Extenuating Circumstances

by Eliezer Yudkowsky4 min read6th Apr 200942 comments

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Followup toTsuyoku Naritai

"Just remember, there but for a massive genetic difference, environmental factors, and conscious choices, go you or I." -- Justin Corwin

Failures don't have single causes.  We choose single causes to focus on, but nothing in the universe emerges from a single parent event.  Every assassination ever committed is the fault of every asteroid that wasn't in the right place to hit the assassin.

What good, then, does it do to blame circumstances for your failure?  What good does it do? - to look over a huge causal lattice in which your own decisions played a part, and point to something you can't control, and say:  "There is where it failed."  It might be that a surgical intervention on the past, altering some node outside yourself, would have let you succeed instead of fail.  But what good does this counterfactual do you?  Will you choose that outside reality be different on your next try?

And yet... when I look at other people, not myself, I find myself taking "extenuating circumstances" into account a great deal.  I go to great lengths to "save the world" (as I believe from my epistemic vantage point).  When I consider doing less, I consider that this would make me a horrible awful unforgivable person.  And then I cheerfully shake hands with others who aren't trying at all to save the world.  I seem to want to have my cake and eat it too - to instantiate Goetz's Paradox:  "Society tells you to work to make yourself more valuable.  Then it tells you that when you reason morally, you must assume that all lives are equally valuable.  You can't have it both ways."

Is this an inherent subjective asymmetry - does morality just look different from the outside than inside?  If so, is that okay, or is it a sign of self-contradiction?  Or is it condescension on my part - that I think less of others and so hold them to lower standards?

I've pondered this question for a while, and this is the main defense I can offer against the charge of condescension:

I wouldn't tell others to take into account "extenuating circumstances" in judging themselves.

Indeed, that would feel like an act of sabotage - like slashing their tires.  Too much of life consists of holding ourselves to a high enough standard.

There are people who blame themselves too easily - people depressed, falling into despair and not moving forward, because they blame themselves for things they couldn't help.

But you really want to be very careful with applying this kind of reasoning to yourself, because a whole whack of a lot of people who were successful in life got there by driving straight through problems that couldn't be helped.  I'm minded of a recent comment on Hacker News (not sure where) about someone who wanted to work at a certain game company, only there were no jobs available and no H.R. contact listed... so they looked at the numbers listed and deduced the corporate phone prefix, then systematically dialed telephone numbers until they got the CEO's office, and then pled their case to be hired.  They did not, in fact, get that job; but, not surprisingly, did eventually end up employed in their chosen industry.  Contrast to someone who reasons, "I won't be able to get a job now - there's a recession!"

For yea, I have watched some people be stopped in their tracks without trying by "obstacles" that other people I know, Silicon Valley entrepreneur types, would roll over like a steamroller flattening out a speedbump.  That difference probably accounts for a lot of real life performance, and it probably has a great deal to do with what, exactly, you regard as a valid excuse - a condition that makes a failure not reflect badly on you.

A lot of people would regard being 14 years old as a valid excuse for not starting your own company.  Not Ben Casnocha, though.

If someone has advanced to the point of explicitly pleading some excuse, then that's probably the point at which I do begin to hold them accountable.  When someone says to me, "I haven't signed up my teenage son for cryonics because I'm religious so I must not believe in that sort of thing," I think, Well, I can't blame them, they don't know anything about rationality.  But if they say, "I haven't signed up my teenage son for cryonics, because I don't know anything about rationality, so you can't expect me to give the correct answer to this dilemma," then at that point I really might start blaming them.

The way a real extenuating circumstance looks from the inside is not that you think "I have an extenuating circumstance, so I can be excused for failing to do X", but rather, that X just doesn't seem like an available option at all, or X seems like it would have so many penalties attached that it's not in fact the best option which you could and should perform but aren't performing.

Similarly, if ignorance is your extenuating circumstance, you just don't realize that X is a good idea, rather than thinking to yourself, "I am ignorant of the fact that X is a good idea, therefore I can be excused for failing to choose it."

Like "to believe falsely", if there were a verb meaning "to forgive due to extenuating circumstances", it would have no first-person, present-tense indicative.

