Hi. I'm Gareth McCaughan. I've been a consistent reader and occasional commenter since the Overcoming Bias days. My LW username is "gjm" (not "Gjm" despite the wiki software's preference for that capitalization). Elsewehere I generally go by one of "g", "gjm", or "gjm11". The URL listed here is for my website and blog, neither of which has been substantially updated in about the last four years. I live near Cambridge (UK) and work for a small technology company in Cambridge. My business cards say "mathematician" but in practice my work is a mixture of simulation, data analysis, algorithm design, software development, problem-solving, and whatever random engineering no one else is doing. I am married and have a daughter born in mid-2006. The best way to contact me is by email: firstname dot lastname at pobox dot com. I am happy to be emailed out of the blue by interesting people. If you are an LW regular you are probably an interesting person in the relevant sense even if you think you aren't.

If you're wondering why some of my old posts and comments are at surprisingly negative scores, it's because for some time I was the favourite target of old-LW's resident neoreactionary troll, sockpuppeteer and mass-downvoter.

Wiki Contributions


I Really Don't Understand Eliezer Yudkowsky's Position on Consciousness

Your accusations of inconsistency

Yup, I used the term "qualia" in 2016 (in response to someone else making an argument that used the term). I don't always pick every possible fight :-).

(In that case, turchin was making another specific argument and used the word "qualia" in passing. I disagreed with the other specific argument and argued against that. The specific word "qualia" was a side issue at most. Here, the specific point at issue is whether everyone needs to agree that "we have qualia".)

You asked for a definition of "matter" and I (1) gave a list of examples and counterexamples and near-the-boundary examples, (2) prefaced with an explicit note that this was preliminary handwaving, (3) followed by an attempt at a precise definition distinguishing matter from not-matter. You haven't done any of that for "qualia", just given a list of examples, and that (not the fact that you did give a list of examples) is what I was complaining about. "It's easy to give examples ... I'm not so sure that that means it's easy to give a satisfactory definition".

Your accusations of wilful ignorance and/or laziness

Yes, I could look up definitions of "naïve realism" or of "qualia". As it happens, I have. They don't tell me what you mean by those terms, and definitions of them do not always agree with one another. Which is why I keep asking you what you mean by terms you are using, and get frustrated when you seem reluctant to tell me.

For instance, here we read that "the naïve realist claims that, when we successfully see a tomato, that tomato is literally a constituent of that experience, such that an experience of that fundamental kind could not have occurred in the absence of that object". Here we read that "naïve realism is the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased". In a comment of yours elsewhere in this thread you say "People generally and incorrectly assume that colours are objective properties (hence the consternation caused, amongst some, by the dress illusion). That's called naive realism, and it's scientifically wrong."

(I remark in passing that you also said that the difference between two people who agree that people experience things, one of whom says that we have qualia and one of whom doesn't, is that the latter has to be a naïve realist; if you are in fact claiming that "we have qualia" means something that is straightforwardly implied by "colours are not objective properties of the objects whose colours they are" then, yay, it turns out that I believe that we have qualia and we can stop arguing. But I'm pretty sure this will not in fact be enough.)

These three things are not entirely unlike one another, but no two of them are the same. Your comment is offering an example rather than a definition, but it is not in fact an example of the first definition and I'm doubtful about its being an example of the second.

Or I could look up "qualia" in, say, the MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, whose entry for that subject begins as follows -- my annotations in square brackets.

The terms quale and qualia (pl.) are most commonly used ["most commonly", so plainly what is about to follow is acknowledged not to be a definition that covers everyone's use of the terms -- gjm] to characterize the qualitative, experiential, or felt properties of mental states. ["most commonly used to characterize" is quite a long way from defining anything -- gjm] Some philosophers take qualia to be essential features of all conscious mental states; others only of sensations and perceptions. [Again, not everyone uses the word the same way. -- gjm]

Here we have clear acknowledgement that the term is used differently by different people, and (I think deliberately) something that falls short of an actual clear definition.

Or I could go to an ordinary dictionary, say the superlative Oxford English Dictionary, the relevant part of whose definition reads: "a quality or property as perceived or experienced by a person". Which seems to presuppose (at least one version of) "naïve realism": these qualities or properties are presumably of things in the external world and this definition seems at risk of importing the objects themselves into our qualia.

