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Incidentally, that quote by "Austerlitz" is a quote from no such man. It's from the book "Austerlitz," by W. G. Sebald. The name of the character speaking the line, as paraphrased by the narrator, is Austerlitz.

But it's a bloody good book, and I'm happy to see you quoted it.

Very interesting Eliezer. Thanks.

A piece of unsolicited, probably unnecessary advice: If you are indeed writing a book, I pray, pray, pray that you do NOT call it "The Tao of Physics."

BusinessConsultant: But to say that we are irrational because we are basing our decision on our own personal context is to deny everything that you have built up to this point. Really? If a decision is irrational, it's irrational. You can make allowances for circumstance and still attempt to find the most rational choice. Did you read the whole post? Eliezer is at pains to point out that even given different expected utilities for different amounts of money for different people in different circumstances, there is still a rational way to go about making a decision and there is stilla tendency for humans to make bad decisions because they are too lazy (my words, not his) to think it through, instead trusting their "intuition" because it "feels right."

The point about paying two human lives to flip the switch and then switch it back really drove home the point, Eliezer. Also, a good clarification on consistency. Reading the earlier post, I also thought of the objection that $24,000 could change a destitute person's life by orders of magnitude, whereas $3000 on top of that would not be equivalent to 1/8 more utility... the crucial difference for a starving, sick person is in, say, the first few grand.

But then, as you point out, your preference for the surer chance of less money should remain consistent however the game is stated. Thanks! Very clear...

Also, living in New York and longing for Seattle, I found myself visiting Seattle for Christmas and longing for New York... hmmm. Maybe I just need a taxi to Oakland. :P


I would suggest that what you are doing is "hugging the query" insofar as you try to show that the arguments and assumptions leading to a false conclusion are faulty. Sometimes it's just a long, difficult slog. Arguments about social policy might admit evidence that looks different than the evidence in physics.

Of course, if your sole reason for having the discussion is to lead someone step by step to your pre-determined conclusion, rather than having an honest inquiry of the subject under discussion, you have another problem. ;)

rukidding wrote: now you're claiming brainwashed (if not drug-induced) suicide of defenseless and unsuspecting people isn't the height of cowardice. Is there a reason you can't work on your OWN biases?

I agree with you on two points, ru, (1) that the overall thrust of this post by Eliezer is strong, and (2) that cowardice is a fair and accurate descriptor of the hijackers.

I understand Eliezer's point about the folly of tossing every kitchen-sink insult at the Enemy even when it's inaccurate. I think he just chose a bad example. The definition of cowardice doesn't seem very nuanced at all. A willingness to commit suicide does not necessarily entail bravery, and certainly not to the degree that the very idea of calling a suicide cowardly is laughable, as Eliezer implies.

However, this seems to come from a lack of nuance or accuracy in defining that word, not from some overlooked bias of Eliezer's. And the "Native American Genocide Day" thread derailer was misplaced humor (IMO). I fail to see some systematic political bias that you imply.

Also: it seems to me that there are a number of rather vocal people on this board that speak for some pretty conservative philosophical and economic positions. I have no problem with this. I share and understand your frustration with kneejerk liberal bias. But I think you might be burning straw men here. For a blog with an open comments policy, the level of discourse here is remarkably high. Are you sure this isn't leftover rage from some other board?

And to everyone, please: I would highly recommend that... you add a refusal to fall victim to anti-Bush propaganda. Certainly sound advice. But you are mistaken if you think "everyone" who posts to Overcoming Bias needs such an elementary reminder.

Interesting post.

But lack of broad distribution of an ability doesn't necessarily mean the ability doesn't exist. One of the themes of this blog is that human brain power has outstripped "nature" (I use that advisedly) in its ability to change, create and evolve. If psychic powers were an epiphenomenon of supercomplex brain structure, for example, then they would be no different than the ability to, say, do higher mathematics. That is, something most humans are physically capable of but only a tiny fraction of which have actually put in the requisite study, and learned from the right teachers. The ability to do higher mathematics could be seen, abstractly, as conferring a huge advantage for the organism. But whether that translates to higher rates of reproduction is another question.

The lack of psychic powers and higher mathematics in the general populace does not mean that the ability could not have evolved. Only that it did not evolve independently of another useful adaptation (like a brain that could make reasoned and complex inferences about the ancestral environment).


I suppose this counts as threadjacking, but this thread seems about played out, so I'll respond to your response to my off-topic aside.

