The Danger of Stories

by Matt_Simpson1 min read8th Nov 2009105 comments

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Tyler Cowen argues in a TED talk (~15 min) that stories pervade our mental lives.  He thinks they are a major source of cognitive biases and, on the margin, we should be more suspicious of them - especially simple stories.  Here's an interesting quote about the meta-level:

What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen?  ...Another possibility is you might tell a story of rebirth.  You might say, "I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories". ...You could also tell a story of deep tragedy.  "This guy Tyler Cowen came and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories about how other people think too much in terms of stories."

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You can't not think in terms of stories, that is simply how our minds work. All you can do is to try to keep that (in the form of "intuition") from preventing the adequate weighing of statistics, probabilities, and explicit evidence that can't easily be fit into narratives.

Added: Even when thinking with images or kinesthetically, a person can only use the images or feelings as isolated "facts" or as part of a consistent sequence which has all the same problems as verbal stories.

Transcript, typed by yours truly.

I watched Tyler's TED talk and all I got was this lousy story.

I wonder how many people here besides me lost their appetite for consuming monomyth-structured stories after their naturalistic awakening?

After my naturalistic awakening, I went on a journey, overcame an almost insuperable obstacle and then returned, having achieved a worthy reward.

Seriously, though - what makes you think you've lost your appetite for consuming monomyth-structured stories?

6Matt_Simpson12yIn fact, I think part of the appeal of this very community is its tendency to dress up rationality in a kind of story, and I don't just mean the explicit fiction that Eliezer writes from time to time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something we need to keep in the back of our minds.
5Vladimir_Golovin12yThe absence of the desire to consume said stories across all art forms I used to favor.
1rhollerith_dot_com12yI do not know what "monomyth-structured" means, but yeah, my getting familiar with the heuristics-and-biases literature caused me to decrease my consumption of fiction -- particularly TV, movies, etc, since the critical thinking pretty much shuts down when watching TV, movies, etc.
0spriteless12yI know I hate the version of the monomyth where the knight saves the day because he is superior to us peasants that weren't explicit parodies. I can still read Pratchet, but I can't stand Girl Genius.

Some things come to mind: Nassim Taleb in his books criticizes this habit of story telling all the time. From the field of biases: scenario thinking(which is a way of mental storytelling). A reason for the planning fallacy is because a plan is essentially a good story we tell ourselves and others but we neglect all the details that mess it up.

As a counterpoint, see Dennett's idea of "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity" - narrative as an integral part of consciousness.

Consider the normative models against which we evaluate "biased" vs "unbiased" decisions, for instance expected utility. To even begin to apply such a model you'll need to have identified some set of decisions among which you are to choose - should I or shouldn't I eat this ice cream, drink this whiskey, turn down this job, whatever - and relevant consequences which vary in their utility: fit vs... (read more)

