Comment by james_bach on Allais Malaise · 2008-01-21T03:52:35.000Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"If the largest utility you care about is the utility of feeling good about your decision, then any decision that feels good is the right one."

I don't think so, Eliezer. Perhaps you've misunderstood the argument. It isn't necessarily "any decision that feels good", it's any decision that gets the decider what the decider wants. I was trying to raise a question about your assumptions about what matters. Sometimes, the way you write, it seems you may not be aware that your particular model of what should matter to people isn't shared by everyone.

I agree that if you think you are playing a particular game, and you want to win that game, there may be very specific things you need to do to win. Where I'm trying to draw your attention is to the fact that human activity encompasses a great number of different games, simultaneously. A rejection of the game you want to play is not the same thing as saying "anything goes." If you are talking about chess, and someone says "Hey, I play checkers" the proper response is not "Oh, well then it doesn't matter what move you make. You can make any move."

It wouldn't take very much adjustment of your rhetoric to avoid wantonly trampling on the flowerbeds of alternative utility systems. You can be incisive without being mean-spirited.

Comment by james_bach on Zut Allais! · 2008-01-20T06:33:00.000Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Far more important than rationality is the story of who we are and what we believe. I think that may be the best rational explanation for your insistence on trying to convince people that rationality is a good thing. It's your story and it obviously means a lot to you.

There is no special rational basis for claiming that when lives are at stake, it's especially important to be rational, because the value we place on lives is beyond rational control or assessment. But there may be any number of non-rational reasons to be rational... or appear rational, anyway.

Rationality is a game. It's a game I, personally, like to play. Irrationality is how humans actually live and experience the world, most of the time.

Comment by james_bach on Trust in Math · 2008-01-15T07:41:34.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For me, the purpose of doubt is to motivate inquiry. When any particular doubt no longer serves inquiry, I retire it.

If the purpose of doubt were to eliminate doubt, it would be far more efficient simply never to doubt.

Therefore, I doubt your philosophy of doubt. Let the inquiry continue.

Comment by james_bach on Expecting Beauty · 2008-01-12T06:56:33.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When you wrote "But neither does it seem like the same shade of uncertainty" I suppose you mean that it doesn't seem that way, to you. Nor does it to me. But before, as a thinking person, I suggest that the difference is meaningful, I need a context or a reason. You haven't provided one, and that's why your argument has the flavor of religion, to my palette.

I'd love to see your answer to the actual skeptical argument, rather than the straw man you offer, here. Here you are doing the equivalent of announcing "I'm thinking of a number!..... 5!...... I'm right again! My quest for order is rewarded!"

If you use mathematics to find order in the messy world, and you succeed, does that amount to a proof that the order you found is the actual order? Kepler would have argued yes! So would have Newton. Both were wrong. We know they were wrong. Wrong but their ideas are enduringly useful, as far as we know... so far... The skeptical position is not one of denying the value of ideas, but rather that of continuing the inquiry.

When my inquiry ceases, my beliefs become hardened premises that define my world and prevents me from benefiting from ideas of people with different premises. That's fine in a simple world. A gamer's world. I've become convinced that there is no simple world, except in our fantasies. Overcoming bias is about finding our center in a messy world. It's about overcoming fantasy.

Comment by james_bach on Beautiful Math · 2008-01-10T23:53:29.000Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I love math. It's the only reason I sometimes wish I'd stayed in school. When I get rich, I want to hire a mathematician to live in my basement and tutor me. I bet they can be had for cheap.

Pure math is potentially a perfect idea. Applied math; not so much. When you see that line of 2's, how do you know it continues forever? You don't. You're making an induction; a beautiful guess. It's only because you peeked at the real answer-- an answer you yourself created-- that you can confidently say that you "predicted" the sequence with your method.

I'm much more interested in sequences produced in a simple deterministic way that are extremely difficult to crack. The move from "it makes no sense" to "it's obvious" is a critical dynamic in human thought. I'd like to see you write about that.

As Polya would say, solving these problems is a heuristic process. The reason you think you find order when you dig down far enough is that you systematically ignore any situation where you don't find order. Your categories have order built into them. You are drawn to order. There are probably a host of biases influencing that: availability, ontology, instrumentalism, and hindsight among them.

There's lots of order to be found. There is also infinite amounts of disorder, unprovable order, and alternate plausible order. Occam's razor helps sort it out-- that's also a heuristic.

Comment by james_bach on Infinite Certainty · 2008-01-09T07:49:15.000Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, Eliezer. Helpful post.

I have personally witnessed a room of people nod their heads in agreement with a definition of a particular term in software testing. Then when we discussed examples of that term in action, we discovered that many of us having agreed with the words in the definition, had a very different interpretation of those words. To my great discouragement, I learned that agreeing on a sign is not the same as agreeing on the interpretant or the object. (sign, object, and interpretant are the three parts of Peirce's semiotic triangle)

In the case of 2+2=4, I think I know what that means, but when Euclid, Euler, or Laplace thought of 2+2=4, were they thinking the same thing I am? Maybe they were, but I'm not confident of that. And when someday a artificial intelligence ponders 2+2=4, will it be thinking what I'm thinking?

I feel 100% positive that 2+2=4 is true, and 100% positive that I don't entirely know what I mean by "2+2=4". I am also not entirely sure what other people mean by it. Maybe they mean "any two objects, combined with two objects, always results in four objects", which is obviously not true.

