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Comment author: Erfeyah 30 August 2017 10:19:12AM *  3 points [-]

It is extremely interesting to see the attempts of the community to justify through or extract values from rationality. I have been pointing to the alternative perspective, based on the work of Jordan Peterson, in which morality is grounded on evolved behavioral patterns. It is rationally coherent and strongly supported by evidence. The only 'downside' if you can call it that is that it turns out that morality is not based on rationality and the "ought from an is" problem is an accurate portrayal of our current (and maybe general) situation.

I am not going to expand on this unless you are interested but I have a question. What does the rationalist community in general, and your article, try to get at? I can think of two possibilities:

[1] that morality is based on rational thought as expressed through language

[2] that morality has a computational basis implemented somewhere in the brain and accessed through the conscious mind as an intuition

I do not see how [1] can be true since we can observe the emergence of moral values in cultures in which rationality is hardly developed. Furthermore, even today as your article shows, we are straggling to extract value from rational argument so, our intuition can not be stemming from something we haven't even succeeded at. As for [2], it is a very interesting proposal but I haven't seen any scientific evidence that link it to structures in the human brain.

I feel the rationalist community is resistant in entertaining the alternative because, if true, it would show that rationality is not the foundation of everything but a tool of assessing and manipulating. Maybe further resistance is caused because (in an slightly embarrassing turn of events) it brings stories, myth and religion into the picture again, albeit in a very different manner. But even if that proves to be the case so what? What is our highest priority here? Rationality or Truth?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 30 August 2017 10:27:54PM 0 points [-]

I can think of two possibilities:

[1] that morality is based on rational thought as expressed through language

[2] that morality has a computational basis implemented somewhere in the brain and accessed through the conscious mind as an intuition

Closer to [2]. Does the analogy in Section 2 make sense to you? That would be my starting point for trying to explain further.

Comment author: Elo 29 August 2017 11:51:14PM 0 points [-]

Triangle-NESS depends on the dimensional plane of observation. Therefore it is external to the configuration of matter in entropy being observed

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 30 August 2017 06:24:40PM *  0 points [-]

∆-ness does not depend on the point of observation. If you like, just stipulate that you always view the configuration from a point outside the affine span of the configuration but on the line perpendicular to the affine span and passing through the configuration's barycenter. Then regular triangles, and only regular triangles, will project to regular triangles on your 2-dimensional display.

Intrinsic properties and Eliezer's metaethics

6 Tyrrell_McAllister 29 August 2017 11:26PM

Abstract

I give an account for why some properties seem intrinsic while others seem extrinsic. In light of this account, the property of moral goodness seems intrinsic in one way and extrinsic in another. Most properties do not suffer from this ambiguity. I suggest that this is why many people find Eliezer's metaethics to be confusing.

Section 1: Intuitions of intrinsicness

What makes a particular property seem more or less intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic?

Consider the following three properties that a physical object X might have:

  1. The property of having the shape of a regular triangular. (I'll call this property "∆-ness" or "being ∆-shaped", for short.)
  2. The property of being hard, in the sense of resisting deformation.
  3. The property of being a key that can open a particular lock L (or L-opening-ness).

To me, intuitively, ∆-ness seems entirely intrinsic, and hardness seems somewhat less intrinsic, but still very intrinsic. However, the property of opening a particular lock seems very extrinsic. (If the notion of "intrinsic" seems meaningless to you, please keep reading. I believe that I ground these intuitions in something meaningful below.)

When I query my intuition on these examples, it elaborates as follows:

(1) If an object X is ∆-shaped, then X is ∆-shaped independently of any consideration of anything else. Object X could manifest its ∆-ness even in perfect isolation, in a universe that contained no other objects. In that sense, being ∆-shaped is intrinsic to X.

(2) If an object X is hard, then that fact does have a whiff of extrinsicness about it. After all, X's being hard is typically apparent only in an interaction between X and some other object Y, such as in a forceful collision after which the parts of X are still in nearly the same arrangement.

Nonetheless, X's hardness still feels to me to be primarily "in" X. Yes, something else has to be brought onto the scene for X's hardness to do anything. That is, X's hardness can be detected only with the help of some "test object" Y (to bounce off of X, for example). Nonetheless, the hardness detected is intrinsic to X. It is not, for example, primarily a fact about the system consisting of X and the test object Y together.

(3) Being an L-opening key (where L is a particular lock), on the other hand, feels very extrinsic to me. A thought experiment that pumps this intuition for me is this: Imagine a molten blob K of metal shifting through a range of key-shapes. The vast majority of such shapes do not open L. Now suppose that, in the course of these metamorphoses, K happens to pass through a shape that does open L. Just for that instant, K takes on the property of L-opening-ness. Nonetheless, and here is the point, an observer without detailed knowledge of L in particular wouldn't notice anything special about that instant.