1Matt_Simpson12yThis isn't really a counterpoint. Cowen realizes that thinking in terms of stories is human and that we can't really get away from it completely without negative consequences (if at all). The point is that we are too apt to force complex, messy life into the simple stories that we tell ourselves. Like "life is a journey" or "good vs. evil" etc. Hence my summary that we should be more suspicious of them on the margin.
1timtyler12yNitpicking - but actually in Go, multiple moves may have the same (maximal) value - and go is normally played with either a "ko" rule which says that the location of the last move played can make a difference - or a "superko" rule - in which case the entire history of the board can matter.
2AllanCrossman12yThat information could however be considered part of the current position.
0Steve_Rayhawk12y‌ The superko rule can be reinterpreted so that each move is considered to be showing an entry in an immutable look-up table for "my move in this game given this (historyless) position" (something like the loop shortcut rules [http://www.wizards.com/Magic/TCG/Article.aspx?x=magic/rules] in Magic: the Gathering). If the look-up table is immutable, repeating a position would create a loop. If "best next move" is defined so that a loop is worse than a loss, and the other player's look-up table is known, then it would not be possible for a perfect player to have a look-up table that caused a loop. In some other situations, breaking the superko rule with only "best next moves" would entail circular preferences, so that a perfect player would never want to break superko. In that case, the history of the board wouldn't matter for defining the best next move for a given configuration. But maybe in some situations, perfect players who played by showing entire immutable look-up tables at the start of the game, in a go game without a superko rule, might use mixed strategies with a nonzero probability of a loop. Perfect players with source code access might get into games of timeless chicken [http://lesswrong.com/lw/15z/ingredients_of_timeless_decision_theory/11wv].
0timtyler12yRight - if you are prepared to define the term "position" to mean something rather counter-intuitive.
1Morendil12yYes, multiple moves with the same value are easily found in the opening - trivially from the symmetries on an empty board, and even after a few moves - and in the endgame, where the exact value of moves can be computed and is typically in single-digit points. In the midgame though, wouldn't it be much more surprising to find two or more moves for one side which have exactly the same value - more than one "best move" - as all the symmetries have pretty much vanished by then ? I'll admit I haven't considered that deeply, just assumed it true. The superko rule doesn't make much difference to my point above; it is only damaging if there is more than one ko going on, which is relatively rare (but not unheard of). Even in that case it's not the "entire" history of the board which is entangled together, but only a sub-history in which all moves consist of passing or taking back ko points. As soon as you add a stone somewhere (for instance by making a ko threat), superko no longer applies, it's a different position. If there is only one ko, you only need to include its status in the position's description per AllanCrossman's suggestion below.
2pengvado12yThe number of possible scores is limited by the size of the board. The number of available moves is also on the order of magnitude of the size of the board. The birthday paradox says that there is very likely to be a collision. Even more so since the scores aren't evenly distributed. It's somewhat harder to estimate how often the best move will be one of the ties. Equally matched good players tend to end up with single digit (delta-)scores, which greatly reduces the range, and I have no particular reason to expect optimal play to differ in that respect. But if I invoke that statistic, then I also have to reduce the domain to however many moves said players would be unsure between, which I don't know.
1timtyler12yI don't think you can use the birthday paradox here - since the expected values of go moves are best treated as being surreal numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surreal_number [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surreal_number] Surreal numbers were actually originally developed to handle go move values: http://senseis.xmp.net/?Infinitesimals [http://senseis.xmp.net/?Infinitesimals] http://senseis.xmp.net/?GoInfinitesimals [http://senseis.xmp.net/?GoInfinitesimals]
1[anonymous]12yBut the only special value mentioned on those pages, = { 0 | 0 }, is not a surreal number. It's a combinatorial game, and every surreal number is a combinatorial game, but 0 ≤ 0, making non-numeric. Also, while values of fragments of Go games are best treated as combinatorial games, the final value of a Go game is always simply an integer (or even an element of the set {WIN, DRAW, LOSS}), and therefore so will the maximin.
0timtyler12yThe other infinitesimals listed on that page were: UP, DOWN, UPSTAR, DOWNSTAR, TINY, MINY. The idea that you can subtract the maximin of a move with the maximin of passing to produce move values is unfortunately not correct, due to subtleties over who gets to play last. Move values are surreal numbers. That isn't an artefact designed to cope with partial games, it's equally true of complete games. The point is not trivial to understand - but it is relatively easy to see that the conclusion (that go move values are not integers) is correct. To do that, simply work through the whole board example given here: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.go/msg/dc42f06aa5ad6bc1?hl=en&dmode=source [http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.go/msg/dc42f06aa5ad6bc1?hl=en&dmode=source]
1pengvado12yWho said anything about subtracting the value of passing? Passing is just another move, and has no inherent privilege over the other ~200 available moves. Ah, that's where I was confused by your terminology: you speak of the value of a board state, which must account for what happens when either player plays on it, and passing doesn't affect the board; whereas I was thinking of the value of a game state including whose turn it is, and passing transitions to a different game state. The former is more natural if you're analysing partial games, and the latter is more natural if you're brute-forcing maximin. Auction Go is then a different game, some of whose moves are bidding in the auction rather than placing stones on the board. If you can bid fractional points, then the score is fractional, so move values can be too; and likewise for surreals or any other number system. The example you linked shows that changing the set of available bid-moves can change the outcome.
0[anonymous]12yIt appears that in the variation they're using, which they call Auction Go, weird stuff occurs in which players can skip turns and stuff. Ordinary Go is the sort of game where turns simply alternate. I still think that game values in ordinary Go are always integers.
0timtyler12yAuction go defines what "the value of a move" means. It is the smallest number of captures a perfect player would be prepared to accept as a payment for passing. To calculate the value of a move, you have to compare moving with taking some kind of null action. That typically involves passing. Without passing (or something similar) there seems to be no way to measure the value of a move empirically. This explains what I mean by "the value of a move". However, I am no longer clear on what you mean by the term. You have some method of calculating move values which does not involve comparing to passing (or similar)? What do you mean by the term?
1[anonymous]12yWhen I say "the value of a move", I mean the score I'll have if I make that move and everyone plays perfectly from then on.
0timtyler12yThat's totally non-standard. Nobody else means that by the term. What if you are winning by 100 points? The value of filling a dame is then 100 points?!? If that is your definition, then no wonder we disagree.
0[anonymous]12yAt least it kind of makes sense if you subtract the value of passing, making the value of filling a dame one point.
1timtyler12yTechnically, superko deals with the whole history of the board. Repeated positions don't only arise from single-stone captures - there are other ways of doing it - e.g. see: http://senseis.xmp.net/?RoundRobinKo [http://senseis.xmp.net/?RoundRobinKo] Any earlier position could theoretically be recreated - if enough pieces are captured.

It's the people who realize they don't know anything at all that end up doing pretty well.

Sounds like a story to me...

I know, tis pretty old, but some remark: How about the upsides of stories. I mean... a) we apparently are in a way programmed to find/make up stories, because they help us make sense of the world. Isn't it good, to break complicated stuff down into simpler stories, then tell those stories and make the audience want to hear more (or find out more themselves)? b) they stick. If I want to remember something I make it into a story or try to find it's internal story (or I stupidly repeat it over and over again if I really don't get it).

Don't get me wrong - I a... (read more)

I got as far as "some things actually are good versus evil, we all know this, right?" at 4:00, and lost all respect for the man. I didn't watch the rest.

Other than how we treat them, what's the difference between a story and a theory or hypothesis?

Edit: I'm guessing from the downvote that I may've been misunderstood. The above question is not rhetorical; it's intended to spark conversation.

