Unscrew the Applause Lights

Imagine someone comes up to you and says that “I always support freedom”.

What is this supposed to mean? Who in their right mind (or even in their wrong mind, for that matter) would actually come up to you and make the claim that they most emphatically do not support freedom? What does supporting freedom mean?

It gets more suspicious when you add context. You may be surprised to find out that this freedom supporter who emphatically supports freedom still thinks it is a good idea to detain illegal enemy combatants without trial in Guantanamo Bay. Furthermore, this person supports a constitutional amendement to criminalize flag burning.

Is this person still a supporter of freedom?

We can take it even further. Consider the murderers and rapists. If you are a lover of freedom, should you still put restrictions on the freedom to murder and rape? Or do you now agree that some freedoms very much should be restricted?


It turns out we’ve encountered something that Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “Applause Lights”. When someone says they support freedom, they aren’t saying anything meaningful. They aren’t telling us anything important about them. They aren’t telling us anything about the kinds of opinions they actually hold and don’t hold. All they are doing is dropping a word that we all love — freedom — and expecting us to applaud.

Freedom makes it happy. We want more freedom. Nobody don’t like freedom. So when we hear freedom, we get excited. We applaud.


Yudkowsky explains it with the following anecdote:

At the Singularity Summit 2007, one of the speakers called for democratic, multinational development of AI. So I stepped up to the microphone and asked: [...] what kind of democratic process did you have in mind?

The speaker replied: Something like the Human Genome Project – that was an internationally sponsored research project.

I asked: How would different interest groups resolve their conflicts in a structure like the Human Genome Project?

And the speaker said: I don’t know.


This exchange puts me in mind of a quote (which I failed to Google found by Jeff Grey and Miguel) from some dictator or other, who was asked if he had any intentions to move his pet state toward democracy:

We believe we are already within a democratic system. Some factors are still missing, like the expression of the people’s will.

The substance of a democracy is the specific mechanism that resolves policy conflicts. If all groups had the same preferred policies, there would be no need for democracy – we would automatically cooperate. The resolution process can be a direct majority vote, or an elected legislature, or even a voter-sensitive behavior of an AI, but it has to be something. What does it mean to call for a “democratic” solution if you don’t have a conflict-resolution mechanism in mind?

I think it means that you have said the word “democracy”, so the audience is supposed to cheer. It’s not so much a propositional statement, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.


Applause Lights In Politics

This is very common in politics. Consider this very recent statement from Republican presidential hopeful and famous government-shutter-downer Newt Gingrich:

I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American. (Source)


Of course, this statement is meaningless; it conveys no actual information. All it says is that there is this War We Must Win, and if we fail The Enemy will win, and Bad Things will happen. And of course The Enemy is inherently contradictory — it is the secular atheists who are potentially radical Islamists.

But when we look at it not for information, but for applause lights, it scores high. We’re supposed to feel on the side of Newt, because he’s fighting for What It Means To Be American. …Sure, atheists are americans too, and so are the allegedly radical Islamists. …And sure Gingrich has no proof that America is on a track to either atheism or Islam (let alone both).

But it doesn’t matter, because we’re already applauding. We hear that it’s Us vs. Them, the Real Americans versus The Enemy, and we don’t care if it makes sense. We just want to see the radical secular islamic atheists defeated once and for all.


A Case Study in Applauding

I think one of the best case studies of applause lights in the wild belongs to the campaign of Ron Paul. After going to ronpaulforpresident2008.com, I am faced with a statement that Ron Paul is “the pro-Peace, pro-Liberty, pro-Constitution candidate”, as if any of the other candidates running for president are violent freedom-haters who hate the Constitution.

What does it mean to be pro-Peace? pro-Liberty? pro-Constitution? All of these are hopelessly vague terms, but people know that they like peace, liberty, and the Constitution, so cue the applause.

Oh, and… limited government. Swoon?


Applause Lights And Us

Of course, it is no surprise that most political posturing is devoid of actual meaning. But we do have an important take away — when we are making a point, are we really making a point, or are we just throwing up an applause light word to get everyone to agree with us?

To make full use of our knowledge of applause lights, we ought to look for them within ourselves. Only by looking for and accepting our own faults can we improve our rationality. Any time we promote a term that is (1) hopelessly vague but (2) popularly supported, we are promoting an applause light.

Consider terms like “democracy”, “freedom”, and “equality”. What does it really mean to be equal? What does it really mean to be free? What does it really mean to be in a democracy? Sure, we could come up with actual definitions for all three of these words, but it doesn’t really matter. It already is a popular — nearly unanimously held — notion that “democracy”, “freedom”, and “equality” are things we like and should support. Like after Gingrich’s speech, we’re already clapping, so it doesn’t really matter what the terms mean or whether they make sense…


Deconstructing the Applause

We can be better than this. If you actually want to add something meaningful to the dialogue, you need to get more specific. It isn’t enough to support freedom in a generic sense, you must explain exactly how you are going to support the freedom of rapists, terrorists, and average citizens. If certain actions shouldn’t be free, you need to come up with a consistent system to explain why. Freedom is hard once you actually have to talk about it.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t just pre-commit to an applause-worthy term. If we actually care about whether democracy is a good form of government, we should not just say “I support democracy” and give ourselves a pat on the back. We should actually break the question down. We should define democracy — say, a system of government in which people elect representatives to a governing body in which these representatives vote on issues, which pass into law following a simple majority.

