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Applied art of rationality: Richard Feynman steelmanning his mother's concerns

8 shminux 04 June 2013 05:31PM

First, imagine your parents disapproving of your first love. Imagine your mother inventing a whole whack of reasons why you shouldn't marry him/her. Now imagine being rational enough to acknowledge and address all her concerns while remaining a loving and caring son/daughter. If you can imagine, let alone do all that, you are better person than I am. But then I am not Feynman, who did just that in the following excerpt from the book Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. It is also a great example of Luminosity. Now, if you think that you can be that good, look through your replies on LW to people whose comment irk you in the worst way. How charitable were you? Granted, you probably don't care about anonymous online posters nearly as much as Feynman cared about his mother, but I suspect that caring about someone makes you more emotional, not less in your reply.

Comments by the book's author:

The following letter is in response to one from Lucille, Richard’s mother, in which she lovingly but forcefully outlined her concerns about Richard’s intent to marry Arline. Arline’s illness, she feared, would compromise not only his own health but his career. She was also concerned about the high cost of treatment (for oxygen, specialists, hospitalization, and so on).

Lucille suggested that his desire to marry stemmed from his desire to please someone he loved (“just as you used to occasionally eat spinach to please me”) and recommended that they stay “engaged.”

The letter itself:

With regard to (1) and (2) I went to see Prof. Smyth at Pop’s suggestion and the doctor here at the university.The doctor said I have less chance of getting T.B. in the sanatorium when visiting her than when I am walking around in the street. I think he was exaggerating (all this is in detail in a letter to Pop, so I won’t repeat it all here). He said T.B. is infectious but not contagious—I didn’t understand the distinction he made, however. Ask Dr. Sarrow. He said in sanatoriums the patients take care of their sputum by cups or Kleenex for the purpose, but on the streets people are careless and just spit all around and when it dries the germs float into the air. He said the germs are not floating around in the air in a sanatorium. He said a lot has been found out about this in the last 25, and in particular the last 10, years. I would be no danger to my students. Prof. Smyth didn’t see any objection from his point of view to hiring me if my wife is sick.

(3) If no one can make a budget for illness, how can I ever make enough to pay for it? How much is enough? Some guesses must be made and I guess I have enough. How much would you guess would be necessary?

(4) I wouldn’t be satisfied being engaged any longer. I want the burden and responsibility of being married.

(5) It really wasn’t hard at all.While I was out to lunch while waiting for somebody to come back to the courthouse in Trenton, I found myself singing—and I realized then that I really was very happy arranging things. It was, I suppose, the pleasure of arranging things for our life together—before she was sick we used to talk of the fun it would be going around ringing doorbells looking for a place to live—I guess it was similar to that idea.

I am not afraid of her parents—and if they don’t trust me with their daughter let them say so now. If they get sore at my mistakes later, it’s too late and it won’t bother me.You are right about my lack (4) of experience—I have no answer to that.

(6) The cost here again is a guess. I want to take the chance, however, that it will be sufficient. If it isn’t I’ll be in difficulty as you suggest.

(7) I’ve already been employed at Princeton for the next year. If I must go elsewhere, I’ll go where I’m needed most.

(8) I do want to get married. I also want to give someone I love what she wants—especially because at the same time I will be doing something I want. It is not at all like eating spinach—(also you misunderstood my motives as a small boy—I didn’t want you angry at me)—I didn’t like spinach.

(9) This is the problem we are discussing—I mean whether marriage is worse than engagement.

(10) I’m honestly sorry it makes you feel so bad. I bet it won’t be too heavy.

Why I want go get married;

It is not that I want to be noble. It is not that I think it’s the only right, honest and decent thing to do, under the circumstances. It is not that I made a promise five years ago—(under entirely different circumstances)—and that I don’t want to “back out” of the promise. That stuff is baloney. If anytime during the five years I thought I’d rather not go thru with it—promise or no promise I’d “back out” so fast it would make your head spin. I’m not dopey enough to tie up my whole life in the future because of some promise I made in the past—under different circumstances.

This decision to marry is a decision now and not one made five years ago.

I want to marry Arline because I love her—which means I want to take care of her.That is all there is to it. I want to take care of her.

