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I very much doubt Wayne was in "perfect mental health" before the long COVID. In so many cases highly successful entrepreneurs are bipolar. But they are manic 98% of the time and manic in a highly productive way. This is of course not limited to entrepreneurs. If you read about Winston Churchill's time during the Boer War he was absolutely fearless and convinced he couldn't die. And at other times he encountered what he called his black dog (depression).

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I've heard about people using meditation to manage fibromyalgia. And I belong to a synesthesia email list / discussion group where people occasionally talk about filtering out obstructive synesthesia by training themselves to pay less attention to it. Those examples seem to indicate there's room for people to learn to filter out unhelpful signals, as you've done with tinnitus, and we might expect some to be better at it than others.

Then again, my own experiences give me reason to doubt that someone who is good at filtering will be less prone to developing psychosomatic pain in the first place. I've been filtering tinnitus pretty well since I was nine years old. As someone with hyperfocus, I'm good at filtering out distracting environmental noise in general. But I've experienced psychosomatic pain as a result of anxiety (for me, it came on as a skin sensitivity, like being really sunburned). I wouldn't expect that to happen if my filter were guarding me against background signals becoming over-represented in my consciousness. Ignoring it got me through the day, but the thing that made it actually go away was reducing my anxiety.

I suppose you could argue that anxiety itself is a signal booster, in that it makes people hypersensitive. Perhaps the anxiety punched a bunch of holes in my filter for a while. But I didn't notice any reduction in my capacity to focus on tasks to the total exclusion of everything else around me, and I don't recall the tinnitus being any worse. I tend to block out the world more when I'm anxious.

On the subject of tinnitus, I notice that certain environmental triggers make it "louder", like drinking, being dehydrated, changes in altitude, and migraines.

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I know some people who say they have hit rock bottom and that's helped, I don't know how common the phenomenon is.

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Thanks for the links - I was in the middle of writing something on this exact thing when I came across your comment, and somehow had missed these.

If you skip to the bottom there's a list of a bunch more, in case you're interested - https://soterion.substack.com/p/on-the-heights-of-rock-bottom

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It would seem that the obvious answer is something akin to "you find things in the last place you looked", i.e. you always turn around at 'rock bottom' because wherever you turn around gets defined as rock bottom

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That sounds like a sophism though. When people describe hitting rock bottom and quiting, they really describe very harsh situations (if that's the very bottom the could go to is irrelevant, rock bottom is a casual expression meaning being impacted very hard, not some absolute measurement). And conversely, people who easily quit, or quit while they were ahead, don't describe their turn as having happened at "rock bottom".

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Maybe not a "sophism". People who claim to have hit "rock bottom" aren't trying to pull one over on everyone else, and neither is EternalTango!

I think "rock bottom" is a fuzzy concept whose application is weakly conditional on a combination of the phenomena you and EternalTango point out.

When someone represents a time in their life as "rock bottom," they might be "wrong" by some criteria, but that doesn't really matter: what's really interesting about the concept is that its application reveals how people are representing their lives to themselves.

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In "Things I have been meaning to look up for a long time and I have finally been triggered to do something about right now", do you have any recommendations for good first-hand accounts of people who were prescribed those dangerously high levels of antipsychotics? It sounds like a fascinating result.

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I can't think of one! But I bet it's common enough (despite my saying it's usually not done these days) that someone will show up here who can tell you about it first-hand.

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I sometimes watch youtube videos from schizophrenics on such medication. And it seems common for their schizophrenia to be comorbid with a mood disorder, which in their depressive phase causes them to just lay in bed rather than do anything. So how do you model someone taking both an antipsychotic which is reducing their odds of hearing voices with an antidepressant getting them up and out of bed at the same time. Are they somehow both more and less confident at the same time? Do anti-depressants target the lowest/muscular level well enough not to cause voices whereas antipsychotics are not so well targeted to their level? And why isn't it anti-depressants that are known for causing physical tics?

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You know, I bet this makes the combination of bipolar and schizophrenia absolute hell to treat.

Off the top of my head it also points toward why aripiprazole is one of the better-liked drugs for this - doesn't kick you in the "do nothing" button as hard as something like haloperidol or thorazine does and apparently also does something to mitigate depression (in ways that are utterly mysterious to me).

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Schizoaffective disorder is by far the most common diagnosis in psychiatric hospitals. It enables psychiatrists to prescribe antipsychotic, mood stabilizing, and antidepressant medication without filling out extra paperwork

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I'm not sure this is worth arguing against, but as a psychiatrist, I can say this isn't really true. The amount of paperwork is really the same, and using the schizoaffective diagnosis doesn't offer a short cut to anything practical.

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Isn't it supposed to be similar to the "natural" version of people with Parkinsons'?

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I'm curious how this interacts with the idea of willpower as a finite resource. It's a lot easier to skip dessert at a restaurant for example than to walk by the doughnuts on kitchen counter all day. Maybe this is due to the "eat doughnut now" agent updating its belief every time you see them, whereas your frontal cortex only has a baseline prior? If your brain accumulates evidence over a time period instead of just polling at a given instant, then "reusing" evidence might lead to that particular failure mode.

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Studies of willpower as an expendable resource in the traditional sense haven't really replicated. And yet I agree with you about the donuts. Maybe it's just that you have to "reroll" every time you pass them (I don't know what that would actually cash out to)?

I do find that if, the first time I reject them, I promise myself I'm not going to have them today, I can usually stick to that pretty easily - it's having to remake the decision each time which is hard.

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Will power is best modeled as an "impulse" force, not a continuous force. It's not about running out of willpower, it's mainly just only suitable to overcome certain kinds of problems (and then, only for a short amount of time).

If you need willpower to accomplish something long term, you will likely fail. Instead, you should focus on altering your thinking so that willpower isn't need at all (i.e. you actually _want_ to do the thing). Harder than it sounds, but it's the only path forward.

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Or better yet, alter the environment/structures so you don't have to face the temptation at all. Keep the donuts out of the kitchen, set up your schedule so you CAN'T lie in bed once awake, make a routine out of going to the gym ....

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being forced to (even by a self-arranged set-up) is the OPPOSITE to being strong of will ... is it not?

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Hmmmm, possibly. But the way I think about is that we only need will power when the decision system isn't doing what our higher cognitive functions prefer, because other preferences are too strong. So allowing those higher cognitive functions to set the world around us up in such a way that this happens less often is actually an indirect application of will power.

And then we get to experience the rewards of doing what our higher cognitive functions prefer, which reinforces its power, which increases will power overall ....

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A very nice working "definition" of "will power" as an enforcer of the system-2 higher cognitive function over the system-1 instincts/evolutionary instincts... So now we take our issue up with the cognitive function, the "supreme court" one: SHOULD we delegate some tasks to the pool of being enforced in the law/practice? To go for a dip and to swim instead of just sitting one's lunch break out is a good use of our will... but say dishes? no! engage your family to help, re-organize so you do less of it, a fair share... and so on. So if we "must" force ourselves, must we indeed? it depends...

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I think that's the point. No matter how strong your will is it's not as strong as just not being tempted in the first place, so the latter is more reliable if you can arrange it.

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What you say is true for the end purpose to perform a task A which is according to your system-2 mind but against your system-1 instinct, but is a hypothetical task A the ultimate goal of a will exercise?

What if your purpose is to practice your willpower for a future task far higher than a task A (or to train somebody for a higher task)?

A couple of "silly oversimplified" yet sufficient to illustrate examples:

A municipality installs sidewalks and "zebra" road crossings at the spots picked by people's instinctive conveniences. For example, where they stomp on the grass more and a trail appears.

Nobody is tempted to stroll on grass or cross a road at the wrong spot.

The municipality's objectives are achieved in a better way (as you state correctly) than to have each person fight the urge to shortcut.

People from this municipality travel to another locale, another country, where it is expected of a pedestrian to mind the cars (and not the other way around). They travel for a conference.

On the second day of the conference, the hosting country sends a horse-mounted police regiment to block the road by their hotel each time there is a break in the talks for a lunch and when the talks end.

In order to guard the visitors' crossing the road separating the hotel from the beach.

Because all the locals are shocked the visitors step straight into traffic to go to the beach across from their hotel. And only the first-rate reaction time of the local drivers saves the lives of the visitors.

