Is old art obsolete?


The present is much better than the past in almost all respects, and producing great works of art should not be one of exceptions: in principle modernity has a much larger ‘talent pool’ than the past, and in circumstances which much better allow this talent to flow into great accomplishments; when we look at elite performance in areas with ‘harder’ indicators, they show a trend of improvement from the past to present; and aggregate consumption of older versus new art provides a ‘wisdom of crowds’ consideration.

If we want to experience the ‘best’ artistic work, we should turn our attention away from the ‘classics’, and towards the modern body of work which all-but-inevitably surpasses them. Old art is obsolete.

Such a view runs counter to received wisdom, whereby the ‘canon’ of great art is dominated by classic works wrought by old masters. There’s a natural debunking argument that this view derives from snobbish signalling than genuine merit. I nonetheless explore other hypotheses that make old art non-obsolescent after all.

In concert, they may be enough to secure a place for old art. Yet the do not defray the key claim that the modern artistic community is profoundly stronger than any time before, and posterity should find our art to have been greater than any time before. For this, and many other things besides, there has never been a better time to be a Whig historian.

Continue reading “Is old art obsolete?”

Notes on Deep Work


Cal Newport has written a book on ‘Deep Work’. I’m usually archly sceptical of ‘productivity gurus’ or ‘productivity guides’, but this book was recommended and I found it was very good – so much so I made notes on the way through.

I put them here in case others find them valuable: I’ve done a bit of rearranging of the line of argument, as well as some commentary on the areas I take to be less well-supported. Nonetheless, the notes follow the general structure in the book of section 1: Why deep work is great; section 2: How to do it. Those after the armamentarium of suggestions Newport makes on how to do it can skip down to the third section. Avoiding anything in italics spares you most of my editorialising. Continue reading “Notes on Deep Work”

The person-affecting value of existential risk reduction


The standard motivation for the far future cause area in general, and existential risk reduction in particular, is to point to the vast future that is possible providing we do not go extinct (see Astronomical Waste). One crucial assumption made is a ‘total’ or ‘no-difference’ view of population ethics: in sketch, it is just as good to bring a person into existence with a happy life for 50 years as it is to add fifty years of happy life to someone who already exists. Thus the 10lots of potential people give profound moral weight to the cause of x-risk reduction.

Population ethics is infamously recondite, and so disagreement with this assumption commonplace; many find at least some form of person affecting/asymmetrical view plausible: that the value of ‘making happy people’ is either zero, or at least much lower than the value of making people happy. Such a view would remove a lot of the upside of x-risk reduction, as most of its value (by the lights of the total view) is ensuring a great host of happy potential people exist.

Yet even if we discount the (forgive me) person-effecting benefit, extinction would still entail vast person-affecting harm. There are 7.6 billion people alive today, and 7.6 billion premature deaths would be deemed a considerable harm by most. Even fairly small (albeit non-pascalian) reductions in the likelihood of extinction could prove highly cost-effective.

To my knowledge, no one has ‘crunched the numbers’ on the expected value of x-risk reduction by the lights of person affecting views. So I’ve thrown together a guestimate as a first-pass estimate.

An estimate

The (forward) model goes like this:

  1. There are currently 7.6 billion people alive on earth. The worldwide mean age is 38, and worldwide life expectancy is 70.5.
  2. Thus, very naively, if ‘everyone died tomorrow’, the average number of life years lost per person is 32.5, and the total loss is 247 Billion life years.
  3. Assume the extinction risk is 1% over this century, uniform by year (i.e. the risk this year is 0.0001, ditto the next one, and so on.)
  4. Also assume the tractability of x-risk reduction is something like (borrowing from Millett and Snyder-Beattie) this: ‘There’s a project X that is expected to cost 1 billion dollars each year, and would reduce the risk (proportionately) by 1% (i.e. if we spent a billion each year this century, xrisk over this century declines from 1% to 0.99%).
  5. This gives a risk-reduction per year of around 1.3 * 10-6 , and so an expected value of around 330 000 years of life saved.

Given all these things, the model spits out a mean ‘cost per life year’ of $1500-$26000 (mean $9200).

Caveats and elaborations

The limitations of this are nigh-innumerable, but I list a few of the most important below an approximately ascending order.

Zeroth: The model has a wide range of uncertainty, and reasonable sensitivity to distributional assumptions: you can modulate mean estimate and range by a factor of 2 or so by whether the distributions used are Beta, log normal, or tweaking their variance.

First: Adjustment to give ‘cost per DALY/QALY’ would be somewhat downward, although not dramatically (a factor of 2 would imply everyone who continues to live does so with a disability weight of 0.5, in the same ballpark as those used for major depression or blindness).

