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Comment by JohnWittle on 2014 Less Wrong Census/Survey · 2014-11-10T07:38:15.128Z · LW · GW

I took the survey, now give me my ~40 upvotes.

(is the free karma just an incentive to take the survey? or do 45 people really think that commenting that you took the survey is a valuable contribution to the discussion?)

Comment by JohnWittle on Open Thread, June 2-15, 2013 · 2013-06-10T00:48:07.233Z · LW · GW

Heh, I would have bid 0.5btc if I had known I would be the only bidder...

Comment by JohnWittle on Problems in Education · 2013-05-01T01:06:34.504Z · LW · GW

Yes, we are for-profit. Most grants stipulate that some proportion of the grant money be spent on an evaluation of the project.

Comment by JohnWittle on Seduced by Imagination · 2013-04-17T16:12:12.190Z · LW · GW

This is an interesting thought. I started out a heroin addict with a passing interest in wireheading, which my atheist/libertarian/programmer/male brain could envision as being clearly possible, and the 'perfect' version of heroin (which has many downsides even if you are able to sustain a 3 year habit without slipping into withdrawal a single time, as I was). I saw pleasure as being the only axiomatic good, and dreamed of co-opting this simple reward mechanism for arbitrarily large amounts of pleasure. This dream led me here (I believe the lesswrong wiki article is at least on the front page of the Google results for 'wireheading'), and when I first read the fun theory sequence, I was skeptical that we would end up actually wanting something other than wireheading. Oh, these foolish AI programmers who have never felt the sheer blaze of pleasure of a fat shot of heroin, erupting like an orgasmic volcano from their head to their toes... No, but I did at least realize that I could bring about wireheading sooner by getting off heroin and starting to study neuroscience at my local (luckily, neuroscience specialized) university.

Once I got clean (which took about two weeks of a massively uncomfortable taper), I realized two things: the main difference between a life of heroin and a life without is having choices. A heroin addict satisfies his food and shelter needs in the cheapest way possible and then spends the rest of his money on heroin. The opportunity cost of something is readily available to your mind, "I could get this much heroin with the money instead", instead of being a vague notion of all the other things you could have bought instead. There is something to be said for this simplicity. Which leads me to the second realization: pleasure is definitely relative. We experience pleasure when we go from less pleasure to more pleasure, not as an absolute value of pleasure. The benefit of heroin is that it's a very sharp spike in pleasure for a minute or two, which then subsides into a state where you probably are experiencing larger absolute pleasure, but you can't actually tell the difference. Eventually, some 6-8 hours later, you start to feel cold, clammy, feverish; definitely you experience pain. I remember times where i'd be at 12 hours since my last shot, and feeling very bad, but I would hold out a little longer just so that when I finally DID dose, the difference between the past state of pleasure and the current state would be as large as possible.

In fact, being in the absolute hell of day 2 withdrawal, 24-48 hours since last dose, puking everywhere and defecating everywhere and lying in a puddle of sweat, and then injecting a dose which brought me up to baseline over the course of five-ten seconds, without any pleasure in the absolute sense, was just as pleasurable as going from baseline to a near-overdose.

I am glad to be free of that terrible addiction, but it taught me such straight forward lessons about how pleasure actually works that I think studying the behavior of, say, heroin-addicted primates, would be useful.

Comment by JohnWittle on Fake Reductionism · 2013-04-16T04:10:29.604Z · LW · GW

A better example of an anti-reductionism argument would be the behavior of supercooled helium. I am not a solid state physicist myself, but I have been told by an anti-reductionist that superfluidic helium behaves non-reductionistically. I do not know if this is true. The person also told me that solid state physicists tend to be non-reductionists. I also don't know if that is true, but if I needed to know if reductionism were true, I would immediately go study solid state physics, since superfluidic helium seems to me to have the highest probability, out of any phenomenon I've observed, of being a counterexample.

Comment by JohnWittle on Qualitatively Confused · 2013-04-16T03:41:37.476Z · LW · GW

I don't think there is ever a direct refutation of religion in the Sequences, but if you read all of them, you will find yourself much better equipped to think about the relevant questions on your own.

EY is himself an Atheist, obviously, but each article in the Sequences can stand upon its own merit in reality, regardless of whether they were written by an atheist or not. Since EY assumes atheism, you might run across a couple examples where he assumes the reader is an atheist, but since his goal is not to convince you to be an atheist, but rather, to be aware of how to properly examine reality, I think you'd best start off clicking ‘Sequences" at the top right of the website.

Comment by JohnWittle on Problems in Education · 2013-04-08T23:12:37.496Z · LW · GW

It depends entirely on when you were in school. At present day, most of a student's path is determined by whether they are selected for 8th grade Algebra (in fact, if you were to rank all of the factors possible in determining a person's lifetime earnings, the factor at the top would be whether you took Algebra in 8th grade). The 7th grade math teacher's recommendation is the primary factor in this particular decision, and middle school teachers are incompetent at predicting whether a child could succeed at advanced math 4-6 years later.

Comment by JohnWittle on Deontology for Consequentialists · 2013-04-08T21:52:54.689Z · LW · GW

err, I meant 'Avoidum'

Comment by JohnWittle on An Abortion Dialogue · 2013-04-08T18:29:13.810Z · LW · GW

Alright. I can see the usefulness of deontology in determining if an abortion doctor acted in a way worthy of praise or blame, but I feel as though the issue isn't whether or not we put abortion doctors in prison, or whether we allow mothers to have abortions. The issue comes down to whether we want to live in a world where every possible potential human is realized, and has the opportunity to exist. Since humans are just a pattern of neurons, this goal isn't realizable today, since the possible human "JohnWittle who, while writing a comment on a blog, got randomly teleported to the 1800s" doesn't exist and doesn't get to live out his experiences, while we might wish that he did. Every aborted human would have lived a whole life full of experiences, and maybe we would prefer to live in the world where that human had gotten to have those experiences.