4MichaelBishop12yIt is fine to decide, after four minutes, that you don't think its worth watching the rest of the lecture (I might not finish it either because it is directed to a non-specialist audience), but to tell us you "lost all respect for the man," only shows that you were too quick to rush to judgment. Based only on the five minutes of it I watched I know that he is making the exact same points (good vs. evil stories are curiosity stoppers), you accuse him (below) of missing.
1AdeleneDawner12yMy thought wasn't that he wouldn't have anything true to say. It was that if he's still defending good and evil as obviously existing, in that context, he's far enough behind me on the issue that I can safely assume that he doesn't have anything major to teach me, and that what he says is untrustworthy enough (because there's an obvious flaw in his thought process) that I'd have to spend an inordinate amount of time checking his logic before using even the parts that appear good - time that would be better spent elsewhere. Many people here appear to have a similar epistemic immune response to people who bring up God in discussions of ethics. I'm surprised it's considered an issue in this case.
6Tyrrell_McAllister12yIt is often worthwhile to listen to intelligent people, even if they are fantastically wrong about basic facts of the very subject that they're discussing. One often hears someone reasoning within a context of radically wrong assumptions. A priori, one would expect such reasoning to be almost wholly worthless. How could false premises lead to reliable conclusions? But somehow, in my experience, it often doesn't work that way. Of course, the propositional content of the claims will often be false. Nonetheless, within the system of inferences, substructures of inferences will often be isomorphic to deep structures of inferences following from premises that I do accept. The moral reasoning of moral realists can serve as an example. A moral realist will base his moral conclusions on the assumption that moral properties (such as good and evil) exist independently of how people think. His arguments, read literally, are riddled with this assumption through-and-through. Nonetheless, if he is intelligent, the inferences that he makes often map to highly nontrivial, but valid, inferences within my own system of moral thought. It might be necessary to do some relabeling of terms. But once I learn the relabeling "dictionary", I find that I can learn highly nontrivial implications of my premises by translating the implications that the realist inferred from his premises.
2AdeleneDawner12yInteresting idea. I'm not sure I completely understand it, though. Could you give an example?
5Tyrrell_McAllister12yHere's a made-up example. I chose this example for simplicity, not because it really represents the kind of insight that makes it worthwhile to listen to someone. Prior to Darwin, many philosophers believed that the most fundamental explanations were teleological. To understand a thing, they held, you had to understand its purpose. Material causes were dependent upon teleological ones. (For example, a thing's purpose would determine what material causes it was subjected to in the first place). These philosophers would then proceed to use teleology as the basis of their reasoning about living organisms. For example, on seeing a turtle for the first time, they might have reasoned as follows: Premise 1: This turtle has a hard shell. Premise 2: The purpose of a hard shell is to deflect sharp objects. Conclusion: Therefore, this turtle comes from an environment containing predators that attack with sharp objects (e.g., teeth). But, of course, there is something deeply wrong with such an explanation. Insofar as a thing has a purpose, that purpose is something that the thing will do in the future. Teleology amounts to saying that the future somehow reached back in time and caused the thing to acquire properties in the past. Teleology is backwards causation. After Darwin, we know that the turtle has a hard shell because hard shells are heritable and helped the turtle's ancestors to reproduce. The teleological explanation doesn't just violate causality---it also ignores the real reason that the turtle has a shell: natural selection. So the whole argument above might seem irredeemably wrong. But now suppose that we introduce the following scheme for translating from the language of teleology to Darwinian language: "The purpose of this organism's having property X is to perform action Y." becomes "The use of property X by this organism's ancestors to perform action Y caused this organism to have property X. Applying this scheme to the argument above produces a vali
2AdeleneDawner12yGood thing I asked; that wasn't what I originally thought you meant. It's similar enough to translating conversational shorthand that I probably already do that occasionally without even realizing it, but it'd be good to keep in in mind as a tool to use purposely. Thanks. :)
0Tyrrell_McAllister12yI'm curious: What did you think I meant? I probably shouldn't have used the term "translation". Part of my point is that the "translation" does not preserve meaning. Only the form of the inference is preserved. The facts being asserted can change significantly, both in the premises and in the conclusion. (In my example, only the assertions in the premises changed.) In general, the arguer no longer agrees with the inference after the "translation". Moreover, his disagreement is not just semantic.
2AdeleneDawner12yI'd somehow gotten the idea that you were talking about taking the proposed pattern of relationships between ideas and considering its applicability to other, unrelated ideas. As an extremely simple example, if the given theory was "All dogs are bigger than cats", make note of the "all X are bigger than Y" idea, so it can be checked as a theory in other situations, like "all pineapples are bigger than cherries". That seems like a ridiculously difficult thing to do in practice, though, which is why I thought you might have meant something else. Regarding 'translation', yep, I get it.
5RobinZ12yThat's not a good heuristic. There are a lot of people - Eliezer would name Robert Aumann, I think - who are incredibly bright, highly knowledgeable, and capable of conveying that knowledge who are wrong about the answers to what some of us would consider easy questions. Now, I know Berserk Buttons [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BerserkButton] (warning: TV Tropes [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SchmuckBait]) as well as anyone, and I've dismissed some works of fiction which others have considered quite good (e.g. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, TV sitcom The Modern Family) because they pushed those buttons, but when it comes to factual information, even stupid people can teach you. (Granted, you may be right about the worthlessness of this particular speech to you - I haven't watched it. But the heuristic is poor.)
1AdeleneDawner12yThe heuristic isn't widely applicable, but I disagree about it being poor altogether. As I pointed out above, it's not just that he defended good vs. evil. It's that he did it in the context of a presentation on a subtopic of how we conceptualize the world. He may have things to teach me in other areas, obviously. That's why I compared it to someone bringing God into a discussion on ethics specifically. (Or, say, evolution.) That person may be brilliant at physics, but on the topic at hand, not so much. It also occurs to me that this heuristic may be unusually useful to me because of my neurology. It does seem to take much more time and effort for me to deconstruct and find flaws in new ideas presented by others, compared to most people, and because of the extra time, there's a risk of getting distracted and not completing the process. It's enough of an issue that even a flawed heuristic to weed out bad memes is (or, feels - I'm not sure how one would actually test that) useful.
