential threat to us.
- The supervolcano erupting poses an 2% existential threat to us.
- Asteroid impact poses a 1% existential threat to us.
- A runaway artificial intelligence poses a <1% existential threat to us.
- The magnetic poles reversing poses a <1% existential threat to us.
- Aliens pose a <0.001% existential threat to us.
- If and when humans become extinct, the Earth will barely notice (perhaps just giving a long sigh of relief).
Philosophy: death and the afterlife
- We will die.
- There is no afterlife.
- We are part of a larger system that cycles materials through processes that include what we call life, as well as many other things (like tectonic movement, weather systems, the magnetic field, the cycling of water, carbon, and many other molecules and compounds).
- Dirt is what living things do in times between being alive.
Philosophy: purpose of life
- There is no official purpose or meaning granted to our lives.
- It's okay to identify our own objectives in life and call them a purpose.
- Memento mori is a useful tool for remembering you're alive.
Philosophy: search for truth
- Most questions have no answer (but asking them and talking about them anyway is often entertaining).
- I subscribe to Hume's Fork, which claims that there are two kinds of knowledge: matters of fact, and relations of ideas. Matters of fact aren’t accessible to us—we can never know something for certain, only that it hasn't been proven wrong yet. We can only create a self-referencing network of ideas that are related to each other. "2 + 2 = 4" and "My name is Buster" are both conclusively true if we agree to the definitions and relations between each word and symbol.
- Logic is a helpful tool, but has flaws and can't be relied on entirely.
- Even if absolute truth about matters of fact aren't accessible to us, it's still possible to get closer to it. Especially in the context of making better predictions on limited data.
- Astrology can be fun entertainment, like the Myers Briggs test.
- Astrology can stunt healthier forms of analysis if taken literally and seriously.
Psychology: cognitive limits and biases
- The human brain (in its current state of evolution) can't comprehend the universe.
- We have many implicit associations that lead to bias.
- We're susceptible to many cognitive biases and logical fallacies, because our brains require them to get any thinking done within our constraints of time and energy.
Psychology: prayer and meditation
- Useful as a mental maintenance tool, but doesn't tap into any special lines of communication to powerful beings.
- For beginners, private journaling and going on a long walk are both better than sitting on a pillow and trying not to think.
- Tulpa are super weird, but extremely fascinating as a concept.
- "Tulpa" is a term that refers to our internal thoughtforms of conscious entities. For example, while Santa may not exist in the real world, we all have an internal tulpa of Santa that we've trained to essentially simulate Santa in our minds. Tulpa can exist for living people, dead people, historical people, and even our concept of ourselves is a tulpa in some ways.
- The idea of tulpa as personal thoughtforms explains a whole lot.
- Some tulpa are trained off of our religious cultures: Santa, God, Jesus, etc.
- Some tulpa are trained off of our memories of people who have passed away: ghosts, dreams.
- All of our classic mental archetypes for father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, boss, teacher, etc are loosely defined tulpa that will pull partly from cultural sources, and partly from personal experiences.
- Even our personal sense of identity is a tulpa that we feed, act through, and help train other people on as they get to know us.
Physics: laws of physics
- Nothing in our universe can travel faster than light.
- Perception of time can be sped up or slowed down, but not reversed (forwards time travel is possible, backwards is not).
- Teleportation, if it's ever invented, is more likely to resemble the creation of copies than "true" teleportation.
- Our universe began with low entropy and continues on a long, slow path to high entropy, powering literally everything along the way.
- The universe, at the most fundamental level, may just be a mathematical structure (ala Max Tegmark's The Mathematical Universe).
Spirituality: God, angels, demons, and souls
- Souls don't exist as separate from the physical body.
- The gods of organized religion don't exist.
- Angels, demons, and other spirits exist as antropomorphised agents in our minds that are useful shortcuts for abstract concepts (see tulpas).
- There is no heaven or hell.
- Ghosts don't exist outside of our minds. (See "Psychology: tulpas")
Supernatural: law of attraction
- Intention can't create reality (it just primes our perception of it, and makes us more likely to notice opportunities).
Technology: artificial intelligence
- Machines will eventually become more intelligent than humans are today.
- Machines will make humans more intelligent than we are today.