In thinking about certainty, it helps me to consider the history of the number zero. That something so obvious could be unknown (or unrecognized as important) for so long is sobering. The Greeks would also have sworn that the square root of negative one has no meaning and certainly no use in mathematics. 100% certain! The Pythagoreans would have sworn it just before stoning you to death for math heresy.

Comment by james_bach on Absolute Authority · 2008-01-08T05:08:40.000Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder what your life must be like. The way you write, it sounds as if you spend a lot of your time trying to convince crazy people (by which I mean most of humanity, of course) to be less crazy and more rational, like us. Why not just ignore them?

Then I looked at your Wikipedia entry and noticed how young you are. Ah! When I was your age, I was also trying to convert everybody. My endless arguments about software development methods, circa 1994, are still in Google's Usenet archive. So, who am I to talk?

(Note: Mostly I write comments that complain about something you say, but please understand that there's a selection bias here. Even though I often find myself thinking "What an interesting way to think about that. Great idea, Eliezer!" I would rather write comments that have some kind of content, and those tend to be the critical ones.)

Comment by james_bach on The Fallacy of Gray · 2008-01-07T08:31:31.000Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds like you are trying to rescue induction from Hume's argument that it has no basis in logic. "The future will be like the past because in the past the future was like the past" is a circular argument. He was the first to really make that point. Immanuel Kant spent years spinning elaborate philosophy to try to defeat that argument. Immanuel Kant, like lots of people, had a deep need for universal closure.

An easier way to go is to overcome your need for universal closure.

Induction is not logically justified, but you can make a different argument. You could point out that creatures who ignore the apparent patterns in nature tend to die pretty quick. Induction is a behavior that seems to help us stay alive. That's pretty good. That's why people can't just wave their hands and claim reality is whatever anyone believes-- if they do that, they will discover that acting on that belief won't necessarily, say, win them the New York lottery.

My concern with your argument is, again, structural. You are talking about "gray", and then you link that to probability. Wait a minute, that oversimplifies the metaphor. You present the idea of gray as a one-dimensional quantity, similar to probability. But when people invoke "gray" in rhetoric they are simply trying to say that there are potentially many ways to see something, many ways to understand and analyze it. It's not a one-dimensional gray, it's a many dimensional gray. You can't reduce that to probability, in any actionable way, without specifying your model.

Here's the tactic I use when I'm trying to stand up for a distinction that I want other people to accept (notice that I don't need to invoke "reality" when I say that, since only theories of reality are available to me). I ask them to specify in what way the issue is gray. Let's distinguish between "my spider senses are telling me to be cautious" and "I can think of five specific factors that must be included in a competent analysis. Here they are..."

In other words, don't deny the gray, explore it.

A second tactic I use is to talk about the practical implications of acting-as-if a fact is certain: "I know that nothing can be known for sure, but if we can agree, for the moment, that X, Y, and Z are 'true' then look what we can do... Doesn't that seem nice?"

I think you can get what you want without ridiculing people who don't share your precise worldview, if that sort of thing matters to you.

Comment by james_bach on But There's Still A Chance, Right? · 2008-01-06T04:10:51.000Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand why you invoke probability theory in a situation where it has no rhetorical value. Your conversation was a rhetorical situation, not a math problem, so you have to evaluate it and calibrate your speech acts accordingly-- or else you get nowhere, which is exactly what happened.

Your argument to your friend was exactly like someone justifying something about their own religion by citing their bible. It works great for people in your own community who already accept your premises. To anyone outside your community, you might as well be singing a tuneless hymn.

Besides that, the refuge available to anyone even within your community is to challenge the way that you have modeled the probability problem. If we change the model, the probabilities are dramatically changed. This is the lesson we get from Lord Kelvin's miscalculation of the age of the Sun, for instance. Arnold Sommerfeld once remarked that the hydrogen atom appeared to be more complex than a grand piano. In a way it is, but not so much once quantum mechanics was better understood. The story of the Periodic Table of Elements is also a story of trying different models.

Mathematics is powerful and pure. Your only little problem is demonstrating-- in terms your audience will value-- that your mathematics actually represents the part of the world you claim it represents. That's why you can't impose closure on everyone else using a rational argument; and why you may need a few other rhetorical tools.

Your confidence in your arguments seems to come from a coherence theory of truth: when facts align in beautiful and consistent ways, that coherence creates a powerful incentive to accept the whole pattern. Annoyingly, there turn out to be many ways to find or create coherence by blurring a detail here, or making an assumption there, or disqualifying evidence. For instance, you consistently disqualify evidence from spiritual intuition, don't you? Me, too. How can we be sure we should be doing that?

Why not learn to live with that? Why not give up the quest for universal closure, and settle for local closure? That's Pyrhhonian skepticism.

Comment by james_bach on Rational vs. Scientific Ev-Psych · 2008-01-04T08:12:25.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the advocates of Naturalistic Inquiry (see Lincoln and Guba) would say that you aren't talking about all of science, but of just the "positivistic paradigm" of science, whereas there is another paradigm called "naturalistic" or "constructivist" that does science differently.

I don't buy the whole Naturalistic program, but they raise some useful points. One of them is that the experiments you suggest require you to impose upon the object of your study an ontology along with the value system associated with it. When studying complex and ill-defined systems, such as psychological or social systems, this may suppress or disrupt the very phenomena that matter, and we never the wiser.

