In Orthodox Judaism there is a saying: “The previous generation is to the next one as angels are to men; the next generation is to the previous one as donkeys are to men.” This follows from the Orthodox Jewish belief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. After all, it’s not as if you could do an experiment to gain new halachic knowledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God). Since there is no new source of information; it can only be degraded in transmission from generation to generation.
Thus, modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis. Crawly things are ordinarily unkosher, but it is permissible to eat a worm found in an apple—the ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple, and therefore was part of the apple. A modern rabbi cannot say, “Yeah, well, the ancient rabbis knew diddly-squat about biology. Overruled!” A modern rabbi cannot possibly know a halachic principle the ancient rabbis did not, because how could the ancient rabbis have passed down the answer from Mount Sinai to him? Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.
When I was first exposed to the angels-and-donkeys proverb in (religious) elementary school, I was not old enough to be a full-blown atheist, but I still thought to myself: “Torah loses knowledge in every generation. Science gains knowledge with every generation. No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah.”
The most important thing is that there should be progress. So long as you keep moving forward you will reach your destination; but if you stop moving you will never reach it.
Tsuyoku naritai is Japanese. Tsuyoku is “strong”; naru is “becoming,” and the form naritai is “want to become.” Together it means, “I want to become stronger,” and it expresses a sentiment embodied more intensely in Japanese works than in any Western literature I’ve read. You might say it when expressing your determination to become a professional Go player—or after you lose an important match, but you haven’t given up—or after you win an important match, but you’re not a ninth-dan player yet—or after you’ve become the greatest Go player of all time, but you still think you can do better. That is tsuyoku naritai, the will to transcendence.
Each year on Yom Kippur, an Orthodox Jew recites a litany which begins Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi, and goes on through the entire Hebrew alphabet: We have acted shamefully, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have slandered . . .
As you pronounce each word, you strike yourself over the heart in penitence. There’s no exemption whereby, if you manage to go without stealing all year long, you can skip the word gazalnu and strike yourself one less time. That would violate the community spirit of Yom Kippur, which is about confessing sins—not avoiding sins so that you have less to confess.
By the same token, the Ashamnu does not end, “But that was this year, and next year I will do better.”
The Ashamnu bears a remarkable resemblance to the notion that the way of rationality is to beat your fist against your heart and say, “We are all biased, we are all irrational, we are not fully informed, we are overconfident, we are poorly calibrated . . .”
Fine. Now tell me how you plan to become less biased, less irrational, more informed, less overconfident, better calibrated.
There is an old Jewish joke: During Yom Kippur, the rabbi is seized by a sudden wave of guilt, and prostrates himself and cries, “God, I am nothing before you!” The cantor is likewise seized by guilt, and cries, “God, I am nothing before you!” Seeing this, the janitor at the back of the synagogue prostrates himself and cries, “God, I am nothing before you!” And the rabbi nudges the cantor and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
Take no pride in your confession that you too are biased; do not glory in your self-awareness of your flaws. This is akin to the principle of not taking pride in confessing your ignorance; for if your ignorance is a source of pride to you, you may become loath to relinquish your ignorance when evidence comes knocking. Likewise with our flaws—we should not gloat over how self-aware we are for confessing them; the occasion for rejoicing is when we have a little less to confess.
Otherwise, when the one comes to us with a plan for correcting the bias, we will snarl, “Do you think to set yourself above us?” We will shake our heads sadly and say, “You must not be very self-aware.”
Never confess to me that you are just as flawed as I am unless you can tell me what you plan to do about it. Afterward you will still have plenty of flaws left, but that’s not the point; the important thing is to do better, to keep moving ahead, to take one more step forward. Tsuyoku naritai!
"Look who thinks he's nothing" - funny. :) Perhaps more general version of your point is beware of taking pride in subgoal measures of accomplishment, if subgoals without the goal are worth little.
Actually I think I tend to do the opposite. I undervalue subgoals and then become unmotivated when I can't reach the ultimate goal directly.
E.g. I'm trying to get published. Book written, check. Query letters written, check. Queries sent to agents, check. All these are valuable subgoals. But they don't feel like progress, because I can't check off the book that says "book published".
Now there's a sentiment I can get behind. That'd make a nice hachimaki... http://www.jbox.com/SEARCH/zettai/1/
I sometimes wonder about that: As you move away from a point charge, the electric field falls off as 1/r^2. Infinitely long line charges fall off as 1/r, and infinite plates (with a uniform charge distribution) theoretically generate electric fields that are constant, with respect to distance from that plane. Though you are moving away from it, its influence on you doesn't lessen.
