ryan wong's Shortform

by ryan wong24th May 20206 comments
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Something that has always puzzled me about high school, is why students are required to memorize very specific definitions of terms in the physical sciences. Why is such a high percentage of marks rewarded for being able to recite, word-for-word, that electric potential, refers, specifically, to the work done per unit charge by an external force in bringing a small positive charge from infinity to a point in a E-field without a change in kinetic energy? There are five italicized keywords/terms there which will result in an entire lost mark if missed out.

I hypothesize it's because scientists need to know what something refers to specifically, or there will be a clash in terms. Words are the map to the territory of the natural world, and no large-scale effort to advance science can ever be possible if the millions of scientists around the world were operating on different definitions. Most things are very specific. Important fundamental processes - such as the Haber process for the manufacture of ammonia, which allowed for mass production of fertilizers - occurred the exact same way every single time given the same inputs.

In contrast, because of the complexity of the human mind, social scientists often find themselves having differing opinions on a topic. An example that comes to mind is willpower. A popular psychology book might argue(with research) that willpower is limited and will deplete when used. Another might argue that willpower is only limited if the individual thinks that it is. This has implications for important areas such as time management, relationship-building, and even weight loss. In this case, which framework does one then use in his/her daily life?

Is this why the social sciences, synonymous with "soft sciences", are generally less respected than natural sciences like physics or biology? Is it because there are little empirical, causal answers? Is it because it has much less predicting ability, and therefore less probability to generate real-world results?

More importantly, as someone with a passion in individual and group psychology, what can we do to change that? Is the scientific method suited for the social sciences, or are we forcing the method to fit the field? Is there another way of going about really understanding psychology and developing useful technology with it?

There are two kinds of pleasurable feelings. The first one is a self-reinforcing loop, where the in-the-moment pleasure leads to craving for more pleasure, such as mindlessly scrolling through social media, or eating highly-processed, highly-palatable food. The second is pleasure gained through either thoughtfully consuming good content, like listening to good music or reading good books, or the fulfillment of a task that's meaningful, such as getting good grades or getting a promotion for sustained conscientious effort.

The first is pleasure for its own sake, without any "real world rewards" that come with it, ie, distractions. The second isn't as "addictive" as the first, nor does it cause the same spikes in pleasure, but it comes with real world tangible rewards.

There is no way to completely eliminate the human need for the first pleasure. But the need can be reduced. The ratio of second:first pleasure, is the degree to which a person is able to achieve his goals, the degree to which a person is successful. 

There's a large piece missing from your model - why seek pleasure at all? Wouldn't it be better to measure success directly based on meeting long-term goals (clippy interjects from the balcony: like number of paperclips created!).

As an add-on, I found this LW article today that captures the essence of "first pleasure"

clippy interjects from the balcony: like number of paperclips created!

I'm not quite sure I got this part, could you please elaborate on it?

why seek pleasure at all? Wouldn't it be better to measure success directly based on meeting long-term goals

Here, I would argue that the feeling of the second pleasure is essential to meeting long-term goals. Feeling good about accomplishing sub-tasks will keep someone working towards an important goal, especially if it requires a long period of sustained effort.

Thus, meeting short-term goal -> success -> second pleasure -> working on next short-term goal; with enough iterations, that will lead to the meeting of long-term goals and thus success.

https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Paperclip_maximizer is the canonical example of over-simplified goal optimization. I bring it up mostly as a reminder that getting your motivational model wrong can lead to undesirable actions and results.

Which leads to my main point. You're recommending one type of pleasure over another, based on it being more aligned with your non-pleasure-measured goals. I'm wondering why you are arguing for this, as opposed to just pursuing the goals directly, without consideration of pleasure.

Ah, now I've got what you mean. Thanks for referring me to that thought experiment, I don't have much prior knowledge on the field of AI so that was definitely a new insight for me.

I see now that my original shortform did not explicitly state that my terminal value was indeed the fulfillment of important goals. I was reflecting more on the distinction between pleasurable feelings that led to distraction & bad habits, vs ones that led to the actual fulfillment of goals. It was a personal reminder to experience the latter in place of the former, as much as I can.

Now, I hold the view that pleasure can be a useful tool in the pursuit of my goals. It is a means to that end. An important caveat that your response reminded me of, though, is that sometimes pursuing goals might not be immediately pleasurable, so it might be wise not to naïvely expect pleasure from every part of that process.