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mendel comments on Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences) - Less Wrong

110 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 July 2007 10:59PM

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Comment author: mendel 19 May 2011 01:34:21PM *  3 points [-]

I don't understand how the examples given illustrate free-floating beliefs: they seem to have at least some predictive powers, and thus shape anticipation - (some comments by others below illustrate this better).

  • The phlogiston theory had predictive power (e.g. what kind of "air" could be expected to support combustion, and that substances would grow lighter when they burned), and it was falsifyable (and was eventually falsified). It had advantages over the theories it replaced and was replaced by another theory which represented a better understanding. (I base this reading on Jim Loy's page on Phlogiston Theory.

  • Literary genres don't have much predictive powers if you don't know anything about them - if you do, then they do. Classifying a writer as producing "science fiction" or "fantasy" creates anticipations that are statistically meaningful. For another comparison, saying some band plays "Death Metal" will shape our anticipation; somewhat differently for those who can distinguish Death Metal from Speed Metal as compared to those who merely know that "Metal" means "noise".

I can imagine beliefs leading to false anticipations, and they're obviously inferior to beliefs leading to more correct ones. That doesn't mean they're free-floating.

One example for the free-floating belief is actually about the tree falling in the forest: to believe that it makes a sound does not anticipate any sensory experience, since the tree falls explicitly where nobody is around to hear it, and whether there is sound or no sound will not change how the forest looks when we enter it later. However, to let go of the belief that the tree makes a sound does not seem to me to be very useful. What am I missing?

I understand that many beliefs are held not because they have predictive power, but because they generalize experiences (or thoughts) we have had into a condensed form: a sort of "packing algrithm" for the mind when we detect something common; and when we understand this commonality enough, we get to the point where we can make prediction, and if we don't yet, we can't, but may do so later. There is no belief or thought we can hold that we couldn't trace back to experiences; beliefs are not anticipatory, but formed from hindsight. They organize past experience. Can you predict which of these beliefs is not going to be helpful in organizing future experiences? How?