Is irrational behavior the same way? One of the mechanisms that allow... (read more)
That's a great saying about the angels and donkeys. I've read that most ancient civilizations had the same kind of view of history. They did not have our notion of progress; rather, they saw mankind as having fallen from a primordial "golden age", and heading pretty much straight downhill ever since. No doubt this was aided by the near-universal agreement among old people that the young generation just doesn't measure up to how people were in the old days.
So if we go back to the "chronophone" thought experiment, Archimedes might have been spectacularly uninterested in information from the future (especially through such a garbled connection). Unlike today where we would assume that future civilizations would be sources of tremendous knowledge and wisdom, he would have imagined a future of near-bestial creatures who had long lost whatever vestiges of grace mankind had still retained in his age.
OTOH, there was this accumulation of Talmud, with later commentaries continuing to be added, Mishnah, and on and on. So, one can argue that there was this degradation function as one moves further away from the original source, but this is presumably at least partly offset by the accumulation of the commentaries themselves. Do they accumulate more rapidly than the degradation occurs?
BTW, there is something similar in the debates over the various Islamic law codes, the various Shari'as. An issue is which of the reputed sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, collectively known as the Hadith, are to be accepted as genuine and therefore to serve as part of the foundation of a proper Shari's (along with the Qur'an and some other things). The validity of a given saying was based on a chain of witnesses: Abdul heard it from Abdullah who heard it from Abu-Bakr who heard the Prophet, and so forth. Part of the argument is that the longer this chain of reputed witnesses is, the less reliably a part of the Hadith the supposed saying is, and indeed, some sayings are accepted in some Shari'as, while the stricter ones rule them out for having overly long chains of witnesses. The strictest of the Sunni Shari'as is the one accepted in Saudi Arabia, the Hanbali, which accepts only the Qur'an and a very small Hadith as bases for the law.
Hal: I'd like to see a cartoon of a timeline that goes from nothingness to probabilities to subatomic particles to ... to humans ... to AI controlled sentient galaxies ... to discorporated particles floating around in a post heat-death universe...
...all claiming to miss the good old days.
I don't think I would say that the "good old days" belief aided the "hell in a handbasket" belief; I think they are one and the same.
Barkley, the accumulation of Talmud was based on the theory that - I know this will sound strange, but bear with me - the younger rabbis were all simply writing down things that older rabbis had told them. In the Orthodox view the Talmud is the "Torah sheh b'al'Peh", the Oral Torah, which was also given to Moses at Mount Sinai, and then transmitted verbally down through the generations until it was finally written down. All law in the Talmud is supposed to have been transmitted from Mount Sinai - there's nowhere else that wisdom can come from. If there are disputes in the commentaries, then they're both right, and the task of future generations is to figure out how they can both be right, because you can never say an older rabbi is wrong, because they're closer to Mount Sinai than you. The fact that much of the law in the Mishna or Gemara is blatantly medieval or blatantly based on incorrect medieval beliefs is somehow just not thought about.
"If there are disputes in the commentaries, then they're both right" I know this is a derailment but I wish somebody had told me that this is how it was supposed to work! I was so confused when I was trying to learn. It didn't seem to make any sense. Now it makes even less sense.
Some minor comments regarding Eliezer's remark. The emphasis on non-contradiction of opinions in the Talmud and elsewhere is fairly recent. Maimonides for example was more than willing to say that statements in the Talmud were wrong when it came to factual issues. Also note that much of the Talmud was written before the medieval period (the Mishna dates to around 200 and the Gemara was completed around 600 or so only very early in to the medieval period).
The notion of the infallibility of the Talmud is fairly recent gaining real force with the writings of the Maharal in the late 1500s. In fact, many Orthodox Jews don't realize how recent that aspect of belief is. The belief in the infallible and non-contradictiory nature of the Talmud has also been growing stronger in some respects. Among the ultra-Orthodox, they are starting to apply similar beliefs to their living or recently deceased leaders and the chassidim have been doing something similar with their rebbes for about 200 years. Currently, there are major charedi leaders who have stated that mice can spontaneously generate because the classical sources say so. I have trouble thinking of a better example of how religion can result in serious misunderstandings about easily testable facts.
How would you compare this "tsuyoku naritai" viewpoint with the majoritarian perspective? The majoritarian view is skeptical about the possibility of overcoming bias on an individual basis, similar to the position you criticize of being "loathe to relinquish ignorance" on the basis of evidence and argumentation. But majoritarianism is not purely fatalistic, in that it offers an alternative strategy for acquiring truth, by seeing what other people think.
Interesting post. Judaism has managed to survive for thousands of years, and maybe part of that is a high copying fidelity for its memes. It seems there are two ways for cultures to ensure long-term survival -- extreme rigidity (as in this case) or in extreme adaptability (which is better at learning but may not be able to preserve group identity).
