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Three Fallacies of Teleology

21 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2008 10:27PM

Followup toAnthropomorphic Optimism

Aristotle distinguished between four senses of the Greek word aition, which in English is translated as "cause", though Wikipedia suggests that a better translation is "maker".  Aristotle's theory of the Four Causes, then, might be better translated as the Four Makers.  These were his four senses of aitia:  The material aition, the formal aition, the efficient aition, and the final aition.

The material aition of a bronze statue is the substance it is made from, bronze.  The formal aition is the substance's form, its statue-shaped-ness.  The efficient aition best translates as the English word "cause"; we would think of the artisan carving the statue, though Aristotle referred to the art of bronze-casting the statue, and regarded the individual artisan as a mere instantiation.

The final aition was the goal, or telos, or purpose of the statue, that for the sake of which the statue exists.

Though Aristotle considered knowledge of all four aitia as necessary, he regarded knowledge of the telos as the knowledge of highest order.  In this, Aristotle followed in the path of Plato, who had earlier written:

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause.  It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it.  That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid.  As for their capacity of being in the best place they could possibly be put, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force...

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Mind Projection Fallacy

35 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 March 2008 12:29AM

Followup toHow an Algorithm Feels From Inside

Monsterwithgirl_2In the dawn days of science fiction, alien invaders would occasionally kidnap a girl in a torn dress and carry her off for intended ravishing, as lovingly depicted on many ancient magazine covers.  Oddly enough, the aliens never go after men in torn shirts.

Would a non-humanoid alien, with a different evolutionary history and evolutionary psychology, sexually desire a human female?  It seems rather unlikely.  To put it mildly.

People don't make mistakes like that by deliberately reasoning:  "All possible minds are likely to be wired pretty much the same way, therefore a bug-eyed monster will find human females attractive."  Probably the artist did not even think to ask whether an alien perceives human females as attractive.  Instead, a human female in a torn dress is sexy—inherently so, as an intrinsic property.

They who went astray did not think about the alien's evolutionary history; they focused on the woman's torn dress.  If the dress were not torn, the woman would be less sexy; the alien monster doesn't enter into it.

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The Tragedy of Group Selectionism

36 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 November 2007 07:47AM

Before 1966, it was not unusual to see serious biologists advocating evolutionary hypotheses that we would now regard as magical thinking.  These muddled notions played an important historical role in the development of later evolutionary theory, error calling forth correction; like the folly of English kings provoking into existence the Magna Carta and constitutional democracy.

As an example of romance, Vero Wynne-Edwards, Warder Allee, and J. L. Brereton, among others, believed that predators would voluntarily restrain their breeding to avoid overpopulating their habitat and exhausting the prey population.

But evolution does not open the floodgates to arbitrary purposes.  You cannot explain a rattlesnake's rattle by saying that it exists to benefit other animals who would otherwise be bitten.  No outside Evolution Fairy decides when a gene ought to be promoted; the gene's effect must somehow directly cause the gene to be more prevalent in the next generation.  It's clear why our human sense of aesthetics, witnessing a population crash of foxes who've eaten all the rabbits, cries "Something should've been done!"  But how would a gene complex for restraining reproduction—of all things!—cause itself to become more frequent in the next generation?

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