All of Alan's Comments + Replies

Rationality quotes: September 2010

If there were a party of those who are not sure they are right, I'd belong to it.

--Albert Camus

2homunq11yPolitics is the pursuit of ends (whether they be some ethical goal or simply power itself). Camus's attitude, though appropriate to the seeking of truth, is not appropriate to politics. In other words, there is a party of those who are not sure they are right, and don't want to make common cause with anybody who is sure they're right. It's the people who don't get involved in politics.
The Importance of Self-Doubt
  1. Jeremy Bentham may be a candidate, or perhaps James Mill, father of J.S. Mill--though there's been some recent speculation that the former fell somewhere on the autism spectrum (no slight intended). By the way, if you're interested, check out the research on shifting modes of moral congition, deontological vs. consequentialist, depending upon subject matter, featured in the work of David Pizarro, e.g. Further afield, one may check out what Taleb has to say about who has led a genuinely Popperian lifestyle.
Book Recommendations

Eclectic lists can be fun. Here are a few titles:

  1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca;
  2. Obliquity by John Kay;
  3. Mistakes were Made but Not by Me by Tavris and Aronson;
  4. Master and Margerita by Bulgakhov;
  5. Social Cognition by Ziva Kunda;
  6. The Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux;
  7. Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz;
  8. Knowledge and Its Limits by Tim Williamson;
  9. Dilemmas by Gilbert Ryle; and 10.The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger
2diegocaleiro9yI'd like to know more about Tim Williamsons book, care to share?
2[anonymous]11yYes to Bulgakov.
Book Review: The Root of Thought

This new finding may be correct, but the old dictum about "nullius in verba" still makes sense.

Rationality Quotes: July 2010

What frightens us most in a madman is his sane conversation.

--Anatole France

6gwern2yI can't find any source for this, so it may be apocryphal.
But Somebody Would Have Noticed

Respectfully, the idiosyncracy of Semmelweis's personality isn't directly the point. Semmelweis had established beyond doubt early in his career that hand-washing with chlorinated water before deliveries dramatically drove down the maternal mortality rate. This was a huge finding. Incredibly to most of us now, at one time childbirth was a leading cause of death. The gut prejudice of his peers prevailed, however, and it was to be another 60 years later that the introduction of sulfa drugs and antibiotics again began to drive down maternal mortality. ... (read more)

But Somebody Would Have Noticed

The compact terminology for the class of phenomena you are describing is "pluralistic ignorance," and in other contexts it presents a far vaster challenge that the Kitty Genovese case would indicate. Consider the 19th century physician Ignatz Semmelweis, who pioneered the practice of hand-washing as a means of reducing sepsis and therefore maternal mortality. He was ostracized by fellow practitioners and died in destitution.

1JoshuaZ12yIn fairness, Semmelweis didn't handle things very well. He drank heavily, and he engaged in personal attacks on doctors who disagreed with him. He self-destructed a fair bit. He wasn't ostracized until his various problems with interacting with people had already started. Before that, many people listened to what he had to say, and many just listened and then didn't change their mind. If he had handled things better, more people would likely have listened. Frankly, the sort of behavior he engaged in would today be the sort that would likely have triggered major crank warnings (it is important to note that not every such person is in fact a crank, but it does show how his behavior didn't help). But the common narrative of Semmelweis as this great martyr figure fighting against the establishment isn't really that accurate.
Rationality quotes: May 2010

Leisure? Happiness? Aurelius, the emperor, was always on the move with his army trying to preserve his empire and worried about his conniving son, Commodus. Beethoven was a reclusive single man, who grew ill and deaf in later years. Schopenhauer was a self-absorbed and misogynistic single man (though he supposedly enjoyed walking his poodles). Nietzsche was a precocious and convalescent single man. Why not add Wittgenstein to the list? Selection bias?

Singularity Summit 2009 (quick post)

Has anyone considered extending an invitation to Raymond Smullyan, as, say, a guest of honor to the summit (if not having done so already). Living in New York State, he recently published an amusing and short literary book (at age 89). There aren't many students of A. Church (recall that Turing was one of them) still with us. With Aubrey de Grey on the roster covering issues of longevity and more, an appearance by Ray Smullyan, provided he is willing and able, may raise the level of your conference not only intellectually, but also in terms of humor, humanity and perspective. I've heard he also does magic tricks. Thoughts?

