My own existence; and that existence being subject to certain liberties and freedoms (NOT the same as happiness, despite what Thomas Jefferson says); understanding the structure underlying rules limits and complexities of the universe at its varying levels; and tiling the universe with a multitude of diverse forms of sentient life.

Edit: Maybe I should have stopped at the first one though since that's the most universal and illustrates the point quite nicely. In a game of "would you rather.." I would rather take any outcome that leaves me alive, no matter how hellish, over one where I am dead. No qualification. I don't see how that could be true if happiness were a terminal goal.

Edit2: if happiness were my terminal goal, why not put myself on a perpetual heroin drip? I think the answe is that happiness is just an instrumental goal, like hunger and thirst satisfaction, that lets us focus on the next layer of Maslow's hierarchy. Asking about terminal goals is asking about the top of the hierarchy, which is not happiness.

I would rather take any outcome that leaves me alive, no matter how hellish, over one where I am dead. No qualification. I don't see how that could be true if happiness were a terminal goal.

I don't consider goals to be what people say they would do, but what they would actually do. So I don't accept your idea of your terminal goal unless it is true that if you were in a hellish scenario indefinitely, with a button that would cause you to cease to exist, you would not press the button.

I think we have a factual disagreement here: I think you would press t... (read more)

We need a better theory of happiness and suffering

by toonalfrink 1 min read4th Jul 201739 comments

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We rationalists know a lot about winning, but we don't know what our terminal goals really are. Such things are handwaved away, as we just mumble something like "QALYs" and make a few guesses about what a five year old would like.

I'd like to dispel the myth that a 5 year old knows what they like. Have you ever seen a kid with a sack of candy? I don't think they really wanted to get nauseous.

"But hold up", you say. "Maybe that's true for special cases involving competing subagents, but most cases are actually pretty straightforward, like blindness and death and captivity."

Well, you may have a point with death, but what if blind people and inmates are actually as happy as the next guy? What's the point of curing blindness, then?

A special case where we need to check our assumptions is animal welfare. What if the substrate of suffering is something in higher-order cognition, something that all but mammals lack?

One could hold that it is impossible to make inferences about another being's qualia, but we can come quite far with introspection plus assuming that similar brains yield similar qualia. We can even correlate happiness with brain scans.

The former is why I've moved to a Buddhist monastery. If (whatever really causes) happiness is your goal, it seems to me that the claim that one can permanently attain a state of bliss is worth investigating.

So, to sum up, if we want to fix suffering, let's find out it's proximal cause first. Spoiler: it's not pain.

(To be continued)