First, models can be useful in practice even if they don't incorporate reductionism even in principle.

True, but are such models really ->more<- useful - especially in the long run? If I'm a philosopher of morality and am not aware, that morality only applies to certain kinds of minds, which arise from certain kinds of brains... then my work would be akin to building a skycastle and obsessing about the color of the wallpapers, while being oblivious that the whole thing isn't firmly grounded in reality, but floats midair. Of course that doesn't mean that all of my concepts would be wrong, since perfectly normal common sense can carry someone a long way when it comes to moral behavior... but I may still be very susceptible to get other kinds of important questions dead wrong - like stem cells or abortion.

So while of course you're right when you say that models can be very useful even if they are non-reductionist, I would maintain that there is a limit to the usefulness such simplistic models can reach, and that they can be surpassed by models that are better grounded in reality. In 50 years we may have to answer questions like: "is a simulated mind a real person to which we must apply our morality?" or "how should we treat this new genetically engineered species of animal?" I would predict giving answers to such questions could be simple, although not easily achieved by today's standards: Look at their minds and see how they processes pain and pleasure and how these emotions relate to various other things going on in there and you'll have your practical answer, without the need of pointless armchair-philosophy-battles based on false premises. We may encounter many moral issues of similar sorts in the upcoming years and we'll be terribly unequipped to deal with them, if we don't realize that they are reducible to tangible neural networks.

PS: Also I'm not sure how human rights are any more a metaphysical fiction than say... tax law is. How is a social contract or convention metaphysical, if you'll find its content inside the brains of people or written down on artifacts? But I highly suspect that's not the kind of human rights you're talking about - nor the kind of human rights most people are talking about, when they use this term. So you probably accuse them rightly for treating human rights as if it was some kind of metaphysical concept.

Also I find it curious that you would prefer god-talk morality over certain philosophical concepts of morality - seeing how the latter would in principle be much more susceptible to our line of reasoning than the former. I prefer as little god-talk as possible.

True, but are such models really ->more<- useful - especially in the long run?

Of course they are more useful. You have only finite computational power, and often any models that are tractable must be simplified at the expense of capturing fundamental reality. Even if that's not an issue, insisting on a more exact model beyond what's good enough in practice only introduces additional cost and error-proneness.

Now, you are of course right that problems that may await us in the future, such as e.g. the moral status of artificial minds, are hopelessly... (read more)

Reasons for being rational

by Swimmer963 2 min read1st Jul 2011183 comments


When I found Less Wrong and started reading, when I made my first post, when I went to my first meetup….

It was a little like coming home.

And mostly it wasn’t. Mostly I felt a lot more out of place than I have in, say, church youth groups. It was hard to pinpoint the difference, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to this: a significant proportion of the LW posters are contrarians in some sense. And I’m a conformist, even if I would prefer not to be, even if that’s a part of my personality that I’m working hard to change. I’m much more comfortable as a follower than as a leader. I like pre-existing tradition, the reassuring structure of it. I like situations that allow me to be helpful and generous and hardworking, so that I can feel like a good person. Emotionally, I don’t like disagreeing with others, and the last thing I have to work hard to do is tolerate others' tolerance.

And, as evidenced by the fact that I attend church youth groups, I don’t have the strong allergy that many of the community seem to have against religion. This is possibly because I have easily triggered mystical experiences when, for example, I sing in a group, especially when we are singing traditional ‘sacred’ music. In a previous century, I would probably have been an extremely happy nun.

Someone once expressed surprise that I was able to become a rationalist in spite of this neurological quirk. I’ve asked myself this a few times. My answer is that I don’t think I deserve the credit. If anything, I ended up on the circuitous path towards reading LessWrong because I love science, and I love science because, as a child, reading about something as beautiful as general relativity gave me the same kind of euphoric experience as singing about Jesus does now. My inability to actual believe in any religion comes from a time before I was making my own decisions about that kind of thing. 

I was raised by atheist parents, not anti-theist so much as indifferent. We attended a Unitarian Universalist church for a while, which meant I was learning about Jesus and Buddha and Native American spirituality all mixed together, all the memes watered down to the point that they lost their power. I was fourteen when I really encountered Christianity, still in the mild form of the Anglican Church of Canada. I was eighteen when I first encountered the ‘Jesus myth’ in its full, meme-honed-to-maximum-virulence form, and the story arc captivated me for a full six months. I still cry during every Good Friday service. But I must have missed some critical threshold, because I can’t actually believe in that story. I’m not even sure what it would mean to believe in a story. What does that feel like?

I was raised by scientists. My father did his PhD in physical chemistry, my mother in plant biology. I grew up reading SF and pop science, and occasionally my mother or my father’s old textbooks. I remember my mother’s awe at the beautiful electron-microscope images in my high school textbooks, and how she sat patiently while I fumblingly talked about quantum mechanics, having read the entire tiny physics section of our high school library. My parents responded to my interest in science with pride and enthusiasm, and to my interest in religion with indulgent condescension. That was my structure, my tradition. And yes, that has everything to do with why I call myself an atheist. I wouldn’t have had the willpower to disagree with my parents in the long run.

Ultimately, I have an awfully long way to go if I want to be rational, as opposed to being someone who’s just interested in reading about math and science. Way too much of my motivation for ‘having true beliefs’ breaks down to ‘maybe then they’ll like me.’ This is one of the annoying things about my personality, just as annoying as my sensitivity to religious memes and my inability to say no to anyone. Luckily, my personality also comes with the ability to get along with just about anyone, and in a forum of mature adults, no one is going to make fun of me because I’m wearing tie-dye overalls. No one here has yet made fun of me for my interest in religion, even though I expect most people disagree with it.

And there’s one last conclusion I can draw, albeit from a sample size of one. Not everyone can be a contrarian rationalist. Not everyone can rebel against their parents’ religion. Not everyone can disagree with their friends and family and not feel guilty. But everyone can be rational if they are raised that way.