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The Least Convenient Possible World

139 Post author: Yvain 14 March 2009 02:11AM

Related to: Is That Your True Rejection?

"If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents’ arguments.  But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them.  To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse."

   -- Black Belt Bayesian, via Rationality Quotes 13

Yesterday John Maxwell's post wondered how much the average person would do to save ten people from a ruthless tyrant. I remember asking some of my friends a vaguely related question as part of an investigation of the Trolley Problems:

You are a doctor in a small rural hospital. You have ten patients, each of whom is dying for the lack of a separate organ; that is, one person needs a heart transplant, another needs a lung transplant, another needs a kidney transplant, and so on. A traveller walks into the hospital, mentioning how he has no family and no one knows that he's there. All of his organs seem healthy. You realize that by killing this traveller and distributing his organs among your patients, you could save ten lives. Would this be moral or not?

I don't want to discuss the answer to this problem today. I want to discuss the answer one of my friends gave, because I think it illuminates a very interesting kind of defense mechanism that rationalists need to be watching for. My friend said:

It wouldn't be moral. After all, people often reject organs from random donors. The traveller would probably be a genetic mismatch for your patients, and the transplantees would have to spend the rest of their lives on immunosuppressants, only to die within a few years when the drugs failed.

On the one hand, I have to give my friend credit: his answer is biologically accurate, and beyond a doubt the technically correct answer to the question I asked. On the other hand, I don't have to give him very much credit: he completely missed the point and lost a valuable effort to examine the nature of morality.

So I asked him, "In the least convenient possible world, the one where everyone was genetically compatible with everyone else and this objection was invalid, what would you do?"

He mumbled something about counterfactuals and refused to answer. But I learned something very important from him, and that is to always ask this question of myself. Sometimes the least convenient possible world is the only place where I can figure out my true motivations, or which step to take next. I offer three examples:


1:  Pascal's Wager. Upon being presented with Pascal's Wager, one of the first things most atheists think of is this:

Perhaps God values intellectual integrity so highly that He is prepared to reward honest atheists, but will punish anyone who practices a religion he does not truly believe simply for personal gain. Or perhaps, as the Discordians claim, "Hell is reserved for people who believe in it, and the hottest levels of Hell are reserved for people who believe in it on the principle that they'll go there if they don't."

This is a good argument against Pascal's Wager, but it isn't the least convenient possible world. The least convenient possible world is the one where Omega, the completely trustworthy superintelligence who is always right, informs you that God definitely doesn't value intellectual integrity that much. In fact (Omega tells you) either God does not exist or the Catholics are right about absolutely everything.

Would you become a Catholic in this world? Or are you willing to admit that maybe your rejection of Pascal's Wager has less to do with a hypothesized pro-atheism God, and more to do with a belief that it's wrong to abandon your intellectual integrity on the off chance that a crazy deity is playing a perverted game of blind poker with your eternal soul?

2: The God-Shaped Hole. Christians claim there is one in every atheist, keeping him from spiritual fulfillment.

Some commenters on Raising the Sanity Waterline don't deny the existence of such a hole, if it is intepreted as a desire for purpose or connection to something greater than one's self. But, some commenters say, science and rationality can fill this hole even better than God can.

What luck! Evolution has by a wild coincidence created us with a big rationality-shaped hole in our brains! Good thing we happen to be rationalists, so we can fill this hole in the best possible way! I don't know - despite my sarcasm this may even be true. But in the least convenient possible world, Omega comes along and tells you that sorry, the hole is exactly God-shaped, and anyone without a religion will lead a less-than-optimally-happy life. Do you head down to the nearest church for a baptism? Or do you admit that even if believing something makes you happier, you still don't want to believe it unless it's true?

3: Extreme Altruism. John Maxwell mentions the utilitarian argument for donating almost everything to charity.

Some commenters object that many forms of charity, especially the classic "give to starving African orphans," are counterproductive, either because they enable dictators or thwart the free market. This is quite true.

But in the least convenient possible world, here comes Omega again and tells you that Charity X has been proven to do exactly what it claims: help the poor without any counterproductive effects. So is your real objection the corruption, or do you just not believe that you're morally obligated to give everything you own to starving Africans?


You may argue that this citing of convenient facts is at worst a venial sin. If you still get to the correct answer, and you do it by a correct method, what does it matter if this method isn't really the one that's convinced you personally?

One easy answer is that it saves you from embarrassment later. If some scientist does a study and finds that people really do have a god-shaped hole that can't be filled by anything else, no one can come up to you and say "Hey, didn't you say the reason you didn't convert to religion was because rationality filled the god-shaped hole better than God did? Well, I have some bad news for you..."

Another easy answer is that your real answer teaches you something about yourself. My friend may have successfully avoiding making a distasteful moral judgment, but he didn't learn anything about morality. My refusal to take the easy way out on the transplant question helped me develop the form of precedent-utilitarianism I use today.

But more than either of these, it matters because it seriously influences where you go next.

Say "I accept the argument that I need to donate almost all my money to poor African countries, but my only objection is that corrupt warlords might get it instead", and the obvious next step is to see if there's a poor African country without corrupt warlords (see: Ghana, Botswana, etc.) and donate almost all your money to them. Another acceptable answer would be to donate to another warlord-free charitable cause like the Singularity Institute.

If you just say "Nope, corrupt dictators might get it," you may go off and spend the money on a new TV. Which is fine, if a new TV is what you really want. But if you're the sort of person who would have been convinced by John Maxwell's argument, but you dismissed it by saying "Nope, corrupt dictators," then you've lost an opportunity to change your mind.

So I recommend: limit yourself to responses of the form "I completely reject the entire basis of your argument" or "I accept the basis of your argument, but it doesn't apply to the real world because of contingent fact X." If you just say "Yeah, well, contigent fact X!" and walk away, you've left yourself too much wiggle room.

In other words: always have a plan for what you would do in the least convenient possible world.

Comments (134)

Comment author: davidamann 14 March 2009 03:53:55AM 59 points [-]

I think a better way to frame this issue would be the following method.

  1. Present your philosophical thought-experiment.
  2. Ask your subject for their response and their justification.
  3. Ask your subject, what would need to change for them to change their belief?

For example, if I respond to your question of the solitary traveler with "You shouldn't do it because of biological concerns." Accept the answer and then ask, what would need to change in this situation for you to accept the killing of the traveler as moral?

I remember this method giving me deeper insight into the Happiness Box experiment.

Here is how the process works:

  1. There is a happiness box. Once you enter it, you will be completely happy through living in a virtual world. You will never leave the box. Would you enter it?
  2. Initial response. Yes, I would enter the box. Since my world is only made up of my perceptions of reality, there is no difference between the happiness box and the real world. Since I will be happier in the happiness box, I would enter.
  3. Reframing question. What would need to change so you would not enter the box.
  4. My response: Well, if I had children or people depending on me, I could not enter.

Surprising conclusion! Aha! Then you do believe that there is a difference between a happiness box and the real world, namely your acceptance of the existence of other minds and the obligations those minds place on you.

That distinction was important to me, not only intellectually but in how I approached my life.

Hope this contributes to the conversation.


Comment author: pwno 14 March 2009 09:07:25PM 12 points [-]

I find a similar strategy useful when I am trying to argue my point to a stubborn friend. I ask them, "What would I have to prove in order for you to change your mind?" If they answer "nothing" you know they are probably not truth-seekers.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 March 2009 05:56:07AM *  5 points [-]

Namely, the point of reversal of your moral decision is that it helps to identify what this particular moral position is really about. There are many factors to every decision, so it might help to try varying each of them, and finding other conditions that compensate for the variation.

For example, you wouldn't enter the happiness box if you suspected that information about it giving the true happiness is flawed, that it's some kind of lie or misunderstanding (on anyone's part), of which the situation of leaving your family on the outside is a special case, and here is a new piece of information. Would you like your copy to enter the happiness box if you left behind your original self? Would you like a new child to be born within the happiness box? And so on.

Comment author: abramdemski 02 September 2012 10:46:32PM 0 points [-]

This seems to nicely fix something which I felt was wrong in the "least convenient possible world" heuristic. The LCPW only serves to make us consider a possibility seriously. It may be too easy to come up with a LCPW. Asking what would change your mind helps us examine the decision boundary.

Comment author: Rings_of_Saturn 14 March 2009 07:16:28PM 0 points [-]

Great, David! I love it.

Comment author: MBlume 14 March 2009 02:21:30AM *  34 points [-]

I'm not sure if I'm evading the spirit of the post, but it seems to me that the answer to the opening problem is this:

If you were willing to kill this man to save these ten others, then you should long ago have simply had all ten patients agree to a 1/10 game of Russian Roulette, with the proviso that the nine winners get the organs of the one loser.

Comment author: Yvain 14 March 2009 02:28:53AM 16 points [-]

While emphasizing that I don't want this post to turn into a discussion of trolley problems, I endorse that solution.

Comment author: abramdemski 02 September 2012 10:35:23PM 5 points [-]

In the least convenient possible world, only the random traveler has a blood type compatible with all ten patients.

