The first hard choice
Today I’d like to tell you about a problem I’ve been thinking about but don’t have a good solution to yet. I recently had a great conversation about this class of problems which gave me a good metaphor for this: How do you listen to the Sirens?
But first, a small content warning: This post is dark. It touches lightly on some dark subjects, including cults, addiction, depression, torture, and self-harm, without really going into much detail on any of these, but also it talks more broadly about themes that are highly relevant to these subjects and others (including e.g. abusive relationships). Nothing in this piece involves graphic descriptions of the details of any of these things, but it’s quite bleak and depressing and may be A Lot to read.
I should also emphasise that I am fine. Nothing bad is going on that is making me think about this in particular. My reasons for thinking about it are complicated and hard to summarise, but are all perfectly healthy ones, I promise.1
Odysseus and the sirens
I’m not talking about police sirens and the like of course. I’m talking about the ones from Greek mythology. Here’s the story in short, as recounted by Wikipedia:
In Greek mythology, the sirens were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.
Odysseus was curious as to what the sirens sang to him, and so, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he might beg. When he heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him but they bound him tighter. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus demonstrated with his frowns to be released.
There are actually two types of sirens here. There are the literal sirens on the island, luring Odysseus and his sailors onto the rocks, but there are also the idea of the sirens, looming large in Odysseus’s mind. He wants to know what they sound like, and the temptation of his curiosity calls to him. That siren song he gives into.
I can’t help but feel that Odysseus made a dumb choice here, and I wonder: For the rest of his life, did he sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming of Siren song? Does he ever feel a yearning to go back and visit the sirens? If he does, will he still be able to bring himself to ask his sailors to bind him to the mast?
The island of the lotus eaters
Odysseus and his crew also encounter another problem with a very similar structure, the island of the Lotus-eaters.
I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.
(As translated by Samuel Butler)
Here it is Odysseus’s crew I wonder about. Do they forever after find themselves craving the taste of Lotus?
More importantly: Why did Odysseus resist the siren song of the lotus? He could have brought a lotus fruit with him onto the ship, and eaten it once he was away. Did he, perhaps, know that he was not strong enough to resist the urge to go back once he knew the taste of lotus?
Remembering the taste of lotus
This is, as you might imagine, in part a post about addiction and the temptation to addiction, so I should perhaps reemphasise that I’m fine. The worst real addictions I have are Twitter and coffee.
Nevertheless, I am aware of the potential in myself for addiction, and I do take steps to avoid it. A trivial example of this is cookie clicker games. I do not play cookie clicker games, because I have tasted the lotus, and I know what happens (I lose a lot of hours to clicking to make cookies), and I prefer the version of myself that does not click cookies.
In this case the memory is a much weaker siren than curiosity would be, because I know what cookie clickers are like, and they’re not that good. That being said, I cannot swear that if you put me in front of a cookie clicker I wouldn’t click that cookie. How much does one cookie hurt, really? I can stop any time I want.
Choosing not to eat the lotus
As I said, cookie clickers are not a serious concern for me most of the time. They’re not that good, and they’re not that bad. The worst case scenario is that I lose a couple of days clicking cookies, and the temptation to do so is not great.
Nevertheless, I am aware of the potential for cookie clickers as a strategic option available to me. I’d be lying if I said that the answer to the question “Would you like to spend the day in a dissociative haze mindlessly pressing buttons?” was never yes, and the main thing that stops me from succumbing to cookie clickers in those moments is frankly that I’ve got better solutions to that problem (not all of which work by giving in to the temptation and dissociating, thankfully).
But there are other lotuses and, unlike cookie clickers, for some of them the memory of the taste of lotus is a much stronger siren than wondering what lotus tastes like.
My central example of this is heroin. I have, thankfully, never tried heroin, and I very strongly intend never to do so (even in the unlikely event that it becomes legal to do so). But by all reports heroin feels amazing, and that’s why I think ever trying it is a bad idea.
I generally belong to a school of thought that addictions exist primarily as practical strategies to solve problems. People do not, generally, get addicted to drugs because of some magical addictive power, they get addicted because their life sucks, and the drugs solve some problem for them. They then generally relapse because those problems are unsolved, or because a new problem comes along.
