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The Danger of Stories

9 Post author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 02:53AM

Tyler Cowen argues in a TED talk (~15 min) that stories pervade our mental lives.  He thinks they are a major source of cognitive biases and, on the margin, we should be more suspicious of them - especially simple stories.  Here's an interesting quote about the meta-level:

What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen?  ...Another possibility is you might tell a story of rebirth.  You might say, "I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories". ...You could also tell a story of deep tragedy.  "This guy Tyler Cowen came and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories about how other people think too much in terms of stories."

Comments (103)

Comment author: billswift 08 November 2009 10:26:52AM *  8 points [-]

You can't not think in terms of stories, that is simply how our minds work. All you can do is to try to keep that (in the form of "intuition") from preventing the adequate weighing of statistics, probabilities, and explicit evidence that can't easily be fit into narratives.

Added: Even when thinking with images or kinesthetically, a person can only use the images or feelings as isolated "facts" or as part of a consistent sequence which has all the same problems as verbal stories.

Comment author: Grognor 17 December 2011 05:47:16AM 7 points [-]

Transcript, typed by yours truly.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 09 November 2009 08:41:41AM *  4 points [-]

I watched Tyler's TED talk and all I got was this lousy story.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 08 November 2009 11:19:23AM *  4 points [-]

I wonder how many people here besides me lost their appetite for consuming monomyth-structured stories after their naturalistic awakening?

Comment author: Johnicholas 08 November 2009 04:35:28PM 8 points [-]

After my naturalistic awakening, I went on a journey, overcame an almost insuperable obstacle and then returned, having achieved a worthy reward.

Seriously, though - what makes you think you've lost your appetite for consuming monomyth-structured stories?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 04:49:29PM 6 points [-]

In fact, I think part of the appeal of this very community is its tendency to dress up rationality in a kind of story, and I don't just mean the explicit fiction that Eliezer writes from time to time. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something we need to keep in the back of our minds.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 08 November 2009 08:14:54PM *  5 points [-]

what makes you think you've lost your appetite for consuming monomyth-structured stories?

The absence of the desire to consume said stories across all art forms I used to favor.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 09 November 2009 08:54:33PM *  1 point [-]

I do not know what "monomyth-structured" means, but yeah, my getting familiar with the heuristics-and-biases literature caused me to decrease my consumption of fiction -- particularly TV, movies, etc, since the critical thinking pretty much shuts down when watching TV, movies, etc.

Comment author: spriteless 10 November 2009 09:07:01AM 0 points [-]

I know I hate the version of the monomyth where the knight saves the day because he is superior to us peasants that weren't explicit parodies. I can still read Pratchet, but I can't stand Girl Genius.

Comment author: roland 08 November 2009 04:49:28AM 4 points [-]

Some things come to mind: Nassim Taleb in his books criticizes this habit of story telling all the time. From the field of biases: scenario thinking(which is a way of mental storytelling). A reason for the planning fallacy is because a plan is essentially a good story we tell ourselves and others but we neglect all the details that mess it up.

Comment author: Morendil 08 November 2009 09:49:55AM *  2 points [-]

As a counterpoint, see Dennett's idea of "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity" - narrative as an integral part of consciousness.

Consider the normative models against which we evaluate "biased" vs "unbiased" decisions, for instance expected utility. To even begin to apply such a model you'll need to have identified some set of decisions among which you are to choose - should I or shouldn't I eat this ice cream, drink this whiskey, turn down this job, whatever - and relevant consequences which vary in their utility: fit vs. fat, temporary mellow mood vs risk of alcoholism, shape of future revenue stream...

This selection of a set of competing decisions and their consequences isn't neutral, unchanging, objective. It is very much determined by the deciding person's "story to date" - it is that story which frames the question of what consequences matter.

There is a lot of ambiguity in such stories; in Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert argues that this ambiguity is a key component of psychological resilience. A self's success in life is partially determined by their ability to redefine utility on the fly, in answer to the difficulties they encounter. If they didn't do that, I suspect they wouldn't survive long as a self.

A similar frame turns up in the game of Go, which is probably a "cleaner" model of decision making to appeal to than everyday life. In principle, every configuration of a Go board has a single "best next move". The story of previous plays should not matter to determine future plays! And that's probably how it would be if Go was played by planet-sized computers who could work out all possible games arising from that situation, and just play the best move every move.

In practice things work out differently, as the game is played by minds who make more effective use of limited resources than that. Pro players place a lot of importance on things such as "consistency with your previous strategy". Conversely, they also say things like "you have to be flexible", which goes to show that ambiguity also plays a role in high-level Go strategy. Good play often depends on reinterpreting the meaning of a previously placed stone. Sacrifice tactics are a common example, and so is the more subtle concept of "aji".

I suspect that something like the following is true: to "steer the future" you have to be able to make plans, and to make plans is much the same as to tell stories - dangerous as they can be.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 04:45:34PM *  1 point [-]

This isn't really a counterpoint. Cowen realizes that thinking in terms of stories is human and that we can't really get away from it completely without negative consequences (if at all). The point is that we are too apt to force complex, messy life into the simple stories that we tell ourselves. Like "life is a journey" or "good vs. evil" etc. Hence my summary that we should be more suspicious of them on the margin.

Comment author: timtyler 08 November 2009 10:09:13AM *  1 point [-]

Nitpicking - but actually in Go, multiple moves may have the same (maximal) value - and go is normally played with either a "ko" rule which says that the location of the last move played can make a difference - or a "superko" rule - in which case the entire history of the board can matter.

Comment author: AllanCrossman 08 November 2009 10:15:04AM 2 points [-]

a "ko" rule which says that the location of the last move played can make a difference

That information could however be considered part of the current position.

