Affecting everything

People often argue that X is hugely important because it affects everything else. Sleep is so important because it affects your whole day. You should value your health more than anything because you need it for everything else. And your freedom too. And friends, and food. AI is the most important thing to work on because you could use it to get anything else. Same with anything that makes money, or gains power. Also sociology, because it’s about understanding people, and everything else we care about depends on people’s behaviour. And maths, science, and engineering are more important than anything  because they illuminate the rest of the world, which is the most important thing too. Politics is most important because it determines the policies our country runs under, which affect everything. Law is similar. I assume garbage collectors know they are doing the most important thing because without garbage disposal society would collapse.

It turns out an awful lot of things affect everything, and a lot of them affect a lot of things a lot. That something has a broad influence is certainly a good starting criteria for it being important. It’s just a really low bar. It shouldn’t be the whole reason anyone does science or repairs roads, because it doesn’t distinguish those activities from a huge number of other ones. There is more than one thing that affects everything, because the set of things we might care about are not causally organized like a tree, they are organized like a very loopy web of loops.

A segment of a social network

Even the dots on the right affect everything. Image via Wikipedia

Often this ‘affects everything’ criterion is not even used on any relevant margin. It is used in the sense that if you didn’t have sleep or any understanding of humans at all you would be in a much worse situation than if you had these things in abundance. A better question is whether sleeping another half hour or dedicating your own career to sociology is going to make a huge difference to everything. An even better question is whether it’s going to make an even bigger difference to everything than anything else you could do with that half hour or career. This is pretty well known, and applied in many circumstances, but for some reason it doesn’t stop people arguing from the interconnectedness of everything to the maximal importance of whatever they are doing.

Perhaps it is psychologically useful to have an all purpose excuse for anyone doing anything that contributes at all to our hugely interconnected society to feel like they are doing the most important thing ever. But if you really want to do something unusually useful, you’ll need a stronger criterion than ‘it affects everything’.

36 responses to “Affecting everything

  1. Katja, causation is the fundamental principal humans are most equipped (hard-wired, even) to understand, but, for some reason, generally cannot force themselves to deal with, rationally, once a chain of events progresses beyond two levels. A follows B is pretty much universal, but A, sets off B and C and, which contributes, along with other causes to D, E, F, G, H, and I, which . . . ad infinitum, leads the average mind to the conclusion that A causes [damn near anything].

    In the legal word, which I once (naively) thought would be an Atlantis-like escape from human irrationality, thought on such matters was briefly almost unanimously consolidated with the help of Judge Cardozo in his opinion in Plasgraf. And while I was, at first, enthused about the fact that Cardozo’s name is accepted by this spell-check, upon reflection, I doubt seriously this reflects a respect for his reasoning.

    It is simply easier for a mind that does not feel the need to maintain consistency to accept that A contributed in some haphazard manner to Z means A caused Z (and more perniciously, that the cause of A intended Z).

    More to your point, we are a society of egos who have developed a habit of demanding (and accepting) that our pet projects are of such great importance that even considering the costs associated with such projects is unnecessary, and indeed, taboo, because A (which I hate) “causes” Z (which everybody hates). The irrational thought process you explain better than I could ever hope to is the root cause of much waste–in the direct sense, not the Palsgraf sense.

  2. Men seldom endure a profession if they do not believe or persuade themselves that it is basically more important than all others. Women do the same with their lovers.

  3. Thinking at the margin doesn’t come naturally; look at how long it took for economists to arrive there. I have to admit than when I first encountered the idea of marginal analysis economics it was like a thunderbolt of insight. Once you get used to the concepts, it seems obvious, but that’s deceptive. Still, one sees advice, even from people who no doubt understand the concepts (Robert Trivers, for example), that students should aim to tackle the most important problems in their field. They even express amazement that others seem to ignore this “obvious” advice.

