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Keep your Identity Small (2009) (paulgraham.com)
254 points by hvo on Feb 24, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 110 comments

I think when he talks about "identity" what he really means is unquestioning allegiances, preventing purely merit-based objective discussions on some issues. IOW when you have an angle in it, when you're in a discussion not to get to the truth of the matter, but to achieve certain goals you have, to influence others, to push them in a direction that is favorable to you (without being conscious of it, otherwise you're just a dishonest manipulator, and this is not about that).

Just wanted to be more precise about what this "identity" thing really means. I think though that you can have a "wider identity" and have "fruitful" i.e. truth-seeking merit-based discussions at the same time; you just have to be conscious - and honest - about it. So I'd dispute his implied drive that you mustn't "be" something (Communist, Christian, etc.). What is really called for is being cognizant and honest.

Taking being Communist as an example, this would mean that you're playing for the ultimate goal, not for the advancement of your party over others no matter what. Putting ideals over politicking.

Of course the core ideals is a much harder core. These core ideals are the true core of your being, there's no easy arguing about changing them.

I apologize if this all is trite and cliche.

I always find it interesting how some of the beliefs that form the core of our identity are actually ones we have investigated least rigorously (eg. political affiliation, religious denomination, etc.). We are much more likely to dissect and reject new ideas that do not benefit from this 'first-mover advantage' than question the ones with which we were endowed.

I write about this somewhat here: https://alexpetralia.github.io/epistemology/2018/02/22/your-...

thanks for the link. this is about protecting our 'investments', the fallacy of sunk costs. OTOH if we try to be honest and self-aware, what we're left with are the few core values and ideals, mostly about what choices are acceptable to us, that form our moral core. Maybe that's what he meant by "narrow" identity.

When someone self-identifies as a member of profession A, there are relatively quick ways of communicating their level of expertise, e.g. education, place of employment, job title, years of experience.

When someone self-identifies as a believer in religion X or political label Y, it is less easy to characterize their experience in the practice (usually harder than knowledge) of the community's exoteric and esoteric principles.

when you are being 'cognizant and honest', it is not about labels anymore. sticking with labels is exactly what 'politicking' is all about. 'Communist' is a label. Belief in voluntary mutual help, freedom of thought (i.e. right to know, to have free access to full information), freedom from coercion and manipulation (by deceptive misreporting, or forbidding access to some info, etc.) actually clashes with accepted practices by political communism as observed in recent history, but is goal- and values- oriented. So my thing is, let it be not about labels but about values - specific values, about sum total of our stances on specific issues. "To be" a "Communist" is thus a self-deception, substituting labels of political party affiliation for the true and real values. We as people often mix the two - we search for groups of people sharing our values to join in with them, and use labels as approximants, but this vague thinking usually / always leads to confusion and self-delusion. Same with religions. We sink into the details of a particular myth and forget that it was the shared values we were after, in the first place.

I think the point about identifying as a communist, or socialist, or a catholic, for example, is you accept a tradition with its warts. If you wanted to just affiliate with the values, you could say you were an anarchist, or a non-denominational christian, or indeed, just explain what you believe in.

As I see it, the latter is a cowardly choice. To affirm you're a catholic, or a communist, despite the often barbaric history of really-existing-X, is to accept that politics is hard, and that even beliefs that are gentle to the point of being asinine have their dark shadows, and that the only way to counter this is to be aware of them. To say you're a believer in the values, but not to identify yourself with those values as a tradition or history, is to ignore the danger of those values - and to risk re-enacting their failures.

You did good for pointing that out. Having formless, warm and fuzzy opinions adds little to the table, and makes for rather boring conversation.

> As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

Javascript has aged up I think!

And for the reason described in the essay: more people have identified either with it or against it.

Once being a JS programmer becomes a thing you are or aren't, people are arguing about themselves.

I guess we're all just Reactionaries right now.

At least we aren't Angularies, those apostates and heathens.

Apologies for not contributing anything meaningful to the overall discussion here... but this is one of the best things I've read all day.

Being a well rounded programmer though means you can talk about the tools, not blame the people who use them.

A virtue of open-mindness is that you can respectfully listen to opinions of others and empathize with them. Having the urge to advise or "mentor" somebody who hasn't really asked you or is not your child is futile.

Richard Stallman is warning of the dangers of JavaScript since at least 2009 [0]. That is about 9 years ago.

[0] https://lwn.net/Articles/324835/

He didn't have any bone to pick with the language _per se_, but rather with the inability to easily replace an app running in the browser with a modified version, even though the license allows you to do so. It was arguably a lot easier to modify scripts in place in 2009 with tools like Proxomitron or extensions like Greasemonkey, but modern complex SPAs made that harder.