The drivers are not expecting they need to slow down, they expect the pedestrians to wait for them to pass before crossing.

A few conference guests are ok though, with or without such special guards. These have been raised in a similar to the host country set of rules.

Instead of hurrying to the welcoming beach, they restrain themselves (here is the spot where the willpower comes in our discussion 😁) to look left-right-left-again before crossing the road.

You may generalize for smth more important, sports or ...

But this particular example I was an eyewitness to :)...

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this is happening automatically when you achieve professionalism in something, it becomes a pleasure, not a painful effort, but then you need your willpower again to expand your realm of topics you are professional at...

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"Decision fatigue" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue ) is a concept with a name which maps well onto my experience of this phenomenon, but I have no idea whether it actually has any evidence behind it. It's possible that this reflects some distinct but intermingled phenomenon, which accounts for the anecdotal experience of exhaustible willpower?

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Much like an Iron Man athlete will perform ~300x more athletic actions per day than an average person, a trained "decision maker" can make 100s more decisions per hour without additional fatigue. For example, active gamers or day traders(pre-HF trading) could be making a decision per second. These are actual conscious decisions. Yes, it's tiring, but is several orders of magnitude than medium decision rate.

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Well, speaking as a ex-pro poker player, this isn't quite right. The vast majority of decisions they make are obvious (to a pro but not necessarily to an amateur). Almost always the right choice clearly outweighs the alternatives, and it's effortlessly provided by subconscious systems, which in turn were created and trained by thousand of hours of training and practice.

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I've noticed that low end restaurants try to make their menu more appealing by adding extra choices (four types of bun, eight optional toppings, three types of patty, three types of fries, two sizes of fries, four sauces, etc.) while high end restaurants try to make their menu more appealing by taking away choices (prix fixe for the whole table, $75 per person, plus the cost of the suggested wine pairings). My explanation of this had been that people who go to a casual burger place in their off hours are often people who spend all day following orders from someone else, while someone who eats at a high end restaurant like that mentioned above is a person who spends all day making complex strategic decisions.

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It could also be that a truly world class chef is able to choose better than me but a mediocre chef isn't. So if the chef is world class I want him to decide the whole menu but if he's mediocre I want customization

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Making a promise to yourself to reject them next time might be a way for the frontal cortex to increase its evidential weight, or add to the accumulator. If evidence is only added in response to events, that would make sense. So something like making a promise or reading an article saying that doughnuts are bad for you would do it, while just passively resisting wouldn't, which squares with my experience.

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If eating now, promising not to eat next time, one only re-enforces the bad habit of feeling good through promising, yes? And brainwashing your own brain (even as a promise to read an article) will be met by a fierce resistance of your inner self: on may promise to RESEARCH about healthy eating habits instead... Donuts are ugly, maybe use a fine 3D printed pastry for this example, otherwise, there is little temptation!

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In the particular case of dessert at a restaurant, you've probably also just eaten a (possibly large) meal immediately before the point at which you're deciding about dessert. I don't think you need finite willpower to explain this one. :)

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Do you not distinguish different types of "willpower", stuffed in the same term? Some are indeed expEndable, some, on the contrary, expAndable, that is they increase the more one uses them...-?

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'Rerolling' makes sense to me; you'd expect the confidence of the 'eating donut will be good' bid to be higher if you're hungry or low blood sugar, for instance.

Another explanation might be the fact that doing this calculation is not itself a costless process; all these brain systems are bidding dopamine and making a decision each time you look at the donut, and that neural process costs glucose! This might put increasing confidence on the prediction 'just leaving that donut on the table will hurt me' every time you see it, at which point you feel compelled to do *something* about it, and usually choose to eat it over throw it away.

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This matches the folk ontology that has 2 types of people: those who decide to go on a run once and then never consider the question again while they run, and those who have to decide at basically every step whether to take the next step or not. The first, the story goes, are the types of people who can stick to running, and the second generally can’t. Relatedly, the first group suffers less during the run, while the second group suffers anew with each step.

I don’t have a solid model of exactly what’s happening here, but the first group rhymes with precommitting to not eat the donut that day.

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Oh, this is cool! I didn't know there were these two types. I'm the first type, but do hate running, so getting over that decision hill is hard, but once I'm out there, it's much easier. It truly must be torture to have to decide again and again ....

Easier still to just figure out which type of physical activity I enjoy, though. In my case, that's anything 'smooth'; biking, roller blading, ice skating, skiiing.... Apparently I hate jolts. Or anything involving loud lively music and someone yelling at me about what to do next, with little repetition - greatly reduces the boredom. Lifting weights or working on machines makes me want to shoot myself, so repetitive. Oh, damn, for those, I DO have to decide every. single. rep. No wonder I can't do it .....

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Saying those are two kinds of people is wrong, though. Those are two different decision processes. One can switch from one to another (though it isn't easy). And actually there are considerably more than two kinds of decision process. Each kind is better at some things and worse at others...but just which things varies considerably with the process.

E.g.: How to you add 2 and 2? How do you multiply 12 times 11? In the second case it's generally easier to see that there are multiple approaches. But notice that almost nobody uses as their first step "well, first you convert to hexadecimal" or "first you convert to binary", even though those can both work. (Of course the hexadecimal version requires a table lookup into a set of memorized values...but it can still work.)

Now generalize this. How do you represent the decision to yourself? Do you hear it? Is it your own voice? Etc.

I strongly distrust arguments that evaluate people as Bayesian reasoners. I have a strong belief that they tend to use heuristic short-cuts whenever possible. Ideally those short-cuts would arrive at the same answer, but often they don't. However they're enough quicker and "cheaper" that some amount of error is accepted as "worth it". After all, Bayesian reasoning isn't infallible either.

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All 3 of binary, decimal, and hexadecimal versions of multiplying 12 times 11 require table lookups into a set of memorized values... except you only do it once for hexadecimal.

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You have the most interesting points, but please please change the main item on the menu of the analogies: Krispy now offers FREE DAILY DONUTS to all immunized from COVID-19, and I doubt there will be many claimers! Donuts suck, they are too sweet and not artistically presented and not tasty at all... use, say, a huge juicy steak, or an elaborate 3D printed cake, etc - yes?no?

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I've never liked doughnuts - too fatty and sugary - except when I went to Japan and encountered Mr Donut. Their doughnuts are delicious! https://favy-jp.com/topics/430

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One D&D blogger I read refers to "roll to failure" game systems - i.e., just keep doing checks until one fails, then it's over. https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/38798/roleplaying-games/gm-dont-list-2-rolling-to-failure

This might be the same thing, in some ways. If you have a good willpower day, you might a 95% chance of avoiding doughnuts, so you can go an average of 20 doughnut-based thoughts before succumbing to temptation. On a bad-willpower day, you only have a 50% chance, so you'll get up for a tasty doughnut the second time you think about it, on average. It can feel like it's a finite and depleting resource, even if it's totally independent every time, because of how that works out - you stop counting when you fail.

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"I do find that if, the first time I reject them, I promise myself I'm not going to have them today, I can usually stick to that pretty easily - it's having to remake the decision each time which is hard."

This accords with my experience of weight management. I find it far easier to rule out classes of food (e.g. sweets) than to moderate my consumption of them. However, apparently this is not everyone's experience.

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This "decision to decide automatically" exist in the literature

"Implementation Intention" is the name of it. And a large experimental literature supports it

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I'm guessing that this is the Bayesian update for the strength of the evidence. If your conscious process starts sending very strong signals (e.g. because you power through using willpower), maybe your aggregator has a strong prior on what proportion of overall evidence throughout the day will come from your conscious reasoning and what proportion will come from more instinctive RL stuff or from the prior on motionlessness, and after a while starts giving lower weight to intellectual impulses.

E.g., calling prior on motionlessness/inertia = S0, reinforcement learning stuff = impulses = S1, intellectual agent = conscious reasoning = S2, suppose that the aggregator expects to receive signals of a proportion something like 40%, 40%, 20% for S0/S1/S2 respectively. Meaning that throughout a period of time, the aggregator has a strong prior that the Sum(Signals from S_i) / (Sum(Signals from S_0) + Sum(Signals from S_1) + Sum(Signals from S_2)) = 40%, resp. 20%.

