Three enigmas at the heart of our reasoning

post by alexflint · 2021-09-21T16:52:52.089Z · LW · GW · 66 comments

Contents

  Outline
  The first enigma
  The second enigma
  The third enigma
  Finding sanctuary
None
67 comments

Financial status: This is independent research supported by a grant. I welcome additional support.

Epistemic status: Reflections from personal experience.

Outline

What can we ultimately trust as a foundation for our reasoning?

As we go about our lives, we often trust reasoning that is based in empirical, mathematical, and ethical frameworks. Trust in these systems seems well justified. But what exactly is it justified by, and does this question have any practical relevance to our lives, or is it merely the domain of frivolous dorm-room discussion?

In this essay I am going to focus on the question of practical relevance. I will not ask you to take radical skepticism more seriously than you have. I will actually ask you not to take it seriously, but to take seriously the question of why it need not be taken seriously.

Here is why: at a day-to-day level, most of us do in fact trust empirical, mathematical, and ethical reasoning quite a bit. Yet when we question their foundations and come up empty-handed, we also in fact continue our day-to-day work unabated. Why is that possible?

This question, I believe, strikes at the heart of an issue of enormous practical importance, which is: how can we go about our work without being hindered by self-doubt? I am not talking about some small emotional thing or a mere personality quirk when I refer to "self-doubt". I am talking about deep doubt concerning the fundamental reasoning systems upon which we predicate our lives.

The problem, I suspect, is that these questions of deep doubt in fact play within our minds all the time, and hinder our capacity to get on with our work. It is as if we were stuck in a kind of awkward middle ground: on the one hand we are, for good reason, not quite willing to surrender into radical skepticism and put our whole lives on hold in order to work through a deep ontological crisis, yet on the other hand we are not able to put these questions aside, either, and so although we do get up from our philosophical armchair and get to work, we do so with incomplete confidence, and so we proceed with some doubt in our hearts, quietly hoping that we haven’t gotten life completely wrong.

OK, now for the three enigmas.

The first enigma

Look, in order to justify our reasoning about the physical world, we often start with the assumption that simpler hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated hypotheses, or that we should set our credence in hypotheses proportional to the inverse exponential of the shortest computer program that expresses them, or that the world operates on lawful principles that do not suddenly change, or that the methods of reasoning that have proven effective as a means to getting things done in the past will continue to do so in the future. These foundational principles can each be used to justify each other, can each be used to justify the whole edifice of empirical reasoning, and have no deeper justification within empiricism. The system of empiricism provides no empirical basis for believing in these foundational principles.

To doubt that methods of reasoning that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future is radical skepticism, but you don’t have to be a radical skeptic to see that the foundational principles of empiricism cannot be justified within empiricism. This is not a strike against the trustworthiness of empiricism, but it should be a strike against any sense that the reason empiricism is trustworthy lies within empiricism. I hope my wording does make out that this is some terribly deep point. I am really not trying to say any more than the literal here.

Now you might say that empiricism has given us houses that really stand upright, crops that really produce yields, power plants that really produce electricity, and dog collars that really play Christmas carols. This is true. But thus we have observed in the past; on what basis do we conclude that methods of reasoning that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future? I am not asking you to doubt that things that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future, but you cannot claim that your non-doubt is founded in empiricism.

Now you might say that methods of reasoning that have worked in the past are likely to continue working in the future because it would be a strange and unwieldy to hypothesize a world that operates according to one set of lawful principles for a long time and then unexpectedly changes just at the moment that you make an important inference about the future. Indeed that would be strange and unwieldy, and obviously we should not believe strange and unwieldy things. But why is it that we should not believe strange and unwieldy things? I am not asking you to start believing strange and unwieldy things! Please continue to disbelieve in strange and unwieldy things, but, as you do, please do not carry any sense that your disbelief in strange and unwieldy things can be justified empirically.

Now, Ray Solomonoff proved that a machine learning system using the universal prior would come to make predictions more or less as quickly and accurately as any other estimator and prior, but only on the assumption that the real world is Turing-computable. Why should we believe that the real world is Turing-computable? Well, we can appeal to the empirical laws of physics, but where does our trust in those laws come from? I am not asking you to stop believing that the world is Turing-computable, but I don’t think it’s feasible to say that the reason you believe that the world is Turing-computable lies within empiricism.

David Deutsch says that the Turing-computability of the universe should be taken as an observed property of physics in which we can place greater confidence than in any particular laws of physics, much as we can have greater confidence in the time-reversibility and conservation-of-energy principles than in any particular laws of physics. But now that we’re talking about inferring properties of the world from observations of the world, we’re just back to empiricism. Why should we believe in empiricism? I am not actually asking you to doubt empiricism. I am asking you to inquire into your seemingly-to-me well-justified non-doubt in empiricism.

You might say that any game of "but why should I believe that?" will eventually bottom out, and that we ultimately have to get up from our armchairs and actually build houses, actually plant crops, actually design power plants, and that when we do that we will easily shrug off the folly of our armchair skepticism. And here I wholeheartedly agree, but as you are shrugging off armchair skepticism through practical engagement with real-world problem-solving, do not imagine that you are doing so in a way that is justified by some well-founded principles of empiricism. The point of this essay is not to call into question the practical efficacy of real-world problem solving, it is in fact to highlight the practical simplicity of real-world problem solving, and to call to attention the fact that it is not founded in empiricism. Neither does it refute empiricism. It does not conflict in any way with empiricism, yet it cannot be ultimately justified by empiricism. And it does not seem that it needs to be. Why? This is what I will call the first enigma at the heart of our reasoning.

The second enigma

In mathematics, we begin with a system of logic and add to it a system of axioms. A system of logic is a rule for generating new logical sentences from an existing finite list of logical sentences, and a system of axioms is a set of logical sentences to start the whole process with. An example of a system of logic is first-order logic, and an example of a system of axioms is the nine axioms of Peano Arithmetic. Now there was a time when mathematics was expressed in natural language with little regard for rigorous systems of deduction, and then mathematicians began to ask whether they were allowing themselves to get away with too much, and were engaging in frivolous poetry rather under the guise of rigorous mathematics. In reaction to this, mathematics was formalized, with the intention that every mathematical theorem could, in principle, be derived formally from some suitably well-grounded system of logic plus axioms.

But why do we believe that a simple logic plus a small set of formal axioms is a sturdy foundation for mathematics? Why is this the basis on which we claim that our mathematics is non-frivolous? It was once hoped that we might find a foundation so sturdy that it could prove its own sturdiness, and then Kurt Gödel showed that this can never happen. But suppose we were living before Gödel proved his famous theorems. We might still ask why, if some mathematical theory were to assert its own soundness, would we believe it?

And once again we can go around and around with the "why should I believe it?" game. We can appeal to empiricism to provide a foundation for logic, or we can appeal to logic to provide a foundation for empiricism, or we can connect the two in an infinitely recursive cycle. We will never find a satisfying conceptual answer to "why should I believe it?" within the systems that we are questioning. And yet none of this matters at all to someone calculating the tensile strength of a beam in a house, or predicting the energy that will be released in a nuclear fission reaction, or, for that matter, squinting in awe at the beauty of algebraic geometry. We can question the foundations of mathematics all day long, but when we get up from that armchair and simply do mathematics, it matters not at all. This essay is not a call to stop doing mathematics and start worrying about the lack of a satisfying foundation for mathematics. Quite the opposite! But while we are happily doing mathematics, we should not imagine that the whole thing is based in some framework that can be justified all the way down by mathematics, or by empiricism. We need not doubt all of mathematics, but we might do well to question what it is that we are trusting when we do not doubt all of mathematics.

