Righting a Wrong Question

by Eliezer Yudkowsky3 min read9th Mar 2008111 comments

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IntrospectionCausalityRationality
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When you are faced with an unanswerable question—a question to which it seems impossible to even imagine an answer—there is a simple trick which can turn the question solvable.

Compare:

  • "Why do I have free will?"
  • "Why do I think I have free will?"

The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to have a real answer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will.  Asking "Why do I have free will?" or "Do I have free will?" sends you off thinking about tiny details of the laws of physics, so distant from the macroscopic level that you couldn't begin to see them with the naked eye.  And you're asking "Why is X the case?" where X may not be coherent, let alone the case.

"Why do I think I have free will?", in contrast, is guaranteed answerable.  You do, in fact, believe you have free will.  This belief seems far more solid and graspable than the ephemerality of free will.  And there is, in fact, some nice solid chain of cognitive cause and effect leading up to this belief.

If you've already outgrown free will, choose one of these substitutes:

  • "Why does time move forward instead of backward?" versus "Why do I think time moves forward instead of backward?"
  • "Why was I born as myself rather than someone else?" versus "Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"
  • "Why am I conscious?" versus "Why do I think I'm conscious?"
  • "Why does reality exist?" versus "Why do I think reality exists?"

The beauty of this method is that it works whether or not the question is confused.  As I type this, I am wearing socks.  I could ask "Why am I wearing socks?" or "Why do I believe I'm wearing socks?"  Let's say I ask the second question.  Tracing back the chain of causality, I find:

  • I believe I'm wearing socks, because I can see socks on my feet.
  • I see socks on my feet, because my retina is sending sock signals to my visual cortex.
  • My retina is sending sock signals, because sock-shaped light is impinging on my retina.
  • Sock-shaped light impinges on my retina, because it reflects from the socks I'm wearing.
  • It reflects from the socks I'm wearing, because I'm wearing socks.
  • I'm wearing socks because I put them on.
  • I put socks on because I believed that otherwise my feet would get cold.
  • &c.

Tracing back the chain of causality, step by step, I discover that my belief that I'm wearing socks is fully explained by the fact that I'm wearing socks.  This is right and proper, as you cannot gain information about something without interacting with it.

On the other hand, if I see a mirage of a lake in a desert, the correct causal explanation of my vision does not involve the fact of any actual lake in the desert.  In this case, my belief in the lake is not just explained, but explained away.

But either way, the belief itself is a real phenomenon taking place in the real universe—psychological events are events—and its causal history can be traced back.

"Why is there a lake in the middle of the desert?" may fail if there is no lake to be explained.  But "Why do I perceive a lake in the middle of the desert?" always has a causal explanation, one way or the other.

Perhaps someone will see an opportunity to be clever, and say:  "Okay.  I believe in free will because I have free will.  There, I'm done."  Of course it's not that easy.

My perception of socks on my feet, is an event in the visual cortex.  The workings of the visual cortex can be investigated by cognitive science, should they be confusing.

My retina receiving light is not a mystical sensing procedure, a magical sock detector that lights in the presence of socks for no explicable reason; there are mechanisms that can be understood in terms of biology.  The photons entering the retina can be understood in terms of optics.  The shoe's surface reflectance can be understood in terms of electromagnetism and chemistry.  My feet getting cold can be understood in terms of thermodynamics.

So it's not as easy as saying, "I believe I have free will because I have it—there, I'm done!"  You have to be able to break the causal chain into smaller steps, and explain the steps in terms of elements not themselves confusing.

The mechanical interaction of my retina with my socks is quite clear, and can be described in terms of non-confusing components like photons and electrons.  Where's the free-will-sensor in your brain, and how does it detect the presence or absence of free will?  How does the sensor interact with the sensed event, and what are the mechanical details of the interaction?

If your belief does derive from valid observation of a real phenomenon, we will eventually reach that fact, if we start tracing the causal chain backward from your belief.

If what you are really seeing is your own confusion, tracing back the chain of causality will find an algorithm that runs skew to reality.

Either way, the question is guaranteed to have an answer.  You even have a nice, concrete place to begin tracing—your belief, sitting there solidly in your mind.

Cognitive science may not seem so lofty and glorious as metaphysics.  But at least questions of cognitive science are solvable.  Finding an answer may not be easy, but at least an answer exists.

Oh, and also: the idea that cognitive science is not so lofty and glorious as metaphysics is simply wrong.  Some readers are beginning to notice this, I hope.

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This is one of my all-time favourite posts of yours, Eliezer. I can recognize elements of what you're describing here in my own thinking over the last year or so, but you've made the processes so much more clear.

As I'm writing this, just a few minutes after finishing the post, it's increasingly difficult not to think of this as "obvious all along" and it's getting harder to pin down exactly what in the post that caused me to smile in recognition more than once.

Much of it may have been obvious to me before reading this post as well, but now the verbal imagery needed to clearly explain these things to myself (and hopefully to others) is available. Thank you for these new tools.

I'm sure the meta-physicists will suggest something like the following. How do you know the causal chain you trace is meaningful? That is you are resting our ability to see thing on physics, and our ability to have a valid physics on being able to see things in the world. It is self-reinforcing but requires axioms taken on faith or blind chance to start things off. So is not really the same thing as meta-physics.