It's a reasonable argument against JS in the browser, but it's not what actually bothers the vast majority of the detractors of JS. They hate the language itself and the rapidly changing Node.js ecosystem. RMS wouldn't have any issue with Node.js apps, since it's dead simple to modify and replace a free app there.

> but modern complex SPAs made that harder

Not just SPAs, but the pace of web development. A web app like Facebook or Github can see changes to its coding multiple times a day, sometimes with dozens of versions being A/B-tested at once. Have fun maintaining a Greasemonkey script for that.

This is an online forum, and despite the mention of religion and Javascript it hasn't yet degenerated into an argument. It seems the rule has exceptions.

Hacker News is an exceptionally civilized forum. But even then: this is not a discussion about JavaScript or religion, this is a discussion about discussions about JavaScript or Religion. So one level of abstraction away, which probably helps avoiding the flame war.

Now let’s try a discussion about ad blockers or net neutrality

Topics that are too controversial get demoted fast. http://www.righto.com/2013/11/how-hacker-news-ranking-really...

I have some strange urge to mention Electron right now... ;)

I only remember having seen merit-based discussion about Electron.

Electron is good for developers because it saves them time and they can use their HTML and JS skills instead of having to learn another language.

Electron is bad for users because the resulting applications are way too memory and CPU hungry.

Both of those are merits. The question then becomes, is Electron worth it? Some say yes. Personally I don’t use any Electron software, but if I found an app made in Electron to which there was no non-electron alternative, or none that was as good in terms of utility or function or user-friendliness, I might have used it. First someone will have to make Electron apps run on FreeBSD though, which last time I checked they didn’t unfortunately but whatever.

Edit: Seems that some people are quite close to getting Electron to build and run on FreeBSD. https://github.com/electron/electron/issues/3797 Question is, will it be maintained in the future?

I like to try on identities a bit like trying on clothes. If someone is making decisions based on identity, you'll find it hard to understand them, or empathize with their position if you can't imagine what their outlook is like. It's especially troubling if you think of people with different perspectives as being "other", alien in some way.

Most identities have positive things to commend them, as well as negatives. Frequently a set of identities mesh together into a consistent narrative of the world, such that you can't change people's mind on a single issue unless you can flip them on a whole bunch of related issues, or create a better narrative. These narratives are often backed by both ignorance and logical fallacies that cause evidence to be misinterpreted.

I think if you don't try out other identities, other world views, you're liable to get stuck in an identity by default, and just not be aware of how biased your perspective is.

This reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson's "Reality Tunnel" experiments. If you've not read him, I'd highly recommend his work - especially "Prometheus Rising".

I’m reminded of “Strong Opinons, Weakly Held”:

I’ve been pretty obsessed about the difference between smart people and wise people for years. I tried to write a book called “The Attitude of Wisdom” a couple times. And the virtues of wise people – those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know – is one of the main themes in Hard Facts. We show how leaders including Xerox’s Ann Mulcahy, Intel’s Any Grove, Harrah’s Gary Loveman, and IDEO’s David Kelley turn this attitude into organizational action. Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They've been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Instituite Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”


I've always been troubled by this because it seems to excuse poor behaviour i.e.

- "strong opinion" - the opinion is asserted aggressively and without tact

- "weakly held" - there is little justification for the opinion and it will be abandoned under pressure and on a whim

Sutton seems to want Strong to mean something about "attracting energy" as if Strong means "intentionally provocative" but it really isn't clear to me. I prefer "reasoned opinions presented thoughtfully" but then I'm British so... eh.

I think it's phrased that way to emphasize the -- perhaps unintuitive -- dichotomy, not to suggest that people be tactless or thoughtless. The way I (admittedly not British) read it is:

- "strong opinion" - I've thought about this a lot and it seems reasonable and justifiable enough to base my actions on it.

- "weakly held" - I recognize that I'm not a perfect being and can discard my opinions if I come across new, convincing evidence that contradicts them.

The main difference I think is avoiding equating "strong" with "brutish" and "weak" with "pushover". I think when those terms are applied to people that's how we think of them, but they just mean very different things in an academic/intellectual context.

My interpretation: "well-reasoned beliefs that are acted on strongly but easily discarded when appropriate".

If a belief or idea isn't well-reasoned or doesn't have strong backing then it should be held weakly and also _not_ acted on (neither in the affirmative nor vice versa).

I get "strong opinion" to mean not settling for middle ground just because there's an opposition or some pressure. And weakly held to mean it should be abandoned if new evidence makes it wrong.