0RobinZ12yOkay, I'll grant you that. It's better to have a sufficiently strict filter that loses some useful information than a weaker filter which lets in garbage data. I would presume (or, at least, advise) that you make a particular effort to analyze data which you previously rejected but which remains widely discussed, however - an example from my own experience being Searle's Chinese Room argument [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room]. Such items should be uncommon enough.
1AdeleneDawner12yAgreed.
4Jonathan_Graehl12yQuickly judging people as not worth listening to is a fabulous heuristic, especially given the Internet explosion of available alternatives. But sharing such judgment risks offending people who didn't make the same cut.
3Vladimir_Nesov12yFollowing such a heuristic doesn't at all mean making strong high-certainty judgments.
2Jonathan_Graehl12yI agree, but the fantastic thing is that you lose so little when you reject too hastily. If the ideas you ignored turn out to be useful and true, someone you're willing to listen to will advocate them eventually.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky12yThat works if you assiduously and diligently and without flaw, start paying attention after no more than the third time you hear the idea advocated, and without using the idea itself to judge untrustworthy those who otherwise see competent. In practice, people usually reject the idea itself and go on rejecting it, when they claim to be acting under cover of rejecting people. Consider those who die of rejecting cryonics; consider what policy they would have to follow in order to not do that. What good is it to quickly reject bad ideas if you quickly reject good ideas as well? Discrimination is the whole trick here. I suppose we might have no recourse but to judge people and shut our ears to most of them, in the Internet age, but to say that we "lose so little" far understates the danger of a very dangerous policy.
2Jonathan_Graehl12yI agree that people often don't make the necessary distinction between ideas they have evidence against, and unevaluated ideas they've been ignoring because they've only heard them advocated by kooks. As you point out, only ideas in the prior category properly discredit their advocates.
0AdeleneDawner12yThere's more than just the one non-failure mode to this kind of thing. My method involves taking the time to consider the information gathered up to the point where I decided to stop listening to the person, as if I hadn't stopped listening to them at all. Information that I would've gotten from them after that point isn't affected by my opinion of them, since I haven't heard it (where it would be, if I were distracted by thinking 'this person's an idiot' as I listened to them), and I give as fair of a trial as I'm able to to the rest. It may also be noteworthy that I didn't judge him for an argument he was making, and I make something of a point of not doing so unless the logic being used is painfully bad. (Tangential realization: That's why activists who aren't willing to have any 101-level discussions with newbies get a (mild) negative reaction from me; discarding a whole avenues of discourse like that cuts off a valuable, if noisy, source of information.)
2AdeleneDawner12yStrength of emotional response and certainty of the underlying heuristic's accuracy aren't the same thing. It may not've been clear that I was reporting the former, but I was, and one of the possible responses to that comment that I was prepared for was "yes, but he went on to make this good point...".
1AdeleneDawner12yI figured that out, but bringing it up seemed like it would just compound the problem.
4MichaelBishop12yBased on the first five minutes, the whole point of his lecture is that stories, explicitly including but not limited to those framed as good vs. evil, are often dangerous oversimplifications. I'm telling you, as someone who has read quite a lot by Tyler Cowen, that he is not as naive about good and evil as you seem to think. You've read too much into the one sentence you've quoted.
3Matt_Simpson12yAre no things actually good vs. evil? Say, Schindler vs. the S.S.?
-2AdeleneDawner12yI'm not sure I can answer this coherently; I came to the conclusion that good and evil are not objectively real, or even useful concepts, long enough ago that I can't accurately recreate the steps that got me there. I do occasionally have conversations with people who use those words, and mentally translate 'good' (in that sense) to 'applause light [http://lesswrong.com/lw/jb/applause_lights/]-generating' and 'evil' to 'revulsion-generating', 'unacceptable in modern society', and/or 'considered by the speaker to do more harm than good', in estimated order of frequency of occurrence. (I often agree that things labeled evil do more harm than good, but if the person doing the 'evil' thing agreed, they wouldn't be doing it, so it's obviously at least somewhat debatable.) I don't use the word 'evil' at all, myself, and don't use 'good' in the good-vs.-evil sense. Those words are also curiosity-stoppers [http://lesswrong.com/lw/it/semantic_stopsigns/] - it's not very useful to label an action or viewpoint as 'evil'; it's much more useful to explore why the person doing that thing or holding that attitude believes that it's correct. Likewise, labeling something as 'good' reduces the chance of thinking critically about it, and noticing flaws or areas that could be improved.
6RichardKennaway12y... Do more what than what?
0AdeleneDawner12yI haven't gotten around to deconstructing those terms yet, but off the top of my head: A 'harmful to X' action is one that has a long-term effect on it that reduces its ability to function. Examples: * Taking some RAM out of a computer * Adding grit to a machine, increasing the rate at which it wears out * Injuring a person in such a way that they lose use of a body part, or develop PTSD, or are in ongoing pain (because ongoing pain reduces their ability to function, not because pain is intrinsically harmful) * Extremist activism, where doing so makes the movement less credible and decreases the rate at which more sensible activists can create change. (I assume here and below that, disregarding the extremism, the activism is promoting good in the sense at hand.) A 'good for X' action, in this sense ('helpful' would be a better word), is one that has a long-term effect on it that increases its ability to function. Examples: * Adding RAM to a computer * Performing maintenance on a machine * Teaching a person, giving them medical help, establishing a relationship with them such that they can approach you for advice or help in the future * Extremest activism, where doing so moves the Overton window [http://www.correntewire.com/the_overton_window_illustrated]. The question isn't usually whether an action does harm or good or both. The question is how much importance to give to the various harms and goods involved.
1Jack12yAny definition of harmful that doesn't include say, electro-shock torture and water-boarding is a really really bad definition. Hint: Pain really is intrinsically harmful.
2AdeleneDawner12yThose come under 'injuring in such a way as to cause the person to develop PTSD', and no, it's not [http://lesswrong.com/lw/14n/pain/].
3Jack12yPlenty of people have been tortured and not ended up with PTSD. Moreover, we classify instances of those things as harmful long before the DSM even lets us diagnose PTSD. Also, there are approximately fifty arguments in that post and comments, none demonstrating that pain isn't intrinsically harmful so I really have no idea what you want me to take away from that link.