So I would advise others, like myself, not to think in terms of "extenuating circumstances" at all; I would advise people to hold themselves accountable for every dilemma they have advanced to the point of explicitly perceiving as a dilemma - the same rule I use internally.  This is my defense against the charge of condescension / Goetz's Paradox - that at this sufficiently meta level, I would tell others to use the same rule as I.

If I hold myself responsible for doing certain things, it is because I perceive them as morally-good, prosocially-obligatory options... which I may nonetheless have some difficulty in doing... but which I nonetheless could realistically do without overspending my mental energy budget.

That's my own main limit, incidentally, my mental energy budget.  I am constantly wrestling with the fact of its reality, because it sounds like such a hideously wonderful excuse that my reflexes keep on doubting it.  On any given occasion I'm never sure if it's a valid justification.  And so when I do run up against my limits hard enough that there's no mistaking them, there's a certain guilty pleasure of validation, that I can feel less guilty about having done less on other occasions...

Well, that's my own demon to wrestle with.  My intended point here is that I could be wrong about my mental energy budget.  I could be doing too little, relative to what I can do without overspending myself.  But I couldn't possibly say-in-the-moment, "I'm failing to choose the right option, but as an extenuating circumstance, I underestimated my own mental energy."  If I am wrong, some forgiving other might look upon it as an "extenuating circumstance".  But I cannot myself say, "And if I'm wrong, then that's an extenuating circumstance."  From my own perspective, rather, I am obliged to not be wrong.

"There are no outs.  Even if someone else would call it an extenuating circumstance and forgive me for giving up, I'll just get it done anyway."  I'm not a venture capitalist, but if I were, that's the attitude I'd want to see in a startup founder before I invested money.

If after all that the project failed anyway, then I might really believe that everything that could be done, had been done...

...so long as it wasn't my project, which is supposed by golly to succeed and not fail due to "extenuating circumstances".

A true rationalist should win, after all.

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You seem to be taking it as a given that failure reflects on you. This represents a tremendous toll on mental energy, and it's the very first type of belief that I train people to get rid of in order to stop procrastinating and increase their throughput.

If you're worried about whether something is an excuse for failure, in other words, you're already thinking too much about failure for your own good.

See Seligman (optimist/pessimist thinking) and Dweck (fixed/growth mindsets) for why... in particular, note that their experimentally validated models of successful and struggling people's thought processes blow away your model of what "extenuating circumstances" to consider.

Optimists and "Growth"-minded individuals have no problem using extenuating circumstances to explain the past, since the past is already over and not subject to modification. Their focus is on what they learned about what they should do in the future. But this isn't "excusing" anything, because they're not under the mistaken impression that failure actually reflects on them.

When I consider doing less, I consider that this would make me a horrible awful unforgivable person. And then I cheerfully shake hands with others who aren't trying at all to save the world.

This is pretty much a standard thought pattern that crops up in treating people with the "fixed" mindset; you can find plenty of examples in the dialogues of Robert Fritz's books, where he uses logic to debunk the idea that a person needs to justify their existence by saving the world... or doing anything worthwhile at all. I used similar methods to get rid of my compulsions along those lines.

Note that it is entirely possible to want to save the world because it makes you feel good, not because the lack of that effort will make you a terrible awful person. I still have my own world-saving mission, though I went through a rather confusing period where I still associated that ideal with the negative compulsions that previously drove it. Took a while to realize I could have the positives of the mission, without needing to make it "serious" in the self-righteous way that I did before.

You seem to be taking it as a given that failure reflects on you. This represents a tremendous toll on mental energy, and it's the very first type of belief that I train people to get rid of in order to stop procrastinating and increase their throughput.

I've taken a different route. I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking that failure reflects on me. It doesn't take a tremendous toll on mental energy because I don't expect it to. I have simply embraced the Competitive Conspiracy's line on this sort of thing, and rejected the meme of this world which says that we are soft and fragile creatures who must be terribly careful never to poke ourselves for fear of ending up (GASP!) unhappy.

I am a perfectionist and there is nothing wrong with that.

I have set myself a task, and if I cannot do it, then that means I am not the person I believe myself to be, which makes it a test of my existence.