I'd argue for the opposite: growing your identity beyond a single thing. If someone sees themselves as a waiter and nothing else, they're more likely to feel injured by someone saying that a waiter is a dead-end job, because the majority of their identity just took a heavy blow. But if they instead see themselves as a waiter, a gardener, a musician, and a reader, they'll be less affected when one of those things is attacked.

> But if they instead see themselves as a waiter, a gardener, a musician, and a reader, they'll be less affected when one of those things is attacked.

I think what you see in reality (at least these days) is that if ANY of the downsides to any of the identities are pointed out, you'll see people rush to have to defend it.

Also, I believe attaching your identity to being a waiter would be doing the opposite of what PG is suggesting here in the first place.

What is his suggestion, though, exactly? For a waiter to not consider 'being a waiter' as part of his identity? If we're talking about reality, that strikes me as a fairly unrealistic ask, especially if it's all the waiter does.

And I can only really speak from my personal experience. Having a diverse range of interests has given me a protective barrier that I didn't have when I was younger. When I was a teenager, for example, I didn't really have any skills except for "being good with computers". If someone (usually an older person) ever disparaged that, it destroyed me. I'd stew in anger and want to retaliate -- I can still remember. As I grew up, I diversified my interests. I got good at other things, too. Computers are now only a piece of my identity instead of the whole, and it's made me a lot less insecure.

The idea is about trying to keep seperate the things you do/feel/believe and what you are. For our waiter friend, is the fact that he's a waiter somehow the essence of his being? Or is it a job he does, because one needs a job and this is on balance a pretty good one?

In the latter case, if someone says that waiting is a dead end job, he can much easier say sure, yeah, not many places to go, but the hours are really convenient for my life situation. This is obviously a much more productive (or at least not destructive) outcome.

It's almost impossible to have a productive discussion with someone who is a [ideology]ist, but quite possible to have one with a reasonable person who is of the belief that [ideology] offers some good answers to problems in society.

I agree that it would be more productive for the waiter to be able to detach his identity from his job. But to even be able to do that in the first place, he needs to have something else going on. He needs to be so sure of his identity that an insult to his line of work doesn't bother him. But if he's taken the writer's advice, and kept his identity very small, what if he one day realises that whatever he saw himself as was a lie? Now he's in trouble again. And I think that's the danger of the writer's approach: you're always going to have to see yourself as something.

The writer claims that you can't think clearly about any topic that's part of your identity, but I disagree with that. I think the thing that prevents you from thinking clearly is that the topic is tied to such a large part of your being. If you instead grow your identity beyond a single thing, your capacity for outrage becomes diluted.

> you're always going to have to see yourself as something.

I think this is indirectly a large part of the problem. The trend in society is that everybody must have totally unique and interesting identities, and since few people are in fact "special" enough to live up to that ridiculously high standard, they need to pile on everything and the kitchensink to get to some reasonable approximation. And you'll still wake up one day and dread that your identity is not, in fact, unique and interesting enough, which looks a lot like your "a lie" scenario. But in the meantime, you've set yourself up to spend a non-trivial amount of time fending off attacks, real and imagined, on any of the myriad of items that make up your identity.

In a past not too distant, our waiter-friend would be content to see himself as a good person, a good friend and a provider for his family.

I think we both agree that contentedness is the goal, but we disagree on how to get there.

To you, it might seem like 'fending off attacks, real or imagined', is a waste of time, when the waiter could just snap his fingers and suddenly be content with being a good person. But I don't think it's that easy. I think that mentally fending off attacks is a necessary component of becoming content. For the waiter to arrive there, he needs experience. He needs to have reasoned through his problems and put his answers to the test: what makes a good person? Is it living virtuously? Is it living according to one's values? What are my values? I value craftsmanship, yet I'm a waiter -- is that a conflict? In my opinion, the waiter needs to figure all of that out before he can become content. You might call it a waste of time, worrying about things that may or may not be consequential. I call it building up mental fortitude.

Becoming content, in my opinion, requires mental fortitude, and having a varied identity is one of the tools to help build that. I'm still struggling to see how limiting my identity to a single thing helps me be content in any way. Even if I limit it to something as simple as 'a provider for my family', what happens if I fall on hard times and can't do that anymore? It's going to hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd rather be able to weather that storm when it comes.

It seems to come down to a definition of what it means for something to be a part of your identity. All of those internal discussions the waiter has, he can have those productively, probably more productively, without making waiterism his identity.