Second, trends may have a large impact, although their importance is modulated by which person-affecting view is assumed. I deliberately set up the estimate to work in a ‘one shot’ single year case (i.e. the figure applies to a ‘spend 1B to reduce extinction risk in 2018 from 0.0001 to 0.000099’ scenario).

By the lights of a person-affecting view which considers only people who exist now, making the same investment 10 years from now (i.e. spent 1B to reduce extinction risk in 2028 from 0.0001 to 0.000099) is less attractive, as some of these people would have died, and the new people who have replaced them have little moral relevance. These views thus imply a fairly short time horizon, and are particularly sensitive to x-risk in the near future. Given the ‘1%’ per century is probably not uniform by year, and plausibly lower now but higher later, this would imply a further penalty to cost-effectiveness.

Other person affecting views consider people who will necessarily exist (however cashed out) rather than whether they happen to exist now (planting a bomb with a timer of 1000 years is still accrues person-affecting harm). In a ‘extinction in 100 years’ scenario, this view would still count the harm of everyone alive then who dies, although still discount the foregone benefit of people who ‘could have been’ subsequently in the moral calculus.

Thus the trends in factual basis become more salient. One example is the ongoing demographic transition, and the consequently older population give smaller values of life-years saved if protected from extinction in the future. This would probably make the expected cost-effectiveness somewhat (but not dramatically) worse.

A lot turns on the estimate for marginal ‘x-risk reduction’. I think the numbers offered in terms of base rate, and how much it can be reduced for now much lean on the conservative side of the consensus of far-future EAs. Confidence in (implied) scale or tractability an order of magnitude ‘worse’ impose commensurate increases on the risk estimate. Yet in such circumstances the bulk of disagreement is explained by empirical disagreement rather than a different take on the population ethics.

Finally, this only accounts for something like the (welfare) ‘face value’ of existential risk reduction. There would be some further benefits by the light of the person-affecting view itself, or ethical views which those holding a person affecting view are likely sympathetic to: extinction might impose other harms beyond years of life lost; there could be person affecting benefits if some of those who survive can enjoy extremely long and happy lives; and there could be non-welfare goods on an objective list which rely on non-extinction (among others). On the other side, those with non-deprivationists accounts of the badness of death may still discount the proposed benefits.


Notwithstanding these challenges, I think the model, and the result that the ‘face value’ cost-effectiveness of x-risk reduction is still pretty good, is instructive.

First, there is a common pattern of thought along the lines of, “X-risk reduction only matters if the total view is true, and if one holds a different view one should basically discount it”. Although rough, this cost-effectiveness guestimate suggests this is mistaken. Although it seems unlikely x-risk reduction is the best buy from the lights of a person-affecting view (we should be suspicious if it were), given ~$10000 per life year compares unfavourably to best global health interventions, it is still a good buy: it compares favourably to marginal cost effectiveness for rich country healthcare spending, for example.

Second, although it seems unlikely that x-risk reduction would be the best buy by the lights of a person affecting view, this would not be wildly outlandish. Those with a person-affecting view who think x-risk is particularly likely, or that the cause area has easier wins available than implied in the model, might find the best opportunities to make a difference. It may therefore supply reason for those with such views to investigate the factual matters in greater depth, rather than ruling it out based on their moral commitments.

Finally, most should be morally uncertain in matters as recondite as population ethics. Unfortunately, how to address moral uncertainty is similarly recondite. If x-risk reduction is ‘good but not the best’ rather than ‘worthless’ by the lights of person affecting views, this likely implies x-risk reduction looks more valuable whatever the size of the ‘person affecting party’ in one’s moral parliament.

Continue reading “The person-affecting value of existential risk reduction”

How fragile was history?

Elsewhere (and better): 1, 2.

If one could go back in time and make a small difference in the past, would one expect it to effect dramatic changes to the future? Questions like these are fertile soil for fiction writers (generally writing under speculative or alternative history) but receive less attention in the historical academy, which tends to focus on explaining what in fact happened, rather than what could have been. Yet general questions of historical fragility (e.g. Are events in human history ‘generally’ fragile? In what areas is history particularly fragile? Are things getting more or less fragile over time?) are of particular interest to those interested in altering the course the long-run future by differences they make today. Continue reading “How fragile was history?”

In defence of epistemic modesty

This piece defends a strong form of epistemic modesty: that, in most cases, one should pay scarcely any attention to what you find the most persuasive view on an issue, hewing instead to an idealised consensus of experts. I start by better pinning down exactly what is meant by ‘epistemic modesty’, go on to offer a variety of reasons that motivate it, and reply to some common objections. Along the way, I show common traps people being inappropriately modest fall into. I conclude that modesty is a superior epistemic strategy, and ought to be more widely used – particularly in the EA/rationalist communities.