- Intelligence isn't a single skill that can be acquired all at once, but the result of learning processes that take in one or more flows of new information, and communicate out analysis of the data in meaningful ways. Every flow of data will favor different intelligences, and intelligences that exist on one or more flows of data won't necessarily be adapted for other flows of data.
- The advent of super artificial intelligence does pose some existential risk to humanity (see "Life: Existential threats to us") but it is not the biggest threat.
- Something like the Big Bang happened, and will probably happen again.
- Something existed before the Big Bang (outside of time and space as we know them).
- Other dimensions and universes exist.
- The laws of physics (See "Physics: laws of physics") likely prevent us from ever proving that other universes exist.
- We probably live in a simulation.
HOW THINGS SHOULD BE: On rights, laws, governance of society, and how things should be
What I believe are the best realistically enforceable legal and policy frameworks for us to protect, inspire, and govern society by.
Abortion and birth control
- Abortion and birth control should be legal and readily accessible to everyone who needs it.
- Abortion and birth control should be made available for free to people who need it and can't afford it.
- Assisted suicide should be legal and available to people in a certain set of dire situations that they feel prevent them from having any chance of a pleasant future.
- The death penalty should be used in extreme and certain cases to protect the public.
Discrimination, harrassment, and abuse
- Power often becomes motivated to remain in power, which results in systemic discrimination, harrassment, and abuse. It is against power's first-order objectives to build structures that might lead to them being removed from power, but as awareness of this dynamic increases, so should accountability. It will be a very slow uphill battle with many movements backwards, but all the more reason to always push on increasing awareness and accountability within all systems.
- Marijuana should be legal to grow, sell, buy, carry, and use.
- Free college education should be available to everyone who wants it.
Elections and voting
- The electoral college is out-dated and too easily manipulated. It should be replaced by something like delegative democracy.
- Speech is a form of power, and just like power, free speech has constraints and is never absolute. However, because speech is often regulated by those in power, it's important to make sure they are not in charge or even capable of determining the constraints of free speech.
- Owning a gun should require certification from a firearms officer verifying that they've taken a safety course, are free of criminal record, and pass a psychological mental health check every few years.
- Health care should be available and affordable to everyone who needs it.
- Hunting endangered animals in order to raise money to conserve them is okay if it can be proven to actually work.
Income inequality and wage disparity
- Guaranteed basic income should be a thing available to everyone.
Prison and sentences
- Prisons should be about protecting the public, not about punishment.
- There should be special measures made to insure that criminal behavior by people in high-power positions get punished with equal or higher frequency than criminal behavior by people in lower-power positions.
Writing I've loved and come back to a bunch of times.
Articles that have changed how I think
- Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy - Wikipedia
- The Cook and the Chef: Musk's Secret Sauce - Tim Urban
- Your Life in Weeks - Tim Urban
- On conversational UIs - Matt Webb
- The Web's Grain - Frank Chimero
- Ten Reasons Why Our Universe Is A Virtual Reality - Brian Whitworth
- The Technology - Paul Buchheit
- Neurons Gone Wild - Kevin Simler
- When We Build - Wilson Miner
- We Aren't the World - Ethan Watters
- The Elephants - Nick Crocker
- Touching the Wild - Kathy Sierra
- The Crossroads of Should and Must - Elle Luna
- Welcome to the Future Nauseous - Venkatesh Rao
- UX and the Civilizing Process - Kevin Simler
- Navigating Stuckness - Jonathan Harris
- Stock and Flow - Robin Sloan
- WWIC - Paul Ford
- Top of Mind - Paul Graham
- Fish - Robin Sloan
Books that have changed how I think
- Everyone's an aliebn when ur a aliebn too - Jomny Sun
- The Enigma of Reason - Hugo Mercier
- The Big Picture - Sean Carroll
- Liminal Thinking - Dave Gray
- I Am a Strange Loop - Douglas Hoftstadter
- You're It - Alan Watts
- The Wisdom of Insecurity - Alan Watts
- On Intelligence - Jeff Hawkins
- Waking Up - Sam Harris
- Creativity, Inc - Ed Catmull
- The Fifth Discipline - Peter M. Senge
- Antifragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
- Strangers To Ourselves - Timothy D. Wilson
As things happen in the world, I plan to revisit and edit this document to reflect my changing beliefs. In addition, I do a lot of writing that includes self-reflection, including a very specific self-reflection around the month of my birthday each year.