The third enigma

And finally we come to ethics, in which we have systems for reasoning about what we ought to do. We have virtue ethics. We have deontology. We have consequentialism. Perhaps we ought to cultivate virtue, or perhaps we ought to adhere to our moral duties, or perhaps we ought to select actions on the basis of their consequences. Why?

We can choose to place ethics in dependence upon empiricism and logic, and take as primary that we should act in service of the welfare of sentient beings, and then use empiricism and logic to work out which actions will lead to the welfare of sentient beings. Or we can take ethics as primary, and view the act of holding certain empirical or logical beliefs as moral actions, to be justified on the basis of their ethical consequences. In either case, we will not find an answer to the "why should I believe it?" game within the systems of ethics or mathematics or empiricism.

And yet we must act. We simply must. And we do, every day, without all too much of a problem. I am not asking you to doubt ethics. I am asking you to doubt that your reason for correctly (in my estimation) not doubting ethics can be found within ethics.

Finding sanctuary

In our real lives out in the real world beyond the confines of this short essay, these questions are of no small practical importance. The problem, I suspect, is that these questions of deep doubt in fact play within our minds all the time, and hinder our capacity to get on with our work. It is as if we were stuck in a kind of awkward middle ground: on the one hand we are, for good reason, not quite willing to surrender into radical skepticism and put our whole lives on hold in order to work through a deep ontological crisis. Yet on the other hand we are not able to put these questions aside, either, and so although we do get up from our philosophical armchair and get to work, we do so with incomplete confidence, and so we proceed with some doubt in our hearts, quietly hoping that we haven’t gotten life completely wrong.

In the year that I spent in a monastery, I was given the time and tools to deeply investigate these kinds of questions. I was in an environment where severe ontological crises were okay, where howls of despair were to be heard echoing from the interview room, where the rhythms of the daily schedule were practiced so deeply into our bones that we could become deeply confused without getting lost.

Many people think that meditation is about relaxation, or destroying the ego, or some kind of otherworldly magical something. It’s not like that. It’s about the questions that already haunt us, that have been haunting us for so long that we have grown used to living a haunted existence. It’s about leaning into those questions, and then getting to work without being haunted by doubt.

In my year in the monastery, I did not take this task to completion. I regret this very much. But I got a sense of it, so I’m writing about what I did discover.

In order to put doubt to rest, we might work on a question such as "what can really be trusted?". In order to answer such a question, we have to concentrate our attention on it for a little while. In order to concentrate on such a question for a little while, we have to let go of the defense mechanisms that we have quite reasonably assembled in order to not be set adrift by investigating such a question from within a society that will not take good care of us during an ontological crisis. In order to let go of those defense mechanisms, we need to put ourselves in a place that demonstrably will take care of us during an ontological crisis. The place I found most able to take care of me was a monastery, where the leaders had already spent time struggling deeply and so were not easily spun out by students going through crises.

Many people do not understand why monastic containers are so rigid. It is so that the whole group can go through such crises without falling apart. When the world in which you’ve lived your whole life stops making sense, it is only the messages that you’ve left for yourself deep inside your own bones that carry you through. In the monastery, we practiced living the same simple day over and over, so that when it finally really mattered, we could do it without thinking.

I aspire to create the kind of community where people can do long-termist research in the context of such safety. It may or may not look anything like a monastery. The point is not to be a monastery, but to be a safe place where one can lean into important research questions and work through the ontological crises that sometimes result. I hope that this safety will make it possible to lean in exactly as deeply as each person wishes to. I hope that as a result, a wholehearted group ethos of simplicity and determination will emerge. I hope that within this container we can put to rest not just the doubts that haunt us personally, but also some of the unresolved technical and philosophical questions that haunt us as a society.

See also: G Gordon Worley on the problem of the criterion [LW · GW]

66 comments

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comment by Ape in the coat · 2021-09-27T10:22:26.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really empathize with being troubled by such questions. I was amused by them a decade or so ago and I've found a way to actually make peace with them before I discovered Less Wrong, which in turn gave me so crucial insights [LW · GW], allowing to solve these enigmas to my own satisfaction. 

The way I originally made peace with these questions was through embracing the doubts rather than running from them. To, as you put it, "surrender to radical skepticism" Suppose that the questions are indeed unsolvable. That there is no ultimate justification, that everything is doubtful, that no absolute truth can ground our knowledge. Why would that be bad? How would we navigate in such a world?

The first impulse may be to fall for the fallacy of gray [LW · GW]. It's understandable. But notice that some things are still easier to doubt than the others. You may doubt in you sensory inputs and you whole reasoning process. Allow it to yourself. Try it for a while and notice how much harder it is than to doubt the existence of invisible pink unicorn. There is no rule that compell you to doubt so hard in some specific cases but not the others. If such rule existed it would be so easy to doubt it. And notice that when you approach everything with the same level of doubt it all adds up to normality [? · GW]. 

The questions aren't answered yet. Why is it easier for me to doubt in X than in Y? But no more they are torturous, when you try to ground your knowledge in doubt rather than in certanity. Why did you think that absolute certanity is necessary in the first place? Isn't this idea really weird? How would it even work?

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-10-01T19:57:34.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah thank you for sharing these thoughts.

I have not really resolved these questions to my own satisfaction, but the thing that seems clearest to me is to really notice when these doubts are become a drag on energy levels and confidence, and, if they are, to carve out a block of time to really turn towards them in earnest.

comment by cousin_it · 2021-09-24T10:49:53.425Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, it's hard to imagine how "why regress" can be escaped.

Ontological: why is there something rather than nothing? To any answer, reply "why" again.

Epistemological: why is something true? To any answer, reply "why" again.

Moral: why is something good? To any answer, reply "why" again.

Maybe our trouble with these questions has to do with our conviction that everything must have a reason? An interesting perspective on this is Chaitin's: "Some mathematical facts are true for no reason, they're true by accident!" He gives a specific infinite sequence of questions about natural numbers, such that the sequence of their yes/no answers is provably indistinguishable from a fair coin by any algorithm (including our finite minds). Maybe this could teach us something about how to deal with "why regress" in other areas.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-24T15:57:16.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right. But it's notable that almost no-one in the world is stuck in an actual infinite why-regress, in that there don't seem to be many people sitting around asking themselves "why" until they die, or sitting with a partner asking "why" until one person dies. (I also don't think this is what is happening for monks or other contemplative folks.) I guess in practice people escape by shifting attention elsewhere. But sometimes that is a helpful thing to do, such as when stuck in a rut, and sometimes it is an unhelpful thing to do, such as when already overwhelmed with information. Furthermore some people at very good at shifting their attention around in a way that leads to understanding. Chaitin strikes me as exactly such a person and discusses allocation of attention in that talk (thank you for the lovely link btw - really delightful read!). So what actually is our attentional mechanism and in what way can we trust it?

Interested in any thoughts you may have.

Hope you are well.

comment by james.lucassen · 2021-09-21T20:16:45.423Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first enigma seems like it's either very closely related or identical to Hume's problem of induction. If that is a fair-rephrasing, then I think it's not entirely true that the key problem is that the use of empiricism cannot be justified by empiricism or refuted by empiricism. Principles like "don't believe in kludgy unwieldy things" and "empiricism is a good foundation for belief" can in fact be supported by empiricism - because those heuristics have worked well in the past, and helped us build houses and whatnot.