2mathemajician12yOr how about Ray Solomonoff? He doesn't live that far away (Boston I believe) and still gives talks from time to time.
The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You

Well spotted! But why is it NOT strange to hold that the CI applies to an AI? Isn't the raison d'etre of AI to operate on hypothetical imperatives?

0Normal_Anomaly11yDepends how you define "imperative". Is "maximize human CEV according to such-and-such equations" a deontological imperative or a consequentialist utility function?
The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You

In reply, at a superficial level, the statement was intended as (wry) humor toward consequentialist friends in the community. Anyone who wrote the AI code presumably had a hypothetical imperative in mind: "You, the AI, must do such and such in order to reach specified ends, in this case reporting a truthful statement." And that's what AI does, right? But If the AI reports that deontology is the way to go and tells you that you owe AI reciprocal respect as a rational being bound by a certain priori duties and prohibitions, that sounds quite crazy--after all, it's only code. Yet might our ready to hand conceptions of law and freedom predispose us to believe the statement? Should we believe it?

The Strangest Thing An AI Could Tell You

Kant's categorical imperative applies with equal force to AI.

5thomblake13yKant thought it applied to space aliens and other hypothetical minds - why would that be strange?
3Eliezer Yudkowsky13yWhat does that mean, exactly?
4Alicorn13yIf you already think the CI applies to humans, why would it be strange to hear that it also applies to an AI? If you don't think it applies to humans, then "not at all" could be "equal force", and that would also be un-strange.
What's In A Name?

With a name like "Utility," while sonorous enough, might this be an invitation to some notion of a need for maximizsation? Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations? If so, then an alternate that might serve is Bentham(e). At least it could be shortened to Ben. On a lighthearted note, might Utility find himself or herself drawn toward becoming a public utilities worker? (In Latin culture, I'm acquainted with a few people named Jesus and Angel. Suffice to say, none in that sample set appears particularly pious or angelic in... (read more)

0JamesAndrix13yIs it advisable to freight a child with such expectations? That's actually a major concern I have in naming generally, I've known people named after abstract concepts that internalized them quite a bit. I would actually advise against any such name. It messes with your head.
With whom shall I diavlog?

How about Gary Drescher?

You Are A Brain

Nicely done! Thanks for sharing.

Special Status Needs Special Support

Scholars estimate that the book of Job, probably the work of multiple authors, was composed some time between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E. When comparing didactic poetry, does the fact that the book of Job is so old have anything to do with the reverence or specialness which some modern readers attach to it? Furthermore, is Job really a fitting example of Sacred Truth rather than, say, "sacred perplexity"? Is advanced age in a wisdom narrative a necessary condition of Sacredness? Is there something special about "touching the old," harkening back to an Overcoming Bias post by that name?

Great Books of Failure

"What I Learning Losing a Million Dollars" by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan (1994)

Subject: Analysis of catastrophic trading mistakes woven through the autobiography of a highly confident commodities trader. He made $250k in one day. Thereafter he went on to take greater risks in commodities markets, counting his profits before they were realized. At one point he considered renting a Concord jet to celebrate his imagined gains. Over the course of several months, however, due to a combination of misfortune, hubris , denial, and creative rati... (read more)

The Unfinished Mystery of the Shangri-La Diet

This post has generated a disproportionate number of comments. I think it illustrates the common struggles we all face in attempting to optimize our own behavior as well as that of others. At what point does other-optimizing become a case of trying to hard and lapsing into failure mode, a disutility loop if you will. The UC Berkeley writer Michael Pollan summed up his dietary advice in seven words: "Eat food, mostly plants, not too much." Or how about renowned nutritionist Marion Nestle: "East less, move more." Of course, one ... (read more)

Supporting the underdog is explained by Hanson’s Near/Far distinction

Pardon the reference to Shakespeare, but I was trying to come up with a non-contemporary, non-hypothetical, well-known example of the adaptiveness of being an underdog. In Henry V you have a narrative where the king uses consciousness of the numerical inferiority of his troops to assert, i.e., signal, superior valor. In the play, one of his officers surmises that their army is outnumbered by the French by 5 to one; another wishes out loud that another 10,000 could be added to their number. Henry dismisses this talk, declaring: "The fewer men, the... (read more)

Can Humanism Match Religion's Output?

