"Hi," said Galaxy, "Are you Fuller Chen?  I'm here to see your 2018 Chevy SS.  Is it still for sale?"

"Sure," Fuller replied, "let me open the garage door for you." [Garage door opens.]  "What's your name?"

"I'm Galaxy, but everyone calls me Gal."  Galaxy walked around the car.  "Looks great.  Not a scratch or a blemish."

"Would you like to take it for a test drive?" Fuller asked, opening the passenger door for himself and reaching the key out to her.

"Yes, thanks," said Galaxy.  She adjusted her seat and mirrors, then started the car and eased it out of the garage and onto the residential street.  "Wow, this car is really quiet.  Is it a hybrid?  I didn't think they made a hybrid."

"Nope, not a hybrid," Fuller answered.  His smile made her think there was a joke in there somewhere.

She took it onto the main road and put the pedal to the metal.  The response was rapid and forceful - and eerily quiet.  "This car is too quiet," Galaxy objected.  "What's going on here?"  She slammed on the brakes and pulled into an empty parking lot.

"It's a fuel cell!" Fuller announced.  "Pop the hood, and take a look!  Retrofitted it myself.  It's a labor of love, but I need to cash in all my major assets for my business start-up.  That's why I'm letting it go at the price of an ordinary SS.  And as you have seen, the performance is equal to or better than any conventional engine."

Galaxy looked under the hood.  It sure did look like a fuel cell.  "We have a problem," Galaxy warned, "I admit, I am impressed with the performance, but ... I'm looking for a car with an internal combustion engine.  I need to hear the roar of the engine, feel the vibrations, and know that I'm being propelled by something that's literally exploding."

"Oh, if it's a roar you want, the car already has a speaker to generate noise for pedestrian safety," said Fuller.  "I could modify it to make the same audible sounds as a traditional internal combustion engine."

"No, listen:  my nickname is Gasoline Gal.  I grew up working in my father's auto repair shop.  I was the engine specialist.  Internal combustion is what I know and love.  It's what I want.  Not a simulacrum, but an actual internal combustion engine."

"But I can make this car behave the same as perceived from inside the cockpit as well as from outside the car.  You mentioned the vibrations of a regular engine.  It would be a simple matter to add a vibrating cam or two.  I tell you what, I'll make those modifications for free and you can test it by taking it on a tour.  If you can't tell the difference from the driver's seat, buy the car."

"No," Galaxy answered, "you're not getting it.  It's not about the behavior, it's about the underlying reality, the underlying cause.  I reject your test, and I insist on looking under the hood.  I love internal combustion engines.  Fuel cells are merely kinda cool."

"Is it about gasoline versus hydrogen?  Hydrogen is widely available nowadays.  I don't know why so many people are still prejudiced against it," said Fuller.

"No: it's not about the materials, it's about the internal processes.  And it's not that I'm against electrolytic energy conversion, it's that I'm wild about internal combustion."

"Hmm.  You came to love those engines by working with them and getting to know them.  Maybe if you worked with fuel cells, you could come to feel the same way about them," Fuller suggested.

"Maybe," Galaxy conceded, "but I'm not willing to wait and see.  I'm not looking for motivational reform.  I want what I want."

"But maybe your desire is irrational," Fuller suggested.  "Are you sure that driving an internal combustion powered car is really a terminal value for you?"

"Heck if I know!" Gasoline Gal answered. "But it is already clear that this car, despite its acceleration, reliability, style, and reasonable price, just doesn't do it for me.  I need to go find a good old-fashioned car to buy.  One with an actual internal combustion engine."

And the next day, she did.  She paid a little more and the acceleration was a tiny bit less, but the acceleration came from the right source.


The Question: Is there good reason to suppose that Gal's desire for internal combustion is irrational, and if so, where's her mistake?

The story is an analogue, along a narrow dimension, to my real subject.  I flirted with a horrific pun in there - bonus points for pointing it out - which reveals it.  But you might want to save the inevitable critique of the analogy for later.  I plan on two more posts.  In my next post I'll try to say something about the language (semantics) of desire; then in a third post I'll lay out the analogy.


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This actually happens with people preferring books to ebooks or vinyl records to MP3 files.

But anyway, I'll respond with a second hypothetical.

Gasoline Gal is married. She expressed a preference that her husband remain faithful to her, and being old fashioned, even made sure that her marriage vows promised faithfulness.

You are not trying to convince her to accept either hydrogen engines or uploading. Rather, you are trying to convince her that she should not prefer that her husband remains faithful to her. At most, she can prefer that her husband remains faithful to her as far as she knows. As long as she does not know and cannot detect his unfaithfulness, it causes no harm to her. She objects, of course, that it could cause harm in some indirect way (such as increasing his chance of passing a STD to her), but since this is a hypothetical, you say "if your husband cheats on you, but because of some circumstance, this doesn't increase your risk of STDs or otherwise cause you any physical harm, and it causes you no mental damage because you don't know about it, is he wronging you? And is this a situation you shouldn't prefer?" You say that he has not wronged her and she should have no preference against that situation. Indeed, you're not even sure it is meaningful to have a preference against that kind of situation. She disagrees. Who is right?

