The Importance of Self-Doubt

by multifoliaterose 10 min read19th Aug 2010746 comments


[Added 02/24/14: After I got feedback on this post, I realized that it carried unnecessary negative connotations (despite conscious effort on my part to avoid them), and if I were to write it again, I would have framed things differently. See Reflections on a Personal Public Relations Failure: A Lesson in Communication for more information. SIAI (now MIRI) has evolved substantially since 2010 when I wrote this post, and the criticisms made in the post don't apply to MIRI as presently constituted.

Follow-up to: Other Existential Risks, Existential Risk and Public Relations

Related to: Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger), Affective Death Spirals, The Proper Use of Doubt, Resist the Happy Death Spiral, The Sin  of Underconfidence

In Other Existential Risks I began my critical analysis of what I understand to be SIAI's most basic claims. In particular I evaluated part of the claim

(1) At the margin, the best way for an organization with SIAI's resources to prevent global existential catastrophe is to promote research on friendly Artificial Intelligence, work against unsafe Artificial Intelligence, and encourage rational thought.

It's become clear to me that before I evaluate the claim

(2) Donating to SIAI is the most cost-effective way for charitable donors to reduce existential risk.

I should (a) articulate my reasons for believing in the importance of self-doubt and (b) give the SIAI staff an opportunity to respond to the points which I raise in the present post as well as my two posts titled Existential Risk and Public Relations and Other Existential Risks.

Yesterday SarahC described to me how she had found Eliezer's post Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger) really moving. She explained:

I thought it was good: the notion that you can and must improve yourself, and that you can get farther than you think.

I'm used to the other direction: "humility is the best virtue."

I mean, this is a big fuck-you to the book of Job, and it appeals to me.

I was happy to learn that SarahC had been positively affected by Eliezer's post. Self-actualization is a wonderful thing and it appears as though Eliezer's posting has helped her self-actualize. On the other hand, rereading the post prompted me to notice that there's something about it which I find very problematic. The last few paragraphs of the post read:

Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws.  This is akin to the principle of not taking pride in confessing your ignorance; for if your ignorance is a source of pride to you, you may become loathe to relinquish your ignorance when evidence comes knocking.  Likewise with our flaws - we should not gloat over how self-aware we are for confessing them; the occasion for rejoicing is when we have a little less to confess.

Otherwise, when the one comes to us with a plan for correcting the bias, we will snarl, "Do you think to set yourself above us?"  We will shake our heads sadly and say, "You must not be very self-aware."

Never confess to me that you are just as flawed as I am unless you can tell me what you plan to do about it.  Afterward you will still have plenty of flaws left, but that's not the point; the important thing is to do better, to keep moving ahead, to take one more step forward.  Tsuyoku naritai!

There's something to what Eliezer is saying here: when people are too strongly committed to the idea that humans are fallible this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where humans give up on trying to improve things and as a consequence remain fallible when they could have improved. As Eliezer has said in The Sin of Underconfidence, there are social pressures that push against having high levels of confidence even when confidence is epistemically justified:

To place yourself too high - to overreach your proper place - to think too much of yourself - to put yourself forward - to put down your fellows by implicit comparison - and the consequences of humiliation and being cast down, perhaps publicly - are these not loathesome and fearsome things?

To be too modest - seems lighter by comparison; it wouldn't be so humiliating to be called on it publicly, indeed, finding out that you're better than you imagined might come as a warm surprise; and to put yourself down, and others implicitly above, has a positive tinge of niceness about it, it's the sort of thing that Gandalf would do.

I have personal experience with underconfidence. I'm a careful thinker and when I express a position with confidence my position is typically well considered. For many years I generalized from one example and assumed when people express positions with confidence they've thought their positions out as well as I have. Even after being presented with massive evidence that few people think things through as carefully as I do, I persisted in granting the (statistically ill-considered) positions of others far more weight than they deserved for the very reason that Eliezer describes above. This seriously distorted my epistemology because it led to me systematically giving ill-considered positions substantial weight. I feel that I have improved on this point, but even now, from time to time I notice that I'm exhibiting irrationally low levels of confidence in my positions.

At the same time, I know that at times I've been overconfident as well. In high school I went through a period when I believed that I was a messianic figure whose existence had been preordained by a watchmaker God who planned for me to save the human race. It's appropriate to say that during this period of time I suffered from extreme delusions of grandeur. I viscerally understand how it's possible to fall into an affective death spiral.

In my view one of the central challenges of being human is to find an instrumentally rational balance between subjecting oneself to influences which push one in the direction of overconfidence and subjecting oneself to influences which push one in the direction of underconfidence.