Comment author: Rixie 14 November 2012 02:21:15AM -1 points [-]

MBlume knows this, he's just telling us what he was thinking.

Comment deleted 14 March 2009 07:15:41AM [-]
Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 March 2009 07:32:52AM *  9 points [-]

Throwing a die is a way of avoiding bias in choosing a person to kill. If you choose a person to kill personally, you run a risk of doing in in an unfair fashion, and thus being guilty in making an unfair choice. People value fairness. Using dice frees you of this responsibility, unless there is a predictably better option. You are alleviating additional technical moral issues involved in killing a person. This issue is separate from deciding whether to kill a person at all, although the reduction in moral cost of killing a person achieved by using the fair roulette technology may figure in the original decision.

Comment author: Tasky 23 September 2011 10:56:47PM 2 points [-]

But as a doctor, probably you will have to choose non-randomly, if you want to stand by your utilitarian viewpoint, since killing different people might have different probabilities of success. Assuming the lest convenient possible world hypothesis, you can't make your own life easier by assuming each one's sacrifice is as likely to go well. So in the end you will have to assume that one patients sacrifice will be the "best", and will have to decide if you kill them, thus reverting to the original problem.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 16 April 2013 02:19:44AM 0 points [-]

What if one or more of the patients don't agree to do this?

Comment author: bill 15 March 2009 06:46:10PM 17 points [-]

One way to train this: in my number theory class, there was a type of problem called a PODASIP. This stood for Prove Or Disprove And Salvage If Possible. The instructor would give us a theorem to prove, without telling us if it was true or false. If it was true, we were to prove it. If it was false, then we had to disprove it and then come up with the "most general" theorem similar to it (e.g. prove it for Zp after coming up with a counterexample in Zm).

This trained us to be on the lookout for problems with the theorem, but then seeing the "least convenient possible world" in which it was true.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 14 March 2009 06:43:24PM 8 points [-]

I like the phrase "precedent utilitarianism". It sounds to utilitarians like you're joining their camp, while actually pointing out that you're taking a long-term view of utility, which they usually refuse to do. The important ingredient is paying attention to incentives, which is really the rational response to most questions about morality. Many choices which seem "fairer", "more just", or whose alternatives provoke a disgust response don't take the long-term view into account. If we go around sacrificing every lonely stranger to the highest benefit of others nearby, no one is safe. It's a tragedy that all those people are sick and will die if they don't get help, but we don't make the world less tragic by sacrificing one to save ten every chance we get.

Comment author: alex_zag_al 17 November 2011 07:02:20AM 2 points [-]

Actually, we would all be more safe, because we'd be in less danger from organ failure. We are each more likely to be one of the "others nearby" than the "lonely stranger".

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 February 2013 02:08:59AM 1 point [-]

I like the phrase "precedent utilitarianism". It sounds to utilitarians like you're joining their camp, while actually pointing out that you're taking a long-term view of utility, which they usually refuse to do

On what basis would you say it's the case that utilitarians usually refuse to take a long-term view of utility?

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 03 March 2013 06:32:36AM 0 points [-]

When I've argued with people who called themselves utilitarian, they seemed to want to make trade-offs among immediately visible options. I'm not going to try to argue that I have population statistics, or know what the "proper" definition of a utilitarian is. Do you believe that some other terminology or behavior better characterizes those called "utilitarians"?

Comment author: Desrtopa 03 March 2013 02:07:51PM *  1 point [-]

Well, in my experience people who self identify as utilitarians don't appear to be any more shortsighted in terms of real life moral quandaries than people who don't so self identify.

I don't think it's the case that utilitarians tend to be shortsighted, just that people in general tend to be; if non-utilitarians tend to choose a less shortsighted action in a constructed moral dilemma, it's not usually due to consciously taking a long view.

When I was in college, a professional philosopher once visited and gave a seminar, where she raised the traveler-at-a-hospital scenario as an argument against utilitarianism (simply on the basis that killing the traveler defies our moral intuitions.) I responded that realistically, given human nature, if doctors tended to do this, then because people aren't effective risk assessers, people would tend to avoid hospitals for fear of being harvested, to the point that the practice would probably be doing more harm than good. She had never heard or thought of this argument before, and found it a compelling reason not to harvest the traveler from a utilitarian point of view. So as a non utilitarian, it doesn't seem that she was any more likely to look at questions of utility from a long view, she was just more willing to let moral intuitions control her decision, which sometimes has the same effect.

Comment author: christopherj 17 October 2013 08:33:25PM 1 point [-]

And that is an advantage of traditional moral systems -- because they have been around for so long, they have had opportunities to be tried and tested in various ways. It won't give adherents a long-term view, but it can be a similar effect. Think of it as, "I don't have to think out the consequences of this because other people have thought through similar problems over a thousand years, and came up with a rule that says I should do X." One would be foolish to totally disregard traditional morality simply because of it's occasional clash with the modern world. It would be like disregarding a "traditional" gene made by "stupid blind arbitrary evolution" because we think we have a better one made by a smarter system -- it might be a good idea to compare anyways.

Comment author: freyley 08 April 2009 05:40:58PM 7 points [-]

One difficulty with the least convenient possible world is where that least convenience is a significant change in the makeup of the human brain. For example, I don't trust myself to make a decision about killing a traveler with sufficient moral abstraction from the day-to-day concerns of being a human. I don't trust what I would become if I did kill a human. Or, if that's insufficient, fill in a lack of trust in the decisionmaking in general for the moment. (Another example would be the ability to trust Omega in his responses)

Because once that's a significant issue in the subject , then the least convenient possible world you're asking me to imagine doesn't include me -- it includes some variant of me whose reactions I can predict, but not really access. Porting them back to me is also nontrivial.

It is an interesting thought experiment, though.

Comment author: bentarm 14 March 2009 09:24:19PM 28 points [-]

There are real life examples where reality has turned out to be the "least convenient of possible worlds". I have spent many hours arguing with people who insist that there are no significant gender differences (beyond the obvious), and are convinced that to assert otherwise is morally reprehensible.

They have spent so long arguing that such differences do not exist, and this is the reason that sexism is wrong, that their morality just can't cope with a world in which this turns out not to be true. There are many similar politically charged issues - Pinker discusses quite a few in the Blank Slate - where people aren't wiling to listen to arguments about factual issues because they believe they have moral consequences.

The problem, of course - and I realise this is the main point of this post - is that if your morality is contingent on empirical issues where you might turn out to be wrong, you have to accept the consequences. If you believe that sexism is wrong because there are no heritable gender differences, you have to be willing to accept that if these differences do turn out to exist then you'll say sexism is ok.

This is probably a test you should apply to all of your moral beliefs - if it just so happens that I'm wrong about the factual issue on which I'm basing my belief is wrong, will really I be willing to change my mind?

Comment author: Pr0methean 19 April 2013 08:20:04AM 0 points [-]

That raises an interesting question: is it possible to base a moral code only on what's true in all possible worlds that contain me?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 19 April 2013 12:13:18PM 2 points [-]

To do that would require that "all possible worlds that contain me" be a coherent concept. What does it mean, to identify as "me" some agent in a world very different from our own?

Comment author: alex_zag_al 17 November 2011 07:09:12AM 6 points [-]

There's another benefit: you remove a motivation to lie to yourself. If you think that a contingent fact will get you out of a hard choice, you might believe it. But you probably won't if it doesn't get you out of the hard choice anyway.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 14 March 2009 07:23:16AM *  16 points [-]

Let's try something different.

  • Puts on the reviewer's hat.

The Yvain's post presented a new method for dealing with the stopsign problem in reasoning about questions of morality. The stopsign problem consists in following an invalid excuse to avoid thinking about the issue at hand, instead of doing something constructive about resolving the issue.

The method presented by Yvain consists in putting in place the universal countermeasure against the stopsign excuses: whenever a stopsign comes up, you move the discussed moral issue to a different, hypothetical setting, where the stopsign no longer applies. The only valid excuse in this setting is that you shouldn't do something, which also resolves the moral question.

However, the moral questions should be concerned with reality, not with fantasy. Whenever a hypothetical setting is brought in the discussion of morality, it should be understood as a theoretical device for reasoning about the underlying moral judgment applicable to the real world. There is a danger in fallaciously generalizing the moral conclusion from fictional evidence, both because there might be factors in the fictional setting that change your decision and which you haven't properly accounted for in the conclusion, and because decision extracted from the fictional setting is drawn in the far mode, running a risk of being too removed from the real world to properly reflect people's preferences.

Comment author: Nebu 16 March 2009 09:37:15PM 15 points [-]

I voted up on your post, Yvain, as you've presented some really good ideas here. Although it may seem like I'm totally missing your point by my response to your 3 scenarios, I assure you that I am well aware that my responses are of the "dodging the question" type which you are advocating against. I simply cannot resist to explore these 3 scenarios on their own.