Would a superintelligence later be able to simulate all of the possible humans we aborted, and all of the possible (good) experiences those humans might have had, along with every human which could have been made by you and I mating, you and King Loius XIV mating, King Loius XIV and some random peasant in feudal Japan mating, and all the potential offspring of all those potential people, algorithmically generating every possible brainstate which we would call 'good'? Maybe.

In that case, perhaps we are not losing those experiences in an irrecoverable manner. How likely is it to happen this way? Who knows? Is the possibly temporary, possibly permanent loss of those people worth the increase in standard of living for whoever would be affected negatively by being forced to invest in that human? Is having an abortion morally equivalent to simply not conceiving the human in the first place? According to "simplified humanism", we know that Life is Good, regardless of whether the life in question is 20 or 120 or 1020. Does that also apply to life that doesn't exist but could? If we want to believe life is good, period, does that mean we should be creating as much life as possible? Is contraception morally equivalent to abortion? Is abstinence morally equivalent to contraception? Should people not willing to work on the immortality problem be spending all of their time conceiving as many humans as is possible? By not doing so, are we behaving suboptimally towards maximizing our values in the world around us?

I think the reason why the abortion debate is interesting is because there are all of these consequentialism issues surrounding it. If you are in favor of a woman's being able to abort, does that mean you don't actually value life, or are you banking on a future superintelligence giving those potential humans a better life than they would have had in the present time, or is that just a rationalization so you can say you value life when really you just want to maximize your own or your girlfriend's quality of life? If you are against a woman's ability to abort because you value life, are you also against abstinence because you value life? If you value life, does that not mean that you would prefer the presence of life to its absence? Should we be spending our effort on creating more life (through sex, or antiagathics research, or research into shortening pregnancy and/or moving the prenatal stage outside of the woman so she can conceive sooner afterward)?

Even while just looking at the problem through consequentialist eyes, there are still lots of issues to discuss. I had hoped to discuss some of them here, since I personally am a consequentialist who has yet to make up his mind. But if instead we're arguing about deontological issues, then I'll look elsewhere.

Comment by JohnWittle on Deontology for Consequentialists · 2013-04-08T17:03:20.960Z · LW · GW

I never came across that word during my four years of studying latin. What declension is it?

Comment by JohnWittle on An Abortion Dialogue · 2013-04-06T18:45:28.804Z · LW · GW

What could an ethical framework be if not the way you decide what actions to take in order to maximize your values? Obviously consequentialism has nothing to say about what those values are, but it rules out the idea that an act of omission with consequence 'foo', and a proscriptive act also with consequence 'foo', can be morally distinguished.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject · 2013-04-06T17:34:02.370Z · LW · GW

To a non string theorist, string theory seems like a theory which makes few testable predictions, like phlogiston. That's the feel I got from it from whenever I read all the relevant Wikipedia articles, anyway. If it is not like phlogiston, but actually useful for designing experiments, then obviously I concede.

My annoyance came from the fact that my 06:45:05 comment got a few down votes, while the parent got deleted for reasons unknown. I can't remember who the parent was, or what it said, and it bothers me that they deleted their post, while I feel an obligation to not delete my own downvote-gathering comment for reasons like honesty and the general sense that I really meant what the comment said at the time, which makes it useful for archival purposes.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject · 2013-04-06T07:40:35.802Z · LW · GW

Without knowing anything in particular about the difference between Quantum Loop Gravity or why M-theory is useful, I concede the point, although I'm a bit annoyed that I feel obligated to leave my comment there to collect negative karma while the parent, whoever they were, felt no similar obligation and removed any context my comment might be placed in.

Comment by JohnWittle on An Abortion Dialogue · 2013-04-06T07:15:43.916Z · LW · GW

Hmm. I guess I had not considered people on this forum might not be consequentialists. And yet you are somewhat of a known community figure, and not as a contrarian. Is consequentialism not evident? I ask as an honest inquiry to someone whose username I recognize (being a sort of lesswrong == sequences person myself) and therefore is at least aware of the Standard position for certain, and yet is not known for the reason of contradicting the Standard position (like Caledonian might be).

To me, the knowledge of human psychology which makes clear why humans find acts of omission acceptable, while humans find proscriptive acts with the same consequences unacceptable, is enough to make me a consequentialist. Is its not the same for you?

Comment by JohnWittle on An Abortion Dialogue · 2013-04-05T19:56:12.447Z · LW · GW

We want to figure out a head of time what we should do in morally ambiguous situations. An easy way to find discrepancies in our ethical framework is to invent thought experiments where some particular aspect of a scenario is made arbitrarily large or small. Would you kill a person to save two people? why? would you kill a person to save 200 people? why? what about killing a billion people to save two billion? If we actually have values which we'd actually like to maximize in the world around us, slight differences in the specific details of these values might prefer greatly different actions in various circumstances, and the easiest way to pin down those slight differences is to invent situations where the distinctions become obvious.

Why do we want to know in advance what we'd do if asked whether we'd kill a billion people who are only being simulated on a computer in order to save a million people who run on real neurons? because in determining a course of action, we can begin to investigate what our values actually are.. Narrowly defined values are easier to maximize; less computation is required before you have decided on a course of action. If your values are not narrowly defined, or for some other reason computing your actions is costly or timely, that incurs a huge bias towards inaction, whatever choice is realized by "waiting too late". And so proscripted acts are weighted differently than they should be in our moral framework, as you can see by the other long comment thread on this article.