The point of limiting your identity to the core stuff, like providing for your family, is that those are the things are truly matter. If you can't provide for your family, that will hit you like a ton of bricks, regardless of whether it's part of your identity or not. But if you let a nasty comment about your hairstyle, the viability of socialism or whether Jesus really existed bring you down, you can choose not to care because it doesn't really matter (in that isolated interaction, the questions may well matter in the grand scheme of things).

Also, nobody said this was supposed to be easy, something you just flip on and off. But it's something individuals can think about for themselves and decide whether their haircut or profession is really important enough to feel attacked if someone makes a nasty comment.

Yeah, I think you're right about it coming down to a definition of what identity is.

When I talk about broadening my identity, I guess what I'm really talking about is exploring new interests and testing out new ideas. The thought of 'keeping your identity small', to me, seemed as if it was suggesting I should never invest myself into anything lest I open myself up to criticism (which struck me as a fearful way to live).

If I instead think of it as deciding between what matters and what doesn't, and only truly caring about things that matter, that makes a lot more sense, and is actually something I agree with.

> What is his suggestion, though, exactly? For a waiter to not consider 'being a waiter' as part of his identity? If we're talking about reality, that strikes me as a fairly unrealistic ask, especially if it's all the waiter does.

Yes, that's exactly what he's saying.

David Berreby's book "Us and Them: The Science of Identity"[1] pretty much agrees with you, and makes the case that the less rich/diverse someone's identity is (in essence: the more "single-issue" they are), the more likely they are to have a narrow view of it and to cling to it regardless of its validity.

His conclusion is that an individual should cultivate multiple identities, so that each one is enriched by the others and becomes more nuanced in the process.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Us-Them-Identity-David-Berreby/dp/022...

The trick is not to see yourself as a waiter even if you have a job waiting tables.

I like capturing this topic by making a distinction between nouns vs adjectives.

E.g. if someone is, say, "I am Polish" (or: "capitalist", "feminist", "Catholic", "socialist", "atheist", "gay" etc) and treats it an adjective describing their beliefs, tastes, etc it is up to an exploration and discussions (when evolution is accepted and does no harm to one's self-esteem). If someone else uses it to declare their identity, it makes it easy to make an entrenched view, with "us vs them", and in which change endangers one position (or, well, identity).

Also related - the "backfire effect" - where challenging a person's core beliefs only entrenches them further. Nicely explained and illustrated here by The Oatmeal: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

I loved this essay when it came out, and I still think it's pretty great. But I'm forced to acknowledge that a big reason I was on board with it is that the identities I was given to choose from when I was young didn't appeal to me.

And I'm forced to acknowledge that for most people, their identities do work and make them happy in ways I can only sort-of understand. And maybe they lower our society's level of epistemic virtue, but people may never let them go, and it's not obvious that we ought to try to convince them to beyond a certain point.

I like balioc's perspective here https://balioc.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/responsa/. The whole thing is good, but he responds to PG's essay specifically with:

"I could answer by saying that, in many circumstances, identity really is necessary for hedonic well-being. [...] the world isn’t set up to provide us with constant sources of utility, so it’s much better to have a constantly-accessible utility generator inside yourself, even if that generator requires some finicky maintenance."

That's basically the reason why I've never joined any political party or any other group (as an identity). Labels restrict thinking, and you can get pulled into knee-jerk reactions even if you are conscious of how that works.

Changing identity has a high cost for the organism (social connections, access to institutions, cognitive dissonance, existential crisis), which is why I think some people have those knee-jerk reactions. It's evolution at work.

I do my best to avoid believing in anything. That is, I have working hypotheses, more or less well-tested, but always open to revision based on new data. I do have principles and values that are essentially freely chosen. But even those are subject to revision. I strive for what works.

That approach rather precludes religion. Because most religions are explicitly untestable.

I think the problem is that it's logistically impossible to empirically test all your working hypotheses. For example, my working hypothesis is that Darwinian evolution is a true theory about the development of life on this planet. But as I'm not a biologist, I don't really have the skills to empirically test my hypothesis; I just trust that other people have done this and are doing a good job. Similarly, I believe reports that there are as many as 10^22 stars in the universe, but I won't test that either because I'm not an astronomer and I generally trust astronomers...

In other words, I think there is an intermediate category that deserves attention:

1) Beliefs that you refuse to revise 2) Beliefs that you could revise in theory but probably never will in practice (for lack of expertise, resources, etc) 3) Beliefs that you actively try to develop

We are limited in our beliefs by our material capacities for inquiry, sadly.

Yes, of course. But none of that stuff that I'll never test is a belief. It's all provisional. I'm also prone to decline to have an opinion, admitting that I'm not qualified.