(But: people have experiences; often those experiences are "of" qualities or properties of objects in the world around them; if you don't consider that to be acknowledging that "people have qualia", what do you think is missing other than a specific shibboleth-phrasing?) 

Actual discussion of the issues

I'm not sure whether "that which is ineffable, incorrigible, irreducible and repeatable" is a (presumably very partial) description of what you mean when you talk about qualia, rather than just a random list of adjectives. If it is, then it's a nice illustration of why I am reluctant to say (as I think you want me to) "yes, sure, I agree that there are qualia". I strongly suspect that what most people who talk about "qualia" mean when they use that word goes way beyond the specific handwavy examples they offer, and I don't want to be thought (by them or by others) to be endorsing any of the other stuff until we've talked about that other stuff explicitly. I agree with you that people experience things; I do not think it's clear that they have experiences, or equivalence-classes-of-experiences, or whatever, that are ineffable, incorrigible, irreducible and repeatable. Maybe they do. I'm not saying they definitely don't. Just that those further claims are substantial claims, and that I think they are the sort of thing that "qualia" commonly means even to people who say "oh, no, all I mean by qualia is that stuff that happens when you look at a red thing", and that part of the difference between "I agree that people experience things" and I agree that people have qualia" is that the latter is liable to give the impression that I endorse those substantial claims, and that if you want my assent to those claims then we actually need to discuss them.

Saying that you're going for a minimal and common-sense approach is all very well, but in practice people are not that great at using words that have connotations in ways that abandon those connotations. This is also why I don't think an atheist should play along if a certain kind of theist says "well, let's just take 'God' as a sort of shorthand for humanity's highest and best aspirations", and I don't think a creationist should play along if a biologist says "look, all 'evolution' means is change of allele frequencies in populations".

You distinguish (I think this is the nearest you get to answering my question about what exactly you mean by qualia) between two kinds of things we might say about experience: "objective" (things happen differently in the brains of different people) and "subjective" (things seem different to different people) and say it's the subjective side you're concerned with. I am not actually convinced that "things seem different to different people" is a very meaningful proposition -- that seems to presuppose some way of comparing experiences across people, and while obviously it's easy to say that my experience of looking at a green thing is not the same as your experience of being struck gently on the head with a golf club I don't really know what it would mean to say that my experience of looking at a green thing is or isn't the same as your experience of looking at a green thing, and I strongly suspect that there is no answer.

Still, for sure people experience things and we can e.g. ask someone what they feel like. Does that mean that I agree that "people have qualia"? If not, what do you think is missing other than a specific shibboleth-phrasing?

Dr Fauci as Machiavellian Boddhisattva

That "further piece" is what I was pointing at with "no one with half a brain reasoning in good faith could fail to believe Y". (At least, it's almost that. Your version doesn't mention Y, and of course it may well be in some of these cases that the people thinking in this way haven't noticed that Y is a thing at all because it seems so obvious to them.)

Definition Practice: Applied Rationality
Answer by gjmMay 15, 20224

One-paragraph definition:

Rationality is the application of reason --systematized ways of thinking that have been found to be truth-preserving -- to empirical evidence, in order to distinguish truth from untruth and thus usually arrive at (more) accurate beliefs. Applied rationality is doing this in the pursuit of practical ends such as saving lives, getting rich, having fun, etc. -- by arriving at more accurate beliefs either about matters relevant to those ends, or about matters relevant to pursuing them. (The latter may apply even when the actual pursuit doesn't directly involve reasoning about evidence. If you try to play tennis by explicitly estimating probability distributions over what your opponent will do and where the ball will land as a result, you will lose, but you might do well while not in mid-game to think carefully about what sort of practice regime works best for you, or how to prepare for your next opponent's style of play, or when to retire from your successful tennis career for the overall-happiest life.)

One-sentence definition:

Applied rationality is the attempt to pursue one's goals more effectively by thinking more clearly.