I think the key problem is that empiricism both supports and refutes the claim "I know empiricism works because empirically it's always worked well in the past". This statement is empirically supported because empiricism has worked well in the past, but it's also circular, and circular reasoning has not generally worked well in the past.

This can also be re-phrased as a conflict between object-level and meta-reasoning. On the object level, empiricism supports empiricism. But on the meta level, empiricism rejects circular reasoning.

Replies from: alexflint, TAG
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-21T23:30:52.020Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, yeah I agree that we can evaluate empiricism on empirical grounds. That is a thing we can do. And yes, as you say, we can come to different conclusions about empiricism when we evaluate it on empirical grounds. Very interesting point re object-level and meta-level conclusions. But why would start with empiricism at all? Why should we begin with empiricism, and then conclude on such grounds either that empiricism is trustworthy or untrustworthy?

When I say "empiricism cannot justify empiricism", I mean that empiricism cannot explain why we trust empiricism, because the decision to start with empiricism as the framework for evaluating empiricism is not itself accounted for by empiricism. And when I say "accounted for in a way that resolves doubt", not merely argued for.

Maybe a clearer way to say it is that I actually agree with everything you've said, but I don't think what you've said is yet sufficient to resolve the question of whether our reasoning is based on something trustworthy.

(Also, yes I do think the first enigma is close to or identical to Hume's problem of induction.)

Replies from: justinpombrio
comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-22T18:28:27.035Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe a clearer way to say it is that I actually agree with everything you’ve said, but I don’t think what you’ve said is yet sufficient to resolve the question of whether our reasoning is based on something trustworthy.

I get the impression that by the standards you have set, it is impossible to have a "trustworthy" justification:

  1. For anything you believe, you should be able to ask for its justifications. Thus justifications form a graph, with an edge from A to B meaning that "A justifies B".
  2. Just from how graphs work, if you start from any node and repeatedly ask for its justifications, you must eventually reach (i) a node with no justifications (in-edges), or (ii) a cycle, or (iii) an infinite chain.
  3. However, unjustified beliefs, cyclic reasoning, and infinite regress are all untrustworthy.

Do you simultaneously believe all three of these statements? I disbelieve 3.

Replies from: alexflint, TAG
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-23T17:48:27.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disbelieve 2 because it assumes that there are a finite number of nodes in the graph. (We don't have to hold an infinite graph in our finite brains; we might instead have a finite algorithm for lazily expanding an infinite graph.)

Replies from: justinpombrio
comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-23T21:00:56.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(2) doesn't require the graph to be finite. Infinite graphs also have the property that if you repeatedly follow in-edges, you must eventually reach (i) a node with no in-edges, or (ii) a cycle, or (iii) an infinite chain.

EDIT: Proof, since if we're talking about epistemology I shouldn't spout things without double checking them.

Let G be any directed graph with at most countably many nodes. Let P be the set of paths in G. At least one of the following must hold:

(i) Every path in P is finite and acyclic. (ii) At least one path in P is cyclic. (iii) At least one path in P is infinite.

Now we just have to show that (i) implies that there exists at least one node in G that has no in-edges. Since every path is finite and acyclic, every path has a (finite) length. Label the nodes of G with the length of the largest path that ends at that node. Pick any node N in G. Let n be its label. Strongly induct on n:

  • If n=0, we're done: the maximum path length ending at this node is 0, so it has no in-edges. (A.k.a. it lacks justification.)
  • If n>0, then there is a non-empty path ending at N. Follow it back one edge to a node N'. N' must be labeled at most n-1, because if its label was larger then N's label would be larger too. By the inductive hypothesis, there exists a node in G with no in-edges.
Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-24T04:00:02.724Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah good point. OK yeah I believe that (2) doesn't require the graph to be finite, and I also agree that it's not tenable to believe all three of your statements.

If, hypothetically, we were to stop here, then you might look at our short dialog up to this point as, roughly, a path through a justification graph. But if we do stop, it seems that it will be because we reached some shared understanding, or ran out of energy, or moved on to other tasks. I guess that if we kept going, we would reach a node with no justifications, or a cycle, or an infinite chain as you say. Now:

  • A node with no justification would be quite a strange thing to experience. I would write something, and you would question me, and I would have literally nothing that I could say
  • A cycle would be quite a normal experience to go a few loops around -- plenty of conversations go in loops for some finite time -- but it would be strange for there to be absolutely no way out of the cycle. We would just go and go and go until we lost all energy, and neither of us would notice that we're in a cycle?
  • An infinite chain would be perhaps the most "normal" of the three experiences. We would just have some length of conversation and then, what, give up? Since we have finite minds, there must be a finite program that generates the infinite graph, so wouldn't we eventually notice that and say "huh, it looks like we are on a path with the following generator functions". What then? Would we not go some place else in the justification graph other than the infinite chain we were previously on?

So it's hard for me to imagine really experiencing any of the three possibilities you point out. Yet they would seem to be not just possible but actually guaranteed (in aggregate).

Interested in what you make of this.

Replies from: justinpombrio
comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-24T16:43:42.924Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As you said, very often a justification-based conversation is looking to answer a question, and stops when it's answered using knowledge and reasoning methods shared by the participants. For example, Alice wonders why a character in a movie did something, and then has a conversation with Bob about it. Bob shares some facts and character-motivations that Alice didn't know, they figure out the character's motivation together, and the conversation ends. This relied on a lot of shared knowledge (about the movie universe plus the real universe), but there's no reason for them to question their shared knowledge. You get to shared ground, and then you stop.

If you insist on questioning everything, you are liable to get to nodes without justification:

  • "The lawn's wet." / "Why?" / "It rained last night." / "Why'd that make it wet?" / "Because rain is when water falls from the sky." / "But why'd that make it wet?" / "Because water is wet." / "Why?" / "Water's just wet, sweetie.". A sequence of is-questions, bottoming out at a definition. (Well, close to a definition: the parent could talk about the chemical properties of liquid water, but that probably wouldn't be helpful for anyone involved. And they might not know why water is wet.)
  • "Aren't you going to eat your ice cream? It's starting to melt." / "It sure is!" / "But melted ice cream is awful." / "No, it's the best." / "Gah!". This conversation comes to an end when the participants realize that they have fundamentally different preferences. There isn't really a justification for "I dislike melted ice cream". (There's an is-ought distinction here, though it's about preferences rather than morality.)

Ultimately, all ought-question-chains end at a node without justification. Suffering is just bad, period.

And I think if you dig too deep, you'll get to unjustified-ish nodes in is-question-chains too. For example, direct experience, or the belief that the past informs the future, or that reasoning works. You can question these things, but you're liable to end up on shakier ground than the thing you're trying to justify, and to enter a cycle. So, IDK, you can not count those flimsy edges and get a dead end, or count them and get a cycle, whichever you prefer?

We would just go and go and go until we lost all energy, and neither of us would notice that we’re in a cycle?

There's an important shift here: you're not wondering how the justification graph is shaped, but rather how we would navigate it. I am confident that the proof applies to the shape of the justification graph. I'm less confident you can apply it to our navigation of that graph.

“huh, it looks like we are on a path with the following generator functions”

Not all infinite paths are so predictable / recognizable.

comment by TAG · 2021-09-22T21:12:01.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which is the trustworthy one? I'm guessing circular reasoning.

Replies from: justinpombrio
comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-22T21:23:01.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah. Though you might be able to re-phrase the reasoning to turn it into one of the others?

