Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Words per person year and intellectual rigor

13 PhilGoetz 27 August 2015 03:31AM

Continuing my cursory exploration of semiotics and post-modern thought, I'm struck by the similarity between writing in those traditions, and picking up women.  The most-important traits for practitioners of both are energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.  In support of this proposition, here is a photo of Slavoj Zizek at his 2006 wedding:

Having philosophical or logical rigor, or demonstrating the usefulness of your ideas using empirical data, does not seem to provide a similar advantage, despite taking a lot of time.

I speculate that semiotics and post-modernism (which often go hand-in-hand) became popular by natural selection.  They provide specialized terminologies which give the impression of rigorous thought without requiring actual rigor. People who use them can thus out-publish their more-careful competitors. So post-modernism tends to drive rigorous thought out of any field it enters.

(It's possible to combine post-modern ideas and a time-consuming empirical approach, as Thomas Kuhn did in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  But it's uncommon.)

If rigorous thought significantly reduces publication rate, we should find that the rigor of a field or a person correlates inversely with words per person-year.  Establishing that fact alone, combined with the emphasis on publication in academics, would lead us to expect that any approach that allowed one to fake or dispense with intellectual rigor in a field would rapidly take over that field.

continue reading »

Your Evolved Intuitions

15 lukeprog 05 May 2011 04:21PM

Part of the sequence: Rationality and Philosophy

We have already examined one source of our intuitions: attribute substitution heuristics. Today we examine a second source of our intuitions: biological evolution.


Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology1 has been covered on Less Wrong many times before, but let's review anyway.

Lions walk on four legs and hunt for food. Skunks defend themselves with a spray. Spiders make webs. Each species is shaped by selection pressures, and is different from that of other species.

Certain evolved psychological mechanisms in humans are part of what makes us like each other and not like lions, skunks, and spiders.

These mechanisms evolved to solve specific adaptive problems. It is not an accident that people around the world prefer calorie-rich foods,2 that women around the world prefer men with resources,3 that men around the world prefer women with signs of fertility,4 or that most of us inherently fear snakes and spiders but not cars and electrical outlets.5

An an example of evolutionary psychology at work, consider the 'hunter-gatherer hypothesis' that men evolved psychological mechanisms to aid in hunting, while women evolved psychological mechanisms to aid in gathering.6 This hypothesis leads to a list of bold predictions. If the hypothesis is correct, then:

  1. Men in modern tribal societies should spend a lot of time hunting, and women more time gathering.
  2. Humans should show a greater tendency toward strong male coalitions than similar species in which males do not hunt much, because strong male coalitions are required to hunt big game.
  3. Because meat from most game comes in quantities larger than a single hunter can consume, and because hunting success is highly variable (one week may be a success, but perhaps not the next week), humans should exhibit food sharing and reciprocal altruism.
  4. We should expect to see a sexual division of labor, due to the different traits conducive for hunting vs. gathering.
  5. Men should exploit status gains to be had from 'showing off' large hunting successes.
  6. Men should have superior cognitive ability to navigate across large distances and perform 3D mental rotation tasks required for throwing spears and similar hunting acts. Women should have superior cognitive ability with spacial location memory and object arrays.

And as it turns out, all these predictions are correct.7 (And no, evolutionary psychologists do not only offer 'postdictions' or 'just so' stories. Besides, probability theory does not have separate categories for 'predictions' and 'postdictions'.)

continue reading »

You're in Newcomb's Box

40 HonoreDB 05 February 2011 08:46PM

Part 1:  Transparent Newcomb with your existence at stake

Related: Newcomb's Problem and Regret of Rationality


Omega, a wise and trustworthy being, presents you with a one-time-only game and a surprising revelation.  


"I have here two boxes, each containing $100," he says.  "You may choose to take both Box A and Box B, or just Box B.  You get all the money in the box or boxes you take, and there will be no other consequences of any kind.  But before you choose, there is something I must tell you."


Omega pauses portentously.


"You were created by a god: a being called Prometheus.  Prometheus was neither omniscient nor particularly benevolent.  He was given a large set of blueprints for possible human embryos, and for each blueprint that pleased him he created that embryo and implanted it in a human woman.  Here was how he judged the blueprints: any that he guessed would grow into a person who would choose only Box B in this situation, he created.  If he judged that the embryo would grow into a person who chose both boxes, he filed that blueprint away unused.  Prometheus's predictive ability was not perfect, but it was very strong; he was the god, after all, of Foresight."