S2 normally sends signals in the 1-10 range, but now starts sending signals in the 10-100 range (forcing yourself to do something). This works less and less as times goes on, because S2 was only supposed to send signals worth 20% of the total evidence, but is now sending much stronger evidence throughout a period of time, and so they e.g., get applied a lower weight. I.e., if S2 misuses a fire alarm of intensity 80/100 to signal something normal, like a lunch break or the end of a period of class, that fire alarm will get reinterpreted to mean something normal (and now you don't have a signal for a fire alarm).

So far this is just a restatement of "intellectual willpower is a thing", but it also sort of feels reasonable that you'd have a prior of how much evidence throughout a period of time S2 is supposed to contribute.

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Don't forget that how hungry you are and how recently you've had a dopamine hit from a similar source will also impact the importance/wieght of the signal to 'eat that sweet' into the decision making process. When you've just finished a satisfying meal, hunger is low and rewards from eating are recent and high - much easier to resist.

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to the specifics of the metaphor, this donut on the table is totally non-tempting and cr*py, while dessert at a restaurant is usually very tempting... and you do not have to clean up the table after you have it :)

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Though I'm probably taking the example too seriously, it seems to me that there are major differences between the temptation a box of doughnuts on a counter and dessert at a restaurant.

Firstly, ordering dessert at the restaurant requires me to choose a dessert, tell that choice to the waiter, and then sit patiently and wait for it to arrive. While the doughnuts on the counter can be had by simply opening the box and grabbing one. Way less investment in time and calories for the latter.

Secondly, ordering dessert at a restaurant requires paying money. And I don't like paying money for things. Plus if it's a good restaurant you know that dessert wont be cheap. While a box of doughnuts on the kitchen counter have a) already been paid for and thus require no new expenditure of resources to acquire and b) probably cost a lot less per calorie then a restaurant dessert. This leads directly to point c) the doughnuts will go stale if nobody eats them today, and if they do then the money to buy them was wasted. It's usually point c) that tips me over into eating the doughnut. We don't waste food in this house.

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> tell that choice to the waiter

Highlighting this: in a restaurant, the decision is social—immediately visible to at least the person you are ordering from, and also any people you are eating with. Their expected disapproval—or your status in general—is thus more salient than when you're alone in your house sneaking a donut.

It is probably not the same for everyone but *immediate* social reinforcement can certainly be a factor in willpower: if the boss who wants me working is looking over my shoulder, Civ isn't even going to be on the screen.

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It might be that attention plays a role that looks like "willpower is a finite ressource". For attention, it is well-established that this is a finite ressource in some sense. Predictive Processing would even say that by definition, attention is when your predictions fail. So if you can predict input from some brain subsystem well enough, you are unable to pay attention to it.

In terms of the donut being available all day, it can totally happen to me that I will eat it eventually. And it would usually happen when I am distracted, or otherwise not paying attention, and I grab it on automatic mode. One of the most common lessons for eating healthy is that you should only eat when you are paying attention to it. (Only at meals, without distractions.) Perhaps "eating absently" is a mode where the baseline prior and the reinforcement evidence are actively sending signals to the decision center, but the logical brain is not? According to predictive processing, the decision center would still take the opinion of the logical brain into account, but only in a generic way: "as always, your logic center probably would want you to do the dishes, nothing special today".

Taking this thought one step further, predictive processing turns your brain into a device for Bayesian reasoning. If you are faced with the decision to do homework for the hundredth time, and every time your logical reasoning has told you that it is totally good for your career, then this output is predictable and thus no longer propagated into your decision center. Old information is generally not re-evaluated. If you are lucky, then the information is properly accounted for in the decision that your decision center predicts (rumours say that some people actually do the dishes right after cooking as a matter of routine), but it should be quite hard to re-evaluate this information. Perhaps you still hear the tiny little voice telling you that sitting on the couch is bad for you, but you shrug it off because you already know what it's saying. Well, unless something surprising or specific comes into play: if you suddenly remember the test for tomorrow, this information might be new enough to be accounted for. Or if you actually discuss you thought processes with someone else, it might actually "give" you the willpower to do it, against your usual habits.

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This fits with what we know about tonic and phasic dopamine signaling. As a stimulus becomes habituated, phasic release decreases into the more background tonic dopamine release. The stimulus of a test tomorrow changes the low level dopamine release to more phasic impulses to drive across to study. Meds that affect dopamine signaling have a big effect on the balance or efficacy of the tonic/ phasic system of dopamine release.

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or the doughnuts have already been paid for

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My understanding:

Imagine you tell someone "You need to stand perfectly still, and jump every ten seconds, until I tell you otherwise, or else you'll *die*!". And then you show them an extremely complicated, but sensible-sounding explanation of how they'll die if they don't comply.

If you ask them to do that for five minutes, they're probably going to listen. They really don't want to die, after all. After three hours of this, though, unless you have *really* compelling evidence, they're going to tell you to fuck off. You probably made up your fancy science papers explaining why their life is in danger. At some point the ground-up "I hate this and I don't want to do this" mode takes over and overrules the top-down evidence.

(for a more grounded metaphor, look at what happens when politicians try to pass carbon taxes to fight climate change)

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if you want to play Civilization in a way that doesn't require willpower to stop playing, I recommend "Play By Email"-style, one turn at a time. You can't binge, and it makes it social. This website facilitates it well, and here's a game for ACX readers ( password: willpower ) https://www.playyourdamnturn.com/game/a7c9c3ae-6165-45d7-8241-0b5a082d90d7

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Indeed, I do mull things over between turns, but that's more of a pleasant distraction rather than actually interfering with life. Maybe?

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Dude, don't tempt me when only at a nearly two month streak of not playing games.

Also, several times when I started playing a game for social reasons, I found myself within the next week compulsively playing single player strategy games like Civ for the next month or so.

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founding

I once played a game of office Diplomacy, with 48 hour turns, lasting a few weeks. I got less done at work than I have ever done, before or since, despite each "turn" taking at most a minute or so to input moves.

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That's because it's Diplomacy, in which the action occurs in the time between inputting moves.

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founding

Of course- but some measure of that would be true in a multiplayer PBEM Civ game too, if composed of people that think like Diplomacy players.

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It depends on how you play. A lot of people like to play Civ VI "gunboat" where there's no out-of-game negotiating and everything needs to be done through the limited in game diplomatic options, which really cuts down on the potential time-sink aspect.

Also I haven't done "Play by email" but in the "play by cloud" option that's built-into the game, you literally can't look at the map between turns.

---

But, yeah I used to play correspondence Diplomacy in college, and it was an incredible time-sink for something that theoretically only *needed* a few minutes every other day. I "took a break" years ago and still haven't gone back.

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Freeciv (the open source clone of Civilization) also has play by email, and also has "long turn" games where every player does 1 turn/day.

http://freeciv.org/

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I've long thought that it is game designer malpractice that Civilization just has a "next turn" button - it should also have a "one more turn" button, which lets you play the next turn, but then converts the "next turn" button at the end to "save and quit". It would be so much easier to actually hit the "one more turn" button, and while you could always re-open the game after the forced save and quit after the next turn, it would give you a much cleaner break, and would be directly reinforcing a choice that you yourself made.

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I find the nature of my own willpower to be quite perplexing. My willpower seems to suffer from a strong inertia that resets each day after a night's sleep. If I wake and begin my day by sitting down at my desk (or doing some other 'productive task') then I am on a clear track towards 12+ hours of productive work that comes easily. However, if I begin my day with a non-productive indulgence (youtube, social media, even reading something without a clear purpose) I am catapulted into a repetitive cycle of lethargy that is likely to consume my day, and I am unlikely to get fully back on track until I start again the next morning.

The strange thing is that the dominant variable seems to exclusively be the arbitrary decision I make at the start of the day (sit at desk and work or sit on desk/couch and browse), and not any of the variables you might expect (amount of sleep the night before, caffeine intake, general mood). Curious to know if others experience something similar or if this is just my own quirky psychology.

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Perhaps your sleep, caffeine intake, and general mood influence the "arbitrary" starting decision. Especially since you have realized its large effect on the rest of your day.

