Hello, world! My name is Evan Ward. I’m passionate about fulfilling my potential to do good here with the time I have remaining. I am interested in effective altruism (EA), economics, global priorities research, tech entrepreneurship, ethics, rationality, and computational science, among other things. Some of my biggest intellectual influences include Nick Bostrom, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Brian Tomasik, and Robin Hanson.
As of 22 June 2019, I’m exploring the idea of entropic decision-making for ethical living in the multiverse under the Everett-interpretation. This has already received some feedback and the idea might be dead. I’m also exploring building an app to expand the micro-economy that is a better version of TaskRabbit. I plan on moving to Florida in August to finish my BS in economics.
My understanding of the world is always evolving—I try to update my blog posts to match my latest beliefs, but some of my posts may contain ideas I no longer believe in.
Here are some of my favorite posts:
- An Entropic Decision Procedure for Many Worlds Living
- Our Responsibility to Reduce Personal Risk
- Understanding the True Cost of Land-Use Projects (my paper that won the Rachel Carson Award)
- We Should Have Prevented Other Countries from Obtaining Nukes
Strong Opinions, Loosely Held
Here are some of my present beliefs:
- Math can describe everything.
- Bayesian probability theory is the proper way to interpret evidence. All propositions are either true or false, but it’s useful to hold one’s belief in the truth of a proposition as a value between 0 and 1. One should always be reevaluating and incrementally changing their degrees of beliefs according to new evidence.
- The von Neumann–Morgenstern utility theorem is not perfectly true as a descriptive model, but it is as a normative decision criterion. When you’ve appropriately defined your utility function, you shouldn’t have a ‘risk-preference’, but should always just maximize expected utility.
- Physics-based Bayesian utilitarianism is the basis of ethics. In short, utilitarian Value, which is generally thought to be desirable and undesirable subjective experiences, unavoidably boils down to discrete, fundamental physics operations. It is these operations which we should seek to maximize and minimize based on whether they are well-being or suffering operations. Thus, individual neurons are morally relevant insofar as they are likely to support rudimentary subjective experience, and I support the building of orgasmium. I do agree that it is often plausibly effective to focus on higher-order heuristics for the good like ‘preference-satisfaction’ or ‘gross domestic product’.
- Evolutionary psychology is an extremely valuable academic discipline; we always want to approach concepts with our own evolutionary psychology in mind. One should be familiar with common cognitive biases.
- The long-term value thesis: Most of the value that is to be captured in the world lies in the future. We should primarily be focused on the quality of this future and ensuring that it is not destroyed. The biggest obstacles to this—existential risks—deserve much more of our society’s collective resources and attention.
- Neoliberalism—the belief when national and international institutions support free trade of goods, ideas, and capital, it’ll lead to prosperity—is true in present human society. We need to regulate only where markets systemically fail and do our best to make entrepreneurship and market transactions as easy as possible. I’m a fan of Conscious Capitalism.
- Georgism—taxing land rather than the fruits of labor—is the basis of economic freedom and social justice. No one has an intrinsic right to a natural resource more than anyone else, so people can only rent land and natural resources that equally belongs to others. Also, it’s insane to tax free-market interactions; two people should not be disincentivized to satisfy their preferences via a free exchange of goods and services. Thus, people should be entitled to the fruits of their own labor.
- Immigration is great and we should be facilitating much more of it. Open-borders is the long-term goal, but it may not be optimal at the present moment.
- Risks from omnicidal lone agents (e.g. radical anti-natalists or religious-extremists) will eventually supersede that of risks from centralized control. Politically, I mostly side with libertarianism, but we will eventually need AI-enabled mass-surveillance if we are to survive long-term as a civilization. The primary argument underpinning this is Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis.
Additional Concepts I Love
- Occam’s Razor: The more complex an explanation is, the more evidence you need just to find it in belief-space.
- The optimal causes for one to work in are important, solvable, neglected, and a decent personal fit.
- Extreme ownership is an essential mindset. People can be victims, but victim mindsets are seldom more effective than a mindset of taking total responsibility for oneself, and frankly, the future of conscious life.
- Accountability, habit-tracking, and checklists are entirely necessary unless one is some sort of godly task-execution machine. I use Google Keep for my Daily, Weekly, Monthly, and Recurring to-do lists and Google Sheets as my master habit-tracker. I use Standard Notes when I want encryption.
- Have faith in your own neuroplasticity and ability to eventually derive enjoyment from new productive behaviors. Marginally productive activities like writing can be just as rewarding as video games once one gives them up.