The thing is, though, once you’ve added a tool to your toolkit, it becomes an option that is available to you, and each time you use it successfully it becomes more salient, and the set of problems it applies to better developed and typically larger. To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. To a man who has eaten the lotus, all suffering recalls the memory of its taste.
Let’s abandon Odysseus for now and talk about a class of thought experiments that I think about a fair bit. They’re not unique to me, but I’ve refined a particular form of them. I think of them as one-way button problems.
The characteristic feature of a one-way button problem is this:
There is a button (it doesn’t have to be a literal button, but I usually think of it that way). You can only press it once, and you can only press it intentionally, and once you have pressed it the world has changed in some irreversible way.
That change is not unambiguously good, and may be straight up obviously bad.
You cannot destroy the button.
How long before you press the button?
Here is my prototypical example of a one-way button problem:
You’ve died, and gone to hell. Sorry. You didn’t earn enough afterlife points. Probably bought too much chocolate made with slave labour or something.
You are currently in the first circle of hell. It’s basically fine. It’s small, not that interesting, and you’re alone in it, but you’re not actively being tortured or anything. Also you’re fully immortal now (what with being already dead), so that’s neat.
Also there’s a button. You can press it, and you will be instantly transported to the real hell. It’s everything you’d expect it to be. Fire, brimstone, demons, torture, etc. But until you press the button, you’re safe from all that.
I hope it is clear to you that you will eventually press the button.
Sure, you’re probably not going to press it tomorrow, but you’re immortal now. There is no conceivable way that you last a billion years without having a bad day in which you go “Anything would be better than this for another billion years. What’s the worst that could happen?” and then you press the button and the worst happens.
I do not think most people would last a billion years. I don’t think most people would last 50 years. I’m pretty sure some appreciable proportion of people don’t last out there year. People hate being bored, and will literally give themselves electric shocks to entertain themselves in preference to it.
Implicit in the thought experiment is that the alternative is, despite this, much worse. Pressing the button will not improve your afterlife. Your afterlife would be much better if the button did not exist, because you would never be tempted to press it.
But you will press it. The button is a siren, and you will eventually crash on its rocks.
In one sense one-way buttons are a thought experiment that has no relevance to our lives because such magical buttons do not exist.
In another sense, everything is a one-way button.
Every action you take irreversibly changes the world into one where you took that action, and you into someone who took that action.
Whenever you eat a lotus, you have pressed a button that turns you into a person who knows what that lotus tasted like.
Choosing not to matter
In Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”, he proposes the following thought experiment:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in?
In context the intended answer is “No, obviously not”. The very idea is repulsive. How could one choose a simulated reality over a real one where you interact with real people and your actions have consequences?
Anyway, sorry, turns out people would absolutely plug in to the experience machine. It’s not the majority choice, but it’s not a tiny minority either (the experiments aren’t really large enough or representative enough to conclude much about what the minority is, but report in the region of 20% ish).
This doesn’t seem surprising in retrospect. As mentioned, people’s lives often suck. If you already don’t feel like your life matters much, the question just becomes “Would you like to be happy Y/N?”
I like to think that I would not plug in to the experience machine. Certainly I wouldn’t plug in to the experience machine now, but it’s not hard for me to imagine life circumstances under which I would say yes, and I would certainly fail the immortality test from our afterlife button. Would I last 100 years? Maybe. Would I last a billion? Obviously not.
Like rats in a park
Have you seen the rat park comic? It’s very cute for a description of cruel experiments done on animals as a way to reveal the inherent bleakness of modern society.
The high level story of the rat park is that most of the studies done on addiction in rats are done on rats who are kept in normal lab conditions, and normal lab conditions suck.
(Image credit Stuart McMillen, from the comic linked above)
The (plausible, though as with all behavioural science intrinsically suspect due to its field) claim is that the happy rats in the rat park who are supported by their community of fellow happy rats do not give into addiction, and if you force them to get addicted anyway then their friend rats help them out with their rat rehab program.
(Update: This claim is probably false, although I still think it’s plausibly true that good social support makes it easier to avoid and recover from addiction)
This is a happy and positive message that has no downsides or things to worry about. You can resist the temptation of the lotus by hanging out with your buddies. Everything is fine.
