Hypothetical situations are not meant to exist

by casebash1 min read27th Sep 201522 comments

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Hypotheticals
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Hypotheticals are a powerful tool for testing intuitions. However, many people believe that it is problematic a hypothetical does not represent a realistic situation. On the contrary, it is only problematic if it is represented as being realistic when it is not realistic. Realism isn’t required if the aim is simply to show that there is *some* situation where the proposed principle breaks. We may still choose to utilise an imperfect principle, but when we know about the potential for breakage, we are much less likely to be tripped up if we find a situation where the principle is invalid.

It is instructive to look at physics. In physics, we model balls by perfect spherical objects. Nobody believes that a perfectly spherical object exists in real life. However, they provide a baseline theory from which further ideas can be explored. Bumps or ellipticity can be added later. Indeed, they probably *should* be added later. Unless a budding physicist can demonstrate their competence with the simple case, they probably should not be trusted with dealing with the much more complicated real world situation.

If you are doubting a hypothetical, then you haven’t accepted the hypothetical. You can doubt that a hypothetical will have any relevance from outside the hypothetical, but once you step inside the hypothetical you cannot doubt the hypothetical or you never stepped inside in the first place.



This topic has been discussed previously on LessWrong, but a single explanation won't prove compelling to everyone, so it is useful to have different explanations that explain the same topic in a different way.

TimS states similar thoughts in Please Don’t Fight the Hypothetical:

Likewise, people who responds to the Trolley problem by saying that they would call the police are not talking about the moral intuitions that the Trolley problem intends to explore.  There's nothing wrong with you if those problems are not interesting to you.  But fighting the hypothetical by challenging the premises of the scenario is exactly the same as saying, "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."

In, The Least Convenient World, Yvain recommends limiting your responses as follows:

[Say] "I completely reject the entire basis of your argument" or "I accept the basis of your argument, but it doesn't apply to the real world because of contingent fact X." If you just say "Yeah, well, contigent fact X!" and walk away, you've left yourself too much wiggle room.

You may also want to check out A note on hypotheticals by PhilGoetz

 

 

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22 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:43 PM
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I actually agree that fighting the hypothetical is annoying, and that it's easy (both in presenting and in reacting to a hypothetical) to get into a bad discussion state. Here are two reasons it can be difficult to usefully respond to hypotheticals.

1) It's perfectly reasonable to claim that a hypothetical is so divorced from reality, or so incompletely specified that it's not worth the effort to analyze. A physics analogy would be "imagine you could go back in time. how much energy would it take to get to 1983?". Just not complete or useful enough to discuss.

Many moral-intuition hypotheticals, IMO, are of this form: imagine some surface features of a situation. Now, based on the deep structure behind those features (which would take days or years to identify), how would you react?

2) Many hypotheticals are trotted out in a way that feels like (or is) a trap. It's not that you're exploring the world with your conversational partner, it's that you're trying to win an argument by getting them to admit to a contradiction. That's no fun if your partner/adversary isn't into it.

1) If a hypothetical is unspecified, and you ask for it to be clarified, then that isn't fighting the hypothetical.

Re: Too divorced from reality. "But fighting the hypothetical by challenging the premises of the scenario is exactly the same as saying, "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."" - TimS

2) People are often too ready to consider things as a trap. Some people will claim that any convincing or hard to argue against statement is a "trap"

If a hypothetical is unspecified, and you ask for it to be clarified, then that isn't fighting the hypothetical.

Unfortunately, people will rarely actually do that. In particular, I've yet to see anyone else ask, much less answer, what appears to be highly relevant information in the classic train-switch dilemma: what are these people doing on the track?

Re: Too divorced from reality. "But fighting the hypothetical by challenging the premises of the scenario is exactly the same as saying, "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."" - TimS

2) People are often too ready to consider things as a trap. Some people will claim that any convincing or hard to argue against statement is a "trap"

The problem with hypotheticals is that they're fictional evidence that you're asking people to generalize from.

what are these people doing on the track?

The version of the dilemma I'm familiar with specifies that all six people had been kidnapped by a mentally ill philosopher and tied onto the tracks against their will.