EDIT: in more detail, it's something like this. I have a whole bunch of ways of reasoning, and can use many of them to examine the others. And they all generally agree, so it seems fine. (Sean Carrol says this.) You can't use completely broken reasoning to figure the world out. But if you start with partially broken reasoning, you can bootstrap your way to better and better reasoning. (Yudkowski says this.)

The main point is that I have been convinced by the reasoning in my previous comment and others that a search for an Ultimate Justification is fruitless, and have adjusted my expectations accordingly. When your intuitions don't match reality, you need to update your intuitions.

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-09-22T21:59:30.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

have a whole bunch of ways of reasoning, and can use many of them to examine the others. And they all generally agree, so it seems fine. (Sean Carrol says this.) You can’t use completely broken reasoning to figure the world out. But if you start with partially broken reasoning, you can bootstrap your way to better and better reasoning. (Yudkowski says this.)

Indefinitely? I agree that you can generally do better, but that doesn't mean you can hit Absolute Truth...

comment by TAG · 2021-09-22T19:50:28.058Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

but it’s also circular, and circular reasoning has not generally worked well in the past.

Interesting way of putting it! The usual objection to circular reasoning is more logical... that it allows quodlibet, the ability to prove anything. Which of course depends on a Criterion...the criterion that you shouldn't be able to prove everything.

comment by JBlack · 2021-09-22T09:29:22.415Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We will never find a satisfying conceptual answer to "why should I believe it?" within the systems that we are questioning.

Satisfying to whom? Plenty of people are perfectly well satisfied with various answers to this question within all sorts of systems.

Other people have some doubts, and I strongly suspect that a large fraction of those always will.

Personally, I nearly always reserve some sliver of weight to the possibility that my senses, memory, and thought processes cannot be trusted. There's not much I can do about it, so it has little practical application except to make me slightly more risk-averse in some situations.

That aside, I think that on theoretical grounds empiricism is a bit more well-founded than the "first enigma" section makes it sound. While fundamentally there is no reason for the future to follow the same rules as the past, there does seem to be some reasonable justification that it's unlikely to suddenly change right now. Okay, maybe it didn't happen while you were reading that last sentence, but maybe it will happen right now instead.

While there's nothing fundamentally wrong with supposing that things may well change right now when they don't appear to have changed in at least the past few billion occasions of right now, it does seem to privilege the observer almost to the point of solipsism.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-23T17:35:06.173Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Plenty of people are perfectly well satisfied with various answers to this question within all sorts of systems

Yeah, I'm interested in this. If you have time, what are some of the answers that you see people being satisfied by?

While there's nothing fundamentally wrong with supposing that things may well change right now when they don't appear to have changed in at least the past few billion occasions of right now, it does seem to privilege the observer almost to the point of solipsism.

Right yeah it seems like empiricism follows from a certain kind of humility. It's like, if I don't see the world as having any nature of its own then it basically makes no sense to pay attention to anything beyond myself because how could I possibly look carefully at a tree or a bird or a waterfall without some kind of background view that there is something out there to look at.

And it does seem that when I look at some system for a while, like rain falling on a lake or a rabbit hopping around on the grass, that I just naturally start to discern some cause and effect. It's almost as if a kind of intuitive empiricism is the default, and that it would take some effortful resistance to say "no no none of this is justifiable"

But now we are trusting something about own nature that has this tendency towards an intuitive empiricism, and it really comes down to the question of what it is about our own nature that is trustworthy, because it sure isn't the case that everything we do intuitively has beneficial consequences.

Interested in your thoughts on this.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-09-22T00:27:23.065Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is as if we were stuck in a kind of awkward middle ground

Throughout this post I was thinking about the phrase "starting from the middle" as where we are, with neither perfect knowledge of reasoning nor of our goals, but having something to go on and having to build from there.

It also reminds me of Abram's post An Orthodox Case Against Utility Functions [LW · GW] which is about getting started from the point of view of an agent, created in motion, not the point of view of the universe (or some other omniscient sort of position).

Replies from: romeostevensit, alexflint
comment by romeostevensit · 2021-09-22T17:17:12.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might enjoy Nozick's Invariances which takes a similar approach to the Is-Ought problem in claiming that the ontological assumptions of the problem as stated are incoherent. We don't have firm Is's and firm Oughts we need to bridge. We already are the bridge (of theseus) one end of which is built from heuristics that return Is-like answers, and one end of which is built from heuristics that return Ought-like answers.

I believe Nozick was partially responding to The View from Nowhere.

Replies from: Benito
comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-09-24T04:23:21.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sounds like a good response to the Is-Ought problem.

comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T02:44:57.217Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah thank you for that connection Ben. It seems like a true connection to me.

comment by Olomana · 2021-09-22T06:59:48.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding the first enigma, the expectation that what has worked in the past will work in the future is not a feature of the world, it's a feature of our brains.  That's just how neural networks work, they predict the future based on past data.

Regarding the third enigma, ethical principles are not features of the world, they are parameters of our neural networks, however those parameters have been acquired.

Regarding the second enigma, I am less confident, but I think something similar is going on.  Here my metaphor is not the ML branch of AI, but the symbolic processing branch of AI.  Or System 2 rather than System 1, to use a different metaphor.   Logic and math are not features of the world, but features of our brains.

Replies from: TAG, alexflint
comment by TAG · 2021-09-22T19:37:51.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding the first enigma, the expectation that what has worked in the past will work in the future is not a feature of the world, it’s a feature of our brains. That’s just how neural networks work, they predict the future based on past data.

If it's a feature of our brains , but not the world, then it's not going to work. Unless you get very Kantian and insist that out brains are determining the world....

Regarding the third enigma, ethical principles are not features of the world, they are parameters of our neural networks, however those parameters have been acquired.

Which, again, doesn't address the issue of how valid they are...even if you invented something, you can do better or worse at it.

comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T13:36:03.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regarding the first enigma, the expectation that what has worked in the past will work in the future is not a feature of the world, it's a feature of our brains. That's just how neural networks work, they predict the future based on past data.

Yeah right, we are definitely hard-wired to predict the future based on the past, and in general the phenomenon of predicting the future based on the past is a phenomenon of the mind, not of the world. But it sure would be nice to know whether that aspects of our minds is helping us to see things clearly or not. For me personally, I found it very difficult to get to work with full conviction without spending some real time investigating this.

Another way to say this is that we are born hard-wired to do all kinds of things, and we can look at our various hard-wirings and reflect on whether they are helping us to see things clearly and decide what to do about them. Now you might say that neural networks predict the future based on the past in a way that is a level more ingrained than any one particular heuristic or bias. But to me that just makes it all the more pressing to investigate whether this deep aspect of our brains is helping or hurting our capacity to see things clearly. I just found that I could put this question aside for only so long.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-09-27T04:53:56.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know I keep leaving comments pointing to this post of mine (I would stop if I felt like its contents had entered the collective consciousness, but they haven't and I wrote the post to change that so here we are), but all three of these enigmas are instances of the problem of the criterion [LW · GW]. Reading through the comments, I feel like most of them come down to folks continuing to struggle to come to terms with the problem and its implications.

Replies from: alexflint, Vladimir_Nesov
comment by alexflint · 2021-10-01T19:50:02.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, these are definitely instances of the problem of the criterion. I actually had a link to your post in the original version of this post but somehow it got edited out as I was moving things around before publishing.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-09-27T12:05:54.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's like with math talks: no matter how incomplete it has to be, you must always prove at least one statement. So instead of only linking to a reference, or only naming an idea, write at least one argument suitable to the occasion that holds hope of offering something new and making sense on its own, even if it's just two sentences.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-09-22T08:46:14.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These three enigmas are all instances of the same enigma, the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for anything, respectively knowledge of how to observe, how to think, and how to act; alongside the necessity to carry on with life anyway. Why not just recognise the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for anything, and carry on with life anyway, while studying these things at your leisure?