3AdeleneDawner12yPTSD or other long-term psychological (or physical) impairment, then - which may be sub-clinical or considered normal. An example: Punishment [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punishment_%28psychology%29] causes a psychological change that reduces the person's ability to do the thing that they were punished for. We don't (to the best of my knowledge) have a name for that change, but it observably happens, and when it does, the punishment has caused harm. (It may also be helpful, for example if the punished action would have reduced the person's ability to function in other ways. The two aren't always mutually exclusive. Compare it to charging someone money for a class - teaching is helpful, taking their money is harmful.) Also, I do believe that there could be situations where someone is tortured and doesn't experience a long-term reduction in functionality, in which case, yes, the torture wasn't harmful. The generalization that torture is harmful is useful because those situations are rare, and because willingness to attempt to harm someone is likely to lead to harm, and should be addressed as such. The most relevant point in the discussion of pain is right at the beginning - people who don't experience any pain tend to have very short or very difficult lives. That makes it obvious that being able to experience pain is useful to the experiencer, rather than net-harmful. So, even though some pain is observably harmful, some pain must be helpful enough to make up the difference. That doesn't jive with 'pain is intrinsically harmful', unless you're using a very different definition of the word, in which case I request that you clarify how you're defining it.
2Jack12yWell, anyone else who thinks this is wrong feel free to modus tollens away the original definition. ... I was hoping to make my point by way of counter example. Since you're not recognizing the counter example I have to go back through the whole definition and the context to see where we lost each other. But thats a mess to do because right now this is a semantic debate. To make it not one I need the cash value of you belief that something is harmful. Do you always try to avoid harm to yourself? Is something being harmful necessary for you to avoid it/avoid doing it to others? Is it sufficient? Does this just apply to you? All humans? AI? Animals? Plants? Thermostats? Futons? Is something other than help and harm at work in your decision making? You don't have to answer all of these, obviously, just give me an idea of what I should see if something is harmful so I can actually check to see if your definition works. Otherwise you can't be wrong. Then we can see if "causing decreased functionality" leads to the right response in all the circumstances. For example, I think there are times where people want to limit their net functionality and are right to do so even and especially when they know what they're doing.
0AdeleneDawner12yNo; if I can help someone else (or my future self) enough by harming myself or risking harm, I'll do so. Example: Giving a significant sum of money to someone in need, when I don't have an emergency fund myself. No, there are other reasons that I avoid doing things, such as to avoid inconvenience or temporary pain or offending people. I use a modified version of the logic that I use to determine whether I should harm myself to decide whether it's worth it to harm others. I generally try to err on the side of avoiding harming others, because it's harder to estimate the effect that a given harm will have on their life than it is to estimate its effect on mine. My definition is meant to be general enough to cover all of those, but in each case the meaning of 'function' has to be considered. Humans get to determine for themselves what it means to function. AIs' functions are determined by their programmers (not necessarily intentionally). In practice, I consider animals on a case-by-case basis; as an omnivore, it'd be hypocritical of me to ignore that I consider the function of chickens to be 'become tasty meat', but I generally consider pets and wild animals to determine their own functions. (A common assigned function for pets, among those who do assign them functions, is 'provide companionship'. Some wild animals are assigned functions, too, like 'keep this ecosystem in balance' or 'allow me to signal that I care about the environment, by existing for me to protect'.) I lump plants in with inanimate and minimally-animate objects, whose functions are determined by the people owning them, and can be changed at any time - it's harmful to chop up a futon that was intended to be sat on, but chopping up an interestingly shaped pile of firewood with some fabric on it isn't harmful. In a first-order sense, yes, but in each case that I can think of at the moment, the reason behind the other thing eventually reduces to reducing harm or increasing help. Avoiding temporary p
0Jack12ySo If I am in extraordinary pain it would never be helpful/ not-harmful for me to kill myself or for you to assist me? Also, where does fulfilling your function fit into this? Unless you function is just increasing functionality. Finally, I guess you're comfortable with the fact that the function of different things is determined in totally different ways? Some things get to determine their own function while other things have people determine it for them? As far as I can tell, people determine the function of tools and this notion that people determine their own function, while true in a sense, is just Aristotelian natural law theory rearing its ugly head. It used to be that we have purposes because God created us and instilled us in one. But if there is no God it seems that the right response is to conclude that purpose, as it applied to humans, was a category error, not that we decide our own purpose.
3AdeleneDawner12yReminder: This is beta-version-level thought. It isn't surprising that it still has a few rough spots or places where I haven't noticed that I need to explain one thing for another to make sense. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Function as I'm intending to talk about it isn't something you fulfill, it's an ability you have: The ability to achieve the goals you're interested in achieving. Those goals vary not just from person to person, but also with time, whether they're achieved or not. Also, people do have more than one goal at any given time. I have used the word 'function' in the other sense, above, mistakenly. I'll be more careful. There are two overlapping types of situations that are relevant; if either one of them is true, then it's helpful to assist the person in avoiding/removing the pain. One is that the person has 'avoid pain' as a relevant goal in the given instance, and helping achieve that goal doesn't interfere with other goals that the person considers more important. The other is that the pain is signaling harmful damage to the person's body. There are situations that don't come under either of those umbrellas - certain BDSM practices, where experiencing pain is the goal, for example, or situations where doing certain things evokes pain but not actual (relevant to the individual's goals) harm, and the only way to avoid the pain is to give up on accomplishing more important goals, which is common in certain disabilities and some activities like training for a sport or running a marathon. Whether suicide would be considered helpful or harmful in a given situation is a function of the goals of the person considering the suicide. If you're in a lot of pain, have an 'avoid pain' goal that's very important, and don't have other strong goals or the pain (or underlying damage causing the pain) makes it impossible for you to achieve your other strong goals, the answer is fairly obvious: It's helpful. I