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Certainly true, but I really feel that these and the other expected factors have an R^2 of less than 50% for me. Even in the presence of the typical negative influences, including those that are clearly negative such as hangover, I find that if the right starting decision is made then the entire trajectory of the day is different. To use the dopamenergic theory, its as though the initial decision sets off a feedback loop in either direction, either: 1) begin working, mood/dopamine levels improve because I am being productive, which causes me to continue to be more productive, which causes my mood to continue to increase and so on, or 2) I start with something indulgent, which reduces mood/dopamine levels, which leads to more unproductive behavior and so on. Still the weird thing for me, and it seems others, is that this initial decision seems to be significantly independent from the expected factors and further seems instigate a set point for the days mood neurochemical balance that is not easily overturned.

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I found the same thing as Monty, and greatly increased my productivity by habitually turning my internet off every evening before going to sleep, and having some rules about when / for what reasons it was allowed to turn it back on the next day after waking.

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I'm the same way. I don't know why it happens, but I always figured it was something about:

* The sheer amount of time (or perception of which) at the beginning of the day gives me a boost in confidence that I have enough time to do it, and I'm relaxed and in a positive state of mind because I don't feel a need to rush.

* The initial failure kickstarting a negative self-confidence loop.

* The overall ambiance and aesthetic of morning time is strongly associated with energy and positivity for me. As quality of the day itself gradually changes into regular daytime hours, so too do my mood and thought processes. And, maybe that initial wrong-choice actually took enough time that the change in daylight quality is actually noticeable.

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Yes, totally agree with the first two points. There is probably something insightful to be gleaned from the fact that these initial decisions can be so important - and I was more able to direct this initial decisions that initiatives the feedback loop. Agree with three too, though this is more idiosyncratic for me as an early morning is one of the few times that I know I am free of meetings and so can actually get deep work done

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My experience is similar. I can almost guarantee my work-day will be an unproductive struggle if I go anywhere near Hacker News, Substack, YouTube, social media, or similar while I'm having breakfast. My solution is to avoid any sort of "content consumption" before starting work. I do Stoic exercises or just think about the day ahead instead.

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Agreed. though yet to find something that works perfectly for myself. Modifying routine enviornment so that friction required to engage in unproductive habits has been helpful for me. Stoic exercises are an interesting idea and I'll try and give them a shot

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founding

Maybe it's corellated, not causated.

If Scott's theory is true, which... Seems a little too convenient for me... Days when you have less dopamine in the frontal cortex would mean you're more likely to watch YouTube during breakfast, and for the rest of the day

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This. The observations cannot distinguish between "the first action determines the rest of the day" and "something else determines both the first action and the rest of the day".

Base your first action on a coinflip, and see whether the corellation persists.

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If I had the willpower to let a coin flip determine the start of my day for a sufficient number of days in a row, then I'd presumably have the willpower to just start every day productively. Which perhaps answers the question, at least for me.

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Probably the right intuition, and maybe true but per response to DrShiny this really does not seem to be the controlling factor for me. May just be my own idiosyncracies

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I have the same basic pattern. My pet theory about it is that the crux is how difficult it is for me to switch contexts. Like my attention regulation system is practically categorical rather than a subtle gradient.

If I’m reading, I want to read. If I’m watching, I want to watch. If I’m playing I want to play. On the other hand, if I’m working, I want to work. If I’m focused I want to focus.

When my wife comes to me and says “Hey, do you want to suddenly start doing <activity that I really like, in the abstract>?” my initial reaction is almost always “that sounds like torture,” which is a reaction I sometimes manage to override and sometimes do not.

It does seem subjectively mediated though. If I know ahead of time that the plan for the day includes changing activities, it’s very much easier. In my mind it’s like the activity I’m doing before the change is itself plus some emotional sense of it being a prelude or preparation for the later activity, such that it all kind of feels like one thing to me, even though it’s not. Obviously my understanding is very fuzzy here.

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Pete, this is an interesting observation. I would say that I experience something similar, probably a function of how we focus. I've found that structure and habit are the most effective means for getting me to focus on what I actually want to focus on long-term, as otherwise, I will also become immersed by the flavor of the day. Also, I tend to agree with your last point, I suppose expectations are important

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I saw this pattern, then realized the whole day was based in how much urgency there was to the tasks I needed to do. Low urgency (no looming deadlines or just a few small tasks with deadlines), I start the day writing replies on astralcodex and similarly fritter away lots of time. Higher urgency, I start working right away and am very productive all day.

My solution to that was to have two jobs that both have lots of very strict deadlines, and to create artificial deadlines with accountability to others for the other important tasks. Still a lot of last-minute work, often not enough sleep, but high productivity! Recently I've been getting better even at the getting almost enough sleep part - but that's taken 5 and 1/2 decades ....

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Karen, completely agree, sense of urgency makes all the difference in the morning (and genuine sense of urgency is probably the thing that is most likely to force me to begin a day correctly). We are fortunate to have this pathology and not the opposite. Evolution has served us well

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I have the absolute opposite - I work best in the moments before bedtime and am totally incapable of doing anything useful/not immediately rewarding for about one to three hours after waking up.

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If you're doing the unproductive things with your phone, the solution might be to charge it overnight in a place that you would have to physically get completely out of bed (no hacks by getting to the edge of the bed and reaching as far as you can) to access it. This would give you a small amount of time to redirect towards more productive tasks instead of just mindlessly checking your phone as soon as you wake up. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, here's a fairly sophisticated one on Amazon for only $0.01 (plus shipping and handling): https://www.amazon.com/Projection-Digital-Weather-Backlight-Patricks/dp/B08TX3QRW5/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=alarm+clock+for+bedroom&qid=1616862523&sprefix=alarm&sr=8-2

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I'd go a step further, and say every exertion of willpower seems to make my willpower stronger, and every capitulation makes it weaker. Sleep acts as a reset maybe? Per Scott's depression article?

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<I> prior on motionlessness (which makes you want to lie in bed doing nothing)</I>

Which is a very good idea in an environment where food is scarce. Whatever you do don’t waste energy.

Hum...how does this relate to mania?

Great post BTW! So much to think about in a way I’ve never thought about things. This is so worth the money!!!!

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author

I think of mania as close to (probably not exactly the same as) natural stimulant - increased confidence in all mental assessments/predictions/evidence.

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Let us distinguish two TOTALLY DIFFERENT (in practice, "opposite") notions:

(1) increased confidence at the expense of a loss of accuracy // pharmaceuticals-induced

(2) increased confidence as a consequence of an independently assessed increase of accuracy // natural as ...-> egg-> chicken->... : ... -> practice->accuracy->confidence->more practice->... etc

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I expect manic people would be more likely to find food when it is available. So depressed people survive famine and manic people thrive in times of plenty.

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> which might make you more sympathetic to people with low willpower

Which suggests the prediction that people who struggle less with willpower won't really get the point; maybe a single straight edge is enough to see through the illusion, while others have to obscure more of the pattern and have more contrast on the straightedge?

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I think the implication was that people with low willpower are struggling with something fundamental in their brain, it's not a matter of laziness. Just like it's not possible to "trick" your brain into seeing the straight lines just by "trying harder", it's not possible to make a brain change it's fundamental state just by "trying harder". Something else in the situation actually had to change (the straight edge)

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I said nothing about laziness, and it's very common for there to be variance between people's ability to "see through" various illusions by applying effort. The prediction is precisely that the ability to do that, or the effectiveness of it when you do it for a given level of effort, may be correlated.

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Look at that last paragraph of section three. What if there were a way in Substack to code it up so that the order of the elements in the experiment were randomized per reader? Nothing too fancy, just enough to be a natural experiment

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There is another issue: it's 4am where I am and I might have done the last two but I didn't want to risk waking everyone...

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Likewise for me. Reading this in bed, I did the finger and arm ones, but the threshold of taking off the covers and getting out of bed to do the others was *definitely* more than I was going to do just to follow the prompt.

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Same for me, but with me being in the office and not wanting everyone to look at me funny.

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Scott, this is an interesting theory... but how would you factor in the (very common) perception that one's willpower is depleted? Or the feeling that, having faced an unpleasant experience one "deserves" a treat of some sort, even if it is unhelpful.