It seems to me like grandparent criticized the idea of thought experiments as a way to investigate complicated ethical dilemmas, and parent kind of agreed. What is the argument? By invesgigating problems unlike the problem we're actually faced with, we forget to look at relevant data about the problem because it isn't relevant in the thought experiment. That, in our ability to focus on a particular abstraction, we allow for arbitrarily large biases. I'll concede that point, but this isn't a bad thing. If a particular value system, as a logical conclusion, endorses infanticide, as demonstrated by some thought experiment, and we claim to have that ethical framework, then we should either be willing to endorse infanticide (perhaps in the privacy of our own minds) or renounce the ethical framework. Similarly, a framework which can be shown to endorse all effort going towards impregnation of all women or technology towards the goal of realizing every potential human: we should endorse this route of action or renounce the value system that led to it.

What do we actually want to maximize? What are our theoretical, infinitely narrow, values? What should they be? The reason abortion is such a controversial issue is because it is currently an issue some people will be forced to decide on. Our lack of narrow values becomes apparent when we end up making actual, real-life decisions about actual, real life actions, and when we try to defend those actions, our arguments end up describing values which, while narrow, are not consistent with the rest of our actions. People who value human life, and say life begins at conception, are not actively trying to conceive as many humans as possible. People who value human life, and say that a human starts out as a "0 value" human, which grows steadily into a "1 value" human around 12 or 18 or 25 or whatever, are generally unwilling to endorse post-pregnancy abortion of non-sentient infants (even, perhaps, in the privacy of their mind).

Since our possible future light cone looks very different depending on which of these two values we hold, we clearly will at some point need to decide between courses of action, which means we will have to actually decide what values we'd like to maximize in the universe. Hopefully, we will make this decision ahead of time and not at the moment we need to act, because obviously we want to maximize the right value, and waiting to decide incurs a giant penalty in our ability to plan ahead and also a giant bias towards inaction. That's why thought experiments are valuable: we can increase the amount of certain values of different outcomes to arbitrarily high levels, and discover each value's relative worth, or if perhaps a value is instrumental to another value and has no worth on its own. Thought experiments are our way of hacking our value system, reverse engineering what our actual values are. For this reason, it is an absolutely essential process.

edit: written on phone. first read-through found 3 typographical errors, wikk correct at a computer.

Comment by JohnWittle on An Abortion Dialogue · 2013-04-05T18:33:36.231Z · LW · GW

After reading the entire debate this comment spawned... if the goal is to determine whether we should support abortion legalization and fewer restrictions (possibly up to infanticide? (!)), or perhaps support more heavy regulation, it seems like arguing over whether an action is reactive, proactive, etc can't possibly have any relevance, and seems like a particularly virtuist way of looking at things.

Are we not solely interested in consequences? What are our values and how do we maximize them? Clearly saying we value "human life" isn't enough, and we need to be more narrow. What do we actually value? If we say we value all potential humans, should we be spending all of our time impregnating women, being pregnant, or researching how to shorten pregnancy and/or grow humans in a test tube? If we draw the line in what we value somewhere else, do we end up with post-pregnancy abortions? Is that okay? I feel like there are real questions, and the reason those questions are interesting is because we can't just take the copout answer of "proactive actions bad, acts of omission okay" because consequentialism won't let us.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject · 2013-04-04T18:45:05.496Z · LW · GW

As opposed to not elevating any particular hypothesis out of the hypothesis-space before there is enough evidence to discern it as a possibility. Privileging the Hypothesis and all that.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject · 2013-04-03T22:32:37.151Z · LW · GW

For someone who currently has a teacher's-password understanding of physics and would like a more intuitive understanding, without desiring to put in the work to obtain a technical understanding (i.e. learning the math), I would recommend Brian Green's Fabric of the Cosmos, which I feel does for physics (and the history of physics) what An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes Law does for Bayesian probability. It goes through history, starting with Newton and ending with modern day, explaining how the various Big Names came up with their ideas, demonstrates how those ideas can explain reality incrementally better than the previous ideas by using easy-to-envision thought experiments, and also contains a skippable explanation of the mathematic principles behind the new ideas for those who want that, although the book is valuable even without these sections. In this way, it's like a popular science book with an optional textbook component.

It has a couple weaknesses, like taking M-theory seriously, but in general I would say that it accomplishes its goal of imparting an intuitive understanding better than other popular physics books with similar goals, like Hawking's A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, or Green's The Elegant Universe.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-23T21:08:05.089Z · LW · GW

there are aggregate behaviors that cannot be understood from looking at the individual constituents in isolation

Can you give me an example of one of these behaviors? Perhaps my google-fu is weak (I have tried terms like "examples of top down causality", "against reductionism", "nonreductionist explanation of"), and indeed I have a hard time finding anything relevant at all, but I can't find a single clearcut example of behavior which cannot be understood from looking at the individual constituents in isolation.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-23T21:00:46.273Z · LW · GW

I have no disagreement that high level behaviors are wildly variable, unpredictable, and all of the other words which mean "difficult to reduce down to lower level behaviors". Yes, wildly different constituent parts can create the same macroscopic behavior, or changing just a single lower level property in a system can cause the system to be unrecognizably different from before. But my point is that, if the universe is a physics simulator, it only has to keep track of the quarks. When I wake up in the morning, the universe isn't running a separate "human wake-up" program which tells the quarks how to behave; it's just running the standard "quark" program that it runs for all quarks. That's all it ever has to run. That's all I'm saying, when I say that I believe in reductionism. Reductionism doesn't say that it's practical for us to think in those terms, just that the universe thinks in those terms.