Pascal's Wager

In all 3 scenarios, I would ask Omega further questions. But these being "least convenient world" scenarios, I suspect it'd be all "Sorry, can't answer that" and then fly away. And I'd call it a big jerk.

For Pascal Wager's specific scenario, I'd probably ask Omega "Really? Either God doesn't exist or everything the Catholics say is correct? Even the self-contradicting stuff?" And of course, he'd decline to answer and fly away.

So then I'd be stuck trying to decide whether God doesn't exist, or logic is incorrect (i.e. reality can be logically self inconsistent). I'm tempted to adopt Catholicism (for the same reason I would one-box on Newcomb: I want the rewards), but I'm not sure how my brain could handle a non-logical reality. So I really don't know what would happen here.

But let's say Omega additionally tells me that Catholicism is actually self-consistent, and I just misunderstood something about it, before flying away. In that case, I guess I'd start to study Catholicism. If my revised view of Catholicism has me believe that it does some rather cruel stuff (stone people for minor offenses, etc.) then I'd have to weight that against my desire to not suffer eternal torture.

I mean, eternal torture is pretty frickin' bad. I think in the end, I'd convert. And I'd also try to convert as many other people as possible, because I suspect I'd need to be cruel to fewer people if fewer people went against Christianity.

The God-Shaped Hole

To clarify your scenario, I'm guessing Omega explicitly tells me that I will be happier if I believe something untrue (i.e. God). I would probably reject God in this case, as Omega is implicitly confirming that God does not exist, and I do care about truth more than happiness. I've already experience this in other manners, so this is a much easier scenario for me to imagine.

Extreme Altruism

I don't think I can overcome this challenge. No matter how much I think about it, I find myself putting up semantic stop signs. In my "least convenient world", Omega tells me that Africa is so poverty stricken, and that my contribution would be so helpful, that I would be improving the lives of billions of people, in exchange for giving up all my wealth. While I might not donate all my money to save 10, I think I value billions of lives more than my own life. Do I value it more than my own happiness? This is an extremely painful question for me to think about, so I stop thinking about it.

"Okay", I say to Omega, "what if I only donate X percent of my money, and keep the rest for myself?" In one possible "least convenient world", Omega tells me that the charity is run by some nutcase whom, for whatever reason, will only accept an all-or-nothing deal. Well, when I phrase it like that, I feel like not donating anything, and blaming it on the nutcase. So suppose instead Omega tells me "There's some sort of principles of economy of scale which is too complicated for me to explain to you which basically means that your contribution will be wasted unless you contribute at least Y amount of dollars, which coincidentally just happens to be your total net worth." Again, I'm torn and find it difficult to come to a conclusion.

Alternative, I say to Omega "I'll just donate X percent of my money." Omega tells me "that's good, but it's not optimum." And I reply "Okay, but I don't have to do the optimum." but then Omega convinces me that actually, yes, I really should be doing the optimum somehow. Perhaps something along the line of how my current "ignore Africa altogether" behaviour is better than the behaviour of going to Africa and killing, torturing, raping everyone there. That doesn't mean that the "ignore Africa" strategy is moral.

Comment author: jknapka 02 December 2011 05:36:58PM 1 point [-]

I mean, eternal torture is pretty frickin' bad. I think in the end, I'd convert. And I'd also try to convert as many other people as possible, because I suspect I'd need to be cruel to fewer people if fewer people went against Christianity.

This is a very good point, and I believe I'll point it out to my rather fundamentalist sibling when next we talk about this: if I really, truly believed that every non-Christian was doomed to eternal damnation, you can bet I'd be an evangelist!

Extreme Altruism

While I might not donate all my money to save 10, I think I value billions of lives more than my own life. Do I value it more than my own happiness? This is an extremely painful question for me to think about, so I stop thinking about it.

I definitely don't value those billions of lives more than my own happiness, or more than the happiness of those I know and love. However, I would seriously consider giving all of my wealth if Omega assured me that me and mine would be able to continue to be reasonably happy after doing so, even if it meant severe lifestyle changes.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 04 January 2011 10:19:45AM 5 points [-]

Would you become a Catholic in this world? Or are you willing to admit that maybe your rejection of Pascal's Wager has less to do with a hypothesized pro-atheism God, and more to do with a belief that it's wrong to abandon your intellectual integrity on the off chance that a crazy deity is playing a perverted game of blind poker with your eternal soul?

I don't think I would be able to bring myself to worship honestly a God who bestowed upon us the ability to reason and then rewarded us for not using it.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 05 January 2011 01:58:04AM 5 points [-]

Would you want to, if you could? If so, given the stakes, you should try damn hard to make yourself able to.

Comment author: robertskmiles 18 September 2011 01:11:54AM 2 points [-]

I don't think I would be able to bring myself to worship honestly a God who bestowed upon us the ability to reason and then rewarded us for not using it.

I don't follow your reasoning. Because God made us able to do a particular thing, we shouldn't be rewarded for choosing not to do that thing? A quick word substitution illustrates my issue:

"I don't think I would be able to bring myself to worship honestly a God who bestowed upon us the ability to murder and then rewarded us for not using it."

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 18 September 2011 02:34:46AM -1 points [-]

My statement does not generalize in that way, and was not intended to do so.

Comment author: Antonio 22 October 2011 12:50:31AM 4 points [-]

It does. It just doesn't if you accept the premise that intelligence is, in and of itself, good (and murder is not). I accept that premise, of course, and your assertion that it was not intended to be generalized as such. But still, within the framework of this hipothetical world, that simply cannot be true. In fact, it cannot be relevant. It is not a moral question at all; more of an utility vs principles thing.

In the original Pascal's Wager, as I recall, false (outwardly) adoration does score you points. I seem to recall him saying that "at least you wouldn't be corrupting the youths" and "you may become convinced by habit", at least. So yeah, I would try my best (and probably fail) to aquire that reward, if it was shown to be worth it. On the other hand, on such a world, it probably would not. Heaven for the weather, Hell for the company, et al.

Comment author: p4wnc6 13 June 2011 06:53:14AM 4 points [-]

I would act differently in the least convenient world than I do in the world that I do live in.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 14 March 2009 06:44:19AM 4 points [-]

Very good point, and crystalizes some of my thinking on some of the discussion on the tyrant/charity thing.

As far as the specific problems you posed...

For your souped up Pascal's Wager, I admit that one gives me pause. Taking into account the fact that Omega singled out one out of the space of all possible religions, etc etc... Well, the answer isn't obvious to me right now. This flavor would seem to not admit to any of the usual basic refutations of the wager. I think under these circumstances, assuming Omega wasn't open to answering any further questions and wasn't giving any other info, I'd probably at least spend rather more time investigating Catholicism, studying the religion a bit more and really thinking things through.

For question 2 (the really "god shaped" hole) though, personally, while I value happiness, it's not the only thing I value. I'll take truth, thank you very much. (In the spirit of this, I'm assuming there's no psychological trick that would let me fake-believe enough to fill the hole or other ways of getting around the problem.) But yeah, I think I'd choose truth there.

Question 3? Assuming the most inconvenient world (ie, there's no way that I could potentially do more good by keeping the money, etc etc, no way out of the "give it away to do maximal good") well, I'm not sure what I'd do, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to in any way justify not giving it away to Charity X. Though, if I actually had a known Omega give me that information, then I think that might just be enough to give me the mental/emotional/willpower strength to do it. ie, assuming that I KNEW that that way was really the path if I wanted to optimize the good I do in the world, not just in an abstract theoretical way, but was actually told that by a known Omega, well, that might be enough to get me to actually do it.

Comment author: astray 19 March 2009 07:31:56PM 4 points [-]

The souped up Pascal's Wager seems like the thousand door version of Monty Hall.

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 March 2009 02:45:20AM *  7 points [-]

So I asked him, "In the least convenient possible world, the one where everyone was genetically compatible with everyone else and this objection was invalid, what would you do?"

Obviously, you wait for one of the sick patients to die, and use that person's organs to save the others, letting the healthy traveler go on his way. ;)

But that isn't the least convenient possible world - the least convenient one is actually the one in which the traveler is compatible with all the sick people, but the sick people are not compatible with each other.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 14 March 2009 06:50:02AM 7 points [-]

Actually, you don't even need to add that additional complexity to make the world sufficiently inconvenient.

If the rest of the patients are sufficiently sick, their organs may not really be suitable for use as transplants, right?

Comment author: hegemonicon 14 March 2009 06:32:31PM *  6 points [-]

The problem with the 'god shaped hole' situation (and questions of happiness in general) is that if something doesn't make you happy NOW, it becomes very difficult to believe that it will make you happy LATER.

For example, say some Soma-drug was invented that, once taken, would make you blissfully happy for the rest of your life. Would you take it? Our immediate reaction is to say 'no', probably because we don't like the idea of 'fake', chemically-induced happiness. In other words, because the idea doesn't make us happy now, we don't really believe it will make us happy later.

Valuing truth seems like just another way of saying truth makes you happy. Because filling the god shaped hole means not valuing truth, the idea doesn't make you happy right now, so you don't really believe it will make you happy later.