That is, your analysis of willpower makes a lot of sense in many ways, but it doesn't seem to capture the waxing and waning of willpower, or why one's "intellectual" signal might be able to override the "reinforcement" signal sometimes, but eventually fails.

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If one part of your brain is constantly sending a signal that you need to do something, the controlling module is eventually going to start asking whether you *really* need to do that thing, or if the module is wrong. Or at the least, whether you should start prioritizing other goals despite the need for the original goal. So the controlling module will start down-regulating that goal. Alternatively, perhaps the other modules start saying "Hey, I haven't gotten to do my goal in a while, so I'm going to try to outbid the current module."

In the lamprey example, if the "flee-predator" region is constantly saying that the lamprey needs to flee a predator, eventually the lamprey will die of other causes (no food, for example). So over time it wants either to have the "flee-predator" goal down-regulate, or to have the "find-food" goal start to increase its priority.

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Isn't willpower depletion usually framed as it being harder to resist a thing many times rather than just once? In that case, shouldn't the brain also be down-regulating e.g. the impulse to eat doughnuts every time you pass them?

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If the goal is always being outbid, then over time it should continue to bid more, right? If you're at an auction house and you really just want to get something, and you keep being outbid on items, you're probably going to start bidding higher over time.

Of course lots of this is a just-so story. In a world where brains worked the opposite way, I could postulate instead that a module should bid the same amount each time, since the material conditions haven't changed, only time.

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To make that more concrete, the jelly-doughnut goal isn't being down-regulated since its never actually accomplishing the goal. The only things that are down-regulated are goals that are actually accomplished. Instead the jelly-doughnut goal up-regulates itself since it keeps on not getting itself accomplished.

Basically, the system is set up so that all the goals get a chance. That generally seems to match my intuition - the "diet" goal up-regulates until it outbids, then you diet for a bit until it is down-regulated enough that the "eat junk food" goal outbids, and the cycle repeats.

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I think the answer here is regression to the mean. As you walk down the street, there are untold billions of actions that you neither pursue nor feel drained for not pursuing. We notice sometimes 'struggling' with our willpower in the highly unusual circumstance that there isn't a clear winner, but most of the time some path of action is obvious. Given that, the things that we see as hard to overcome with willpower cause apparent depletion because just the very fact that there's disagreement implies that *something* unusual has taken place. Win or lose, it's likely that the next time lightning won't strike.

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I would say that the worse you feel, the more confident you are that a minor comfort will make a big difference to your mood.

A piece of bread is way more appealing and rewarding to a starving man than to a man that just ate. The same may be true of minor mood-stabilizers, like cheating on your diet or skipping out on a meeting. If you already feel good, there's only room for those things to make you feel a tiny bit better; if you feel awful, they could make a much bigger delta.

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founding

This implies that the keys to getting chores done are either to break them up into small enough pieces (finger wiggles / arm wiggles instead of rolling around) or to increase how satisfying they are to do.

Maybe whenever you do your dishes, look upon your drying rack and think "nice."

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Making the chores more rewarding works well for me. I like audiobooks, but ever since I first started listening to them I never let myself just sit and listen (if I am just sitting around I read real books), I only listen while exercising, doing chores, or on long car trips. I find myself actually looking forward to doing the dishes and vacuuming because I want to find out what happens next in whatever book I am in the middle of! I suspect something like this would be more effective than trying to 'treat' yourself after doing a task, because the reward being simultaneous with the task, and persisting over the duration of the task, makes it associate more strongly.

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Oddly enough, I find that starting things is the hardest part for me. Once I start doing the dishes, I find it really easy to keep going, and I'll probably end up vacuuming and doing the laundry while I'm at it. But sometimes it's really hard to get off my phone and just do that first step. Even something like standing in front of the sink is usually enough to get me going, but my brain often wants to just keep being lazy.

And then once I'm being all productive I stop for a second and glance at my phone, and I'm back where I started. Sigh.

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founding

Something I've seen recommended for this is set your phone to greyscale, which makes it less subconsciously rewarding to stare at.

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Tried it, it works a little bit at first but in the long run is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Perhaps the brain adjusts its expectations as the novelty is still coming in, just from a less colorful source.

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This is essentially how I deal with tasks I don't want to do, I try to break them up in as many subtasks as possible and make them as easy as possible to start. I was never able to hold a diary when I tried to schedule a regular "write stuff down now" time, but since just leaving it open a keystroke away the whole day it has been effortless. Same with piano exercises, or more recently with exercising.

Specifically on dishes, it's a known phenomenon in my family at least that the difficulty of doing them goes up exponentially with the amount of dishes to be done, because it's a bigger task.

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This fits with the research on procrastination, where breaking tasks into smaller subtasks is one of the most effective strategies. This may work because we reduce over-estimation of how unpleasant/boring the tasks is going to be when we think about doing just a small section of it. Then once we start the task, we re-adjust our estimation (it's not so bad, as a matter of fact it's kind of satisfying to turn dirty dishes into clean ones), and continue the task. Until something better comes along ....

There's also research that shows that if you pause for a moment at the end of your workout to focus on the satisfaction you are feeling at having completed it, and the good feelings the endorphins/dopamine are giving you at that moment, you are more likely to work out another day. So yup, yup, yup.

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founding

One trick along these lines that I've adopted is naming my tasks on my task list something like 'Start X' instead of 'Do X'. That reminds me that I'll probably get _something_ done for 'X' even if I just start trying to do something.

Making tasks immediately doable is also a great trick.

And the immediately-doable trick is one reason why I _do_ wash my dishes pretty close to 'right away' – I know that that will make 'make food' much much easier afterwards.

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" look upon your drying rack and think "nice." - or have a shot of heroin!

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founding

People often say "just break your tasks up into pieces", but my experience (at least before being diagnosed with ADHD) has been that this is easier said than done.

I take prescribed stimulants these days, but I'm not on them at this second, and when I read through that bit of the post I didn't even wiggle my finger. Which is interesting, but n=1.

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This sounds like a partial re-hash of Freud's Superego-Ego-Id. Not a direct mapping, but if the Ego is the basal ganglia, and you add the prior for motionlessness, it seems like the same theory.

One theory I have glommed onto from experience + study is that you increase willpower by extending the timeframe over which the Reinforcement Learner does its reinforcement learning. Perhaps this is the "popular science" interpretation of ADD in adolescents. If a mouse needs to receive a reward within a short duration in order to train that part of its brain, it's less likely to "figure out" longer strategies (because its conscious calculation faculties are weak). If you can train a kid to resist their impulses for longer (the Marshmallow experiment), then maybe that means that more long-term and bigger-impact stimuli are encoded into the Reinforcement Learning systems. And thus they end up with better alignment with the cognitive "right thing to do". But if your reinforcement learning is only of a short-duration, you're going to get in conflict between the two systems more frequently.

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It sounds more like Aristotle's vegetative, animal and rational souls to me.

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Doesn't 80% of the issue come down to just accepting something resembling the William James bear-approach, Kurzban-press-secretary-theory, modular-brain, Lamprey-experiment model of the brain.

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author

It's not obvious to me why this would be true or why all of these are the same model (if that's what you're asserting).

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I think I’ll waste some time at work tomorrow making an animated version of that illusion image, where you can rotate the four-pointed stars back and forth with a slider control.

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Please share if you do. Could also be nice (if you're taking requests) to be able to translate horizontally.

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yes please share if/when it is done! would you also consider two more features:

(a) turning the entire image (turning the monitor makes the lines straight to me)

(b) enabling a slight controlled "unfocusing", when at some level of it the lines appear straight (as if you squint a bit) because the small disorienting dots are gone

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Has anyone ever stared at an optical illusion long enough that it stopped working? Or otherwise figured out how to do that? I guess it's tough to test, I could just say that I perceive the lines as straight and you won't know if I'm lying. And I don't mean just being able to see that it's an illusion and check and come to the answer that the lines are straight. I mean, really rewire your perception so that you actually perceive them as straight. I wonder, if one could do this kind of thing, and do it enough over various optical illusions, that you'd eventually develop the meta skill of being able to will your perception to be different as you wished.