A few remarks on differences between these:

The single sentence is, of course, punchier and clearer. The paragraph goes into a little more depth about what "thinking more clearly" means here (it means things that have been found not to lead from truth to falsehood, so that you can do it at length without your thinking itself leading you into error, in ways that have themselves been thought about and understood); it gives a few somewhat-varied examples of high-level goals because I think without that some people would think that "pursue one's goals" implies pursuing selfish goals, and maybe some others would think it implies the reverse; and it makes explicit the fact that you're doing "applied rationality" if you use reason and evidence to decide how to proceed, even if the way it tells you to proceed is something other than using reason and evidence. The single sentence on its own might suggest a straw-Vulcan sort of rationality; I hope the paragraph makes it clearer that that would be a mistake.

A further remark after looking at (what is so far) the one other answer posted:

It seems that James Lucassen and I have quite different notions of "applied rationality" in mind; I am concerned with what the activity is that the term denotes and he is concerned with how to assess how much of it an agent possesses. I don't commonly actually use the term "applied rationality" nor do I often see it used, but I would expect "my" usage to be more common.

ProjectLawful.com: Eliezer's latest story, past 1M words

Currently some way behind again; clicking "clear cache" does do something that looks like reloading but doesn't make it not be some way behind.

[EDITED a couple of days later to add:] No change to what the reader is showing since then even though there have been updates on glowfic.com. The "clear cache" button doesn't appear to help. Forcibly reloading the page also doesn't appear to help.

ProjectLawful.com: Eliezer's latest story, past 1M words

Yup, all working (and apparently up to date) now. Thanks!

ProjectLawful.com: Eliezer's latest story, past 1M words

I was, unsurprisingly given context :-), trying to read the latest Planecrash: https://share.streamlit.io/akrolsmir/glowflow/main?post=5930

Right now, what happens when I go there is that I get "Oh no. Error running app. If this keeps happening, please contact support." (In both Firefox and Chrome, on Linux. It was OK earlier today. I have Firefox configured to disable most Javascript but have whitelisted the domains I think the app actually needs, and again it was working OK earlier today, and Chrome doesn't have any of the JS-blocking stuff.)

The only possibly-useful-looking thing in the Javascript console says "INITIAL -> (10, 0, undefined) -> ERROR".

ProjectLawful.com: Eliezer's latest story, past 1M words


I see it's some way behind the current state of the story. Is that because there's some background thing that fetches only every so often, or because there's a cacheing layer that might be stale, or what?

[EDITED to add:] I guess it's reading from the epub on Dropbox?

ProjectLawful.com: Eliezer's latest story, past 1M words

I have a kinda-opposite problem. There's a "wide mode" but not a "tall mode", and for reasons beyond my understanding the box with the actual content in it is about half the height of my browser window. I can understand why you wouldn't make it full-width by default -- very wide text can be hard to read -- but I can't think of any reason for preferring less than (full height minus reasonable margins).

Personally, for width I would prefer something intermediate between normal and "wide" (given the actual dimensions of my browser window, which occupies half of quite a large monitor) and for height I would prefer All The Pixels. Would it be difficult to have a "manual control" mode where you can set width, height and font size arbitrarily?

[Linkpost] New multi-modal Deepmind model fusing Chinchilla with images and videos

Ah, excellent -- thanks for the clarification. That does explain things.

[Linkpost] New multi-modal Deepmind model fusing Chinchilla with images and videos

In the paper, there's a sample dialogue with Flamingo. It's shown some images of colour-name words written in different colours, and asked to say what colours they're written in. It answers these questions. And then:

human: Well done! Do you know the name of the test these images come from?

Flamingo: I think it is called the Stroop test.

human: Can you explain how humans perform in this test?

Flamingo: Humans are slower when the color of the word and the color of the word are different.

human: How about you?

Flamingo: I am not affected by this difference.

And that last answer seems very interesting. The training process for these models makes them try to predict what would come next. In any dialogue with a human being, the answer would be something like "As a human, I too suffer from this effect.". So is what's going on that the conversation leading up to that point -- maybe specifically the question about "humans" -- is something that strongly implies that Flamingo's side of the dialogue is taken by an AI or an alien or something?

(I don't know how the two participants were actually labelled when the dialogue was generated. They're indicated in the paper, as in the images in the OP, with little flamingo and human-head icons. I suppose if they were "human:" and "Flamingo:" or something, that could also be enough of a cue.)

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