My reply would be to say, "Well, it works so far." And then get on with my life, and not worry about it.

``Why do I think I can avoid literary effects and reason directly instead?''

"Why do I think it is guaranteed that I think things for a reason, instead of for no reason at all?"

2Kingreaper10yIf I thought things for no reason at all my thoughts and feelings would be unconnected to any efforts or lack thereof on my part. This scenario provides no preferred course of action, and can thus be safely discarded from this and all future considerations. Indeed, if it is correct, I cannot discard it, so I am safe in discarding it even if my sole aim is truth, rather than preferred courses of action.
0DanielLC9yOccam's razor. There are patterns in your thoughts that are very unlikely to exist by coincidence. It's more likely that the pattern is a result of an underlying process. At least, that's why I think that I think things for a reason.
03p1cd3m0n6yWhat makes you think that the argument you just said was generated by you for a reason, instead of for no reason at all?
0jwoodward484yWhat is a "reason"? Nothing but a cause (that is meaningfully, reasonably, and predictably tied to the effect, perhaps). The only cases in which a mind has a spontaneous thought (that is, one with no reason for them), are "brain static" and Boltzmann brains. So your question is essentially reducible to the question of "Why am I not a Boltzmann brain?" Edit: I'm not really sure that "reason" is equivalent to "cause", on further reflection. There needs to be a deeper connection between A and B, if A is said to be the reason and not just the cause for B. So if the cause for "thinking that one has free will" is simply "that is how brain architecture works", and not some previously-unknown phenomenon, that might not be seen as a reason for the illusion of free will.

OK, time to play:

Q: Why am I confused by the question "Do you have free will?"? A: Because I don't know what "free will" really means. Q: Why don't I know what "free will" means? A: Because there is no clear explanation of it using words. It's an intuitive concept. It's a feeling. When I try to think of the details of it, it is like I'm trying to grab slime which slides through my fingers. Q: What is the feeling of "free will"? A: When people talk of "free will" they usually put it thusly. If one has "free will", he is in control of his own actions. If one doesn't have "free will" then it means outside forces like the laws of physics control his actions. Having "free will" feels good because being in control feels better then being controlled. On the other hand, those who have an appreciation for the absolute power of the laws of physics feel the need to bow down to them and acknowledge their status as the ones truly in control. The whole thing is very tribal really. Q: Who is in control, me or the laws of physics? A: Since currently saying [I] is equivalent to saying [a specific PK shaped collection of... (read more)

0jwoodward484y"Why do people have a tendency to believe that their minds are somehow separate from the rest of the universe?" Because the concept of self as distinct from one's surroundings is part of subjective experience. Heck, I'd consider it to be one of the defining qualities of a person/mind.

Q: Why do I think there is something instead of nothing? A: Because I think I'm experiencing, well, something. Q: Why do I think I'm experiencing something?

A: uh... dang, the urge is overwelming for me to say "Because I actually am experiencing something. That's the plainest fact of all, even though evidence in favor of it seems to be at the moment the least communicable sort of evidence of them all."

argh!

So, I see at least two possibilities here:

Either I'm profoundly confused about something, causing me to seem to think that I can't possibly be ... (read more)

-1Bruno Mailly2yDon't forget the third alternative [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/erGipespbbzdG5zYb/the-third-alternative] : why is there something instead of something else ? One idea is that there are unlimited potential universes, each running on different fundamental laws, most being poor and sterile. But because of survivor (existence ?) bias, intelligent forms can only observe a universe rich enough to hold them. Scientist went this way and imagined other laws in order to prove that ours are the only possible. Instead, they found that some alternative algebras, geometries etc do make sense. This neither answers nor dissolves the question [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Mc6QcrsbH5NRXbCRX/dissolving-the-question], but it does hint to look elsewhere. Children undergo a fundamental mind-building step when they realize they are not the universe. That there are things out there that don't follow their thoughts, and (the horror !) don't even know about them. That the self is separate from everything else. Thus, becoming aware of themselves, and their place in the world. Feeling conscious seems the way we do that.
9TAG2yThat's starting at the finishing line. The hard problem of consciousness is about why there should be feelings at all, not about why we feel particular things.
4Bruno Mailly2yOkay. Q: Why do I think I am conscious ? A: Because I feel conscious. Q: Why ? A: Like all feelings, it was selected by evolution to signal an important situation and trigger appropriate behavior. Q: What situation ? What behavior ? A: Modeling oneself. Paying extra attention. Q: And how ? A: I expect a kluge fitting of the blind idiot god, like detecting when proprioception matches and/or drives agent modeling, probably with feedback loops. This would lower environment perception, inhibit attention zapping etc., leading to how consciousness feels. It's a far cry from a proper explanation, yet it already makes so much sense. Asking the right questions did dispel much of the mystery.
5Said Achmiz2yThis is a design-stance [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_stance#Dennett's_three_levels] explanation, which, firstly, is inherently problematic when applied to evolution (as opposed to a human designer), and, more importantly, doesn’t actually explain anything. The Hard Problem of Consciousness is the problem of giving a functional (physical-stance, more or less—modulo the possibility of lossless abstraction away from “implementation details” of functional units) explanation of why we “feel conscious” (and just what exactly that alleged “feeling” consists of). What’s more, even if we accept the rest of your (evolutionary) explanation, notice that it doesn’t actually answer the question, since everything you said about selection for certain functional properties, etc., would remain true even in the absence of phenomenal, a.k.a. subjective, consciousness (i.e., “what it is like to be” you). You have, in short, managed to solve everything but the Hard Problem!
0Bruno Mailly2yI worded poorly, but evolution does produce such apparent result. Is way out my league, I did not pretend to solve it : "It's a far cry from a proper explanation". But pondering it led to another find : "Feeling conscious" looks like an incentive to better model oneself, by thinking oneself special, as having something to preserve... which looks a lot like the soul. A simple, plausible explanation that dissolves a mystery, works for me ! (until better is offered) That line of thinking goes places, but here is not the place to develop it.
2TAG2yAgian, you are assuming there is no big deal about why do I feel (anything at all), and therefore the only issue is why do I feel conscious
1TAG2yTry taking a step back an wondering why consciousness is considered mysterious when it has such a simple explanation.
2Vladimir_Nesov2y(That may be a useful clue for identifying the meaning of the question, as understood by the people pursuing it, but not necessarily a good reason to agree that it currently should be considered mysterious or that it's a sensible question to pursue.)
1TAG2yIf you had a general rule that anything any particular theory cannot explain is "unimportant", that would be an epistemological nighmare.