- Incentives are a part life. Unfortunately, most people need skin in the game to be productive and do their part to fulfill everybody’s preferences. Thus, I’m against most forms of welfare beyond a minimum universal basic income, which should be the equitable redistribution of value from a land-value tax. Further, the money behind most forms of welfare could be better spend on existential risk reduction and improving the quality of life for future people.
- Meditation has been widely studied and proven to be a fantastic tool for the majority of people. You should probably be meditating daily.
- Cause-neutrality and impartial impact evaluation: One should aspire to do good not merely because it feels good, but because it maximizes the good. While it’s very sad to have one’s family member die from say, brain cancer, this doesn’t mean it’s optimal for one to donate to brain cancer research. One should be cause-neutral and donate to where the evidence says the most good can be captured per dollar.
- Counterfactual and marginal thinking is imperative. All resources have alternative uses and marginal diminishing returns are real. Counterfactual thinking is key to solving the abortion debate and marginal thinking could help more people capture more value by focusing less on perfectionism.
- Humans are terrible at working with large numbers. We don’t feel 100x worse when 100x more people die in a catastrophe. Thus, it’s important to shut up and multiply and not base one’s altruistic decisions solely by how one feels.
- Both wild and factory animal suffering is extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile. Yes, our collective neglect of animals is as condemnable as Ted Bundy’s murders. It’s our duty to end factory farming quickly and look out for the welfare of all animals.
A Brief History of Me
My parents came from very poor households, became valedictorians, and met at Tulane University in New Orleans. My dad commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and my mom became a nurse. I was born in SoCal, moved frequently in my early childhood as a military brat, and settled in Southwest Florida after my parents divorced. I attended a public arts middle and high school and studied classical guitar, piano, and ballroom dancing. I was active in Scouting and spent my share of time adventuring in the outdoors, competed in long-distance races including ultramarathons, and ran an Amazon home business after buying out my stepfather’s inventory.
While it was my long-time goal to attend MIT and I was on track to be valedictorian of my high school class, I suffered from a bad case of existential crisis in 11th grade. I ended up reading David R. Hawkin’s perennial philosophy book “Transcending the Levels of Consciousness“; despite being an atheist at the time, the book was sufficiently persuasive that I overall believed it. I thus fell into the trap of religious mysticism. Many books, mantras, meditation sessions, prayers, and breathing exercises later, I finally found my way out of that madness, but with my prospects for attending a top-tier college largely shattered. Thus, I decided to prove myself a different way and enlisted in the United States Army for the hardest (by attrition rate) job I could: Engineer Diver.
I trained up diligently, was meritoriously early-promoted at the end of Basic Combat Training, and then graduated from the Army’s 6-month engineer dive school, which typically has over an 80% attrition rate, as the honor graduate. Shortly after joining my Dive detachment in Fort Eustis, VA, I became hungry for more responsibility and ability to positively influence the Army. I tried my best to get my bachelor’s degree as quickly as possible—signing up for online classes and testing out of 51 credit hours worth of classes in 3 weeks—so that I could commission as an officer. Once I realized that I was still roughly two years of after-work classes away from earning my degree and commissioning, I decided that it was worth it for me to apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was accepted and left to attend West Point after nearly a year in the Dive detachments
West Point is a very unique institution. It’s generally held to be a great place to be from but an overall unpleasant place to be at. Cadets are relentlessly busy—most never take less than 17 semester hours at a time, while also participating in mandatory sports, daily formations, weekend training, and frequent chain-of-command responsibilities such as taking care of subordinates, cleaning, uniform and room inspections, briefs, and random taskings. My try-hard brain decided I wanted to be a triathlete on top of being a computer science major there, so in addition to the normal cadet duties, I had the opportunity to wake up at 0515 to swim for an hour before morning classes and run and/or bike for 1.5 to 3 hours after classes every afternoon. Needless to say, I was exhausted most of the time and consistently surprised by how rare suicides were at West Point.
At this time, I became increasingly interested in the philosophy of effective altruism and this idea of trying to quantify the social impact of different actions and do as much good as possible with our lives. In my free time, I studied moral philosophy, decision theory, economics, cause prioritization, and other topics. I increasingly began to doubt that I was going to, realistically, maximize my possible impact through service as a military officer. It’s not that being a military officer isn’t important and noble, but I couldn’t escape the comparative advantage argument. The issue is that competent people who want to be Army officers are not in short supply (the supply of enlisted soldiers is another story) and that society is not full of people who want to maximize their social impact by pursuing important work in neglected cause areas; the person who would likely replace me is unlikely to otherwise pursue high-impact, neglected work that is unlikely to happen otherwise. I eventually gained the conviction and confidence necessary to go against the grain and resign from West Point.
Now, I am doing independent research and side-hustling this summer until I course up for classes this August in Florida to finish out my undergrad in economics.