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 August 2011 09:51:48PM 3 points [-]

For example, say some Soma-drug was invented that, once taken, would make you blissfully happy for the rest of your life. Would you take it?

I try my best to value other peoples' happiness equal to my own. If taking a happiness-inducing pill was likely to make me a kinder, more generous, more productive person, I would choose to take it (with some misgivings related to it seeming like 'cheating' and 'not good for character-building') but if it were to make me less kind/generous/productive, I would have much stronger misgivings.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 21 May 2011 08:32:15AM 1 point [-]

I would definitely take the Soma, and don't see why anyone wouldn't. Odd, the differences between what people find acceptable.

Is anyone else with me in desiring chemically-induced happiness as much as any other? (Well, all happiness is chemically-induced, when you get right down to it, so I assume there are no qualitative differences.)

Comment author: peter_hurford 04 August 2011 09:06:54PM 2 points [-]

I'm reminded of Yudkowsky's Not For the Sake of Happiness Alone.

Comment author: Hedonic_Treader 04 August 2011 10:22:00PM *  4 points [-]

I think one of the points underrepresented in these "Not For the Sake of XXX Alone" posts is how people would respond to a least convenient world possible in which they would be forced to make sharp trade-offs between competing values.

For instance, I value diversity, a kind of narrative depth to raw experiences. But if I had to choose either sustainable, chemically induced unsophisticated pleasure or else diverse pain and misery with narrative depth, I'd almost certainly choose the pleasure.

This is relevant to FAI and CEV, I think. If the success probability of simple, pleasure-generating FAI is higher than more sophisticated (and difficult) "Not For the Sake of XXX Alone"-respecting FAI, it might be better opting for the pleasure-generating version.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 19 August 2011 03:06:22AM 3 points [-]

I value diversity, a kind of narrative depth to raw experiences. But if I had to choose either sustainable, chemically induced unsophisticated pleasure or else diverse pain and misery with narrative depth, I'd almost certainly choose the pleasure.

Agreed. I also think people tend to underestimate the goodness of pure bliss: I have experienced such a state, and I'm here to tell you, the concerns about XXX become very much more minor than you would expect. They don't disappear - if you like painting, you'll still want to paint - but you suddenly understand how minor the pleasure painting gives you really is, in comparison.

Or at least that's how I felt, anyway.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 19 August 2011 03:03:04AM 0 points [-]

He makes good points, but note that there's nothing saying you couldn't take Soma and participate in the joy of scientific discovery (or whatever).

Comment author: peter_hurford 20 August 2011 04:53:19AM 0 points [-]

The argument wasn't that you need the joy of scientific discovery; it was that scientific discovery is important to us for reasons entirely apart from joy. You would never want a Soma substitute for scientific discovery, because that wouldn't involve... you know... actual scientific discovery.

Additionally, another different take on this is Yvain's Are Wireheads Happy?.

Comment author: jhuffman 04 August 2011 09:01:44PM *  1 point [-]

This is just wire-heading isn't it? At least, that is what you should search for if you want to hear what people on this site tend to think about this sort of idea. I am not certain of my own view of it. I tend to think I'd wire-head at first, but then some implications I find on more reflection make me unsure.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 19 August 2011 03:07:22AM 1 point [-]

I tend to think I'd wire-head at first, but then some implications I find on more reflection make me unsure.

Same here. That is, I know I'd wirehead - I don't see any bothersome implications with that idea alone. However, if you add in something like "once you wirehead you are immobile and cannot do anything else", then I become more unsure.

Comment author: jhuffman 19 August 2011 02:44:23PM 1 point [-]

It does not matter if you are immobilized. Once you are wire-heading there is no reason you would ever stop since you've already got peak pleasure/joy. I think this effectively immobilizes you. There is no problem that could come to you that wouldn't be best solved by more wire-heading, except for a threat to the wire-heading itself.

Comment author: Kingreaper 04 October 2011 01:25:07PM 0 points [-]

I wouldn't take it. I desire to help others, and it gives me pleasure to do so, it makes me suffer to harm others, and I desire not to do so.

Being perpetually in a state of extreme pleasure would make this pleasure/suffering irrelevant, and might lead me to behave less in line with my desires.

So, being perpetually in a state of extreme pleasure seems like a bad idea to me.

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 October 2011 01:30:50PM 1 point [-]

I agree with you completely. I can understand why others might not agree with me, but for me, pleasure isn't so much a goal as a result of accomplishing my goals.

Comment author: dhasenan 22 January 2011 12:56:50PM *  0 points [-]

I think you're simply assuming that we're motivated primarily by happiness in that case.

Valuing the truth doesn't suddenly make me happy when someone announces to me, and I verify, that my entire family has been eaten by wombats. If I didn't value the truth at all, I might be able to ignore reality and persist in my erroneous belief that my family is alive and wombats are as cute and cuddly as I have always believed. But I don't try to do that, and I don't regret my decision or any inability to maintain erroneous beliefs.

A soma drug offends my sensibilities on some level. It violates my moral value of "don't mess around with my brain except through standard sensory experiences or with my explicit and informed consent" (and no brainwashing: no concerted efforts to modify my opinions or attitudes or behaviors except through normal human interactions, like arguing and talking and long walks on the beach).

I value at least some of these moral sensibilities higher than my current or future happiness. That's why I would choose against the soma. Not because I doubt its efficacy.

Comment author: JJ10DMAN 10 August 2010 11:13:06AM 2 points [-]

Yes! I can't believe I don't see this repeated in one form or another more often. Fallacies are a bit like prions in that they tend to force a cascade of fallacies to derive from them, and one of my favorite debate tactics is the thought experiment, "Let's assume your entire premise is true. How might this contradict your position?"

Usually the list is longer than my own arguments.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 14 March 2009 10:05:50AM 2 points [-]

with regards to the third question: what if I believe that any resources given simply allow the population to expand and hence cause more suffering than letting people die?

Comment author: Yvain 14 March 2009 11:14:31AM *  9 points [-]

If you don't really believe that, and it's just your excuse for not giving away lots of money, you should say loud and clear "I don't believe I'm morally obligated to reduce suffering if it inconveniences me too much." And then you've learned something useful about yourself.

But if you do really believe that, and you otherwise accept John's argument, you should say explicitly, "I accept I'm morally obligated to reduce suffering as much as possible, even at the cost of great inconvenience to myself. However, I am worried because of the contingent fact that giving people more resources will lead to more population, causing more suffering."

And if you really do believe that and think it through, you'll end up spending almost all your income on condoms for third world countries.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 14 March 2009 03:27:03PM 2 points [-]


Do you have a blog or home page with more material you've written? Failing that, is there another site (apart from OB) with contributions from you that might be interesting to LW readers?

Comment author: Yvain 15 March 2009 04:09:35PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for your interest. My blog is of no interest to anyone but my immediate personal friends, but I am working on a website. I'll let you know when it's up.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 29 April 2009 04:25:30AM 0 points [-]

Hey Yvain. I found your blog a little while ago (I think it was from an interesting comment on Patri's LiveJournal, or maybe he linked to you). I disagree that your blog isn't interesting to people that aren't immediate friends (for example, I found your arguments about boycotts and children's rights to be interesting and persuasive). I respect that you seem to not want to link to it here, so I won't. But I urge you to change your mind!

Comment author: badger 29 April 2009 05:02:01AM 1 point [-]

Ha, this was just enough information for my google-fu to finally succeed.

Yvain, I have a feeling that between your articles here, your travels through Outer Mongolia, and your apparent all-around awesomosity, EY has some stiff competition for cult leader.

Comment author: Yvain 02 May 2009 11:49:31PM 0 points [-]

Thank you, Michael, for not linking to it here, and thank you, Badger, for the kind words. Although I'm not going to accept any comparisons to EY until I've come up with and implemented at least one feasible plan to save the world.

Comment author: Annoyance 14 March 2009 04:17:48PM 2 points [-]

"I believe that God’s existence or non-existence can not be rigorously proven."

Cannot be proven by us, with our limits on detection, or cannot be proven in principle?

Because if it's the latter, you're saying that the concept of 'God' has no meaning.

Comment author: corruptmemory 14 March 2009 10:53:09PM 2 points [-]

Formalize this a bit:

"I believe that X’s existence or non-existence can not be rigorously proven."

Where X is of the set of beings imagined by or could be imagined by humans, e.g.: God, Gnomes, Zeus, Wotan, Vishnu, unicorns, leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. Why is any one of the statements that result from such substitutions more meaningful than any other?

Comment author: Nebu 16 March 2009 09:06:54PM 0 points [-]

I think just because something cannot be proven (even in principle) does not necessarily imply that it is not true, let alone has no meaning.

See Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, for example.

Comment author: cleonid 14 March 2009 04:35:23PM -2 points [-]

It is the latter (I’m an agnostic). However, I don’t see why the concept has no meaning. Would you say that axioms in math are meaningless?