Contrast this with the other two properties: An observer of three dots moving in space might notice when those three dots happen to fall into the configuration of a regular triangle. And an observer of an object passing through different conditions of hardness might notice when the object has become particularly hard. The observer can use a generic test object Y to check the hardness of X. The observer doesn't need anything in particular to notice that X has become hard.

But all that is just an elaboration of my intuitions. What is really going on here? I think that the answer sheds light on how people understand Eliezer's metaethics.

Section 2: Is goodness intrinsic?

I was led to this line of thinking while trying to understand why Eliezer's metaethics is consistently confusing.

The notion of an L-opening key has been my personal go-to analogy for thinking about how goodness (of a state of affairs) can be objective, as opposed to subjective. The analogy works like this: We are like locks, and states of affairs are like keys. Roughly, a state is good when it engages our moral sensibilities so that, upon reflection, we favor that state. Speaking metaphorically, a state is good just when it has the right shape to "open" us. (Here, "us" means normal human beings as we are in the actual world.) Being of the right shape to open a particular lock is an objective fact about a key. Analogously, being good is an objective fact about a state of affairs.

Objective in what sense? In this important sense, at least: The property of being L-opening picks out a particular point in key-shape space1. This space contains a point for every possible key-shape, even if no existing key has that shape. So we can say that a hypothetical key is "of an L-opening shape" even if the key is assumed to exist in a world that has no locks of type L. Analogously, a state can still be called good even if it is in a counterfactual world containing no agents who share our moral sensibilities.

But the discussion in Section 1 made "being L-opening" seem, while objective, very extrinsic, and not primarily about the key K itself. The analogy between "L-opening-ness" and goodness seems to work against Eliezer's purposes. It suggests that goodness is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. For, one cannot properly call a key "opening" in general. One can only say that a key "opens this or that particular lock". But the analogous claim about goodness sounds like relativism: "There's no objective fact of the matter about whether a state of affairs is good. There's just an objective fact of the matter about whether it is good to you."

This, I suppose, is why some people think that Eliezer's metaethics is just warmed-over relativism, despite his protestations.

Section 3: Seeing intrinsicness in simulations

I think that we can account for the intuitions of intrinsicness in Section 1 by looking at them from the perspective simulations. Moreover, this account will explain why some of us (including perhaps Eliezer) judge goodness to be intrinsic.

The main idea is this: In our minds, a property P, among other things, "points to" the test for its presence. In particular, P evokes whatever would be involved in detecting the presence of P. Whether I consider a property P to be intrinsic depends on how I would test for the presence of P — NOT, however, on how I would test for P "in the real world", but rather on how I would test for P in a simulation that I'm observing from the outside.

Here is how this plays out in the cases above.

(1) In the case of being ∆-shaped, consider a simulation (on a computer, or in your mind's eye) consisting of three points connected by straight lines to make a triangle X floating in space. The points move around, and the straight lines stretch and change direction to keep the points connected. The simulation itself just keeps track of where the points and lines are. Nonetheless, when X becomes ∆-shaped, I notice this "directly", from outside the simulation. Nothing else within the simulation needs to react to the ∆-ness. Indeed, nothing else needs to be there at all, aside from the points and lines. The ∆-shape detector is in me, outside the simulation. To make the ∆-ness of an object X manifest, the simulation needs to contain only the object X itself.

In summary: A property will feel extremely intrinsic to X when my detecting the property requires only this: "Simulate just X."

(2) For the case of hardness, imagine a computer simulation that models matter and its motions as they follow from the laws of physics and my exogenous manipulations. The simulation keeps track of only fundamental forces, individual molecules, and their positions and momenta. But I can see on the computer display what the resulting clumps of matter look like. In particular, there is a clump X of matter in the simulation, and I can ask myself whether X is hard.

Now, on the one hand, I am not myself a hardness detector that can just look at X and see its hardness. In that sense, hardness is different from ∆-ness, which I can just look at and see. In this case, I need to build a hardness detector. Moreover, I need to build the detector inside the simulation. I need some other thing Y in the simulation to bounce off of X to see whether X is hard. Then I, outside the simulation, can say, "Yup, the way Y bounced off of X indicates that X is hard." (The simulation itself isn't generating statements like "X is hard", any more than the 3-points-and-lines simulation above was generating statements about whether the configuration was a regular triangle.)

On the other hand, crucially, I can detect hardness with practically anything at all in addition to X in the simulation. I can take practically any old chunk of molecules and bounce it off of X with sufficient force.