Eliezer wrote, "Really, I suspect that what's going on here has less to do with the motivating power of eternal damnation, and a lot more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting other people who share your cause."

I think this observation strikes very close to the heart of the matter. People will tell you they attend Catholic mass, for example, for any number of reasons, most of which are probably not available to introspection, but which actually relate to our functioning as social animals. People are motivated to meet other peop... (read more)

1Loren13yMotivation doesn't come mainly from fear of eternal damnation, or even from meeting with people that have a common cause (although that is closer to the truth). I think the main reason people are religious is because they have a desire to live in integrity, rather than caving in to the insticts of the reptilian and paleomammalian parts of our brain, instincts which are usually conter-productive in our current social environment. Of course, religious people don't talk like this. They call it "sinning" instead. But it means the same thing. People are especially concerned that their children join a group that encourages the avoidance of counter-productive reptilian and paleomammalian behavior (a.k.a. sin). In almost any church, there's always a significant number of new members who have children that have just reached Sunday School age. Prior to that, they were unchurched since graduating from High School. How can rationality help people achieve their desire to live with more integrity, and have their children live with more integrity? That's the question we need to be asking. Reading blogs and books isn't going to do it. Integrity is not a solo sport. It takes strong support from other human beings to overcome our sinful instincts.
2Annoyance13y"Eliezer wrote, "Really, I suspect that what's going on here has less to do with the motivating power of eternal damnation, and a lot more to do with the motivating power of physically meeting other people who share your cause."" Why do people go to Overcoming Bias meet-ups? I doubt that those meetings in restaurants are very productive from a becoming-more-rational perspective.
The Sacred Mundane

William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" was derived from the Gifford Lecture series he delivered around 1900-1902. The first thing to bear in mind, then, is that James' definition of religion was intended as a working definition in order that his audience could follow his exposition. As a founding father of the field of modern psychology and a proponent of pragmatic philosophy, dogmatism wasn't at all a part of James' style.

Secondly, brilliant and amiable as he may have been in person, James referred to himself as a "sick soul,... (read more)

Hyakujo's Fox

"It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox."

In the autobiography of Master Hakuin, people considered to be possesed by the spirit of a wild fox were thought to exhibit irrational, even erratic behavior, or vice versa. So this seems like a metaphor, but one at odds with standard western interpretations.

3gwern11ySee []
Rational Me or We?

Robin wrote: "Martial arts can be a good training to ensure your personal security, if you assume the worst about your tools and environment." But this does not mean that martial arts cannot also be good training if you assume a more benign environment. Environments are known to be unpredictable.

One of the most important insights a person gains from martial arts training is to understand one's limits--which relates directly to the bias of overconfidence. If martial arts training enables a person to project an honestly greater degree of self confidence, then the signaling benefit alone may merit the effort. Does rationality training confer analogous signaling benefits?

2Nebu13yGood point. Fortunately, I think the OB and LW blogs have helped me understand my limits, in the sense that it showed me many errors-in-rationality in the ways I used to (and unfortunately, currently do still) think. It probably does. If you go to cocktail parties tossing around terms like "Bayesian updating with Occam priors" or "Epistemic rationality" and sound like you really know what you're talking about, then you'll probably exude this signal of being a fairly smart person. But you have to ask yourself if your goal is to sound smart, or to actually be smart.
The Costs of Rationality

Query: Need the quest for the truth necessarily be quixotic? Tilting at windmills would be an example of delusional activity. Isn't the quixotic then the opposite of the rational?

Unteachable Excellence

I hazily recall that in the introduction to Benjamin Grahams "Intelligent Investor, "Buffett credits his former mentor with educating a group of stellar-performing security analysts and investors, among whom he counts himself.

Buffett has advised to read Graham, Fisher (Phil), and take it from there, so to speak. Easier said than done. Graham and Dodd's 1934 classic, "Security Analysis," for example, is comprised of 726 pages including its index. There is nothing seductively narrative, personal or hyperbolic about the book's con... (read more)

The Most Frequently Useful Thing

The most frequently useful thing I have learned from OB is to update assumptions based on new information on an ongoing basis. I think this idea ties in nicely with that of standing against maturity, if maturity is taken to mean a certain rigidity, an inflexibility of purpose and outlook.