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C'mon, the first thing I did was to access the physical distances to confirm I am observing an optical illusion, the second thing was to turn the monitor a bit and my head a bit to look from the side: the lines became perfectly straight, the illusion was defeated :)

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If you switch back to looking at it straight on, does it still appear wrong?

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When I try doing this I can only get the lines to look straight if I tilt it so far that parts of the illusion are smeared out so I can't properly see them. And as soon as I actually look straight at it again, the lines are as nauseatingly crooked as ever.

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great point: yes, so u r right, it is not *the* permanent defeat of the illusion, it goes back as the monitor straightens... to win again, tilt it again :)

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*bows to your superior cognitive powers*

(i can focus on individual sections and see that they look the same length and tell myself that therefor the lines must be straight, but when glancing at the image as a whole, it's always crooked. Turning it sidewise doesn't seem to help me)

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about "small sections": a fine idea, which indeed would straighten these lines.... as well as almost anything :). A small section of the (roundish) Earth equator looks straight to us as we walk it! Most curves can be "linearized" by taking their small segment.

But you propose to take it a step further: to replace a straight line with a non-zero slope (already linear) on a small sub-interval with a horizontal straight line (slope 0), yes? To make a staircase in place of an apparent ramp only to see all the stair tops are at the same level, so the ramp degenerates into a horizontal?

This "small interval" technique fails to work for me (not omnipotent cognitive powers, strong, but not omnipotent *laughs*), except at the leftmost and the rightmost edges it works.

The small squares with dots get in the way (somebody said in the thread they will rotate the dotted small squares with an app to see the effects, I hope they will post it here when they do!)

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In case other readers also don't have the dopamine to fetch a ruler, you can also confirm the lines are horizontal with the ol' magic eye trick. Interestingly, that didn't defeat the illusion (for me).

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here probably we suppose to apply "the willpower" to focusing/defocusing the mind wrt the illusion, less literary "standing up and fetching the ruler" (?)

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I didn't have a ruler so I scrolled the page down until the lines matched up with the bottom of the screen

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Well, clearly that doesn't work for the "no blind spot" optical illusion...

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Strongly-willed people aren't desirable under capitalism as it would lead to more labor disputes and stuff like that.

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Alternatively, the same people who are strongly-willed - those on stimulants - are the same people who are able to just sit down and accomplish their assigned task without thinking about how unpleasant it is. That's exactly what capitalism desires.

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I think there's a difference between "strongly-willed" and "delusional". Workers are usually well aware of how unpleasant their jobs are, even if they take stimulants.

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Very true - it's more that they're aware that the jobs are unpleasant, but the stimulants make their willingness to do the unpleasant job override the want to do other things.

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I don't think that's true at all. I once accidentally took my morning Adderall dose three times (forgot I took it twice in a row) and spent around 2 hours picking crumbs off the floor. No music, no podcast, not a single distraction, and I was happy as a clam to see those crumbs leave the floor one by one. Very little work is *fundamentally* unpleasant, it becomes unpleasant because it's boring, or you want to do other things, or the repetitive action of picking up crumbs eventually wears down your soul. It's not delusional to enjoy those things, because how they feel isn't a factual detail about them, but a product of the task and the person performing it.

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Cleaning your house is not a capitalist job, 2 hours would be an extremely short shift.

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because it is not paid for and has no benefits like retirement contributions and sick days attached to it only, a job otherwise...

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Sure, you can find plenty of good Marxist feminist works on women's domestic work. But I do not think that someone picking up crumbs for a couple of hours because they took too much of something is comparable to general capitalist drudgery which lasts days, weeks, months, years and decades.

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Why do we not have a 'laughing and nodding head' emoji?

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Right. Whereas under communism, like the Soviet Union or Cuba, I could "do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind".

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Turning a willpower post into condemnation of capitalism! You'd make a great Pharisee.

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I'm not really condemning capitalism there, I'm just saying why willpower isn't really selected for or encouraged in capitalism.

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It seems very odd to say that willpower isn't encouraged for or selected for in the Western world at the start of the twenty-twenties. How do you explain the existence of entire industries focused on teaching people (without success) to be more willpowery?

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What industry is that?

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Self help

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The self help industry (which is actually very small) is largely dedicated to reinforcing the behaviour that the bourgeois class wants from its lower classes. So it's the exact opposite of willpower.

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It sounds like we should be able to test that hypothesis with populations which haven't been living under capitalism for long. Get some hunter-gatherers/swiddeners to take something like the marshmallow test. It would have to be food they'd recognize rather than a marshmallow though.

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AFAIK it *has* been tested : people raised in pre-modern conditions make for poor factory workers because they're not used to be focused on a single repetitive task for so many hours .

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of course, you are condemning: your handle is MARX BRO 1917 1917 *laughs* (where can I find some "reaction emojis" for this blog)

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You can type them the old-fashioned way :D

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👌 yes, I figured it out!!! 😊

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Marxism isn't about moral condemnation, it's about rational analysis.

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Do tell... really? It was so in Marx's head, sure. In practice, it wasn't so nice.

As many theoreticians, he forgot about both the human nature and the economics of real humans.

For his times, it was a science break-through, but for the next generations, the theory resulted in the oppression of the former Soviet Union. Why would you pick such a handle?

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Marx didn't forget about human nature or the economics of real humans, in fact, he considered all that stuff much more deeply than bourgeois economists.

The Soviet Union was a great beacon of freedom. I picked such a handle because I'm a big fan of liberation, human flourishing and ingenuity.

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Communism needs them even less, once the revolution is over anyway. Whatever the party says goes, or to the gulag with you.

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I think most people have the willpower not to do illegal things.

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Many of the classic failures of willpower involve people succumbing to the temptation to do illegal things (aka, drugs).

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Xpym, yes, indeed!

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Do you think weak-willed people are more likely to succeed in a capitalist system? In your own life, have you mainly seen weak willed people succeed?

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I hesitate to debate a Marx Bro, but I think strong-willed people are highly desirable under capitalism because they are motivated to become entrepreneurs, CEOs, and other high-value roles.

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Best not to 'feed the trolls' as they say.

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Those are not "high value" roles, those are roles which siphon value.

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In Marxist systems (or at least systems that pay homage to Marx), strong-willed people become Commissars.

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I am unable to force myself to perceive the lines as straight, while my wife can do it with only a bit of concentration (actually, intentional dissociation). And she also has a lot more willpower.

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The weirdest thing is that you can see the black and white squares as a rectilinear grid, and the blue lines will still not be straight.

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people look from the side, the lines' appearance will rectify fully

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Only helps a little bit for me (the lines still won't be fully straight) and the effect changes immediately once I turn my monitor back to it's usual position.

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When the pic is turned, do not focus on the "little squarish marks with dots" (or whichever they are), does it work now? I was able to "abstract" from them, but if this seems hard, one could "squint" out of focus a bit to ignore them, then from the side, the lines look consistent with the measurement (parallel to the monitor bottom line)

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"Millions of people throughout history have failed to reproduce because they became monks for false religions; if they had just listened to their reinforcement/instinctual processes instead of their intellectual/logical ones, they could have avoided that problem."

How to even begin to reply to such a statement is beyond me. But to imply that not reproducing is a "problem" is problematic, as is the related assumption that not following one's "reinforcement/instinctual processes" is dumb. What is has no necessary implications on what should be - when's the last time metaphysics and ethics had an enlightening discussion?

That's to not even address the "false religions" jab - false according to whom and in what way? Even if we were to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you have unshared inside knowledge here, the implication that just because a religion is not materially true by no means implies that following it is dumb. Indeed, even if we went by your vulgar measure of reproduction - what groups in the US have the the most children? Which city has the higher fertility rate: Oakland, CA or, say, Provo, UT?

The literature on the benefits of religious belief is voluminous - far larger than that on rationalism, I can assure you of that. And that's taking the giant leap of presuming a pragmatic/instrumental view of life is the "right" one.

A little less time reading Ezra Klein and more time reading folks like William James or, to indulge your bias for modernity, T.M. Luhrmann, may be instructive in that regard.

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founding

false as in they are mutually exclusive. even if there exists a true one, his statement is still valid.

(i am not adressing any of your other claims, only the false religion one)

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That is the stereotypical Western materialist view.

