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James_Bach comments on Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone) - Less Wrong

49 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 November 2007 03:19AM

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Comment author: James_Bach 22 November 2007 07:22:42AM 0 points [-]

I'm nervous about the word happiness because I suspect it's a label for a basket of slippery ideas and sub-idea feelings. Still, something I don't understand about your argument is that when you demonstrate that for you happiness is not a terminal value you seem to arbitrarily stop the chain of reasoning. Terminating your inquiry is not the same as having a terminal value.

If you say you value something and I know that not everyone values that thing, I naturally wonder *why* you value it. You say it's a terminal value, but when I ask myself why you value it if someone else doesn't, I say to myself "it must make him happy to value that". In that sense, happiness may be a word we use as a terminal value by definition, not by evidence-- a convention like saying QED at the end of a proof. In the old days the terminal value was often "God wills it so", but with the invention of humanism in the middle ages, pursuit of happiness was born.

In the case where someone seems to be working against what they *say* makes them happy, that just means there are different kinds or facets or levels of happiness. Happiness is complex, but if there are no reasons beyond the final reason for taking an action, then as a conceptual convention the final reason must be happiness.

Now I will argue a little against that. What I've said up to now is based on the assumption that humans are teleonomic creatures with free will. But I think we are actually NOT such creatures. We do not exist to fulfill a purpose. So the concept of happiness, defined as it is, is a story that is pasted onto us, by us, so that we can pretend to have an ethereal conscious existence. I propose that the truth is ultimately that we do what we do because of the molecules and energy state that we possess, within the framework of our environment and the laws of physics.

I could say that eating makes me happy and that's why I do it, or I could say that the deeper truth is that my brain is constructed to feel happy about eating. I eat because of that mechanism, not because of the "happiness", which doesn't actually exist. We make up the story of happiness not because it makes us happy to do so, but because we are compelled to do so by our physical nature.

In the words of Jessica Rabbit, I'm just drawn that way.

I normally wouldn't take the scientific happiness pill because I seem to be constructed to enjoy feeling that my state of mind is substantially a product of my ongoing thoughts, not chemicals. To inject chemicals to change my thoughts is literally a form of suicide, to me. It takes the unique thought pattern that is ME, kills it, and replaces it with a thought pattern identical in some ways to anyone else who takes the pill. People alive are unique; death is the ultimate conformity and conformity a kind of death.

But the happiness illusion is complex enough that I may under some circumstances say yes to that pill and have that little suicide.

Comment author: Polymeron 24 March 2011 12:38:06PM 1 point [-]

I actually think that happiness is reducible to a clear and defined definition.

Happiness is a positive, gradual feedback mechanism that is context dependent. The context is the belief that your desires (most and strongest) are being fulfilled. Misery is the inverse negative feedback for thwarted desires).

If you give an AI these mechanisms, then it experiences happiness and misery, regardless of what you call them or how they manifest.

Comment author: FAWS 24 March 2011 01:16:47PM 0 points [-]

I think you are grossly oversimplifying unless you actually define either happiness or desires in terms of the other, in which case one of those doesn't conform to the normal usage of the word. People don't necessarily know what will make them happy, desires don't necessarily conform to what people believe makes them happy or what actually will make them happy, and you can be happy without desires being fulfilled (whatever desires are unfulfilled will be the strongest at that moment, you desire food when you are hungry, not when you are sated). Fulfilling a desire that you previously believed would make you happy can easily make you less happy than you were before.

Comment author: Polymeron 24 March 2011 01:36:21PM 1 point [-]

That people don't know what will make them happy does not invalidate what I said. They could well have desires they are not fully aware of, or are not aware of their current strength.

Nor does there need to be a coupling in time between happiness and desire. Happiness is not an immediate feedback mechanism like pleasure; it is gradual. You can be happy for fulfilling a desire you had, and that feeling persists - for a time.

If fulfilling a desire you had makes you less happy, it is because either: a. You have lost the desire between the time you had it and the time it became fulfilled b. Other desires (more and stronger) have been thwarted c. A combination of the two.

Can you bring an example of this mechanism working differently?

Comment author: FAWS 24 March 2011 02:00:23PM *  0 points [-]

That people don't know what will make them happy does not invalidate what I said. They could well have desires they are not fully aware of, or are not aware of their current strength.

How do (partially) unaware desires figure into anything if what matters is "the belief that your desires are being fulfilled"? And if you infer anything about desires from lack of happiness I don't think you have successfully reduced anything. I'd agree there seems to be some connection between happiness and fulfilling desires but it certainly doesn't look like a simple, solved problem to me.

Can you bring an example of this mechanism working differently?

I think winning the lottery is the usual example. Or take early retirement.

Comment author: Marius 24 March 2011 02:11:58PM 0 points [-]

That people don't know what will make them happy does not invalidate what I said. They could well have desires they are not fully aware of, or are not aware of their current strength.

If you say that happiness comes from fulfilling desires, and that we can be unaware of your desires (or their strength), how can we measure those desires or their strength? Is it simply a matter of getting you drunk and asking? Making you take an implicit attitudes test? If we can only measure a desire by the happiness its fulfillment brings you, you have just set up a circular argument.