I am anxious for the responsibilities and uncertainties of taking care of the girl I love.

I have, however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much as to physics as I can.This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline.

It is therefore especially fortunate that, as I can see (guess) my getting married will interfere very slightly, if at all with my main job in life. I am quite sure I can do both at once. (There is even the possibility that the consequent happiness of being married—and the constant encouragement and sympathy of my wife will aid in my endeavor—but actually in the past my love hasn’t affected my physics much, and I don’t really suppose it will be too great an assistance in the future.

Since I feel I can carry on my main job, and still enjoy the luxury of taking care of someone I love—I intend to be married shortly.

Does that explain anything?

Your Son.

R.P.F. PH.D.


P.S. I should have pointed out that I know I am taking chances getting married and may get into all kinds of pickles. I think the chances of major disasters are sufficiently small, and the gain to me and Putzie great enough, that the risk is well worth taking. Of course, this is just the point we are discussing—the magnitude of the risk—so I am saying nothing but simply asserting I think it is small. You think it is large, and therefore I was particularly anxious to have you tell me where you thought the pitfalls were—and you have pointed out a few new ones to me. I still feel the risk is worth taking—and the fact that we differ is due to our difference in background, experience and viewpoint. Please don’t worry that, by explaining your viewpoint, you have in any way pushed us further apart—you haven’t. I only hope that my marrying directly in the face of your disapproval and your better judgment won’t alienate you from me—because honestly, our judgments differ and I think you’re wrong. I honestly believe we (Putzie and I) will be better off married and nobody will be hurt by it.


Negative karma is a bad design

-9 sanxiyn 13 December 2012 11:27AM

It came to my attention that when you receive downvotes for your comments, your karma goes negative and you need to "pay back" to be able to post to Discussion or to Main.

Since new users start with zero karma, having negative karma seems to just encourage those with negative karma to create a new account. We don't want to encourage people to create superfluous accounts, do we? Therefore I think LessWrong codebase should be patched so that karma does not go below zero even with lots of downvotes.

What do you think?

[META] Retributive downvoting: Why?

12 ialdabaoth 27 November 2012 02:24AM

Several people posted recently in a thread on women, mostly espousing feminist views - only to find that someone had declined to respond to their post, but instead browsed their history and downvoted every single comment or article they had ever posted.

I have two questions:

1. Why would you come to a site like this and pollute the karma system? How does it make you smarter? How does it make anyone else on the site smarter?

2. What would be a good technical workaround? In my mind, some system that detects mass-downvoting and flags a user for review would be preferable, but what should happen then? Should the system be more lenient to higher-karma posters? Who should perform the review process? What should be done with those whom the reviewer ascertains are abusing the karma system? I would prefer some kind of lesson that is more corrective than retributive - it seems to me that people who would perform this behavior are exactly the sort of people who need some of the lessons that this site provides. Any ideas?

[Link] 12 Myths about Hunger

-10 Curiouskid 23 November 2012 10:25PM

Copy and pasted from here.For those interested, there's an book that expands on the article.
EDIT: people seem to like the first few myths, but they get rather political as the article goes on.
I couldn't find much on hunger on GiveWell's site other than these three articles.
The Advanced Civilization Wiki's page on Food probably covers the good aspects of this article and expands on them.

Why so much hunger?

What can we do about it?

To answer these questions we must unlearn much of what we have been taught.

Only by freeing ourselves from the grip of widely held myths can we grasp the roots of hunger and see what we can do to end it.

Myth 1

Not Enough Food to Go Around

Reality: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day. That doesn't even count many other commonly eaten foods - vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs-enough to make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Even most "hungry countries" have enough food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products.

Myth 2

Nature's to Blame for Famine

Reality: It's too easy to blame nature. Human-made forces are making people increasingly vulnerable to nature's vagaries. Food is always available for those who can afford it—starvation during hard times hits only the poorest. Millions live on the brink of disaster in south Asia, Africa and elsewhere, because they are deprived of land by a powerful few, trapped in the unremitting grip of debt, or miserably paid. Natural events rarely explain deaths; they are simply the final push over the brink. Human institutions and policies determine who eats and who starves during hard times. Likewise, in America many homeless die from the cold every winter, yet ultimate responsibility doesn't lie with the weather. The real culprits are an economy that fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places economic efficiency over compassion.