In Tsuyoku Naritai! Eliezer describes how Orthodox Judaism attaches an unhealthy moral significance to humility. Having grown up in a Jewish household and as a consequence having had peripheral acquaintance with orthodox Judaism I agree with Eliezer's analysis of Orthodox Judaism in this regard. In the proper use of doubt, Eliezer describes how the Jesuits allegedly are told to doubt their doubts about Catholicism. I agree with Eliezer that self-doubt can be misguided and abused.

However, reversed stupidity is not intelligence. The fact that it's possible to ascribe too much moral significance to self-doubt and humility does not mean that one should not attach moral significance to self-doubt and humility. I strongly disagree with Eliezer's prescription: "Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws."

The mechanism that determines human action is that we do what makes us feel good (at the margin) and refrain from doing what makes us feel bad (at the margin). This principle applies to all humans, from Gandhi to Hilter. Our ethical challenge is to shape what makes us feel good and what makes us feel bad in a way that incentivizes us to behave in accordance with our values. There are times when it's important to recognize that we're biased and flawed. Under such circumstances, we should feel proud that we recognize that we're biased we should glory in our self-awareness of our flaws. If we don't, then we will have no incentive to recognize that we're biased and be aware of our flaws.

We did not evolve to exhibit admirable and noble behavior. We evolved to exhibit behaviors which have historically been correlated with maximizing our reproductive success. Because our ancestral climate was very much a zero-sum situation, the traits that were historically correlated with maximizing our reproductive success had a lot to do with gaining high status within our communities. As Yvain has said, it appears that a fundamental mechanism of the human brain which was historically correlated with gaining high status is to make us feel good when we have high self-image and feel bad when we have low self-image.

When we obtain new data, we fit it into a narrative which makes us feel as good about ourselves as possible; a way conducive to having a high self-image. This mode of cognition can lead to very seriously distorted epistemology. This is what happened to me in high school when I believed that I was a messianic figure sent by a watchmaker God. Because we flatter ourselves by default, it's very important that those of us who aspire to epistemic rationality incorporate a significant element of "I'm the sort of person who engages in self-doubt because it's the right thing to do" into our self-image. If we do this, when we're presented with evidence which entails a drop in our self-esteem, we don't reject it out of hand or minimize it as we've been evolutionarily conditioned to do because wound of properly assimilating data is counterbalanced by the salve of the feeling "At least I'm a good person as evidenced by the fact that I engage in self-doubt" and failing to exhibit self-doubt would itself entail an emotional wound.

This is the only potential immunization to the disease of self-serving narratives which afflicts all utilitarians out of virtue of their being human. Until technology allows us to modify ourselves in a radical way, we cannot hope to be rational without attaching moral significance to the practice of engaging in self-doubt. As the RationalWiki's page on LessWrong says:

A common way for very smart people to be stupid is to think they can think their way out of being apes with pretensions. However, there is no hack that transcends being human...You are an ape with pretensions. Playing a "let's pretend" game otherwise doesn't mean you win all arguments, or any. Even if it's a very elaborate one, you won't transcend being an ape. Any "rationalism" that doesn't expressly take into account humans being apes with pretensions, isn't.

In Existential Risk and Public Relations I suggested that some of Eliezer's remarks convey the impression that Eliezer has an unjustifiably high opinion of himself. In the comments to the post JRMayne wrote

I think the statements that indicate that [Eliezer] is the most important person in human history - and that seems to me to be what he's saying - are so seriously mistaken, and made with such a high confidence level, as to massively reduce my estimated likelihood that SIAI is going to be productive at all.

And that's a good thing. Throwing money into a seriously suboptimal project is a bad idea. SIAI may be good at getting out the word of existential risk (and I do think existential risk is serious, under-discussed business), but the indicators are that it's not going to solve it. I won't give to SIAI if Eliezer stops saying these things, because it appears he'll still be thinking those things.

When Eliezer responded to JRMayne's comment, Eliezer did not dispute the claim that JRMayne attributed to him. I responded to Eliezer saying

If JRMayne has misunderstood you, you can effectively deal with the situation by making a public statement about what you meant to convey.

Note that you have not made a disclaimer which rules out the possibility that you claim that you're the most important person in human history. I encourage you to make such a disclaimer if JRMayne has misunderstood you.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that Eliezer did not respond. As far as I can tell, Eliezer does have confidence in the idea that he is (at least nearly) the most important person in human history. Eliezer's silence only serves to further confirm my earlier impressions. I hope that Eliezer subsequently proves me wrong. [Edit: As Airedale points out Eliezer has in fact exhibited public self-doubt in his abilities in his posting The Level Above Mine. I find this reassuring and it significantly lowers my confidence that Eliezer claims that he's the most important person in human history. But Eliezer still hasn't made a disclaimer on this matter decisively indicating that he does not hold such a view.] The modern world is sufficiently complicated so that no human no matter how talented can have good reason to believe himself or herself to be the most important person in human history without actually doing something which very visibly and decisively alters the fate of humanity. At present, anybody who holds such a belief is suffering from extreme delusions of grandeur.