My rules to live by
These are rules I try to live by, but obviously it won't always happen. If you catch me breaking one of these rules, please call me out on it. It's easier to spot inconsistencies in other people than yourself, so that's why I'm asking for your help to catch my own inconsistencies. And if I appear annoyed by you when you do this, just remind me that I asked you to do this. Thanks!
- I should regularly verify that I want to continue opting-in to everything in this document on the first of every month.
- I should create a new monthly report on the first of every month.
- I should create a new yearly report every year on my birthday.
- I should strive to know what I really believe, and to make sure my beliefs work well together.
- I should not dilly-dally.
- I should be my word.
- I should have good intentions.
- I should admit to being the maker of my own meaning.
- I should not feel sorry for myself and avoid competitive suffering.
- I should have a vision that I'm striving for.
- I should rally others with my vision.
- I should be the change I want to see.
- I should stake my reputation on my better self.
- I should be comfortable with the consequences of being who I am.
- I should make my own advice and take it.
- I should manage my stress, health, and clarity by consistently eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
- I should study my mistakes.
- I should retry things I don’t like every once in a while.
- I should go slow, work hard, and avoid shortcuts.
- I should cultivate quality time with myself, with others, and with my interests.
- I should face things that make me uncomfortable.
- I should take responsibility for things I find important, even if I can’t fully control them.
My predictions about the future
How I think things will be in the future, based on the approximate year I think they’ll come true.
- Global warming will severely impact the global economy in some way and threaten the livelihood of people in some parts of the world.
- The technology to program DNA (via CRISPR) will allow us to easily and cheaply edit, remove, and add DNA in embryos. We will start with obvious applications (like preventing Alzheimers) but not stop there.
- Self-driving vehicles will begin to replace truck drivers, impacting employment rates in the country.
- We'll have a President that admits to being atheist or agnostic by 2025.
- Most jobs lost between 2008-2012 aren't going to come back, new ones have to be created from scratch (or not)
- Safe, genetically modified foods will become the norm.
- Wager with Carinna: by 2028, the equivalent of a college education (both in breadth of knowledge and value to career) will be available to anyone with an internet connection.
- Computers will be building better computers than humans.
- Guaranteed basic income will be available in a majority of first world countries. Employment will be decoupled from having the means to live.
- People, organizations, and governments will exchange almost all privacy of personal data for interpersonal connection and technology personalization by machine learning services. It will be the norm.
- Solar will overcome gas and oil in usage.
- There will be 10 billion people on the planet at once.
- 80% of people will live in cities and new mega-cities.
- Physical travel will be completely unnecessary due to virtual reality technology.
- The number of living languages in the world will have dropped from about 7,000 in 2009 to under 100.
- Coral reefs and the ocean ecosystems are going to break with unknown consequences.
- Humans, computers, and Earth will evolve into at least one super organism or networked brain.
- LOST: In 2016, Hillary will win the election
- LOST wager with Rick Webb: By March 1st, 2016, descendants of Google Glass will be seen regularly in the wild (in the same way that Fitbits, NikeFuel bands, and retina MacBook Pros were in 2013).
My favorite ideas
In alphabetical order
This is an idea coined by Robin Sloan in his book Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The idea is to write a book, the Codex Vitae or Book of Life, that represents everything I have learned in my life. If I lost all of my memories somehow, this could be something that helped me remember who I am.
Posts about this topic: Codex Vitae.
The gist is that there are two kinds of knowledge: matters of fact, and relations of ideas. Matters of fact aren’t accessible to us—we can never know something for certain, only that it hasn't been proven wrong yet. We can only create a self-referencing network of ideas that are related to each other. What we think of as truth is merely the ability for a particular idea to fit into this network of ideas without causing irreconcilable contradictions.
See the entry on Wikipedia for a good intro to the idea.
Or, as Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls it: antifragility. I like the word optionality because it seems more neutral, almost boring even, and yet it is probably one of the most simple and powerful ideas that I’ve ever encountered.
We tend to build systems that converge on a single design over time (see monocultures) because they are predictable and efficient in a given environment. But environments change, and without the ability to predict how those changes will happen ahead of time, optionality is required even in the safest of environments.
Posts about this topic: Live like a hydra.