And that's fine.

I've taken a different route.

But, Eliezer... your route doesn't work as well as you want it to. You have mentioned several times here that mental energy is a large problem for you. Pjeby has referenced Seligman and Dweck on how common your experience is for those taking routes close to yours... and your response is to elaborate your current route.

You say "I am a perfectionist and there is nothing wrong with that", but Seligman has done a lot of fairly careful research into how that works for others, and has found that there is usually something "wrong with that", for most of the people he studied. It's possible that you're different from the bulk of Seligman's research subjects. Possible.

I may have missed something between the lines (this is a fuzzy pattern matching result)... but I think you just decided not to read up on Seligman and Dweck, and instead defended your current behaviour.

Is it worth trying something different?

PS: I'm not contradicting the obvious evidence that you're actually a highly effective person, but your own complaint is that you often feel that you're not effective enough.

Mental energy is (so far as I can tell) a large problem for everyone who spends a lot of time thinking. The fact that it's a problem for Eliezer isn't evidence that he's doing anything wrong. If it's more of a problem for Eliezer than for other people like him -- ideally for someone exactly like him except for not thinking that failure reflects on oneself, but presumably no such person is available for comparison -- then there's evidence of a problem.

I dare say Eliezer would do well to investigate the possibility that he could be more effective by changing his attitudes. On the other hand, he would also do well to consider the possibility that those attitudes are part of what makes him effective in ways he is satisfied with. It's not as if perfectionism obviously never has any useful consequences.

One of the really big problems I've found with talking about mental issues is that existing psychological terminology (both of the formal and informal kinds) is way too imprecise to have a useful function.

For example, many words have completely different meanings depending on whether you operate from a fixed or growth mindset. In the growth mindset, "perfectionism" means always striving to improve yourself, no matter how good you already are. But in the fixed mindset, perfectionism means never being good enough.

Despite the superficially-similar-sounding definitions, the way these two "algorithms feel from the inside" is radically different, with correspondingly large differences on mental and physical performance.

Only Eliezer can know for sure which algorithm he's using... but generally speaking, people with a growth mindset aren't worried about whether something lets them off the hook, nor considering themselves awful people if they don't succeed. Those sound like fixed-mindset traits to me.

But in the fixed mindset, perfectionism means never being good enough.

That's the usual definition of "perfectionism," though I'm not sure Eliezer is using the word the same way. The word seems out of place in the growth mindset.

I'm going to disagree with the grandparent here: perfectionism obviously never has any useful consequences.

The word seems out of place in the growth mindset.

shrug. If you look, you can find growth-minded people who nonetheless describe themselves as perfectionists. It's just that they mean it the other way, i.e., that they desire and strive for perfection, rather than feeling they have to be perfect before they can consider themselves acceptable.

I suspect that if others tried to follow you down this road, most would fail to achieve their full potential due to crushing failure of self-worth.

Well... we clearly have different models of how most people work, then. People fail to achieve their full potential for not challenging themselves. PJEby thinks that this is due to the fear of failure leading to unhappiness and lack of self-worth, so he tries to convince people that failing is all right and doesn't make them an awful person. I worry that this means they won't try hard enough. It doesn't even ring true, to me.

So I take the route of - it's okay to take on even those challenges that provide you with genuine information about yourself, and that may even provide you with negative information. Being told that you aren't as good as you thought is, itself, not the end of the world. Being a little unhappy now and then isn't the end of the world. It's okay to throw all of yourself against a challenge. And it's okay not to make your excuses in advance - though your temptation to do so may tell you where you need improvement.

In the Matrix of the inside of your mind, you are not always strong where you believe you are strong, but you are weak where you believe you are weak. PJEby tells you that failure doesn't have to hurt. To me this seems to amount to telling people that they are weak and cannot withstand hurt; that their mental landscape has to be smoothed out into a world where nothing bad ever happens, and so they can dare anything. But what else does that smoothing lose? How much strength is that really?

I won three AI-Box experiments, then lost two. I threw all of myself into winning, and I still lost. It hurt. I survived.