But is it true?

Traditionally it's been religious folk.who"ve been accused of over-simplcity, but here it appears the shoe is on the other foot. Wherever is that nuance secular thinkers are rumored to be capable of?

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Some religions are definitely incompatible by their core doctrine. For example, the basically the core belief of Trinitarian Christianity is that Jesus really is the messiah who is going to come again and is part of a trinity with the Father, and the Holy Spirit. While some of the core beliefs of Judaism throughout the last two thousand years has been that the messiah has not come yet and that G*d is not part of a trinity like that. Similarly, some religions say that they are compatible with other ones - I have heard that Hinduism allows Christianity to also be true - but it's definitely not true both ways, since Christianity, as it has been actually practiced throughout history, definitely cannot also allow Hinduism to be true. Perhaps you could say that that one doctrine or the other is wrong and that really all religions are compatible, but I'm not sure that makes you morally superior to the original belief that one religion or the other is false.

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founding

But is it true?

yes. yes it is.

I apologize for not giving more detail, but you didnt really give anything to contend with in the reply. perhaps you have the unshared inside knowledge? please share how every one can be true?

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The statement appears to come from a threadbare view of religion, combined with a failure to consider the varieties of the possible.

For example, the practice of listing the problems with the mainstream American interpretation of parts of the Bible, particularly Genesis 1, seems to be enjoyed by a particular kind of person. But if anyone actually lost their faith because they got persuaded by these arguments, I'd be surprised. How big was the mass exodus from Christianity when Joshua 10:13 was broadly reinterpreted? And while there are psychological explanations of this, the truth is that this is at the periphery of the religion. The vast majority (perhaps all?) of claims and disputes in religion fall into that category.

If somehow it got proven that Jesus was and is God, but that virtually everything else Christians believed was wrong, would that make Christianity false? Alternatively, if Jesus was somehow proven to not be god, but virtually everything else true, then would that render Christianity false? If every claim made by Christianity were proven wrong, would it then be false?

The second and third are the more difficult questions, without a doubt. But anyone who claims certainty in either regard is engaging in their own dogma.

And to say any are necessarily answered in the affirmative is to misunderstand religion. Kierkegaard's phrase on prayer being not about changing god but about changing oneself applies to most of religion - it's about contending with the unknown, and what that does to a person and a community.

All of the tomes on the history and development of religion I've seen suggest that almost across the board practice preceded rationalization. The explanation is, in essence, besides the point. Throw all that out, and would religion lose anything? No, I'd argue it would gain, perhaps immeasurably. To a degree, arguing a religion false is like arguing throwing up chalk before a game is “false”. Turning religion into a series of falsifiable "hypotheses" is an absurdity; a parochial, ethnocentric, history-blind reading of it. Name one ancient text that even attempted a “dry” telling of anything? The idea was an absurdity.

When Herodotus relayed the story of the meeting of Solon and Croesus - a meeting his contemporary readers would have immediately known was an impossibility, was he telling a lie? Was that a falsehood?

To even ask the question is to miss the point.

Does that mean that there is no such thing as a realist view of religion? Of course not. But that begins and ends with the experience of God, a la Augustine. Everything else is extrapolation from that. But throw out all the extrapolations and the experience remains.

And so from an oversimplified position that reduces religion to merely these extrapolations or the afore-mentioned rationalizations, can all the religions be “true”? I don’t know how this is even a question. Is there some evidence or logic by which 5 bazillion gods couldn’t all exist? That the entire universe couldn’t be a lab experiment the size of a marble in a world of “gods” that sometimes deign to commune - or not - with us?

I don’t see how the existence of Jesus as God somehow necessarily cancels out the possibility of Param Brahma, or Allah or any of the other millions of deities in all the civilizations that have ever existed. And of course another option is the beaten-to-death blind man and elephant analogy. And there are a million others, the limits of the possibilities are the limits of the imagination. This is the unknown we’re talking about - which despite all our efforts, lies out there in its massiveness licking its lips and likely laughing at us stumbling around with our tiny candles in the darkness.

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There are plenty of people who lost their faith after reading the Bible, Penn Jillette for instance.

The divinity of Christ is pretty much the defining feature of Christianity, so if that isn't true, you'd need a fairly baroque definition of "false" to argue that Christianity isn't.

It's true that religion has many positive benefits regardless of any factual claims, but calling something false is explicitly an evaluation of those factual claims. If you object that religion is more than just the factual claims, then okay, just replace "X religion" with "factual claims made by X religion". I'd argue that's what most people mean when they say "X is false", not that X has no benefits.

And there are lots of people who would say that a universe where all possible incarnations of gods exist explicitly contradicts their own religion. If you ask a Christian "is it possible that Para Brahman exists?", do you think they'd all say yes? Perhaps all religions are just a facet of a higher truth, but if the blind man feels an elephant's tusk and proclaims "an elephant is a loose collection of bones!", he's still wrong. I know people who say that each other's religions are incompatible. Are you going to tell them that they misunderstand their own religion?

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That most people misunderstand their religion should be as self-evident as that most people misunderstand their own politics, or indeed anything remotely abstract or complex. But if for some reason that isn't self-evident, the evidence is ample and easily found (indeed you can test this out for yourself).

But indulging that POV, the answers you get are going to depend on how the question is framed. Tell them Jesus is God but everything else is wrong, and I'd bet good money most would, at the end of the day, cling to the former and walk away convinced they were right all along. Jesus is the center of the intellectual aspect of the religion, there is no controversy about that. The other stuff it's difficult to get a hard read on its degree of essentiality (this is not a science), but that is lies far below the divine is easy to divine.

As for the rest, it's difficult to respond to, in part because the difference in your mind between, say, information, facts, knowledge and truth is not clear to me. You seem to be conflating a number of these, and repeatedly appealing to folk wisdom, which is a questionable tactic. Also, there's numerous disconnects as you have either misread or misinterpreted a number of my arguments and/or I've failed to explain them adequately. Either way, I don't believe I can do much better ATM than how I put it above.

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founding

Thank you for the reply, I enjoyed it, it made some good points, and got me thinking.

So first, let me reiterate that I was addressing only if Scott’s claim of religion being false is defensible.

Now, if I may try to summarize some of what you said:

A religion has a set of claims. Each claim can individually be true or false, but it is unclear how to translate this into calling the entire religion ‘true’ or ‘false’. For example, consider a book of 100 math proofs. If 99 were correct, and 1 had a mistake and was false; you would still consider the book ‘true’, just with a mistake.

If the book had 99 false proofs, and only 1 correct one, you probably would then call it ‘false’. But what if the 99 were minor, trivial, inconsequential proofs, and the 1 correct one was ground breaking, world changing, best proof ever? It would then be wrong to dismiss the book as ‘false’, even though 99 of its 100 claims are false. And if the book that had 99 correct had only trivial proofs correct, and got the most important one wrong; well maybe you could dismiss that book then? But either way, it is not entirely accurate to call the book ‘true’ or ‘false’, but each claim can be evaluated independently.

Same for a religion. If Christianity is right about Jesus being a deity, but wrong about monotheism, does that make it true or false? If it is wrong about Jesus, but right about heaven/hell/afterlife, is it ‘true’ or ‘false’? If it is wrong about heaven, but right about not eating meat on Fridays, is it true or false?

So we can’t say religion X is true or false, only which of its claims are true or false. (As an aside, you seem to imply atheists are very concerned with these differences. I would note that theists are just as obsessed with these minor differences as atheists; and these differences have often led to schisms or wars.)

So with this in mind, Scott’s claim that ‘celibacy for a false religion’ isn’t the correct question. Rather, the question should maybe be something like…. “It is possible that there is a deity that wants some devout people to be celibate (even if it is in the service of a different, or non existent deity). Like maybe Zeus is real, and he wants you to be religiously celibate, even if it is in the name of a different religion.

Now, here is where you may have moved my needle. The above statement about Zeus is kind of weird. What does it mean that some other deity I wants me to be religiously celibate? My first thought was ‘well, there is some positive utility to me being celibate in the name of Yaweh, even though the utility is granted by Zeus. Zeus will still reward me (in this life or the afterlife)’. But suddenly I am talking about utility. And utility doesn’t need to be granted by a deity, it can be granted by the world.

