Seeking a "Seeking Whence 'Seek Whence'" Sequence

by Will_Newsome2 min read25th Jun 201232 comments


Hansonian Pre-Rationality
Personal Blog

One of the sharpest and most important tools in the LessWrong cognitive toolkit is the idea of going meta, also called seeking whence or jumping out of the system, all terms crafted by Douglas Hofstadter. Though popularized by Hofstadter and repeatedly emphasized by Eliezer in posts like "Lost Purposes" and "Taboo Your Words", Wikipedia indicates that similar ideas have been around in philosophy since at least Anaximander in the form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). I think it'd be only appropriate to seek whence this idea of seeking whence, taking a history of ideas perspective. I'd also like analyses of where the theme shows up and why it's appealing and so on, since again it seems pretty important to LessWrong epistemology. Topics that I'd like to see discussed are:

  1. How conservation of probability in Bayesian probability theory and conservation of phase space volume in statistical mechanics are related—a summary of Eliezer's posts on the topic would be great.
  2. How conservation of probability &c. are related to other physical/mathematical laws, e.g. Noether's theorem and quantum mechanics' continuity equation.
  3. The history of the idea of conservation laws; whether the discovery of conservation laws was fueled by PSR-like philosophical-like concerns (e.g. Leibniz?), by lower level intuitive concerns, or other means.
  4. How conservation of probability &c. are related to the idea of seeking whence [pdf] (e.g., "follow the improbability").
  5. How the PSR relates to conservation of probability &c. and to seeking whence.
  6. How going meta and seeking whence are related/equivalent.
  7. Which philosophers have used something like the PSR (e.g. Spinoza, Leibniz) and which haven't; those who haven't, what their reasons were for not using it.
  8. What kinds of conclusions are typically reached via the PSR or have historically been justified by the PSR, and whether those conclusions fit with LW's standard conclusions. If it disagrees with LW's standard conclusions, where does the PSR not apply or not apply as strongly; alternatively, why standard LW conclusions might be mistaken.
  9. Whether Schopenhauer's four-fold division of the PSR makes sense. (Schopenhauer's a relatively LW-friendly continentalesque philosopher.) A summary of any criticisms of his four-fold division.
  10. What makes the PSR, going meta, "JOOTS"-ing and seeking whence appealing, from a metaphysical, epistemological, pragmatic, and psychological perspective. What sorts of environments or problem sets select for it. (The Baldwin effect and similar phenomena might be relevant.)
  11. What going meta / seeking whence looks like at different levels of organization; how one jumps out of systems at varying levels.
  12. Eliezer's rule of derivative validity from CFAI and how it relates to the PSR; an analysis of how the (moral, or perhaps UDT-like decision-policy-centric) PSR might be relevant to Friendliness philosophy, e.g. as compared with CEV-like proposals [pdf].
  13. How latent Platonic nodes in TDT [pdf] (p. 78) relate to the PSR.
  14. A generalization of CFAI's causal validity semantics to timeless validity semantics in the spirit of the generalization of CDT to TDT, or perhaps even further generalizations of causal validity semantics in the spirit of Updateless Decision Theory or eXceptionless Decision Theory. (ETA: Whoops, Eliezer already discussed the acausal level, but seems to have only mentioned Platonic forms as an afterthought. Maybe ignore this bullet point.)
  15. How the PSR and the rule of derivative validity relate to Robin Hanson's idea of pre-rationality and Wei Dai's questions about extending pre-rationality to include past selves' utility functions—whether this elucidates the relation between XDT and UDT.
  16. Where Hofstadter picked up the idea of "going meta" and what led him to think it was important. What led Eliezer to rely on it so much and emphasize the importance of avoiding lost purposes.
Does anyone have the mathematical, historical, philosophical, and research skills necessary to write a very long post or two or a sequence on this? How about just the skills required to tackle one of the above questions, or a question like those?
Might people with relevant knowledge share it in comments on this post? I'll try to write a few comments to seed discussion of some of the above questions.
(Maybe best discussed elsewhere, but: What other cognitive tools or themes often used on LessWrong have a long history that we don't all know even exists?)
I'd also just generally appreciate posts on going meta, especially with regards to epistemic rationality—discussion of "going meta" in the domain of instrumental rationality tends to devolve into boring 'experiment more!' 'no, go meta more!' back-and-forths without any accompanying explicit  VOI calculations. With epistemic rationality the benefits are clearer cut. When people reflect and try to go meta discussions tend to go way better—e.g., when people are explicitly aware that "politics is the mind-killer" they're less likely to start a distracting flame war, and more likely to discuss interesting factual issues. (Please, let's avoid discussion of "politics is the mind killer" politics here. ;P ) I think this sort of effect could be increased across the board, especially for mildly political subjects like whether to donate to x-risk charities, and that this would increase the quality of most arguments on LessWrong. Although much of the relevant knowledge needed to go meta there is knowledge of signaling game theory and social psychology, and can't be replaced  simply  by applying a skill like 'go meta', going meta and staying reflective can still mitigate many obvious failure modes. Posts giving examples of (hypothetical) debates and how the debaters could go meta could be really valuable.
Thanks all!