Comment author: Baughn 14 March 2009 04:42:24PM *  3 points [-]

It's possible to decide which axioms are in effect from the inside of a sufficiently complex mathematical system (such as this universe), however.

For that matter, it would be possible to deduce the existence of a god, too; you just have to die. Granted, there are some issues with this, but nobody said deducing the axiom had to be convenient.

Comment author: cleonid 14 March 2009 04:54:41PM 0 points [-]

"It's possible to decide which axioms are in effect from the inside of a sufficiently complex mathematical system (such as this universe), however."

I don't think I understand what you mean.

"For that matter, it would be possible to deduce the existence of a god, too; you just have to die."

When you meet a god, how can you be sure it's not a hallucination?

Comment author: Sebastian_Hagen 15 March 2009 05:01:40PM *  2 points [-]

When you meet a god, how can you be sure it's not a hallucination?

Assuming the entity in question is cooperative, try this:

Ask it if P=NP is true, and for a proof for its answer to that in a form that you can easily understand. There's three possible outcomes:

  • It doesn't comply. Time to get suspicious about its claims to godhood.
  • It hands you a correct proof, beautifully elegant and easy to grasp.
  • It hands you a lump of nonsense, which your mind is too damaged to distinguish from a proof.

If you get something that appears like an elegant proof, memorize it and recheck it every now and then. If your mind is sufficiently malfunctioning that it can't distinguish an elegant proof for P=NP from something that isn't, you may not be able to notice that from inside. There's still a chance whatever is afflicting you will get better over time; hence, do periodic rechecks, and pay particular attention to any nagging doubts about the proof you get while performing those.

In the meantime, interpret the fact that you've gotten an apparent proof as significant evidence for the entity in question being real and very powerful.

Comment author: John_Baez 03 May 2010 12:03:38AM 6 points [-]

Or: it says "This is undecidable in Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory plus the axiom of choice". In the case of P=NP, I might believe it

Ask again, with another famously unsolved math problem. Repeat until it stops saying that or you run out of problems you know.

I would not believe a purported god if it said all 9 remaining Clay math prize problems are undecidable.

Comment author: Tasky 23 September 2011 10:52:49PM 0 points [-]

If it really is undecidable, God must be able to prove that.

However, I think an easier way to establish whether something is just your hallucination or a real (divine) being is asking them about something you couldn't possibly know about and then check if it's true.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 March 2009 05:08:52PM 6 points [-]

It says "There is no elegant proof". Next?

Comment author: Sebastian_Hagen 17 March 2009 07:43:43AM *  4 points [-]

Ask again, with another famously unsolved math problem. Repeat until it stops saying that or you run out of problems you know.

If you ran out, ask the entity to choose a famous math problem not yet solved by human mathematicians, explain the problem to you, and then give you the solution including an elegant proof. Next time you have internet access, check whether the problem in question is indeed famous and doesn't have a published solution.

If the entity says "there are no famous unsolved math problems with elegant proofs", I would consider that significant empirical evidence that it isn't what it claims to be.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 15 March 2009 06:00:03PM 0 points [-]

It could give a formally checkable proof, that is far from being elegant, but your own simple proof checkers that you understand well can plough through a billion steps and verify the result.

Comment author: Annoyance 14 March 2009 05:00:12PM 0 points [-]

"Would you say that axioms in math are meaningless?"

They distinguish one hypothetical world from another. Furthermore, some of them can be empirically tested. At present, Euclidean geometry seems to be false and Riemannian to be true, and the only difference is a single axiom.

Comment author: Nebu 16 March 2009 09:06:02PM 5 points [-]

At present, Euclidean geometry seems to be false and Riemannian to be true

I think the words "true" and "false" have some connotation that you might not want to imply? Perhaps it would clearer to phrase this as "At present, it seems like the geometry of our universe is not Euclidean and that the geometry of our universe is Riemannian.".

Comment author: anonym 15 March 2009 12:16:00AM 4 points [-]

They distinguish one hypothetical world from another.

It's a subtle distinction, but I think it's more accurate and useful to say that the axioms define a mathematical universe, and that a mathematical universe cannot be true or false but only a better or poorer model of the physical universe.

Comment author: Johnicholas 14 March 2009 05:24:53PM 2 points [-]

Euclidean geometry isn't a theory about the world, and therefore cannot be falsified by evidence from the world. The primitives (e.g. "line" and "point") do not have unambiguous referents in the world.

You can associate real-world things (e.g. patterns of graphite, or wooden rods) to those primitives, and to the extent that they satisfy the axioms, they will also satisfy the conclusions.

Math is not physics.

Comment author: Annoyance 14 March 2009 05:30:25PM 0 points [-]

"Math is not physics."

It's made out of physics. I think perhaps you mean that math isn't about physics.

To the degree that axioms aren't being used to talk about potential worlds, I would say that they're meaningless.

Comment author: cleonid 14 March 2009 05:32:21PM 0 points [-]

"They distinguish one hypothetical world from another."

Just like different religions.

"Furthermore, some of them can be empirically tested. "

Empirical tests do not prove a proposition, but increase the odds of its being correct (just like "miracles" would raise the odds in favor of religion).

Comment author: Aurini 19 March 2009 05:06:10AM 0 points [-]

I apologize for banging on about the railroad question, but I think the way you phrased it does an excellent job of illustrating (and has helped me isolate) why I've always vaguely uncomfortable with Utilitarianism. There is a sharp moral contrast which the question doesn't innately recognize between the patients entering into a voluntary lottery, and the forced-sacrifice of the wandering traveller.

Unbridled Utilitarianism, taken to the extreme, would mandate some form of forced Socialism. I think it was you who commented on OvercomingBias, that one of the risks associated with Cryogenics is waking up in a society where you are not permitted to auto-euthanize. Utilitarianism might argue that the utility of your own diminished suffering would be less than the utility of others people valuing your continued life.

While Utilitarianism is excellent for considering consequences, I think it's a mistake to try and raise it as a moral principle. I lean towards a somewhat Objectivist viewpoint: namely, that the first principle we ought to start with is that each person has the right to their own person and property, and that it is immoral to try and take it from them for any cause.

Following from this, let me address your third question: I'd argue that this type of wealth transfer not only undermines long-term economic develop of the African country (empirical, I could be proved wrong), not only prevents me from spending money on quality products & investing in practical businesses (once again, empirical), but that on a deeper level it undermines the individuality which I value in the human condition. Askin which produces greater happiness & material wealth, Communism or Capitalism, is an empirical question: Omega could come down and tell me that Communism will produce 10x the happiness, or 100x, or whatever. But the idea of slamming everybody into the same, mass produced box to maximize happiness utility sounds suspiciously like Orgasmium.

I don't see how you can compromise on these principles. Either each person has full ownership of themselves (so long as they don't infringe on others), or they have zero ownership. Morality (as I would define it) demands that we fight to protect others freedom, but it says nothing about ensuring their welfare. Giving something for 'free' is just another form of enslavement - even if it's only survival and dependence in exchange for a smug sense of superiority.

On a side note, you did a brilliant job of deconstructing 'morality based on empiricism.'

Comment author: John_Baez 02 May 2010 11:59:27PM 16 points [-]

Unbridled Utilitarianism, taken to the extreme, would mandate some form of forced Socialism.

So maybe some form of forced socialism is right. But you don't seem interested in considering that possibility. Why not?

While Utilitarianism is excellent for considering consequences, I think it's a mistake to try and raise it as a moral principle.

Why not?

It seems like you have some pre-established moral principles which you are using in your arguments against utilitarianism. Right?

I don't see how you can compromise on these principles. Either each person has full ownership of themselves (so long as they don't infringe on others), or they have zero ownership.

To me it seems that most people making difficult moral decisions make complicated compromises between competing principles.

Comment author: JohnH 28 April 2011 05:58:04AM 0 points [-]

Utilitarianism itself requires the use of some pre-established moral principles.

Comment author: Hroppa 26 October 2011 01:52:40PM 2 points [-]

the first principle we ought to start with is that each person has the right to their own person and property, and that it is immoral to try and take it from them for any cause.

Thought experiment: A dictator happens to own all the property on the planet. Until now, he has been giving everybody exactly enough food to survive. In a fit of rage/madness, he stops. You would support the death of all humans other than the dictator, rather than taking his property?

Comment author: Aurini 27 October 2011 07:02:28AM *  4 points [-]

Good god, Aurini (2009) sounds quite pompous. I can't even deal with reading his entire comment.

I've since drifted from Libertarian to full-fledged Reactionary. I will attempt to answer the question as such.

Either the Dictator is God, and we're all damned anyway, so any question of 'Rights' is irrelevant - or the Dictator is Moral, in which case we will kill him by sodomizing him with a red-hot poker. He remains King, so long as he is a competent King (through our eyes, his police's eyes, et cetera).

Supposition: the Dictator is God, but only a God - his peers see his mistreatment of us. Recognizing the fact that he is wasting Good Wheat, they murder him, and install a new Potus. Life returns to happiness - because happy citizens pay the most taxes (just ask Russia).

