Codex Vitae
NOTES / A living (and dying) book of my beliefs

What are beliefs?

A belief is a personal perspective that was sharpened by all the random pieces of information and experiences we bump into during our lives. A belief can be a perspective on anything from “what is the best burrito in SF?” to “how did the universe begin and how will it end?” to “how easy should it be to buy a gun?” and beyond.

What is this document?

This is a public, living, dying, document that I created as an experiment one Sunday in April of 2012 (see the Changelog below for a full history), and has been revised at least yearly ever since. Maintaining it has become one of the most treasured activities in my life. It’s a way for me to remember who I am, catch inconsistencies in how I respond to different events in the world, react to current events from a position of how I believe the world is, should be, and will become. I’ve updated it at least once a year since 2012, and all changes are tracked. Rather than attempting to avoid all errors in this doc, I’m attempting to be as specific as possible and to quickly correct errors when they become apparent.

Why does it exist?

My main goal here is to get wiser over time by identifying new connections and inconsistencies in my beliefs. It’s tough to do this as a purely mental activity because specific beliefs are so difficult to get a firm grasp on. When you do, putting them on a page makes it possible to revisit again later. All of this is necessary in order to consistently course-correct over days, months, years, and decades. A secondary goal is that I’d also like to extend an invitiation for others to spark conversations with me about anything they find interesting, incorrect, or confusing and to also help keep me accountable.

What if some of my beliefs are wrong?

Some most definitely are. This document captures my best guesses and articulations of my own beliefs, which were inherited and molded partly by the environment I’ve lived in, partly by the people around me, and partly by my own interpretation of life experiences. They are full of gaps, inconsistencies, and vagueness. 

The book of beliefs

On aliens

  • Other intelligent life forms exist somewhere in this universe.
  • We’ll discover the creations of alien civilizations (ie. long-lived, patient robots they send into space) before we discover their original biological species.
  • Aliens will probably discover our own long-lived, patient robots before they discover us.
  • The vast majority of intelligent beings throughout the universe are probably more similar to robots and cyborgs than organically evolved life.
  • Aliens are unlikely to be aggressive. Any sufficient reason to come specifically to us is unlikely to be motivated by typical warlike intentions, because we don't have anything special in the universe that they can't get elsewhere for cheaper.

On artificial intelligence

  • Machines will eventually become more intelligent (in terms of practical applications of intelligence) than humans are today.
  • Machines will make humans more intelligent than we are today.
  • Intelligence isn't a single skill that can be acquired all at once, but the result of learning processes that take in one or more flows of new information, and communicate out analysis of the data in meaningful ways. Every flow of data will favor different intelligences, and intelligences that exist on one or more flows of data won't necessarily be adapted for other flows of data.

On cognitive biases

  • We're susceptible to many cognitive biases and logical fallacies, because our brains require them to get any thinking done within our constraints of time and energy.
  • Every single person, including myself, has many implicit associations that lead to bias that they/I can't fully eradicate in ourselves. It's more effective to accept that fact, and account for it by being transparent about it, and looking for ways to repair damage caused by it, to try to hide it.

On consciousness

  • The sensation of consciousness is real, but beyond that is tough to say.
  • Free will exists within constraints, in the same way a goldfish has freedom and autonomy within its fishbowl.

On critical thinking

  • When assigning responsibility for life outcomes, there are two poles: one being a high-agency stance that treats individual freedom and responsibility as absolute, and the other a low-agency stance that treats choices as constrained so much by social structures that responsibility is best placed on the system as a whole. I think it's necessary to carry both of these positions simultaneously and to default to responsibility when considering our own agency.
  • Most questions have no answer (but asking them and talking about them anyway can be entertaining and even useful).
  • I subscribe to Hume's Fork, which claims that there are two kinds of knowledge: matters of fact, and relations of ideas. Matters of fact aren’t accessible to us—we can never know something for certain, only that it hasn't been proven wrong yet. We can only create a self-referencing network of ideas that are related to each other. '2 + 2 = 4' and 'My name is Buster' are both conclusively true if we agree to the definitions and relations between each word and symbol.
  • Logic is a helpful tool, but has flaws and if relied on too heavily it can cause more problems than it solves.
  • Even if absolute truth about matters of fact aren't accessible to us, it's still possible to get closer to it. Especially in the context of making better predictions on limited data.
  • The human brain (in its current state of evolution) can't comprehend the universe.

On dialogue

  • The conversation is the relationship. If the conversation is going poorly between two or more people, so are the relationships. And vice versa.
  • If you're stuck in an unproductive or harmful conflict that seems impossible to resolve, the best course of action is to consider other alternatives to resolution like learning about how the other side thinks, connecting on a personal level, and inspiring action that both sides would benefit from.
  • There are several ways to make a conflict productive other than through resolution. For example: learning something that was previously hidden, connecting with someone at a deeper level, having fun, becoming inspired to act in collaboration, etc.

On ecosystems

  • Human-influenced climate change is real, and it's appropriate to panic.
  • Climate change is of particular importance to humans, because it poses an existential risk to our survival, but it's not the only risk and not the greatest risk (see existential threats).
  • Within this universe, we evolved through natural systems that required no outside intervention.
  • Micro and macro evolution really happen.
  • Disrupting the world's ecology (through deforestation, overfishing, monocultures, etc) poses a 5% existential threat to us.
  • Climate change poses a 1% existential threat to us, partially because of the problem and partially because our solutions to it might backfire.