Eliezer Yudkowsky: (can we drop the underscores now?): You did not break the "perception of wearing socks" into understandable steps, as you demanded for the perception of free will. You certainly explained non-confusingly some of the steps, but you left out a very critical step, which is the recognition of socks within the visual input that you receive. That is a very mysterious step indeed, since your cognitive architecture is capable of recognizing socks within an image, even against an arbitrary set of transformations: rotation, blurring, h... (read more)

What is the phrase 'free will' used to refer to? We cannot even start worrying about whether we need to answer or abolish the question until we understand what the question signifies.

We could ask ourselves "what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force?", and recognize that this question must be unasked. The reason why it's not a valid question is that the definitions of those two things turn out to be mutually contradictory once we analyze them down to their constituent parts.

And I know you didn't simply leave out an explanation that exists somewhere, because such understanding would probably mean a solution for the captcha problem.
Dileep, George, and Hawkins, Jeff. 2005. "A Hierarchical Bayesian Model of Invariant Pattern Recognition in the Visual Cortex." available from citeseer (direct download pdf) (Accessed November 9, 2011).

2Celer9yYour link is broken, as is the one on the Wikipedia page. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCMQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fciteseerx.ist.psu.edu%2Fviewdoc%2Fdownload%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.132.6744%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf&ei=PGG5TovEKsj4rQfGlaHGBg&usg=AFQjCNFMrZJFKOBU6M_ItHfkT4YB6gL8aQ&sig2=jI0CAN1iSRisyrwH4hIdaQ [http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCMQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fciteseerx.ist.psu.edu%2Fviewdoc%2Fdownload%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.132.6744%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf&ei=PGG5TovEKsj4rQfGlaHGBg&usg=AFQjCNFMrZJFKOBU6M_ItHfkT4YB6gL8aQ&sig2=jI0CAN1iSRisyrwH4hIdaQ] works.
1James_Blair9yLinkrot corrected. Thanks for the catch. Historical notes: Eliezer disapproves of this reference [http://lesswrong.com/lw/oo/explaining_vs_explaining_away/isc]; the original comment was posted on Overcoming Bias, which didn't allow nested replies, Frank Hirsch had some comments as well [1] [http://lesswrong.com/lw/oh/righting_a_wrong_question/imy] [2] [http://lesswrong.com/lw/oh/righting_a_wrong_question/imn].

I think there is a real something for which free will seems like a good word. No, it's not the one true free will, but it's a useful concept. It carves reality at its joints.

Basically, I started thinking about a criminal, say, a thief. He's on trial for stealing a dimond. The prosecutor thinks that he did it of his own free will, and thus should be punished. The defender thinks that he's a pathological cleptomaniac and can't help it. But as most know, people punish crimes mostly to keep them from happening again. So the real debate is whether imprisoning t... (read more)

1cousin_it3yWhat a beautiful comment! Every once in a while I wonder if something like Eliezer's Lawful Creativity [http://lesswrong.com/lw/vm/lawful_creativity/] is true - that creativity can be reduced to following rules. And then I come across something like your comment, where a non-obvious "jump" leads to a clearly true conclusion. For humans trying to create new stuff, practicing such "jumps" is at least as important as learning the rules.

"The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to have a real answer, whether or not there is any such thing as free will."

Who guaranteed this?

The claim that every fact, such as someone's belief, has a definite cause, is a very metaphysical claim that Eliezer has not yet established.

The problem with this blog is that you occasionally say amazingly insightful things but the majority of your posts, like this one, say something blindingly obvious in a painfully verbose way. But then it could be that some of the things that are amazingly insightful to me are blindingly obvious to someone else, and vice versa. Oh well.

0[anonymous]4yThe real problem is that these things are not blindingly obvious to everyone. LW is a means of fixing this, at least for its target audience.

I'll give (a few of them) a shot.