"In particular, I've yet to see anyone else ask, much less answer, what appears to be highly relevant information in the classic train-switch dilemma: what are these people doing on the track?" - the way to get around it is to ask the questioner if they have any objections to you imagining a specific scenario. Such as, you might pretend that the people were put there by an evil villain or that they were stupidly walking along it. If someone says that it "doesn't matter", then you should consider yourself free to imagine whatever situation you want.

"The problem with hypotheticals is that they're fictional evidence that you're asking people to generalize from." - I think you're really misunderstanding that article. There's a huge difference between trying to argue that robots will take over the world because it happened in Terminator and considering the hypothetical situation of human-level AI.

"In particular, I've yet to see anyone else ask, much less answer, what appears to be highly relevant information in the classic train-switch dilemma: what are these people doing on the track?" - the way to get around it

I'm perfectly aware of how to ask a question. My point is that most people confronted with a hypothetical don't ask any clarifying questions, and base their answers on whatever associations were in the question.

Re: Too divorced from reality. "But fighting the hypothetical by challenging the premises of the scenario is exactly the same as saying, "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."" - TimS

There are a lot of other things it can mean. For example, "I reject the agenda behind the hypothetical." "I reject the attempt to induce me to give you a soundbite that you are going to broadcast out of context." "The minute part of possibility space that you are focussing on does not merit so much as a millisecond of anyone's attention." "You are stuffing your desired conclusion into the hypotheses."

"The minute part of possibility space that you are focussing on does not merit so much as a millisecond of anyone's attention." - which is exactly the same as: "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."

"I reject the attempt to induce me to give you a soundbite that you are going to broadcast out of context" - that can definitely be the case. But this isn't really an issue specific to hypotheticals, just non-good faith discussions in general.

"The minute part of possibility space that you are focussing on does not merit so much as a millisecond of anyone's attention." - which is exactly the same as: "I don't find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in."

"does not merit so much as a millisecond of anyone's attention" is a quite different claim from "I don't find this topic interesting".

I think that at times, 'This is a very uninteresting question' is the appropriate response. Just, lead with that and explain why next, rather than just explaining why.

A physics analogy would be "imagine you could go back in time. how much energy would it take to get to 1983?". Just not complete or useful enough to discuss.

The minimum energy required is ~1,000*(Your mass in kilograms + the mass in kilograms of everything coming with you) petajoules, assuming you want to get to 1983 in about three months of subjective time, with a gross of assumptions about the way time works. A minimum of 200 joules per kilogram will get you a subjective arrival time of 1.2 million years. [ETA: Forgot about deceleration. 400 joules for the 1.2 million year mark.]

Many moral-intuition hypotheticals, IMO, are of this form: imagine some surface features of a situation. Now, based on the deep structure behind those features (which would take days or years to identify), how would you react?

Fully agree. The assumption seems to be that ones intuition will deal with that but I don't trust my intuition to come up with the best decision (one that I'd prefer to live with in the long run).

[-][anonymous]6y 4

I disagree. The real world has a fixed causal structure, and therefore, a certain fixed counterfactual structure. Thus, only some hypothetical situations are realistic. Thus, some "hypothetical" thought-experiments amount to asking, "What would you do if I fundamentally altered the rules of reality in the following ways?".

I don't suppose you could clarify what scenarios you consider to be unrealistic and invalid?

Suppose I doubled the mass of this rock while keeping all other things, including it's volume and density, constant.

Well you've created a contradiction there. You could imagine a rock having it's mass doubled with respect to certain equations and it might still work. But to just double the mass with regard to everything will lead to a paradox.

I think that fighting the hypothetical is supposed to prevent these scenarios:

A: Proposes a strategy S.
B: "How well would strategy S work in an alternative universe, completely different from ours?"
A: "Not well."
B: "Therefore, let's not use S in our universe. (Let's use my favorite strategy S2 instead. It works better in the alternative universe.)"

Now if A starts objecting after the fourth line, B can say: "Hey, you already admitted that strategy S doesn't work, didn't you?" So it is better from A to say this already after the second line.

Remember that the goal of the debate is usually to convince a third observer, and A wants to prevent them from being primed by the conclusion in the fourth line.

