ESR's comments on some EY:OB/LW posts

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read20th Jun 200916 comments

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Eric S. Raymond's comments on some of my Overcoming Bias posts.

In his reply to my To Lead, You Must Stand Up, he writes:

"I think your exhortations here are nearly useless. Experience I’ve collected over the last ten years suggests to me that the kind of immunity to stage fright you and I have is a function of basic personality type at the neurotransmitter-balance level, and not really learnable by most people."

This is a particularly interesting observation if combined with Hanson's hypothesis that people choke to submit.

"I disagree with The Futility of Emergence," says ESR.  Yea, many have said this to me.  And they go on to say:  Emergence has the useful meaning that...  And it's a different meaning every time.  In ESR's case it's:

"The word 'emergent' is a signal that we believe a very specific thing about the relationship between 'neurons firing' and 'intelligence', which is that there is no possible account of intelligence in which the only explanatory units are neurons or subsystems of neurons."

Let me guess, you think the word "emergence" means something useful but that's not exactly it, although ESR's definition does aim in the rough general direction of what you think is the right definition...

So-called "words" like this should not be actually spoken from one human to another.  It is tempting fate.  It would be like trying to have a serious discussion between two theologians if both of them were allowed to say the word "God" directly, instead of always having to say whatever they meant by the word.

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This somehow feels like it should be a comment on Armed and Dangerous, rather than a post on Less Wrong; it just doesn't seem to be making a significant point about rationality that wasn't already made in a salient place here. (Of course, this is highly subjective.)

Less Wrong seems to have developed a typical style of post different from, say, Overcoming Bias (where these sorts of blog interactions used to fit in very well); it's become less of a group blog and more of... well, something new, where posts are written to express a new idea, link something previously unknown to the group, synthesize several related ideas, or present a large argumentative piece within an ongoing debate. I think this is a good thing, and I'd prefer it to be the norm...

Let me guess, you think the word "emergence" means something useful but that's not exactly it, although ESR's definition does aim in the rough general direction of what you think is the right definition...

So-called "words" like this should not be actually spoken from one human to another.

Are we in a better position regarding the word "intelligence"? You have tried to explain what you mean by it, but I think most people still probably have quibbles with your definition.

Interesting point. I do try to use "optimization" and "optimization power" as much as I can get away with.

There's strong emergence and weak emergence. Strong emergence is nonsense, weak emergence is uncontroversial. See Holland's book "Emergence" - which is pure reductionism, without a trace of idiotic new-age nonsense.

I usually take "emergence" to mean "weak emergence" - unless the context is one of ridicule, in which case "strong emergence" seems more appropriate.

"Let me guess, you think the word "emergence" means something useful but that's not exactly it, although ESR's definition does aim in the rough general direction of what you think is the right definition..."

Actually I think it means something useful and that is exactly it :-)

I also think the other definitions that have been offered here, actually mean the same thing.

Of course the word can be abused, but so can lots of other useful words.

which is that there is no possible account of intelligence in which the only explanatory units are neurons or subsystems of neurons.

Now I thought that the word emergence meant

sometimes, something interesting can happen when you look at the bulk behaviour of a very large number of small, boring but interacting units

Like, say, an avalanche "emerges" from the individually boring behaviour of snow particles.

I find that the best way to read the term "emergent" is to regard it as connotationally meaning "oh crap, this is too complicated for me". Systems with easily-understood high-level behaviors, like the avalanche, meet most usual definitions of emergence but are rarely described as such.

e.g., intelligence as an emergent property of neurons = "Oh crap, intelligence is too complicated for me".

This helpfully moves the word from being a somewhat hand-wavy category to being an objective statement of lack of comprehension. For instance, I can now unambiguously state that I consider intelligence to be emergent, while being happy to have Eliezer disagree.

In reality, when people use the word "emergence", the actual conclusion about their state of mind you should infer is "I worship my ignorance of how this bulk behaviour is caused", or even just "I am going to engage in some ignorance worship now"

I use emergent as the opposite, in direction not meaning, of reductive. An emergent structure or behavior is built up of lower level structures or behaviors in complex and interesting ways. And can be reduced to those lower level objects, but because of the complexity of their interactions, it is hard to understand the emergent properties from the lower level objects' properties.

Let me guess, you think the word "emergence" means something useful but that's not exactly it, although ESR's definition does aim in the rough general direction of what you think is the right definition...

...yeah, pretty much. Good point, well made.

Is it okay to comment here about some of the other posts he linked to?

Beware of Stephen J. Gould. I think it is relevant that Gould seems to have been a believing Marxist . . .

I laughed when I read this because I could hear them grinding their axes in stereo, Gould on the left and Raymond on the right.

My experience reading Gould and his critics has been odd. I don't always agree with him, but he never seems to give me the false impressions his critics are upset with him for promoting. It makes for some pretty surreal reading.

I actually thought, "Ooh, let's see if it happens again," when I clicked the link to your post. It did. Ditto for the other criticism you linked. Maybe I'm just out of step with everyone else?

It's nice to read something recent from ESR that's (mostly) not political. He's an interesting guy, but his political views are a depressing textbook example of the tragedy of a smart person going into a powerful affective death spiral.

I'm sorry, but the lack of concreteness here makes this sound like an unsubstantiated slam. Would you mind saying what you mean? Which of ESR's views cause you to say this? what are the components of the particular affective spiral that you believe he has fallen subject to?

It's not the specific views per se, but how he goes about having them; it's the common failure mode of most bloggers that advocate fringe political opinions[0]. A small handful of Big Ideas are seized upon, after which everything is viewed through the lens of those Ideas. Things that line up with the Big Ideas are proof of correctness; things that don't are proof that the mainstream sheeple need more of the blogger's Big Idea in their lives.

A lack of interest in dealing respectfully with opposing opinions causes people with more moderate opinions to stop visiting the blog, leaving the comments mostly a mixture of sycophants and trolls, reinforcing belief in the flawed moral character of those who disagree with the Big Idea.

The process then repeats until the blog has become its own little microcosm of silliness. Again, this is not specific to ESR or his views[1], nor is it relevant whether his views are correct; with a bit of time I could find plenty of examples of the same behavior from many different political positions. In ESR's case, the effect seems to be strongest when he's talking about firearms or violent military retribution.

Consider the commentary linked in this post. One of ESR's remarks is "I think it is relevant that Gould seems to have been a believing Marxist who..." Come again? How on earth is this possibly relevant? One can deduce from this that at least one of ESR's Big Ideas requires that Marxists are a Hated Enemy, hence reinterpreting some perfectly normal self-aggrandizing dishonesty as being yet another mark of evil against opponents (treated as an ambiguous collective group) of the Big Ideas.

The tragedy of it all is not in the rightness or wrongness of his political views; the tragedy is that ESR is an interesting, intelligent guy who is wasting his time stuck in an orbit around an irrelevant positive-feedback attractor in idea-space. Hence, why I was happy to see something from him that was mostly non-political.

[0] "Fringe" here is not a slam, just an observation. I couldn't think of a word with a similar but less negative connotation. Blogs that advocate mainstream political parties tend to have very different failure modes, so the distinction is necessary.

[1] Nor is it even limited to politics; the same behavior can be found surrounding crackpot "scientific" theories[2][3], or fundamentalist religious groups (such as the churches my family attended when I was younger).

[2] I was tempted to make a cheap joke here and insert a link to string theory, but decided not to.

[3] Grahamesque footnotes are fun! I feel anonymously recursive already.