World of crazy

Imagine a world. It is similar to the one you’re from except that everyone else believes in an extra terminal value. In addition to whatever things people normally care about, like art, pleasure, virtue, eudaimonia, other people, etc, the population in this world also cares about something you don’t. Maybe they want to make sure that piles of pebbles are always sorted into correct heaps.1 Or something.

They’ll argue with each other about which heaps are correct, of course, but getting it right matters to a large majority of them. If they see a stack of pebbles, they’ll approve of whoever correctly made the stack with a prime number of pebbles or rant against those terrible people who prefer heaps in square numbers. (The more extreme things they say in the rants are jokes, of course. It’s not like you can’t have friends on a different side of the division, even if people commonly say you can’t, and violence is rare.)

You, having been transported into this universe by the hypotheticals genie, can make no sense of the issue. The number of pebbles in a heap is about as important to you as the question of whether your Congressperson was born on a weekend. It’s not just that it doesn’t matter to you; it’s that it wouldn’t have occurred to you that it might matter to anyone.

Naturally, whenever someone asks you what kind of stacks you prefer you say you don’t care. You predictably get responses along the lines of “why don’t you like heaps of square numbers of pebbles?” You try to assure them that you don’t dislike their favored heaps, and that you said the same thing the last time you were asked by a prime-ist, and with effort you can convince people of that. You’re not opposed to it; it’s not like you think people shouldn’t heap pebbles however they want; you just don’t care about it like they do.

You consider the possibility that they don’t really care about the numbers of pebbles in heaps. More likely it’s just an excuse for them to divide into groups of Us, Not Us, and Them. (It’s a well-documented fact that people like doing things like that. After all, this world is just like the one you came from.) You’ve asked people about this, of course, but just as obviously they always deny it. Of course heaps of pebbles are intrinsically important, and you shouldn’t suggest otherwise.

Maybe some of your friends try to convince you to care about pebble-sorting. You should, they say, because everyone else is doing it. Or because it’s an experience that you haven’t had. Or because the organization that runs your bridge club is also affiliated with a pebble-sorting alliance and if you don’t join that then you must not care about bridge. They say these things with perfect seriousness.

You ask if those are the reasons they want pebbles to be in heaps containing square numbers. They say yes. You ask if that means they care about those reasons more than the pebble-sorting. They say no. Of course heaps of pebbles are intrinsically important, and these other reasons are just bonuses. They say these things with perfect seriousness.

There are a bunch of less widespread but similarly strange things in this universe, like maybe people annually build and then burn a giant straw statue of a goat, or maybe people get really invested in identifying with other people who share the same favorite color. You tell people you aren’t really into any of those and nobody reacts much. Only a minority of people care about each of those things anyway, so it’s easy to just assume you aren’t a part of that particular group. Then you say you aren’t interested in the heaps of pebbles, and people question your sanity.

Whenever there’s a huge pebble-sorting festival, you always feel like you’re the only sane person in a five-mile radius. You try to wrap your head around the idea that it’s actually important to these people how many stones are in each heap a particular gigantic mass of pebbles gets divided into. Maybe you went along with a group of friends to see it once. It was about as interesting as, well, as watching people stack pebbles into appropriately numbered stacks. But your friends were all excited and cheering and booing in perfect unison, and even you could occasionally appreciate the amount of skill demonstrated by the professional pebble-stackers. Some people took that to mean that you really do care about the heaps of pebbles.

It gets even weirder when you notice that people consider their heaps of pebbles to be a sacred value. It’s not the sort of value that they tolerate weighing against others very much. If you ask someone how much they’d have to be paid to do nothing in an empty room for three hours, they’ll probably think about it and maybe even answer. Being comfortable is not a sacred value, so they don’t mind trading it off for mundane things like money. But if you ask them how much they’d have to be paid to stack pebbles in the heaps preferred by the Hated Rivals, many people will just get offended. Sometimes they’ll accuse you of betraying “Us” for even suggesting it, but they’re probably joking. You’ve never been one of the “Us,” and they know that…right?

When you’re the only one who doesn’t care about the heaps of pebbles, you get used to being strange. This is a good thing, because it increases your tolerance for other people who do strange things, which is everyone. You aren’t literally the only person who’s not into the pebbles, but meeting someone else who says they don’t care is pretty rare, and when you do it’s not like you automatically have something important in common. It might seem to some other people like it would be a big deal, but you don’t exactly trust their judgement on what counts as a big deal because you’ve seen these people go crazy over pebbles. To you, it seems approximately as significant as meeting another person who doesn’t collect stamps.

Meanwhile, crowds of people get intensely excited at regular intervals about the heaps of pebbles, and  it doesn’t bother you very much because you’re good at tolerating strange things. Eventually the hypotheticals genie decides it has made its point and sends you back to your perfectly ordinary and sense-making world of college football.

1 This particular example of a thing reasonable people don’t care about has been taken from Less Wrong, where it was used for a different purpose. It’s completely unrelated, but go read that article; it’s kind of cool.

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