Comment by pete_carlton on Mundane Magic · 2008-11-02T01:32:53.000Z · score: 26 (26 votes) · LW · GW

Devour Soul (level 6) This spell enables the Mage to extract Energy from the Bodies of Plants and Animals, merely by placing various Parts of them inside the mage's own Body. More advanced Mages can derive not only Energy, but physical Pleasure, from enhancing this spell with dark and eldritch lore found in Books of magical recipes, exotic Potions and the judicious use of Fire.

Comment by pete_carlton on Setting Up Metaethics · 2008-07-28T16:29:51.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
>> "Or if "Morality is mere preference!" then why care about human preferences? How is it possible to establish any "ought" at all, in a universe seemingly of mere "is"?

I don't think it's possible, but why is that a problem? Can't all moral statements be rewritten as conditionals? i.e. - "You ought not to murder" -> "If you murder someone, we will punish you".

You might say these conditionals aren't justified, but what on earth could it mean to say they are or are not justified, other than whether they do or do not eventually fit into a "fixed given" moral scheme? Maybe we do not need to justify our moral preferences in this sense.

Comment by pete_carlton on Taboo Your Words · 2008-02-16T02:55:25.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Good point, especially since the most common words become devalued or politicized ("surge", "evil", "terror" &c.) but...

The existence of this game surprised me, when I discovered it. Why wouldn't you just say "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions?"

So what was your score?

(Did you cut your enemy?)

Comment by pete_carlton on The Simple Math of Everything · 2007-11-17T23:17:59.000Z · score: 24 (24 votes) · LW · GW
But there's no way I have time to write this book, so I'm tossing the idea out there.

Would you have time to start a wiki whose purpose was to be edited into a book, coauthored by dozens of contributors, who can explain the basic simple math of their field to non-math-phobic laypeople? (This is different from just scraping Wikipedia; these would be targeted articles, perhaps some invited ones...) Of course that could end up taking more time due to the infamous herding cats problem. But I'd love to have that book to read on the BART train.

Comment by pete_carlton on Evolutionary Psychology · 2007-11-12T20:35:17.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What are you saying - that EP has closed the book on them?

My point about infanticide etc. was that EP has bigger problems for becoming generally accepted than how difficult it is to reason about - problems having to do with a perceived removal of agency from human beings.

Anyway, it doesn't strike me as surprising that purely evolutionary mechanisms led to our psychology, and especially not our sense of morality. Are these things much more complex than any other animal behavior we're happily willing to concede to evolution?

Comment by pete_carlton on Evolutionary Psychology · 2007-11-12T06:24:19.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW
"To reason correctly about evolutionary psychology you must simultaneously consider many complicated abstract facts that are strongly related yet importantly distinct, without a single mixup or conflation."

Sure, but after a while this just becomes a habit and I don't think it's more difficult than, say, organic chemistry. But without some practice or exposure, it is deeply counterintuitive. It's also probably encroaching on some sacred territory. You can subject some atrocious things like infanticide and homicidal rampages to evolutionary explanations. I don't think anyone's closed the book on any of these, but in all these cases I think EP has an interesting perspective. Generally, though, people don't even want to think about it. People probably resist thinking along these lines because of the perceived violation of their freedom or morality (which violation is, as you say, is an illusion).

Comment by pete_carlton on Fake Optimization Criteria · 2007-11-10T09:55:16.000Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Where is the standardized, open-source, generally intelligent, consequentialist optimization process into which we can feed a complete morality as an XML file, to find out what that morality really recommends when applied to our world?

We have reasons to think this step will never be easy. If you imagine that this file, like most files, is something like version 2.1.8, who is going to make the decision to make this version "count", instead of waiting to see what comes out of the tests underway in version 2.1.9? By what moral critera will we decide upon a standard morality file? Of course, Nietzsche also foresaw this problem, and Dennett points out that it's still a big problem despite how much we've learned about what humans are, but he does not proffer a solution to it. Do we just want the utility function currently in vogue to win out? When will we be satisfied we've got the right one?

Or will evolution (i.e., force) settle it?

Comment by pete_carlton on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism · 2007-11-08T04:59:18.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Everything Wiseman is describing is happening at the level of the gene, not the population.

Imagine there is a gene for breeding rate - different variants of the gene give rise to different breeding rates (1, 2, .... offspring per year, let's say). A fox that has a high-rate allele of the gene will spend more energy on breeding than on caring for existing offspring, while the reverse is true with a fox that has a low-rate allele.

Given the natural fluctuations of food availability over the long term, there is going to be an optimal range of breeding rates. Genes that specify too high a rate will find themselves in bodies that spend too much time breeding to care for their offspring sufficiently, and such genes will not get passed on as frequently. Genes that specify too low a rate will be outcompeted. Caledonian is correct; it's like investing. But the investment pays off directly to the gene involved, so the fact that the vehicles and populations also benefit is an incidental.

To get group selection out of this scenario, you would have to have one fox group with a lower-than-optimal breeding rate, which let the rabbit population expand, which lessened the chance of a crash in food supply that would wipe out the population. Then that fox group would survive, and the neighboring groups would perish. But there is no way to enforce this pact of lower-than-optimal breeding rates in the first place.

Comment by pete_carlton on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism · 2007-11-07T19:37:20.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Oops, I didn't refresh for a while and I see you beat me to the critique, Constant.)

Comment by pete_carlton on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism · 2007-11-07T19:35:11.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Wiseman, you need to put your scenario into mathematical terms, or write a simulation, or something. It's too easy to imagine some foxes and rabbits breeding and scurrying about, and convince yourself that something is possible. In any case the situation you described is not "group selection", but good old-fashioned gene-level selection. In this case it's selection for genes that lead to an optimal breeding rate.