Do you take both boxes, or only Box B?

continue reading »

Imperfect Levers

6 blogospheroid 17 November 2010 07:12PM

Related to : Lost Purposes, The importance of Goodhart's Law, Homo Hypocritus, SIAI's scary idea, Value Deathism

Summary : Whenever human beings seek to achieve goals far beyond their individual ability, they use leverage of some kind of another. Creating organizations to achieve goals is a very powerful source of leverage. However due to their nature, organizations are imperfect levers and the primary purpose is often lost. The inertia of present forms and processes dominates beyond its useful period. The present system of the world has many such imperfect organizations in power and any of them developing near-general intelligence without significant redesign of their utility function can be a source of existential risk/values risk.

continue reading »

Have no heroes, and no villains

88 PhilGoetz 07 November 2010 09:15PM

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

When Edward Wilson published the book Sociobiology, Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould secretly convened a group of biologists to gather regularly, for months, in the same building at Harvard that Wilson's office was in, to write an angry, politicized rebuttal to it, essentially saying not that Sociobiology was wrong, but that it was immoral - without ever telling Wilson.  This proved, to me, that they were not interested in the truth.  I never forgave them for this.

I constructed a narrative of evolutionary biology in which Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins were, for various reasons, the Good Guys; and Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould were the Bad Guys.

When reading articles on group selection for this post, I was distressed to find Richard Dawkins joining in the vilification of group selection with religious fervor; while Stephen J. Gould was the one who said,

"I have witnessed widespread dogma only three times in my career as an evolutionist, and nothing in science has disturbed me more than ignorant ridicule based upon a desire or perceived necessity to follow fashion: the hooting dismissal of Wynne-Edwards and group selection in any form during the late 1960's and most of the 1970's, the belligerence of many cladists today, and the almost ritualistic ridicule of Goldschmidt by students (and teachers) who had not read him."

This caused me great cognitive distress.  I wanted Stephen Jay Gould to be the Bad Guy.  I realized I was trying to find a way to dismiss Gould's statement, or at least believe that he had said it from selfish motives.  Or else, to find a way to flip it around so that he was the Good Guy and someone else was the Bad Guy.

To move on, I had to consciously shatter my Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, and accept that all of these people are sometimes brilliant, sometimes blind; sometimes share my values, and sometimes prioritize their values (e.g., science vs. politics) very differently from me.  I was surprised by how painful it was to do that, even though I was embarrassed to have had the Good Guy/Bad Guy hypothesis in the first place.  I don't think it was even personal - I didn't care who would be the Good Guys and who would be the Bad Guys.  I just want there to be Good Guys and Bad Guys.

What is the group selection debate?

28 Academian 02 November 2010 02:02AM

Related to Group selection update, The tragegy of group selectionism

tl;dr: In competitive selection processes, selection is a two-place word: there's something being selected (a cause), and something it's being selected for (an effect). The phrase group-level gene selection helps dissolve questions and confusion surrounding the less descriptive phrase "group selection".

(Essential note for new readers on reduction: Reality does not seem to keep track of different "levels of organization" and apply different laws at each level; rather, it seems that the patterns we observe at higher levels are statistical consequences of the laws and initial conditions at the lower levels. This is the "reductionist thesis.")

When I first encountered people debating "whether group selection is real", I couldn't see what there was to possibly debate about. I've since realized the debate is mostly a confusion arising from a cognitive misuse of a two-place "selection" relation.

Causes being selected versus effects they're being selected for.

A gene is an example of a Replicating Cause. (So is a meme; postpone discussion here.) A gene has many effects, one of which is that what we call "copies" of it tend to crop up in reality, through various mechanisms that involve cellular and organismal reproduction.

For example, suppose a particular human gene X causes cells containing it to immediately reproduce without bound, i.e. the gene is "cancerous". One effect is that there will soon be many more cells with that gene, hence more copies of the gene. Another effect is that the human organism containing it is liable to die without passing it on, hence fewer copies of the gene (once the dead organism starts to decay). If that's what happens, the gene itself can be considered unfit: all things considered, its various effects eventually lead it to stop existing.

(An individual in the next generation can still "get cancer", though, if a mutation in one produces a new cancerous gene, Y. This is what happens in reality.)