A naturalistic approach to science may tactically employ the kind of experiments you suggest, but proceeds with a great deal of caution about potential variables and hypotheses. "Hunter" and "gatherer" are socially overloaded terms with many implications and connections to other aspects of human life. It may be a big spaghetti mess to disentangle the issues. Inquiry proceeds in an exploratory fashion to tease out potential factors.

On other hand, it may not be a big mess! But the naturalistic bias is toward assuming complexity and subtlety and looking closely at the role of a priori assumptions in the choices of words, variables, and instrumentation that may lead to false results. It's sort of post-modernism applied to scientific method.

Again, I'm not a partisan of Naturalistic Inquiry. I just find it intriguing, and I have an allergic reaction to oversimplification (having been fooled so often by my own simplifications).

Comment by james_bach on Stop Voting For Nincompoops · 2008-01-03T21:29:06.000Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Forget voting. Here's how to make a big difference in society: at least once a month, do something amazingly kind for a perfect stranger. My preference is leaving $100 tips for waitresses or hotel maids, because I'm basically lazy.

Also, raise your kids with kindness.

Practice showing courage in challenging situations.

Don't instigate a lawsuit unless it's reaaaaaally important.

What's great about America is not democracy, but the sense we have that we can travel almost anywhere here and other people will smile with us, do business with us, and not hate us. There are still many places and people within America for which and whom this is not true (or not true enough). But let's keep working toward that idea with our daily actions. No amount of voting will solve that problem.

Comment by james_bach on Stop Voting For Nincompoops · 2008-01-03T03:10:12.000Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Since I don't accept being part of a majority that dominates a minority, I only consent to vote in a situation where my vote is for the minority, and therefore cannot possibly influence the outcome. This is mathematically identical to staying home, except staying home is more pleasant. So, I'd rather stay home.

For those who believe in majority rule, I still don't understand why you vote, since your vote cannot make any difference. There is no such thing as a deciding vote in a large election, since the error present in the system even for a fair election itself far exceeds one vote.

It only makes sense to advocate voting if you believe you can control a lot of other peoples' votes. Then you can actually make a difference. Since the Diebold voting machines are hackable, and recounts are a sham, and the central tabulating software is easily manipulated by whomever happens to be running it, I see no rational basis for the assumption that the behavior of any voter or group of voters actually controls the outcome of any important election.

Comment by james_bach on Cultish Countercultishness · 2007-12-30T02:58:46.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're such a lion against religion, I admire that. So, I'm surprised you would say that living with doubt is not a virtue. You know about incommensurability right? You know about perspectivism? There is no "view from nowhere" that can make perfect objectivity possible.

Therefore: doubt. To live with doubt makes room for learning. Lose doubt and you also lose inquiry. Some doubts are annihilated by inquiry, but as Richard Feynman said, "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts". He said we need a well developed theory of ignorance to protect the future from our misconceptions of the present.

Doubt is difficult to live with. I'd love to say with certainty that Christianity is false. I'm constrained to saying that I have no better reason to accept Christianity than to accept the Spaghetti monster theory. The guy who came up with the Spaghetti monster did so as a parody-- but maybe the Monster Himself placed the ideas in his head to spread the good word of Spaghetti.

Bayesian rationality doesn't solve doubt, because nothing tells you how to identify the system and its factors that must be modeled. So, you're still stuck with having to define your premises, and doubt comes in with the premises.

Doubt is like an anti-oxidant that protects against cultishness. Of course, a cult can use fake doubt to throw people off its scent.

Comment by james_bach on Lonely Dissent · 2007-12-28T07:01:11.000Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer, never mind black, the true iconoclasts don't go to school. I quit in 10th grade and became an emancipated minor. In the three years prior, I refused to do homework, citing the 13th Amendment. My motivation echoes yours: I could not abide fakers, and public school abounds with them. Fake lessons. Fake arguments. Fake sentiments. Public school is a thinly disguised day care center.

Fortunately, education is not the same as schooling, and there are plenty of ways to become better educated in private life. Then I discovered as an adult that being unconventionally educated could be a competitive advantage.

Comment by james_bach on Asch's Conformity Experiment · 2007-12-26T08:25:49.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see this exercise as being so much about rationality as it is about our relationship with dissonance. People in my community (context-driven software testers) are expected to treat confusion or controversy as itself evidence of a potentially serious problem. For the responsible tester, such evidence must be investigated and probably raised as an issue to the client.

In short, in the situation given in the exercise, I would not answer the question, but rather raise some questions.

I drive telephone surveyors nuts in this way. They just don't know what to do with a guy who answers "no opinion" or "I don't know" or "can't answer" to every single question in their poorly worded and context-non-specific questionnaires.

Comment by james_bach on Effortless Technique · 2007-12-23T05:15:39.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for this post. I'm in the process of writing about my system of self-education, which has two interesting elements I haven't heard anywhere else: A) it requires no self-discipline whatsoever, B) it is centered on the feelings of learning, rather than artifacts and techniques of learning (those latter two things are interesting, but they orbit the first).

One of the things I try to explain is how to embrace certain mental behaviors that seem bad, such as procrastination. I procrastinate extensively. I am procrastinating right now (I'm "supposed to be" writing a chapter on the history of buccaneering and how that relates to intellectual buccaneering).