We then can define what we want out of government — say, the provision of a place to live in (1) which our lives are under no threat and (2) we can do whatever we want, provided we (3) harm no one else in doing so. (Of course properly balancing 2 and 3 is rather complicated.)

Only now can we actually see if our representative voting system actually leads to Government Goals #1-3. If it does, and it does so better than all other possible forms of government, only then — only after it is not a vague applause light but something that is meaningful, testable, and falsifiable — can we truly say “I support democracy”.


Applause Lights And Punting the Question

There is another thing that we can do with applause lights. Say we have a question we want answered: What caused life, the universe, and everything to come into existence?

Well, we could say one answer: God. God did it.

But what have we really said? We now have this God guy who exists and he ushered in the universe somehow. Of course, we don’t even have the faintest hints of a beginning of how he could do such a thing …or any reason to believe such a being exists in the first place. It turns out that really, saying “God did it” doesn’t really explain all that much. It’s not really that much different from answering What causes wind with Wind Spirits did it!.

But God is popular! When the average person hears the word God, they applaud, and convince themselves that they just heard an answer. They move on with the answer to life, the universe, and everything explained. No more mystery; time for a nap. Forget about where God came from, or why we lucked out and ended up with a benevolent God, rather than a bored one, trickster one, or downright evil one.


The Multiverses Made Me Do It

But what of other answers to the question? What of Multiverses did it! or Time began with the Big Bang! or other such notions. While more technically correct than the God Hypothesis, they still are not anywhere close to complete answers. We have little to no evidence for a multiverse beyond its philosophical convenience, and we have little understanding of what it means for time to have a beginning or where exactly that beginning came from.

We’re still left wondering where the multiverse came from and why there aren’t multimultiverses; and we still wonder about that whole thing of what happened before the Big Bang? (Similar question: What lies north of the North Pole?).

It’s simple — based on current science, anyone who says they have a complete answer to the origin of the universe is merely holding an applause light. We hear “Multiverse” and applaud, because it sounds so smart, and we’re pretty sure we read about it in a magazine once. We don’t actually hold an understanding of the origin of the universe, but we think we do.

But of course that’s not a very rational approach.


A Better Approach

Take another quintessential argument very much inspired by Eliezer Yudkowsky and referenced on this site before — the Great Tree Falling Argument:

One person says “a tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound” and the other says “a tree falling in the forest that we do not hear does not make a sound”.

Ostensibly we have a contradiction because one person says “Yes, it makes sound” and the other says “No, it does not make sound”. However, look what happens when we take away the word sound and replace it by what we mean by the word sound:

“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound (generates an acoustic vibration)
“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear does not make a sound (generates an auditory experience)


If these two people were to talk together, they would find out that they likely don’t disagree at all — both would readily agree that a tree falling in the forest that we do not hear does (1) generate an acoustic vibration, but does not (2) generate an auditory experience. When you take the word and break it down into the meaning, the argument is often gone.


If we actually want to contribute to the dialogue, we’re going to have to unscrew the applause light. We have to take “I support freedom” and replace the word “freedom” with its meaning. This is where we stop uttering three meaningless words and preform years of research on the proper distribution of resources and write several books about how to reform the justice system. When we take the applause light and unscrew it and instead preform actual work.

And quite often, the results of this work will let us look at current policy debates, such as Guantanamo detainees or flag burners, and see whether the restriction here is an infringement of freedom or a necessary safeguard to ensure the freedom of others. If we are to be freedom maximizers, we need to know how to actually maximize freedom.


The Implications

Unscrewing the applause lights has the potential to change a lot of problems. For example, have a religion not be able to say the word “God”, but actually describe what it means for a God to exist. All of a sudden, the religions of the world don’t look so similar, and some religions don’t even make sense. You can follow it up by asking them to explain why they believe without using the word “faith”.

Unscrewing the applause lights also shows that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We use a lot of nice applause-worthy words to explain stuff — but they don’t actually explain… we just think they explain. It turns out this whole time we merely punted the question to this word and walked away satisified, without doing the hard work of coming up with a real explanation.

This is real work, which probably explains why it hasn’t been done. It’s far, far, far easier and many times more effective just to play politics with meaningless sentences.

However, if we don’t unscrew the applause lights, the terrorists will win. And you don’t want to be on the side of the terrorists, do you?

Followed up by: The Folly of Debating Definitions and Don’t Smuggle Your Connotations


I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.

On 15 Apr 2011 in All, Words. 2 Comments.


  1. #1 Bill says:
    19 Apr 2011, 10:32 pm  

    Wonderful article, Peter. <> I’ve unscrewed a lightbulb in your honor…

  2. #2 Leum says:
    4 May 2011, 8:16 pm  

    This really helps clarify some stuff. I’m not quite as sure as you, however, that there isn’t at least some commonality behind different religion’s conception of the divine.

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