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 09 November 2009 04:17:05AM *  0 points [-]

In principle, every configuration of a Go board has a single "best next move". The story of previous plays should not matter to determine future plays! And that's probably how it would be if Go was played by planet-sized computers who could work out all possible games arising from that situation, and just play the best move every move.

Nitpicking - but actually in Go, multiple moves may have the same (maximal) value - and go is normally played with either a "ko" rule which says that the location of the last move played can make a difference - or a "superko" rule - in which case the entire history of the board can matter.

The superko rule can be reinterpreted so that each move is considered to be showing an entry in an immutable look-up table for "my move in this game given this (historyless) position" (something like the loop shortcut rules in Magic: the Gathering). If the look-up table is immutable, repeating a position would create a loop. If "best next move" is defined so that a loop is worse than a loss, and the other player's look-up table is known, then it would not be possible for a perfect player to have a look-up table that caused a loop. In some other situations, breaking the superko rule with only "best next moves" would entail circular preferences, so that a perfect player would never want to break superko. In that case, the history of the board wouldn't matter for defining the best next move for a given configuration. But maybe in some situations, perfect players who played by showing entire immutable look-up tables at the start of the game, in a go game without a superko rule, might use mixed strategies with a nonzero probability of a loop. Perfect players with source code access might get into games of timeless chicken.

Comment author: timtyler 08 November 2009 01:36:41PM 0 points [-]

Right - if you are prepared to define the term "position" to mean something rather counter-intuitive.

Comment author: Morendil 08 November 2009 10:53:03AM 1 point [-]

Yes, multiple moves with the same value are easily found in the opening - trivially from the symmetries on an empty board, and even after a few moves - and in the endgame, where the exact value of moves can be computed and is typically in single-digit points.

In the midgame though, wouldn't it be much more surprising to find two or more moves for one side which have exactly the same value - more than one "best move" - as all the symmetries have pretty much vanished by then ? I'll admit I haven't considered that deeply, just assumed it true.

The superko rule doesn't make much difference to my point above; it is only damaging if there is more than one ko going on, which is relatively rare (but not unheard of). Even in that case it's not the "entire" history of the board which is entangled together, but only a sub-history in which all moves consist of passing or taking back ko points. As soon as you add a stone somewhere (for instance by making a ko threat), superko no longer applies, it's a different position.

If there is only one ko, you only need to include its status in the position's description per AllanCrossman's suggestion below.

Comment author: pengvado 08 November 2009 01:01:20PM *  2 points [-]

In the midgame though, wouldn't it be much more surprising to find two or more moves for one side which have exactly the same value - more than one "best move" - as all the symmetries have pretty much vanished by then?

The number of possible scores is limited by the size of the board. The number of available moves is also on the order of magnitude of the size of the board. The birthday paradox says that there is very likely to be a collision. Even more so since the scores aren't evenly distributed.

It's somewhat harder to estimate how often the best move will be one of the ties. Equally matched good players tend to end up with single digit (delta-)scores, which greatly reduces the range, and I have no particular reason to expect optimal play to differ in that respect. But if I invoke that statistic, then I also have to reduce the domain to however many moves said players would be unsure between, which I don't know.

Comment author: timtyler 08 November 2009 01:59:25PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think you can use the birthday paradox here - since the expected values of go moves are best treated as being surreal numbers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surreal_number

Surreal numbers were actually originally developed to handle go move values:

http://senseis.xmp.net/?Infinitesimals

http://senseis.xmp.net/?GoInfinitesimals

Comment author: [deleted] 08 November 2009 02:46:27PM *  1 point [-]

But the only special value mentioned on those pages, * = { 0 | 0 }, is not a surreal number. It's a combinatorial game, and every surreal number is a combinatorial game, but 0 ≤ 0, making * non-numeric.

Also, while values of fragments of Go games are best treated as combinatorial games, the final value of a Go game is always simply an integer (or even an element of the set {WIN, DRAW, LOSS}), and therefore so will the maximin.

Comment author: timtyler 09 November 2009 05:39:47PM 0 points [-]

The other infinitesimals listed on that page were: UP, DOWN, UPSTAR, DOWNSTAR, TINY, MINY.

The idea that you can subtract the maximin of a move with the maximin of passing to produce move values is unfortunately not correct, due to subtleties over who gets to play last.

Move values are surreal numbers. That isn't an artefact designed to cope with partial games, it's equally true of complete games.

The point is not trivial to understand - but it is relatively easy to see that the conclusion (that go move values are not integers) is correct. To do that, simply work through the whole board example given here:

http://groups.google.com/group/rec.games.go/msg/dc42f06aa5ad6bc1?hl=en&dmode=source

Comment author: pengvado 10 November 2009 12:23:46AM *  1 point [-]

Who said anything about subtracting the value of passing? Passing is just another move, and has no inherent privilege over the other ~200 available moves. Ah, that's where I was confused by your terminology: you speak of the value of a board state, which must account for what happens when either player plays on it, and passing doesn't affect the board; whereas I was thinking of the value of a game state including whose turn it is, and passing transitions to a different game state. The former is more natural if you're analysing partial games, and the latter is more natural if you're brute-forcing maximin.

Auction Go is then a different game, some of whose moves are bidding in the auction rather than placing stones on the board. If you can bid fractional points, then the score is fractional, so move values can be too; and likewise for surreals or any other number system. The example you linked shows that changing the set of available bid-moves can change the outcome.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 November 2009 07:25:43PM *  0 points [-]

It appears that in the variation they're using, which they call Auction Go, weird stuff occurs in which players can skip turns and stuff. Ordinary Go is the sort of game where turns simply alternate. I still think that game values in ordinary Go are always integers.