Myth 3

Too Many People

Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide as remaining regions of the Third World begin the demographic transition—when birth rates drop in response to an earlier decline in death rates. Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Costa Rica, with only half of Honduras' cropped acres per person, boasts a life expectancy—one indicator of nutrition —11 years longer than that of Honduras and close to that of developed countries. Rapid population growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people. Those Third World societies with dramatically successful early and rapid reductions of population growth rates-China, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala-prove that the lives of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.

Myth 4

The Environment vs. More Food?

Reality: We should be alarmed that an environmental crisis is undercutting our food-production resources, but a tradeoff between our environment and the world's need for food is not inevitable. Efforts to feed the hungry are not causing the environmental crisis. Large corporations are mainly responsible for deforestation-creating and profiting from developed-country consumer demand for tropical hardwoods and exotic or out-of-season food items. Most pesticides used in the Third World are applied to export crops, playing little role in feeding the hungry, while in the U.S. they are used to give a blemish-free cosmetic appearance to produce, with no improvement in nutritional value.

Alternatives exist now and many more are possible. The success of organic farmers in the U.S. gives a glimpse of the possibilities. Cuba's recent success in overcoming a food crisis through self-reliance and sustainable, virtually pesticide-free agriculture is another good example. Indeed, environmentally sound agricultural alternatives can be more productive than environmentally destructive ones.

Myth 5

The Green Revolution is the Answer

Reality: The production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth. Thanks to the new seeds, million of tons more grain a year are being harvested. But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food. That's why in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes—India, Mexico, and the Philippines—grain production and in some cases, exports, have climbed, while hunger has persisted and the long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must fight the prospect of a 'New Green Revolution' based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.

Myth 6

We Need Large Farms

Reality: Large landowners who control most of the best land often leave much of it idle. Unjust farming systems leave farmland in the hands of the most inefficient producers. By contrast, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, in part because they work their land more intensively and use integrated, and often more sustainable, production systems. Without secure tenure, the many millions of tenant farmers in the Third World have little incentive to invest in land improvements, to rotate crops, or to leave land fallow for the sake of long-term soil fertility. Future food production is undermined. On the other hand, redistribution of land can favor production. Comprehensive land reform has markedly increased production in countries as diverse as Japan, Zimbabwe, and Taiwan. A World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates that redistributing farmland into smaller holdings would raise output an astonishing 80 percent.

Myth 7

The Free Market Can End Hunger

Reality: Unfortunately, such a "market-is-good, government-is-bad" formula can never help address the causes of hunger. Such a dogmatic stance misleads us that a society can opt for one or the other, when in fact every economy on earth combines the market and government in allocating resources and distributing goods. The market's marvelous efficiencies can only work to eliminate hunger, however, when purchasing power is widely dispersed.

So all those who believe in the usefulness of the market and the necessity of ending hunger must concentrate on promoting not the market, but the consumers! In this task, government has a vital role to play in countering the tendency toward economic concentration, through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power toward the poor. Recent trends toward privatization and de-regulation are most definitely not the answer.

Myth 8

Free Trade is the Answer

Reality: The trade promotion formula has proven an abject failure at alleviating hunger. In most Third World countries exports have boomed while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened. While soybean exports boomed in Brazil-to feed Japanese and European livestock-hunger spread from one-third to two-thirds of the population. Where the majority of people have been made too poor to buy the food grown on their own country's soil, those who control productive resources will, not surprisingly, orient their production to more lucrative markets abroad. Export crop production squeezes out basic food production. Pro-trade policies like NAFTA and GATT pit working people in different countries against each other in a 'race to the bottom,' where the basis of competition is who will work for less, without adequate health coverage or minimum environmental standards. Mexico and the U.S. are a case in point: since NAFTA we have had a net loss of 250,000 jobs here, while Mexico has lost 2 million, and hunger is on the rise in both countries.