Procrastination helps me learn with less effort. It's too long to explain fully here, but one way I use it is called "springboard procrastination" which is the phenomenon of trying to work on one thing, and feeling your mind aggressively push you into another thing. I once thought that was a shameful thing, to let my mind push against my will, but I eventually discovered that by rolling with that impulse, I could get lots of things done. I read more, I write more, I exercise, I am quite productive while avoiding the work I'm "supposed to do".

I also use a technique I call "procrastinate and push" which means I keep coming back and knocking on the door of my mind, trying to work on the problem of the day, and when my mind tells me to go play a video game instead, I just do that. But I come back a little later, and a little later. I go through these cycles without any sort of bad feeling (unlike when I was younger and disgusted with my inability to bring my mind to heel). Eventually, usually shortly before a deadline, my mind relents. Often progress is very rapid after that.

These experiences have caused me to explore lots of way in which I can make good progress without the feeling of making an effort. One of my mentors in this, Jerry Weinberg, recently wrote a book about a relaxed way of writing called the Fieldstone Approach, which he first put into words while coaching me on this stuff.

Anyone interested in reviewing my book prior to its publication should contact me directly. I will soon need a few bright people to critique it.

Comment by james_bach on Guardians of Ayn Rand · 2007-12-18T08:57:22.000Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Great essay!

But, how can a set of ideas be a closed system? It's ridiculous. If someone were to tell me that Objectivism is closed, I would say, Ha! I just reopened it. Ha! Try and stop me from calling myself an Objectivist if I feel like it! Oh, they can trademark it, I supposed, but if they do, I could rename my system as Reasonablism and explain it as an improved form of what-Ayn-Rand-was-talking-about.

A community of people can close itself off, but ideas are helpless to resist whatever buccaneering minds may prey upon them. This harkens to Buckminster Fuller's cry that "true wealth only increases", because true wealth is knowledge and knowledge is infinitely replicable and shareable.

Comment by james_bach on Guardians of the Truth · 2007-12-15T23:17:14.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

When you speak of "guardians of truth" I hear "guardians of social order." I don't think the Inquisition thought of truth in epistemic terms, the way we do. They thought of "truth" as the order of the world that was under constant assault by dark forces.

Truth guardianship in science might be understood as defending Kuhnian "normal science" from assault by people outside of the dominant paradigm; or perhaps the process of indoctrinating new scientists in the accepted norms of that paradigm.

Comment by james_bach on Argument Screens Off Authority · 2007-12-14T06:01:38.000Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You said: "So it seems there's an asymmetry between argument and authority. If we know authority we are still interested in hearing the arguments; but if we know the arguments fully, we have very little left to learn from authority."

I like your conclusion, but I can't find anything in your argument to support it! By rearranging some words in your text I could construct an equally plausible (to a hypothetical neutral observer) argument that authority screens off evidence. You seem to believe that evidence screens off authority simply because you think evidence is what makes authority believe something. But isn't that assuming the very thing you want to demonstrate?

Your scenarios in the first paragraphs are neither arguments nor demonstrations. They are statements of what you believe. Fair enough. But then I was expecting that you'd provide some reason for me to reject the hypothesis-- a hypothesis that carried a lot of weight during the era of Scholasticism-- that there is no such thing as evidence without authority (in other words, it is authority that consecrates evidence as evidence).

I used to wonder how anyone could take the obviously wrong physics of Aristotle seriously, until I learned enough about history that it dawned on me that for the Scholastic thinkers of the middle ages, how physics really worked was far less important than maintaining social order. If maintaining social order is the problem that trumps all others in your life and in your society, then evidence must necessarily carry little weight compared to authority. You will give up a lot of science, of course, but you will give it up gladly.

Obviously, we aren't in that situation. But I worry when I see, for instance, rational arguments for the existence of God that assume the very thing they purport to prove. And your argument (hopefully I've misunderstood it) seems a lot like those.

Comment by james_bach on Lost Purposes · 2007-11-25T18:48:57.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As a high school dropout and aspiring philosopher of self-education, I salute you.

My son is homeschooled, and the homeschooling consists of... nothing. He studies spontaneously to solve problems that are authentic to him, just as I do. Mostly these involve video games and online fantasy role-playing games. It's like A.S. Neill's Summerhill school except he's all alone. There are disadvantages to this sort of education, but inauthenticity is not among them.

I am writing a book along these lines. It's about how we can creates ourselves as individual thinkers. It's called How I Learn Stuff: Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar (old draft is temporarily online at The book itself should be finished in a few months).

Comment by james_bach on Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone) · 2007-11-22T07:22:42.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm nervous about the word happiness because I suspect it's a label for a basket of slippery ideas and sub-idea feelings. Still, something I don't understand about your argument is that when you demonstrate that for you happiness is not a terminal value you seem to arbitrarily stop the chain of reasoning. Terminating your inquiry is not the same as having a terminal value.

If you say you value something and I know that not everyone values that thing, I naturally wonder why you value it. You say it's a terminal value, but when I ask myself why you value it if someone else doesn't, I say to myself "it must make him happy to value that". In that sense, happiness may be a word we use as a terminal value by definition, not by evidence-- a convention like saying QED at the end of a proof. In the old days the terminal value was often "God wills it so", but with the invention of humanism in the middle ages, pursuit of happiness was born.