This is related to the fact that utilitarianism is bad at handling blissful ignorance situations although the problem is by no means limited to utilitarianism.

This actually happens with people preferring books to ebooks or vinyl records to MP3 files.

OT nitpicking: books you can resell or lend, no such luck with ebooks, they work without electricity, quick shuffling through pages is easier with books, MP3 distort sound (though not perceivably at higher bitrates), so this was not such a great analogy. But yes, your point is valid.

Interesting alternate question. I think in your new question, she is right.

Well, of course, the new question is designed to shed light on an issue in the original question. The original question suggests that Gal is wrong for preferring something that she can't distinguish from the alternative and which doesn't harm her. But in my scenario, most of us think that it is completely reasonable to prefer just that. And ethical systems based around pleasure/happiness aren't able to recognize this without contrivances.

For the record: I'm not sold on "completely reasonable to prefer just that" at all. It may be simply because I experience almost no jealousy - the only "rules" in my relationship are about the things that could actually hurt me (whether I knew what she was up to or not) - but I really don't see the cheating itself as a problem. Now, it does indicate that your partner is less trustworthy, less true to their promises, than you might have expected. That could be a problem. But in the hypothetical situation that my partner only breaks promises in ways that A) I won't know, and B) won't hurt me, I really don't care. Who am I, to control my partner's life that way? Of course, I'm highly unlikely to ever enter into an arrangement as described in the first place, so I'm not the hypothetical alternative Gal being discussed in any case.

However, there's another difference: with the car, Gal can - at need, or simply for fun - pop the hood and see the thing that pierces the illusion. In order for the illusion to persist, she needs to literally never look at the gasoline engine that she "thinks" powers the car. Whereas with the infidelity, so long as one doesn't stalk one's partner or compel them to tell the truth about their faithfulness, one would never be the wiser. The illusion of faithfulness really is as good as the real thing, and that's just not true of the car unless you're some weird sort of internal combustion fanatic who would never actually try to look upon their own engine.

But you're not "most of us". The sentiment is common enough that any attempt to distill human morality down to principles has to take it into account, or at least state outright "this system is at odds with most people's ideas of morality, and is designed to be so from the start".

Gal can - at need, or simply for fun - pop the hood and see the thing that pierces the illusion.

It's an analogy. If it's used for mind uploading or copying, Gal can't "pop open the hood" and see that she doesn't have continuity of identity with the original Gal.

Is there good reason to suppose that Gal's desire for internal combustion is irrational

I am trying to steelman this statement, and the best I can come up with is "this particular terminal value of hers is potentially in conflict with some of her other terminal values and could use an adjustment." But I don't know what her other terminal values are.

Presumably it's in conflict with the instrumental values of retaining resources which could be used for other terminal values (the money she would save, going with the fuel cell), and the combination of instrumental and terminal values represented by the improved acceleration of the fuel cell.

I like your answer (and all the four answers so far). It's supposed to be puzzling. There should be more to dispute over in my next post. I should go ahead with that post now; only the third one needs to wait a bit.

It is not irrational, because preferences are arational. Now, Gal might be mistaken about her preferences, but she is the current best source of evidence on her preferences, so I don't see how her actions in this case are irrational either. She's an engine specialist and a mechanic, so it's perfectly understandable that she would want something she knew how to maintain and repair.

The Question: Is there good reason to suppose that Gal's desire for internal combustion is irrational, and if so, where's her mistake?

In general desires by themselves aren't rational or irrational they are just desires.

If there are considerations that allow comparing alternative desires, and ways of influencing which ones you get, it may be a mistake to keep suboptimal desires. "They are just desires" stops the potentially fruitful inquiry. Desires are part of the world, subject to optimization.

A stronger position might be to say that it's usually inefficient to work on improving desires as opposed to working on something else. This probably depends on how broken they are in a particular case.

Not sure what "irrational" would mean here. I am kind of disturbed that the word is used with such varying definitions that I often cant parse it anymore. :P

Gal's strategy may postpone introspection, but likely works well to communicate her desires while resisting the salespeople's attwmpts to change her instrumental or terminal values...especially since asking fuzzy or hard questions is a decent tactic to get people off balance so that they are more easily persuaded.

Speculating wildly about your real subject: Either uploading (why should you care if you can't have the real galaxy or the real gasoline engine, if you can't tell the difference) or something to do with p-zombies or qualia or whatnot (she cares about the internal properties even if everything is the same when she drives it). Leaning towards the former because "Fuller Chen" sounds like a nanotech reference (although I am aware fullerene is not nanobots).

Also, I don't see how Galaxy wanting a gasoline engine just because she likes gasoline engines is more irrational than me wanting to have human life continue to exist just because I like the continued existence of humanity.