"Why do I think I have free will?" There seem to be two categories of things out there in the world: things whose behavior is easily modeled and thus predictable; and things whose internal structure is opaque (to pre-scientific people) and are best predicted by taking an "intensional stance" (beliefs, desires, goals, etc.). So I build a bridge, and put a weight on it, and wonder whether the bridge will fall down. It's pretty clearly the case that there's some limit of weight, and if I'm below that wei... (read more)

"Why do I think time moves forward instead of backward?"

Basically, because of entropy.

There are actually two questions here: first, why does time (appear to) flow at all? And second, why does it flow only forwards?

If the whole universe were composed only of a single particle, say a photon, you couldn't even notice time passing. Every moment would be identical to every other moment. Time wouldn't even flow.

So first you need multiple entities, in order to have change. So now let's say you had the same single photon, bouncing forever between two... (read more)

-1jwoodward484yNot entropy, but rather causation; time does not flow backwards because what I do tomorrow will not affect what I did yesterday.

"Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"

So we adopt the intensional stance towards other humans. We imagine they have some "deciding" homunculus inside them, that makes choices. We don't know how it works or any of its internal structures, but it is influenced by beliefs, desires, memories, etc.

We know that much can change about the "mere body", while the homunculus seems the same. We age over decades. We lose a limb or eyesight in an accident. We get a heart transplant from a cadaver. We learn to ... (read more)

0[anonymous]4ySo in a nutshell, you aren't someone else because then you wouldn't be you, correct? :P

"Why do I think reality exists?"

We could well be in a matrix world, with all an illusion. Or, perhaps we arrived just a moment ago, but intact with false implanted memories. (Sort of like the creationist explanation of evidence for evolution.)

The assumption that "reality exists" is mere convenience. It's helpful in order to predict my future observations (or so my current memory suggests to me). Even if this is a matrix world, there is still the EXACT SAME theory of "reality", which would then be used to predict the future illusions that I'll notice.

0rasthedestroyer1004yThe existence of 'reality' is just a logically circular argument of the form: 'what is real exists because it really exists.' There is no reason to prove the existence of reality; we prove or disprove the existence (or non-existence) of things in reality. We are able to falsify the existence of things by this method due to the satisfied precondition of a reality in which things exist, Of course we could be experiencing some manufactured illusion, but this still necessarily implies some reality in which this illusion can be constructed. Our ability to experience this illusion would suffice to prove that we are real, since all experience is that of an experiencing being or object. This objective experiencing being must exist in relation to some other second existent object of experience. But then we must posit a third object in relation to which both of these two - the object of experience and the experiencing object - are experienced in turn, and so on. The notion of a purely subjective idea-being without an objective reality or existence is absurd - an idea or sensation not inhering in any object in reality has no body in which the subjective being of even an illusion or misapprehension arises. To be aware is to be aware of something. In fact, the very notion that we could or are living in a false reality to which our minds are inextricably enslaved is more or less religious superstition: all existence as we experience it would require a designer or predetermined purpose who constructs this illusion, all of the sensory objects in this subterfuge, and all of the laws of nature to which the non-existent hallucinations are consistently obedient that this designer must have arbitrarily laid out in advance.

The beauty of this method is that it works whether or not the question is confused.

I have to admit, to me the "Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else" example seems so confused that I'm having difficulty even parsing the question well enough to apply the method.

"Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"

Because a=a?

0rasthedestroyer1004yWhy does a = a?
0[anonymous]4yIs that a serious question? It's a basic axiom of mathematics, and part of the standard definition of "equals". (And if a = b and b = c, then a = c, for example.)

A=A is not a tautology.

Usually the first A is taken broadly and the second A narrowly.

The second, as they say, carries a pregnancy.

0RickJS11yMETA: thread parser failed? It sounds like these posts should have been a sub-thread instead of all being attached to the original article?: 09 March 2008 11:05:11PM 09 March 2008 11:33:14PM 10 March 2008 01:14:45AM Also, see the mitchell porter2 - Z. M. Davis - Frank Hirsch - James Blair - Unknown discussion below.
4Z_M_Davis11yEliezer's posts (including comments) from before March were ported from the old, nonthreaded Overcoming Bias: that's why there are no threads and no sorting option.

This seems to me a special case of asking "What actually is the phenomenon to be explained?" In the case of free will, or should I say in the case of the free will question, the phenomenon is the perception or the impression of having it. (Other phenomena may be relevant too, like observations of other people making choices between alternatives).

In the case of the socks, the phenomenon to be explained can be safely taken to be the sock-wearing state itself. Though as Eliezer correctly points out, you can start farther back, that is, you can start with the phenomenon that you think you're wearing socks and ask about it and work your way towards the other.

It looks like the basic recipe for complacency being offered here is:

Something mysterious = Thoughts about something mysterious = Thoughts = Computation = Matter doing stuff = Something we know how to understand.

But if you really follow this procedure, you will eventually end up having to relate a subjective fact like "being a self" or "seeing blue" to a physical fact like "having a brain" or "signalling my visual cortex".

It seems that most materialists about the mind have a personal system of associations, between m... (read more)

Mitchell, what reason is there to think that materialism is false, other than our not-understanding exactly how mental events arise from physical ones? A lot of science has been done about the brain; we know that at least there is a very, very intimate connection between mental events and physical brain events. To me, it seems much more parsimonious to suppose that there really is a (not yet fully understood) identity between mental process X and physical process X, than to say that mental process X is actually occurring in some extraphysical realm even though it always syncs up in realtime with physical process X.