Myth 9

Too Hungry to Fight for Their Rights

Reality: Bombarded with images of poor people as weak and hungry, we lose sight of the obvious: for those with few resources, mere survival requires tremendous effort. If the poor were truly passive, few of them could even survive. Around the world, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, to the farmers' movement in India, wherever people are suffering needlessly, movements for change are underway. People will feed themselves, if allowed to do so. It's not our job to 'set things right' for others. Our responsibility is to remove the obstacles in their paths, obstacles often created by large corporations and U.S. government, World Bank and IMF policies.

Myth 10

More U.S. Aid Will Help the Hungry

Reality: Most U.S. aid works directly against the hungry. Foreign aid can only reinforce, not change, the status quo. Where governments answer only to elites, our aid not only fails to reach hungry people, it shores up the very forces working against them. Our aid is used to impose free trade and free market policies, to promote exports at the expense of food production, and to provide the armaments that repressive governments use to stay in power. Even emergency, or humanitarian aid, which makes up only five percent of the total, often ends up enriching American grain companies while failing to reach the hungry, and it can dangerously undercut local food production in the recipient country. It would be better to use our foreign aid budget for unconditional debt relief, as it is the foreign debt burden that forces most Third World countries to cut back on basic health, education and anti-poverty

Myth 11

We Benefit From Their Poverty

Reality: The biggest threat to the well-being of the vast majority of Americans is not the advancement but the continued deprivation of the hungry. Low wages-both abroad and in inner cities at home-may mean cheaper bananas, shirts, computers and fast food for most Americans, but in other ways we pay heavily for hunger and poverty. Enforced poverty in the Third World jeopardizes U.S. jobs, wages and working conditions as corporations seek cheaper labor abroad. In a global economy, what American workers have achieved in employment, wage levels, and working conditions can be protected only when working people in every country are freed from economic desperation.

Here at home, policies like welfare reform throw more people into the job market than can be absorbed-at below minimum wage levels in the case of 'workfare'-which puts downward pressure on the wages of those on higher rungs of the employment ladder. The growing numbers of 'working poor' are those who have part- or full-time low wage jobs yet cannot afford adequate nutrition or housing for their families. Educating ourselves about the common interests most Americans share with the poor in the Third World and at home allows us to be compassionate without sliding into pity. In working to clear the way for the poor to free themselves from economic oppression, we free ourselves as well.

Myth 12

Curtail Freedom to End Hunger?

Reality: There is no theoretical or practical reason why freedom, taken to mean civil liberties, should be incompatible with ending hunger. Surveying the globe, we see no correlation between hunger and civil liberties. However, one narrow definition of freedom-the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth-producing property and the right to use that property however one sees fit-is in fundamental conflict with ending hunger. By contrast, a definition of freedom more consistent with our nation's dominant founding vision holds that economic security for all is the guarantor of our liberty. Such an understanding of freedom is essential to ending hunger.

12 Myths About Hunger based on World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, Oct. 1998)

Institute for Food and Development Policy Backgrounder


Signalling fallacies: Implication vs. Inference

-7 hankx7787 14 November 2012 09:15PM

The signalling fallacy that seems to get all the attention is what I call a fallacy of signalling "implication", i.e. when someone says:

"Justin Bieber's music is crappy"

The rational implication of this communication is that Justin Bieber's music is, in fact, crappy according to some standard. But if what they were actually implying is that they don't like Justin Bieber or that they are signalling a tribal affiliation with fellow JB haters, then they are committing a fallacy of signalling implication.


But that's not the only type of signalling fallacy. You can also commit a fallacy of signalling "inference", i.e. consider someone who says:

"Atlas Shrugged is the greatest book ever written".

Again the rational implication of this communication is that Atlas Shrugged is, in fact, the greatest according to some standard. And if that's what they were actually implying, but then you infer that they simply enjoyed the book a lot or are signalling a tribal affiliation with fellow AS lovers, then you are committing a fallacy of signalling inference. (Note that this goes the other way, too. If they *were* implying simply that they enjoyed the book or were affiliating themselves with a tribe and you inferred they were making some factual claim, that would be just as wrong).


So it's important to be aware of two sides of this fallacy. If you happen to be overly concerned with the former, you might fall victim to the latter.