Finding a counterexample to this, a time when if our universe is a physics simulator, it must run code other than one process of 'quark.c' for each quark, would be a huge blow to reductionism, and I don't think one has been found yet. Perhaps I am wrong, although I have looked pretty thoroughly at this point, as I continue to google "arguments against reductionism" and find that none of them can actually give an example of such top-down causality.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-22T00:46:55.504Z · LW · GW

When whowhowho posted a list of a couple names of people who don't like reductionism, I said to myself "if reductionism is right, I want to believe reductionism is right. If reductionism is wrong, I want to believe reductionism is wrong" etc. I then went and googled those names, since those people are smart people, and found a paper published by the first name on the list. The main arguments of the paper were, "solid state physicists don't believe in reductionism", "consciousness is too complex to be caused by the interactions between neurons", and "biology is too complex for DNA to contain a complete instruction set for cells to assemble into a human being". Since argument screens off authority and the latter two arguments are wrong, I kept my belief.

EHeller apparently has no argument with reductionism, except that it isn't a "good way to solve problems", which I agree entirely: if you try to build an airplane by modeling air molecules it will take too long. But that doesn't mean that if you try to build an airplane by modeling air molecules, you will get a wrong answer. You will get the right answer. But then why did EHeller state his disagreement?

The paper uses emergent in exactly the way that EY described in the Futility of Emergence, and I was surprised by that, since when I first read The Futility of Emergence I thought that EY was being stupid and that there's no way people could actually make such a basic mistake. But they do! I had no idea that people who reject reductionism actually use arguments like "consciousness is an emergent phenomenon which cannot be explained by looking at the interaction between neurons". They don't come out and say "top-down causality", which really is a synonym for magic, like EHeller did, but they do say "emergence".

When I downvoted, it was after I had made sure I understood spontaneous symmetry breaking, and that it was not top-down causality, since that was the argument EHeller presented that I took seriously. I think fewer people believe in reductionism just because of EY than you think.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-22T00:20:24.712Z · LW · GW

Water with bacteria and liquid helium have the same Hamiltonian, AND the same constituent particles. If I give you a box and say "in this box there are 10^30 protons, 10^30 neutrons and 10^30 electrons," you do not have enough information to tell me how the system behaves, but from a purely reductionist stand-point, you should.

I'll admit that I am not a PhD particle physicist, but what you describe as reductionism is not what I believe to be true. If we ignore quantum physics, and describe what's happening on an entirely classical level, then we can reduce the behavior of a physical system down to its most fundamental particles and the laws which govern the interactions between those basic particles. You can predict how a system will behave by knowing about the position and the velocity of every particle in the system; you do not have to keep separate track of an organizational system as a separate property, because the organization of a physical system can be deduced from the other two properties.

If reductionism, to you, means that by simply knowing the number of electrons, protons, and neutrons which exist in the universe, you should be able to know how the entire universe behaves, then I agree: reductionism is false.

With that in mind, can you give an example of top-down causality actually occurring in the universe? A situation where the behavior of low-level particles interacting cannot predict the behavior of systems entirely composed of those low-level particles, but instead where the high-level organization causes the interaction between the low-level particles to be different?

That's what I think reductionism is: you cannot have higher-level laws contradict lower-level laws; that when you run the experiment to see which set of laws wins out, the lower-level laws will be correct every single time. Is this something you disagree with?

I don't think you understand what spontaneous symmetry breaking is

I probably don't. I was going based off of an AP Physics course in highschool. My understanding is basically this: if you dropped a ball perfectly onto the top of a mexican hat, symmetry would demand that all of the possible paths the ball could take are equally valid. But in the end, the ball only chooses one path, and which path it chose could not have been predicted from the base-level laws. A quick look at wikipedia confirms that this idea at least has something to do with symmetry breaking, since one of the subsections for "Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking" is called "A pedagogical example: the Mexican hat potential", and so I cannot be entirely off.

In classical physics, the ball actually takes one path, and this path cannot be predicted in advance. But in QM, the ball takes all of the paths, and different you's (different slices of the wavefunction which evolved from the specific neuron pattern you call you), combined, see every possible path the ball could have taken, and so across the wavefunction symmetry isn't broken.

Since you're a particle physicist and you disagree with this outlook, I'm sure there's something wrong with it, though.

In these systems, to describe low energy structures in such theories (most theories) the details of the microphysics literally do not matter.

Is this similar to saying that when you are modeling how an airplane flies, you don't need to model each particular nitrogen atom, oxygen atom, carbon atom, etc in the air, but can instead use a model which just talks about "air pressure", and your model will still be accurate? I agree with you; modeling every single particle when you're trying to decide how to fly your airplane is unnecessary and you can get the job done with a more incomplete model. But that does not mean that a model which did model every single atom in the air would be incorrect; it just does not have a large enough effect on the airplane to be noticeable. Indeed, I can see why computational physicists would use higher level models to their advantage, when such high level models still get the right answer.

But reductionism simply says that there is no situation where a high level model could get a more accurate answer than a low level model. The low level model is what is actually happening. Newtonian mechanics is good enough to shoot a piece of artillery at a bunker a mile away, but if you wanted to know with 100% accuracy where the shell was going to land, you would have to go further down than this. The more your model breaks macroscopic behavior down into the interactions between its base components, the closer your model resembles the way reality actually works.

Do you disagree?

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-21T09:45:06.226Z · LW · GW

Top-down causation maps macrophysical states to microphysical states

Can you name any examples of such a phenomenon?

"Deterministic" typically means that an unbounded agent will achieve probabilities of 1.0.