There's some sort of serious problem with the present situation. I don't know whether it's a public relations problem or if the situation is that Eliezer actually suffers from extreme delusions of grandeur, but something has gone very wrong. The majority of the people who I know who outside of Less Wrong who have heard of Eliezer and Less Wrong have the impression that Eliezer is suffering from extreme delusions of grandeur. To such people, this fact (quite reasonably) calls into question of the value of SIAI and Less Wrong. On one hand, SIAI looks like an organization which is operating under beliefs which Eliezer has constructed to place himself in as favorable a position as possible rather than with a view toward reducing existential risk. On the other hand, Less Wrong looks suspiciously like the cult of Objectivism: a group of smart people who are obsessed with the writings of a very smart person who is severely deluded and describing these writings and the associated ideology as "rational" although they are nothing of the kind.

My own views are somewhat more moderate. I think that the Less Wrong community and Eliezer are considerably more rational than the Objectivist movement and Ayn Rand (respectively). I nevertheless perceive unsettling parallels.

In the comments to Existential Risk and Public Relations, timtyler said

...many people have inflated views of their own importance. Humans are built that way. For one thing, It helps them get hired, if they claim that they can do the job. It is sometimes funny - but surely not a big deal.

I disagree with timtyler. Anything that has even a slight systematic negative impact on existential risk is a big deal.

Some of my most enjoyable childhood experiences involved playing Squaresoft RPGs. Games like Chrono Trigger, Illusion of Gaia, Earthbound, Xenogears, and the Final Fantasy series are all stories about a group of characters who bond and work together to save the world. I found these games very moving and inspiring. They prompted me to fantasize about meeting allies who I could bond with and work together with to save the world. I was lucky enough to meet one such person in high school who I've been friends with since. When I first encountered Eliezer I found him eerily familiar, as though he was a long lost brother. This is the same feeling that is present between Siegmund and Sieglinde in the Act 1 of Wagner's Die Walküre (modulo erotic connotations). I wish that I could be with Eliezer in a group of characters as in a Squaresoft RPG working to save the world. His writings such as One Life Against the World and Yehuda Yudkowsky, 1985-2004 reveal him to be a deeply humane and compassionate person.

This is why it's so painful for me to observe that Eliezer appears to be deviating so sharply from leading a genuinely utilitarian lifestyle. I feel a sense of mono no aware, wondering how things could have been under different circumstances.

One of my favorite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro, who writes about the themes of self-deception and people's attempts to contribute to society. In a very good interview Ishiguro said

I think that's partly what interests me in people, that we don't just wish to feed and sleep and reproduce then die like cows or sheep. Even if they're gangsters, they seem to want to tell themselves they're good gangsters and they're loyal gangsters, they've fulfilled their 'gangstership' well. We do seem to have this moral sense, however it's applied, whatever we think. We don't seem satisfied, unless we can tell ourselves by some criteria that we have done it well and we haven't wasted it and we've contributed well. So that is one of the things, I think, that distinguishes human beings, as far as I can see.

But so often I've been tracking that instinct we have and actually looking at how difficult it is to fulfill that agenda, because at the same time as being equipped with this kind of instinct, we're not actually equipped. Most of us are not equipped with any vast insight into the world around us. We have a tendency to go with the herd and not be able to see beyond our little patch, and so it is often our fate that we're at the mercy of larger forces that we can't understand. We just do our little thing and hope it works out. So I think a lot of the themes of obligation and so on come from that. This instinct seems to me a kind of a basic thing that's interesting about human beings. The sad thing is that sometimes human beings think they're like that, and they get self-righteous about it, but often, they're not actually contributing to anything they would approve of anyway.


There is something poignant in that realization: recognizing that an individual's life is very short, and if you mess it up once, that's probably it. But nevertheless, being able to at least take some comfort from the fact that the next generation will benefit from those mistakes. It's that kind of poignancy, that sort of balance between feeling defeated but nevertheless trying to find reason to feel some kind of qualified optimism. That's always the note I like to end on. There are some ways that, as the writer, I think there is something sadly pathetic but also quite noble about this human capacity to dredge up some hope when really it's all over. I mean, it's amazing how people find courage in the most defeated situations.

Ishiguro's quote describes how people often behave in accordance with sincere desire to contribute and end up doing things that are very different from what they thought they were doing (things which are relatively unproductive or even counterproductive). Like Ishiguro I find this phenomenon very sad. As Ishiguro hints at, this phenomenon can also result in crushing disappointment later in life. I feel a deep spiritual desire to prevent this from happening to Eliezer.