  4. We seem to have a psychological need (or at least want) to be part of the bigger picture, yes.

    What’s really MOST important is ideas :-) Channelling a tiny bit of the cutting edge of what the zeitgeist is thinking, and getting leverage for your own thoughts and values, at the margin. That can be in maths or science or philosophy or whatever. Good and novel ideas have the best “magnitude of influence on things / marginal cost to spread” ratio.

    But yes this does suffer from the “working on the most important problem” syndrome identified by Stephen – its for the ambitious, who are prepared to aim high and possibly accept failure. Other people are more suited to contentment in a less leveraged niche, law, garbage collection or otherwise.

  5. This idea is too vague to be attacked.

    Strawman article.

  6. Lovely. Also shows how hard it is to affect anything when anything can affect everything. Is the world like this?

  7. …But if you really want to do something unusually useful, you’ll need a stronger criterion than ‘it affects everything’….

    well ,poor Katja, actually everything connects to everything, there is no doubt about that.
    The question is:
    a) to what degree
    b) and what have YOU to do with all that?

    ad a) this is a question of competing semantic nets. there are several in this world. Memetic systems or however You call them. These systems have some cores –axioms– if You will.
    from these the semantic nets spread out, which are recursively deductive -inductive.

    ad b) YOU are an agent in all this.
    OK?
    Now, being an ‘agent’ means to have some idea what it means to be an agent.
    Maybe being a Buddhist in the first place , or any method of thorough introspection would be a good starting point.
    (PS: I am ofcourse aware that I deeply embarrass Your thinking and that of Your peers. I have a strange sense of caring for You, which I cannot explain rightout. Must have something to do with fairytales, who are the true treasures of wisdom.)
    Anyway.

    Try to figure out what the agent-fact relationship is.
    Maybe start with Whitehead, who to me seems to be the most intelligent person, concerning the question of ‘what is this all about?’ for the last 100 years to be.

  8. Maybe it is the X’s that are perceived as scarcities, or which are overvalued in other ways, that get the attention. An engineer would value engineering by virtue of being an engineer and by pointing about the relatively high demand for them in labor markets. Of course a government could bid up prices and perceived demand (for example – colluding to award a sanitation contract to the mob).

  9. how about simply starting with the hierarchy of needs, Maslov-sense.
    Then the confusion at least has some basic structure, right?

    Then you can start to wonder about these near-far, relative-status and singularity/immortality thingys.
    Then You find out that this is some sort of a luxury.
    Or even nonsensical in a finite world.
    Or is it something mental of sorts?

    Then You eventually find out some Buddhist way.
    Has some appeal to it.
    Or as Gore Vidal said:
    (transcribed)
    “Compassion should be our new currency.”
    Response:
    a) Yeah.
    b) Keep the bums out of the game. I prefer the glittering world of illusions.

    Some other tribes or subspecies obviously have some other currencies.
    In asfar they are tradeable?
    I have some doubts, I must say.

    Take Your sides.

  10. Katja,
    You are actually one of the stranger persons out here in the internetz.
    (Not considering the complete nuts, which comprise about, well, 99.x%. so you are a special sort of nutcase , which is in the first degree, ofcourse completely subjective. The nuttiness is in the eye of the beholder.)

    You put up propositions, which are outlandish.
    Hansonian, Yudkovskian, Bayesian.

    I studied this tribe for some time now, and, surprise, theiy have some sort of a point, which is the rationality of self-destruction.
    I appreciate You as a cogent person, to be sure, else I would not comment, and let rest the ghost in his grave, who occasionally rises up from his grave and make a belch, and falls back again.
    So it is.
    So it seems to be.
    So shall it be.

    But You come up with ideas, where I feel challenged to say something about.
    My son, who is a bit younger than You, could not dare to emit belches like Yours, else I would show my strong father face, which I have never had a need to do, because my son is quite an insightful being.

    So it all depends on conditions of potential insight.

    Why I am embarrassed by Your thoughts, is maybe that You are a type of person I try to warn my son about, to keep a faaaar distance to.

    Fatherly care, if You will.

    Peace, nevertheless.
    You are a creature of your peers and Yourself, with limited liability.