Oh, well in that case quantum physics throws determinism out the window for sure. I still think there's something to be said for correctly assigning subjective probabilities to your anticipations such that 100% of the time you think something will happen with a 50% chance, it happens half the time, i.e. you are correctly calibrated.

An unbounded agent in our universe would be able to achieve such absolutely correct calibration; that's all I meant to imply.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-21T09:15:27.358Z · LW · GW

Why didn't he mention superfluidity, or solid state physics, then? The two examples he listed were consciousness not being explainable from a reductionist standpoint, and DNA not containing enough information to come anywhere near being a complete instruction set for building a human (wrong).

Also, I'm pretty sure that the superfluid tendencies of liquid helium-4 come from the fact that it is composed of six particles (two proton, two neutron, two electron), each with half-integer spin. Because you can't make 6 halves add up to anything other than a whole number, quantum effects mean that all of the particles have exactly the same state and are utterly indistinguishable, even positionally, and that's what causes the strange effects. I do not know exactly how this effect reduces down to individual behavior, since I don't know exactly what "individual behavior" could mean when we are talking about particles which cannot be positionally distinguished, but to say that superfluid helium-4 and water have the exact same hamiltonian is not enough to say that they should have the same properties.

Spontaneous symmetry breaking can be reduced down to quantum mechanics. You might solve a field equation and find that there are two different answers as to the mass of two quarks. In one answer, quark A is heavier than quark B, but in the other answer, quark B is heavier than quark A, and you might call this symmetry breaking, but just because when you take the measurement you get one of the answers and not the other, does not mean that the symmetry was broken. The model correctly tells you to anticipate either answer with 1:1 odds, and you'll find that your measurements agree with this: 50% of the time you'll get the first measurement, and 50% of the time you'll get the second measurement. In the MW interpretation, symmetry is not broken. The measurement doesn't show what really happened, it just shows which branch of the wavefunction you ended up in. Across the entire wavefunction, symmetry is preserved.

Besides, it's not like spontaneous symmetry breaking is a behavior which arises out of the organization of the particles. It occurs at the individual level.

Comment by JohnWittle on Welcome to Less Wrong! (July 2012) · 2013-03-21T06:25:38.393Z · LW · GW

It sounds like you have some extremely strong Ugh Fields. It works like this:

A long, long time ago, you had an essay due on Monday and it was Friday. You had the thought, "Man, I gotta get that essay done", and it caused you a small amount of discomfort when you had the thought. That discomfort counted as negative feedback, as a punishment, to your brain, and so the neural circuitry which led to having the thought got a little weaker, and the next time you started to have the thought, your brain remembered the discomfort and flinched away from thinking about the essay instead.

As this condition reinforced itself, you thought less and less about the paper, and then eventually the deadline came and you didn't have it done. After it was already a day late, thinking about it really caused you discomfort, and the flinch got even stronger; without knowing it, you started psychologically conditioning yourself to avoid thinking about it.

This effect has probably been building in you for years. Luckily, there are some immediately useful things you can do to fight back.

Do you like a certain kind of candy? Do you enjoy tobacco snuff? You can use positive conditioning on your brain the same way you did before, except in the opposite direction. Put a bag of candy on your desk, or in your backpack. Every time you think about an assignment you need to do, or how you have some job applications to fill out, eat a piece of candy. As long as you get as much pleasure out of the candy as you get pain out of the thought of having to do work, the neural circuitry leading to the thought of doing work will get stronger, as your brain begins to think it is being rewarded for having the thought.

It doesn't take long at all before the nausea of actually doing work is entirely gone, and you're back to being just "lazy". But at this point, the thought of doing work will be much less painful, and the candy (or whatever) reward will be much stronger.

All you have to do is trick your brain into thinking it will get candy every time it thinks about doing work. Even if you know that it's just you rewarding yourself, it still works. Yeah, it's practically cheating, but your goal should be to do what works. Just trying really, really hard isn't just painful; it also doesn't work. Cheat instead.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-21T06:04:53.726Z · LW · GW

2a There are also higher-level properties.. 2b irreducible to and unpredictable from the lower level properties and laws...

This all this means is that, in addition to the laws which govern low-level interactions, there are different laws which govern high-level interactions. But they are still laws of physics, they just sound like "when these certain particles are arranged in this particular manner, make them behave like this, instead of how the low-level properties say they should behave". Such laws are still fundamental laws, on the lowest level of the universe. They are still a part of the code for reality.

But you are right:

unpredictable from lower level properties

Which is what I said:

That is what it means to posit reductionism; that from an information theoretical standpoint, you can make entirely accurate predictions about a system with only knowledge about its most basic [lowest] level of perspective.

Ergo, a reductionistic universe is also deterministic from a probabilistic standpoint, i.e. the lowest level properties and laws can tell you exactly what to anticipate, and with how much subjective probability.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-20T06:40:13.131Z · LW · GW

No it isn't? I did not mean you would be able to make predictions which came true 100% of the time. I meant that your subjective anticipation of possible outcomes would be equal to the probability of those outcomes, maximizing both precision and accuracy.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-19T17:39:40.369Z · LW · GW

I disagree with your entire premise. I think we should pin down this concept of "levels of perspective" with some good jargon at some point, but regardless...

You can look at a computer from the level of perspective of "there are windows on the screen and I can move the mouse around. I can manipulate files on the hard drive with the mouse and the keyboard, and those changes will be reflected inside information boxes in the windows." This is the perspective most people see a computer from, but it is not a complete description of a computer (i.e. if someone unfamiliar with the concept of computers heard this description, they could not build a computer from base materials.)

You might also see the perspective, "There are many tiny dots of light on a flat surface, lit up in various patterns. Those patterns are caused by electricity moving in certain ways through silica wires arranged in certain ways." This is, I think, one level lower, but an unfamiliar person could not build a computer from scratch from this description.