I reject the notion that hypotheticals are actually a powerful tool, let alone a useful one. Or, at least, hypotheticals of the 'very simplified thought experiment' sort you seem to be talking about. Take the Trolley Problem, for example. The moral intuition we're supposed to be examining is when and if it is right to sacrifice the wellbeing of smaller groups for larger groups. The scenario is set up in such a way that you cannot "dodge" the question here, and you have to choose whether you'd rather be

  • A tyrant who appoints himself arbitrator over who lives and who dies, but in doing is empowered to save more people than could be saved through inaction alone, or
  • A passive non-entity who would rather let people die than make a morally difficult choice and thus defaults to inaction whenever matters become too difficult.

But someone might answer: "In the hypothetical, yes, you should obviously pull the lever because that leads to less deaths. But the problem assumes many premises which would not be true in real life, and changing those counterfactual premises to match reality would change my answer. In particular, humans in real life cannot be trusted to make life or death choices like this one fairly and accurately without their natural biases rendering their judgement unsound. It follows that a moral person should take precautions to prevent such temptations from arising and that, in practice, such precautions might take the form of seemingly dentological injunctions against hurting one person to help another, even when it appears to the actor that the greater good would be served."

Or they might answer: "In the hypothetical, no, you should obviously not pull the lever, because killing is wrong. But the problem assumes many premises which would not be true in real life, and changing those counterfactual premises to match reality would change my answer. In particular, it seems implausible that there is no other possible action which could save anyone on the tracks. Although it may seem callous to do nothing when helping others is within your power, the principle of 'do no harm' must come first. It follows, then, that a wise and moral person would prepare themselves in advance to take effective and decisive action even in cases where they are morally constrained from taking the most expedient option."

Both of these are contrary to the spirit of the hypothetical, but they also constitute more nuanced and useful moral stances than "yes, always save the largest number of people possible" or "no, never take an action which would hurt others"

Neither of them dodge the hypothetical, as they answer the hypothetical and then move on from there. That said, if you don't consider hypotheticals useful, you won't give them due consideration.

You have a moral dilemma that you are not a expert on solving to you. You have a trained expert that specialises in these kinds of dilemmas contactable over the phone. Do you attempt to solve the problem or do you call the expert to solve it for you?

This is a kind of hypothetical to which "call the police" is a perfectly valid answer. If someone understands the trolley problem to include this problem as a master problem they might not be dodging all of the topic. Or they might be answering with a reframing ie giving you another hypothetical in return. In a discussion one could roll with the twist "okay, the police gets there, should she pull the lever or not?". Things that can be seen as fighting the hypothetical need not actually fight the hypothetical.

I wouldn't call the police 'trained experts' in solving moral dilemmas =P. But, if there were trained experts to call, then that's a pretty boring hypothetical. Obviously you call them, unless you are a greater expert yourself or you think they have some kind of bias against the correct solution. I have no idea of what that kind of hypothetical situation would be intended to illustrate.

Anyway, if you want to talk about another hypothetical, why not answer the question you were asked, then tell them that you have a hypothetical of your own which you'd like them to answer? That wouldn't count as fighting the hypothetical.

I regularly bicker about hypotheticals on the Facebook group. I wish I could give a tidy answer here, but I can't put all hypotheticals in the same category. Some represent reality better than others. "Where will I post my ideas if this group closes?" is a perfectly normal and useful one.

The hypotheticals I question are ones that don't plausibly occur in reality and that are known primarily because they irritate the brain, or allow social signaling, or some other non-useful purpose.

"If a tree falls in the forest..." can be useful since it exposes how unclear language can be, but if people aren't aware of it, it mostly is just trolling.

Another is the "Sophie's Choice" hypothetical. Such as the Trolley problem, where you flip the switch to kill one person or leave it as killing three. This problem is famous not because it represents something people will run into in real life, but because it irritates the brain. The brain evolved in imperfect scenarios, and where apparent bad choices like this are best handled by looking for the many answers it hasn't yet considered. Without this instinct to reject the scenario, we may never have developed tools and many other things.

So, these types of scenarios trigger a natural instinct to avoid the problem, not to answer it, which makes perfect sense given the way our brains work. Without that realization, the question is just shared to bother other people or socially signal. This isn't useful behavior, and thus rejecting those hypotheticals I think is a fine response.