My house is not going to fall down just because I start thinking about why it has not.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T13:14:04.224Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah I agree the three enigmas are instances of the same thing. And it does seem to me that no system of reasoning can provide its own ultimate justification. But whether it's possible to find ultimate justification for anything is a different question, I think. It seems to me that it's worth making some real time and space to look into whether anything can be ultimately justified. For me it was important to make such time and space because I just couldn't fully dive into my work without first having looked into this.

comment by 4thWayWastrel · 2021-09-22T21:01:24.314Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I greatly enjoyed this, thanks for writing it. I matched it to one of the questions in my own personal pantheon of mysteries.

What does it mean for a belief to be self-evident?

It seems self evidently true that I exist, that I am conscious, suffering is bad, wellbeing is good, and the next moment of experience will be the nesesary consequence of this moment.

I can point to the raw justification for these facts in my experience, and I just assume that other people have similar justifications embedded within their subjective perspective. But it's still an intellectual mystery to me why "it's self evident" feels like a satisfying justification. As you say maybe that too is self evident ad infinitum

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-23T17:53:32.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the kind words. If you have time and inclination, I'd be interested to hear anything at all about what the raw justification in your own experience is like.

Replies from: 4thWayWastrel
comment by 4thWayWastrel · 2021-09-23T20:23:44.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're quite welcome 🙂

For existence it's "I think therefore I am", just seems like an unavoidable axiom of experience. It feels like wherever I look I'm staring at it.

For conciousness I listened to an 80k hours podcast with David Chalmers on The Hard Problem and ever since then it's been self evident there's something that it's like to be me. It felt like something that had to be factored out of my experience and pointed at for me to see. But it seems as self evident as existing.

For wellbeing and suffering it took some extreme moments for me to start thinking about the fact that some things feel good and bad and that might be like, quite important actually. Also with the realisation that I never decided to find wellbeing good and suffering bad they just are.

For causality I admit it's not as clear cut, and I only really thought about it yesterday reading this article. But in this moment I'm running an operating system shaped by the past. In that past I experienced the phenomena of prediction and causality. This moment seems no different to that moment so it feels natural to unambiguous act as though this moment will effect the next.

Hmm that last explanation feels much more unwieldy than existence, conciousness, and valence. Perhaps it doesn't quite deserve the category of self evident, and is more like n+1 induction.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-24T16:19:24.989Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for sharing this.

In my own experience, there are moments where I see something that I haven't seen before, such as what is really going on in a certain relationship in my life, or how I have been unwitting applying a single heuristic over and over, or how I have been holding tension my body, and it feels like a big gong has just rung with truth. But I think what's really going on is that I was seeing things in one particular way for a long time, and then upon seeing things in just a slightly different way, I let go of some unconscious tightness around the previous way of seeing things, and that letting go frees up my mind to actually think, and that's such a big relief that I feel this gong ringing with truth. It seems that letting go of seeing things one particular way is what the energetic release is about, rather than the particular new way of seeing things.

I mention this just because it's the thing that seems closest in my own experience to the direct experience of self-evident truth. It seems that when I see that I have been holding to one particular way of seeing things, it is self-evident that it's better to make a conscious choice about how to see things rather than just being unconsciously stuck. But it does not seem to me that there is any self-evident truth in any particular replacement way of seeing things.

Replies from: 4thWayWastrel
comment by 4thWayWastrel · 2021-09-25T20:53:40.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never seen that feeling described quite that way, I like it!

Out of curiousity, how do you feel about the proclaimed self evidence of "the cognito", "I think therefore I am"?

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-10-01T20:10:53.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you!

Well, I would just say that the significance of it for me comes from the connection between the conclusion "I am" and practical life. I like to remind myself that there is something that really matters, and that my actions really seem to affect it, and so I take "I am" to be a reminder of that.

comment by Kenny · 2021-09-21T18:29:03.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Having doubts is crucial for better investigations. How you address those doubts and to what extend you address them dictate the success and practicality of your investigations. Some doubts are more easily solvable than others, but doubts are usually not really the direct focus of your investigations but of supplementary materials that can potentially change the course of of your methodology. It can affect how you value your work and what areas you think would be worthwhile to focus on in your future work.

I firmly believe that having doubts is better than not having them. It's one of the core component of thinking outside of the box so to speak. Everything in moderation suggests that there can be a breaking point in having too many unrelated doubts that would hinder your own progress as you get lost in the sea of possibilities. Doubts essentially guide us in whether we think of our own pursuits as something that's fruitful or futile. How we deal with the importance of certain doubts vs others is an art in and of itself.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T00:02:54.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gosh yes having doubts is ultra important as you say, but I don't think they'll you much good unless you act on them, and a lot of the time acting on doubt means picking an appropriate time and place to investigate them.

Look let's say you're working for a space elevator company and your job is to design the cars that will climb the elevator cable, but you have some doubts about whether the basic science behind the cable design has been done well. Now it's completely fine to just do your job and not worry much about these underlying doubts, but eventually that's going to be a pretty demotivating way to exist, particularly if you are doing the work you are doing because you really care about it. So from a purely practical perspective, it's going to help you do your work to spend a little time investigating the basic assumptions underneath the thing you're working on.

It's a similar situation, I think, with investigating the foundations of reasoning itself. If this underlying thing isn't quite right, then everything we do on top is going to be skewed. We know this, and our doubts correctly implore us to make some time and space to investigate. The demotivating thing, it seems to me, is when we do have the doubts but do not make time and space to investigate.

But yes the goal is not to paper over all doubts forever, but to actually resolve the thing that is unresolved.

Replies from: Kenny
comment by Kenny · 2021-09-22T03:29:38.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes doubts are useless if you don't look to answer them yourself. Most of the time, they can't be fully confirmed based on your own investigation because the collective knowledge is a lot more exhaustive than your own ability and time spent on looking at a few sources for answer. We all more or less share the same access to the same information that are available to us. Like they say about a new startup idea, it's probably been done already. Only very rarely you see something brand new that's not done before, and usually those are very domain specific because there just aren't enough people looking into that specific subject.

It takes time for new research and findings to make it into textbooks and curriculum despite the fact universities are churning out new research all the time. What we learn in school are knowledge that have already been distilled and organized into digestible forms that allow students to easily pick them up. If you want to learn things outside of what school provides, you have to do your own novel research, just like the research they do in universities and research labs. They have monetary incentives to drive the work and keep the cogs churning. Most people don't really have the time and dedication to produce the same quality of work from their own research and investigations.

Society is structured in a way where people either work or relax. When people do work, they are incentivized to put in the minimum amount of effort for the maximum amount of pay and corporate hierarchy status. The incentives therefore aren't directly aligned with quality but with resources gains of the individuals and the corporations they form. The pace that modern society is advancing at definitely is very sub-optimal, which is only limited by our own human conditions.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-09-23T18:53:19.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

justify our reasoning

It seems more practical to develop reasoning systems that work well enough to explain what the confusing systems that were never designed happen to be doing. The useful sense of justification is not about describing what's already happening, but about choosing well, making use of what you have available. There is no point in figuring out if what you have available is well-designed, apart from an act of redesign.