Comment author: timtyler 11 November 2009 09:59:29AM *  0 points [-]

Auction go defines what "the value of a move" means. It is the smallest number of captures a perfect player would be prepared to accept as a payment for passing.

To calculate the value of a move, you have to compare moving with taking some kind of null action. That typically involves passing. Without passing (or something similar) there seems to be no way to measure the value of a move empirically.

This explains what I mean by "the value of a move". However, I am no longer clear on what you mean by the term. You have some method of calculating move values which does not involve comparing to passing (or similar)? What do you mean by the term?

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2009 04:09:27PM 1 point [-]

When I say "the value of a move", I mean the score I'll have if I make that move and everyone plays perfectly from then on.

Comment author: timtyler 08 November 2009 01:45:20PM 1 point [-]

Technically, superko deals with the whole history of the board. Repeated positions don't only arise from single-stone captures - there are other ways of doing it - e.g. see:

http://senseis.xmp.net/?RoundRobinKo

Any earlier position could theoretically be recreated - if enough pieces are captured.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 08 November 2009 11:13:35PM 2 points [-]

It's the people who realize they don't know anything at all that end up doing pretty well.

Sounds like a story to me...

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 November 2009 04:45:59PM *  0 points [-]

I got as far as "some things actually are good versus evil, we all know this, right?" at 4:00, and lost all respect for the man. I didn't watch the rest.

Other than how we treat them, what's the difference between a story and a theory or hypothesis?

Edit: I'm guessing from the downvote that I may've been misunderstood. The above question is not rhetorical; it's intended to spark conversation.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 08 November 2009 11:24:01PM *  4 points [-]

It is fine to decide, after four minutes, that you don't think its worth watching the rest of the lecture (I might not finish it either because it is directed to a non-specialist audience), but to tell us you "lost all respect for the man," only shows that you were too quick to rush to judgment.

Based only on the five minutes of it I watched I know that he is making the exact same points (good vs. evil stories are curiosity stoppers), you accuse him (below) of missing.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 08:05:26AM 1 point [-]

My thought wasn't that he wouldn't have anything true to say. It was that if he's still defending good and evil as obviously existing, in that context, he's far enough behind me on the issue that I can safely assume that he doesn't have anything major to teach me, and that what he says is untrustworthy enough (because there's an obvious flaw in his thought process) that I'd have to spend an inordinate amount of time checking his logic before using even the parts that appear good - time that would be better spent elsewhere.

Many people here appear to have a similar epistemic immune response to people who bring up God in discussions of ethics. I'm surprised it's considered an issue in this case.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 10 November 2009 03:55:19AM 6 points [-]

It is often worthwhile to listen to intelligent people, even if they are fantastically wrong about basic facts of the very subject that they're discussing. One often hears someone reasoning within a context of radically wrong assumptions. A priori, one would expect such reasoning to be almost wholly worthless. How could false premises lead to reliable conclusions?

But somehow, in my experience, it often doesn't work that way. Of course, the propositional content of the claims will often be false. Nonetheless, within the system of inferences, substructures of inferences will often be isomorphic to deep structures of inferences following from premises that I do accept.

The moral reasoning of moral realists can serve as an example. A moral realist will base his moral conclusions on the assumption that moral properties (such as good and evil) exist independently of how people think. His arguments, read literally, are riddled with this assumption through-and-through. Nonetheless, if he is intelligent, the inferences that he makes often map to highly nontrivial, but valid, inferences within my own system of moral thought. It might be necessary to do some relabeling of terms. But once I learn the relabeling "dictionary", I find that I can learn highly nontrivial implications of my premises by translating the implications that the realist inferred from his premises.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 10 November 2009 04:22:18AM 2 points [-]

Interesting idea. I'm not sure I completely understand it, though. Could you give an example?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 11 November 2009 01:23:31AM *  5 points [-]

Interesting idea. I'm not sure I completely understand it, though. Could you give an example?

Here's a made-up example. I chose this example for simplicity, not because it really represents the kind of insight that makes it worthwhile to listen to someone.

Prior to Darwin, many philosophers believed that the most fundamental explanations were teleological. To understand a thing, they held, you had to understand its purpose. Material causes were dependent upon teleological ones. (For example, a thing's purpose would determine what material causes it was subjected to in the first place). These philosophers would then proceed to use teleology as the basis of their reasoning about living organisms. For example, on seeing a turtle for the first time, they might have reasoned as follows:

Premise 1: This turtle has a hard shell.

Premise 2: The purpose of a hard shell is to deflect sharp objects.

Conclusion: Therefore, this turtle comes from an environment containing predators that attack with sharp objects (e.g., teeth).

But, of course, there is something deeply wrong with such an explanation. Insofar as a thing has a purpose, that purpose is something that the thing will do in the future. Teleology amounts to saying that the future somehow reached back in time and caused the thing to acquire properties in the past. Teleology is backwards causation.

After Darwin, we know that the turtle has a hard shell because hard shells are heritable and helped the turtle's ancestors to reproduce. The teleological explanation doesn't just violate causality---it also ignores the real reason that the turtle has a shell: natural selection. So the whole argument above might seem irredeemably wrong.

But now suppose that we introduce the following scheme for translating from the language of teleology to Darwinian language:

"The purpose of this organism's having property X is to perform action Y."

becomes

"The use of property X by this organism's ancestors to perform action Y caused this organism to have property X.

Applying this scheme to the argument above produces a valid and correct chain of reasoning. Moreover, once I figure out the scheme, I can apply it to many (but not all) chains of inferences made by the teleologist to produce what I regard to be correct and interesting inferences. In the example above, I only applied the translation scheme to a premise, but sometimes I'll get interesting results when I apply the scheme to a conclusion, too.