I argue for this:

In virtually all cases, the credence you hold for any given belief should be dominated by the balance of credences held by your epistemic peers and superiors. One’s own convictions should weigh no more heavily in the balance than that of one other epistemic peer.

Continue reading “In defence of epistemic modesty”

In defence of democracy

Last week the UK held a referendum on whether it should remain a member of the European Union. ‘Leave’ won by a narrow (52%) majority. The aftermath so far involves the resignation of the Prime Minister and consequent leadership election; a leadership challenge within the opposition; an increasingly restive Scotland looking for independence; and large slides of UK stocks and currency.

Contra the balance of the chattering classes (and the great majority of all those in my social media bubble). I think the results of the referendum should be respected, and therefore the UK should leave the EU.[1] Continue reading “In defence of democracy”

Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great?


In the canon of western philosophy, generally those regarded as the ‘greatest’ philosophers tend to live far in the past. Consider this example from an informal poll:

  1. Plato (428-348 BCE)
  2. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
  3. Kant (1724-1804)
  4. Hume (1711-1776)
  5. Descartes (1596-1650)
  6. Socrates (469-399 BCE)
  7. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  8. Locke (1632-1704)
  9. Frege (1848-1925)
  10. Aquinas (1225-1274)

(source: LeiterReports)

I take this as fairly representative of consensus opinion—one might argue about some figures versus those left out, or the precise ordering, but most would think (e.g.) Plato and Aristotle should be there, and near the top. All are dead, and only two were alive during the 20th century.

But now consider this graph of human population over time (US Census Bureau, via Wikipedia):


The world population at 500BCE  is estimated to have been 100 million; in the year 2000, it was 6.1 billion, over sixty times greater. Thus if we randomly selected people from those born since the ‘start’ of western philosophy, they would generally be born close to the present day. Yet when it comes to ‘greatest philosophers’, they were generally born much further in the past than one would expect by chance. Continue reading “Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great?”

Beware surprising and suspicious convergence

Imagine this:

Oliver: … Thus we see that donating to the opera is the best way of promoting the arts.

Eleanor: Okay, but I’m principally interested in improving human welfare.

Oliver: Oh! Well I think it is also the case that donating to the opera is best for improving human welfare too.

Generally, what is best for one thing is usually not the best for something else, and thus Oliver’s claim that donations to opera are best for the arts and human welfare is surprising. We may suspect bias: that Oliver’s claim that the Opera is best for the human welfare is primarily motivated by his enthusiasm for opera and desire to find reasons in favour, rather than a cooler, more objective search for what is really best for human welfare.

The rest of this essay tries to better establish what is going on (and going wrong) in cases like this. It is in three parts: the first looks at the ‘statistics’ of convergence – in what circumstances is it surprising to find one object judged best by the lights of two different considerations? The second looks more carefully at the claim of bias: how it might be substantiated, and how it should be taken into consideration. The third returns to the example given above, and discusses the prevalence of this sort of error ‘within’ EA, and what can be done to avoid it. Continue reading “Beware surprising and suspicious convergence”

At what cost, carnivory?

Summary: Using Animal Charity Evaluator’s figures, I estimate the amount donated to an effective animal charity to equal the harm caused by a typical American diet compared to veganism. This figure is surprisingly low: $2-5 per year. This suggests that personal dietary change, relative to other things we can do, is fairly ineffective. Yet most EAs interested in animal welfare are eager that others, including other EAs, stop using animal products. I explore a variety of means of resolving this tension, and recommend a large downward adjustment to the efficacy of animal charities is the best solution.[ref]This is a follow-on from an earlier attempt. The more involved discussion of non-consequentialist approaches I owe to comments on fb and the EA forum in general, and to Carl Shulman’s helpful remarks in particular.[/ref] Continue reading “At what cost, carnivory?”

Don’t sweat diet?

Summary: Various people (Hurford, Tomasik) have tried to estimate the typical animal welfare cost of a carnivorous diet. These costs have encouraged EAs to become vegetarians or vegans, and EAs particularly focused on animal welfare advocate that others (including EAs) should reduce their consumption of animal products.

Closely following an estimate by Kaufman, I consider the face value of abstaining from dairy or abstaining from all animal products in terms of donations to ACE-recommended animal welfare charities: <1 cent per year given to The Humane League would offset typical dairy consumption, and <$1 year would offset a typical American’s consumption of all animal products. Thus the emphasis on dietary change intra-EA seems misplaced: it is extraordinarily low impact compared to other means to helping animals.  Continue reading “Don’t sweat diet?”