Replies from: TAG, TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-09-23T19:08:11.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The other point would be the choice between confident epistemology and modest epistemology.

comment by TAG · 2021-09-23T19:05:22.156Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The other point would be the choice between confident epistemology and modest epistemology.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-09-21T21:30:12.552Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Awesome. I feel a strong resonance with many thoughts and ideas and its beautiful cadence and phrasing touch me. While reading I was at the same time thinking that meditation has some (un-)answers and wondering whether you would give answers or not.

When you mentioned your monastery year it made sense that the prose felt a bit like the parts of the Satipathana Sutta that I know. Very wholesome; I hope it will be appreciated (earlier or later).

Please elaborate or foster elaboration on this. Talk more about the safe space you have in mind. I have the feeling that it is subtly different from what Jacob Falkovich touches on in The Treacherous Path to Rationality [LW · GW].  

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T02:43:19.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the kind words and encouragement Gunnar

comment by DPiepgrass · 2021-09-26T13:43:34.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not asking you to doubt that things that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future, but you cannot claim that your non-doubt is founded in empiricism.

Can't I though? I can empirically observe that for any year N between N=1800 (or less) and N=2000, general laws that held before N usually held after N, and further, we can empirically find heuristics for what kinds of laws tend to hold up (starting, obviously, with the laws of physics).

Our ability to observe history is limited, though, and maybe that's a big problem?

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-10-01T20:02:41.816Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's just that you end up in circular reasoning in that case, because you have to start with the view that things that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future, then you see that this principle itself has worked in the past, then on the basis of the view you already started with as a premise you conclude that therefore this view that has worked in the past (that things that have worked in past will continue to work in the future) will continue to work in the future.

It's like if I would claim to you that things that have never worked in the past will tend to work in the future, and you ask why, and I say, well, because this view has never worked in the past, therefore it will work in the future. In order to reach that conclusion I had to start out by assuming the thing itself.

Interested in your thoughts.

Replies from: DPiepgrass
comment by DPiepgrass · 2021-10-02T13:06:40.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The starting point here is not "things that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future". The starting point is induction: when we see a pattern, the we expect it is likely to continue. For instance, if we take a random sampling of 10 balls from an urn and they are all blue, I predict the next one is blue with some probability around 95% (I'm not sure what theory says my confidence should be). That's induction.

And the more reliable the pattern is, the more we expect it to continue. In this case the pattern holds over all the Ns we have information about, therefore we expect it to hold for larger N too, especially because we have no reason to think there is anything special about N > 13.8 billion as compared to N < 13.8 billion.

"Empirical" results are inductive by definition, and while we can see that induction works by induction, I'm not arguing that induction proves itself to work, just that "things that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future" is an ordinary inductive result like any other.

comment by Jay95 · 2021-09-23T20:23:10.377Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An "ontological crisis" is treated well enough when you note your perception as a belief. If it's literally impossible to not have a best working model of reality in its entirety that undermines profound doubt.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-24T03:30:36.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But then are you saying that it's impossible to experience profound doubt? Or are you saying that it's possible to experience profound doubt, but noting perception as belief is a reliable way out of it? If the latter then how do you go from noting perception as belief to making decisions?

comment by TAG · 2021-09-23T17:28:28.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the circular justification of empiricism is the biggest problem with it. The other problem is that empiricism is limited.

Pure empiricism can operate without assumptions, but can't do very much. It cannot interpret or build models. Using pure empiricism, you might be able to predict that a big yellow shniy think will appear over the horizon tomorrow, but you won't be able to say that a giant fusion reactor will appear over the horizon tomorrow, because that's an interpretation of the evidence.

Science is not pure empiricism ... it is something that incorporates empiricism

comment by TAG · 2021-09-23T17:25:23.325Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the circular justification of empiricism is the biggest problem with it. The other problem is that empiricism is limited.

Pure empiricism can operate without assumptions, but can't do very much. It cannot interpret or build models. Using pure empiricism, you might be able to predict that a big yellow shniy think will appear over the horizon tomorrow, but you won't be able to say that a giant fusion reactor will appear over the horizon tomorrow, because that's an interpretation of the evidence.

Science is not pure empiricism ... it is something that incorporates empiricism

comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-22T18:13:45.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you read the Sequences, or Sean Carrol's 'The Big Picture'? Both talk about these questions. For example:

We can appeal to empiricism to provide a foundation for logic, or we can appeal to logic to provide a foundation for empiricism, or we can connect the two in an infinitely recursive cycle.

See explain-worship-ignore [LW · GW]

and more generally

mysterious-answers [? · GW]

The system of empiricism provides no empirical basis for believing in these foundational principles.

See no-universally-compelling-arguments-in-math-or-science [LW · GW]

and more generally

mind-space [? · GW]

simpler hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated hypotheses

I'm not sure if this appeared in the Sequences or not, but there's a purely logical argument that simpler hypotheses must be more likely. For any level of complexity, there are finitely many hypotheses that are simpler than that, and infinitely many that are more complex. You can use this to prove that any probability distribution must be biased towards simpler hypotheses.

We need not doubt all of mathematics, but we might do well to question what it is that we are trusting when we do not doubt all of mathematics.

"All of mathematics" might not be as coherent as you think. There's debate around the foundations. For example:

  • Should the foundation be set theory (ZF axioms), or constructive type theory?
  • Axiom of Choice: true or false?
  • Law of excluded middle: true or false?

(I'm not a mathematician, so take this with a grain of salt.)

There are two very different notions of what it means for some math to be "true". One is that the statement in question follows from the axioms you're assuming. The other is that you're using this piece of math to model the real world, and the corresponding statement about the real world is true. For example, "2 + 2 = 4" can be proved using the Peano axioms, with no regard to the world at all. But there are also (multiple!) real situations that "2 + 2 = 4" models. One is that if you put two cups together with two other cups, you'll have four cups. Another is that if you pour two gallons of gas into a car that already has two gallons of gas, the car will have four gallons. In this second model, it's also true that "1/2 + 1/2 = 1". In the first model, it isn't: the correspondence breaks down because no one wants a shattered cup.

I'm actually very interested to see what assumptions about the real world correspond to mathematical axioms. For example, if you interpret mathematical statements to be "objectively" true then the law of the excluded middle is true, but if you interpret them to be about knowledge or about provability, then the law of the excluded middle is false. I have no idea what the axiom of choice is about, though.

the-simple-truth [LW · GW]

I am asking you to doubt that your reason for correctly (in my estimation) not doubting ethics can be found within ethics.

Have you read about Hume's is-ought distinction? He writes about it in 'A Treatise of Human Nature'. It says that ought-statements cannot be derived from is-statements alone. You can derive an is-statement from another, for example by using modus-ponens. And you can derive one ought-statement from another ought-statement, plus some is-statement reasoning, for example "you shouldn't punch him because that would hurt him, and someone being hurt is bad". But you can't go from pure is-statements to an ought-statement. Yudkowski says similar things. Once you instinctively see this distinction, it's not even tempting to look for an ultimate justification of ethics or within empiricism, because it's obviously not there.


The problem, I suspect, is that these questions of deep doubt in fact play within our minds all the time, and hinder our capacity to get on with our work.

It's always dangerous to put thoughts in other people's minds! These questions really truly do not play within my mind. I find them interesting, but doubt they're of much practical importance, and they do not bother me. I'm sure I'm not alone.

It seems like you are unhappy without having "a satisfying conceptual answer to 'why should I believe it?' within the systems that we are questioning." Why is that? Do you not want to strongly believe in something without a strong and non-cyclic conceptual justification for it?