[Link] "An OKCupid Profile of a Rationalist"

-16 Athrelon 14 November 2012 01:48AM

The rationalist in question, of course, is our very own EY.

Quotes giving a reasonable sample of the spectrum of reactions:

Epic Fail on the e-harmony profile. He’s over-signalling intelligence. There’s a good paper about how much to optimally signal, like when you have a PhD to put it on your business card or not. This guy is going around giving out business cards that read Prof. Dr. John Doe, PhD, MA, BA. He won’t be getting laid any time soon.

His profile is probably very effective for aspergery girls who like reading the kinds of things that appear on LessWrong. Yudkowsky is basically a celebrity within a small niche of hyper-nerdy rationalists, so I doubt he has much trouble getting laid by girls in that community.

You make it sound like a cult leader or something....And reading the profile again with that lens, it actually makes a lot of sense.

I was about to agree [that the profile is oversharing], but then come to think of it, I realize I have an orgasm denial fetish, too. It’s an aroused preference that never escaped to my non-aroused self-consciousness.

Why is this important to consider? 

LessWrong as a community is dedicated to trying to "raise the sanity waterline," and its most respected members in particular put a lot of resources into outreach, via CFAR, HPMoR, and maintaining this site.  But a big factor in how people perceive our brand of rationality is about image.  If we're serious about raising the sanity waterline, that means image management - or at least avoiding active image malpractice - is something we should enthusiastically embrace as a way to achieve our goals. [1]

This is also a valuable exercise in considering the outside view.  Marginal Revolution is already a fairly WEIRD site, focused on abstract economic issues.  If any major blog is likely to be sympathetic to our cultural quirks, this would be it.  Yet a plurality of commenters reacted negatively. 

To the extent that we didn't notice anything strange about LW's figurehead having this OKCupid profile, LW either failed at calibrating mainstream reaction, or failed at consequentialism and realizing the drag this would have on our other recruitment efforts.  In our last discussion, there were only a few commenters raising concerns, and the consensus of the thread was that it was harmless and had no PR consequences worth noting.

As one commenter cogently put it,

I’m not saying that he’s trying to make a statement with this, I’m saying that he is making a statement about this whether he’s trying to or not. Ideas have consequences for how we live our lives, and that Eliezer has a public, identifiable profile up where he talks about his sexual fetishes is not some sort of randomly occurring event with no relationship to his other ideas.

I'd argue the same reasoning applies to the community at large, not just EY specifically.

[1] From Anna's excellent article: 5. I consciously attempt to welcome bad news, or at least not push it away. (Recent example from Eliezer: At a brainstorming session for future Singularity Summits, one issue raised was that we hadn't really been asking for money at previous ones. My brain was offering resistance, so I applied the "bad news is good news" pattern to rephrase this as, "This point doesn't change the fixed amount of money we raised in past years, so it is good news because it implies that we can fix the strategy and do better next year.")

Digging the Bull's Horn

-7 gworley 12 November 2012 04:03PM

Some time ago I learned of the metaphor of 'digging the bull's horn'. This might sound a little strange, since horns are mostly hollow, but imagine a bull's horn used to store black powder. In the beginning the work is easy and you can scoop out a lot powder with very little effort. As you dig down, though, each scoop yields less powder as you dig into the narrow part of the horn until the only way you can get out more powder is to turn the horn over a dump it out.

It's often the same way with learning. When you start out in a subject there is a lot to be learned (both in quantity of material you have not yet seen and in quantity of benefits you have to gain from the information), but as you dig deeper into a subject the useful insights come less often or are more limited in scope. Eventually you dig down so far that the only way to learn more is to discover new things that no one has yet learned (to stretch the metaphor, you have to add your own powder back to dig out).

It's useful to know that you're digging the bull's horn when learning because, unless you really enjoy a subject or have some reason to believe that contributing to it is worthwhile, you can know in advance that most of the really valuable insights you'll gain will come early on. If you want to benefit from knowing about as much stuff as possible, you'll often want to stop actively pursuing a subject unless you want to make a career out of it.