A property of an object X still feels intrinsic when detecting the property requires only this: "Simulate just X + practically any other arbitrary thing."

Indeed, perhaps I need only an arbitrarily small "epsilon" chunk of additional stuff inside the simulation. Given such a chunk, I can run the simulation to knock the chunk against X, perhaps from various directions. Then I can assess the results to conclude whether X is hard. The sense of intrinsicness comes, perhaps, from "taking the limit as epsilon goes to 0", seeing the hardness there the whole time, and interpreting this as saying that the hardness is "within" X itself.

In summary: A property will feel very intrinsic to X when its detection requires only this: "Simulate just X + epsilon."

(3) In this light, L-opening keys differ crucially from ∆-shaped things and from hard things.

An L-opening key differs from an ∆-shaped object because I myself do not encode lock L. Whereas I can look at a regular triangle and see its ∆-ness from outside the simulation, I cannot do the same (let's suppose) for keys of the right shape to open lock L. So I cannot simulate a key K alone and see its L-opening-ness.

Moreover, I cannot add something merely arbitrary to the simulation to check K for L-opening-ness.  I need to build something very precise and complicated inside the simulation: an instance of the lock L. Then I can insert K in the lock and observe whether it opens.

I need, not just K, and not just K + epsilon: I need to simulate K + something complicated in particular.

Section 4: Back to goodness

So how does goodness as a property fit into this story?

There is an important sense in which goodness is more like being ∆-shaped than it is like being L-opening. Namely, goodness of a state of affairs is something that I can assess myself from outside a simulation of that state. I don't need to simulate anything else to see it. Putting it another way, goodness is like L-opening would be if I happened myself to encode lock L. If that were the case, then, as soon as I saw K take on the right shape inside the simulation, that shape could "click" with me outside of the simulation.

That is why goodness seems to have the same ultimate kind of intrinsicness that ∆-ness has and which being L-opening lacks. We don't encode locks, but we do encode morality.

 

Footnote

1. Or, rather, a small region in key-shape space, since a lock will accept keys that vary slightly in shape.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 15 June 2017 06:17:08PM 1 point [-]

An interesting thought-experiment. But I don't follow this part:

So in theory we could hand it off to human philosophers or some other human-based procedure, thus dealing with "complexity of value" without much risk.

The complexity of value has to do with how the border delineating good outcomes from all possible outcomes cannot be specified in a compact way. Granted, the space of possible polygon arrangements is smaller than the space of possible atom arrangements. That does make the space of possible outcomes relatively more manageable in your VR world. But the space of outcomes is still Vast. It seems Vast enough that the border separating good from bad is still complex beyond our capacity to specify.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 15 June 2017 04:30:53PM 4 points [-]

There was a historical attempt to summerise all major Less Wrong posts, an interesting but incomplete project. It was also approach without a usefully normalised approach. Ideally, every article would have its own page which could be heavily tagged up with metadata such a themes, importance, length, quality, author and such. Is this the goal of the wiki?

I wrote a dozen or two of those summaries. My goal was to write a highly distilled version of the post itself.

I aimed for summaries that were about four or five sentences long. Very roughly speaking, I tried to have a sentence for each principle thesis, and a sentence for each supporting argument. As a self-imposed constraint, I kept my summaries under 70 words.

For me, the summary should capture just the logical structure supporting the final take-away of the post, while losing all the anecdotes, illustrative examples, tribal signals, pseudo-dialectical back-and-forth, and discursive meanderings in the original.

Comment author: dogiv 22 March 2017 09:43:12PM 7 points [-]

It does seem like a past tendency to overbuild things is the main cause. Why are the pyramids still standing five thousand years later? Because the only way they knew to build a giant building back then was to make it essentially a squat mound of solid stone. If you wanted to build a pyramid the same size today you could probably do it for 1/1000 of the cost but it would be hollow and it wouldn't last even 500 years.

Even when cars were new they couldn't be overbuilt the way buildings were in prehistory because they still had to be able to move themselves around. Washing machines are somewhere in between, I guess. But I don't think rich people demand less durability. If anything, rich people have more capital to spend up front on a quality product and more luxury to research which one is a good long-term investment.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2017 11:24:43PM *  1 point [-]

Even when cars were new they couldn't be overbuilt the way buildings were in prehistory because they still had to be able to move themselves around.

Which is interesting corroboration in light of CronoDAS's comment that cars have been getting more durable, not less.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 March 2017 07:54:49PM *  5 points [-]

Home appliances have improved on measures other than durability, though, such as energy efficiency. And cars are significantly more durable, lasting for roughly twice the mileage before requiring repairs that amount to rebuilding the car...