"Why do I believe I am conscious?" = "Why am I conscious?"

Z. M., let me answer you indirectly. The working hypothesis I arrived at, after a long period of time, was a sort of monadology. Most monads have simple states, but there is (one hypothesizes) a physics of monadic interaction which can bring a monad into a highly complex state. From the perspective of our current physics, an individual monad is something like an irreducible tensor factor in an entangled quantum state. The conscious self is a single monad; conscious experience is showing us something of its actual nature; any purely mathematical description... (read more)

James Blair: I've read JH's "On Intelligence" and find him overrated. He happens to be well known, but I have yet to see his results beating other people's results. Pretty theories are fine with me, but ultimately results must count.

Mitchell, I think it's far too early to give up on the materialist program, which has so far been a smashing success. Consciousness is (as it is said) a hard problem, but even if no one ever finds a solution, one might at least first give solemn consideration to the possibility (I forget exactly where I read it proposed--Hofstadter?) that humans are just too stupid figure out the answer, before vindicating Leibniz.

Frank, what does that have to do with the quality of the paper I linked?

Z. M., "my" monads aren't much like Leibniz's. For one thing, they interact. It could even be called a psychophysical identity theory, it's just that the mind is identified with a single elementary entity (one monad with many degrees of freedom) rather than with a spatial aggregate of elementary entities (a monadic self will still have "parts" in some sense, but they won't be spatial parts). I suppose my insistence that physical ontology should be derived from phenomenological ontology, rather than vice versa, might also seem anti-mater... (read more)

"So, why do you believe you've stopped beating your wife?"

I...er...I...crap.

If Eliezer has his way, consciousness is not a "hard problem" at all, since asking why people are conscious is the same as asking "why do people think they are conscious," while "thinking one is conscious" is identified with a physical state of one's brain.

The reason Eliezer cannot have his way is that the identity or non-identity of physical and mental reality is irrelevant to explanation. For example, presumably light of different colors is identical to light of different wavelengths. But if I ask, "why does that light ... (read more)

0rasthedestroyer1004y"For example, presumably light of different colors is identical to light of different wavelengths." More specifically, lights of identical wavelengths have identical colors, and vice-versa. Clearly, "waves = colors" is not a valid statement of equality ('color' is an epiphenomenon of wavelengths arising as a percept in a sensory being, while the wavelengths the mind converts into colors exists independently of any observers). A wave is a wave, and a color is a color, and these two properties have a direct relationship upon which the equality or inequality of these properties in some group of objects can be ascertained.

Mitchell, Unknown, I worry you may have misunderstood the point.

The question "Why am I conscious?" is not meant to be isomorphic to the question "Why do I think I'm conscious?" It's just that the latter question is guaranteed to be answerable, whether or not the first question contains an inherent confusion; and that the second question, if fully answered, is guaranteed to contain whatever information you were hoping to get out of the first question.

"Explain" is a recursive option - whenever you find an answer, you can hit &q... (read more)

2rasthedestroyer1004y"No one knows what science doesn't know." This sort of anthropomorphic bias leads to conceptual errors. 'Science' is the method of acquiring knowledge and the collection of acquired knowledge to which the method is rigorously applied. It is incapable of knowing anything independently of what individuals know; in fact, it can't know anything at all without some knowing individual to practice it. And to be sure, we can know things 'science doesn't know': we know we are in love, that we are happy or sad, that we played baseball for the first time when we were 6 years old at the park in Glens Falls, etc.
1Morendil4yPhrase in context [http://lesswrong.com/lw/kj/no_one_knows_what_science_doesnt_know/]

"Why do I think I have free will?" "Because I do," is a perfectly good answer (assuming free will). Trying to trace that back to anything is question begging. "Why do I think I need to deny my free will?" Wouldn't I need to ask that question to be sure that my original answer isn't based on bias?

1rasthedestroyer1004y""Why do I think I have free will?" "Because I do," is a perfectly good answer (assuming free will)." Disagree. Notice how this answer is only 'good' assuming free will. But our assumption of free will is exactly what we are seeking to understand the cause of. We can assume free will is correct and that this is adequate to justify our answer ('because I do'), but then we have only re-posited the assumption in the consequent.

Since our introspection ability is so limited, this method sounds like it could easily end up resulting in, not the correct explanation of the belief and explanation-away of the phenomenon, but a just-so story that claims to explain away something that might actually exist. This is not a Fully General Counterargument; a well-supported explanation of the belief is probably right, but more support is needed than the conjecture. Look how many candidate explanations have been offered for belief in free will.

Eliezer, in the last few posts you have proposed a method for determining whether a question is confused (namely, ask why you're asking it), and then a method for getting over any sense of confusion which may linger even after a question is exposed as confused ("understand in detail how your brain generates the feeling of the question"). The first step is reasonable, though I'd think that part of its utility is merely that it encourages you to analyse your concepts for consistency. As for the second step, I do not recall experiencing this particu... (read more)

I think the confusion may have arisen from the incongruous title to this post. Inserting 'Why do I believe...' before your query is an excellent heuristic, but you can't right a wrong question. You can only get better at recognising them.