But, for a few subjects, this isn't true. Sometimes, as you continue to learn the last few hard things that don't seem to provide big, broadly-useful insights, you manage to accumulate a critical level of knowledge about the subject that opens up a whole new world of insights to you that were previously hidden. To push the metaphor, you eventually dig so deep that you come out the other side to find a huge pile of powder.

The Way seems to be one of those subjects you can dig past the end of: there are some people who have mastered The Way to such an extent that they have access to a huge range of benefits not available to those still digging the horn. But when it comes to other subjects, how do you know? Great insights could be hiding beyond currently obscure fields of study because no one has bothered to dig deep enough. Aside from having clear examples of people who came out the other side to give us reason to believe it's worth while to deep really deep on some subjects, is there any way we can make a good prediction about what subjects may be worth digging to the end of the bull's horn?

Is Omega Impossible? Can we even ask?

-8 mwengler 24 October 2012 02:47PM

EDIT: I see by the karma bombing we can't even ask.  Why even call this part of the site "discussion?"  


Some of the classic questions about an omnipotent god include


  1. Can god make a square circle?
  2. Can god create an immovable object?  And then move it?
Saints and philosophers wrestled with these issues back before there was television.  My recollection is that people who liked the idea of an omnipotent god would answer "omnipotence does not include the power to do nonsense" where they would generally include contradictions as nonsense.  So omnipotence can't square a circle, can't make 2=3, can't make an atom which is simultaneously lead and gold.  

But where do the contradictions end and the merely difficult to conceive begin?  Can omnipotence make the ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle = 3, or 22/7?  Can omnipotence make sqrt(2)=1.4 or 2+2=5?  While these are not directly self-contradictory statements, they can be used with a variety of simple truths to quickly derive self-contradictory statements.  Can we then conclude that "2+2=5" is essentially a contradiction because it is close to a contradiction?  Where do we draw the line?  

What if were set some problem where we are told to assume that 
  1. 2+2 = 5
  2. 1+1 = 2
  3. 1+1+1+1+1 = 5
In solving this set problem, we can quickly derive that 1=0, and use that to prove effectively anything we want to prove.  Perhaps not formally, but we have violated the "law of the excluded middle," that either a statement is true or its negation is.  Once you violate that, you can prove ANYTHING using simple laws of inference, because you have propositions that are true and false.  

What if we set a problem where we are told to assume
  1. Omega is an infallible intelligence that does not lie
  2. Omega tells you 2+2=5
Well, we are going to have the same problem as above, we will be able to prove anything.

Newcomb's Problem

In Newcomb's box problem, we are told to assume that
  1. Omega is an infallible intelligence
  2. Omega has predicted correctly whether we will one box or two box.  
From these assumptions we wind up with all sorts of problems of causality and/or free will and/or determinism.  

What if these statements are not consistent?  What if these statements are tantamount to assuming 0=1, or are within a few steps of assuming 0=1?  Or something just as contradictory, but harder to identify?  

Personally, I can think of LOTS of reasons to doubt that Newcomb's problem is even theoretically possible to set.  Beyond that, I can think that the empirical barrier to believing Omega exists in reality would be gigantic, millions of humans have watched magic shows performed by non-superior intelligences where cards we have signed have turned up in a previously sealed envelope or wallet or audience member's pocket.  We recognize that these are tricks, that they are not what they appear.  

To question Omega is not playing by the mathematician's or philosopher's rules.  But when we play by the rules, do we blithely assume 2+2=5 and then wrap ourselves around the logical axle trying to program a friendly AI to one-box?  Why is questioning Omega's possibility of existence, or possibility of proof of existence out-of-bounds?  


No need for gravity?

-7 graviton 17 October 2012 10:22AM

I don’t know where else to go with this idea.  I’m not a physicist and it could be obviously wrong for some reason I’m missing, but it seems to me that there is a small chance that I’ve figured out how to remove one of the fundamental forces from our models of the universe; gravity, to be specific.

So we’ve all heard of dark energy, the force driving the accelerating expansion of the universe.  Presumably it comes from somewhere, perhaps from every piece of matter in the universe, perhaps only stars, perhaps only black holes, but as long as it’s not all coming from a single source, it’s probably coming from something that is relatively common, and primarily found within galaxies.  And if I magically came to KNOW that it does all come from one source, I would do very little beyond deleting a few arrows in my diagrams to change this post. 