Of course, not all inferences by the teleologist will be salvageable. Many will be inextricably intertwined with false premises. It takes work to separate the wheat from the chaff. But, in my experience, it often turns out to be worth the effort.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 November 2009 02:21:34AM 2 points [-]

Good thing I asked; that wasn't what I originally thought you meant. It's similar enough to translating conversational shorthand that I probably already do that occasionally without even realizing it, but it'd be good to keep in in mind as a tool to use purposely. Thanks. :)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 13 November 2009 10:21:03PM 0 points [-]

I'm curious: What did you think I meant?

It's similar enough to translating conversational shorthand that . . .

I probably shouldn't have used the term "translation". Part of my point is that the "translation" does not preserve meaning. Only the form of the inference is preserved. The facts being asserted can change significantly, both in the premises and in the conclusion. (In my example, only the assertions in the premises changed.) In general, the arguer no longer agrees with the inference after the "translation". Moreover, his disagreement is not just semantic.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 14 November 2009 05:21:57PM 2 points [-]

I'd somehow gotten the idea that you were talking about taking the proposed pattern of relationships between ideas and considering its applicability to other, unrelated ideas. As an extremely simple example, if the given theory was "All dogs are bigger than cats", make note of the "all X are bigger than Y" idea, so it can be checked as a theory in other situations, like "all pineapples are bigger than cherries". That seems like a ridiculously difficult thing to do in practice, though, which is why I thought you might have meant something else.

Regarding 'translation', yep, I get it.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 09 November 2009 11:17:50PM *  4 points [-]

Quickly judging people as not worth listening to is a fabulous heuristic, especially given the Internet explosion of available alternatives.

But sharing such judgment risks offending people who didn't make the same cut.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 09 November 2009 11:26:05PM 3 points [-]

Following such a heuristic doesn't at all mean making strong high-certainty judgments.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 11:33:41PM 2 points [-]

Strength of emotional response and certainty of the underlying heuristic's accuracy aren't the same thing. It may not've been clear that I was reporting the former, but I was, and one of the possible responses to that comment that I was prepared for was "yes, but he went on to make this good point...".

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 10 November 2009 12:09:11AM *  1 point [-]

I agree, but the fantastic thing is that you lose so little when you reject too hastily. If the ideas you ignored turn out to be useful and true, someone you're willing to listen to will advocate them eventually.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 November 2009 02:11:41AM *  3 points [-]

That works if you assiduously and diligently and without flaw, start paying attention after no more than the third time you hear the idea advocated, and without using the idea itself to judge untrustworthy those who otherwise see competent.

In practice, people usually reject the idea itself and go on rejecting it, when they claim to be acting under cover of rejecting people. Consider those who die of rejecting cryonics; consider what policy they would have to follow in order to not do that. What good is it to quickly reject bad ideas if you quickly reject good ideas as well? Discrimination is the whole trick here.

I suppose we might have no recourse but to judge people and shut our ears to most of them, in the Internet age, but to say that we "lose so little" far understates the danger of a very dangerous policy.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 10 November 2009 08:48:26PM *  2 points [-]

I agree that people often don't make the necessary distinction between ideas they have evidence against, and unevaluated ideas they've been ignoring because they've only heard them advocated by kooks. As you point out, only ideas in the prior category properly discredit their advocates.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 10 November 2009 02:36:35AM 0 points [-]

There's more than just the one non-failure mode to this kind of thing. My method involves taking the time to consider the information gathered up to the point where I decided to stop listening to the person, as if I hadn't stopped listening to them at all. Information that I would've gotten from them after that point isn't affected by my opinion of them, since I haven't heard it (where it would be, if I were distracted by thinking 'this person's an idiot' as I listened to them), and I give as fair of a trial as I'm able to to the rest.

It may also be noteworthy that I didn't judge him for an argument he was making, and I make something of a point of not doing so unless the logic being used is painfully bad. (Tangential realization: That's why activists who aren't willing to have any 101-level discussions with newbies get a (mild) negative reaction from me; discarding a whole avenues of discourse like that cuts off a valuable, if noisy, source of information.)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 11:34:26PM *  1 point [-]

But sharing such judgment risks offending people who didn't make the same cut.

I figured that out, but bringing it up seemed like it would just compound the problem.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 09 November 2009 06:47:52PM 4 points [-]

Based on the first five minutes, the whole point of his lecture is that stories, explicitly including but not limited to those framed as good vs. evil, are often dangerous oversimplifications.

I'm telling you, as someone who has read quite a lot by Tyler Cowen, that he is not as naive about good and evil as you seem to think. You've read too much into the one sentence you've quoted.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 November 2009 01:09:24PM *  4 points [-]

My thought wasn't that he wouldn't have anything true to say. It was that if he's still defending good and evil as obviously existing, in that context, he's far enough behind me on the issue that I can safely assume that he doesn't have anything major to teach me, and that what he says is untrustworthy enough (because there's an obvious flaw in his thought process) that I'd have to spend an inordinate amount of time checking his logic before using even the parts that appear good - time that would be better spent elsewhere.

That's not a good heuristic. There are a lot of people - Eliezer would name Robert Aumann, I think - who are incredibly bright, highly knowledgeable, and capable of conveying that knowledge who are wrong about the answers to what some of us would consider easy questions.

Now, I know Berserk Buttons (warning: TV Tropes) as well as anyone, and I've dismissed some works of fiction which others have considered quite good (e.g. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, TV sitcom The Modern Family) because they pushed those buttons, but when it comes to factual information, even stupid people can teach you.

