In Which Murder-Gandhi is Sad

philosophy, feels

I’m trying something new with this post. Due to the outline being less coherent than I had originally hoped, I will be leaving the article in shards of thought. With any luck, the underlying theme will be evident by the end.

I

It should come as a surprise to nobody that you aren’t the same person that you were two years ago, nor were you then the same as two years prior. By induction, it seems safe to assume that you won’t be the same person two years in the future. Since there does not seem to be a discrete moment when you become different, the self is likely a continuous function; tomorrow you will not be the same person that you are today.

I consider this revelation to be problematic, indeed to be a seriously egregious problem - no other philosophical issue in living memory has left me in such a quandary. If I am not the same person tomorrow as I am today, how can I guarantee anything which necessarily transcends temporal boundaries? How can I be certain that I’ll accomplish goals far into the future?

II

Small changes have a habit of cascading into large changes. In an absolutely fascinating article (as always is his style), Yvain racounts the legend of Murder-Gandhi: an entity who is offered $1,000,000 to lessen his ideals by 1%. He can see that this is a good trade, and so - being a rational agent - he accepts. However, the process is iterative and it quickly becomes evident how slippery a slope this really is: the more he lessens his ideals the more willing he will be to continue doing so.

If theoretical tiny changes over time can convince Murder-Gandhi (a pacifist, despite his misleading name) to start killing people, similar theoretical tiny changes can ruin my less staunch collection of dreams and aspirations.

In the article, Murder-Gandhi solves this problem by creating a schelling point (a line he has precommitted not to cross) at 95% of his original ideals - as low a percentage as he is willing to risk before the costs start to outweigh the benefits. It isn’t immediately obvious how to apply this same construction in my own defense, and so I am left in what can only be described colloquially as “a pickle”.

Given that Murder-Gandhi’s solution won’t work for me, instead, my plan is to identify the most-likely route along the path to destruction of my goals. Once located, perhaps the creation of a policy to prevent these issues from occuring will be easy.

Perhaps.

III

Strange is an adjective that defines me well. It’s not something that I actively try to hide (have you seen my blog?). Personally I don’t think that something can ever be “overthought”, and as a result I tend to analyze aspects of life that most people take for granted. Do I need to sleep? Is food really everything it’s cracked up to be? Can I live without oxygen? Do I want to be happy?

Take a sample of everyone you know and ask them that last question. Granted, it will be a biased sample, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that absolutely every one of them will say that they’d prefer being happy to the alternative. It’s likely that nobody you know has ever explicitly thought about it before - given the choice, why would you even consider not being happy?

Like I said, I’m a little strange. Understandably, the way I see the world is also rather queer. Due to larger-than-average inferential differences it seems that the things that I want are not the things that most people want, and this can make relating to others difficult.

IV

Emotions are stupid.

This is one of my more substantial beliefs. Due to hardware limitations, I necessarily experience them, but preferentially I would give them up if I could. Emotions get in the way of thinking, and cognition seems to be one of my stronger comparative advantages.

The happy/sad emotional spectrum - singled out for the sake of my argument - is particularly (although not uniquely) troublesome. Sadness is obviously bad for long-term survival, but happiness leads to contentment and, as Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow, greatly increases the likelihood of making errors in cognition.

“Why is contentment a negative prospect?” you might wonder. I say as much because being content implies that there is no burning desire to accomplish more. In this respect, contentment is at odds with the completion of goals.

When framed like this, it appears that there is no defensible location on the continuum on which to stand. I mean, if I really had to choose between longevity and exceptional success, I would have to go with the former. This seems like an artificial question, however; why should I have to choose?

After a moment’s thought, it becomes apparent that I needn’t be stationary on the happiness scale; it is a fool who considers his stance static on issues of a complicated nature. Indeed, the ideal solution here is to be happy when, and only when it suits me. Furthermore, happy-space is large; I can be happy about some things while simultaneously upset about others.

And herein lies the key to a successful philosophy: being happy about the present ensures that I obtain the longevity bonuses of being maintainable until the distant future. Simultaneously, being upset by my current trajectory in life ensures that I will always be working to improve myself; that I will never fall victim to contentment.

V

The philosophy propounded acts as its own schelling fence in the face of continuous compounding over time, and as such, it is thus temporally consistent. Unlike the pills given to Murder-Gandhi, this strategy does not discount hyperbolically; instead it rewards short-term adherence, ensuring coherence in the long-run.

Somehow I’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a general strategy to prevent undesired changes in a unspecified continuous function. If you can prevent the derivative of this function from ever going in the wrong direction, you can ensure the correct result in the long run. It sounds really obvious when phrased this way (assuming you know a little bit about calculus), but only if you had thought to ask the question in the first place.

You can call me strange if you’d like, but it feels really good to apply calculus to real life.