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Separate morality from free will

6 PhilGoetz 10 April 2011 02:35AM

[I made significant edits when moving this to the main page - so if you read it in Discussion, it's different now.  It's clearer about the distinction between two different meanings of "free", and why linking one meaning of "free" with morality implies a focus on an otherworldly soul.]

It was funny to me that many people thought Crime and Punishment was advocating outcome-based justice.  If you read the post carefully, nothing in it advocates outcome-based justice.  I only wanted to show how people think, so I could write this post.

Talking about morality causes much confusion, because most philosophers - and most people - do not have a distinct concept of morality.  At best, they have just one word that composes two different concepts.  At worst, their "morality" doesn't contain any new primitive concepts at all; it's just a macro: a shorthand for a combination of other ideas.

I think - and have, for as long as I can remember - that morality is about doing the right thing.  But this is not what most people think morality is about!

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Crime and punishment

39 PhilGoetz 24 March 2011 09:53PM

Why do those words go together?

Society - and for once, I'm using this term universally - teaches that, if you committed a crime, you should be punished.

But in some societies, we have an insanity defense.  If you had a brain condition so that you had no - here it's a little vague - consciousness, or moral sense, or free will, or, well, something - then it would be cruel to punish you for your crime.  Instead of going to prison, you should be placed somewhere where you can't hurt anybody, where professional physicians and counselors can study your case and try to reform you so that you can rejoin society.

Wait - so that isn't what prison is for?

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Hyakujo's Fox

12 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2009 10:14AM

From "Hyakujo's Fox", #2 of the 49 koans in The Gateless Gate:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?'

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: "The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation." For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox's body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?'

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.'

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened.

Mumon's poem:

Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.

It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox.

The Ultimate Source

35 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 June 2008 09:01AM

This post is part of the Solution to "Free Will".
Followup toTimeless Control, Possibility and Could-ness

Faced with a burning orphanage, you ponder your next action for long agonizing moments, uncertain of what you will do.  Finally, the thought of a burning child overcomes your fear of fire, and you run into the building and haul out a toddler.

There's a strain of philosophy which says that this scenario is not sufficient for what they call "free will".  It's not enough for your thoughts, your agonizing, your fear and your empathy, to finally give rise to a judgment.  It's not enough to be the source of your decisions.

No, you have to be the ultimate source of your decisions.  If anything else in your past, such as the initial condition of your brain, fully determined your decision, then clearly you did not.

But we already drew this diagram:


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Possibility and Could-ness

34 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 June 2008 04:38AM

This post is part of the Solution to "Free Will".
Followup toDissolving the Question, Causality and Moral Responsibility

Planning out upcoming posts, it seems to me that I do, in fact, need to talk about the word could, as in, "But I could have decided not to rescue that toddler from the burning orphanage."

Otherwise, I will set out to talk about Friendly AI, one of these days, and someone will say:  "But it's a machine; it can't make choices, because it couldn't have done anything other than what it did."

So let's talk about this word, "could".  Can you play Rationalist's Taboo against it?  Can you talk about "could" without using synonyms like "can" and "possible"?

Let's talk about this notion of "possibility".  I can tell, to some degree, whether a world is actual or not actual; what does it mean for a world to be "possible"?

I know what it means for there to be "three" apples on a table.  I can verify that experimentally, I know what state of the world corresponds it.  What does it mean to say that there "could" have been four apples, or "could not" have been four apples?  Can you tell me what state of the world corresponds to that, and how to verify it?  Can you do it without saying "could" or "possible"?

I know what it means for you to rescue a toddler from the orphanage.  What does it mean for you to could-have-not done it?  Can you describe the corresponding state of the world without "could", "possible", "choose", "free", "will", "decide", "can", "able", or "alternative"?

One last chance to take a stab at it, if you want to work out the answer for yourself...

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Timeless Control

19 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 June 2008 05:16AM

Followup toTimeless Physics, Timeless Causality, Thou Art Physics

People hear about many-worlds, which is deterministic, or about timeless physics, and ask:

If the future is determined by physics, how can anyone control it?

In Thou Art Physics, I pointed out that since you are within physics, anything you control is necessarily controlled by physics.  Today we will talk about a different aspect of the confusion, the words "determined" and "control".

The "Block Universe" is the classical term for the universe considered from outside Time.  Even without timeless physics, Special Relativity outlaws any global space of simultaneity, which is widely believed to suggest the Block Universe—spacetime as one vast 4D block.

When you take a perspective outside time, you have to be careful not to let your old, timeful intuitions run wild in the absence of their subject matter.

In the Block Universe, the future is not determined before you make your choice.  "Before" is a timeful word.  Once you descend so far as to start talking about time, then, of course, the future comes "after" the past, not "before" it.

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Thou Art Physics

42 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 June 2008 06:37AM

Followup toDissolving the Question, Hand vs. Fingers, Timeless Causality, Living in Many-Worlds

Three months ago—jeebers, has it really been that long?—I posed the following homework assignment:  Do a stack trace of the human cognitive algorithms that produce debates about 'free will'.  Note that this task is strongly distinguished from arguing that free will does, or does not exist.

Now, as expected, the notion of "timeless physics" is causing people to ask, "If the future is determined, how can our choices control it?"  The wise reader can guess that it all adds up to normality; but this leaves the question of how.

People hear:  "The universe runs like clockwork; physics is deterministic; the future is fixed."  And their minds form an causal network that looks like this:


Here we see the causes "Me" and "Physics", competing to determine the state of the "Future" effect.  If the "Future" is fully determined by "Physics", then obviously there is no room for it to be affected by "Me".

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Dissolving the Question

44 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2008 03:17AM

Followup toHow an Algorithm Feels From the Inside, Feel the Meaning, Replace the Symbol with the Substance

"If a tree falls in the forest, but no one hears it, does it make a sound?"

I didn't answer that question.  I didn't pick a position, "Yes!" or "No!", and defend it.  Instead I went off and deconstructed the human algorithm for processing words, even going so far as to sketch an illustration of a neural network.  At the end, I hope, there was no question left—not even the feeling of a question.

Many philosophers—particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers—share a dangerous instinct:  If you give them a question, they try to answer it.

Like, say, "Do we have free will?"

The dangerous instinct of philosophy is to marshal the arguments in favor, and marshal the arguments against, and weigh them up, and publish them in a prestigious journal of philosophy, and so finally conclude:  "Yes, we must have free will," or "No, we cannot possibly have free will."

Some philosophers are wise enough to recall the warning that most philosophical disputes are really disputes over the meaning of a word, or confusions generated by using different meanings for the same word in different places.  So they try to define very precisely what they mean by "free will", and then ask again, "Do we have free will?  Yes or no?"

A philosopher wiser yet, may suspect that the confusion about "free will" shows the notion itself is flawed.  So they pursue the Traditional Rationalist course:  They argue that "free will" is inherently self-contradictory, or meaningless because it has no testable consequences.  And then they publish these devastating observations in a prestigious philosophy journal.

But proving that you are confused may not make you feel any less confused.  Proving that a question is meaningless may not help you any more than answering it.

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