FAWS' lottery example is a good one. By any reasonable account of desires, most lottery winners strongly desire to win the lottery, and then start spending the money on satisfying their other desires. Yet by several recent accounts of happiness, winning the lottery appears to correlate poorly (or even negatively) with happiness.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2011 02:32:18PM 6 points [-]

winning the lottery appears to correlate poorly (or even negatively) with happiness.

I volunteer to test this claim.

Comment author: Polymeron 27 March 2011 08:19:32AM *  0 points [-]

Desire measurement is an interesting problem in and of itself. Desires are drivers for behavior, so presumably to measure the strength of desires you'd need to observe which of them prevails in changing behavior, in light of belief. I suspect some form of neurological test could also be devised, but I don't currently know of one.

As for lottery - note that I have avoided using "long-term" as a quantifier on happiness as a feedback mechanism. It is gradual, but not particularly long-term. Saying that it isn't a desire-fulfillment feedback mechanism because a year after winning the lottery you're not happy, is like saying that pain isn't a damage-sense feedback mechanism because a year after burning your hand on a stove you're not still yanking it back.

Every feedback mechanism has its window time for impact; this one is no different. In the short term, winning the lottery tends to make people jump with glee and feel very happy. That we intuitively (and mistakenly) expect this happiness to last into the long term is a fact about us, not about happiness.

Comment author: Marius 27 March 2011 05:42:40PM *  0 points [-]

If you define desire in terms of behavior, satisfying desires would simply mean "succeeding at the tasks you elect to perform". Presumably this has something to do with happiness, but it misses a whole lot. In particular, many people express great sorrow/regret at the thought of things they didn't ever attempt, but which they wish they had. To say "you must not have wanted it" would be bizarre.

You are dismissing the lottery counterexample too easily. I don't want to win the lottery to hear my name on tv, I want to win because I expect to use the money to more easily satisfy large numbers of desires over the next several years. If happiness from winning the lottery is transitory (as it appears to be), despite the long-term nature of the desires it helps fulfill, then happiness must involve much more than merely satisfying one's desires.

Comment author: Polymeron 27 March 2011 08:48:56PM 0 points [-]

I disagree with both your points.

You can fail or succeed at tasks you elect to perform regardless of the strength of your desire. And you can definitely have competing desires. If people didn't attempt something, it's not that they didn't want it; they simply had competing desires - to avoid risk, to avoid embarrassment, etc. etc. People are not made up of one single driver at any given point in time.

Regarding the lottery - it is true that people expect to have their desires fulfilled by the money. But what you're not bringing into account is habituation - the desires people develop are very dependent on their condition; a starving person would be incredibly happy to find half a slice of bread to eat, but an ordinary person would usually not think too much of it. In fact, an ordinary person staying at a hotel and told they'd only get half a slice of bread for dinner would be upset. The different condition sets different expectations; desires are formed and lost all the time. So in your lottery example, the process is:

Person wins lots of money -> Becomes very happy -> Buys stuff they wanted -> Remains somewhat happy -> Becomes habituated to the now easily-acquired pleasures -> Establishes a new baseline -> No longer derives happiness from the continuation of the situation. Whereas any newly introduced stress the situation brings (e.g. lots of people asking you for money) reduces happiness, unless and until you become habituated to that as well.

You say that happiness involves "much more" than "merely" satisfying one's desires, but I don't see what that could include. Can you think of a situation where you become happy by an event even though you don't care whether or not it has come to pass, nor care about its consequences? I can't think of such.

Comment author: Marius 27 March 2011 09:13:03PM *  1 point [-]

You misunderstood the first point. I did not claim you succeed at tasks you are good at. I claimed that if you define desire by "what you do", and simultaneously believe that "satisfying your desires -> happiness", then succeeding at the tasks you attempt would cause happiness. Yet that is an incomplete descriptor of happiness.

Additionally, I obviously agree people have competing desires. But this makes it impossible to use "what I did" as a measurement of "what I want". For instance, if I want to run but don't, it may be due to laziness (which is hardly a "desire for slack"), fear (which is not merely a "desire to avoid risk or embarrassment"), etc.

Your lottery description is inconsistent with other accomplishments and pleasures. For instance, people who marry [the right person] do not simply become habituated to the new pleasures and establish a new baseline. People with good or bad jobs do not become entirely habituated to those jobs - they derive happiness and unhappiness from them every day. The lottery is a different story from these, and you'll need to come up with a better explanation as to why it is different. My explanation is that we derive happiness from earning success, but not from being given it arbitrarily, and that regardless of one's desires human nature tends to behave that way.

This is my first counterexample to your puzzle: regardless of whether one has a desire to have to earn success (and most people desire not to have to earn it), we are made happy by earning success. Other examples: we are made happy by hard work (even unsuccessful hard work), by being punished when we deserve it, by putting on a smile (even against one's will), and by many other things we don't desire and some that we try to avoid.

Comment author: Polymeron 27 March 2011 10:08:11PM *  2 points [-]

Thank you; you've made some very good points that deserve a proper reply. However it's getting late here and I will need more energy go over this properly. I'll definitely consider this.

As a quick opener, because I think there's an open point here: It seems to me that all emotions serve as behavioral feedback mechanisms. But even if I am mistaken on that, and/or happiness is not desire fulfillment feedback, what would you think its evolutionary role is? It's clearly not an arbitrary component. Not to make the fallacy that any explanation is better than no explanation, I would nevertheless be interested in playing off this hypothesis against something other than a null model - a competing explanation. Can you offer one?