(Granted, you may be right about the worthlessness of this particular speech to you - I haven't watched it. But the heuristic is poor.)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 03:10:30PM 1 point [-]

The heuristic isn't widely applicable, but I disagree about it being poor altogether. As I pointed out above, it's not just that he defended good vs. evil. It's that he did it in the context of a presentation on a subtopic of how we conceptualize the world. He may have things to teach me in other areas, obviously.

That's why I compared it to someone bringing God into a discussion on ethics specifically. (Or, say, evolution.) That person may be brilliant at physics, but on the topic at hand, not so much.

It also occurs to me that this heuristic may be unusually useful to me because of my neurology. It does seem to take much more time and effort for me to deconstruct and find flaws in new ideas presented by others, compared to most people, and because of the extra time, there's a risk of getting distracted and not completing the process. It's enough of an issue that even a flawed heuristic to weed out bad memes is (or, feels - I'm not sure how one would actually test that) useful.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 November 2009 03:21:30PM 0 points [-]

Okay, I'll grant you that. It's better to have a sufficiently strict filter that loses some useful information than a weaker filter which lets in garbage data. I would presume (or, at least, advise) that you make a particular effort to analyze data which you previously rejected but which remains widely discussed, however - an example from my own experience being Searle's Chinese Room argument. Such items should be uncommon enough.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 04:07:51PM 1 point [-]

Agreed.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 08:03:39PM 3 points [-]

Are no things actually good vs. evil? Say, Schindler vs. the S.S.?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 November 2009 08:57:40PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure I can answer this coherently; I came to the conclusion that good and evil are not objectively real, or even useful concepts, long enough ago that I can't accurately recreate the steps that got me there.

I do occasionally have conversations with people who use those words, and mentally translate 'good' (in that sense) to 'applause light-generating' and 'evil' to 'revulsion-generating', 'unacceptable in modern society', and/or 'considered by the speaker to do more harm than good', in estimated order of frequency of occurrence. (I often agree that things labeled evil do more harm than good, but if the person doing the 'evil' thing agreed, they wouldn't be doing it, so it's obviously at least somewhat debatable.) I don't use the word 'evil' at all, myself, and don't use 'good' in the good-vs.-evil sense.

Those words are also curiosity-stoppers - it's not very useful to label an action or viewpoint as 'evil'; it's much more useful to explore why the person doing that thing or holding that attitude believes that it's correct. Likewise, labeling something as 'good' reduces the chance of thinking critically about it, and noticing flaws or areas that could be improved.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 09 November 2009 08:32:51AM 6 points [-]

I came to the conclusion that good and evil are not objectively real, or even useful concepts

...

I often agree that things labeled evil do more harm than good

Do more what than what?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 03:57:05PM *  0 points [-]

I haven't gotten around to deconstructing those terms yet, but off the top of my head:

A 'harmful to X' action is one that has a long-term effect on it that reduces its ability to function. Examples:

  • Taking some RAM out of a computer
  • Adding grit to a machine, increasing the rate at which it wears out
  • Injuring a person in such a way that they lose use of a body part, or develop PTSD, or are in ongoing pain (because ongoing pain reduces their ability to function, not because pain is intrinsically harmful)
  • Extremist activism, where doing so makes the movement less credible and decreases the rate at which more sensible activists can create change. (I assume here and below that, disregarding the extremism, the activism is promoting good in the sense at hand.)

A 'good for X' action, in this sense ('helpful' would be a better word), is one that has a long-term effect on it that increases its ability to function. Examples:

  • Adding RAM to a computer
  • Performing maintenance on a machine
  • Teaching a person, giving them medical help, establishing a relationship with them such that they can approach you for advice or help in the future
  • Extremest activism, where doing so moves the Overton window.

The question isn't usually whether an action does harm or good or both. The question is how much importance to give to the various harms and goods involved.

Comment author: Jack 09 November 2009 04:06:18PM *  1 point [-]

Any definition of harmful that doesn't include say, electro-shock torture and water-boarding is a really really bad definition.

Hint: Pain really is intrinsically harmful.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 04:10:18PM 2 points [-]

Those come under 'injuring in such a way as to cause the person to develop PTSD', and no, it's not.

Comment author: Jack 09 November 2009 04:21:07PM 3 points [-]

Plenty of people have been tortured and not ended up with PTSD. Moreover, we classify instances of those things as harmful long before the DSM even lets us diagnose PTSD.

Also, there are approximately fifty arguments in that post and comments, none demonstrating that pain isn't intrinsically harmful so I really have no idea what you want me to take away from that link.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 05:01:19PM 3 points [-]

PTSD or other long-term psychological (or physical) impairment, then - which may be sub-clinical or considered normal. An example: Punishment causes a psychological change that reduces the person's ability to do the thing that they were punished for. We don't (to the best of my knowledge) have a name for that change, but it observably happens, and when it does, the punishment has caused harm. (It may also be helpful, for example if the punished action would have reduced the person's ability to function in other ways. The two aren't always mutually exclusive. Compare it to charging someone money for a class - teaching is helpful, taking their money is harmful.)

Also, I do believe that there could be situations where someone is tortured and doesn't experience a long-term reduction in functionality, in which case, yes, the torture wasn't harmful. The generalization that torture is harmful is useful because those situations are rare, and because willingness to attempt to harm someone is likely to lead to harm, and should be addressed as such.

The most relevant point in the discussion of pain is right at the beginning - people who don't experience any pain tend to have very short or very difficult lives. That makes it obvious that being able to experience pain is useful to the experiencer, rather than net-harmful. So, even though some pain is observably harmful, some pain must be helpful enough to make up the difference. That doesn't jive with 'pain is intrinsically harmful', unless you're using a very different definition of the word, in which case I request that you clarify how you're defining it.