Replies from: alexflint, TAG
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-23T17:11:56.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you not want to strongly believe in something without a strong and non-cyclic conceptual justification for it?

It's not that I don't want to strongly believe in something without a strong and non-cyclic conceptual justification for it. It's that I want my actions to help reduce existential risk, and in order to do that I use reasoning, and so it's important to me that I use the kind of reasoning that actually helps me to reduce existential risk, so I am interested in what aspects of my reasoning are trustworthy or not.

Now you have linked to many compelling impossibility arguments. Hume's is-ought gap, the problem of induction, and many of Eliezer's writings rule out whole regions of the space of possible resolutions to this problem, just as the relativization barrier in computational complexity theory rules out whole regions of the space of possible resolutions to the P versus NP problem. So, good, let's not look in the places that we can definitively rule out (and I do agree that the arguments you have linked to in fact soundly rule out their respective regions of the resolution space).

Given all that, how do you determine whether your reasoning is trustworthy?

Replies from: justinpombrio
comment by justinpombrio · 2021-09-23T21:35:23.016Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you ask me whether my reasoning is trustworthy, I guess I'll look at how I'm thinking at a meta-level and see if there are logical justifications for that category of thinking, plus look at examples of my thinking in the past, and see how often I was right. So roughly your "emperical" and "logical" foundations.

And I sometimes use my reasoning to bootstrap myself to better reasoning. For example, I didn't used to be Bayesian; I did not intuitively view my beliefs as having probabilities associated with them. Then I read Rationality, and was convinced by both theoretical arguments and practical examples that being Bayesian was a better way of thinking, and now that's how I think. I had to evaluate the arguments in favor of Bayesianism in terms of my previous means of reasoning --- which was overall more haphazard, but fortunately good enough to recognize the upgrade.

From the phrasing you used, it sounded to me like you were searching for some Ultimate Justification that could by definition only be found in regions of the space that have been ruled out by impossibility arguments. But it sounds like you're well aware of those reasons, and must be looking elsewhere; sorry for misunderstanding.

But honestly I still don't know what you mean by "trustworthy". What is the concern, specifically? Is it:

  • That there are flaws in the way we think, for example the Wikipedia list of biases?
  • That there's an influential bias that we haven't recognized?
  • That there's something fundamentally wrong with the way that we reason, such that most of our conclusions are wrong and we can't even recognize it?
  • That our reasoning is fine, but we lack a good justification for it?
  • Something else?
Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2021-09-23T22:26:42.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are going to make very confident claims, you need a very strong basis. That's one sense in which you need trustworthiness. But if you are not going to make very confident claims,you needn't worry.

If you are going to promote a narrow epistemology based on , for instance just science, or just Bayes, then you a justification for it that doesn't also justify everything you want to exclude from your narrow epistemology. Circular justification would justify anything that's self consistent, so it's not good enough.

If you're not doing either of the above, then you can just embrace a liberal , pluralistic approach, and not worry .

comment by TAG · 2021-09-22T20:43:42.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m not sure if this appeared in the Sequences or not, but there’s a purely logical argument that simpler hypotheses must be more likely. For any level of complexity, there are finitely many hypotheses that are simpler than that, and infinitely many that are more complex. You can use this to prove that any probability distribution must be biased towards simpler hypotheses

Yes, but that doesn't tell you that:-

  1. you have a unique way of picking out the simplest hypothesis. The standard intuition is there is a single truth, but there are multiple ways of defining simplicity.

  2. you are picking it out of the total.hypothesis space , ie. the hypotheses.you are considering add up to one, in an absolute sense. Solomonoff Induction is limited to computable universes, for instance.

comment by romeostevensit · 2021-09-22T17:15:16.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wanting compressions to be universalizable makes sense, it would be an additional compression bonus to be able to throw out all the contextual data about when the compression isn't a good fit for part of reality. I think it's mostly incoherent as a principle even though as a process it can be a good intuition to follow (E=MC^2 and Natural Selection sure are useful). We don't actually need a ground to push off of, we create our own control surfaces, like wingsuits.

Replies from: alexflint
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-23T17:36:52.820Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's mostly incoherent as a principle

What is it that you are saying is incoherent as a principle?

Replies from: romeostevensit
comment by romeostevensit · 2021-09-24T17:40:49.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

universalizability of compressions in light of them being bound to intentionality on the part of the one doing the compression. The closest we get to universal compressions are when the intent is more upstream of other intents like survival and reproduction.

comment by Hschell · 2021-09-22T08:03:05.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

" In order to let go of those defense mechanisms, we need to put ourselves in a place that demonstrably will take care of us in an ontological crisis."

While I agree with statement by itself. In relationship to the Monastic Academy which is here called the monastery, this is laughable at best and at it's worst deeply untrue and dangerously misguided. This does not track with my own experience; or over a dozen other testimonies from former residents and apprentices that have left the monastery over the last 2-3 years in traumatic states whom have not been cared for or even followed up with to see if they are ok by the organization you are speaking about. While some speak to the positive benefits they received via simple living, community, and meditation practice as you've described here; many have also had suffering significant pschological challenges and needed professional support to heal and deprogram the unhealthy beliefs and behaviors they learned within the organization. So should you or any other person consider the Monastic Academy trustworthy in the face of an ontological crisis? Especially when the environment itself, more often than not drives one into a state ontological crisis that is neither normal or healthy.

So how do we decide what and whom is trustworthy? How much evidence do we need? Do we trust our own direct experience, first and foremost? Do we ignore others direct experiences when they don't align with ours? Do we trust the data? Do we trust reasoning, mathematics, and ethics to show us what's ethical?

The question of " what is trustworthy?" Is of incredible importance. All too often those whose view of things has been skewed by the privileges given to them by society or within a group(I.e class, race, gender, wealth and social influence) miss the mark entirely on this question because they have never had the good fortune of learning the true nature of the people who surround them, and too often they have not even learned there own. The only way to know someone's true nature is to watch how they treat others from whom they have nothing to gain but their humanity. Few recognize that this is the most valuable gift of all.

Instead they spend their days performing mental gymnastics and writing about enigmas without getting anywhere, grasping at a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection that perpetually alludes them because they cannot meet with the suffering that is right in front of them and inside of them.

Replies from: alexflint, Benito, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by alexflint · 2021-09-22T14:10:31.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes it's true, there are people who have spent time at the Monastic Academy and have experienced psychological challenges after leaving.

For me, I enjoyed the simplicity and the living in community and the meditation practice as you say. The training style at the Monastic Academy seemed to really really really work for me. There were tons of difficult moments, but underneath that I felt safe, actually, in a way that I don't think I ever had before. That safety was really critical for me to face some deep doubts that I'd been carrying for a really long time.

But there are also people who have left Monastic Academy feeling very hurt.

I guess sometimes it's good to push through doubt and pain in order to get to the other side, while other times it's better to listen to doubt and pain because it's telling you that something isn't working for you.

I do think it's worth finding somewhere that can provide deep sanctuary. I definitely did find that at the Monastic Academy. There are others who seem not to have.

Instead they spend their days performing mental gymnastics and writing about enigmas without getting anywhere, grasping at a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection that perpetually alludes them because they cannot meet with the suffering that is right in front of them and inside of them.

Hmm. Since you refer to "writing about enigmas without getting anywhere" and the title of the post is "three enigmas at the heart of our reasoning", I understand this to be a critique of my character (?) or perhaps just a personal attack. Was that your intention?