8AdeleneDawner12yFound it, or a couple related things anyway. This [http://ballastexistenz.autistics.org/?p=84] is a post discussing the level of pain she's in, her level of adaptation, and people's reactions to those facts, and this [http://ballastexistenz.autistics.org/?p=218] is a post discussing her opinion on the matter of curing pain and disability. I remember there being another, clearer post about her pain level, but I still haven't found that, and I may be remembering a discussion I had with her personally rather than a blog post. She's also talked more than once about her views on the normalization of suicide, assisted suicide, and killing for 'compassionate' reasons for people with disabilities (people in ongoing severe pain are inferred to be included in the group in question), though she usually just calls it murder (her definition of murder includes convincing someone that their life is so worthless or burdensome to others that they should commit suicide) - browsing this category [http://ballastexistenz.autistics.org/?cat=30] turns up several of the posts.
0Jack12ySure. I don't mean to come on too forcefully. So help and harm aren't the only things in your decision-making, there are also goals. What is the relation between the two? Why can't the help-harm framework be subsumed under "goals"? This question is especially salient if "goals" is just going to be the box where you throw in everything relevant to decision making and ethics that doesn't fit with your concepts of help and harm. Also, something that might make where I'm coming from clearer: when I was using "pain" before I meant it generally, not just in a physical sense. So I just read these examples about BDSM or needing pain to avoid early death as cases of one kind of pain leading another kind of pleasure of preventing another kind of pain. I'll use the word "suffering" in the future to make this clearer. This might make the claim that pain is inherently harmful seem more plausible to you. So all my belongings share my goals? It seems pretty bizarre to attribute goals to any inanimate object much less give them the same goals their owner has. It also would be really strange if the fundamentals of decision-makign involved a particular and contingent socio-political construction (i.e. ownership and property). It also seems to me that possessing a reputation and possessing a car are two totally different things and that the fact that we use the same verb "have" to refer to someone's reputation or knowledge is almost certainly a linguistic accident (maybe someone who speaks more languages can confirm this). So yes, I'd like to read a development of this notion of ownership if you want to provide one. A world in which 90% of goals were achieved wouldn't be better than a world in which only 10% were achieved? Is a world where there is greater functionality better than a world in which there is less functionality? We might have step back further and see if we even agree what morality is.
0AdeleneDawner12y'Helpful' and 'harmful' are words that describe the effect of an action or circumstance on a person(+their stuff)'s ability to achieve a goal. This question doesn't make sense to me - 'help and harm' and 'goals' are two very different kinds of things, and I don't see how they could be lumped together into one concept. This area of thought is complex, and my way of approaching it does view a lot of that complexity as goal-related, but the point of that isn't to handwave the complexity, it's to put it where I can see it and deal with it. Suffering is experiencing pain that the experiencer wanted to avoid - pain that's addressed by their personal 'avoid pain' goal. We don't disagree about those instances of experienced pain being harmful. Not all experiences of pain are suffering, though. Also, people with CIPA are unable to experience the qualia of pain just as people who are blind are unable to experience the qualia of color. If you're considering the injuries they sustain as a result painful, we're not defining the word in the same way. It's only bizarre if you're considering the owned thing and the owner as separate entities. Considering them the same for some purposes (basically anything involving the concept of ownership as our society uses it) is the only way of looking at it that I've found that adds back up to normality. Does your body share your goals? It's a function of discussing owned things, not of discussing decision-making. Un-owned things that aren't alive don't have goals. (Or they may in a few cases retain the relevant goal of the person who last owned them - a machine will generally keep working when its owner dies or looses it or disowns it.) The difference between those concepts may be relevant elsewhere, but I don't think it's relevant in this case. I'll put it on my to-do list. It depends what you mean by 'better', and for the most part I choose not to define or use the word except in situations with sufficient context to use it in phr
0Emile12ySo if you're waiting for the bus and I kick you in the shin, there's no harm? (there would be some ongoing pain for a little while, but with no impact on what you're doing - waiting for the bus)
2rhollerith_dot_com12yAdelene's attitude as illustrated in this thread towards pain resembles my own. I do not assign any intrinsic value to avoiding pain (or experiencing pleasure). (I am unsure whether Adelene goes this far.) I must stress though that pain (and pleasure) are indispensible approximations or "predictors" for various (instrumental) values. If I had a Richard-friendly superintelligence as my constant companion, I could ignore the informational value of my pain (pleasure) sensations because I could consult the superintelligence to predict the long-term effects of the various actions I contemplate, but the way it is now, it is too expensive or impossible for me to estimate certain instrumental values (mostly around staying healthy) unless I consult my pain (and pleasure) sensations. Moreover, I must stress that there are quite a few things that correlate with pain. Pain for example is a strong sign that I am in a mental state not conducive to learning or to the careful consideration many factors (such as is necessary to do a good job at fixing a computer program). I do not have complete control over the mental machinery that allows me to program computers, etc. I cannot for example choose to put myself in the mental state that I know to be most conductive to, e.g., computer programming while enduring certain conditions that tend to cause pain. So, that is one thing that has not yet been mentioned in this thread that correlates with pain. Here is another. I probably cannot stay motivated to work hard at something unless I regularly take pleasure from that work (or at the least I have a realistic expectation of future pleasure resulting from the work). I do not (usually -- see next paragraph) take that to mean that what I really care about is pleasure. Rather, I take that to mean that I have imperfect control over the means (e.g., my mind) by which I get my work done and that in particular, one of the circumstances that might prevent me from achieving what I really care a
5CronoDAS12yAccording to several theories of cosmology, the end state of the universe is fixed: entropy will increase to maximum [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death_of_the_universe], and the universe will be in a state of uniform chaos. Therefore nothing we can do will have a truly permanent effect, as the final state of the universe will be the same regardless. Assuming that to be the case, are you really indifferent between being kicked in the shins and not being kicked in the shins, since the universe ends up the same either way?