Comment author: Jack 09 November 2009 06:29:35PM 2 points [-]

Also, I do believe that there could be situations where someone is tortured and doesn't experience a long-term reduction in functionality, in which case, yes, the torture wasn't harmful.

Well, anyone else who thinks this is wrong feel free to modus tollens away the original definition. ...

I was hoping to make my point by way of counter example. Since you're not recognizing the counter example I have to go back through the whole definition and the context to see where we lost each other. But thats a mess to do because right now this is a semantic debate. To make it not one I need the cash value of you belief that something is harmful. Do you always try to avoid harm to yourself? Is something being harmful necessary for you to avoid it/avoid doing it to others? Is it sufficient? Does this just apply to you? All humans? AI? Animals? Plants? Thermostats? Futons? Is something other than help and harm at work in your decision making? You don't have to answer all of these, obviously, just give me an idea of what I should see if something is harmful so I can actually check to see if your definition works. Otherwise you can't be wrong.

Then we can see if "causing decreased functionality" leads to the right response in all the circumstances. For example, I think there are times where people want to limit their net functionality and are right to do so even and especially when they know what they're doing.

Comment author: Emile 10 November 2009 09:41:04AM 0 points [-]

So if you're waiting for the bus and I kick you in the shin, there's no harm? (there would be some ongoing pain for a little while, but with no impact on what you're doing - waiting for the bus)

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 10 November 2009 11:23:29AM *  2 points [-]

Adelene's attitude as illustrated in this thread towards pain resembles my own.

I do not assign any intrinsic value to avoiding pain (or experiencing pleasure). (I am unsure whether Adelene goes this far.)

I must stress though that pain (and pleasure) are indispensible approximations or "predictors" for various (instrumental) values. If I had a Richard-friendly superintelligence as my constant companion, I could ignore the informational value of my pain (pleasure) sensations because I could consult the superintelligence to predict the long-term effects of the various actions I contemplate, but the way it is now, it is too expensive or impossible for me to estimate certain instrumental values (mostly around staying healthy) unless I consult my pain (and pleasure) sensations.

Moreover, I must stress that there are quite a few things that correlate with pain. Pain for example is a strong sign that I am in a mental state not conducive to learning or to the careful consideration many factors (such as is necessary to do a good job at fixing a computer program). I do not have complete control over the mental machinery that allows me to program computers, etc. I cannot for example choose to put myself in the mental state that I know to be most conductive to, e.g., computer programming while enduring certain conditions that tend to cause pain.

So, that is one thing that has not yet been mentioned in this thread that correlates with pain. Here is another. I probably cannot stay motivated to work hard at something unless I regularly take pleasure from that work (or at the least I have a realistic expectation of future pleasure resulting from the work). I do not (usually -- see next paragraph) take that to mean that what I really care about is pleasure. Rather, I take that to mean that I have imperfect control over the means (e.g., my mind) by which I get my work done and that in particular, one of the circumstances that might prevent me from achieving what I really care about is that there is no way for me to stay motivated to do the things I would need to do to achieve the things I really care about -- because my neurology just does not allow that (even though that would get me what I really care about).

Like many people in this day and age, I wish I had more motivation, that is, I wish my actual behavior was more in line with the policies and goals I have set for myself. In fact, my motivation has become so unreliable and so weak that I have entered upon an experiment in which I assume that life really is all about pleasure -- or to be more precise, all about the search for something I care enough about so that protecting it or pursuing it is "naturally plenty motivating". Nevertheless, this experiment is something I started only this year whereas the attitude towards pain (and pleasure) I describe below has been my attitude since 1992.

Moreover, the attitude toward pain (and pleasure) I describe below still strikes me as the best way to frame most high-stakes situations when it is important to avoid the natural human tendency towards self-deception, to avoid wrongly mistaking personal considerations for global considerations or to see past the cant, ideology and propaganda about morality that bombard every one of us in this day and age. There is in human nature a tension IMHO between perceiving reality correctly (and consequently avoiding the sources of bias I just listed) and having plenty of motivation.

So if you're waiting for the bus and I kick you in the shin, there's no harm?

Though the question was addressed to Adelene, I'll give my answer. If you kick me in the shin hard enough to cause pain, then there is a non-negligible probability that the kick damaged bone, skin or such. Damage of that type is probably "cumulative" in that if enough damage occurs, my mobility will be permanently impaired. So, the kick in the shins will tend to reduce the amount of insult that part of my body can endure in the future, which reduces my behavioral options.

Now if I was waiting to be executed instead of waiting for the bus, and there was no chance of my avoiding execution, I (the current me) would be indifferent to whether you kicked me (the hypothetical, doomed me) in the shins. The reason I would be indifferent is that it is not going to change anything in the long term (since I will be dead by execution in the long term).

What I just said is "big-picture" true, but not true in detail. One detail that prevents its being completely true is that your kicking me in the shin might inspire in you a taste for kicking people in the shin, which I would prefer not to happen. Another detail is that my reputation will live on after my execution, and if onlookers observe your kicking me in the shin, it could concievable affect my reputation.

If I am faced with a choice between A1 and A2 and both A1 and A2 lead eventually to the same configuration of reality ("state of affairs" as the philosophers sometimes say) then I am indifferent between A1 and A2 even if A1 causes me to experience pleasure and A2 causes me to experience pain. Why? Because subjective experiences (in themselves, not counting the conditions -- of which there are quite a few -- that correlate with the subjective experiences) are impermanent, and my reason tells me that impermanent things are important only to the extent that they have permanent effects. (And by hypothesis, the kick in the shins in our latest thought experiment has no permanent effects.)

If reality was structured in such a way that the subjective experience of pain decremented some accumulator somewhere in reality, and if that accumulator could not at trivial cost be incremented again to cancel out the decrementing caused by the pain, well, then I would have to reconsider my position -- unless I knew for sure that the contents of the accumulator will not have a permanent effect on reality.