Another level down, the description might be: "There is a CPU, which is composed of hundreds of thousands of transistors, arranged into logic gates such that when electricity is sent through them you can perform meaningful calculations. These calculations are written in files using a specific instruction set ("assembly language"). The files are stored on a disk in binary, with the disk containing many cesium atoms arranged in a certain order, which have either an extra electron or do not, representing 1 and 0 respectively. When the CPU needs to temporarily store a value useful in its calculations, it does so in the RAM, which is like the disk except much faster and smaller. Some of the calculations are used to turn certain square-shaped lights on a large flat surface blink in certain ways, which provides arbitrary information to the user". We are getting to the point where an unfamiliar human might be able to recreate a computer from scratch, and therefore can be said to actually "understand" the system.

But still yet there are lower levels. Describing the actual logic gate organization in the CPU, the system used by RAM to store variables, how the magnetic needle accesses a specific bit on the hard drive by spinning it... All of these things must be known and understood in order to rebuild a computer from scratch.

Humans designed the computer at the level of "logic gates", "bits on a hard drive", "registries", etc, and so it is not necessary to go deeper than this to understand the entire system (just as you don't have to go deeper than "gears and cogs" to understand how a clock works, or how you don't have to go deeper than "classical physics (billiards balls bouncing into each other)" to understand how a brain works.

But I hope that it's clear that the mechanisms at the lower levels of a system completely contain within them the behavior of the higher levels of the system. There are no new behaviors which you can only learn about by studying the system from a higher level of perspective; those complicated upper-level behaviors are entirely formed by the simple lower-level mechanisms, all the way down to the wave function describing the entire universe.

That is what reductionism means. If you know the state of the entire wavefunction describing the universe, you know everything there is to know about the universe. You could use it to predict that, in some everette branches, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the third planet from the star Sol in the milky way galaxy would cause a large war on that planet. You could use it to predict the exact moment at which any particular "slice" of the wavefunction (representing a particular possible universe) will enter its maximum entropy state. You could use it to predict any possible behavior of anything and you will never be surprised. That is what it means to say that all of reality reduces down to the base-level physics. That is what it means to posit reductionism; that from an information theoretical standpoint, you can make entirely accurate predictions about a system with only knowledge about its most basic level of perspective.

If you can demonstrate to me that there is some organizational structure of matter which causes that matter to behave differently from what would be predicted by just looking at the matter in question without considering its organization (which would require, by the way, all of reality to keep track not only of mass and of velocity but also of its organizational structure relative to nearby reality), then I will accept such a demonstration as being a complete and utter refutation of reductionism. But there is no such behavior.

Comment by JohnWittle on The Futility of Emergence · 2013-03-19T03:15:37.624Z · LW · GW

An excellent example of a published paper against reductionism, using "emergence" in exactly this way such that it is indiscernible from "magic", is here:

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-18T21:00:45.914Z · LW · GW

I did not say that non-reductionism is absurd. I said that "recognizing the absurdity of all other proposed hypotheses is another way of coming about the correct beliefs".

Nonetheless, I do think that non-reductionism is absurd. I cannot imagine a universe which is not reductionistic.

Can you explain to me how it might work?

Edit: I googled "Robert Laughlin Reductionism" and actually found a longish paper he wrote about reductionism and his beliefs. I have some criticisms:

Who are to enact that the laws governing the behavior of particles are more ultimate than the transcendent, emergent laws of the collective they generate, such as the principles of organization responsible for emergent behavior? According to the physicist George F. R. Ellis true complexity emerges as higher levels of order from, but to a large degree independent of, the underlying low-level physics. Order implies higher-level systemic organization that has real top-down effects on the behavior of the parts at the lower level. Organized matter has unique properties (Ellis 2004).

Yudkowsky has a great refutation of using the description "emergent", at The Futility of Emergence, to describe phenomenon. From there:

I have lost track of how many times I have heard people say, "Intelligence is an emergent phenomenon!" as if that explained intelligence. This usage fits all the checklist items for a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. What do you know, after you have said that intelligence is "emergent"? You can make no new predictions. You do not know anything about the behavior of real-world minds that you did not know before. It feels like you believe a new fact, but you don't anticipate any different outcomes. Your curiosity feels sated, but it has not been fed. The hypothesis has no moving parts—there's no detailed internal model to manipulate. Those who proffer the hypothesis of "emergence" confess their ignorance of the internals, and take pride in it; they contrast the science of "emergence" to other sciences merely mundane.

And even after the answer of "Why? Emergence!" is given, the phenomenon is still a mystery and possesses the same sacred impenetrability it had at the start.

Further down in the paper, we have this:

They point to higher organizing principles in nature, e.g. the principle of continuous symmetry breaking, localization, protection, and self-organization, that are insensitive to and independent of the underlying microscopic laws and often solely determine the generic low-energy properties of stable states of matter (‘quantum protectorates’) and their associated emergent physical phenomena. “The central task of theoretical physics in our time is no longer to write down the ultimate equations but rather to catalogue and understand emergent behavior in its many guises, including potentially life itself. We call this physics of the next century the study of complex adaptive matter” (Laughlin and Pines 2000).

Every time he makes the specific claim that reductionism makes worse predictions than a belief in "emergent phenomenon" in which "organizational structure" is an additional property that all of reality must have, in addition to "mass" and "velocity", he cites himself for this. He also does not provide any evidence for non-reductionism over reductionism; that is, he cannot name a single prediction where non-reductionism was right, and reductionism was wrong.