Frank, what does that have to do with the quality of the paper I linked?

James, everything. The paper looks very much like the book in a nutshell plus an actual experiment. What does the paper have to do with "And I know you didn't simply leave out an explanation that exists somewhere, because such understanding would probably mean a solution for the captcha problem."? I find these 13 and 12 year old papers more exciting. And here is some practical image recognition (although no general captcha) stuff.

I retract the statement that the question about the relationship between the subjective and objective is unanswerable. I started to see how it is possible to answer it.

Nice post, and great method.

On free will, I'd like to pose a question to anyone interested: What do you think it would feel like not to have free will?

(Or, what do you think it would feel like to not think you have free will?)

0Rain11yThe only consistent way I can think of existing in a form without free will would be as a "prisoner" in my body: a mind that is capable of thinking and learning from the information presented to it by the senses, but unable to alter it in any way, the arms and body moving without the consent of the conscious mind.
0Amanojack11ySince you're not stricken with this inability, you obviously have free will as you're interpreting it (but that result wouldn't be controversial).
0Rain11yObviously? I was thinking more along the lines of a P-zombie, but with the consciousness intact and unable to influence the zombie's actions, disconnected from it somehow.
0JGWeissman11yIf my actions were not correlated to my desires and my earlier resolutions, this would feel like not having free will. Weak correlation would feel like diminished free will.
1Amanojack11yWeak correlation sounds like akrasia. In this interpretation of free will, the difference between wanting and liking [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1lb/are_wireheads_happy/] might then say that 100% free will is impossible.
1JGWeissman11yHere is an example of what I am talking about that happened yesterday. I was staying with friends, and in the morning I went to take a shower. So I gathered the clothes I would put on afterwards, and my towel. But when I got into bathroom, I found that instead of the towel, I had my sweater which had been on the shelf above where the towel was hanging, which I apparently grabbed instead. This felt like not having free will.
1Amanojack11yIt sounds like you trusted the judgment of your earlier self (or a subconscious subroutine) to have grabbed the right item, but there was a glitch. This reminds me of those dreams where it's a given that "you" have already made a major decision in the dream, but it happened in the past (before you entered the dream world) so you had no control over it. That's one terrible feeling, if the decision was a bad one.
5FAWS11yI don't think I ever had this confused concept of free will. That is thinking that the future of my actions is undetermined until I make a decision or that my actions are governed by anything other than normal physics never made any sense to me at all. To me possessing a free will means being in principle capable of being the causal bottleneck of my decisions other than through pure chance. Making a decision means caching the result of a mental calculation about whether to take a certain course of action (which in humans has the strong psychological consequence of affirming that result). Being the causal bottleneck is much more difficult to define than I thought when I started this post, but it involves comparing what sort of change to me would result in a different decision to what sort of changes to the rest of the world would result in the same. The only ways I could see not having a free will would be either not being able to make decisions at all, or not being able to make decisions unless under the influence of something else that is itself the causal bottleneck of the decision, and which is not part of me. I can't see how the second could be the case without some sort of puppet master (and there has to be some reason against concluding that this puppet master is the real me), but it's not obvious why being under the control of the puppet master would feel any different.
0Amanojack11yThis is essentially why I posed the question. Anyone who believes they do have free will or is disturbed by the idea that they don't, ought to be able to say what (at least they think) would feel different without it. I posit that if such a person tries to describe how they think "lack of free will" would feel, either they won't be able to do it, or what they describe will be something obviously different from human experience (thereby implicitly redefining "free will" as something non-controversial).
1FAWS11yI think Occam's razor is reason enough to disbelieve the puppet master scenario. I'd readily admit that my idea of free will might be something entirely non-controversial. And i don't have any problem with the idea that some currently existing machines might already have free will according to my definition (and for others the puppet master scenario is essentially true).
0Amanojack11yMe too. Didn't mean to imply that I disagreed with your analysis.
3[anonymous]10y.

During the first month or so after my stroke, while my nervous system was busily rewiring itself, I experienced all sorts of transient proprioceptic illusions.

One of them amounted to the absence of the feeling of free will... I experienced my arm as doing things that seemed purposeful from the outside, but for which I was aware of no corresponding purpose.

For example, I ate breakfast one morning without experiencing control over my arm. It fed me, just like it always had, but I didn't feel like I was in control of it.

To give you an idea of how odd this was: at one point my arm put down the food item it was holding to my mouth, and I lay there somewhat puzzled... why wasn't my arm letting me finish it? Then it picked up a juice carton and brought it to my mouth, and I thought "Oh! It wants me to drink something... yeah, that makes sense."

It was a creepy experience, somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I could "take control" if I chose to... letting my arm feed me breakfast was a deliberate choice, I was curious about what would happen.

I think that's what it feels like to not experience myself as having free will, which is I think close enough to your second question.

As for your first question... I think it would feel very much like the way I feel right now.