  11. Which tribe do you hail from, groo?

  12. jordanrastrick,

    The tribe I am affected to, is eg this one:
    http://www.ianwelsh.net/yes-the-american-people-are-responsible
    Just like in sort of a Matrix world, there are the real human beings, who fight -to me- an important fight.
    One has a decision to make.
    Funny that it seems to be nearly binary in all this Bayesian gibberish
    How come?
    Bayesians have a nerdish trait, which seems very much en vogue nowadays.
    Why? Because their autistic traits can be so easily exploited.
    Idiots avants.

    The nerd, and nerd ‘philosophy’; if there ever was one, can be easily exploited, because it works like an 18th century artifact:
    A mechanical being with a ‘human’ face.
    Even Leibniz fell into this fallacy.

    Eliza and the Turing machine.

    Poor Katja, sorry to say, sometimes appears to me as an incarnation of Eliza, the projection of sociopath/nerdish man, of what a woman looks like.

  13. minor correction:
    ‘idiots Savants’.
    For all the bean counters here, where surely are plenty.
    They are never pleased , and all in all never understand anything.
    But to please their pedantic urge of control, I donate them a consonant.

  14. to add mor insult:
    I am not quite sure whether ‘Katja’ is an NSA Robot, ‘Eliza II’, so to say, to test out how malleable the socalled intellectual community already is..
    For me she is very much akin to .to such a robot mind.
    She is not a real person.
    Her ‘feelings’ are fake..
    Poor Katja, if she is a real person, should maybe think about that.
    We have already enough fools, who pose as human beings, Right?

  15. Whatever I’m currently doing, I’m doing it because I judged that it was the most important thing for me to do at the time.

  16. “Whatever I’m currently doing, I’m doing it because I judged that it was the most important thing for me to do at the time.”

    Are you bragging about being completely free of akrasia or denying its existence?

  17. Stephen Diamond,

    May be we should extend Kahnemann’s
    “Thinking, Fast and Slow” with another category:

    Something like reversing Zenons paradoxon.
    The beauty of the paradoxon was , that it put ‘speed’, or ‘time’, to the task.

    We thought we solved the riddle.
    But nowadays, with possible reversals of time, where are we?

  18. Groo, I’m interested. Why English, sloppy, signalling purpose?

    Memo me mother fracker if you wish to see some high level Vampire Kung Fu :-)

    Katja, apologies if this… comment is an exacerbating factor of problems

  19. Groo, the riddler sayeth, the answer to your puzzles lies in the abstractions. All the way up and all the way down, maths.

    Where are you? Tell me and lets truce it.

  20. Why the assault on the Bayesians? What do you have against them? Are you off grid?

    I command answers, lo, I have the authority.

    Use this email address.

    Apologies, again, Katja. Please ignore this if you must. Groo…. Is Playing In My Sandpit.

  21. Groo, you were trying to throw dust in the eyes of jordanrastrick, AFAICT. You could CHOOSE to speak slower and be more clearly understood, I think, but you choose to play a different game.

    That tribe is not your tribe, it is but a footprint of the ghost in your mind. Affected to, parse, how?

    Your pygmalion play is childish. And its not a Turing Machine, you spelt it wrong. Curry Machine is perhaps getting closer.

    Breathe the pressure, come play MY game and I Will Test You.

    The world is a vampire, but tell me, where’s the chosen one?

    Don’t make me do all the work if you want to speak in Tongues. You have my address. To enter you must knock.

    Cheers.
    Y(MC)Y

  22. Oh wait maybe you DON’T have my address, not sure how wordpress does these things.

    I am

    yorgsterity@gmail.com

    if you’d like to continue the conversation in private, Groo. Or I can do public to, if that suits you. Am interested in hearing your thoughts on lots of stuff.

    Cheers.

  23. Hmmm. Groo is even better than he looks, or he scares off easily.

    Oh well.

  24. YmcY,

    you’re funny.

