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January 26, 2009


Specifying an entire world by listing every single thing you want to be included in it would take a very long time. Most worlds complex enough to be interesting are far too complicated to talk about in that manner.

Perhaps it would be more efficient to list the specific things you want to be excluded. Presumably the set of things you object to is far smaller than those you prefer or are neutral towards.

In the interests of accuracy, I'd like to talk about the Christian Heaven. Though I now consider myself an agnostic, I went to two years of bible college (think the Fundamentalist version of seminary). To the best of my recollection, the only substantial description of Heaven appears in the last two chapters of Revelation, a book that even in Fundamentalist circles is acknowledged to contain a lot of symbolism.

There are two parts to this description. The first (Rev 21:3-7) talks about what God is going to do in Heaven: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." and so on.

The second part (Rev 21:10-22:5) discusses the appearance of the city in a manner that nearly all theologians would interpret to be symbolic. The city has walls of jasper (God's appearance is previously described as jasper, earlier in the book), and is built of pure gold (a reference to the purity of the inhabitants; the book earlier describes the trials they've gone through as purification, so that all the dross would have run out and only pure gold remains). The numbers given are all based on 12 -- both the number of the tribes of Israel, and the number of the apostles. Likewise, the listing of gemstones for the foundation is derived from the list of jewels representing the twelve tribes in the high priest's breastplate as described in Exodus. There's more I could say here, but I doubt you care too much; suffice it to say that the whole thing's symbolic.

The "singing hymns" part actually comes earlier in the book, in Revelation 15, where the apocalypse is still occurring. There's no mention of it in the last two chapters, and certainly no mention of that being all you do forever.

There isn't actually a lot of description of Heaven in the Bible, perhaps for good reason. Apart from these two chapters, the only other stuff we have to go on is some sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Nothing that I recall about "you'll never have to work again", though there was a lot about giving rest to those who are weary and heavy laden (and if that's not a good description of a peasant's life, I don't know what is).

My point for bringing this up isn't to convince you that the Christian Heaven is great -- as I said, I don't believe in it myself anymore. Rather, I find that people typically make better arguments when they actually know what they're talking about, and it may assist you in railing against the Christian Heaven to know what it actually is said to be.

"Ben Franklin, yanked into our own era, would be surprised and delighted by some aspects of his Future. Other aspects would horrify, disgust, and frighten him; and this is not because our world has gone wrong, but because it has improved relative to his time."

How do we know that it's improved? Isn't it equally plausible that Franklin would be horrified because some things in our world are horrifying, and his own moral thinking was more rational than our own? Does moral thought gets more rational all on its own? It seems as though it might be difficult for moderns to know if moral thought were less rational than it used to be.

I find it interesting that you list law number 11 and 12 next to each other (and both so close to 15) without seeming to connect their contents. You seem to be assuming that nothing can carry over from one virtual experience to another, and that these experiences cannot be discussed, learned from, etc., nor can they be competitive or cooperative activities with multiple users. You also deny that creating such an experience is very rewarding and challenging. Perhaps you should stick to disparaging orgasmium and not interactive games and art.

How do we know that it's improved? Isn't it equally plausible that Franklin would be horrified because some things in our world are horrifying, and his own moral thinking was more rational than our own? Does moral thought gets more rational all on its own? It seems as though it might be difficult for moderns to know if moral thought were less rational than it used to be.

The point of the exercise (somewhat more clear in the full post) is not that every moral decision on which we differ with Ben Franklin represents a moral improvement, but that at least some do and there are many. So, there are many things about our world today that are, in fact, better than the world of the 1700s, and at least *some* of them would nonetheless shock or horrify someone like Ben Franklin, at least at first, even if he could ultimately be convinced wholly that they are an improvement.

So in designing any real utopia, we have to include things that are different enough to horrify us at first glance. We have to widen our scope of acceptable outcomes to include things with an argument to be better that would horrify us. And that will, in fact, potentially include outcomes that hearken back to previous times, and things that Ben Franklin (or any other rational person of the past) might consider more comforting than we would.

I think your number 7 is wrong. Love and hate is a continuum with indifference in the middle - considering people for example it is a bell curve with a few you love, a few you hate, and most you are indifferent to. Similarly with happiness, boredom, and sadness, though this is probably harder to visualize for the non-bipolar.

Beerholm --> Beerbohm, surely? (On general principles; I am not familiar with the particular bit of verse Eliezer quoted.)

consider Christian Heaven: singing hymns doesn't sound like loads of endless fun

Unless, perhaps, you happen to enjoy music...