Losing the stakes of yourself that you gambled - that hurts and it's okay for it to hurt, but even that is not the end of the world. You keep moving forward, afterward.

(Of course, on some occasions it IS the end of the world.)

I worry that this means they won't try hard enough.

So did I. So do they. And we're all right: They don't "try hard enough".

They stop trying and start doing, instead. Moves things along much faster, I must say. ;-)

PJEby tells you that failure doesn't have to hurt. To me this seems to amount to telling people that they are weak and cannot withstand hurt

Okay, now this is where you have the poor model of me. See e.g. Fritz on affirmations, and Dweck on mindsets. Failure is something to embrace and learn from... not to be avoided.

Losing the stakes of yourself that you gambled - that hurts and it's okay for it to hurt, but even that is not the end of the world. You keep moving forward, afterward.

This is where we agree.... and also where you sound more like you're in the "growth" mindset.

The trouble is, a person in the "growth" mindset can take a "no pain, no gain" stance and have it motivate them. A fixed-mindset person cannot, because they see failure as a permanent reflection on their character... which leads to paralysis.

I group most self-help gurus into two categories: Hardassians ("no pain, no gain") and Fairylanders ("think happy thoughts and it will all turn out"). In your above comment, you're speaking like a Hardassian who's mistaken me for a Fairylander. Thing is, both the Hardassian and Fairylander strategies work fine for people in the growth mindset, and not at all for people in the fixed mindset. As someone else said:

I think PJEby is on target for most people to the extent that most people do not resemble Eliezer.

...because most people (at least most intellectuals AFAICT) do not operate out of the "growth" mindset, and therefore find fear of failure paralyzing, rather than stimulating.

I don't teach people to avoid pain, I teach them to remove their pain-avoidance compulsions, so that pain doesn't bother them any more, and they have no need to avoid it.

And there's a huge difference between that, and what you're saying I do.

I endorse PJEby on focusing attention on growth potential, the psychological literature seems to put some weight behind this view. Focusing your attention (and thus modifying your emotional reactions and mental energy) doesn't have to involve self-deception about your ability to grow.

Anecdotal observation: the mindset Eliezer describes seems, in my experience, to be correlated with an individual's autodidactic tendencies.

That is to say, I think PJEby is on target for most people to the extent that most people do not resemble Eliezer.

Maybe the difference there is that you've started on the right foot in life. The very first tries, you gave it your all, and succeeded enough to see that more could be achieved, and so went spiraling on, upwards. For some people, the contrary may hold true. In their case, it may make sense to negate further blows to their ego and self confidence, because they're already hurt and weakened. You, on the other hand, are on the move, and have been acquiring a lot of momentum along the way.

So people who didn't start well, maybe need to pause, and restart, slowly but surely, building up their own momentum, doing it right this time, and forgetting as fast and thoroughly about their past failures as they can.

On another point, sometimes it may make sense to decentralize some of your tasks on other people, who are better able to do them for you. Not too much, since otherwise you may end up not doing anything by yourself anymore, but not too little, or else, you end up doing too much by yourself, including tasks that you aren't good at, tasks for which you must invest a lot more mental energy than someone else would. In that case, it makes sense to trade your help, in a domain where you can efficiently, effortlessly use your energy, for the help of someone else in a domain where they are efficient and you not.

For some people, the contrary may hold true. In their case, it may make sense to negate further blows to their ego and self confidence, because they're already hurt and weakened. (...) So people who didn't start well, maybe need to pause, and restart, slowly but surely, building up their own momentum, doing it right this time, and forgetting as fast and thoroughly about their past failures as they can.

And the critical point here, that I'm not sure Eliezer realizes, is that you are probably describing the majority of people.

So people who didn't start well, maybe need to pause, and restart, slowly but surely, building up their own momentum, doing it right this time, and forgetting as fast and thoroughly about their past failures as they can.

Yes. One of the most important things to teach people is that they can actually succeed at something - anything.

Examples:

  • a friend who teaches music to poor kids at a sink school. He shows up with a mohawk and teaches them how to make good noise. The light in their eyes is so rewarding he puts up with the stifling bureaucracy.
  • student newspapers, which to a large extent exist to be written rather than to be read.
  • sports clubs for kids, even.