EDIT: Neither of which is an "End of History" solution, mind you, but I'm just beginning to realize how intractable the problem is. Obviously the new Dictator God will be just as idiotic and faliable as the last - which is why, as nice as Monarchy might seem, it ultimately self-destructs into Democracy, and then Dictatorship (just ask Marc Antony).

Comment author: CharlieSheen 16 March 2012 07:23:34AM *  4 points [-]

I've since drifted from Libertarian to full-fledged Reactionary

Most LessWrong posters are still firmly in the Cathedral and may fail to appreciate the significance of this, for they can not imagine a world outside it. A sizeable minority though has been influenced by the teachings of Darth Moldbug and the other lords of the alternative right, showing them a surprising taste of the true power of intellectual reaction.

Some such as I have embraced these teachings for now, since it seems the very complexity of the world around us demands it. For there are very difficult and old problems which despite protestation to the contrary remain unsolved. Yet sanity on them must be approached if humanity is to have any hope at all.

Comment author: pedanterrific 27 October 2011 07:09:01AM *  1 point [-]

What an interesting way of dodging the question.

Either the Dictator is God, ... or the Dictator is Moral

What's this supposed to mean? First of all, the context of the hypothetical clearly indicates that the dictator is human. Second, what do you mean by 'Moral"?

Also, why is it suddenly more acceptable to murder than to just take their property? There's these things called mental hospitals and prisons, you should look into them.

Edit: Look, it might help to define the LCPW in this context: the question is whether it is ever moral to take someone's property from them, yeah? So focus on that by making the actual act of doing so really easy - he's an absent dictator, owning all property on Rinax from his penthouse on Earth. One day he gets buried in paperwork and forgets to sign the form releasing the next year's food allowance to his subjects. How long should they wait before they break open the shipping containers and steal his food?

Comment author: Aurini 27 October 2011 08:30:18AM 3 points [-]

Heh, I'm nothing if not Interesting.

The quote is a typo, incidentally - I meant to write "morTal".

As seductive as the concept is, I see no firmament underlying the basis of 'human rights' - without a godhead who frimly endorses them, I'm not sure what they mean, beyond self-evident utlitarianism...

Oh Gods, have I become a Utlitarian? Possibly.

It's hard to say; given that narrative of who is 'right' and who is 'wrong' is inevitably written by those who are on the firing squad, I tend not to like this question. I'm honestly not sure how to respond to your comment; what sort of reply would make sense? Let me ask you - was Darth Vader obviously the Good Guy, or was he a Villains whom you could Sympathize With?

Comment author: handoflixue 17 December 2010 11:39:16PM 1 point [-]

"Giving something for 'free' is just another form of enslavement "

Hmmmm, this actually really puzzles me - how do you handle inheritance? Presumably, it being my property, I ought to be free to delegate it as I wish in my will. But, equally, to the person receiving it, it's a 'freebie', a form of enslavement.

What about the other gifts that come from a privileged upbringing (access to a good education, or even just good nutrtion, say)? Surely, as a 2 year old, you didn't do anything particularly special to be deserving of these things compared to our example African kids - indeed, I doubt there's anything a 2-year old could do to shift themselves from one circumstance to the other.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 19 March 2012 03:54:41AM 0 points [-]

There are important differences between moral principles and government policies. Even if you accept the premise that the morally optimal course of action is X, it does not logically follow that the government should mandate X. For one thing, it may or may not be feasible to enforce such a law, or the costs of implementing it may outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, some moral philosophies (though not utilitarianism) place firm boundaries on what is and is not the proper role of government.

I would be curious to know your true rejection of utilitarianism.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 19 March 2012 05:06:11AM -1 points [-]

Even if you accept the premise that the morally optimal course of action is X, it does not logically follow that the government should mandate X.

More generally, reaching the moral conclusion that agent A should do X (or even is obligated to do X), doesn't obviously entail that agents B, C, D should compel A to do X, nor punish A for failing to do X — nor even that B, C, D are permitted to do so.

Comment author: Swimmer963 05 April 2011 01:11:02PM 0 points [-]

Either each person has full ownership of themselves (so long as they don't infringe on others), or they have zero ownership.

The Canadian government has socialist elements, and I wouldn't mind and would even choose to live in a society that had more. As far as I know, the only freedoms it takes away are those that infringe on other people...considering that human beings are social animals, many or most of our decisions do affect other people. (I have not researched this. Feel free to prove me wrong or enlighten me on other aspects.)

Comment author: Aurini 12 June 2011 07:15:47PM 6 points [-]

The problem for me - speaking as a Canadian - is that there's no choice about it. To be honest Canada's a pretty good place to live. Despite the personality-disordered weirdo we have running the place, it's relatively free; decent amounts of freedom of speech, stable currency, only moderate corruption in our police forces, and greater economic liberty than the US (that's right - Soviet Canuckistan is less government run than the US) - my biggest upsets are Gun Control, the state of Domestic Violence Law, and the 'Human Rights' Tribunals which censor speech critical of protected groups. The worst thing our Monster in Parliament is trying to do is enact the equivalent of the Patriot Act, ten years too late.

The fundamental problem, though, is the lack of choice to begin with - immigration has huge barriers, and it's not like there's room for any more countries. We're all forced into the coutnry we live in, and I suspect that the real civilizing force is the decency of regular people, who manage despite the government.

It's like the post office, fifty years ago - they delivered the mail, they were adequate, but they weren't performing anywhere near the level that was possible. Nobody complained (much) because they were accustomed to it. As soon as private delivery companies entered the scene.the post office had to shape up fast.

If I had the choice, I might choose to enter a socialist collective of sorts - at the very least, I'd want to live in an incorporated city which took care of the roads and sewers. The same thing should go for countries; nobody forces me to live in Calgary and accept the local tax burden, it wouldn't be right. Similarly it isn't right to force people to pay taxes in a country, when they're deeply opposed to certain elements of government.

Keep in mind, I'm not just complaining without a solution in mind; there are workable solutions that would pay for things such as national defence, while subjecting government to the integrity of the private market. Poly-centric law is one example, though I think having a Corporate Monarchy would be more workable here in Canada.

Comment author: MixedNuts 12 June 2011 07:43:39PM 0 points [-]

Anectodal evidence: In France, the post office is much worse since they have competition.

Comment author: gmweinberg 14 March 2009 09:45:27PM 1 point [-]

I don't see any problem with acknowledging that in a world very different from this one my beliefs and actions would also be different. For example, I think the fact that there are and have been so many different religions with significantly different beliefs as to what God wants is evidence that none of them are correct. It follows that if there was just one religion with any significant number of adherents then that would be evidence (not proof) that that religion was in fact correct.

Maybe if Omega tells me it's Catholicism or nothing I'll become a Catholic. Maybe if he says it's the Aztec religion or nothing I'll cut out your beating heart and toss you down a pyramid. But no worries, neither one is going to happen in the real world.

Comment author: corruptmemory 15 March 2009 12:26:51AM *  0 points [-]

Although I understand and appreciate your approach the particular examples do not represent particularly good ones:

1: Pascal's Wager:

For an atheist the least convenient possible world is one where testable, reproducible scientific evidence strongly suggests the existence of some "super-natural" (clearly no-longer super-natural) being that we might ascribe the moniker of God to. In such a world any "principled atheist" would believe what the verifiable scientific evidence support as probably true. "Atheists" who did not do that would be engaging in the exact same delusional thinking modern-day theists engage in: belief in "beings" despite the utter lack of evidence supporting the existence of such "beings" only in reverse, like flat-earthers.

2: The God-Shaped Hole:

The use of "Omega" here is a fair bit over the absurd line. It very much sounds like you wish to create the following situation for atheists: suppose there exists an oracle that can tell you that there is a "hole" in you and it's "God shaped", but cannot confirm the existence nor non-existence of the "God" that the hole is "shaped" like. Well, then my hole (being an atheist) is penguin shaped ;-).

It is clear that you want to create a world where some form of definitive information about some other "thing" is true while trying to maintain the "true" state of the existence or non-existence of that thing left undecided. Alas, your not allowed that degree of freedom. If definitive statements are made and accepted as true then the thing that the statement references also must exist in some meaningful way.

3: Extreme Altruism

Lots of leeway is left in your example to re-cast the moral dilemma, for example:

a. Charity X is, in fact, using the money you give it to feed people in Africa, but the population that is being helped lives in a fundamentally unsustainable environment. Suppose changes in weather patterns means that getting a meaningful sustained water supply requires considerable cost. In this case the charity itself is engaging in the morally wrong thing by not supporting efforts to relocate the people to a place that can sustain them better. Your analysis (not literally you, the "you" responding to pleas for money) leads you to extreme altruism. Others follow-suit creating an unsustainable dependant society. In the case of extreme charity you accidentally do harm: they're alive, but utterly dependant of the charity of others.

b. Turn the entire situation amoral: why should their lives there be of such an importance to affect me, in any way, here? I.E. why is this a moral consideration at all? In this context person a may choose to contribute to charity X not knowing if "in the large" a "good overall outcome" will result from such a donation, regardless of amount contributed. Another way of looking at it is if I consider increased happiness being an important element of "good morality" (dubious?) then is my personal depletion of resources and the "net" increase in happiness in the receiving population a net increase of happiness overall? And is that the "right" thing? By who's measure?