Replies from: Hschell
comment by Hschell · 2021-09-22T16:41:58.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is good to recognize and respond when unethical organizational practices and the actions of leaders and teachers are significant factors in psychological breakdowns and hurt that people have experienced.

In your last few months at the monastery in the beginning of 2021 you described experiencing overwhelming anxiety, confusion, and fear to me. I heard frequent bouts of doubt and paranoia. This went on for weeks. You described feeling constantly criticized and shamed. In one particular incident you described an incident in which you felt especially hurt and shamed by the group involving whether or not it was ok for you to bake bread. Did you really feel safe and supported at that time?

The repeated exortation to "push past the doubt and pain to get to the other side" that is repeatedly given by teachers is exactly what gets many monastics into disturbing psychological territory because they have moved way past the signals and messages their body and nervous system is giving to them. In multiple incidents this has resulted in multiple residents ending up in the ER. So yes I'd say it is important that we use our critical thinking skills and that we listen to our doubts, our pain, and any other signals our body is giving us about being in an unsafe situation.

Living ethically is about far more than doing what works for YOU. It is also about taking action in the face of injustice and suffering. It means having the integrity to step up to the plate when you see others bring mistreated instead of aligning yourself with those whose positions, resources, and influence you think will advance your mission. When we knowingly continue to participate in and financially support systems where leaders are abusing their power, causing harm, and there is no accountability or grievance process to address those issues then we are complicit in wrongdoing. When a leader operates with no peers and no accountability; but instead puts novice practioners into positions of power and responsibility that no other monastery would even consider placing another person without years of practice and ethical training that is a huge red flag. In this way you become complicit in any harm that comes from that environment. When person after person leaves hurt and psychologically disturbed as a result of engaging with a teacher and training process there is a larger systemic issue. When person after person approaches leadership to share feedback and concerns, and they are repeatedly ignored, dismissed, gaslit, or in some cases threatened. Something is off. When a teacher who aims to teach "ethical, wise, and compassionate leadership's" refuses to engage in a mediation process with former students whom have left his program hurt because he doesn't "trust" outside institutions. Something is off.

Perhaps there is a forth enigma of reasoning and that is that we human beings through out the ages have found ways to use "reasoning" and even ideas of "morality" to justify turning a blind eye to countless harms throughout the ages. How do we justify the massive cognitive dissonance between our professed values and beliefs and the human costs of our actions. Often because it "works" for us. How many people turned and looked the other away when they came for the Jews? How many black men were shot on contact with the police before it became a national conversation? How many neighbors were complicit in the burning of the witches though their hands never touched a torch? How many people have directly or indirectly participated in countless injustices whom believed that they were doing good in the world?

"Writing about enigmas and getting nowhere" - this is an observation and a criticism of your writing, your actions, and the views you have put forth in this piece. I see that you are in search of community, belonging, purpose (all good things) and that you have good things to contribute to the world. I am suggesting that you are grasping at straws here. You are spinning your wheels. You're writing about these ideas while eloquent is a series of mental gymnastics written in a convuluted way that actually makes your real points difficult to understand. You writing here is actually quite difficult to understand as a reader. I think you have the capacity to express you ideas in a way that is more clear and less "egnimatic." I am suggesting that you've written a piece of writing that does little to further a collective body of knowledge or address real world problems - but serves primarily as a way for you to justify your own reasoning, to escape from uncomfortable feelings, and to create a sense of meaning and connection in your day that is otherwise lacking. I am suggesting that you have turned a blind eye to what is happening in a community you have been deeply involved in, because you have not found a sense of sanctuary anywhere else. I feel compassion for the suffering that led you here. I am also suggesting that your privileges as a white cis man with wealth have afforded you significant differences in the level of "safety" you've experienced within this community. I am challenging the idea you have put forward about this place being a place that will take care of people as they unravel their ontological questions - because this is has not been true for many people even if it did for you. I am suggesting that you are willing to accept unethical actions, because you feel lost without this community. I am also suggesting that your previous leadership position, your continued participation and the significant financial of support you've given to the Monastic Academy in combination with your lack of meaningful actions to create greater accountability, amends, and safety within the organization makes you complicit in any physcological or physical damage that happens within that space. Last but not least, I am suggesting that this piece of writing and this relationship with this organization will not get you where you actually want to go and that you can in fact do better (and write better.) Continually turning a blind eye to real issues while we live in pursuit of philosophical and spiritual questions will not serve the world if it does not ultimately improve the lives of those who have those who have the least among us- even if it feels like it is "working" for you. This is not a path to ethical living, this is not a path to wisdom and compassion. Nor will it solve the deeper engimas within your life.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-09-22T16:45:10.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

over a dozen other testimonies from former residents and apprentices that have left the monastery over the last 2-3 years in traumatic states
 

Have you personally talked to over 12 people who have left the monastic academy in the past 2-3 years and they each reported their experience was strongly negative or overall negative?

Replies from: Hschell
comment by Hschell · 2021-09-22T19:09:18.564Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I belong to a small group of ex-residents and former apprentices that have been interviewing other community members, have made attempts to create space for dialogue with leadership about issues, have requested a mediation process with a third party mediator be opened for the organization to hear the feedback of current and former program participants, and are now looking at what steps to take to address concerns for safety and well-being of current and future members. There have been fifteen accounts given (12 being within the last 2-3 years) in which people report some or strongly negative experiences that have from my point of view established that these are not one off issues. This is not a large monastery and so this is a significant number of people whom experienced high levels of psychological distress in which participants (i.e. panic attacks, mania, psychosis, flashbacks) There are others who've stated that they had negative experiences behind this whom were not open to bring interviewed and/or did not want to have any contact with the organization whatsoever. Some have also spoken to receiving some positive benefits from meditation practice and other aspects of training. All of whom have spoken to unhealthy group and teacher/student dynamics that are consistent with many high demand groups. These former members also reported experiencing significant psychological disturbances while and after training at the MA and difficulty reintegrating back into the world after leaving. Some of these accounts I have heard and received directly (6), while other interviews have been conducted by other group members.

Replies from: hrs
comment by hrs · 2021-10-14T04:09:25.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently there's been some confusion, I'm Herschel (I'm leaving out my last name so I'm not trivially googled), the author of this comment is a different person [I've removed their name for their privacy]. I was a resident for two years at MAPLE but I haven't written anything about it publicly, besides a couple brief things on my facebook account.

Replies from: Hschell
comment by Hschell · 2021-10-17T22:29:56.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand your desire to make a distinction about your identity and clear up confusion about your thoughts, actions being confused with statements I've made. Here you note that you state that "I'm leaving out my last name so I'm not trivially googled" and then you go on to disclose personally identifying information about me and the names I go by apparently without regard for how others may choose to use this information.  While I am generally not interested in hiding my identity, my involvement in activities, and thoughts please consider both the discrepancy in your statement/actions and that my choice to speak publicly to what others have not could put me at risk. Please afford me the same level of privacy, safety, and respect that you do yourself. 

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-09-22T20:08:01.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We have to be careful to separate the school from the insights. Whether the school has problems seems almost entirely unrelated to the philosophical questions posed. It does provide some context for the proposal to have safe spaces though. Indeed, I think these two topics should probably be separated more clearly.  

Replies from: Hschell
comment by Hschell · 2021-10-17T22:21:00.952Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you have a good point Gunnar - these two things could be better separated. In light of such, I have decided to share some thoughts inspired by the Monastic Academy about organizational practices and how that relates the "big picture" separately. 

The Colonization of Cults, Nonprofit Organizations, and Society - LessWrong [LW · GW]