There is a habit of thought which I call the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence. Journalists who, for example, talk about the Terminator movies in a report on AI, do not usually treat Terminator as a prophecy or fixed truth. But the movie is recalled—is available—as if it were an illustrative historical case. As if the journalist had seen it happen on some other planet, so that it might well happen here.
There is an inverse error to generalizing from fictional evidence: failing to be sufficiently moved by historical evidence. The trouble with generalizing from fictional evidence is that it is fiction—it never actually happened. It’s not drawn from the same distribution as this, our real universe; fiction differs from reality in systematic ways. But history has happened, and should be available.
In our ancestral environment, there were no movies; what you saw with your own eyes was true. Is it any wonder that fictions we see in lifelike moving pictures have too great an impact on us? Conversely, things that really happened, we encounter as ink on paper; they happened, but we never saw them happen. We don’t remember them happening to us.
The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read. You may say with your lips that it is “truth,” rather than “fiction,” but that doesn’t mean you are being moved as much as you should be. Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.
When I finally realized whose shoes I was standing in, after having given a Mysterious Answer to a mysterious question, there was a sudden shock of unexpected connection with the past. I realized that the invention and destruction of vitalism—which I had only read about in books—had actually happened to real people, who experienced it much the same way I experienced the invention and destruction of my own mysterious answer. And I also realized that if I had actually experienced the past—if I had lived through past scientific revolutions myself, rather than reading about them in history books—I probably would not have made the same mistake again. I would not have come up with another mysterious answer; the first thousand lessons would have hammered home the moral.
So (I thought), to feel sufficiently the force of history, I should try to approximate the thoughts of an Eliezer who had lived through history—I should try to think as if everything I read about in history books had actually happened to me.1 I should immerse myself in history, imagine living through eras I only saw as ink on paper.
Why should I remember the Wright Brothers’ first flight? I was not there. But as a rationalist, could I dare to not remember, when the event actually happened? Is there so much difference between seeing an event through your eyes—which is actually a causal chain involving reflected photons, not a direct connection—and seeing an event through a history book? Photons and history books both descend by causal chains from the event itself.
I had to overcome the false amnesia of being born at a particular time. I had to recall—make available— all the memories, not just the memories which, by mere coincidence, belonged to myself and my own era.
The Earth became older, of a sudden.
To my former memory, the United States had always existed—there was never a time when there was no United States. I had not remembered, until that time, how the Roman Empire rose, and brought peace and order, and lasted through so many centuries, until I forgot that things had ever been otherwise; and yet the Empire fell, and barbarians overran my city, and the learning that I had possessed was lost. The modern world became more fragile to my eyes; it was not the first modern world.
So many mistakes, made over and over and over again, because I did not remember making them, in every era I never lived . . .
And to think, people sometimes wonder if overcoming bias is important.
Don’t you remember how many times your biases have killed you? You don’t? I’ve noticed that sudden amnesia often follows a fatal mistake. But take it from me, it happened. I remember; I wasn’t there.
So the next time you doubt the strangeness of the future, remember how you were born in a hunter-gatherer tribe ten thousand years ago, when no one knew of Science at all. Remember how you were shocked, to the depths of your being, when Science explained the great and terrible sacred mysteries that you once revered so highly. Remember how you once believed that you could fly by eating the right mushrooms, and then you accepted with disappointment that you would never fly, and then you flew. Remember how you had always thought that slavery was right and proper, and then you changed your mind. Don’t imagine how you could have predicted the change, for that is amnesia. Remember that, in fact, you did not guess. Remember how, century after century, the world changed in ways you did not guess.
Maybe then you will be less shocked by what happens next.
1 With appropriate reweighting for the availability bias of history books—I should remember being a thousand peasants for every ruler.
This is all very zen. Do you have buddhist sympathies, Eliezer?
I have buddhist empathies, but not sympathies. The connection isn't a mystical one - I was not there and we are not all really the same person - and that, in my view, makes all the difference.
That sense of "so strange yet true" is very hard to convey in fiction, exactly because it seems too strange to be believable. Which is exactly why we say "truth is stranger than fiction." I wonder if one could describe in enough detail a fictional story of an alternative reality, a reality that our ancestors could not distinguish from the truth, in order to make it very clear how surprising the truth turned out to be.
To quibble just a bit I think that it is occasionally (tho probably not in the terminator examples the paper briefly mentioned) reasonable to use a very throughly fleshed out fictional account as evidence of plausibility. I mean by giving a detailed narrative you rule out the possibility the idea is internally incoherent or requires some really really implausible things to be true.
Still, I don't think this is a very strong effect and is overestimated all the time by people who think that literature gives more than entertainment/enjoyment but actually gives insight.
There is an awful lot of history. Preliminary to whether we imagine the past vividly enough for it to carry proper weight, we must select a cannon of ``important'' events to which we turn our attention.
