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Act into Uncertainty

6 Post author: lifelonglearner 24 March 2017 09:28PM

It’s only been recently that I’ve been thinking about epistemics in the context of figuring out my behavior and debiasing. Aside from trying to figure out how I actually behave (as opposed to what I merely profess I believe), I’ve been thinking about how to confront uncertainty—and what it feels like.


For many areas of life, I think we shy away from confronting uncertainty and instead flee into the comforting non-falsifiability of vagueness.

Consider these examples:

1) You want to get things done today. You know that writing things down can help you finish more things. However, it feels aversive to write down what you specifically want to do. So instead, you don’t write things down and instead just keep a hazy notion of “I will do things today”.

2) You try to make a confidence interval for a prediction where money is on the line. You notice yourself feeling uncomfortable, no matter what your bounds are; it feels bad to set down any number at all, which is accompanied by a dread feeling of finality.

3) You’re trying to find solutions to a complex, entangled problem. Coming up with specific solutions feels bad because none of them seem to completely solve the problem. So instead you decide to create a meta-framework that produces solutions, or argue in favor of some abstract process like a “democratized system that focuses on holistic workarounds”.

In each of the above examples, it feels like we move away from making specific claims because that opens us up to specific criticism. But instead of trying to improve the strengths of specific claims, we retreat to fuzzily-defined notions that allow us to incorporate any criticism without having to really update.

I think there’s a sense in which, in some areas of life, we’re embracing shoddy epistemology (e.g. not wanting to validate or falsify our beliefs) because of a fear of wanting to fail / put in the effort to update. I think this failure is what fuels this feeling of aversion.

It seems useful to face this feeling of badness or aversion with the understanding that this is what confronting uncertainty feels like. The best action doesn’t always feel comfortable and easy; it can just as easily feel aversive and final.

Look for situations where you might be flinching away from making specific claims and replacing them with vacuous claims that support all evidence you might see.

If you never put your beliefs to the test with specific claims, then you can never verify them in the real world. And if your beliefs don’t map well onto the real world, they don’t seem very useful to even have in the first place.

Comments (7)

Comment author: Viliam 27 March 2017 03:13:15PM *  1 point [-]

Mathematically, refusing to make a prediction may be equivalent to going with some prior distribution of possible values.

Socially, it's different. For example, people have different "prior distributions", so talking about your one explicitly exposes a lot of information about you, while refusing to make a prediction exposes little. (You might get into unnecessary conflicts over the parts where the probability is small anyway, so it wouldn't make a practical difference.)

I suspect that refusing to make prediction, even for yourself, is just an internalization of this rule. You know that doing something would make other people laught at you, so it feels silly to do even if no one is watching.

Comment author: dogiv 27 March 2017 04:16:39PM 1 point [-]

I agree with that... personally I have tried several times to start a private journal, and every time I basically end up failing to write down any important thoughts because I am inhibited by the mental image of how someone else might interpret what I write--even though in fact no one will read it. Subconsciously it seems much more "defensible" to write nothing at all, and therefore effectively leave my thoughts unexamined, than to commit to having thought something that might be socially unacceptable.

Comment author: lifelonglearner 27 March 2017 05:28:36PM 1 point [-]

I agree w/ both above comments. This resonates and seems to provide an explanation that feels right. (There are thoughts I still won't journal or will only write in shorthand because they're so private.)

Comment author: Lumifer 27 March 2017 05:56:11PM *  0 points [-]

even though in fact no one will read it

How do you know this?

Note the difference between what you intend and what might happen to you and your property regardless of your intentions.

Comment author: dogiv 27 March 2017 09:42:21PM 0 points [-]

Encrypting/obscuring it does help a little bit, but doesn't eliminate the problem, so it's not just that.

Comment author: Elo 24 March 2017 09:47:17PM 0 points [-]

make your beliefs pay rent perhaps?

Comment author: lifelonglearner 24 March 2017 10:01:31PM 0 points [-]

Yep, Yudkowsky's thing about captures the spirit of this essay. And then just also the bit that acting into uncertainty with something specific can often feel scary and final and aversive.