Thus, cancers are examples of where higher-complexity mechanisms trump lower complexity-mechanisms: organism-level gene selection versus cellular-level gene selection. Note that the Replicating Cause being selected is always the gene, but it is being selected for its net effects occurring on various levels.

So what's left to debate about?

continue reading »

Group selection update

38 PhilGoetz 01 November 2010 04:51PM

Group selection might seem like an odd topic for a LessWrong post.  Yet a google seach for "group selection" site:lesswrong.com turns up 345 results.

Just the power and generality of the concept of evolution is enough to justify posts on it here.  In addition, the impact group selection could have on the analysis of social structure, government, politics, and the architecture of self-modifying artificial intelligences is hard to over-estimate.  David Sloan Wilson wrote that "group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective."  (You should read his complete article here - it's a much more thorough debunking of the debunking of group selection than this post, although I'm not convinced his interpretation of kin selection is sensible.)  And I will argue that it has particular relevance to the study of rationality.

Eliezer's earlier post The Tragedy of Group Selectionism dismisses group selection, based on a mathematical model by Henry Harpending and Alan Rogers.  That model is, however, fatally flawed:  It studies the fixation of altruistic vs. selfish genes within groups of fixed size.  The groups never go extinct.  But group selection happens when groups are selected against.  The math used to argue against group selection assumes from the outset that group selection does not occur.  (This is also true of Maynard Smith's famous haystack model.)

continue reading »

Rational Health Optimization

20 jacob_cannell 18 September 2010 07:47PM

Possibly Related To: Diseased Thinking, Thou Art Godshatter

There are 8760 hours in a typical year.  A typical 30-year old will spend about 2900 of those hours sleeping, around 160 of them impaired or incapacitated by illness and will experience perhaps 2000 hours of peak mental function.

As one ages, the fraction of hours spent sleeping decreases slightly, but eventually the annual hours of peak mental function declines as well, and the annual hours spent ill increases nonlinearlly until one eventually makes that final hospital visit.  

There is a hope that medical technology, accelerated via a Singularity, will advance to the point where we have full mastery over biology and can economically repair organ and cellular damage faster than aging accumulates it.  There is sufficient evidence to put a reasonable bet on that happening by mid-century.

But for most of us that still leaves an unnaceptably high risk of death in the cumulative years between now and then.  Cyronics enrollment offers a further hope, but in practice probably only results in a modest improvement in long term survival odds after full discounting for the technical risks and uncertainties.

In the end it all comes down to a die roll.  Wouldn't you like to get an extra +1 or two?

With a simple evolutionary health optimization, one can:

  • achieve perhaps a 10% increase in peak mental hours per year
  • slow aging and prolong expected lifespan by at least ten years (before considering future medical advances)
  • significantly reduce chance of death before mid-century
  • shift body weight to a healthier equilibrium, increase attractiveness, general mood and happiness

Evolution and Health

Our bodies are the collective result of countless layers of mindless complex adaptations, evolutionary godshatter from a bygone history.  The current sub-species or races of humans today are just a small sampling of a much larger space of genetically related human ancestors who roamed the earth for hundreds of thousands of years before the modern era.  Our modern genomes are a wide and highly irregular sampling of this diverse set of historical adaptations.

continue reading »

Purposefulness on Mars

10 JamesAndrix 08 August 2010 09:23AM

Three different Martians built the Three Sacred Stone Walls of Mars according to the Three Virtues of walls:Height, Strength, and Beauty.

An evil Martian named Ution was the first and stupidest of all wallbuilders. He was too stupid to truly understand even the most basic virtue of height, and too evil to care for any other virtue. None the less, something about tall walls caused Evil Ution to build more tall walls, sometimes one on top of the other.

At times his walls would fall as he was building them, he did not understand why, nor did he care. He simply copied the high walls he had already built, whichever were still standing. His wall did achieve some strength and beauty. Most consisted of thousands of similar archways stacked on top of each other. Thousands upon thousands of intricately interlocking stones. Each arch a distantly removed copy of some prototypical archway that was strong and light enough to support itself many times over.

To this day his walls are the highest in all of Mars.

continue reading »

Backchaining causes wishful thinking

15 PhilGoetz 19 May 2010 07:01PM

Wishful thinking - believing things that make you happy - may be a result of adapting an old cognitive mechanism to new content.

continue reading »

View more: Next