Comment by pete_carlton on An Alien God · 2007-11-03T05:53:09.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Most of the essay is thoughtful and interesting as usual - good points about laypeople uttering "evolution" with the same semantic force with which others utter "god". But why bring up that god stuff at the end? Doesn't it just create confusion to stretch metaphors this way? You have only to look at how religionists have seized on Einstein's and Hawking's metaphorical use of the word "god" to suit their purposes.

Evolution isn't "god", it's just what happens when you have competition between replicators. Trying to use "theology" and "god" and "Judeo-Christian deity" (whatever that means - I don't think Judaism calls it a "trinity", for example) when talking about evolution only makes things murky.

douglas -- it's "Johnjoe", not "Joejohn", and as a molecular biologist myself I will say I do not in the least consider it an oversight on my part never to have read his book. The idea of DNA being in quantum superposition is hard enough to swallow - then you realize that for it to work the way he wants it to (to have a differential effect on survival), the entire cell needs to be in superposition since it isn't just the DNA itself, but the mRNA that gets transcribed, and the proteins that get translated, that determine the cell's response to the environment. So every relevant molecule in the cell is in one giant superposition?? This idea is an extremely bizarre, profligate wasteful hunch, but worse, it fills no conceptual gaps. Whether there are any out-of-the-ordinary phenomena going on in bacterial adaptation is itself controversial and not agreed on. If there is ever any consensus that there is a phenomenon that needs explanation, may some scientists have the humility to test something more mundane before trotting out the word "quantum" along with the idea that we have to rethink almost everything.

Comment by pete_carlton on Torture vs. Dust Specks · 2007-10-31T02:28:00.000Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, here's the data: I choose SPECKS, and here is my background and reasons.

I am a cell biologist. That is perhaps not relevant.

My reasoning is that I do not think that there is much meaning in adding up individual instances of dust specks. Those of you who choose TORTURE seem to think that there is a net disutility that you obtain by multiplying epsilon by 3^^^3. This is obviously greater than the disutility of torturing one person.
I reject the premise that there is a meaningful sense in which these dust specks can "add up".

You can think in terms of biological inputs - simplifying, you can imagine a system with two registers. A dust speck in the eye raises register A by epsilon. Register A also resets to zero if a minute goes by without any dust specks. Torture immediately sets register B to 10. I am morally obliged to intervene if register B ever goes above 1. In this scheme register A is a morally irrelevant register. It trades in different units than register B. No matter how many instances of A*epsilon there are, it does not warrant intervention.

You are making a huge, unargued assumption if you treat both torture and dust-specks in equivalent terms of "disutility". I accept your question and argue for "SPECKS" by rejecting your premise of like units (which does make the question trivial). But I sympathize with people who reject your question outright.

Comment by pete_carlton on Torture vs. Dust Specks · 2007-10-30T20:28:00.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My algorithm goes like this:
there are two variables, X and Y.
Adding a single additional dust speck to a person's eye over their entire lifetime increases X by 1 for every person this happens to.
A person being tortured for a few minutes increases Y by 1.

I would object to most situations where Y is greater than 1. But I have no preferences at all with regard to X.

See? Dust specks and torture are not the same. I do not lump them together as "disutility". To do so seems to me a preposterous oversimplification. In any case, it has to be argued that they are the same. If you assume they're the same, then you're just assuming the torture answer when you state the question - it's not a problem of ethical philosophy but a problem of addition.

Comment by pete_carlton on Torture vs. Dust Specks · 2007-10-30T06:52:08.000Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

If you could take all the pain and discomfort you will ever feel in your life, and compress it into a 12-hour interval, so you really feel ALL of it right then, and then after the 12 hours are up you have no ill effects - would you do it? I certainly would. In fact, I would probably make the trade even if it were 2 or 3 times longer-lasting and of the same intensity. But something doesn't make sense now... am I saying I would gladly double or triple the pain I feel over my whole life?

The upshot is that there are some very nonlinear phenomena involved with calculating amounts of suffering, as Psy-Kosh and others have pointed out. You may indeed move along one coordinate in "suffering-space" by 3^^^3 units, but it isn't just absolute magnitude that's relevant. That is, you cannot recapitulate the "effect" of fifty years of torturing with isolated dust specks. As the responses here make clear, we do not simply map magnitudes in suffering space to moral relevance, but instead we consider the actual locations and contours. (Compare: you decide to go for a 10-mile hike. But your enjoyment of the hike depends more on where you go, than the distance traveled.)

Comment by pete_carlton on Bay Area Bayesians Unite! · 2007-10-29T04:38:28.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Looks like there had been 52 responses before me.. I hope I am free to attend (I'm in Berkeley..)

Comment by pete_carlton on Belief in Belief · 2007-07-30T05:58:46.000Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

From the post:

While I disagree with Dennett on some details and complications, I still think that Dennett's notion of belief in belief is the key insight necessary to understand the dragon-claimant. But we need a wider concept of belief, not limited to verbal sentences.

If you've read Dennett on beliefs, you'll appreciate that this "wider concept" based on behavior and predictability is really at the heart of things.

I think it is very difficult to attribute a belief in dragons to this "dragon-believer". Only a small subset of his actions - those involving verbal avowals - make sense if you attribute a belief in dragons to him. There is a conflict with the remainder of his beliefs, as can be seen when he nonchalantly enters his garage, or confabulates all sorts of reasons why his dragon can't be demonstrated.

But as you have shown, everything makes sense if you attribute a related, but slightly different belief, namely "I should avow a genuine, heartfelt belief in dragons". Perhaps we can say that this man (and the religious man, since this is the real point) doesn't just believe in belief, but they believe that they believe. He tries to make a second-order belief do the work of a first-order belief.