I wonder if it would be sufficient to restrict nouns that you use to assert your identity to those which can be 'verbified': I am a juggler because I juggle; I am a programmer because I program; I am a writer because I write.

Those particular nouns seem to be inherently less likely to cause partisan behaviour that nouns that can't be as easily 'verbified': I am British because I Brit; I am not Christian because I don't Christ.

I suppose a simpler way of saying this would be to restrict your sense of identity to things you do over things you believe. Although I'm not at all certain that this would actually serve to avoid the kind of 'dumbness' the author describes.

...I think identity in this context is largely the "I am a" form.

I'm a giggler is identity. I juggle, or even I am the juggler is not the same sort of a mark of Identity. So I'd say the advice is is avoid (or at.least recognize and minimize)) thinking in the "I am a" frame.

I agree the advice in the article is to avoid "I am a ..." but given that seems somewhat impossible and the advice is to avoid this construct in order to prevent a kind of 'dumbness' as described by the article, I was wondering if it would be sufficient to avoid 'non-verb-ifiable' nouns in order to achieve the desired outcome: prevention of dumbness. I should have made that aspect of my comment clearer.

Good advice, albeit hard to accomplish. Identity is a core part of political party formation, at least in Europe (together with self-interest and ideology). No doubt it has an important role in marketing as well. I don't see these forces giving up on pulling the identity lever any time soon, it seems to gain importance if anything.

However, perceived identity coupled with a sense of oppression, exceptionalism and/or fear of extinction is what always gets us in trouble (i.e. war), so there are a number of good reasons to keep tight reins on identity.

With a weak identity you can just hop over to the winning side. I think a lot of polemic attacks over identity aren't aimed so much at the opposition, but at weak supporters to stop them defecting.

Agreed. Humans tend to quickly self-sort into tribes. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's fun (sports), sometimes it's exploitable

Not just humans. Other hominids operate at a tribal level.

Obviously there is a survival adavantage to help ensure the genes of your tribe (genetically close relatives) survive.

I can’t help but think that human political ‘tribalism’ is just atavism.

But apparently fear of extinction doesn't lead people to leave their cars at home or to waste less...

Seems like the only reactions these fears cause are misguided and radical ones.

there is a prisoner's dilemma type of effect here where, when other people are "defecting" (wasting fossil fuels and packaging), it's rational for the individual to defect as well.

I don't get that, though: there's little to no penalty in this case to avoid "defecting". Things may cost a little more for you, but it's not nearly as drastic or dire as the expected outcome in the actual prisoner's dilemma if you don't defect.

consider that the cost of complying is immediate and borne by the agent, whereas the penalty of defection is discounted according to the degree to which people believe it can be postponed (insofar as they consider the penalty at all).

I don't know if I can quite express how wonderful it was to read this. I'm not so naive as to believe it's not because it lines up with my notions, and as said in the article (or implied) there's no sense in talking past your expertise. All I can say is that the Dunning-Kruger (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect) seems to be at play in most online discourse, and that certain subjects, especially in an environment of entitlement (i.e. everybody's opinion is "valid" - whatever that means).

Great points, echoes this:

"The trick is to keep your identity separate from your opinions. They're objects in a box you carry with you, and should be easily replaceable if it turns out they're no good. If you think that the opinions in the box are 'who you are', then you'll cling to them despite evidence to the contrary.

Bottom line: If you want to always be right, you need to always be prepared to change your mind."

from https://youtu.be/tlsU_YT9n_g?t=1m6s

One major way that identity corrupts arguments is when people ignore or excuse the flaws and weaknesses their position. When you hold others to a different standard than you hold yourself and your allies, it destroys the trust that is essential to a fruitful exchange of ideas.

So "not responding from identity" requires more than just being even-keeled and emotionally detached from the argument. It requires acknowledging the weaknesses in your position with the same receptiveness as you see flaws in others.

I’ve found that taking some time away from the argument can help all parties involved come to terms with what you’re describing. Its can be difficult to do, and some time away from the scrum gives you a chance to replay the argument in your mind without having to defend your position.

> The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

I argue the more labels you have for not only yourself but for the world you experience, the dumber they make you.

If you believe your argument then you must find scientific study and discovery an exercise in making one dumber.

I'm afraid I find your argument to be a defense of ignorance.

The argument I made stems from a spiritual, non-dualistic perspective. While reading the blog post and writing the comment, I was thinking about how I think a lot about what is capital-t true. I usually find then if I would like to move towards what is capital-t true, dis-identifying and dropping labels is the start, individually and worldly. It's a lot like the pursuit of certainty by Descartes: What he did was lay everything down that he has known and throw away all which wasn’t certain, which later translated into: “Cogito ergo sum.” In similar form, I think ought to do the same: dis-identify with things, not have a reactive like or dislike with life, not mentally label every experience, etc. In other words, having labels and identifying with things is the opposite way towards where I would like to go, since that, I think, gets away from the core of what is capital-t true. If any of things I said above makes any sense.