In the case where someone seems to be working against what they say makes them happy, that just means there are different kinds or facets or levels of happiness. Happiness is complex, but if there are no reasons beyond the final reason for taking an action, then as a conceptual convention the final reason must be happiness.

Now I will argue a little against that. What I've said up to now is based on the assumption that humans are teleonomic creatures with free will. But I think we are actually NOT such creatures. We do not exist to fulfill a purpose. So the concept of happiness, defined as it is, is a story that is pasted onto us, by us, so that we can pretend to have an ethereal conscious existence. I propose that the truth is ultimately that we do what we do because of the molecules and energy state that we possess, within the framework of our environment and the laws of physics.

I could say that eating makes me happy and that's why I do it, or I could say that the deeper truth is that my brain is constructed to feel happy about eating. I eat because of that mechanism, not because of the "happiness", which doesn't actually exist. We make up the story of happiness not because it makes us happy to do so, but because we are compelled to do so by our physical nature.

In the words of Jessica Rabbit, I'm just drawn that way.

I normally wouldn't take the scientific happiness pill because I seem to be constructed to enjoy feeling that my state of mind is substantially a product of my ongoing thoughts, not chemicals. To inject chemicals to change my thoughts is literally a form of suicide, to me. It takes the unique thought pattern that is ME, kills it, and replaces it with a thought pattern identical in some ways to anyone else who takes the pill. People alive are unique; death is the ultimate conformity and conformity a kind of death.

But the happiness illusion is complex enough that I may under some circumstances say yes to that pill and have that little suicide.

Comment by james_bach on No Evolutions for Corporations or Nanodevices · 2007-11-17T06:48:32.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Quantitative thinking is just so much mystical numerology unless it is grounded in qualitative thinking. Unless you don't need your mathematics to mean anything with respect to the world, you must relate it to the world by using a system of assertions called a model. Of course, you know this, I'd just like you to bring this fact out from behind the curtain where you normally keep it.

Example: when I hear a scientist talk about how winning the lottery (or some other rare event) is less likely than getting hit by lightning, I have to wonder what the odds are of being hit by lightning if you take shelter during a storm, as most people do, or if you live in Nome, Alaska? I bet agoraphobic people are far less likely to die in car accidents, too. In other words, broad numerical reasoning, when applied to specific cases without recalculating for those cases, is essentially the same thing as the sloppy qualitative reasoning that you're worried about. It's just as absurd.

Maybe what you're trying to say is that sloppy and ungrounded qualitative reasoning is to be avoided, in favor of quantitative reasoning grounded in the appropriate qualitative reasoning that give the numbers meaning. That would be a qualitative judgment on your part, of course, but it seems like a defensible one in this case.

I think you are trying to advocate, not quantitative reasoning, but rather good reasoning. There's no call to hang the albatross of bad reasoning around the neck of qualitative research as a field. That bird belongs to all of us.

Comment by james_bach on A Case Study of Motivated Continuation · 2007-10-31T06:04:09.000Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Until you pick one interim best guess, the discomfort will consume your attention, distract you from the search, tempt you to confuse the issue whenever your analysis seems to trend in a particular direction.

Oh no. Eliezer, I have disagreed with you at times, but you have not actually disappointed me until this moment. As an avid reader of yours, I beseech you, please think through this again.

You simply have not presented a moral dilemma. You've presented a pantomine; shadows on a wall; an illusion of a dilemma. If there's any dilemma here at all, it was whether I should play pretend-philosopher by giving an eloquent and vacuous response or else take philosophy and morals seriously by suggesting that your question is not yet ready to be answered. I chose the latter, partly because I also have been taking seriously your other writings-- the ones where you chide people for substituting wishful thinking for self-critical sober rational analysis. I'm attracted to the mind of a man who tries to live by a difficult and worthy principal, because that's what I do, too; and what I am doing.

Real moral dilemmas have context, and the secret to solving them always involves that context. We frequently find them in literature, richly expressed. Instead, you are just asking us to play a game with unspecified rules and goals. You toss off a scenario in a few sentences. How is that interesting? I guess it's a bit interesting to see how some people commenting have made bold assumptions and foisted unspoken premises on your example. It's a window onto their biases, maybe. Is that really enough to satisfy you?

I could understand if you don't want to make the effort to create a fully realized philosophical problem for us to work through (putting together those problems is a challenge). But geez, I'm surprised you would criticize me for doing what a philosopher is supposed to do: study the situation to understand the question better, rather than make a definite answer to a question I don't understand.

Comment by james_bach on Torture vs. Dust Specks · 2007-10-30T07:54:48.000Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding your example of income disparity: I might rather be born into a system with very unequal incomes, if, as in America (in my personal and biased opinion), there is a reasonable chance of upping my income through persistence and pluck. I mean hey, that guy with all that money has to spend it somewhere-- perhaps he'll shop at my superstore!

But wait, what does wealth mean? In the case where everyone has the same income, where are they spending their money? Are they all buying the same things? Is this a totalitarian state? An economy without disparity is pretty disturbing to contemplate, because it means no one is making an effort to do better than other people, or else no one can do better. Money is not being concentrated or funnelled anywhere. Sounds like a pretty moribund economy.

If it's a situation where everyone always gets what they want and need, then wealth will have lost its conventional meaning, and no one will care whether one person is rich and another one isn't. What they will care about is the success of their God, their sports teams, and their children.