This got a little long. I just wanted Adelene to know that not everyone here considers her comments on pain strange. (Also, apologies to those who have heard all this before more than once or twice in previous years on Overcoming Bias.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 November 2009 10:38:18PM 4 points [-]

If I am faced with a choice between A1 and A2 and both A1 and A2 lead eventually to the same configuration of reality ("state of affairs" as the philosophers sometimes say) then I am indifferent between A1 and A2 even if A1 causes me to experience pleasure and A2 causes me to experience pain. Why? Because subjective experiences (in themselves, not counting the conditions -- of which there are quite a few -- that correlate with the subjective experiences) are impermanent, and my reason tells me that impermanent things are important only to the extent that they have permanent effects. (And by hypothesis, the kick in the shins in our latest thought experiment has no permanent effects.)

According to several theories of cosmology, the end state of the universe is fixed: entropy will increase to maximum, and the universe will be in a state of uniform chaos. Therefore nothing we can do will have a truly permanent effect, as the final state of the universe will be the same regardless. Assuming that to be the case, are you really indifferent between being kicked in the shins and not being kicked in the shins, since the universe ends up the same either way?

Comment author: Emile 10 November 2009 03:54:52PM 2 points [-]

This isn't as much about one's personal attitude to pain, but the morality of inflicting pain to someone else.

Adelene seems to be saying, roughly, that inflicting pain on someone else is morally neutral as long as there is no long-term harm like losing an eye or developing PTSD. That seems very much at odds with most conceptions of human morality I know of.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 09 November 2009 04:57:16PM 5 points [-]

For any concept, you can find a sufficiently rich context that makes the concept inadequate. The concept would be useful in simpler situations, but breaks down in more sophisticated ones. It's still recognized in them, by the same procedure that allows to recognize the concept where it is useful.

A concept is only genuinely useless if there hardly are any contexts where it's useful, not if there are situations where it isn't. You are too eager to explain useful tools away by presenting them with existence proofs of insurmountable challenges and the older cousins that should get deployed in them.

When you are worried about the fallacy of compression, that too many things interfere with each other when put in the same simplistic concept, remember that it's a tradeoff: you necessarily place some not-identical things together, and necessarily become less accurate at tracking each of them than if you paid a little more attention just in this particular case. But on the overall scale, you can't keep track of everything all the time, so whenever it's feasible, any simplification should be welcome.

See also: least convenient possible world, fallacy of compression, scales of justice fallacy.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 06:15:41PM 2 points [-]

It's getting more and more obvious that my neurology is a significant factor, here. I deal poorly with situations with some kinds of limited context; I seem to have never developed the heuristics that most people use to make sense of them, which is a fairly common issue for autistics. I don't make the tradeoff you suggest as often as most people do, and I do tend to juggle more bits of information at any given time, because it's the only way I've found that leads me, personally, to reasonably accurate conclusions. Instances where I can meaningfully address a situation with limited context are rare enough that tools to handle them seem useless to me.

I may need to work on not generalizing from one example about this kind of thing, though, to avoid offending people if nothing else.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 11 November 2009 03:51:14PM 1 point [-]

Btw, see also Yvain's The Trouble With "Good".

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 11 November 2009 07:36:28PM *  1 point [-]

Interesting post, but not terribly useful at first glance - it started with what sounded like a good description of how I work, diverged from how I do things at "But we are happy using the word "good" for all of them, and it doesn't feel like we're using the same word in several different ways, the way it does when we use "right" to mean both "correct" and "opposite of left".", and wound up offering a different (though useful for dealing with others) solution to the problem than the very personally efficient one that I've been using for a few years now. I do actually feel the difference in the different meanings of 'good' (I haven't cataloged them (I don't see any personal usefulness in doing so - note that I don't think in words in general), but I estimate at least half a dozen common meanings and several rarer ones), but that's somewhat beside the point.

My fix for the presented problem involves the following heuristic: The farther from neutral my general opinion of a class of things is, the more likely it is to be incorrect in any given case. Generally, a generalized strong positive or negative opinion is a sign that I'm underinformed in some way - I've been getting biased information, or I haven't noticed a type of situation where that kind of thing has a different effect than the one I'm aware of, or I haven't noticed that it's related to another class of things in some important way. The heuristic doesn't disallow strong positive or negative generalized opinions altogether, but it does enforce a higher standard of proof on more extreme ones, and leads me to explore the aspects of things that are counter to my existing opinion in an attempt to reach a more neutral (and complex, which is the real goal) opinion of them. It still allows strong contextual reactions, too, which I haven't yet seen a problem with, and which do appear to be generally useful.

Regarding the concepts of good (in the 'opposite of evil' sense) and evil, my apparent non-neutrality is personal (which is a kind of persistent context) - they're more harmful than helpful in achieving the kinds of goals that I tend to be most interested in, like gaining a comprehensive understanding of real-world conflicts or coming to appropriately-supported useful conclusions about moral questions, and while they seem to be more helpful than harmful in the pursuit of other goals, like manipulating people (which I am neutral on, to a degree that most people I know find disturbing) and creating coherent communities of irrational people, I personally don't consider those things relevant enough to sway my opinion. Disregarding the personal aspects, I think I have a near-neutral opinion of the existence of the concepts, but it's hard to tell; I haven't spent much time thinking about the issue on that scale.

Edit: And I believed that this group has similar-enough interests to generate the same kind of 'personal' context. I may have been wrong, but I thought that they were generally more harmful than helpful in solving the kinds of problems that are considered important here and by the kinds of individuals who participate here. Otherwise, I wouldn't've mentioned the issue at all, like I usually don't.