So Scott’s question needs to be something like “these monks are celibate, even though there is no positive utility in celibacy”. This is indeed a more complicated question, and the answer is not obvious. For example, grandparents past reproductive age still have positive evolutionary utility since they assist in raising children. So just the fact that a monk doesn’t reproduce does not necessarily mean they have negative evolutionary utility.

Does this capture at all what you were saying?

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I appreciate the close reading and compliment, and overall you captured well one of the arguments I was making, which rolled with the presuppositions underlying Scott's claim.

But it doesn't address what I'd suggest is the more fundamental argument, which is that religion is not a book of theorems but akin to a yoga instructional manual which moderns have misinterpreted as a physiology textbook. But even that misses the mark - religion is not a book. Words, ideas, theorems - this is all so much dust in the wind.

Religion is primarily practice and ritual. Accompanied by a particular attitude and disposition, and oriented towards a particular kind of experience. And bookended by some words which fail utterly to capture any of the above, which some people have interpreted as a set of "really important" theorems about the material world.

As I've said elsewhere, no one does anything anymore so words have taken on an absurd level of importance. Set off a nuclear bomb in debuque, iowa with a letter of explanation to the nytimes and they'll pay more attention to pronouns used in the manifesto than the pile of corpses.

And this is not limited to identity politic liberals. Religious folk are just as conformist to this, which is probably why secularists are so confused on the subject. Entire religions get reduced to scribblings, which then gets further reduced to caricatured treatments of a few hand-picked footnotes. History is abandoned, tradition shat on as rich discourses get butchered to adapt to the cultural gestalt. Religion trying to battle the present age with its own weapons (I.e. "facts"). A battle it will always lose, or win to it's own detriment - leaving it as penniless as the age it's fighting. "Whoever fights monsters…"

So "false religion" is not even a contradiction in terms, it's worse: a complete nonsensical statement. Like sour pajamas or hoarse scrotum.

But to address the line of logic you so precisely laid out, a few clarifications:

I'm not generally disposed to looking at human phenomena through an evolutionary lens. As a weed species, we're wired for flexibility, which often limits the usefulness of that larger lens. Also much appears to be second and third order effects as a result of our sheer complexity.

It's like: yes our peripheral vision is particularly adept at noticing movement from animals vs. trees, and there are a few large scale phenomena it explains, but was it useful - at all - to Scott's meditation on will power? Besides the recent finding on sibling proximity and selfishness (and there its helpfulness was limited to the level of hypothesis generation), I can't think of many times it's helped me grapple with the human.

But to your question, my experience is that things are far more connected than we can possibly imagine. But modern thinking remains overwhelmingly myopic, forever worshipping at the altar of monomania.

Against that, my argument was that both the religious person with 15 kids and the monk are (partially of course) the fruits of the same force, and one that is overwhelmingly pro-natal - and so to treat the monk in isolation is to miss the point.

But where you went, in terms of the larger effects of this "dumb" evolutionary decision to be celibate, appears to coalesce with this broader view. In both hinduism and christianity the writings and works of monks and nuns and those who spent large spans of time in monasteries (and prison, for that matter) are outsized both in quantity and their social effect. That its effect may be comparable to that of grandparents seems on reflection to be almost obvious.

But I wasn't thinking of that, so thank you. It's not every day that a stranger's comment on the internet is actually considered, or a "needle moved" as a result.

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"I don’t see how the existence of Jesus as God somehow necessarily cancels out the possibility of Param Brahma"

I don't see how the existence of 2 + 2 = 4 cancels out the possibility of 2 + 2 = 5.

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That is a poor analogy, Mr. Sweeny. A better one is that the existence of you does not cancel out the possibility of me.

Not everything is mathematics (to the mathematicians dismay, no doubt).

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author

I'm talking about the evolutionary perspective here - evolution will tend to evolve away from things that make you not reproduce.

I think it's fair to say that all but one among a set of mutually exclusive religions must be factually false, although of course they can still be beneficial in lots of ways.

I agree some varieties of religious belief can encourage having more children - unlike other varieties of religious belief which encourage having fewer children, which were the kind I was talking about.

I really didn't mean that statement in a culture war anti-religion way; I think it's just boringly true that it's possible for people to logic themselves into not having children, that monastic religions are an example of that, and that evolution would select against these kinds of tendencies.

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"I'm talking about the evolutionary perspective here - evolution will tend to evolve away from things that make you not reproduce."

Does it? Eusociality? Worker ants?

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Strictly speaking, the anthill is a single organism, and the worker ants are its parts (among others). If they would be acting individually, they would outcompete humans. But the analogy of our brain signals for an anthill is in physical-chemical macroscopic trails the ants leave for other ants to analyze and emissions of chemicals by ants. Human chemicals of thoughts move shorter distances, are enclosed. One can argue the statement, but not with this analogy-?

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"Strictly speaking" according to who? Because that doesn't seem like strict speech to me.

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according to professionals dealing with the anthills :) it is called a "superorganism"... I do not know if we are allowed to link in this blog because I am new here, so I will post the link in a separate reply below

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... post above, how interesting, they post the latest on top...

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Strictly speaking, a "superorganism" is not the same as a "single organism", which is what you previously claimed. Remember, we're speaking strictly here.

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Yes, kin selection is a thing. No, it doesn't make a material difference to his point.

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It seems like Scott Alexander is getting a lot wrong about evolution lately.

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I mean, you still haven't established that he is wrong, so...

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"I'm talking about the evolutionary perspective here - evolution will tend to evolve away from things that make you not reproduce."

There's plenty of eusocial organisms that physically cannot reproduce.

Also Scott got another basic evolution thing wrong a couple of days ago, saying that evolution created organisms "perfect" for their surroundings - evolution actually creates things that are good enough to continue reproducing, not "perfect".

If Scott cannot get simple stuff like that correct one wonders what other things regarding genetics he might be getting wrong...

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"kin" can be a bio-kin or an "ideological/professional" kin... think about an advisor as an "ideological parent" for a scientist

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I would suggest you're painting in too broad strokes.

The largest religion in the world is one with strong monastic strains running through its history, and I know of no evidence that it has harmed the church or its "evolutionary non-dumb-ness". I'd argue it's actually helped in that regard - has the sharp decline in monasticism coincided with a fall or a rise in the Christian fertility rate? When monasticism was at its peak of popularity, what did the fertility rate look like?

On the contrary, all the evidence I've seen suggests that modern acquisitive secularism - and the instrumental rationality based on it - is the true anti-natalist force in the modern world, and a far more apt punching bag than the tired and stereotypical one you chose.

The same exact force or "logic" as you decided to frame it, can have negative evolutionary effects on certain individuals but positive ones on the group as a whole. As has been argued elsewhere, fanaticism in any direction is a sign of vigor and vitality, and it is far easier to apply that vitality in a different direction than conjure it out of thin air. That christianity was able to inspire individuals to go to such extremes was a sign of its health - both in evolutionary and non-evolutionary terms. Vigor that expressed itself in seemingly contradictory ways, at least from a simplistic materialist point of view.

So I get your larger meaning, but on multiple levels this example falls short. I have a hard time believing any monk or nun would not - at best - laugh to hear religion and their devoting their lives to something other than this blink of an eye existence as primarily being based on a "logical/intellectual process".

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You seem to think that Scott's making an argument that I don't think he's making. Namely, that monasticism is a bad thing for a religion, or religions suck, or something like that. He's not saying that. He's saying that non-monastic individuals are more likely to reproduce (duh) and have higher instincts toward reproduction. That's an example to illustrate why we may not have infinite willpower.

This is in no way a judgement about any religion, except through the lens of the Blind Idiot God. You're right, you could say the same thing with a secular framing - something about career stability and hormones.

Whether you agree that monasticism is the result of intellect/logic or not (many of the great theologians seem to have approached religion from that view), it's a frontal cortex process rather than an animal hindbrain process, which is the point.

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Your impression is justified; "punching bag" in particular was a poor choice of words.

But I'm of two minds on this. One, there are terms other than "dumb" "failure" and "problem" that one could use that are both more accurate and don't mimic the exact terms that have been and sometimes still are used to denounce various things, including religio