Cults are a thing, FYI
Unfortunately, sometimes the real lotus is the friends we made along the way.
We’re apparently calling them “high demand groups” now, but cults are absolutely a thing, and even the friendship groups that aren’t cults are a bit culty. How sure are you that you would still have friends if you radically disagreed with the ones you have right now?
That is, if you actually have a group of friends. If you’re like most of us, what you have is an atomised collection of individual friendships, all of whom yes of course you would love to spend time with but let me check my calendar…
If you’ve already got a great community of friends who will stabilise you, draw you away from the lotus, and pull you back and put you through lotus rehab, that’s wonderful. I’m genuinely delighted for you.
Most modern (and probably historic) friend groups, I think, are not like that. If anything they’re more likely to go “Oh god, you’re being so much work right now. Have you tried eating a lotus instead of bothering me?”, or to notice you lotus eating and either decide that it’s not their problem or is a moral failing on your part.
In contrast, wouldn’t it be nice to have a warm, supporting, loving community who have the answer to all your problems and will always be there for you? I mean sure, they believe some strange things, and sure they’ve got some weird entrance requirements, but that’s probably worth it, right?
Here, let me help you with that
The general feature of lotuses is that they make your life happier and simpler, and all you have to do to obtain that is give up things that matter to you.
Every time you willingly subsume yourself into the broader whole, you have eaten the lotus. You have gratefully passed your burden of choice onto a higher authority. You no longer need to face the vast existential anguish of choosing how to live your life. All you need to is listen to the others, and to do what you’re told.
Doesn’t it feel wonderful?
It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.2
You cannot refuse the lotus
Here’s the thing. You cannot refuse the lotus. You should not refuse to listen to the sirens.
To refuse the lotus is to always choose the hard path, to resist all simplifications. In picking the easy path, you are choosing the lotus, you are abandoning that which matters about the hard path.
And if you do not do this, you will achieve less than the greediest lotus eater, because you abandon any and all sources of efficacy as too easy, or spend your energy on low priority things because to do otherwise would be lotus eating.
Every time you order takeaway, or take the bus instead of walk half an hour, or even skip an important activity because you are too tired from all of the other things you did the hard way, you are choosing the lotus.
You can refuse the sirens if you wish. You can disengage from the world, move to a tiny cabin somewhere, isolate yourself from any and all sources of joy, lest that joy tempt you towards greater joy, and self-destruction.
Now you are in the experience machine, but worse. You have chosen not to matter, and to be unhappy doing so.
The sirens speak the truth
It’s actually worse than that, because it’s not just that you can’t avoid the sirens, you also benefit from listening to them.
The sirens in the original Odyssey sing beautifully, but that is all they do. How much worse would the problem be if they sang true things to you?
As I said, addictions exist partially as practical strategies to solve problems. This means that things are addictive in large part to the degree that they are an effective problem solving strategy for recurring problems in your life. Every time the problem crops up, you reach for your solution.
And, often, this is fine. Moderation is entirely possible.
But moderation requires you to stand there, listening to the siren song, knowing how much more clearly you could hear it if you just approached closer. You know it would be wonderful to get closer to those rocks. And you choose not to.
The first hard choice
You must spend your life walking through fields of lotuses, listening to the beautiful music of the sirens.
Always, you could come closer to the sirens, and risk destroying yourself.
Always, you could eat more of the lotus, and you could choose to abandon what matters.
This is the first hard choice. You must choose to be the kind of person who chooses well.
And you must make it, over and over again, every waking moment for the rest of your life.
Sometimes you will choose poorly, because there is no decision you make that you cannot get wrong.
And now, forevermore, you are the person who chose poorly in that moment. And yet you must choose again, and again, until there are no more choices left.
The cover image is Ulysses and the Sirens, by Léon Belly, obtained from Wikimedia commons.
I must admit I got about two thirds of the way through writing this post and went “Are you sure you’re fine, David? Really sure?” and I still think I am but I must admit the externally visible evidence is not wholly on my side. Certainly I’m not in danger or anything.
Quote credit, Loki in The Avengers, but it’s much funnier if I don’t put it in a block quote.