And as the Hubble deep field scans showed, there are A LOT of galaxies in any direction you look in (at least from Earth).  So, countless galaxies in all directions are emitting dark matter, with tiny rays from each one hitting our galaxy, as well as galaxies in every other direction. 

Of course our galaxy doesn’t have a plastic shell around it for dark energy to hit.  It’s specific things in the galaxy that get hit by specific emissions of dark energy, just like it’s specific objects that emit those emissions.

Here are some galaxies.  Beyond the ones shown, there are more and more in all directions for as far as anyone knows so far.  Please note that nothing in any of these diagrams is drawn to scale.   

  Figure 1

Any one of them emits dark energy pretty uniformly in all directions, as it does with light.
Figure 2

Given the sheer number of other galaxies off in all directions, the total dark energy hitting a galaxy would look something like this.  The magnitude of the dark energy forces coming in from the rest of the universe ought to be a lot more than what our one little galaxy puts out. 

Now let’s look inside this galaxy, at a single solar system.  Dark energy converges from all directions, as at the perimeter of the galaxy, since the galaxy is mostly empty space, and (I’m presuming) a more or less negligible amount is added from other objects within the galaxy. 

Now let’s consider a single planet within the solar system

The sun casts a shadow in the dark energy field; some of the dark energy headed in the direction of our planet strikes the sun along the way and never makes it to the planet.  To a lesser extent, the planet shields the sun as well.  As the planet revolves around the sun, there is always a void in the otherwise all-pervasive dark energy field in the direction of the sun.  As rudimentary as these diagrams are, you might as well just rotate your monitor if you really need a visual (keeping the screen on the same plane).

Each dark energy vector has an equal opposite cancelling it out, except in the shadow.  Any other imbalance would be the same for the planet as it is for the star, and therefore would not alter their positions relative to each other.  Even if it was all coming from one direction. 

The planet always has one region that is only hit with the sun’s own dark energy emissions (if it has any), whereas all other sides are being hit with dark energy from all of the rest of the universe (in that direction), hence the illusion of gravity. 

Similarly, a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy would cast a dark energy shadow on everything else in the galaxy, so the net push of all the dark energy vectors hitting a given star is toward the center of the galaxy, keeping it in orbit.  This would be true of any given moment; the direction of the greatest push rotates around, but it is always toward the black hole. 

The planets around the star are shielded by the black hole roughly the same amount as the star is, but they are much more strongly affected by the shielding from the star than the black hole is. 

Now, consider 2 galaxies:

Each emits a little bit of dark energy of its own, and is mostly empty space so that much of the dark energy from other galaxies beyond it passes right through.  I'm thinking no one object within a galaxy is emitting more dark energy than it shields its neighbors from.  There is some galaxy-to-galaxy shielding, but it is very weak due to the amount of dark energy that can pass right through without hitting anything.  This would be consistent with the galaxies spreading out from each other without being ripped apart by the force causing them to spread.  So, between galaxies, there is a repulsive effect, while within galaxies, there is primarily an effect of shielding from the all-pervasive repulsion from dark energy. 


The deeper solution to the mystery of moralism—Believing in morality and free will are hazardous to your mental health

-19 metaphysicist 14 October 2012 01:21PM


The complex relationship between Systems 1 and 2 and construal level

The distinction between pre-attentive and focal-attentive mental processes  has dominated cognitive psychology for some 35 years. In the past decade has arisen another cognitive dichotomy specific to social psychology: processes of abstract construal (far cognition) versusconcrete construal (near cognition). This essay will theorize about the relationship between these dichotomies to clarify further how believing in the existence of free will and in the objective existence of morality can thwart reason by causing you to choose what you don’t want.