Naturalism is a philosophy that believes there's only one world: the natural world (made of matter, energy, space, time, etc). It can be explored and tested and understood through the scientific method. There's no "supernatural" world that can't be explained as part of the natural world. The "poetic" qualifier comes from Sean Carroll, which I learned about through his book "The Big Picture". He does a good job of making the case for an appreciation of not only the natural world, but "ways of talking about it" through stories, mental models, theories, etc. To the extent that these various ways of talking about the natural world are useful and consistent with what we know about the natural world, they can be considered "real". In his words: "A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world. The criteria for choosing the best such ways of talking will necessarily be different that the criteria we use for purely descriptive, scientific vocabularies. There won’t be a single rational way to delineate good from bad, sublime from repulsive. But we can still speak in such terms, and put in the hard work to make our actions live up to our own internal aspirations. We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves." This resonates with me quite a bit.
This is my long-time answer to a self-determined purpose of life. There are 3 kinds of quality time that I want to seek out. The first is quality time with myself. Find my favorite ideas, core interests, and people that I can connect deeply with. The second is quality time with those favorite ideas and core interests, and the third is quality time with those people I can connect deeply with. They each feed into each other: I can't really connect deeply with others until I know myself sufficiently well; often times interests are strengthened by having people I can connect with and share with. It seems pretty ungameable to me. Seek quality time with myself, my interests, and others and I won't regret anything on my death bed.
Quantum realism is a term I first learned from an article by Brian Whitworth, a senior lecturer in computing at Massey University. The idea is in opposition to "physical realism" (that belief that the physical world we see is real and exists by itself, alone). Quantum realism asserts that the physical world isn't real in itself, but merely the output (or shadow, or result, or projected image) of a quantum reality that is generating it. It's basically a virtual reality, or a simulation.
I'm still learning about this and definitely couldn't explain or defend it, but I'm fascinated by the idea and keep thinking about it. I need to read this a few more times.
This is my word for a particular idea I'm obsessed with. It goes something like this: the universe is this giant space/time environment (or simulation?) that we are all a part of. The soloverse is our mental model of that universe that our brain uses to think about the universe and everything in it. You can’t really think about the universe directly (it’s way too big), you can only think about your mental model of the universe as it exists in your soloverse. Lots of interesting (to me) side effects result from this distinction.
I first came across this idea in 2013 and found some interesting explorations of the idea referenced by the word umwelt, which is German for “environment” or “surroundings” and pronounced oom-velt. I just made up the term soloverse because it’s easier for me to think of it as a private, working model of the universe in our minds.
I first became obsessed with the concept of systems thinking after reading The Fifth Discipline. It's often used in relation to natural systems (like the water cycle and the carbon cycle) in order to illustrate how certain resources cycle through various incarnations over time. However, it can be applied to so much more than just elements, and I've found that this way of thinking really changes how I think about all kinds of day to day things. I'm currently in the process of trying to write a children's book that explains systems thinking.
My writing that attempts to capture how I think
- Rational person's 1-minute guide to why rational thinking often fails to persuade people
- Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, Simplified: Simplifying my cognitive bias cheat sheet a bit further
- Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet: Summarizing the list of cognitive biases page on Wikipedia
- Better than meditation: Free-writing as an alternative to meditation
- 3-lane product development: How to build products (and companies) that people love
- 38 is great: My 5 favorite ideas with my annual review
- How I track my life: Tracking quality of life with Reporter
- Make better resolutions: 5 tips
- Live Like a Hydra: Thoughts on how to get stronger when things are chaotic.
- The Death Bed Game: He/she who dies with the most death bed points, wins.
- If You Live 100 Times: A tappable essay that plays out 100 lives that you could live.
- Man Versus Himself: A novel I wrote about an 89-year old man who is CEO of 2 companies and gets stabbed in the eye.
- 42: Dig deeper (2018)
- 41: Seek endarkenment (2017)
- 40: Mind the loops (2016)
- 39: Make wiggle room (2015)
- 38: Cultivate quality time (2014)
- 37: More kiloslogs (2013)
- 36: Talk it out (2012)
- 35: Love the struggle (2011)
- 34: Cultivating the core (2010)
- 33: Frugal to the max (2009)
- 32: No problem (2008)
- 31: Double down (2007)
- 30: Higher highs and lower lows (2006)
Stay foolish. Stay hungry.