(Seriously -- suppose you got to compose your own hymns.)

A general comment: I am tempted to question the wisdom of tying Fun Theory so closely to the aesthetics of storytelling, by discussing the two in such proximity. As we all know, there's not necessarily any correlation between the worlds we would want to live in and the worlds we like to read about. I'm not just talking about Dystopian stories either. I love watching House, but sure as hell would never want to actually be any of the characters on that show. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a delight to read despite being (paradoxically) a depressing tragedy. Etc.

Now there is a connection, to be sure, in that aesthetics itself (in the context of any art form, including but not limited to storytelling) is effectively a miniature, special case of Fun Theory. But this connection is more abstract, and has little to do with how closely settings and plots match up with eudaimonic scenarios. (Inhabitants of Eutopia themselves may enjoy tragic stories and the like.)

Michael, you're certainly right that the broader point stands. We should expect a real utopia initially to horrify us in some of its particulars (that said, many famous literary utopias pass this test with ease - horror is a necessary but entirely insufficient criterion, apparently). It nonetheless seems blithe to assert that our world's 'improvement' fully explains Franklin's hypothesized disgust. The improvements that seem least ambiguous, such as vaccines, would be those least likely to disgust him.

These don't seem very universal to me. I think a whole lot of people would choose to live in a world that violates some or all, especially if they're also allowed to change themselves to enjoy it more.

Rule 23 seems especially strange. Isn't modification of cognitive ability and structure what the singularity is all about?

For what it's worth, I've always enjoyed stories where people don't get hurt more than stories where people do get hurt. I don't find previously imagined utopias that horrifying either.

Dagon, as I explained in Interpersonal Entanglement, it's okay except when it isn't.

"You can never allow yourself a single moment of willpower failure over your whole life. (E.g.: John C. Wright's Golden Oecumene.)"

In the Golden Oecumene, of course, we are positing a technology that can rewrite and rewire the human consciousness any way whatsoever. You can nip down to the corner store and buy yourself an iron willpower.

As I recall (I haven't read the book recently) there was a legal form called a 'werewolf contract' a person could sign so that someone else with power of attorney could be authorized to override the citizen's self-sovereignty in cases defined in the contract (such as if I am afraid I accidentally might turn myself into a werewolf by toying with my own cerebrum-rewriting program).

Also, every thousand years all minds in the system were interlinked in a Grand Transcendence, an attempt to achieve an ultimate level of intellect beyond human or machine consciousness. It was not explicitly stated, but the books implied that participation was mandatory: one of the characters is lost in one of these 'devil bargains' you mention, and she is against her will pulled out to mingle with the transcendent consciousness, and review her life, so that she must again decide to return to her amnesia illusion. This may have been required by law, or, more likely, it was something signed as a private contract when the character was wired up to be able to form full-immersion brain interfaces. The book doesn't say.

Sorry. Didn't mean to go on about the example: the main point is that if you have the technology and social customs which allow for the devil bargain type temptations mentioned above, does not this same level of technology imply that mechanisms will be discovered by those concerned to counteract the threat?

JCW, first, are you actually John C. Wright or just posting an objection on his behalf? If the latter, I don't think it's quite appropriate to take on his actual name.

This issue was discussed in the comments of Devil's Offers. Yes, you can have a Werewolf contract, and you can have a Jubilee, and you can have various other rules... but some people didn't take on Werewolf contracts out of pride, because e.g. Helion felt it would reduce him to the status of a child. There's also the question of why a decision your earlier self made, should bind all future mind-states forever - could you sign a contract refusing to ever change your mind about libertarianism, say?

Well, if everyone does in fact sign a Werewolf contract and that works - in reality or in fiction - that's fine enough; then you're not living with the everlasting presence of incredible temptations. But the absence of a signed Werewolf contract made these incredible temptations and momentary failures of willpower a key plot point in the Golden Oecumene - a necessary flaw in the Utopia, without which there would have been no plot.

And my own point is that you may just be better off not introducing the poisons to begin with. What people can do to themselves through their own strength is one matter; what they can sell to one another, is another matter; and what superintelligences or agents of a higher order (including a corporation of experienced neurologists selling to a lone eighteen-year-old) can offer in the way of far-outrange temptations is yet another.

While we're on the subject of the Golden Ecumene, I've only read the first book but the major problem I had with it was the egregious violation of your Rule 31 in its twist ending (which frankly seemed tacked-on, as if the publisher had said "Do you think you could turn this book into a trilogy somehow?").

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