In a recent thread on Reddit: http://reddit.com/info/2k77b/comments/c2k80o
I drew attention to Argentina because the story of Argentina's 20th century economic disappointments jars uncomfortably with the cultural tradition in which I swim. I swim in a cultural stream in which the misfortunes which may befall a country live in a hierarchy. At the top are the bad misfortunes, losing wars, and fighting wars. Somewhere near the bottom are petty misfortunes: many countries are under the thumb of absolute rulers and if the caudillo retains power by pursuing popular policies then his rule is not so bad.
I know little of Argentinian history and understand it even less. What little I know threatens my hierarchy of misfortune. It looks as though well meaning but economically unsophisticated absolute rulers are the top misfortune. They are much worse than wars, which are intense, but brief.
I want to overcome my bias by learning about Argentinian history. I find myself struggling. There is a stand... (read more)
This is very reminiscent of a C.S. Lewis quote (I think from The Abolition of Man) about "chronological snobbery." Of course, I can't supply the quote. But it had to do with thinking that all cultures that existed before yours were inferior, that everything only gets better, and that, since your civilization was the most recent in history, your way of perceiving the world is inherently more accurate.
I think I am a chronological snob, then, for I much agree with this comment:
"I occasionally come across an attitude of almost religious veneration for ancient civilizations, a sense that they know better than we do. However, is it not trivially true that we ourselves are the most aged civilization this planet has yet seen? Does not the present enjoy a longer history than the past?" -- Xiaoguang "Mike" Li
Are you serious? Repudiating your usual earnest rationality for flippancy in this comment seems uncharacteristic. I didn't think Kyle was advocating 'religious veneration' and epistemological deference to ancient civs. However the quote continues into inanity
"...is it not trivially true that we ourselves are the most aged civilization?"
How will we reduce bias with words like these? Modern people who venerate ancient cultures should instead venerate their own because it happens to exist at a later point in time? In any case who can point t... (read more)
Repudiating your usual earnest rationality for flippancy in this comment seems uncharacteristic.
You realize you're saying this the same day I proposed that thievery should be punishable by spanking.
Despite the progress of empirical science, each new human starts at 0 and as they mature, they must decide what they are willing to accept.
Yes, but if you live in a society with a more mature science, which knows more because knowledge compounds, then you'll get a chance to accept more science. Especially if you happen to start out in the Traditional Rationality subculture. No matter how rationally minded you are in the 11th century, there won't be much sanity to absorb.
You can complain all you want about the glory and danger of individual choice, but this is still - even collectively, and even outside Rationalist subculture - the most ancient civilization the world has ever known, and the wisest.
"I had not remembered, until that time, how the Roman Empire rose, and brought peace and order, and lasted through so many centuries, until I forgot that things had ever been otherwise; and yet the Empire fell, and barbarians overran my city, and the learning that I had possessed was lost. The modern world became more fragile to my eyes; it was not the first modern world."
I think the Romans, at least the more philosophical and intellectual ones, were perfectly well aware that this would happen to them eventually. After the fall of Carthage:
"Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:
A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.
And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human. Polybius actually heard him and recalls it in his history." - Appian, Punica
This behavior mirrors the behavior described in Correspondence Bias:... (read more)
I wonder if this means that recoding, historical events via more realistic mediums will, ceteris paribus, seem more real. For example WWII feels more real to me than say the revolutionary war. Obviously there are quite a few other factors to consider, but it seems likely that the fact that I've seen footage of WWII, lots of footage(I used to watch the History channel) rather than just reading about it and seeing some paintings/woodcuts is pretty significant as well.
For good and bad, I think we're stuck with that error. We don't have separate imagining and experiencing systems for fictional and historical stories.
It has the potential to be liberating and empowering, by finding stories that empower and move you. But another way to describe such stories is historical porn, always more action packed, meaningful, and moving than real life, so that real life no longer motivates. I had recentl... (read more)
That's a start. The next step is that you have a good bit in common with other people, but also substantial differences. They lived through history as themselves.
As for "America always having existed", I heard somewhat from a book about the geological history of the English Channel. It took a number of sentences to explain that there was a time before there was an England or a France and I was getting... (read more)
Here are the decades during which three or more top-20 composers lived. The number of hash marks shows how many top-20 composers were alive at some point in that decade.
Eliezer, I love how you can write passionately and poetically about a topic that many people consider stone cold. It really shows how important this all is to you, and it's much more fun to read.
I'm so glad that you lived your life the way you did and made the mistakes you did and became the person that you are, because if you didn't have your background and your skill set I might never have learned about rationality or Bayes' theorem, or read the best fan fiction there is.
Thank you so much for being you, it makes being us just that much better.
Is it productive if I say I love your work? I want to learn as much as I can and I am doing exactly that