    What should I explain?
    Bayesians stick to some basic faculty of reasoning, which I learned early on in my profession.
    Called Markov-chain.
    Bayesianism, as I understand it, makes sort of a cult of a basic faculty of ‘modern’ reasoning.
    When visiting lesswrong, I have the strong impression that there is a couple of nerds, trying to make sense of the world.
    To visit there, is like an ethnologist of human affairs, watching a strange tribe, adoring a totem, which every natural grown pygmée easily surpasses.
    The ‘nerd’ as a new tribe, who cultivates his convictions as a new absolute, is recognized by others as an autist.
    He is lacking some human faculty, namely recognizing the world as some ultimately strange, against which we have to position ourselves, and ultimately against this strange other named ‘god’.
    Understand this or not.
    My own interest -or obsession- if You will- rests, or starts with second order cybernetics, which quite early on has peculiar problems: Like tautologies and recursion.
    Bullshit-Bayesians try to pull problems like that down to their mode of thinking, and they fail spectactularly.
    This applies to the whole field:
    Yudkowsky , Hanson, Kurzweil etc.
    Those poor beings belong to the semantic field of of explaining ‘it’ down to their fitness.
    Hope that helps.

  25. Thanks, I try to be funny! I knew I guy once I used to call the Joker, he was pretty funny and he like my sense of humour too, I think.

    When visiting lesswrong, I have the strong impression that there is a couple of nerds, trying to make sense of the world….
    [snip]
    This applies to the whole field:
    Yudkowsky , Hanson, Kurzweil etc.

    I agree! But they’re doing a very good job of making sense of the world IMO. They’re just making one or two ingredients to make their theories and philosophical framework. I’m not sure you and I agree about those ingredients, though

    He is lacking some human faculty, namely recognizing the world as some ultimately strange, against which we have to position ourselves, and ultimately against this strange other named ‘god’

    So you’re a Lucifer-angel-of-light, Prometheus-bring-us-the-fire kinda person? Read the Northern Lights trilogy of Pullman? That shaped my thinking a lot.

    My own interest -or obsession- if You will- rests, or starts with second order cybernetics, which quite early on has peculiar problems: Like tautologies and recursion.

    This is true, and very, very important. Its tied up strongly with Godel and Cantor and other pieces of Deep Maths, from what I can tell. If you’re going to build a “Friendly Skynet” ala Elizer Yudkowsky, you need a strong understanding of the implications of tautologies, recursion etc. I haven’t exchanged words with Elizer or Robin Hanson or Kurzwelli, so I don’t know how much they know about this problem. BTW speaking of Elizer, have you read much of his Harry Potter fanfic?

    I find you interesting, groo, and now that you’ve come back and played My Game, I find that I think you pass My Test (so far ;-]). Email me at the provided email address if you wish to converse further. I have a tribe of my own, like the Bayesians in some respects, but different in certain critical ways. Maybe you will have an interest in it. We are very ecumenical and syncretic in our approach to philosophy and theology.

    If the email address bounces or whatever, feel free to provide yours, here.

    Cheers

  26. YmcY,

    I am basically an agnostic in the Humean sense, and do not stick to any tribe.
    I am also not interested founding another one.
    The effort stretches over the centuries.

    In short: I have no answer.

    What I have, when exercising my rational and emotional faculties, is a basic view of the ‘world’.

    If one switches off the emotional side, One is actually uploadable.
    Then One is a robot, whose transcendental need concentrates on searching for the next power outlet for recharge.
    Surprise:
    The power outlet and everything behind it, is his ‘god’.

    Hopping some steps further, you are confronted with the second sentence of thermodynamics, and all the strong/weak forms of transhumanists finally fail on this one.
    What they do, is: deny that problem.

    Ultimately this is covered by a set of beliefs:
    a) that the second sentence is NOT the last word.
    b) that ‘god’ cannot be reasonably challenged. (cf best of-world-hypothesis –Leibniz) , i..e. ‘god’ is an axiom, who created beauty and order.
    c) that there are NO multiple worlds.