Say that we discover two galaxies. One basically includes a copy of humans all carbon based and eerily similar to us. In the other galaxy you find humans that are based on silicon based chemistry but otherwise as close as it is possible to get to humans (or say they are anticarbon based). Would you grieve just based on this information less for loss of the differing than for the carbon humans? One could argue that such a difference is inessential and no appriable appriciation difference should exist. At the other extreme you could say that people of different skin color are inherently less worthy. Why a argument that sufficently defeats racistic lifedevalaution could allow anticarbon human devaluation?

The argument can say "the copies aren't the same humans as the original humans", rather than "the copies aren't humans at all". They're still humans and still alive, but the original humans were killed to create them. It's like the arguments about the Star Trek transporter.

To the extent that there really are no perceivable differences, it looks like essentialist thinking. But I wouldn't call a desire irrational (or rather, I wouldn't call it especially irrational), even a desire for a perceived essence.

A similar example would be two identical watches, one of which was given to you by your grandfather. Or the loss of value when you discover that the autographed picture you bought on e-bay is a forgery.

(maybe it's because I'm primed by a discussion on the stupid questions thread, or because I perceived hints that the third part would be controversial, but the example I had in mind as I read the post was of a heterossexual man rejecting trans women)

The grandfather's watch is a great example. Would you attribute essentialist thinking to someone who prefers that watch?

To the extent that there really are no perceivable differences

But there are readily perceivable differences. Just look under the hood.

Would you attribute essentialist thinking to someone who prefers that watch?

Yes, I don't see why not. The only difference is a mental tag on their map.

(not that I would look down on anyone who has these preferences, or feel particularly inclined to work on diminishing my own similar preferences).

But there are readily perceivable differences. Just look under the hood.

Ok, no differences that would make her prefer the actual combustion engine, besides it having the essence of a real combustion engine.

The Question: Is there good reason to suppose that Gal's desire for internal combustion is irrational, and if so, where's her mistake?

Preferences in-and-of-themselves can't ever be irrational. That's just a rule.

If Gal terminally values internal combustion then that's not irrational, just kinda weird.

If Gal instrumentally values being certain that she's using internal combustion because this is instrumental to the terminal value of her feeling more satisfied about the whole thing, then that's not irrational and is pretty normal.

If we couple this with Gal terminally valuing truth, then we can also rule out deceiving Gal into taking a simulacrum for her own sake.

It seems that she is more looking to belong into the gasoline culture rather than liking gasoline for any properties that gasoline has. It's not that she finds gasoline cool but he defines cool in terms of gasoline.

I wonder whether the post could have been written from the point of view that she would have claimed that it is not a car and that she likes cars and not car-like vechicles.

Isn't fuel cell just a hydrogen burner? Isn't that a form of internal combustion? If the seller would have just said that it is a internal combustion engine would he have lied and just avoided an unnneccesary theorethical allergy?

Even if fuel cells contain combustion, such an engine isn't called an "internal combustion engine". Conventional meanings apply to longer phrases, not just individual words. (I'm not sure on the exact definition of "combustion", but the top Google result is "rapid chemical combination of a substance with oxygen, involving the production of heat and light." I doubt the temperature of a fuel cell reaction zone gets high enough for more than a rare photon of visible light. The temperature in a gasoline or diesel cylinder definitely does.)

I'm betting this is about uploading. One of Gal's values is loyalty to her own past.

I see an aspect of her objections as reasonable. There could be subtle differences between the experience of driving a car with a real internal combustion engine and one which simulates the engine. For example, the real engine is affected by changes in itself and its environment, while the simulated engine makes sounds and vibrations which are less varied and responsive.

The hypothetical scenario stipulates that the illusion is perfect so long as you're driving the car. That may be an unrealistically difficult goal to achieve, but if you take its success as given, it means that the illusion really is as good as the true thing... so long as the illusion is never pierced. The problem, of course, is that with a car the illusion would be all too easy to pierce; just pop the hood. Even if the actual goal is not to drive an internal combustion car but merely to *believe" you drive such a car, one glance beneath the hood (or having once been told the truth) still means a loss of value.

Is there good reason to suppose that Gal's desire for internal combustion is irrational, and if so, where's her mistake?

There are many possible reasons, eg it would be surprising if her values in other areas agreed with those of the House of Saud, which benefits from the sale of gasoline, and the slightly worse performance & greater price of internal combustion increases the risk of various bad outcomes (though we'd also have to consider the possibility that it reduces the chance of accidents). So she may have made a mistake by not considering other effects of her choice - see this comment re:death.

More fundamentally, she talks about "motivational reform", but we haven't established that her motivations are well-defined. She explicitly doesn't know if her preference is a terminal value. If briefly playing around with fuel cells would change her 'revealed' preference, do we call that "motivational reform," or say that it helps her achieve her true goals without interference from false or incomplete information? What goal does that chosen definition serve, since labels don't fall from the sky?

Seems reasonable to me. What's the problem? Thinking it would provide a reason not to go for uploading or something like that?

Then, let her only alternative be death. If she still only wants a gas engine, then she's got some really weird priorities. It's likely that she's incorrectly evaluating her actual preferences and would come to regret it. But if she wouldn't, well, that's just really odd, not irrational.