Not sure what that has to do with overcoming bias, except to suggest that it may be in a culture's interest to maintain their biases.
And what's weird is that when Judaism historically encountered the Enlightenment, it resulted in people who are notably smart and adaptable as individuals and as a group.
On the one hand, Judaism (and other traditional religions) accumulate experience that is post-dated to the origin of the religion. On the other hand, when parts of a traditional religion admit that experience can accumulate, the fact that change is actually possible frequently turns into a belief that change is possible at will and you eventually wind up with a "trendier-than-thou" religion.
You can compare this phenomenon to fiat currencies. Gold (or whatever the standard happens to be) might be an arbitrary sign of value, but it's a mistake to think that currency can be changed at will.
Hertzlinger, I would summarize your comment as "Once you've got religion, you've got choice of two different ways to screw up." It's not as if there's anything good about a religion persisting for centuries. Imagine if a cult of 17th-century physicists were still running around.
Finney, I do indeed think there's a conflict between tsuyoku naritai and majoritarianism. Suppose everyone were a majoritarian - information would degrade from generation to generation, as the "average belief" changed a little in transmission. (Where did all that information come from in the first place? Not from majoritarian reasoning.) Further, if you're a majoritarian, once you achieve the level of the average, you hit a brick wall - you're not allowed to aspire to anything above that. Hopefully the reasons for my strong negative reaction to majoritarianism are now clearer.
I don't mean to hijack this thread but I'll offer a couple of ideas about majoritarianism. It is no doubt true that if everyone were a majoritarian, majoritarians would have to do things a little differently (perhaps asking people to publish their estimates of what they would believe if they weren't following the advice of the crowd). But at present I don't think this is a major problem, so majoritarianism still has promise as a strategy to improve one's accuracy, as demanded by the tsuyoku naritai philosophy.
As far as being unable to beat the average, aga... (read more)
Finney, I do indeed think there's a conflict between tsuyoku naritai and majoritarianism.
I don't think that's automatic. If you do truly believe that the mean opinion is more reliable in general than any you could construct on your own, then moving towards that mean is something that makes you better. And if you just take majoritism as a guide, rather than a dogma, there's even less problems.
The fact that if everyone did this, it would be a disaster may be an example of what I called moral freeloading - something that may be good for an individual to do, alone, but that would be very dangerous for everyone to imitate.
Here's a citation for my 2nd claim above about the accuracy of the mean:
"We now turn to the second type of problem, estimating a state. Here, only one person knows the answer and none of the problem solvers do. A classic example of this problem is asking a group to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. We have been doing this experiment for over a decade at Columbia Business School, and the collective answer has proven remarkably accurate in most trials....
"Our 2007 jelly bean r... (read more)
Ah, Finney made the same point I was making, and cunningly posted it first... ^_^
One small point: If we truly want to become stronger, then we should always test our abilities against reality - we should go out on a limb and make specific predictions and then see how they pan out, rather than retreating into the "it's complicated, so let's just conclude that we're not qualified to decide". That's an error I've often sliped into, in fact...
There seem to be lots of parallels between majoritarianism and the efficient market hypothesis in finance. In the efficient market hypothesis, it is entirely possible that a liquidly traded asset is mispriced, (similar to the possibility that the majority view is very wrong) however on average, according to the efficient market view, I maximise my chances of being right by accepting the current price of the asset as the correct price. Therefore the fact that a stock halved in price over a year is not a valid criticism of the efficient market theory, just a... (read more)
There's no particular reason that constant improvement needs to surpass a fixed point. In theory, see Achilles and the tortoise. In practice, maybe you can't slice things infinitely fine (or at least you can't detect progress when you do), but still you could go on for a very long time incrementally improving military practice in the Americas while, without breakthroughs to bronze and/or cavalry, remaining solidly stuck behind Eurasia. More science fictionally, people living beneath the clouds of Venus could go for a long time incrementally improving their... (read more)
Eliezer makes a mistake (a major one in fact) with regard to his understanding of Jewish law being passed down over the generations. The mistake he makes is quite a common one among those people who have not studied the history of Orthodox Jewish philosophy in depth. Indeed, I have met many Rabbis with 40 or 50 years of experience with little or no knowledge of this topic, so this is not an attack on Eliezer. While I am only an Orthodox Rabbinical and Talmudic law student (I hope to be ordained within a couple of years), besides for being a college underg... (read more)
Great discussion! Regarding majoritarianism and markets, they are both specific judgment aggregation mechanisms with specific domains of application. We need a general theory of judgment aggregation but I don't know if there are any under development.