The above examples are not meant as a broad-stroke justification for a "let-em starve" thing. The issue simply concerns constraining the examples sufficiently to get the outcome you are looking for. To simplify matters this particular example is closely analogous to the trolley situation above: suppose the doctor offered to the patient with the good organs the option of donating all the organs to the patients in need, but as a result the patient would need to survive on uncomfortable synthetic replacements of his organs.

Comment author: cleonid 14 March 2009 03:37:29PM 0 points [-]

“Do you head down to the nearest church for a baptism? Or do you admit that even if believing something makes you happier, you still don't want to believe it unless it's true?”

I believe that God’s existence or non-existence can not be rigorously proven. Likewise there is no rigorous protocol for estimating the chances. Therefore we are forced to rely on our internal heuristics which are extremely sensitive to our personal preferences for the desired answer. Consequently, people, who would be happier believing in God, mostly likely already do so. The same principle applies to people with “rationality-shaped holes”. It’s possible that one group is on average happier than the other. However, becoming happier simply by switching sides may not be possible without a profound personality change. In other words you need to become somebody else than you are now. Since this seems little different from being erased and replaced by another person, it’s hardly an appealing choice for most people.

On the other hand, we seem to be little concerned about the gradual change of our personalities (compare yourself now and twenty years ago). Hence, it’s quite possible for the same physical person at different points of life to be comfortable in totally different camps.

Comment author: Jonnan 18 March 2009 11:00:00PM *  0 points [-]

The problem is the "least convenient world" seems to involve a premise that would, in and of itself, be unverifiable.

The best example is the pascals wager issue - Omega tells me with absolute certainty that It's either a specific version of God (Not, for instance Odin, but Catholicism), or no God.

But I'm not willing to believe in an omniscient deity called God, taking it back a step and saying "But we know it's either or, because the omniscient de . . . errr . . . Omega tells you so" is just redefining an omniscient deity.

Well, if I don't believe is assuming god exists without proof, I can happily not assume Omega exists without proof. Proof is verifiably impossible, because all I can prove is that Omega is smarter than me.

Since I won't assume anything based only on the fact that someone is smarter than me - which is all I know about Omega - then no, the fact that Omega says any of this stuff and states it by fiat isn't going to convince me.

If Omega is that damn smart, it can go to the effort of proving it's statements.


Post-script: Which suddenly explains to me why I would pick the million dollar box, and leave the $1000 dollars alone. Because that's win win - either I get the million or I prove Omega is in fact not omniscient. He might be smarter than me (almost certainly is - the memory on this bio-computer I'm running needs upgraded something fierce, and the underlying operating system was last patched 30,000 years ago or so), but I can't prove it, I can only debunk it, and the only way to do that is to take the million.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 18 March 2009 11:06:01PM 1 point [-]

Yes, to make it work, you may have to imagine yourself in an unreachable epistemic state. I don't see why this is a problem, though.

Comment author: Jonnan 24 March 2009 08:29:53PM 0 points [-]

No, to make it work you have to assume that you believe in omniscience in order to clarify whether you believe in omniscience, a classic 'begging the question' scenario.

Comment author: Cyan 24 March 2009 09:17:21PM *  3 points [-]

You're right that the existence of Omega is information relevant to the existence of other omniscient beings, but in the least convenient world Omega tells you that it is not the Catholic version God, and you still need to decide if that being exists. (And you really do have to decide that specific question because eternal damnation is in the payoff matrix.)

Omniscience is almost a side issue.

Comment author: Jonnan 07 April 2009 04:02:54AM 2 points [-]

Not if omniscience is A) a necessary prerequisite to the existence of a deity, and B) by definition unverifiable to an entity that is not itself omniscient.

Without being omniscient myself, I can only adjudge the accuracy of Omega's predictions based in the accuracy of it's known predictions versus the accuracy of my own.

Unfortunately, the mere fact that I am not omniscient means I cannot, with 100% accuracy, know the accuracy of Omega's decisions, because I am aware of the concepts of selection bias, and furthermore may not be capable of actually evaluating the accuracy of all Omega's predictions.

I can take this further, but fundamentally, to be able to verify Omega's omniscience, I actually have to be omniscient . Otherwise I can only adjudge that Omega's ability to predict the future is greater, statistically, than my own, to some degree 'x', with a probable error on my part 'y', said error which may or may not place Omega's accuracy equal to or greater than 100%.

Omega may in fact be omniscient, but that fact is itself unverifiable, and any philosophical problem that assumes A) I am rational, but not omniscient B) Omega is omniscient, and C) I accept B as true has a fundamental contradiction. By definition, I cannot be both rational and accept that Omega is Omniscient. At best I can only accept that Omega has, so far as I know, a flawless track record, because that is all I can observe.

Unfortunately, I think this seemingly small difference between "Omniscient" and "Has been correct to the limit of my ability to observe" makes a fairly massive difference in what the logical outcome of "Omega" style problems is.


Comment author: Cyan 23 April 2009 08:28:36PM 1 point [-]

The whole idea of an unreachable epistemic state seems to be tripping you up. In the least convenient world, you know that Omega is omniscient, and the fact that you cannot verify that knowledge doesn't trouble you.

Comment author: Dan_Moore 29 December 2011 04:58:46PM 2 points [-]

Argument #1 works in the least convenient imaginable world, in my opinion. However, the OP concerns the least convenient possible world. The existence of an omnicient Omega seems to be possible in only the same sense as the existence of a deity; i.e., no-one has proven it to be impossible. The ability to hypothesize the existence of Omega doesn't imply that its existence is actually possible.

Comment author: Cyan 30 December 2011 05:59:36AM *  0 points [-]

It's been more than two and a half years, dude!

OK, here goes. I made a misstep by involving Omega in my least convenient world scenario at all. But I was right to try to redirect attention away from omniscience -- it just doesn't matter how you get to the epistemic state of discounting all possibilities other than Catholicism or atheism. All you need to grant is that it's possible for your brain to be in that state. Did knowledge from Omega put you there? Did you suffer an organic brain injury? Did your social context influence the possibilities you were willing to consider? Were you kidnapped and brainwashed? Who cares? It's irrelevant -- the presence of eternal damnation in the payoff matrix makes it so. However you got there, you must now face Pascal's Wager head on. How will you answer?

Comment author: Dan_Moore 30 December 2011 04:45:40PM 1 point [-]

It's been more than two and a half years, dude!

sorry - I was led there by a recent thread.

But I was right to try to redirect attention away from omniscience -- it just doesn't matter how you get to the epistemic state of discounting all possibilities other than Catholicism or atheism. All you need to grant is that it's possible for your brain to be in that state.

Given the epistemic state of recognizing only those two possibilites, I suppose I would cop out as follows. I would examine the minimum requirements of being a Catholic, and determine whether this would require me to do anything I find morally repugnant. If not, I would comply with the Catholic minimum requirements, while not rejecting either possibility. In other words, I would be an agnostic. (I don't think Catholicism requires a complete absence of doubt.)

Comment author: vroman 19 March 2009 01:32:25AM *  -1 points [-]

*kill traveler to save patients problem

assuming that

-the above solutions (patient roulette) were not viable

-upon recieving their new organs, the patients would be restored to full functionality, the equal of or better utility generators than the traveler

then I would kill the traveler. however, if the traveler successfully defended himself, and turned the tables on me, I would use my dying breath to happily congratulate his self preservation instinct and wish him no further problems on the remainder of his journey. and of course Id have left instructions w my nurse to put my body on ice and call the doctor from the next town over to come and do the transplants from my own organs.

  1. pascal wager

if catholicism is true, then Im already in hell. what else can you call an arbitrary, irrational universe?

  1. god hole

if there is a evolutionary trap in the human mind that requires irrational belief to achieve optimal happiness, then I just add that to the list of all the other 'design flaws' and ignore.

  1. extreme altruism

I can not imagine a least convenient world in which something resembling what we understand of the laws of economics operates, where both I and the africans would not be better off by me using my money to invest in local industry, or financing an anti-warlord coup dtat. if you want to fiat that these ppl cant work, or that the dictator is unstoppable and will nationalize and embezzle my investments, then I dont see how charity is going to do any better. if theres no way that my capital can improve their economy, then they are just flat doomed, and Id rather keep my money.

Comment author: Irgy 02 November 2011 06:31:08AM 1 point [-]

This might be better placed somewhere else, but I just thought I'd comment on Pascal's Wager here. To me both the convenient and inconvenient resolutions of Pascal's Wager given above are quite unsatisfactory.