Ultimately, I'm sorry, I should have gone into detail why I think my argument is the case. I'm also afraid I don't have a scientific study, it's really just what I have come to know at the moment, though I'm certain what I know at the moment will change, plus I do love counter-arguments since that's where we get somewhere really worth noting. I also should have not used the word 'dumber', but another, more compassionate word, I think.

Science is about destroying labels, it's a systematic process for declaring that entities do not exist.

Ignorance of things that aren't actually true is a virtue!

As a counterpoint, it's entirely possible that avoiding identifying with anything also cuts off a massive range of psychological states, meaning that you may not become as empathic as other people, and thus have fewer ideas, or at least ideas of a different sort.

The ultimate trick would be to identify with everything. Hopefully a brain-computer interface might make that sort of experience possible in the future.

I was immediately reminded of a wiki page about enlightenment (Immanuel Kant) [0] after reading through the essay, which may an interesting additional reading to some. The English translation of the essay that the wiki page is based on can be found here [1].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Answering_the_Question:_What_i...

[1] http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html

I had thought politics and religion were controversial because they have to do with how you run your life. For example, if I own guns, and you propose banning them, then I imagine someone coming and taking my guns, and I can get mad.

A useful Corollary being that identity politics, in another words convincing people to identify with increasingly smaller and more specific groups, and getting them to fight amongst themselves, in other words trying to increase their identities to include some more things, is the perfect way to keep people from thinking clearly about real issues. A useful way to keep the population on the back foot in a democracy keep them fighting about emotive issues rather than thinking clearly about substantial one, and divide the market into small sections to make it easier to direct messaging to appeal for votes.

Politics are interesting. Perhaps politicking wouldn't be necessary if we could determine with accuracy the results of policies before implementing them. For example, maybe this could be done by complex computer simulation in the future. Furthermore, policy might be synthesized by the same processes if it can be simulated.

Which then raises another interesting point: would democracy be less efficient and necessary if we could determine optimal policy for society before implementing it? Would we just vote on the desires of society rather than policies to get us there?

I work at a think tank. I don't think any of the models used by any policy experts are at a level where such simulation is possible. We can't predict the weather more than about a week out, and that's just a physical system--policies depend on quirky humans with lots of weird incentives and preferences that are difficult to predict. Modeling can let you make educated guesses at best.

Of course, plenty of partisans have an interest in producing models that spit out results that just so happen to show what they already believed (e.g., Tobacco Institute), and politicians will cite those results with the same regularity as more rigorous work. Without expertise in the matter, it can be hard to find any given model's weak points; and they all have weak points.

As for voting for desired outcomes rather than desired policies: I'm pretty sure this is what most people are doing already. Lots of political pressure all around have your cake and eat it too. Sadly, I've never seen any policy that could solve a problem like that--too many trade-offs in real life.

A previous government in the UK spoke a lot about evidence based policy, in reality it was evidence based policy that also happened to match their ideological outlook.

Perhaps our future AI overlords will have a different approach.

I agree that tying one’s convictions to identity and arguing on the basis of identity makes cooperation among individuals with different identities harder. However, I find the suggestion to reduce one’s identity problematic. First, identity plays an important role in developing a sense of community and aides in-group cooperation. And second, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s easy to underestimate the attachment to identity when one’s own identity happens to be widely-accepted and/or relatively easy to discard.

When in the history has this "boxing" of oneself started?

Maybe other cultures don't surround the consciusness with so much fluff, like "I'm a valedictorian from the Yale class of 2010 and I work at Goldman and play polo". Or "I'm a Lenin follower and everyone should bow to international marxism".

I think eg. the Chinese take on this is more about the family or something. Any pointers?

Plenty of cultures attach identities to their societies - Sunni/Shi’a, Hutu/Tutsi, etc. Other cultures don’t focus as much on their “work identity” as you described, but they fill their identities with others.

Source: lived overseas and been to 25+ countries.

How can you advocate for your own self-interest politically, if it is not connected to your identity?

How would you even decide what policies you want?

PG makes it seem like we could simply do politics by creating some ultimate utilitarian function. But then how do you decide what it counts as good?

In fact, there is no separating identity from politics, no matter how you try to obfuscate it.