In a purely speculative market (i.e. no consumption, just looking to maximize return) prices reflect majoritarian averages, weighted by endowment. Of course endowments change over time based on how good or lucky an investor is, so there is some intrinsic reputation effect. Also, investors can go bankrupt, ... (read more)
The discussion about the "dissipation" of knowledge from generation to generation (or of piety and trust in God, as ZH says) reminds me of Elizabeth Eisenstein's history of the transition to printing. Manual copying (on average) reduces the accuracy of manuscripts. Printing (on average) increases the accuracy, because printers can keep the type made up into pages, and can fix errors as they are found. Thus a type-set manuscript becomes a (more or less reliable) nexus for the accumulation of increasingly reliable judgments.
Eisenstein's account ... (read more)
The Judeo-Christian world is full of so many contrasting views that it really amazes me sometimes.
Take Mormonism, for example. It's authoritarian structure is perhaps even more strict (and certainly more hierarchical) than what you've described in Orthodox Judaism, yet it has this one core doctrine that is viewed as heretical in most of the rest of the Christian world: the idea that man is destined to become like God, literally. In fact, the idea that God himself was once a lowly man, but exerted enough "Tsuyoku Naritai!" to overcome his own si... (read more)
That’s a truly bizarre belief. If god is perfect and benevolent, why didn’t he give clear laws in the first place, instead of forcing humans to run in circles trying to interpret them?
"Torah loses knowledge in every generation. Science gains knowledge with every generation. No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah."
That's not strictly true, of course. If the difference in knowledge shrinks more slowly for each generation, then the Torah could conceivably still be the #1 source of knowledge for eternity.
It's a good job young Eliezer hadn't done any courses in Analysis.
I think tsuyoku naritai actually works as an effective motto for transhumanism as well:
"I am flawed, but I will overcome my flaws. To each of my failings, I say tsuyoku naritai. To each flaw I have and to each flaw I will ever develop, I say tsuyoku naritai. To the flaws that are part of being human, I say tsuyoku naritai. If that means I must abandon what it means to be merely human, I say tsuyoku naritai. As long as I am imperfect, I will continue to say tsuyoku naritai!"
That's true, but perhaps a little unfair. I always understood the fact that everyone confesses to everything as a simple necessity to anonymise the guilty. Under a system where people only admit to things they have actually done, if there's been one murder in the community this year, unsolved, then when the 'We have murdered' line comes, everyone is bound to be listening very carefully.
As I was taught, that's also a little unfair, or at least oversimplified. That everyone confesses to everything is not just primitive anonymisation, it's a declaration of communal responsibility. It's supposed to be deliberate encouragement to take responsibility for the actions of your community as a whole, not just your own.
I know exactly what you are talking about man.
I'm on a quest to claim absolute victory on every front too.
how do you pronounce this?
I'm going to make it my warcry whenever I need to energize myself.
I now have a custom bracelet that says "Tsuyoku Naritai" on one side, and "Kaizen" on the other. I'm using it in place of a Sikh Kara, or a WWJD bracelet.
A practicing Jewish friend of mine challenged me on the anecdote about worms in apples, and I couldn't Google an independent reference. Can anyone help me verify it?
While I understand the point you're trying to make - and agree with it - I think your Yom Kippur analogy is flawed. The idea behind the litany is that we're praying for forgiveness for the sins of all of mankind. Even if you, personally, have not stolen, there's someone in the world who has, and you're praying for him too. That's why its worded in the plural ("we have stolen," as opposed to "I have stolen").
"Torah loses knowledge in every generation. Science gains knowledge with every generation. No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah."
Encountering this post has made me a better person in so many ways. Thank you, Eliezer.
I made a video compilation of Japanese songs that include the words "Tsuyoku naritai".
I wasn't really convinced that this concept was really present in Japanese culture before but I suppose I am, now.
I’m very biased toward your ideas. My practical approach to unbias is to change the environment I’m exposed to. I think I know what to do about it but it isn’t easy.
I can't find any reference for the saying at the beginning. Can someone help?
Please correct me if I'm wrong, but even in Judaism the (widely accepted) lesson is to improve as an individual, even if the overall trend is a decline. In another phrasing - the individual should try to diminish the generational degradation of virtue as much as possible. And the penance comes inevitably because we will inevitably sin SOME, because we're imperfect humans. Even so, a very real danger remains of taking this penance as a goal in its own right, and forgetting that we primarily need to improve. All that said, I enthusiastically committed to "Tsuyoku Naritai", and to be as Science rather than as Torah :)
That saying is interesting, however, a different interpretation comes to my mind.
The previous generation is like angels because they wield economic power. Hence, their will is not short of The Great Will.
The next generation is like donkeys because they carry the burden. After all, all the waste generated as the previous generation wields angelic rights is for the next generation to carry and dispose.