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2017 11:18:22PM *  1 point [-]

And cars are significantly more durable

That is an important counter-weight to the claims in the article I linked to.

ETA: Though maybe it's actually consistent in light of dogiv's observation that there were always limits on how much you could overbuild cars.

Comment author: denimalpaca 22 March 2017 09:46:50PM 1 point [-]

You should look up the phrase "planned obsolescence". It's a concept taught in many engineering schools. Apple employs it in it's products. The basic idea is similar to your thoughts under "Greater Global Wealth": the machine is designed to have a lifetime that is significantly shorter than what is possible, specifically to get users to keep buying a machine. This is essentially subscription-izing products; subscriptions are, especially today in the start up world, generally a better business model than selling one product one time (or even a couple times).

With phones, this makes perfect sense, given the pace of advancements in the phones, generation after generation.

While you would think that a poor person would optimize for durability, often durability is more expensive, meaning that the poor person's only real choice is a lower-quality product that does not last as long.

"Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials." This doesn't really follow to me. There are many reasons a manufacturer would use worse materials than the global "best materials", including lower costs. It seems to me that your idea of 'greater global implies worse local' can be equally explained as a phenomenon of capitalism, where the need to make an acceptable product as cheaply as possible does not often align with making the best product at whatever the cost.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2017 11:16:15PM *  2 points [-]

Planned obsolescence alone doesn't explain the change over time of this phenomenon. It's a static explanation, one which applies equally well to every era, unless something more is said. So the question becomes, Why are manufacturers planning for sooner obsolescence now than they did in the past?

Likewise, "worse materials cost less" is always true. It's a static fact, so it can't explain the observed dynamic phenomenon by itself. Or, at least, you need to add some additional data, like, "materials are available now that are worse than what used to be available". That might explain something. It would be another example of things being globally better in a perverse sense (more options = better).

Globally better means locally worse

3 Tyrrell_McAllister 22 March 2017 07:25PM

Home appliances, such as washing machines, are apparently much less durable now than they were decades ago. [ETA: Thanks to commenters for providing lots of reasons to doubt this claim (especially from here and here).]

Perhaps this is a kind of mirror image of "cost disease". In many sectors (education, medicine), we pay much more now for a product that is no better than what we got decades ago at a far lower cost, even accounting for inflation. It takes more money to buy the same level of quality. Scott Alexander (Yvain) argues that the cause of cost disease is a mystery. There are several plausible accounts, but they don't cover all the cases in a satisfying way. (See the link for more on the mystery of cost disease.)

Now, what if the mysterious cause of cost disease were to set to work in a sector where price can't go up, for whatever reason? Then you would expect quality to take a nosedive. If price per unit quality goes up, but total price can't go up, then quality must go down. So maybe the mystery of crappy appliances is just cost disease in another guise.

In the spirit of inadequate accounts of cost disease, I offer this inadequate account of crappy appliances:

As things get better globally, they get worse locally.

Global goodness provides a buffer against local badness. This makes greater local badness tolerable. That is, the cheapest tolerable thing gets worse. Thus, worse and worse things dominate locally as things get better globally.

This principle applies in at least two ways to washing machines:

Greater global wealth: Consumers have more money, so they can afford to replace washing machines more frequently. Thus, manufacturers can sell machines that require frequent replacement.

Manufacturers couldn't get away with this if people were poorer and could buy only one machine every few decades. If you're poor, you prioritize durability more. In the aggregate, the market will reward durability more. But a rich market accepts less durability.

Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials.

Rich people might tolerate a washer that lasts 3 years, give or take. But even they don't want a washer that breaks in one month. If you build washers, you need to be sure that nearly every single one lasts a full month, at least. But, with poor materials science, you have to overshoot by a lot to ensure of that. Maybe you have to aim for a mean duration of decades to guarantee that the minimum duration doesn't fall below one month. On the other hand, with better materials science, you can get the distribution of duration to cluster tightly around 3 years. You still have very few washers lasting only one month, but the vast majority of your washers are far less durable than they used to be.

Afterthought

Maybe this is just Nassim Taleb's notion of antifragility. I haven't read the book, but I gather that the idea is that individuals grow stronger in environments that contain more stressors (within limits). Conversely, if you take away the stressors (i.e., make the environment globally better), then you get more fragile individuals (i.e., things are locally worse).

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 21 February 2017 10:23:56PM 4 points [-]

Totally unrealistic.

Thorin was never in a position to hire mirthril miners. He had sufficient capital for only a very brief time before dying at the Battle of Five Armies.

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