My reaction in the original comment was contextual, in both the personal sense and with regards to the type of presentation it was, which follows a very different set of heuristics than the ones I use to regulate general opinions, and allows strong reactions much more easily, but limits the effects of those reactions to the context at hand - perhaps in a much stricter way than you (plural) are assuming. I haven't taken the time to note the presenter's name (and I'm moderately faceblind and not good at remembering people by their voices), so even another presentation by the same person on the same topic will be completely unaffected by my reaction to this presentation.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 09:49:18PM *  2 points [-]

Rough definitions: good for agent X - net positive utility for agent X, evil for agent X - net negative utility for agent X. Or possibly: evil for agent X - a utility function that conflicts with that of agent X.

Good and evil don't have to be "written into the structure of the universe" to be coherent concepts. I assume you make choices. What is your criterion for choice? I also assume that you aren't completely selfish. You care about the welfare of other people at least to some degree right?

Of course, if two people/agents truly have differing utility functions, what is good to one may be evil to the other, but that doesn't invalidate the concepts of good and evil.

Comment author: DanArmak 08 November 2009 09:54:45PM 4 points [-]

That's not 'good and evil', just 'desired and undesired' - much milder and broader concepts.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 08 November 2009 10:23:14PM *  2 points [-]

I call an action "good" when it is what you should do - i.e. it has normative force behind it. This includes all choices. So, yes, it is a broader concept than traditional 'goodness,' but thats fine.

I usually reserve "desired and undesired" to refer to the psychological impulses that we sometimes fight and sometimes go along with. I may desire that second piece of chocolate cake, but if I really think it through, I don't really want to eat it - I shouldn't eat it. The economist's utility function probably refers to desires since the goal is to model actual behavior, but the ethicist's utility function is built with a completely different goal in mind.

Comment author: DanArmak 08 November 2009 09:14:18PM 2 points [-]

I often agree that things labeled evil do more harm than good, but if the person doing the 'evil' thing agreed, they wouldn't be doing it, so it's obviously at least somewhat debatable.

They cause harm to you, and good to the person doing it. Nothing to disagree about.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 November 2009 09:22:15PM 1 point [-]

The discussions in question have generally been about the actions of third-parties in other parts of the world, which haven't had any appreciable effect on my life (unless you count 'taking thought-time away from other issues' as an effect).

In cases where the discussion is about something that's been done to me, I still don't use the word 'evil', and I've actually been known to object to other people doing so in those cases. 'Selfish', 'misguided', 'poorly informed', 'emotion driven', and the like cover those situations much more usefully.

Comment author: DanArmak 08 November 2009 09:53:23PM 1 point [-]

Then, 'harm to someone'. Not necessarily to you. My point was that disagreement about the good/evil label doesn't mean there's disagreement about doing good or harm to someone.

Comment author: roland 09 November 2009 05:12:57AM 2 points [-]

I also felt annoyed by this and another political comment of the man. I still watched the whole and think he has a great point. Like everything: keep the good and throw away the bad.

Comment author: bgrah449 09 November 2009 03:26:26PM *  -3 points [-]

This is ivory tower bullshit. I can type out a longer response, but it still boils down to the rocky core: This comment is just self-congratulatory bullshit.

EDIT:: "He said something so dumb that I know every tangentially related thought he has will be worthless" is self-congratulatory bullshit. It is! That's what it is.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 November 2009 03:47:14PM 2 points [-]

I believe your objection is likely similar to mine - it would behoove you to address the text of her response to it.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 09 November 2009 04:02:57PM 0 points [-]

Yes, thanks.

Comment author: Jack 09 November 2009 03:41:36PM 2 points [-]

It is bullshit. I didn't vote you down but I could have done without the random shot at academia. People in the ivory tower are usually smarter than this.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 10 November 2009 05:36:57AM 1 point [-]

If you can't be bothered to offer arguments to back up your opinion, just use the vote buttons.

Comment author: arundelo 01 December 2009 03:40:54PM 1 point [-]

Cowen on "The limits of good vs. evil thinking":

Good vs. evil thinking causes us to lower our value of a person's opinion, or dismiss it altogether, if we find out that person has behaved badly. We no longer wish to affiliate with those people and furthermore we feel epistemically justified in dismissing them.

Sometimes this tendency will lead us to intellectual mistakes.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 November 2009 04:31:33PM *  1 point [-]

Other than how we treat them, what's the difference between a story and a theory or hypothesis?

The difference between a weather forecast and a weather forecasting system, I'd guess. The latter are (often) used to generate the former.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 08 November 2009 11:23:48PM 1 point [-]

Earthquakes are evil. Food that's tasty, cheap, and healthy is good.

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 November 2009 10:45:29PM 1 point [-]

[nitpick] Aren't earthquakes a necessary component of geologic processes that are/were essential for the formation and maintenance of life of Earth? [/nitpick]

Comment author: fgolemo 11 July 2013 05:08:34PM 0 points [-]

I know, tis pretty old, but some remark: How about the upsides of stories. I mean... a) we apparently are in a way programmed to find/make up stories, because they help us make sense of the world. Isn't it good, to break complicated stuff down into simpler stories, then tell those stories and make the audience want to hear more (or find out more themselves)? b) they stick. If I want to remember something I make it into a story or try to find it's internal story (or I stupidly repeat it over and over again if I really don't get it).

Don't get me wrong - I agree with a lot of what he says, but what he says is in turn a good-vs-evil story (as he said). Point I want to make: Stories aren't all that bad! :) Trying to fight our story-thinking a little seems to be good thing nevertheless, because e.g. with Kahneman's "all I know is all there is" mentality both (a) and (b) really are worthless.