To me, the resolution of this wager comes from the concept of sets of measure zero. The set of possible realities in which belief in any given God is infinitely beneficial is an infinite set, but it is nonetheless like Cantor Dust in the space of possible explanations of reality. The existence of sets of measure zero explains why it is reasonable to assign the value zero to the probability of something which is not literally impossible. To me, the only true resolutions to this paradox are to either convert, dispute the use of infinity in the utility (which I would also do, although I'm not yet completely convinced either way), or accept that not just is zero an acceptable probability for something that's not literally impossible but that it's also the correct value to assign to the probability of an infinitely vindictive God. Everything else is just convenience, egotism or missing the point. Cancelling infinities against other (possibly negative) infinities is simply bad maths, refusing to change your beliefs on the basis of utility rather than evidence is simply not acting in your own best interest and dismissing it based on contradictions in any particular religion or on the existence of other religions is as this article says simply assumed convenience.

In this case, your least convenient world kind of misses the point then. As soon as Omega tells me there's a non-zero probability of Catholicism being correct (whether Omega has actually told me that or not is not entirely clear mind you) then sure, I'm converting. But this is such a substantial change to reality that I would say it's essentially removed the paradox. The principle is fine though, I guess my point is just that the least convenient world is not a fixed thing but relative to a particular argument.

It's interesting to me that the mathematics to resolve the paradox didn't even exist at the time it was raised. Most people knew there was a problem with it, but at the time (and even today for most people's level of maths understanding) they had simply no way of expressing it correctly. To me this is actually some justification for a little bit of inertia of beliefs - just because you can't refute an argument doesn't mean it's correct, and your intuition can often tell you something's wrong before you know what it is. It just needs to be balanced against the many situations where intuition is demonstrably misleading. Innertia and an immovable object are not the same thing.

Comment author: Dmytry 29 December 2011 09:53:52AM *  -3 points [-]

In good ol days there was concept of whose problem something is. It's those people's problem that their organs have failed, and it is traveller's problem that he need to be quite careful because of demand for his organs (why he's not a resident, btw? The idea is that he will have zero utility to village when he leaves?). Society would normally side with traveller for the simple reason that if people start solving their problems at other people's expense like this those with most guns and most money will end up taking organs from other people to stay alive for longer, or indeed, for totally superfluous reasons. It is a policy issue and the correct policy is obvious.

You can just take organs away from traveller today, but travellers will start paying for a reliable service that finds people where organs end up, and assassinates them, and the patients will start paying for anonymous find the traveller and kill him and take his organs service, and those with most money will end up having the organs as a matter of luxury. Good thing that we live in the convenient world where it is not very practical, albeit happens to some extent. Otherwise you could've seen what you can't think of in your neat little example.

With regards to the doctor, that issue is simply not his problem in the first place unless he's being paid for it. He can make it his problem if he wants to, or he can make it his problem to kill everyone who has particular eye colour, we would deem one choice more moral than another due to better utility to the society but we would still not grant him enough autonomy to pursue this kind of stuff unhindered because a: he will be using it to solve his problems (saving relatives for example) and b: because he can just as well as to decide to do good, decide to cut up random people for no reason what so ever.

Other issue is, of course, that you are making up this kind of stuff in totally imaginary world, where those whose organs have been replaced have reasonable life expectancy, whereas this (people being cut up for organs) is a real world problem that exists right now in the real world where a bunch of other conditions apply, and I think it is you, not your friend, who completely missed the point in the first place. To complicate the issue: what if those people's organs are failing due to their own fault? Their own stupid action? Suddenly you realize that different people have different worth.

With regards to the moral judgement: yes with absolutely equal worth of continuation of life of each of the people saved, and the traveller, the organs have to be transplanted. This, however, raises the question: what is the reason behind this exercise? You may be pursuing this topic idly. Other people are almost always more rational than this, more purpose-driven, and they pursue this topic if they want to make some inference to use in the real world. Especially, they ask a question like that if they want a confirmation which they will misuse. In fact you're an extreme oddity, pursuing this unrealistic example for (giving you benefit of the doubt) other purpose than committing a logical fallacy in the real world after caching the conclusion (perhaps, or perhaps you just want to make a very long chain of tiny fallacies and do actually want to conclude something about real world based on your imaginary world). That is very odd, and most people don't quite know how to react to such behaviour.

Comment author: Varan 10 May 2013 01:41:48PM 0 points [-]

I think that traveler's problem may pose two questions instead of one. First of all - is that a right thing to do just once, and the second is if it's good enough to be a universal rule. We can counclude that's the same question, because using it once means we should use it every time when a situation is the same. But using it as a universal rule has an additional side effect - a world where you know you can be killed (depraved of all posessions, etc.) any moment to help some number of strangers is not such a nice place to live in, though sometimes it's possible that the sacrifice is still worth it.

Someone can say that in the least convenient world the general rule is "you only kill strangers when it's absolutely not possible anyone (even the patients) would know that, and they have no one, and so on". In that world it's similar with "living happily in a lie" problem. If the world where people don't know about murdered travellers (the lie) is worse then the world where they know about the murders, then this world is even worse than the previous one.

Comment author: rasthedestroyer 09 February 2012 11:57:57PM 0 points [-]

The biological commentary is indeed accurate, but I question its relevance in the context of the question, which seems to be one in favor of a utilitarian ethical discourse without the biological considerations. It might be better to assume the biological factors involved are compatible, or assume all other factors are equal, and disregard the biology.

The first answer that comes to mind for most I'm sure is that 10 is greater than 1, and that such a sacrifice would return a net gain in lives saved. However, this question is complicated by what it is about saving lives at all that is good. If you can save a life of a dying patient without risk then you should. We assume this is true - even from a utilitarian position - that life has intrinsic value and therefore saving lives when possible is the correct decision. Thus, as a strictly quantitative normative comparison, the decision to kill one healthy person to save 10 dying patients is right. But qualitative interests should be accounted for too: treating the act of killing a healthy individual as a separate act, it stands in direct contradiction to the supposed ethical duty we are to uphold, mainly, saving life, by taking the life of one who is not sick. Consider it in these terms: is it ethically correct, then, to take the lives of the healthy to save those of the sick? This amounts to a zero-sum game and a clear logical aporia.

Comment author: lucidfox 02 December 2010 08:22:44AM 0 points [-]

The least convenient possible world is the one where Omega, the completely trustworthy superintelligence who is always right, informs you that God definitely doesn't value intellectual integrity that much. In fact (Omega tells you) either God does not exist or the Catholics are right about absolutely everything.

The problem with this specific formulation is that fundamentalist Christian beliefs are inconsistent, and thus it is trivially follows from Omega's wording that God does not exist.

A better wording would be to postulate that Omega asserts the possibility that a God exists who judges you posthumously based on belief, and it is the same one for all humans who have ever lived. In that case, if I completely trust Omega, the argument collapses into "shut up and calculate": in other words, there is some threshold of probability P(faith-judging God exists) at which point worshiping it would be the rational choice.

Comment author: Bugle 04 February 2010 09:27:45PM *  0 points [-]

"first, do no harm"

It's remarkable that medical traditions predating transplants* already contain an injunction against butchering passers by for spare parts

*I thought this was part of the Hippocratic oath but apparently it's not

Comment author: thomblake 04 February 2010 09:57:22PM 0 points [-]

An injunction to do no harm is part of the Hippocratic oath, and the actual text has multiple translations, so I don't think it's too far-fetched to attribute "first, do no harm" to the oath.

Comment author: MrHen 04 February 2010 11:12:21PM 1 point [-]

Obligatory wikipedia link.

The phrase "first, do no harm" is often, incorrectly, attributed to the oath.

On the other hand:

The origin of the phrase is uncertain. The Hippocratic Oath includes the promise "to abstain from doing harm" but not the precise phrase. Perhaps the closest approximation in the Hippocratic Corpus is in Epidemics: "The physician must...have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm".

This was from the article on first, do no harm.

Comment author: Lisawood 02 June 2011 10:17:32AM -3 points [-]

The essence of the technique is to assume that all the specific details will align with the idea against which you are arguing.


Comment author: brainoil 17 April 2013 11:02:44AM 0 points [-]

<i>Would this be moral or not?</i>

Of course it is, if you live in this hypothetical world. The fact that in real life things are rarely this clear, or the fact that in real life you will be jailed for doing this, or the fact that you'd feel guilty if you do this, or the fact that in real life you won't have the courage to do this, doesn't mean that it's wrong.

But in real life I'd hardly ever violate the libertarian rights because of all the reasons mentioned above.

Comment author: army1987 05 February 2012 05:48:22PM *  0 points [-]

But in the least convenient possible world, here comes Omega again and tells you that Charity X has been proven to do exactly what it claims: help the poor without any counterproductive effects.

You don't need the least convenient possible world and Omega for that; for non-excessively-large values of proven, this world and givewell.org suffice. I'm surprised that in three years nobody pointed that out before.

Comment author: army1987 30 November 2013 11:19:10PM -1 points [-]

In fact (Omega tells you) either God does not exist or the Catholics are right about absolutely everything.

That sounds like it would decrease my probability that God exists by several dozen orders of magnitude.