1[anonymous]12yI wrote my reply to this (long) but meh, I'll let it sit overnight before posting so I can review it again (with semi-fresh eyes).
0CronoDAS12yAlso, on a more personal level, even if the universe doesn't die, you will...
0rhollerith_dot_com12yI cannot make any strong statements about how my preferences would change if I learned for sure that I definitely cannot exert any permanent effect on reality. The question does not interest me. Also, the current me does not sympathize with any hypothetical me who is stuck in a reality on which he cannot exert any permanent effect. He is a non-person to me. (Yeah, I can be pretty callous towards future versions of myself. But it is not like I can rescue him from his (hypothetical) predicament.) Finally, and this is nothing personal, Doug, but I will probably not take the time to answer future questions from you on this subject because I have resolved to stop trying to convert anyone to any particular moral position or system of valuing things, and this question I just answered pulled me back into that frame of mind for a couple of hours.
1Cyan12yExpounding your moral position in response to a direct question is not proselytizing.
0rhollerith_dot_com12yTrue. What I should have written is, Doug, please help me stop procrastinating! Please do not ask me any more questions for a while on morality or the fate of the universe.
1wedrifid12yI'll note somewhat abstractly that while 'expounding your moral position in response to a direct question' is not proselytizing, it is certainly something that can pull one into that frame of mind. This is particularly the case when the direct questioning has persuasive motivation. The decision is a decision but the claim appears false.
0CronoDAS12yNo problem. I was just confused because "avoid pain" seems to be a goal built into most neurologically intact people at a fairly basic level (even lizard brains try to avoid pain), and that, in that context, seeing someone say that they don't care to avoid transient pain strikes me as an extremely bizarre thing to say.
0rhollerith_dot_com12yAnd since you participated in the discussions in past years on Overcoming Bias on this subject, Doug, and since I've seen a lot of your comments about your psychology, I know the hugeness of the inferential distance I would have to bridge to remove your confusion.
0CronoDAS12yIndeed, the only way I can make sense of that statement in the context of what I know about animal/human behavior is to hypothesize a disconnect between consciously expressed values and revealed preferences. Am I wrong in assuming that you'd have a hard time sticking your hand in a pot of boiling water in exchange for some "permanent" positive change in the universe? After all, there are a lot of lower-level brain systems that act to make sure that we don't go around sticking our hands in boiling water. (I wouldn't be too surprised to find out that you'd be willing to let yourself be tied down and have someone else stick your hand in boiling water in exchange for something you want, but the instincts that protect us from deliberate self-harm tend to be difficult to overcome.)
2rhollerith_dot_com12yYou are wrong. Whether my force of will (or indifference to pain) is sufficient to keep the hand in there for more than 8 seconds, I do not know. But Doug, many soldiers have volunteered for combat missions knowing that the decision to volunteer adds much more expected pain to the rest of their lives than sticking a hand in boiling water would. Moreover, many cancer patients have chosen chemo knowing that the decision adds much more expected pain than sticking a hand in boiling water would. (Moreover, every chemo session requires a new dose of resolve since choosing the first chemo session does not enable any doctor or loved one to force the cancer patient to submit to a second session.) BTW, learning that a person has enough indifference to pain (or force of will) to stick their hand in boiling water and keep it there for 8 seconds does not tell you very much about whether they can choose to stay motivated during long tedious projects, such as graduating from college or sticking to a diet. They are separate skills. Moreover, if your goal in life is as much happiness as possible or living as long as possible, then the ability to stay motivated during long tedious projects is much more useful than the ability to choose the painful option and then stick to the choice for a short length of time (e.g., long enough to volunteer for that combat mission or to sign your name to that Declaration of Independence).
0CronoDAS12yOkay. I would have expected you to flinch and hesitate before eventually succeeding in submerging you hand, but I'll take your word for it. You're right about that; "avoid pain" certainly isn't the only goal people have, and other motivations can certainly lead someone to choose more pain over less pain, but I was pretty sure that it tends to be up there with "eat when hungry" as a basic animal drive. /me shrugs Of course, I'm sure you know a lot more about yourself than I do, so I think we've exhausted the topic at hand.
0wedrifid12yThanks for adding this clarification. I understand the need for restraint. ETA: I just finished appreciating this addition when the grandchild [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1em/the_danger_of_stories/19a4] struck it out.
2Emile12yThis isn't as much about one's personal attitude to pain, but the morality of inflicting pain to someone else. Adelene seems to be saying, roughly, that inflicting pain on someone else is morally neutral as long as there is no long-term harm like losing an eye or developing PTSD. That seems very much at odds with most conceptions of human morality I know of.
1AdeleneDawner12yI agree with almost everything rhollerith said (Most obvious exception: The pain from being kicked is probably more a warning that you're in a situation that caries the danger of major damage than an indication of reduced capacity to take damage in the future.) and would like to point out that the examples I gave are not the only possible ones. In your example, the risk of miscalculating and actually doing long-term damage is relevant, as is the psychological implication of being attacked by a stranger in public. Plus, as I discussed here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1em/the_danger_of_stories/18sv], enough people have a goal of avoiding pain that you can safely assume that any random stranger has that goal, so inflicting pain on them is harmful in light of that. Edit: It'd also be harmful to me to go around kicking people in the shins - I'd quickly get a reputation as dangerous, and people would become unwilling to associate with me or help me, and there's a significant chance that I'd wind up jailed, which is definitely harmful.
0[anonymous]12yFor any concept, you can find a sufficiently rich context that makes the concept inadequate. The concept would be useful in simpler situations, but breaks down in more sophisticated ones. It's still recognized in them, by the same procedure that allows to recognize the concept where it is useful. A concept is only genuinely useless if there hardly are any contexts where it's useful, not if there are situations where it isn't. You are too eager to explain useful tools away by presenting them with existence proofs of insurmountable challenges and the older cousins that should get deployed in them. See also: least convenient possible world, fallacy of compression, scales of justice fallacy.
