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A Quick Guide to Confronting Doom

(A confusing way of writing "probability")

Don't die with dignity; instead play to your outs

"log odds" : "probability"


"epistemic status" : "confidence level"


(there are useful reasons to talk about log odds instead of probabilities, as in the post @Morpheus links to, but it also does seem like there's some gratuitous use of jargon going on)

Can you control the past?

Thanks, this gives me another chance to try to lay out this argument (which is extra-useful because I don't think I've hit upon the clearest way of making the point yet):

People are made of atoms. People make choices. Nothing is inconsistent about that.

Absolutely. But "choice", like agency, is a property of the map not of the territory. If you full specify the initial position of all of the atoms making up my body and their velocities, etc. -- then clearly it's not useful to speak of me making any choices. You are in the position of Laplace's demon: you know where all my atoms are right now, you know where they will be in one second, and the second after that, and so on.

We can only meaningfully talk about the concept of choice from a position of partial ignorance.

(Here I'm speaking from a Newtonian framing, with atoms and velocities, but you could translate this to QM.)

Similarly. If you performed your experiment and made an atom-by-atom copy of me, then you know that I will make the same choice as my clone. It doesn't make sense to talk from your perspective about how I should make my "choice" -- what I and my clone will do is already baked in by the law of motion for my atoms, from the assumption that you know we're atom-by-atom copies.

(If "I" am operating from an ignorant perspective, then "I" can still talk about "making a choice" from "my" perspective.)


Does that make sense, do you see what I'm trying to say? Do you see any flaws if so?

Can you control the past?

Here's a related old comment from @Anders_H that I think frames the issue nicely, for my own reference at the very least:

Any decision theory depends on the concept of choice: If there is no choice, there is no need for a decision theory. I have seen a quote attributed to Pearl to the effect that we can only talk about "interventions" at a level of abstraction where free will is apparent. This seems true of any decision theory. 


(He goes on to say -- less relevantly for the discussion here, but again I like the framing so am recording to remind future-me -- "CDT and TDT differ in how they operationalize choice, and therefore whether the decision theories are consistent with free will. In Causal Decision theory, the agents choose actions from a choice set. In contrast, from my limited understanding of TDT/UDT, it seems as if agents choose their source code. This is not only inconsistent with my (perhaps naive) subjective experience of free will, it also seems like it will lead to an incoherent concept of "choice" due to recursion.")

Can you control the past?

Re: the perfect deterministic twin prisoner's dilemma:

You’re a deterministic AI system, who only wants money for yourself (you don’t care about copies of yourself). The authorities make a perfect copy of you, separate you and your copy by a large distance, and then expose you both, in simulation, to exactly identical inputs (let’s say, a room, a whiteboard, some markers, etc). You both face the following choice: either (a) send a million dollars to the other (“cooperate”), or (b) take a thousand dollars for yourself (“defect”). 

If we say there are two atoms in two separate rooms, with the same initial positions and velocities, we of course can't talk about the atoms "choosing" to fly one direction or another. And yet the two atoms will always "do the same thing". Does the movement of one of the atoms "cause" the movement of the other atom? No, the notion of "cause" is not a concept that has meaning at this layer of description of reality. There is no cause, just atoms obeying the equations of motion.

Similarly: If we say two people are the same at the atomic (or whatever) level, we can no longer speak about a notion of "choice" at all. To talk about choice is to mix up levels of abstraction.


Let me restate it another way.

"Choice" is not a concept that exists at the ground level of reality. There is no concept of "choice" in the equations of physics. "Deciding to make a choice" can only be discussed at a higher level of abstraction; but insisting that my twin and I run the same code is talking at a lower level, at the ground truth of reality.

If we're talking at that lower level, there *is no notion of choice*.


Restated yet another way: Since the attempted discussion is at two different levels of reality, the situation is just ill-posed (a la "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object").

(Or as you put it: "various questions tend to blur together here – and once we pull them apart, it’s not clear to me how much substantive (as opposed to merely verbal) debate remains.")

[New Feature] Support for Footnotes!

This is excellent, thank you! I don't know of a solution to this problem, but FWIW it seems that webclippers somewhat break on these -- e.g. (1) Instapaper doesn't show the footnote number in the body of the text, only the footnote text at the end of the post; (2) Pocket shows the footnote number in the body of the text, but no where shows the footnote text itself.

Thanks again!

For those who advocate Anki

It's a complement, not a substitute: 

  1. I find Anki/spaced repetition extremely useful for mastering the vocabulary of a foreign language (or, in non-language settings, getting the basics down pat)
  2. But speaking fluently requires -- un(?)-surprisingly -- actually speaking

But mastering those basics is extremely useful!

As Michael Nielsen puts it: imagine trying to write a French sonnet if you have to look up the translation for every word you think of using. Mastering the rote basics is essential, in many settings, for mastery of the larger project -- and that's what spaced repetition does well.

An Equilibrium of No Free Energy

This is not exactly central to your main argument, but I think it's worth pointing out, since this is something I see even economists I really respect like Scott Sumner being imprecise about: Even if markets are efficient (and I agree they pretty much are!), then prices can still be predictable.

This is the standard view in academic asset pricing theory. The trick is that: under the EMH, risk-adjusted returns must follow a random walk, not that returns themselves must follow a random walk. I have an essay explaining this in more detail for the curious.

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