2lukeprog10yThat is creepy as hell.
0TheOtherDave8yHeh. You're telling me? ;-)
2Amanojack10yFascinating! It felt like you couldn't control yourself, but which one of you (two) was really "yourself"? English usually refers to people and minds in the singular, but my mind feels more like a committee. Maybe the stroke drove more a wedge between the committee members than usual.
4TheOtherDave10yIn this particular case, I don't think so. I mean, we can go down the rabbit hole about what constitutes a "self," but in pragmatic terms, everything involved in making decisions seemed to be more or less aligned and coordinating as well as it ever does... what was missing was that I didn't have any awareness of it as coordinated. In other words, it wasn't like my arm was going off and doing stuff that I had no idea why it was doing; rather, it was doing exactly what I would have made it do in the first place... I just didn't have any awareness of actually making it do so. That said, the more extremely disjointed version does happen... google "alien hand syndrome."
0shminux9yI'd say that you felt that you had free will, along with more severe problems expressing it than usual. I'm guessing that paranoid schizophrenics obeying voices telling them to do things is a better example of a feeling of not having free will.
3TheOtherDave9yNot to mention ordinary people who happen to have guns pointed to their heads.
3Anubhav9ySounds to me like the left-brain interpreter [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJKloz2vwlc] experiencing lag.
8TheOtherDave9yYeah, that's more or less how I interpreted it... not so much lag, precisely, as a failure to synchronize. There were lots of weird neural effects that turned up during that time that, on consideration, seemed to basically be timing/synchronization failures, whcih makese a lot of sense if various parts of my brain were changing the speed with which they did things as the brain damage healed and the swelling went down. Of course, it's one thing to know intellectually that my superficially coherent worldview is the result of careful stitching together of outputs from independent modules operating at different rates on different inputs; it's quite another thing to actually experience that coherency breaking down.

"Why do I think I have free will?"

One answer might go like this: "But I don't think that. If I use W to denote the proposition that I have free will, I can think of no experiments whose results might provide evidence for or against W. I don't assign a high subjective probability to (W|). For any other proposition Y, I don't see any difference between the probability of (Y|W) compared to (Y|~W)".

"Nevertheless I choose to assume W because I often find it easier to estimate P(Y|W) than to directly estimate P(Y), especially when ... (read more)

(Note: this comment is a reply to this comment. Sorry for any confusion.)

Sereboi, I think once again we're miscommunicating. You seem to think I'm looking for a compromise between free will and determinism, no matter how much I deny this. Let me try an analogy (stolen from Good and Real).

When you look in a mirror, it appears to swap left and right, but not up and down; yet the equations that govern reflection are entirely symmetric: there shouldn't be a distinction.

Now, you can simply make that second point, but then a person looking at a mirror remains co... (read more)

-2sereboi10yThis makes sense, somewhat and now that i realize your not trying to defend compatibilism and can shift gears a bit. I really think that the whole situation might just be a veridical paradox, both being true equally. So in a way i would like to concede to compatibilism, however compatabilist attempts at solving the paradox are pathetic. Not sure if you have heard of Dialetheism, its a growing western philosophy that recognizes true contradictions. If compatibilism is a true contradiction than there will never be an explanation for how it works. It will just have to be accepted as such. The problem for most rationalists is that it takes the wind out of their sails. Also who decides something is a veridical paradox? Graham Priest has several books on the topic which challenges Aristotle's Law of Non Contradiction which is what we base most western debate off of. Perhaps it is time to start rethinking the wheel of some rational solutions.. here is a WIKI link to read more on dialethesim http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialetheism [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialetheism]
1orthonormal10yWell, I wouldn't give up that easily! The default assumption should be that there's an underlying consistent reality, that paradoxes are in the map, not the territory [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/The_map_is_not_the_territory] (as was the case with the simple "mirror paradox" above). Assuming that an apparent contradiction is fundamental ought to be the last resort. Think about free will for a while— focusing on what the act of choosing feels like, and also on what it might actually consist of— and then check Eliezer's proffered resolution [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Free_will_%28solution%29]. It's much less naive than you're expecting.
0[anonymous]10yso i am starting to finally get the dogma of this community, correct me if i'm wrong but this is basically a Reductionist site, right? Eliezer said: "Since free will is about as easy as a philosophical problem in reductionism can get" to me reductionism does not make sense at solving ALL problems, perhaps i'm too dumb to get it. The problem of Free will Vrs Determinism has baffled philosophers for a long time. Calling it a veridical paradox might seem like a capitulation. For me it's about the only thing that makes any kind of real sense. I also get the feeling that this community loves to talk in circles and never really get anywhere, like the whole fun of it is just talking forever and presenting endless scenario's. Thats not my bag. Im NOT saying i'm right. Built im defiantly not into intellectual masturbation. I have asked repeatedly for substantial evidence and have gotten only subjective reasoning delivered in analogies. Thanks to everyone for you time responding to my questions. Believe me my intent is not to bash you guys. Its just not for me. Chow
-5sereboi10y
5Leonhart10yDo they also not challenge Aristotle's Law of Non Contradiction?
-1sereboi10ythat would be funny were it a paradox.

If we ask "why does reality exist instead of not exist?", it's like asking "why does existence exist instead of not exist?". Well that's because it's existence. That which is or is a part of reality, is what exists. Something being a part of reality or reality itself is a sufficient condition for that thing existing. So of course reality exists, it's the base case.

A more complicated question is "why is existence like this as apposed to some other way?". That's the business of physicists, and i don't have an answer.