    I do not have solutions to all those, and as a humble human being I try to cope with what is within my ‘event-horizon’.
    Everything else is left to my posteriors, whom I have to prepare.
    Thus my ego shrinks.
    I am prepared to die. (‘Dying’ is a well proven ‘axiom’.)

    If you agree with (most of) that, I would be glad to communicate with You.

  27. Re: the fact of death.

    It is-ahem- interesting, that death is a ‘fact’, which applies even to the immortals as an idea.

    So, even if death has conceptually been surpassed by some transhumanists, they have to acknowledge the fact of death –in the past!–.
    This is an interesting fact of the operation of the human mind.
    Right?
    Remembering is part of the flat space of the present.

    (This is not to say that, what the human mind reflects is something akin to ‘reality’.So the death of eg Achill is an immortal stench in the souls of the Immortals.Smell the tautoogy here?)

    The ancient Greek knew that.

    Could we proceed, please?

  28. groo said to YmcY, “Could we proceed, please?”

    Could you kill me first? This is the most rambling and inane conversation that ever occurred on this blog.

  29. Mitchell Porter,

    You probably misunderstood:
    ‘proceed’ to nothing.
    YmcY is most probably a deluded person.

    My own ramblings effect most probably nothing.So rest assured.

    But going back to the fineprint, or plot, as You will:

    The path has been paved, since Herbert Simon depraved BCL of funds.
    If you know what I mean.
    Probably not. If you know the dispute, please comment.
    Next (Thesis):
    The American mind got too focused on probabilism, and will pay the price.

    Katja’s ‘insight’ (she is not a baby):

    But if you really want to do something unusually useful, you’ll need a stronger criterion than ‘it affects everything’.

    is symptomatic of that.
    It is both tautological and ignorant.

    Your comment also.

    I give you a present –a Koan–.
    ——–
    A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully.
    When the one played or sang about a mountain, the other would say: “I can see the mountain before us.”
    When the other played about water, the listener would exclaim: “Here is the running stream!”
    But the listener fell sick and died. The first friend cut the strings of his harp and never played again. Since that time the cutting of harp strings has always been a sign of intimate friendship.
    ———
    I hope, but am not very confident, that a sufficient number of Americans, especially the ones with a philosophical inclination, grasp, what ‘Leerstelle’ is: The TASK of (mindfully) filling up an empty space.
    And start with Your government, which is not exactly an empty space, to be sure.

    Another one: Herbert Simon’s silly advice to poets, how they could improve the ‘quality’ of their poems by the use of Ai, which comes right out of the mode of thinking of Bayesian nerdism, so to say.
    Here he faced unanonimous opposition by the literates, btw. Rightly so.

    Do’nt know if You even remotely understand what I’m talking about.

    Conclusion:
    There seems to be an interpenetration of different worlds, who -in principle- do not understand each other.
    Dark matter and dark energy all around us.

    Talking to the wind, as the King Crimson song goes.

  30. I make another provocative statement:

    Poor Katja is completely compatible with the CIA , NSA and other good institutions.

    Her opinions are completely streamlined, according the the status quo and a strange kind of fiction.

    I have NEVER heard anything critical of her, regarding the status quo.

    Same with Robin Hanson, re the SQ as a political statement
    RH talks about the far future and such, but meticulously avoids critical points, concerning the present.

    This I find suspicious.
    As an alien European (not-trans-) humanist, I dare to notice that, and criticize that.

    Somehow Katja seems to represent -for me, a European, as said -a nerdish robot, trying to transport American ‘thinking’ to the rest of the world.
    Thank You!

    This is -in some way- understandable:
    Follow the money…. Survival.. Everything fits.

    The Katja-philosophy is a follow-the-money-philosophy, and as such a most despicable one.
    She finds it in the details, which is unworthy of a philosopher

    If You disagree, what does it matter?

    This is the clash between dark and known matter, one could say.

    Hope it would be different, but the American mind, expressing itself, does exactly that: hopefully selfdestruct.

    We are philosophers here, and a tiny portion of poets.
    You think this does not mix?
    Think again!