Teaching people what success feels like is really important. Really, really important.

Downvoted for ignoring PJEby's well though out reply on an important point.

Except that most people talk about saving the world metaphorically, so it helps to bring them back to the reality of relatively low stakes. It really isn't that bad to fail.

Can we please stop using cryonics as a rationality example? It seems pretty clear to me that a thoroughly altruistic, rational person would not spend their money on cryonics. Signing up for cryonics is only rational if you pass some threshold of selfishness.

If you don't believe me: why does your cryonics example involve someone not signing up their son for cryonics? Why aren't you chiding him for not signing up random other people? Well, because there are better ways to help random other people. You'd only help your son first if (a) he was person you could most efficiently help out in the set of all sentient beings (present and future) or (b) you were selfish. (Not especially selfish by most standards. But you're certainly not treating everyone equally.)

Wow. I will immediately adopt that. "It's never a forgivable extenuating circumstance if you can see it".

Interesting corollary: if you seem to be stuck, perhaps there's an "extenuating circumstance" you're not seeing - and you ought to look for it, perhaps by trying to simulate a 2nd person perspective.

We choose our standards because we want to win and they help us do that. Judging others by those standards doesn't work the same way unless by doing so you can get them to hold themselves to those same standards. Otherwise your standards are serving an altogether different purpose than the ones you impose on yourself, so it makes sense that they are radically different.

I don't believe (at least not in the generality you seem to be implying) that "we choose our standards because we want to win and they help us do that". We often arrive at our standards by means that I at least wouldn't call choice; those standards themselves determine what we count as winning; many people have found that their standards often get in the way of winning. (See, e.g., http://dreamsongs.net/Files/PoemADay.pdf .)

I think that when a task is something you deem that you "should" do -- perhaps something you would feel guilty about for not doing -- then it's already really not the first thing you want to do. Thus, without a lot of self-discipline, an extenuating circumstance is readily accepted. Perhaps too readily -- and there would be the reason for the negative judgement.

Compare this with something that a person is driven to do; something they want to do sincerely so that they would be very stubborn in not accepting any obstacles. (While it could be something they feel they "should" do as well, the feeling when presented with an obstacle is annoyance or anger or despair rather than guilt.)

Thus when someone gives up too easily, I try to temper my frustration and disappointment by accepting that it must not have been a priority for them. As well, when I disappoint myself for not trying hard enough, it is a cue to me to stop feeling guilty and list my priorities more honestly. Somewhere along the way, I assigned more priority to a task than I actually feel -- otherwise I would have tried harder.

Consider any great success, especially unusual success in extenuating circumstances (e.g., being 12). That person just wanted to do it.

[-][anonymous]12y 4

Related to this is the difference between wanting something, and wanting to want something.

I can tell myself that I want to exercise more, or learn photography, or eat better, but if I don't do those things, I don't really want them. I simply WANT to want them, because I want the end result that each one of them brings. It's closely related to belief in belief. "If I believed in God I would be a good and virtuous person and go to heaven" is very similar to "If I ate right I would have more energy and be healthier"

A big part of prioritizing is seperating the things you want from the things you WANT to want. The things you want are the ones that you're willing to put the work in for.

I may be mistaken, but I'm doing something similar. That looked like a good idea when I started, but nowadays I'd question whether I'm really better off. I have a tendancy to give up too easily on many things. While I know my own priorities well, and have come to accept them, doing away with the guilt that'd prevent me from doing what I want. After all, I had accepted the idea that what I ought to do, but didn't really want to, I couldn't do well anyway, so I could as well just do what I want, and do it well.

Except that working again and again on something makes it become easier on the long term. If you don't train your willpower, if you never try to make one of those big, uncomfortable, impossible looking efforts, if you allow yourself to only do what you feel for, as opposed to what you reason would be good to do, yet which you still don't really want to do ... well I can only speak for myself, but I've pretty much ended up doing only the things that I can do effortlessly, or which I desire, and have very little willpower left to oblige myself doing what is sometimes right, or even necessary, but not desirable.

Yes! I'm pondering a post on the subject of apathy, and am eager to hear what Eliezer in particular has to say on the subject.