He goes on to say that reductionism is popular because you can always examine a system by looking at its internal mechanisms, but you can't always examine a system by looking at it from from a "higher" perspective. A good example, he says, is genetic code: to assume that dna is actually a complete algorithmic description of how to build a human body is an illogical conclusion, according to him.

He would rather suppose that the universe contains rules like "When a wavefunction contains these particular factorizations which happen not to cancel out, in a certain organizational structure, use a different mechanism to decide possible outcomes instead of the normal mechanism" than suppose that the laws of physics are consistent throughout and contain no such special cases. From the standpoint of simplicity, reductionism is simpler than non-reductionism, since non-reductionism is the same thing as reductionism except with the addition of special cases.

He specifically objects that reductionism isn't always the "most complete" description of a given phenomenon; that elements of a given phenomenon "cannot be explained" by looking at the underlying mechanism of that phenomenon.

I think this is nonsense. Even supposing that the laws of physics contain special cases for things like creating a human body out of DNA, or for things like consciousness, then in order for such special case exceptions to actually be implemented by the universe, they must be described in terms of the bottom-most level. Even if a DNA strand is not enough information to create a human being, and the actual program which creates the human being is hard coded into the universe, the object that the program must manipulate is still the most basic element of reality, the wavefunction, and therefore the program must specify how certain amplitude configurations must evolve, and therefore the program must describe reality on the level of quarks.

This is still reductionism, it is just reductionism with the assumed belief that the laws of physics were designed such that certain low-level effects would take place if certain high-level patterns came about in the wavefunction.

This is the only coherent way I could possibly imagine consciousness being an "emergent phenomenon", or the creation of a human body from the blueprints of DNA being impossible without additional information. Do you suppose Laughlin was saying something else?

At first when I read EY's "The Futility of Emergence" article, I didn't understand. It seemed to me that there's no way people actually think of "emergence" as being a scientific explanation for how a phenomenon occurs such that you could not predict that the phenomenon would occur if you know how every piece of the system worked individually. I didn't think it possible that anyone would actually think that knowing how all of the gears in a clock work doesn't mean you'll be able to predict what the clock will say based on the positions of the gears (for sufficiently "complex" clocks). And so I thought that EY was jumping the gun in this fight.

But perhaps he read this very paper, because Laughlin uses the word "emergent phenomenon" to describe behavior he doesn't understand, as if that's an explanation for the phenomenon. Even though you can't use this piece of information to make any predictions as to how reality is. Even though it doesn't constrain your anticipation into fewer possibilities, which is what real knowledge does. He uses this word as a substitute for "magic"; he does not know how an extremely complex phenomenon works, and so he supposes that the actual mechanism for the phenomenon is not enough to fully explain the phenomenon, that additional aspects of the phenomenon are simply uncaused, or that there is a special-case exclusion in the universe's laws for the phenomenon.

He does not explore the logical implications of this belief: that holding the belief that some aspects of a phenomenon have no causal mechanism, and therefore could not have possibly been predicted. He makes the claim that a hypothetical Theory of Everything would not be able to explain some of the things we find interesting about some phenomenon. Does he believe that if we programmed a physics simulator with the Correct Theory of Everything, and fed it the boundary conditions of the universe, then that simulated universe would not look exactly like our universe? That the first time DNA occurred on earth, in that simulated universe, it would not be able to create life (unlike in our universe) because we didn't include in the laws of physics a special clause saying that when you have DNA, interpret it and then tell the quarks to move differently from how they would have?

I believe that DNA contains real instructions for how to construct an entire human from start to finish. I don't think the laws of physics contain such a clause.

I read the whole paper by Laughlin and I was unimpressed. If this is the best argument against reductionism, then reductionism is undoubtedly the winner. You called Laughlin a "smart person", but he isn't smart enough to realize that calling the creation of humans from DNA an "emergent phenomenon" is literally equivalent to calling it a "magic phenomenon", in that it doesn't limit your anticipation of what could happen. If you can equally explain every possible outcome, you have no knowledge...

Comment by JohnWittle on The Level Above Mine · 2013-03-17T16:01:49.227Z · LW · GW

The sense in which they did not come about their beliefs based on starting with sane priors which did not presuppose reductionism, and then update on evidence until they independently discovered reductionism.

I disagree with the grandparent, however: I believe that (most) non-math-geniuses advocating for reductionism are more akin to Einstein believing in General Relativity before any novel predictions had been verified: recognizing the absurdity of all other proposed hypotheses is another way of coming about the correct beliefs.

Comment by JohnWittle on Three Worlds Collide (0/8) · 2013-03-11T20:34:11.027Z · LW · GW

If I had to guess, I'd say it's a genetic heuristic thing. Assuming that since HPMOR is a fanfic, and since most of the possible arguments for why a particular fanfic is good are wrong, arguments for why HPMOR is good must be wrong.

He also said it wasn't good enough to publish, but when asked why, said there were legal issues with publishing fanfiction, which isn't evidence either way for its 'goodness'. This makes me think he has no arguments addressing the actual goodness of the writing.

Comment by JohnWittle on Three Worlds Collide (0/8) · 2013-03-02T21:38:16.264Z · LW · GW

Really? What makes HPMoR not good enough to be publishable?

50 Shades of Gray was a twilight fanfiction, and apparently it was good enough to be publishable.

What does it actually mean for a piece of fiction to be 'good'? HPMoR can be an author tract at times, but it also has one of the most intricate plots I've ever read, specifically designed so that thinking about it with knowledge of bayesian cognition and rationality allows the reader to discover more things about the story. There aren't many stories like this.

What about the actual quality of the writing isn't good enough? I would say it is at least as good, in terms of whatever it is that makes me enjoy it, as 80% of all fiction I've ever read.