    • >Same with Robin Hanson, re the SQ as a political statement
      RH talks about the far future and such, but meticulously avoids critical points, concerning the present.

      The following, which someone posted on “Overcoming Bias,” helps explain:

      “Re Hanson’s anti-regulatory biases:
      “‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’
      ” – Upton Sinclair”

      The link the poster added is the explainer:
      http://world.std.com/~mhuben/mason.html

  31. why so aggressive just for a little question? @groo and jordan: what a nice way to show what “overthinking” means =)

    imagine this situation: having a co-worker who says everyday that if people used bikes in a city full of bike lanes as a mean of transportation it would be the ultimate solution to: traffic congestion, global warming, energy dependance, obesity, heart disease,bla, bla, bla. I think about this annoying situation as an example of “X is hugely important because it affects everything else”.

    Katja’s question could be a simple solution to deal with these kind of people. I’m sure you can think about some similar situation in your everyday life. Katja makes the distinction between two kinds of motives for people to do things: a) feels good, b) it is “useful” (affects everything), whatever useful means. Useful for whom and what for? Lots of people have discussed that topic: hedonists, utilitarists, stoics, etc. Choose your favorite belief flavour. In the end, maybe it feels good cause you think it affects everything.

    Also, about “people arguing from the interconnectedness of everything to the maximal importance of whatever they are doing.” This can happen with the middle guy in the company trying to boost self steem and perceived status. There are positions in our society that make you appear as the great guy, most of them not. Interconnectedness can help.

    Don’t overthink it, this is just a little call for people to make better arguments. Mind singularity and budhist stuff.

  32. axa,
    actually I decided to stop commenting here, to everybody’s relief.

    From the viewpoint of 2nd order-cybernetics (which is basically dead) most of the questions which AI and its offspring raises, are irrelevant.
    Interestingly enough, neoclassical economics finds itself in a similar situation as AI.
    It is eg: pondering the ’cause’ of chaos, and more specifically: what role reflexivity plays.
    Reflexivity seems to be a game changer.
    Soros recognized that.
    See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflexivity_%28social_theory%29

    But how can it be, that speculators nowadays have a say in the philosophical dispute?
    I think Soros is right, concerning the current state of affairs.
    Because this way of thinking makes a profit.
    Despicable, to be sure.

    This riddle: how to cope with complexity, resulting from reflexive systems/groups-interactions/inner workings, is worth all the sweat of noble people.
    (See eg Anatol Rapoport, who concentrated on the hierarchy of abstractions, which ‘we’ should have internalized by now.)

    IT IS OUR DUTY AS HUMAN BEINGS TO REDUCE CHAOS AND INCREASE ORDER.
    Right?

    But I do not see it here.
    Just a nice try.
    If you consider the strain between individual and collective ‘order’, You maybe ‘see’ it.

    Last hint: Peter Corning, a noble man:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Corning

    Corning is a true humanist.
    I am surprised that he does not live far away from the -ahem- others.

    –this was my last post here–

    The pond is widening.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Fans of groo can find more here: http://lesswrong.com/user/groo/ According to groo, LW is a “deeply disturbed community of american nerds, fighting the windmills of life”, a cute turn of phrase. Actually, groo, there are many more LWers in Europe than you might imagine, and there are plenty of Americans who think like you. See, for example, the crowd who show up at the annual “Bruce Sterling, State of the World” chats held at the WELL.

  33. @Mitchell Porter

    appreciate that.
    These were my my first and last postings at LW.
    The reactions were as expected, as they were embarssing.
    I was immediately put down into the deepest locations of the Dantean hell, which is according to their metric, MINUS points.

    One could laugh about that.
    But these guys/gals even lack a decent sense of humor.

    They react like the teabagger crowd..
    Thinking?
    Nope.
    They pretend. and feel comfort inside the mutual grooming of their community.

    My stitch into Hanson and the sponsoring of GMU by the Koch Brothers is also not something, which raises a lot of cheers by the ladies.

    Anyway. I wanted to stop arguing against windmills.

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