As long as holding myself responsible for bad calls doesn't become a ritual where I discharge my obligation by identifying (by hindsight) the first clue that, if more highly weighted, would have led me to victory, I agree: my failures should be examined in case there is anything I can rightly learn from them. When the reasons for an outcome are murky even in hindsight (e.g. investment losses), the risk of wrong learning is heightened.

As applied to willpower (rather than judgment), the argument works - you had better be able to understand and control your own mental state, or else no one will. But I sometimes feel that I need more than self-blame to win over my own laziness.

When the reasons for an outcome are murky even in hindsight (e.g. investment losses), the risk of wrong learning is heightened.

Having experienced a lot of disutility in the past several months as a result of many murky causes, this is a sobering thought indeed, thank you.

Editorial suggestion: This post should link to Tolerate Tolerance.

"What good, then, does it do to blame circumstances for your failure? What good does it do? - to look over a huge causal lattice in which your own decisions played a part, and point to something you can't control, and say: "There is where it failed." It might be that a surgical intervention on the past, altering some node outside yourself, would have let you succeed instead of fail. But what good does this counterfactual do you? Will you choose that outside reality be different on your next try?"

If I am playing a game like chess and a complicated strategy comes crashing down and I lose, I find it perfectly acceptable to find the extenuating circumstance of my failure. In the example of a chess game, this circumstance will be a move that my opponent made. Once I find the problem I can see how my choices were made incorrectly and adjust my strategy to account for these extenuating circumstances in the future.

Another example: if I am robbing a bank and someone sets off an alarm and the police come and take me away, the alarm is an extenuating circumstance leading to failure. Once I find that in the lattice, I can look at my choices and decide how to account for them.

"For yea, I have watched some people be stopped in their tracks without trying by "obstacles" that other people I know, Silicon Valley entrepreneur types, would roll over like a steamroller flattening out a speedbump. That difference probably accounts for a lot of real life performance, and it probably has a great deal to do with what, exactly, you regard as a valid excuse - a condition that makes a failure not reflect badly on you."

In this case, I would describe the failure of the people stopping to be that they forgot to look at why their lattice was connected to the extenuating circumstance. If they see the node as trouble it needs to be removed or made inept. Of course, if they never bother creating the lattice, they will never be able to do this.

Assigning blame is not a problem as long as the blame assignment eventually traces back to a choice you can make differently.

If you look at the entire lattice and never find a choice you could have changed then the event is not your fault. If an assassin whacks an important political figurehead I can create an entire lattice of blame and not find a single choice I made.

This breaks down in cases like the following example: My mother-in-law once placed her sister on a bus and sent her off to another town. En route, the bus crashed and her sister died. Was my mother-in-law responsible for the death?

In creating the lattice, her choice to place her sister on the bus is inherently connected to the external event of the bus crashing. She did not choose for the bus to crash and none of her choices had anything to do with the crash, but it was her choice to place her sister on that particular bus. Common sense says that it was not her fault but there is a glaring node in the lattice.

A certain amount of logic needs to be taken into account when discovering the reason for an event. Specifically, the choice of putting her sister on the bus and the event of the bus crashing are independent of each other. Unfortunately, this does not change the fact that with a different choice the sister would have lived.

The faulty reasoning here is easier to see in this example: Assume that Sally won a game show and there are three doors concealing three prizes. Two are minor, one is the vacation of a lifetime. Assuming the network plays nice and they randomly assigned the positions of all three prizes, it does not matter what door Sally chooses. If she chooses door A, she gets the vacation. If she chooses door B or C she will create her lattice and ask why she failed. She can trace the failure back to her own choice.

So I guess it seems like my method is not complete and oh-golly I am late. Well, I will post it here in case someone finds it interesting. Just mod me down if it does not make sense. Sorry.

"to forgive due to extenuating circumstances" = "to excuse".