This reminds me of "Why do I have qualia?" I've also asked "Why do I think I have qualia?" I then realized that that's still not quite enough. The right question (or at least one I have to answer first) is "What do I think 'qualia' are?" I'm still thoroughly confused by this question. You could try that with free will too.

"Why does reality exist?"

I think the problem with this question is the use of the word "why." It is generally either a quest for intentionality (eg. "Why did you do that?) or for earlier steps in a causal chain (eg. Why is the sky blue?). So the only type of answer that could properly answer this question is one that introduced a first cause (which is, of course, a concept rife with problems) or one that supposed intentionality in the universe (like, the universe decided to exist as it is or something equally nonsensical). This is ... (read more)

1Roho6yYes, I think with the question "Why does anything exist at all?", the technique would not go "Why do I think anything exists at all?", but rather: "Why do I think there is a reason for anything to exist at all?"
[-][anonymous]7y 0

I believe I'm wearing socks, because I can see socks on my feet.

As for me, I mainly believe I'm wearing socks because I can feel socks on my feet. :-)

0TheOtherDave7yAs near as I can tell, I typically believe I'm wearing socks when I am because I can see and feel I'm wearing shoes, and I'm almost always wearing socks if I'm wearing shoes, and rarely otherwise. It's hard to say, though. If I pay enough attention I can tell that I'm wearing socks as well (by feel, as you say)... I'm just not sure how often I pay that much attention. (My husband regularly expresses amazement that I'm not more irritated by holes, threadbare patches, etc. in my socks than I report being.) That said, once I've drilled this far down the rabbit hole of exploring my beliefs with precision, I typically get distracted by the fact that the vast majority of the time I experience no beliefs whatsoever about my socks. It would be more precise to say that I reliably construct the belief I'm wearing socks when my attention is drawn to my feet if I'm wearing shoes at the time, based not so much on any direct evidence of my current sock-wearing as on habits conditioned by previous sock-wearing. But we frequently use "believe" to refer to that sort of reliably-constructed-on-demand relationship to a proposition.

Either way, the question is guaranteed to have an answer. You even have a nice, concrete place to begin tracing—your belief, sitting there solidly in your mind.

In retrospect this seems like an obvious implication of belief in belief. I would have probably never figured it out on my own, but now that I've seen both, I can't unsee the connection.

"Tracing back the chain of causality, step by step, I discover that my belief that I'm wearing socks is fully explained by the fact that I'm wearing socks. This is right and proper, as you cannot gain information about something without interacting with it."

Maybe I'm being pedantic on this point, but doesn't the interaction with the socks constitute the act of putting them on which actually fully explains that you're wearing them? Of course, you can go back further along the causal chain to the reason you put them on - perhaps the room was cold... (read more)

"Why was I born as myself rather than someone else?" versus "Why do I think I was born as myself rather than someone else?"

This never got solved in the comments.

I was sitting in microeconomics class in twelfth grade when I asked myself, "Why am I me? Why am I not Kelsey or David or who-have-you?" Then I remembered that there are no souls, that 'I' was a product of my brain, and thus that the existence of my mind necessitates the existence of my body (or something that serves a similar function). Seeing the contradiction, I ... (read more)

0tristanm4yThere are also the many bizarre conclusions you can draw from the assumption that the mind you find yourself as was drawn from a probability distribution, such as the doomsday argument [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_argument].
0Gram_Stone4yCan you break that down to the extent that I broke down my confusion above? I'm having a hard time seeing deep similarities between these problems.
0tristanm4yLike you said, it is conceivable that we could have been someone else, thus it is natural to at least flesh out the possible conclusions that can be reached from that assumption. If "which mind you find yourself as" was indeed drawn from a probability distribution, then it is natural to believe that our observations about our consciousness are not too far from the mode, and are unlikely to be outliers. And yet, something that I have found surprising since childhood, I seem to find myself as a human mind, in a world where human minds seem to be the most intelligent and "most conscious" out of all the types of minds we find on Earth. This would seem tremendously lucky if it really were possible that we could have been born as something else. Humans are far from the most numerically abundant type of animal. And so perhaps you would speculate that it could have only been possible to be another human mind, as these minds are the easiest to conceive of being. If you were born as a random human out of all humans that have ever and will ever exist, assuming a uniform distribution, then there is an X% chance you are in the last X% of humans who will ever live. This is a fairly disturbing thought. If you are roughly the 60 billionth human, there is a 50% chance that there will only be ~60 billion more humans. This is the "doomsday paradox." Even if you allocate some probability mass to minds that are not human, you still run into variations of doomsday paradoxes. If the universe will last for trillions of years, then it should be fairly disconcerting that we find ourselves towards the beginning of it, and not during some flourishing interstellar empire with trillions of intelligent minds. Another possibility is that the distribution is not over time, but only a function of time. In that case, we still have to explain why our experience is likely. Maybe the probability mass is not uniform over all minds, but more mass is allocated to minds that are capable of a greater "
1jwoodward484yWell, the problem with the Doomsday Argument is not the probability distribution, as I see it, but the assumption that we are "typical humans" with a typical perspective. If you think that the most likely cause for the end of humanity would be predictable and known for millennia, ferex, then the assumption does not hold, as we currently do not see a for-sure-end-of-humanity in our future.