Philosophy PhD student. Interested in ethics, metaethics, AI, EA, disagreement/erisology


Expansive translations: considerations and possibilities

Imagine a system where when you land on a Wikipedia page, it translates it into a version optimized for you at that time. The examples change to things in your life, and any concepts difficult for you get explained in detail. It would be like a highly cognitively empathetic personal teacher.

Hmm, something about this bothers me, but I'm not entirely sure what. At first I thought it was something about filter bubbles, but of course that can be fixed; just tune the algorithm so that it frames things in a way that is just optimally outside your intellectual filter bubble/comfort zone.

Now I think it's something more like: it can be valuable to have read the same thing as other people; if everyone gets their own personalized version of Shakespeare, then people lose some of the connection they could have had with others over reading Shakespeare, since they didn't really read the same thing. And also, it can be valuable for different people to read the same thing for another reason: different people may interpret a text in different ways, which can generate new insights. If everyone gets their own personalized version, we lose out on some of the insights people might have had by bouncing their minds off of the original text.

I guess this isn't really a knockdown argument against making this sort of "personal translator" technology, since there's no reason people couldn't turn it off sometimes and read the originals, but nevertheless, we don't have a great track record of using technology like this wisely and not overusing it (I'm thinking of social media here).

What Does "Signalling" Mean?

"Metaethics" is another example of this; sometimes it gets used around here to mean "high-level normative ethics" (and in fact the rationalist newsletter just uses it as the section header for anything ethics-related).

Diagramming "Replacing Guilt," Part 1

I liked this a lot. However, I didn't really understand the "Replacing Guilt" picture, the one with the two cups. Are they supposed to be coffee and water, with the idea being that coffee can keep you going short term but isn't sustainable, while water is better long term, it something?

No Ultimate Goal and a Small Existential Crisis

I think about this question a lot as well. Here are some pieces I've personally found particularly helpful in thinking about it:

  • Sharon Street, "Nothing 'Really' Matters, But That's Not What Matters": link
    • This is several levels deep in a conversation, but you might be able to read it on its own and get the gist, then go back and read some of the other stuff if you feel like it.
  • Nate Soares' "Replacing Guilt" series: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/
    • Includes much more metaethics than it might sound like it should.
    • Especially relevant: "You don't get to know what you're fighting for"; everything in the "Drop your Obligations" section
  • (Book) Jonathan Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis: link
    • Checks ancient wisdom about how to live against the modern psych literature.
  • Susan Wolf on meaning in life: link
    • There is a book version, but I haven't read it yet

Search terms that might help if you want to look for what philosophers have said about this:

  • meaning in/of life
  • moral epistemology
  • metaethics
  • terminal/final goals/ends

Some philosophers with relevant work:

  • Derek Parfit
  • Sharon Street
  • Christine Korsgaard
  • Bernard Williams

There is a ton of philosophical work on these sorts of things obviously, but I only wanted to directly mention stuff I've actually read.

If I had to summarize my current views on this (still very much in flux, and not something I necessarily live up to), I might say something like this:

Pick final goals that will be good both for you and for others. As Susan Wolf says, meaning comes from where "subjective valuing meets objective value," and as Jonathan Haidt says, "happiness comes from between." Some of this should be projects that will be fun/fulfilling for you and also produce value for others, some of this should be relationships (friendships, family, romantic, etc). But be prepared for those goals to update. I like romeostevensit's phrasing elsethread: "goals are lighthouses not final destinations." As Nate Soares says, "you don't get to know what you're fighting for": what you're fighting for will change over time, and that's not a bad thing. Can't remember the source for this (probably either the Sequences or Replacing Guilt somewhere), but the human mind will often transform an instrumental goal into a terminal goal. Unlike Eliezer, I think this really does signal a blurriness in the boundary between instrumental and terminal goals. Even terminal goals can be evaluated in light of other goals we have (making them at least a little bit instrumental), and if an instrumental goal becomes ingrained enough, we may start to care about it for its own sake. And when picking goals, start from where you are, start with what you already find yourself to care about, and go from there. The well-known metaphor of Neurath's Boat goes like this: "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction." See also Eliezer, "Created already in motion". So start from what you already care about, and aim to have that evolve in a more consistent direction. Aim for goals that will be good for both you and others, but take care of the essentials for yourself first (as Jordan Peterson says, "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world"). In order to help the world, you have to make yourself formidable (think virtue ethics). Furthermore, as Agnes Callard points out (link), the meaning in life can't solely be to make others happy. The buck has to stop somewhere -- "At some point, someone has to actually do the happying." So again, look for places where you can do things that make you happy while also creating value for others.