Mental energy is actually a limiting factor and I believe that this is the cause for more failures than people care to admit. That is, we as humans have a tendency to pick our battles as we have a limited amount of time and thinking resources and as such only invest large amounts of both only on a very small set of descisions. This means that most descisions do get done rather automatically.. which (as has been argued in previous articles) is rather normal. However, I think that a rationalist should be able to determine wether the thing he messed up was something he clearly did without paying it much attention (and thus did as best as he could given his very limited resources of time) or wether he really did invest a lot of consideration into it and just messed up. In both cases, lessons of course need to be learned and priorities adjusted (the fact you did it automatically might need to be corrected so that the next time you WOULD actually think in that situation) but I still believe that we cannot hold ourselves to the highest of rational standards for every single descision we make..

Maybe this is what the original author meant by saying that his mental energy budget is limited. Anyways, I thought that this aspect required further discussion...

A lot of people regard being 14 years old as a valid excuse for not starting your own company. Not Ben Casnocha, though.

I think Ben started his first company with 12, at least that's what I got from the Amazon page of his book.

Edit: From his personal webpage: http://bigben.blogs.com/website/personal.html

"Not counting gumball or pen businesses, I started my first company when I was 12, and my first "real" company (Comcate) at age 14, an e-government software company which serves cities and counties throughout America."

I think not plucking things out of the causal lattice should work both ways.

It's unlikely that a missing right pinky finger would make it really impossible for someone not to be a piano player professionally. There are a million other things, both personal conscious choices and circumstances, that come into play.

But also, Einstein probably would have discovered relativity even if he had taken one extra day off to do something frivolous.

This isn't to say you don't have to make the right choices when opportunities or inspirations present themselves, but even the ambitious 14 year old might have to wait a year before finding the right opportunity.

"When I consider doing less, I consider that this would make me a horrible awful unforgivable person. And then I cheerfully shake hands with others who aren't trying at all to save the world. "

You shouldn't be saving the world so that you don't feel horrible, you should be saving the world so that the world gets saved. Guilt at not saving the world is useless. (and I don't think guilt is actually why you're trying.)

Eliezer isn't (as I understand him) saying that he's trying to save the world so that he doesn't feel horrible. He's saying that, as it happens, he feels that if he didn't try to save the world then he would be horrible. This (1) isn't a statement about his motivations and (2) is about (hypothetically) being horrible, not about feeling horrible.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Who cares why?

You are right, and I'm glad you replied because it sparked me to remember the OTHER thing I wanted to say, which I posted as a fresh comment.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

My reasons are my own, and unimportant.

"A true rationalist should win, after all."

How are you defining "win"? Does it mean having the highest level of utility? If so then I don't understand the last part of your post "Incremental Progress and the Valley" in which you advise someone to RUN AWAY from this blog if they don't care about truth and need illusions to preserve their mental well-being.

In that circumstance, it would be rational to run away.

[-][anonymous]12y 0

It's cruel and unusual to base your life on a system of ideas that doesn't ever contradict itself, even rhetorically. Contradictions are a source of richness and variety in the early stages. They only go ugly much later, like the Inquisition burning witches.

Mr Yudkowski - stop being so bloody soft hearted! :)

[This is somewhat of a follow-up to my comment on "Whining-Based Communities, in which you discuss Ayn Rand, and I justified her use of the terms Moochers and Looters. I now wish I'd read these two articles in chronological order but, you know, circumstance]

This is precisely why Rand was so vitriolic to the 'Moochers and Looters,' the Excuse Makers. When you start to worry about their extenuating circumstances, when you feel guilty and cover up for their deficiencies, all that's happening is that you're enabling them as they try and steal some of your mental energy. Sure, the self-proclaimed Objectivists might have delusions about how they're special, and society is trying to tear them down, but that doesn't change the fact that along with success comes a gaggle of people who'll attack you indirectly by listing all the reasons that they'll never be as successful as you, and that you ought to feel bad for being better than them.

If it's okay for you to Win, then it's not your fault if they Lose. Pity isn't a noble emotion in and of itself; any more than contempt is inherently ignoble. Both can be either, it all depends on where they're used.

Everybody here shares the goal of building an improved reality, with less fickleness and more justice, but for the time being we're living in a cold and indifferent Universe. Pretending otherwise, making excuses, just exacerbates the problem.

Like Aesop said, "Pity is wasted on the evil," (because the evil are not game theorists).