5Vladimir_Nesov12yFor any concept, you can find a sufficiently rich context that makes the concept inadequate. The concept would be useful in simpler situations, but breaks down in more sophisticated ones. It's still recognized in them, by the same procedure that allows to recognize the concept where it is useful. A concept is only genuinely useless if there hardly are any contexts where it's useful, not if there are situations where it isn't. You are too eager to explain useful tools away by presenting them with existence proofs of insurmountable challenges and the older cousins that should get deployed in them. When you are worried about the fallacy of compression, that too many things interfere with each other when put in the same simplistic concept, remember that it's a tradeoff: you necessarily place some not-identical things together, and necessarily become less accurate at tracking each of them than if you paid a little more attention just in this particular case. But on the overall scale, you can't keep track of everything all the time, so whenever it's feasible, any simplification should be welcome. See also: least convenient possible world, fallacy of compression, scales of justice fallacy.
2AdeleneDawner12yIt's getting more and more obvious that my neurology is a significant factor, here. I deal poorly with situations with some kinds of limited context; I seem to have never developed the heuristics that most people use to make sense of them, which is a fairly common issue for autistics. I don't make the tradeoff you suggest as often as most people do, and I do tend to juggle more bits of information at any given time, because it's the only way I've found that leads me, personally, to reasonably accurate conclusions. Instances where I can meaningfully address a situation with limited context are rare enough that tools to handle them seem useless to me. I may need to work on not generalizing from one example about this kind of thing, though, to avoid offending people if nothing else.
1Vladimir_Nesov12yBtw, see also Yvain's The Trouble With "Good" [http://lesswrong.com/lw/bk/the_trouble_with_good/].
1AdeleneDawner12yInteresting post, but not terribly useful at first glance - it started with what sounded like a good description of how I work, diverged from how I do things at "But we are happy using the word "good" for all of them, and it doesn't feel like we're using the same word in several different ways, the way it does when we use "right" to mean both "correct" and "opposite of left".", and wound up offering a different (though useful for dealing with others) solution to the problem than the very personally efficient one that I've been using for a few years now. I do actually feel the difference in the different meanings of 'good' (I haven't cataloged them (I don't see any personal usefulness in doing so - note that I don't think in words in general), but I estimate at least half a dozen common meanings and several rarer ones), but that's somewhat beside the point. My fix for the presented problem involves the following heuristic: The farther from neutral my general opinion of a class of things is, the more likely it is to be incorrect in any given case. Generally, a generalized strong positive or negative opinion is a sign that I'm underinformed in some way - I've been getting biased information, or I haven't noticed a type of situation where that kind of thing has a different effect than the one I'm aware of, or I haven't noticed that it's related to another class of things in some important way. The heuristic doesn't disallow strong positive or negative generalized opinions altogether, but it does enforce a higher standard of proof on more extreme ones, and leads me to explore the aspects of things that are counter to my existing opinion in an attempt to reach a more neutral (and complex, which is the real goal) opinion of them. It still allows strong contextual reactions, too, which I haven't yet seen a problem with, and which do appear to be generally useful. Regarding the concepts of good (in the 'opposite of evil' sense) and evil, my apparent non-neutrality is perso
2Matt_Simpson12yRough definitions: good for agent X - net positive utility for agent X, evil for agent X - net negative utility for agent X. Or possibly: evil for agent X - a utility function that conflicts with that of agent X. Good and evil don't have to be "written into the structure of the universe" to be coherent concepts. I assume you make choices. What is your criterion for choice? I also assume that you aren't completely selfish. You care about the welfare of other people at least to some degree right? Of course, if two people/agents truly have differing utility functions, what is good to one may be evil to the other, but that doesn't invalidate the concepts of good and evil.
5DanArmak12yThat's not 'good and evil', just 'desired and undesired' - much milder and broader concepts.
2Matt_Simpson12yI call an action "good" when it is what you should do - i.e. it has normative force behind it. This includes all choices. So, yes, it is a broader concept than traditional 'goodness,' but thats fine. I usually reserve "desired and undesired" to refer to the psychological impulses that we sometimes fight and sometimes go along with. I may desire that second piece of chocolate cake, but if I really think it through, I don't really want to eat it - I shouldn't eat it. The economist's utility function probably refers to desires since the goal is to model actual behavior, but the ethicist's utility function is built with a completely different goal in mind.
2DanArmak12yThey cause harm to you, and good to the person doing it. Nothing to disagree about.
0AdeleneDawner12yThe discussions in question have generally been about the actions of third-parties in other parts of the world, which haven't had any appreciable effect on my life (unless you count 'taking thought-time away from other issues' as an effect). In cases where the discussion is about something that's been done to me, I still don't use the word 'evil', and I've actually been known to object to other people doing so in those cases. 'Selfish', 'misguided', 'poorly informed', 'emotion driven', and the like cover those situations much more usefully.
1DanArmak12yThen, 'harm to someone'. Not necessarily to you. My point was that disagreement about the good/evil label doesn't mean there's disagreement about doing good or harm to someone.
2roland12yI also felt annoyed by this and another political comment of the man. I still watched the whole and think he has a great point. Like everything: keep the good and throw away the bad.
1arundelo12yCowen on "The limits of good vs. evil thinking" [http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/12/the-limits-of-good-vs-evil-thinking.html] :
1RobinZ12yThe difference between a weather forecast and a weather forecasting system [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerical_weather_prediction], I'd guess. The latter are (often) used to generate the former.
1John_Maxwell12yEarthquakes are evil. Food that's tasty, cheap, and healthy is good.
0CronoDAS12y[nitpick] Aren't earthquakes a necessary component of geologic processes that are/were essential for the formation and maintenance of life of Earth? [/nitpick]
-3bgrah44912yThis is ivory tower bullshit. I can type out a longer response, but it still boils down to the rocky core: This comment is just self-congratulatory bullshit. EDIT:: "He said something so dumb that I know every tangentially related thought he has will be worthless" is self-congratulatory bullshit. It is! That's what it is.
2RobinZ12yI believe your objection is likely similar to mine [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1em/the_danger_of_stories/18q2?context=1#comments] - it would behoove you to address the text of her response to it.
0AdeleneDawner12yYes, thanks.
2Jack12yIt is bullshit. I didn't vote you down but I could have done without the random shot at academia. People in the ivory tower are usually smarter than this.
1Tyrrell_McAllister12yIf you can't be bothered to offer arguments to back up your opinion, just use the vote buttons.