I don't claim this is at all airtight, or complete (as I said, still very much in flux), but it's what I've come to after thinking about this for the last several years.

(answered: yes) Has anyone written up a consideration of Downs's "Paradox of Voting" from the perspective of MIRI-ish decision theories (UDT, FDT, or even just EDT)?

There has been some philosophical work that makes just this point. In particular, Julia Nefsky (who I think has some EA ties?) has a whole series of papers about this. Probably the best one to start with is her PhilCompass paper here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/phc3.12587

Obviously I don't mean this to address the original question, though, since it's not from an FDT/UDT perspective.

(answered: yes) Has anyone written up a consideration of Downs's "Paradox of Voting" from the perspective of MIRI-ish decision theories (UDT, FDT, or even just EDT)?

I think there is a strong similarity between FDT (can't speak to UDT/TDT) and Kantian lines of thought in ethics. (To bring this out: the Kantian thought is roughly to consider yourself simply as an instance of a rational agent, and ask "can I will that all rational agents in these circumstances do what I'm considering doing?" FDT basically says "consider all agents that implement my algorithm or something sufficiently similar. What action should all those algorithm-instances output in these circumstances?" It's not identical, but it's pretty close.) Lots of people have Kantian intuitions, and to the extent that they do, I think they are implementing something quite similar to FDT. Lots of people probably vote because they think something like "well, if everyone didn't vote, that would be bad, so I'd better vote." (Insert hedging and caveats here about how there's a ton of debate over whether Kantianism is/should be consequentialist or not.) So they may be countable as at least partially FDT agents for purposes of FDT reasoning.

I think that memetically/genetically evolved heuristics are likely to differ systematically from CDT.

Here's a brief argument why they would (and why they might diverge specifically in the direction of FDT): the metric evolution optimizes for is inclusive genetic fitness, not merely fitness of the organism. Witness kin selection. The heuristics that evolution would install to exploit this would tend to be: act as if there are other organisms in the environment running a similar algorithm to you (i.e. those that share lots of genes with you), and cooperate with those. This is roughly FDT-reasoning, not CDT-reasoning.

Missing dog reasoning

whales, despite having millions of times the number of individual cells that mice have, don’t seem to get cancer much more often than mice.

Is this all mice, or just lab mice? I ask because of Bret Weinstein's thing about how lab mice have abnormally long telomeres, which causes them to get cancer a lot more frequently than normal mice (though in googling for the source I also found this counterargument). So is it that whales get cancer less often than we'd expect, or just that mice (or rather, the mice that we observe) get it a lot more frequently?

Explaining the Rationalist Movement to the Uninitiated

So I don't know a ton about Pragmatism, but from what I do know about it, I definitely see what you're getting at; there are a lot of similarities between Pragmatism and LW-rationality. One major difference, though: as far as I know, Pragmatism doesn't accept the correspondence theory of truth (see here, at the bullet "epistemology (truth)"), while LW-rationality usually does (though as is often the case, Yudkowsky seems to have been a bit inconsistent on this topic: here for example he seems to express a deflationist theory of truth). Although, as Liam Bright has pointed out (in a slightly different context), perhaps one's theory of truth is not as important as some make it out to be.

At any rate, I had already wanted to learn more about Pragmatism, but hadn't really made the connection with rationality, so this makes me want to learn about it more. So thanks!

Premature death paradox

So I agree that this paradox is quite interesting as a statistical puzzle. But I'm not sure it shows much about the ethical question of whether and when death is bad. I think the relevant notion of "premature death" might not be a descriptive notion, but might itself have a normative component. Like, "premature death" doesn't mean "unusually early death" (which is a fully descriptive notion) but something else. For example, if you assume Thomas Nagel's "deprivation account" of the badness of death, then "premature death" might be cashed out roughly as: dying while there's still valuable life ahead of you to live, such that you're deprived of something valuable by dying. In other words, you might say that death is not bad when one has lived a "full life," and is bad when one dies before living a full life. (Note that this doesn't beg the question against the transhumanist "death is always bad" sort of view, for one might insist that a life is never "full" in the relevant sense, and that there's always more valuable life ahead of you.) Trying to generalize this looks objectionably circular: death is bad when it's premature, and it's premature when it's bad. But at any rate it seems to me like the notion of premature death is trying to get at more than just the descriptive notions of dying before one is statistically predicted to die, or dying before Laplacean demon who had a perfect physical model of the world would predict one to die.

Anyway, low confidence in this, and again, I agree the statistical puzzle is interesting in its own right.

Premature death paradox

It was the very first thing they discussed. Start from the beginning of the stream and you'll get most of it.

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