And sometimes when I read Humanism Part 3 I think it's better than 100% of other fiction I've read.

Comment by JohnWittle on Are Your Enemies Innately Evil? · 2013-02-06T22:43:52.463Z · LW · GW

A variance in the population that large, from "preserve oneself" to "do not preserve oneself", is ridiculously unlikely to remain in human beings after the past 3 billion years of evolution.

Comment by JohnWittle on Evolutionary Psychology · 2013-02-06T07:22:52.779Z · LW · GW

I have information from the future!

EY says it best in The Sheer Folly of Callow Youth, but essentially EY once thought, "If there is truly such a thing as moral value, then a superintelligence will likely discover what the correct moral values are. If there is no such thing as moral value, then the current reality is no more valuable than the reality where I make an AI that kills everyone. Therefore, I should strive to make an AI regardless of ethical problems."

Then in the early 2000s he had an epiphany. The mechanics of his objection had to do with disproving the first part of the argument, that a superintelligence would automatically do the 'right' thing in a universe with ethics. This is because you could build an AI 'foo' which was a superintelligence, and an AI 'bar' which was 'foo' except with a little gnome who sat at the very beginning of the decision algorithm and changed all of the goals from "maximize value" to "minimize value". This proves that it is possible for two superintelligences to do two completely different things, therefore an AI must be a Friendly AI in order to do the 'right' thing. This is when he realized how close he had come to perhaps causing an extinction event, and realized how important the FAI project was. (It was also when he coined the term FAI to begin with.)

Comment by JohnWittle on AI box: AI has one shot at avoiding destruction - what might it say? · 2013-01-30T00:35:55.739Z · LW · GW

This certainly wouldn't work on me. The easiest way to test the veracity of the proof would be AI DESTROYED. Whether or not I would want to kill the AI... I'd have to test that proof.

Comment by JohnWittle on AI box: AI has one shot at avoiding destruction - what might it say? · 2013-01-30T00:32:48.265Z · LW · GW

You wouldn't be wiping out humanity; there would be trillions of humans left.

Who cares if they run on neurons or transistors?

Comment by JohnWittle on Offense versus harm minimization · 2012-10-07T02:47:55.733Z · LW · GW

This needs more upvotes.

Comment by JohnWittle on Meetup : Durham NC HPMoR Discussion, chapters 4-7 · 2012-10-02T03:35:09.523Z · LW · GW

Just chapters 4-7?

I kind of would assume anybody who would go to a meetup for HPMoR has read up to current...

Comment by JohnWittle on Meetup : Research Triangle Area Less Wrong · 2012-09-24T08:00:29.832Z · LW · GW

Expected attendance? What social media are we using?

Will be my first meetup.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-24T07:58:56.199Z · LW · GW

i use the ` key, which I have yet to find a use for in any situation ever. since 90% of the time, the next key you're going to press is a number key, this works really well.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-15T17:00:00.658Z · LW · GW

Quite a few people who emailed me told me they were specifically interested in learning linux; that they had installed ubuntu on a laptop but never touched the terminal, or that they had never touched linux and had to be showed how to login, etc. Because this is lesswrong, those people for the most part have actually done some stuff on their own instead of just never logging in again, but I feel like I could be doing more.

The value in learning the inner workings of an operating system should be self-evident, no matter how you scorn it. It is a human-designed self-contained deterministic purpose-driven system from start to finish, with many layers of complexity, which on its own is good enough reason for me, but after you spend an afternoon debugging something that went wrong with your ssh-agent, or with your .rtorrent.rc, you are going to understand those programs on a technical level instead of an intuitive level, and that does make a difference. It's also an option that Windows never gives you.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-14T21:40:11.697Z · LW · GW

Does anybody have any specific ideas as to:

  • How to get people who have signed up for the purposes of learning to actually sit down in a talk session with me and learn?
  • What should be taught first? My current plan is, getting people to understand how configuration files in linux are like preferences in windows, and getting them to set up a .bashrc file with aliases and a custom PS1 prompt, to get used to the idea of a) rc files b) editing things with a text editor
  • Is vimtutor any good? I learned vim before vimtutor was available, and I went through the exercises a little bit and they seemed good, but how is retention?
Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-14T21:19:13.756Z · LW · GW

You are not an active member of the Lesswrong community. You joined solely for this shell account. Go work on your English, read the sequences, and come back.

If you can answer this question, I'll reconsider:

A bat and a ball, together, cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-10T23:23:53.728Z · LW · GW

Email sent

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-10T20:37:36.143Z · LW · GW

the two lines i posted are the bare minimum needed to set a vhost. Things like 404 pages, per-vhost access and error logs, servername aliases (* to, etc. are all possible.

Afaik, this is the standard method of going about doing this.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-10T19:41:51.597Z · LW · GW

Apache virtual hosts. For instance:

'' is registered and has its A record pointed at the server, so when you type into your browser, it goes to (the ip of the server).

Now, apache, the webserver, has the following in its configuration files:

<VirtualHost *:80>                              #look for connections coming in on port 80
ServerName  #if the requested URL is this url...
DocumentRoot /home/dbaupp/www #...use this directory as root

Then you just set up a virtualhost block for every domain/subdomain you want.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-10T02:46:56.327Z · LW · GW

Go ahead and sign up!

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-09T23:28:41.425Z · LW · GW

He can 'retract' it, which is good enough.

Comment by JohnWittle on Interested in learning Linux? Need hosting? Free shells! · 2012-09-09T23:23:15.836Z · LW · GW

I already run a tor relay node on the server; luckily most things of this nature require root access, which will not be given.

I will update the OP with relevant information.