I think you might have a good point, there is no "objectively good" in politics. For example when you consider highly unequal incomes as a problem in society then you will support different measures than when you don't find that problematic at all. For both there is no "real" basis, the measurement for "good" is only your image of how you want the world to be in 100 years and thus entirely subjective.

Why the down votes? Please explain your reasoning.

Sadhguru a yogi, mystic, and visionary explains the problem of identity in a very profound way (for example in this google talks video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQn8X4FbpTM) he says our identity should be the whole universe.

As a pantheist I agree.

That's why when you argue with someone about one of these topics and you try to prove a certain point that does not fit ther line of thinking, you are effectively thwarting their identity. In their exes you make them less of a person. You take away a part of their identity. Nobody wants that.

I make a distinction between positive/inclusive or negative/exclusive identity. While I certainly condone the statement "I'm not a murderer", I try to define myself in terms like "I value life". This gets tougher when certain positive constructs come with a lot of negative connotations. We can try to reclaim those words, emphasize that being a nerd is about devouring information and not about despising social contact, but sometimes its a lost cause and all we can do is come up with a new word. Another way of thinking of it is to be the union of identities, not the intersection. This heuristic can fail in many ways, but it's served me well so far.

This is all very convenient if you happen to be of the dominant identity. Even if you don't consciously associate yourself with it, you benefit from it.

For those not of the dominant identity, to "not even to consider yourself an x" is a problem if you are an x and the problem you want to address is systemic unfairness toward x.

Imagine yourself a slave in 1850 being advised to not consider yourself a slave, or black, because you'd avoid useless discussions.

Imagine yourself a woman today being advised by HR to not consider yourself a woman or your experiences as one when discussing workplace discrimination or harassment.

Imagine yourself a gay man being advised to forget you are one when discussing laws restricting gay marriage.

You get the picture.

Note the title is "Keep your identity small", not "Reduce your identity to zero". While I think I can see what you're getting at, I'm not sure I follow the logic. Bear with me for a moment: In the case of slavery, I wouldn't want someone to consider themselves a slave, I'd want them to consider themselves a human being and expect to be treated as such. Similarly for anyone dealing with harassment or unjust marriage laws. These conditions aren't unjust because one is a slave or a woman or gay. They're unjust because you're a human, and the conditions are inhumane. A slave doesn't want to continue to be a slave; a woman doesn't want to have to put up with harassment because they're a woman; a gay man doesn't want to be treated differently because he's a gay man: they want to be treated fairly and justly because they're human.

I think one of the things Graham is pointing towards is finding what is common among people, rather than focussing on the differences. A couple of sentences that stood out to me when I read it were "More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities." I read that as focussing on those topics in common.

None of this is guaranteed, of course. But I think it's a more constructive way forward than focussing on what divides people.

Would you expand on what aspects of the piece you took to supporting the conclusions and examples you provided above?

I think this is similar to “liking” vs “doing” something, in terms of defining yourself.

Anybody can like something, and build an identity based on taste and opinions. It requires no skill. But doing something is a much deeper way of defining yourself.

The book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt explores similar concepts.

It is an extremely interesting book on moral psychology. (YC 2017 Summer Reading List)

> Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

I like how in this context it sounds obviously flawed, and yet, funny enough, we still have no better political system than for everyone to express their opinion and then count them — no expertise required

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant

I'm fairly intolerant Paul, with the things I deem wrong.

And first thing is, why the fuck are listening to you about Politics and Religion. What is your experience on those area so you can enlighten us. In which forums (nowadays they are called chat groups) have you debated hard, holding your ground. And how many people have you convinced on 1 vs 1 ideological battles.

I'm tired of false prophets. And I get this Paul guy is someone related to the world of software. But someone should steal him the mic when he starts talking about topics he is not experienced enough.

People need to keep their Identity BIG. But they need to realize about the bad things in their cultural heritage, keeping only the good things and erasing or transforming the bad ones. It's simple.

But Paul, if you don't know about how to convince people that is opposing your views then please don't try to make magic 1 liner recipes for everyone. Cause people is dumb, and many of them will blindly follow your command without fully understanding it. The same thing as with Agile methodology and other abstractions (10 commandments for example) that come from many years expertise of one guy with much wisdom, but that at the end, people blindly follow without making them think or test it to see if it's right.


And here we have 2009 Paul Graham, with an ego as big as it gets, telling other people not to have an strong ego. So he is denying others the tool that makes individuals be certain about their ideas and possibilities. He is denying others their right to grow.

The trouble here is that the more you know about something, the more it must necessarily form part of your identity. I could otherwise dispense the most dispassionate (and apparently therefore excellent) advice on topics ranging from Micronesian politics to string theory.