I'm interested in what you say. I don't think it's necessarily off base. But my little cheeky comment was in reference to the Buddhist concept of anatta, or non-self. That is, Eliezer's insistence that there is no purposeful unifying force behind what we experience as "our" desires reminded me of an analogous teaching of the Buddha. Evolution can be seen as a unifying force, I suppose, since it is the common wellspring of our desires, but as Eliezer is rightly at pains to point out, it is decidedly not purposeful. "A thousand shards of desire" is what we are left with.

One of the key concepts of Buddhist meditation and scholarship is that desires are ultimately independent of the desirer. [Note: I differentiate serious, classical Buddhism, which has a ridiculously large set of founding texts and canonical commentaries, from pop Buddhism. or the selective Western brand of Buddhism which takes the concepts that have appeal for people brought up in a society where the dominant religious traditions are monotheistic and authoritarian (the West, that is) while leaving behind the less sexy teachings which are in fact the core of the practice.] In the first stages of serious meditation, before you achieve any mystical bliss or whatnot, it becomes quite clear that the thoughts and desires that we take for granted as "our own" are in fact caused by specific conditions and fall away when those conditions cease. That's the practice-based observation. The theoretical concept that springs from that is that, in fact, we build our mistaken sense of a unified "I" out of these falsely-apprehended experiences. (I say theoretical because my personal inquiries have not yet fully borne this out... perhaps they will, perhaps not... there are Buddhist scholars and monks who claim to know this to be ontologically true... I have reasons to doubt them, but I also have reasons to believe them... further inquiry is required).

Of course this teaching comes from a time before any understanding of evolutionary theory, and is practiced today by people who, broadly speaking, still don't have any real understanding of such (yours truly included!). I don't want to throw around too much sloppy thinking here, but I will suggest that there may be more than one angle at which to come to an understanding. Both disciplined scientific inquiry and disciplined meditational inquiry are (properly) undertaken with a desire to get at an understanding of reality while systematically eliminating misapprehensions and biases as they arise.

Anyway, all that is not to refute what you said, but to explain my comment.

I will take issue with your positing that the teachings on the end of suffering were added by later theocrats or rulers who wanted to broaden its appeal for the masses. In the oldest texts we have (written down around 2200 BC, after 300 or so years surviving in an oral tradition the fidelity of which has been shown in other contexts to be remarkable), the Buddha teaches again and again about suffering. Several places in the sutras he is quoted as saying, "I teach one thing: suffering and its end." The teaching on the Four Noble Truths (said to be the first teaching he ever gave though admittedly that's pretty hard to ascertain for sure) is the central teaching of the Buddhist canon. Many, many, many of the Buddha's teachings came in for debate, abandonment and wholesale tortion as they spread to various different societies with their own cultural norms and mores and institutions and languages. But the teachings on suffering and its end are the same in Tibet as they are in Sri Lanka as they are in Japan. You might argue that the original teaching was somehow a cynical appeal to the masses (I am very much inclined to say it was not), but it's clearly not a later corruption.

I'm very interested in parallels between the kind of ruthlessly rational inquiry displayed by the thinkers on this blog and that displayed by the early Buddhist, including the Buddha himself. I find myself looking for ways to reconcile the two. Of course, in even admitting that, I'm busting myself! If I have my desired conclusion in mind as I sift through the evidence, I have already forgotten the central teachings of Overcoming Bias! ... I'll press on though, catching myself where I can! ;)

"Being a thousand shards of desire isn't always fun, but at least it's not boring."

I like that. I have a feeling Lord Gautama would have liked it too.

I will venture to say that Eliezer's habit (this isn't the first instance) of teasing out the same subject again and again from slightly different angles is highly illuminating for me, at least. (And, I suspect, for him as well... though that's conjecture).

I'm a bit slower than your average Overcoming Bias lurker, it would seem from the level of discourse here. Sometimes I think I barely grasp what everyone is even talking about, though I try to read the background links people provide. But I'm an intelligent person in general, and I have an interest in the concepts and methods Robin, Eliezer and the rest hash out in this space. You could argue that all humans do, whether they realize it or not. Either Eliezer added something new to this post, or reading post after post on this has finally hammered the point through my brain. But this evening I feel like I finally get it, and by "it" I mean merely the most basic concepts.... I grasped them abstractly right away, but more important for overcoming one's own operating biases is really getting it in a way that will allow one to spot one's faulty reasoning in the past and the future.


Thanks for the tip. I'll check it out.

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