Condition-directedness

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In chess, you can’t play by picking a desired end of the game and backward chaining to the first move, because there are vastly more possible chains of moves than your brain can deal with, and the good ones are few. Instead, chess players steer by heuristic senses of the worth of situations. I assume they still back-chain a few moves (‘if I go there, she’ll have to move her rook, freeing my queen’) but just leading from a heuristically worse to a heuristically better situation a short hop away.

In life, it is often taken for granted that one should pursue goals, not just very locally, but over scales of decades. The alternative is taken to be being unambitious and directionless.

But there should also be an alternative that is equivalent to the chess one: heuristically improving the situation, without setting your eye on a particular pathway to a particular end-state.

Which seems like actually what people do a lot of the time. For instance, making your living room nice without a particular plan for it, or reading to be ‘well read’, or exercising to be ‘fit’ (at least insofar as having a nice living space and being fit and well-read are taken as generally promising situations rather than stepping stones immediately prior to some envisaged meeting, say). Even at a much higher level, spending a whole working life upholding the law or reporting on events or teaching the young because these put society in a better situation overall, not because they will lead to some very specific outcome.

In spite of its commonness, I’m not sure that I have heard of this type of action labeled as distinct from goal-directedness and undirectedness. I’ll call it condition-directedness for now. When people are asked for their five year plans, they become uncomfortable if they don’t have one, rather than proudly stating that they don’t currently subscribe to goal-oriented strategy at that scale. Maybe it’s just that I hang out in this strange Effective Altruist community, where all things are meant to be judged by their final measure on the goal, which perhaps encourages evaluating them explicitly with reference to an envisaged path to the goal, especially if it is otherwise hard to distinguish the valuable actions from doing whatever you feel like.

It seems like one could be condition-directed and yet very ambitious and not directionless. (Though your ambition would be non-specific, and your direction would be local, and maybe they are the worse for these things?) For instance, you might work tirelessly on whatever seems like it will improve the thriving of a community that you are part of, and always know in which direction you are pushing, and have no idea what you will be doing in five years.

Whether condition-directedness is a good kind of strategy would seem to depend on the game you are playing, and your resources for measuring and reasoning about it. In chess, condition-directedness seems necessary. Somehow longer term plans do seem more feasible in life than in chess though, so it is possible that they are always better in life, at the scales in question. I doubt this, especially given the observation that people often seem to be condition-directed, at least at some scales and in some parts of life.

(These thoughts currently seem confused to me - for instance, what is up with scales? How is my knowing that I do want to take the king relevant?)

Inspired by a conversation with John Salvatier.

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I generally think in terms of a planning horizon that doesn't extend out much past 18 months. Typically things change fast enough that planning out past that far towards anything specific is not worthwhile, besides a few exceptions, and even those exceptions I can think of involves short-term actions that can't be well planned out far in advance.

Generally I'm just thinking about how to get through the next minute. There's some day-level and week-level planning along the lines of oh the weather will be nice this day and bad that day and I have more meetings this day than that day, and it's often necessary to make plans a few months in advance for things like vacations and conferences and to think about vaguely what I might like to be working on next, but often there's just not enough information to do more than try to point myself in vaguely the right directly.

I think the biggest driver of this for me is just being able to adjust to things that are uncertain now, including unknown uncertainty. Because I don't actually know what things will be like in a minute, a day, a week, a month, or a year from now, and my ability to predict what it will be like decreases in accuracy as time extends, I find it's mostly a bad strategy to try too hard to plan or set specific goals.

So instead I mostly have to make decisions based on what I might call virtue, i.e. does this seem like the kind of thing I would like to do and have done? Will I still feel that way about it later? Will it push me vaguely in the direction of things I would like, or will it work against that?

I'm not sure the world is certain enough to do much more.

In life, it is often taken for granted that one should pursue goals, not just very locally, but over scales of decades. The alternative is taken to be being unambitious and directionless.

I think this is pretty specific to intellectual circles (which include EA + rationality). The people I know who aren't in these circles don't pursue goals over the scale of decades, and aren't hung up about that.

When people are asked for their five year plans, they become uncomfortable if they don’t have one, rather than proudly stating that they don’t currently subscribe to goal-oriented strategy at that scale.

I expect the people I'm thinking about to shrug and say "who knows" or something like that, or give a few possibilities made up on the spot (without feeling guilty that they were made up on the spot).

Nitpick about that first paragraph: that sort of backward chaining is pretty common in chess, actually. Near the end of a game you're very often envisaging aparticular state of affairs and planning how to get there. Not necessarily the exact final state, but something like "I need his king in this corner or that corner, and I need it to arrive there when my knight is here or here so that my bishop can do that and deliver checkmate". Even in the middle of the game you may have intermediate goals like "move my pawn safely from e7 to e5" or "drive the knight away from e4 without weakening my king position".

It feels as if actually there's a continuum from "do things that make the situation better in some generalized sense" to "do things that make the situation better in particular ways that seem like they're likely to be useful" to "do things that make the situation better in particular ways I can see likely uses for" to "do things that make the situation better in particular ways that I definitely have concrete uses for" to "do things that bring about a broad class of later states that I like" to "do things that bring about a very specific range of later states that I like" to "do things that bring about a single specific outcome that I need".

In chess, we have gears-level mechanisms to explain why various moves are good. Some are principled, like control of the center and development. Others are obtained from backchaining. We have an unambiguous victory condition. It’s easy to play and quick to resolve any individual game. And we can get information on whether or not they really help by looking at player ratings.

In the real world, everything is harder. More complex, less defined, slower, harder, without a complete list of rules and mechanisms, only the roughest strategy worked out, little agreement on who’s the best or what victory looks like, and no ability to look at their complete set of decisions to see how they achieved success.

Backchaining and making principled moves are still the guiding lights. In fact, my dad says “you can drive across the country by the light of your headlights.”

Isn't this what Scott Adams talks about in 'How to fail....'? ie the importance of developing stacks of skills with flexible application to respond to circumstances, rather than fixating on a single specific end-point?

I have a friend who's kept working on environmental issues for two decades now (creating and protecting nature reserves, organizing databases of rare species finds etc.) Looking at him, it's hard to say if he is condition- or ambition-directed. He created a niche where other people come to take root and can now sketch out their own five-year plans. It's definitely different than being a teacher.