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Emile comments on The Danger of Stories - LessWrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment deleted 11 November 2009 03:17:24AM [-]
Comment author: CronoDAS 11 November 2009 08:52:23PM 0 points [-]

Also, on a more personal level, even if the universe doesn't die, you will...

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 14 November 2009 02:53:08AM *  0 points [-]

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

I cannot make any strong statements about how my preferences would change if I learned for sure that I definitely cannot exert any permanent effect on reality. The question does not interest me. Also, the current me does not sympathize with any hypothetical me who is stuck in a reality on which he cannot exert any permanent effect. He is a non-person to me. (Yeah, I can be pretty callous towards future versions of myself. But it is not like I can rescue him from his (hypothetical) predicament.)

Finally, and this is nothing personal, Doug, but I will probably not take the time to answer future questions from you on this subject because I have resolved to stop trying to convert anyone to any particular moral position or system of valuing things, and this question I just answered pulled me back into that frame of mind for a couple of hours.

Comment author: Cyan 14 November 2009 03:40:04AM 1 point [-]

Expounding your moral position in response to a direct question is not proselytizing.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 14 November 2009 04:08:52AM *  0 points [-]

Finally, and this is nothing personal, Doug, but I will probably not take the time to answer future questions from you on this subject because I have resolved to stop trying to convert anyone to any particular moral position or system of valuing things, and this question I just answered pulled me back into that frame of mind for a couple of hours.

Expounding your moral position in response to a direct question is not proselytizing.

True. What I should have written is, Doug, please help me stop procrastinating! Please do not ask me any more questions for a while on morality or the fate of the universe.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 November 2009 04:39:44AM *  1 point [-]

I'll note somewhat abstractly that while 'expounding your moral position in response to a direct question' is not proselytizing, it is certainly something that can pull one into that frame of mind. This is particularly the case when the direct questioning has persuasive motivation.

The objection is valid, so strike from grandparent what I quote above.

The decision is a decision but the claim appears false.

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 November 2009 06:06:29AM 0 points [-]

Finally, and this is nothing personal, Doug, but I will probably not take the time to answer future questions from you on this subject because I have resolved to stop trying to convert anyone to any particular moral position or system of valuing things, and this question I just answered pulled me back into that frame of mind for a couple of hours.

No problem. I was just confused because "avoid pain" seems to be a goal built into most neurologically intact people at a fairly basic level (even lizard brains try to avoid pain), and that, in that context, seeing someone say that they don't care to avoid transient pain strikes me as an extremely bizarre thing to say.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 14 November 2009 06:12:08PM *  0 points [-]

Finally, and this is nothing personal, Doug, but I will probably not take the time to answer future questions from you on this subject

No problem. I was just confused because . . .

seeing someone say . . . strikes me as an extremely bizarre thing to say.

And since you participated in the discussions in past years on Overcoming Bias on this subject, Doug, and since I've seen a lot of your comments about your psychology, I know the hugeness of the inferential distance I would have to bridge to remove your confusion.

Comment author: CronoDAS 14 November 2009 07:13:34PM 0 points [-]

Indeed, the only way I can make sense of that statement in the context of what I know about animal/human behavior is to hypothesize a disconnect between consciously expressed values and revealed preferences. Am I wrong in assuming that you'd have a hard time sticking your hand in a pot of boiling water in exchange for some "permanent" positive change in the universe? After all, there are a lot of lower-level brain systems that act to make sure that we don't go around sticking our hands in boiling water. (I wouldn't be too surprised to find out that you'd be willing to let yourself be tied down and have someone else stick your hand in boiling water in exchange for something you want, but the instincts that protect us from deliberate self-harm tend to be difficult to overcome.)

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 14 November 2009 11:11:12PM *  2 points [-]

Am I wrong in assuming that you'd have a hard time sticking your hand in a pot of boiling water in exchange for some "permanent" positive change in the universe?

You are wrong. Whether my force of will (or indifference to pain) is sufficient to keep the hand in there for more than 8 seconds, I do not know.

But Doug, many soldiers have volunteered for combat missions knowing that the decision to volunteer adds much more expected pain to the rest of their lives than sticking a hand in boiling water would. Moreover, many cancer patients have chosen chemo knowing that the decision adds much more expected pain than sticking a hand in boiling water would. (Moreover, every chemo session requires a new dose of resolve since choosing the first chemo session does not enable any doctor or loved one to force the cancer patient to submit to a second session.)

BTW, learning that a person has enough indifference to pain (or force of will) to stick their hand in boiling water and keep it there for 8 seconds does not tell you very much about whether they can choose to stay motivated during long tedious projects, such as graduating from college or sticking to a diet. They are separate skills. Moreover, if your goal in life is as much happiness as possible or living as long as possible, then the ability to stay motivated during long tedious projects is much more useful than the ability to choose the painful option and then stick to the choice for a short length of time (e.g., long enough to volunteer for that combat mission or to sign your name to that Declaration of Independence).

Comment author: CronoDAS 15 November 2009 05:08:05AM 0 points [-]

You are wrong. Whether my force of will (or indifference to pain) is sufficient to keep the hand in there for more than 8 seconds, I do not know.

Okay. I would have expected you to flinch and hesitate before eventually succeeding in submerging you hand, but I'll take your word for it.

But Doug, many soldiers have volunteered for combat missions knowing that the decision to volunteer adds much more expected pain to the rest of their lives than sticking a hand in boiling water would. Moreover, many cancer patients have chosen chemo knowing that the decision adds much more expected pain than sticking a hand in boiling water would.

You're right about that; "avoid pain" certainly isn't the only goal people have, and other motivations can certainly lead someone to choose more pain over less pain, but I was pretty sure that it tends to be up there with "eat when hungry" as a basic animal drive.

/me shrugs

Of course, I'm sure you know a lot more about yourself than I do, so I think we've exhausted the topic at hand.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 November 2009 04:21:53AM *  0 points [-]

because I have resolved to stop trying to convert anyone to any particular moral position or system of valuing things, and this question I just answered pulled me back into that frame of mind for a couple of hours.

Thanks for adding this clarification. I understand the need for restraint.

ETA: I just finished appreciating this addition when the grandchild struck it out.

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

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

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

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 10 November 2009 08:54:05PM *  1 point [-]

I agree with almost everything rhollerith said (Most obvious exception: The pain from being kicked is probably more a warning that you're in a situation that caries the danger of major damage than an indication of reduced capacity to take damage in the future.) and would like to point out that the examples I gave are not the only possible ones. In your example, the risk of miscalculating and actually doing long-term damage is relevant, as is the psychological implication of being attacked by a stranger in public. Plus, as I discussed here, enough people have a goal of avoiding pain that you can safely assume that any random stranger has that goal, so inflicting pain on them is harmful in light of that.

Edit: It'd also be harmful to me to go around kicking people in the shins - I'd quickly get a reputation as dangerous, and people would become unwilling to associate with me or help me, and there's a significant chance that I'd wind up jailed, which is definitely harmful.