I guess what I'm saying is that there may be no interesting way to simplify interesting moral dilemmas without destroying the dilemma or rendering it irrelevant to natural dilemmas.

Comment by james_bach on Torture vs. Dust Specks · 2007-10-30T07:30:57.000Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Yes the answer is obvious. The answer is that this question obviously does not yet have meaning. It's like an ink blot. Any meaning a person might think it has is completely inside his own mind. Is the inkblot a bunny? Is the inkblot a Grateful Dead concert? The right answer is not merely unknown, because there is no possible right answer.

A serious person-- one who take moral dilemmas seriously, anyway-- must learn more before proceeding.

The question is an inkblot because too many crucial variables have been left unspecified. For instance, in order for this to be an interesting moral dilemma I need to know that it is a situation that is physically possible, or else analogous to something that is possible. Otherwise, I can't know what other laws of physics or logic apply or don't apply, and therefore can't make an assessment. I need to know what my position is in this universe. I need to know why this power has been invested in me. I need to know the nature of the torture and who the person is who will be tortured. I need to consider such factors as what the torture may mean to other people who are aware of it (such as the people doing the torture). I need to know something about the costs and benefits involved. Will the person being tortured know they are being tortured? Or can it be arranged that they are born into the torture and consider it a normal part of their life. Will the person being tortured have volunteered to have been tortured? Will the dust motes have peppered the eyes of all those people anyway? Will the torture have happened anyway? Will choosing torture save other people from being tortured?

It would seem that torture is bad. On the other hand, just being alive is a form of torture. Each of us has a Sword of Damocles hanging over us. It's called mortality. Some people consider it torture when I keep telling them they haven't finished asking their question...

Comment by james_bach on No One Can Exempt You From Rationality's Laws · 2007-10-07T22:09:44.000Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your point would be so much stronger, Eliezer, if you were allowed to ignore the role of models in rationality. But in all cases an infinity of alternative models may also account for what you think you have proven rationally. In your terms, no one can revoke the law that any belief in "accurate beliefs" rests on a priori assertions about what can exist and what constitutes evidence. It rests on a priori structures in your brain, designed to notice some things and not others.

Rationality is heuristic. In the case of waiting for water to spontaneously freeze at room temperature, it may be a marvelous heuristic not to hold your breath, but that's a straw man. What I'm worried about as a post-modern skeptic is what ways of organizing the world you and I have systematically failed to consider in our rational analyses. Because many internally consistent constructions of the world may be incommensurable, and yet lead not only to different predictions, but incommensurable predictions.

When you write about rationality as a way to defeat self-certainty, I'm excited and grateful. That's also how I use it. I'm more nervous when you write as if rationality is a tool that inevitably to accurate beliefs.

Comment by james_bach on A Rational Argument · 2007-10-02T20:51:54.000Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I like the spirit of what you're saying, but I'm not convinced that you've made a rational argument for it. Also, I'm concerned that you might have started with the conclusion that a rational argument must flow forward and constructed an account to justify it. If so, in your terms, though not in mine, that would make your conclusion irrational.

I think it can be perfectly rational to think backwards from any conclusion you want to any explanation that fits. Rationality is among other things about being bound by the requirement of consistency in reasoning. It's about creating an account from the evidence. But it's also about evaluating evidence, and that part is where it gets problematic.

In an open and complex world like the one we live in every day, weighing evidence is largely a non-rational (para-rational? quasi-rational?) process. We are operating only with bounded rationality and collections of murky impressions. So, your idea of making a checklist and somehow discovering who the best candidate is is already doomed. There is no truly evidence-driven way of doing that, because evidence does not drive reasoning-- it's our BELIEFS about evidence that drive reasoning. Our beliefs are mostly not a product of a rational process.

A logical explanation is one that follows from premises to conclusions without violating any rule of logic. Additionally, all logical explanations of real world situations involves a claim that the logical model we put forward corresponds usefully to the state of the real world. What we called a "cat" in our reasoning corresponded to that furry thing we understand as a cat, etc. If I can think backwards from a conclusion without finding an absurd premise, then I have a logical explanation. (It may be wrong, of course.)

To attack my self-consistent, logical account of a situation that suggests that X is TRUE, based solely on the fact that I was looking for evidence that X is true, is equivalent to an ad hominem fallacy. I think you can certainly suspect that my argument is weak, and it probably is, but you can't credibly attack my sound argument simply because you don't like me, or you don't like my method of arriving at my sound argument. A lot of science would have to be thrown out if a scientist wasn't allowed to search for evidence to support something he hoped would be true. Also, as you know, many theorems have been proven using backward reasoning.

If you want to attack the argument, you can attack it rationally by offering counter-evidence, or an alternative reasoning that is more consistent with more reliable facts. Furthermore, our entire legal system is built on the idea that two opposing sides in a dispute, marshaling the best stories they can marshal, will provide judges and juries with a good basis on which to decide the dispute.

Instead of calling it irrational, I would say that it's a generally self-deceptive practice to start from a conclusion and work backward. I don't trust that process, but I couldn't disqualify an argument solely on those grounds.

Instead of prescribing forward reasoning only, I would prescribe self-critical thinking and de-biasing strategies.