Plenty of this going on right now in the world of cryptocurrency. And possibly for the same reason: who is to say what coin is good (will succeed) or not?

I don't recall how it was back in 2009, but you definitely don't need to be a JavaScript expert to have passionately useless opinions about it.

I came to a similar conclusion recently, and I believe that evolutionarily, the concept of identity originates from the biological drive to protect one's physical body. One then voluntarily expands or contracts one's sense of identity from there.

So I did some mental experiments. Temporarily reducing my identity to not include my physical body, bit by bit.

Then, what am I?

My consciousness.

What if I reduce it further?

I lose consciousness.

(But I get it back after I wake up.)

What if I try to lose the sense of identity while still remaining aware?

It wraps around and I become the universe. Am one with the universe.

It was an interesting journey.


It sounds like what you're talking about is Pascals Wager[0]

The idea being that belief in God pays of well if true. And is alright if false. Disbelief in God pays off poorly if true, and alright if false. Therefore, any logical person ought to be a Christian, since the consequences of belief are net positive either way. Or so the thought goes.

As a person of faith, I will say that this thought experiment is fairly flawed. For one, you must apply Pascals wager to all faith systems simultaneously if you want to be sure you get the best outcome. But of course, it's not equally likely that Pastafarianism is the one true way as is Buddhism as is Atheism. How do you weight the possibilities in such a way to do an honest analysis? These things are based on what you believe already - so then the question of what to believe becomes recursive, really.


> The idea being that belief in God pays of well if true. And is alright if false. Disbelief in God pays off poorly if true, and alright if false.

That makes lots of assumptions about what God is and how he behaves.

Well I'm paraphrasing Pascal's Wager which is about the Christian God - and the options therein of being heaven or hell.


Not... really?

I mean, obviously atheism is a pretty broad thing (just like "religion", or even "Christianity" encompasses many views).

But for a lot of people, the essence of atheism isn't about anything to do with final judgement. It's just... not believe that God exists. For lots of atheists, it's not a rebellion of anything like that. We don't believe in God in pretty much the same way you probably don't believe in Shiva.

I’m agnostic. I was raised in a relatively strict, traditional Roman Catholic family. At age 18, I embraced a strong atheist stance, influenced by the books by Hitchens and Dawkins being published around that time. Eventually my interest in this stance lessened.

However, I dislike this “act of faith” line of reasoning and find it disingenuous. In the Roman Catholic tradition, believing is an act of faith. There isn’t a “proof” so to speak for why one should believe in God, etc. That’s not to say there aren’t various reasons proposed by religious thinkers.

But to say that an atheist’s not believing in God is an act of faith in itself is strange to me. I think it’s sort of a mischaracterization of atheism. Not believing in God isn’t an act of faith. It’s declining to take that act of faith in the first place. Arguments about the influence science aren’t even necessary here.

As to my own beliefs, my position is to decline the leap of faith. I don’t believe in God, but neither do I rule out the possibility that there is a God, especially in a more pantheistic or possibilian sense (see David Eagleman).

I think it’s fair to say that science hasn’t explained everything about the universe yet. I think it’s presumptuous to argue otherwise.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s fair to say my lack of a leap is itself an act of faith.

...unless we want to go down the rabbit hole in which every thought or action is an act of faith...

Atheism is the belief that God was killed by the Big Bang.

I love how this thread is gradually devolving into a religious argument, exactly what the article was warning about in the first place.

I disagree with a lot of what you wrote, but I think the most obvious one is - this exact argument can be used to show that you must believe in the Hindu gods. Or in Islam. Or in Mormonism. Or in any of a number of other (mutually exclusive) religions.

What makes you think any particular God is the right one?

Edit: cleared up the language to make the point clearer.


You're right -I cleared up the language. I don't mean your God, I mean, believing in any specific God.

I think instead of making Pascals wager, it's more useful to simply ask: What's the likelihood (or evidence) that x religion is human created?

Even though it's unknowable, science prefers simplicity. As scientist we should prefer the model of the world with the fewest number of assumptions. The existence of something is more complex than non-existence (which is the default). If we could explain the world without a god just as well as with one then there is no reason to go for the more complex theory. That is especially true in e.g. the Christian sense of god, which comes with a ton more assumptions.

I don’t know if a god exists or not, but I feel pretty confident that it wouldn’t be the puerile and judgmental, contradictory, oh-so-Human prick described in Abrahamic religions. Hopefully any creator is going to recognize the many limitations of its creations, and if not, good luck guessing its whims.

Interesting idea. If your political ideology is part of your identity like race or gender, should it become a protected class for anti-discrimination protection?

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