(BTW, one of the reasons I don't vote is that I am confident that I cannot, under any circumstances, EVER, have sufficient and reliable information about the candidates to allow me to make a good decision. So, I believe all voting decisions people actually make are irrational.)

Comment by james_bach on Einstein's Arrogance · 2007-09-25T14:01:13.000Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Um, guys, there are an infinite number of possible hypotheses. Any evidence that corroborates one theory also corroborates (or fails to refute) an infinite number of alternative specifiable accounts of the world.

What evidence does is allow us to say "Whatever the truth is, it must coexist in the same universe with the true nature of this evidence I have accepted. Theory X and its infinite number of variants seems to be ruled out by this evidence (although I may have misinterpreted the theory or the nature of the evidence), whereas Theory Y and its infinite number of variants seems not yet to be ruled out."

Yeah, I realize this is a complicated way to phrase it. The reason I like to phrase it this way is to point out that Einstein did not have merely 29 "bits" of evidence, he had VAST evidence, based on an entire lifetime of neuron-level programming, that automatically focused his mind on a productive way of thinking about the universe. He was imagining and eliminating vast swaths of potential theories of the universe, as are we all, from his earliest days in the womb. This is hardly surprising, considering that humans are the result of an evolutionary process that systematically killed the creatures who couldn't map the universe sufficiently well.

We can never know if we are getting to the right hypothesis. What we can say is that we have arrived at a hypothesis that is isomorphic with the truth, as we understand that hypothesis, over the span of evidence we think we have and think we understand. Always the next bit of evidence we discover may turn what we think we knew upside down. All knowledge is defeasible.

Comment by james_bach on What is Evidence? · 2007-09-22T09:47:29.000Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Eliezer,

I like the word entanglement, because it's a messy concept. Reality, whatever else it might be, is messy. That's why statements like the preceding sentence can't ever be completely true. The messiness makes it hard to talk about anything real in any absolutely definitive sort of way.

I can be definitive about artificial constructs in an artificial world, yes. Hence, mathematics. But when you or I try to capture the real world with that comforting clarity, we are doomed. Well, mostly doomed. 85.27% doomed, plus or minus an unknown set of unknowns.

That's the problem I have with your otherwise (as usual) thought provoking post: YES, our perceptions are entangled with the state of the world and that often influences our beliefs which then may entangle our utterances and therefore eventually entangle other people's beliefs. BUT what is the nature of that entanglement? You can't know for sure. What specifically are the beliefs that you intend to refer to? You can't know for sure.

The factor I expected to see in your essay, but did not, is interpretation based on mental models. There are many models I might have in my mind that could influence what counts as evidence.

You wrote: "For an event to be evidence about a target of inquiry, it has to happen differently in a way that's entangled with the different possible states of the target."

If we put the missing material about interpretation in there this might read:

"For me to consider an event to be evidence about a target of inquiry, I must first possess or construct a model of that event and that target and also a model of the world that contains and relates the event and target with each other. Then, for the event to be evidence CORROBORATING a particular theory about the target, I must imagine plausible alternative events that would that would CONTRADICT that theory."

Unfortunately, our models can be wrong, and are often wrong in interesting ways. So, we can satisfy your version of the statement, or my version, and still be counting as evidence things that may be no evidence at all. Example: "I was about to go for a car ride and a black cat crossed my path, which I interpret as a portent of evil, so I went back into my house. The black cat was evidence of evil in that particular situation because a black cat crossing my path is a rare event; it is possible for the cat not to have crossed my path; and in my culture, which is the collective product of successful experience staying alive and procreating, it is considered a portent of evil for a black cat to cross one's path. Had a black cat not crossed my path, I would consider that evidence (weak evidence) that I was not about to experience misfortune."

Comment by james_bach on Doublethink (Choosing to be Biased) · 2007-09-16T01:36:47.000Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Evolution does not operate on species. It operates on individuals. Genes that are statistically bad for individuals drop out of the gene pool no matter what they do for the species."

Imagine a gene that caused 9/10 of the humans who have it to be twice as fertility and attractiveness as the population that did not have it, while 1/10 of the humans who have it can't reproduce at all. This would be a gene that would serve the species (i.e. the portion of the species that had it), even though it would harm some individuals. Notice that the inability of the 10% to procreate would not harm the prospects of such a gene for the species as a whole. Soon, the whole of the species would have this gene.

Isn't there some theorizing that suggests that homosexuality may be an example of something like this? Perhaps the phenomenon of homosexuality is linked to some wonderful benefit that increases the viability of heterosexuals. Otherwise, wouldn't homosexuals have been "selected out" long ago?

Comment by james_bach on Doublethink (Choosing to be Biased) · 2007-09-14T21:29:48.000Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pleased to say that, through a great deal of study and practice, I have learned how to unlearn things that I know. This is called skepticism. A key to it is the ability to imagine plausible alternatives to whatever is believed. Descartes is famous for developing this idea, although he was constrained by his society from completely embracing it. Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus developed this idea, but their community was persecuted and destroyed by the Christians, too.

Skepticism is not opposed to rationality, but neither does it accept that a rationally derived solution to a problem is necessarily the best solution (unless you define rationality as whatever leads to the best solution, in which case you have to abandon the notion of a rational methodology).

My wife is an ongoing experiment and example for me, because she seems to live her life almost entirely without rationality and critical thinking as I recognize it. She lives instead by pattern matching and by the process of comparing real and anticipated feelings. You feel superior to her. Well, she feels superior to you. Is there a non-biased process that can decide who is right? Sure there is: mutation and natural selection. My wife is the product of billions of years of evolution, as are you. So, it seems to be a tie...

I like being "smart" and "analytical". It's my kind of game. I find symbolic logic fascinating. I write software using my logical mind. I enjoyed reading your wonderful tutorial on Bayesian reasoning, though I already knew the material, having read the Cartoon Guide to Statistics and the works of Tversky and Kahneman, years ago. But not since 1920 or so has it been possible to make a fully rational case for living a fully rational life. To do that you have to base your reasoning on premises, and that leads to the infinite regress problem. You have to map your premises to reality, but you don't have direct access to reality.

I'm not attacking rationality. I love it. But why be biased in favor of it? Why not just do what works for you and leave it at that?

Comment by james_bach on Applause Lights · 2007-09-12T03:50:24.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Curiously Eliezer, I feel like applauding. Good post.

Comment by james_bach on The Crackpot Offer · 2007-09-09T01:21:35.000Z · score: 8 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Something seems out of kilter about this, Eliezer.

When I was 13, I thought I had a proof in principle that there must be a minimum possible distance-- because to move is to move a finite distance, but no sum of infitesimal distances can compose a finite distance. I shared my idea with a professional physicist, who dismissed my idea using an appeal to authority. I don't care how fabulous the authority was, nor how ignorant I may have been, it was a terrible thing to for him to do that. It killed my enthusiasm for questioning physics, or math, at the time.

Reasoning, even mathematical reasoning, is not about just about right and wrong. It's also about how we model the world and apply our models to it. See Imre Lakatos's wonderful Proofs and Refutations for a look at how proofs are not just proofs, they are assertions about what's worth talking about and what we mean by our words.

And reasoning is also about honing our skills. We must develop the guts to recognize when we are wrong, but also the guts not worry so much about being wrong that we give up before we learn very much.

I once discovered a way to trisect an angle with a compass and straight edge. This has been proven to be impossible, apparently, but I did it. Later I discovered that I used an operation that wasn't "allowed" (an approximation maneuver), even though I performed the maneuver with only a compass and straight edge. To me, the proof that it can't be done is obviously incorrect, by any practical standard. Show me an angle and I can trisect it to an arbitrarily high degree of accuracy with my mechanical procedure. I challenge the "rules" set out by whomever thinks he's the know-all on what can be done with a compass and straight edge.

I hope other 13 year-olds don't read your essay and decide that the rational attitude is never to try to reinvent or challenge the Ancient Ones.

Comment by james_bach on "Science" as Curiosity-Stopper · 2007-09-03T22:05:27.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hey Brandon, I hear you. I think you'll find is fascination to see this Google Video Presentation by Thomas Metzinger:

"Being No One: Consciousness, The Phenomenal Self, and First-Person Perspective"

He tries to do exactly what you suggest. He reviews what we know empirically about self-awareness, and constructs a philosophical model of self that accounts for those phenomena. I got a lot out of it.

He even complains about certain Kantians who have taken the bold step of denying certain kinds of mental illness, because their world view can't account for them.

Comment by james_bach on "Science" as Curiosity-Stopper · 2007-09-03T21:59:44.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

At some point it maybe helpful to define curiosity. My sense of the meaning of curiosity is that it's an urge to learn something that you suspect maybe important to know at some point, even if it may not matter now. A paper I read recently ( defined curiosity more formally, as a special kind of search strategy that focuses on places that your experience shows have a higher than average probability of teaching you something useful. This doesn't seem too far from my definition.

It seems to me that stopped curiosity is not necessarily a big problem.

In my terms, what you seem to be talking about is an inquiry stopper, which is a bigger deal. If you think that it's actually important to know how a lightbulb works-- if you need to know about light bulbs-- it's a process of inquiry, not merely curiosity.

Stopping curiosity is an interesting issue in itself, but the dynamics are likely to be a bit different from stopping inquiry, although there is significant overlap.

We all live in a world of bounded rationality. We use satisficing strategies, controlled by a variety of stopping heuristics, to learn enough about the world to get by (and curiosity is part of that strategy, by giving us some kind of good enough cover in the event that the models we might otherwise have turn out to be too simple or too wrong). That we stop before learning everything possible is hardly remarkable. But I enjoy how you are getting us to think about certain specific stopping heuristics that might be insidiously impairing us.

Last night I looked over some philosophical writing I did twenty years ago, and I'm impressed by how much I took for granted, and how little I questioned. It's full of unabashedly sweeping statements based on what I now realize were very naive assumptions. I found myself reading it and yelling at my younger self "Why did you stop there? Keep opening the black boxes! Continue the questioning!"

Comment by james_bach on Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions · 2007-08-26T19:25:36.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I like your list of signs of a curiosity stopper. I don't necessarily think that "elan vital" meets those requirements (as Roy points out), but perhaps it did for many people or at some times.

I like the list because my brain feels a little more limber and a little more powerful, having pondered it. The list is a curiosity ENHANCER, and an anticipation SHARPENER.

-- James

Comment by james_bach on I Defy the Data! · 2007-08-13T01:16:08.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I love this idea. It reminds me of a bit of management advice I once heard: knives in the chest, not in the back. For better results, get debate out in the open.