The state of the art on pre-attentive and focal-attentive processes is Daniel Kahneman’s bookThinking, Fast and Slow, where he calls pre-attentive processes System 1 and focal-attentive processes System 2. The reification of processes into fictional systems also resembles Freud’sSystem Csc (Conscious) and System Pcs (Preconscious). I’ll adopt the language System 1 andSystem 2, but readers can apply their understanding of conscious –preconscious, pre-attentive – focal-attentive, or automatic processes – controlled processes dichotomies. They name the same distinction, in which System 1 consists of processes occurring quickly and effortlessly in parallel outside awareness; System 2 consists of processes occurring slowly and effortfully in sequentialawareness, which in this context refers to the contents of working memory rather than raw experience and accompanies System 2 activity.

To integrate Systems 1 and 2 with construal-level theory, we note that System 2—the conscious part of our minds—can perform any of three routines in making a decision about taking some action, such as whether to vote in an election, a good example not just for timeliness but also for linkages to our main concern with morality: voting is a clear example of an action without tangible benefit. The potential voter might:

Case 1. Make a conscious decision to vote based on applying the principle that citizens owe a duty to vote in elections.
Case 2. Decide to be open to the candidates’ substantive positions and vote only if either candidate seems worthy of support.
Case 3. Experience a change of mind between 1 and 2.

The preceding were examples of the three routines System 2 can perform:

Case 1. Make the choice.
Case 2. “Program” System 1 to make the choice based on automatic criteria that don’t require sequential thinking.
Case 3. Interrupt System 1 in the face of anomalies.

When System 2 initiates action, whether it retains the power to decide or passes to System 1 is the difference between concrete and abstract construal. The second routine is key to understanding how Systems 1 and 2 work to produce the effects construal-level theory predicts. Keep in mind that the unconscious, automatic System 1 includes not just hardwired patterns but also skilled habits. Meanwhile, System 2 is notoriously “lazy,” unwilling to interrupt System 1, as in Case 3, but despite the perennial biases that plague system 1, resulting from letting System 1 have its way, the highest levels of expertise also occur in System 1.

A delegate System 1 operates with potentially complex holistic patterns typifying far cognition. This pattern is far because we offload distant matter to System 1 but exercise sequential control under System 2 as immediacy looms—although there are many exceptions. It is critical to distinguish far cognition from the lazy failure of System 2 to perform properly in Case 3. Such failure isn’t specific to mode. Far cognition, System 1 acting as delegate for System 2, is a narrower concept than automatic cognition, but far cognition is automatic cognition. Nearcognition admits no easy cross-classification.

Belief in free will and moral realism undermine our “fast and frugal heuristics”

The two most important recent books on the cognitive psychology of decision and judgment areThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Gut Reactions: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer, and both insist on the contrast between their positions, although conflicts aren’t obvious. Kahneman explains System 1 biases as due to the mechanisms employed outside the range of evolutionary usefulness; Gigerenzer describes “fast and frugal heuristics” that sometimes misfire to produce biases. Where these half-empty versus half-full positions on heuristics and biases really differ is their overall appraisal of near and far processes, as Gigerenzer is a far thinker and Kahneman a near thinker, and they are both naturally biased for their preferred modes. Far thought shows more confidence in fast-and-frugal heuristics, since it offloads to System 1, whose province is to employ them.

The fast-and-frugal-heuristics way of thinking is particularly useful in understanding the effect of moral realism and free will: they cause System 2 to supplant System 1 in decision-making. When we apply principles of integrity to regulate our conduct, sometimes we do better in far mode, where System 2 offloads the task of determining compliance to System 1. To the contrary, if you have a principle of integrity that includes an absolute obligation to vote, you act as in Case 1: on a conscious decision. But principles of integrity do not really take this absolute form, an illusion begotten by moral realism. A principle of integrity flexible enough for actual use might favor voting (based, say, on a general principle embracing an obligation to perform duties) but disfavor it for “lowering the bar” when there’s only a choice between the lesser of evils. To practice the art of objectively applying these principles depends on your honest appraisal of the strength of your commitment to each virtue. System 2 is incapable of this feat; when it can be accomplished, it’s due to System 1’s automatic skills, operating unconsciously.Principles of integrity are applied more accurately in far-mode than near-mode. [Hat Tip to Overcoming Bias for these convenient phrases.]

But belief in moral realism and free will impel moral actors to apply their principles in near-mode. Objective morality and moral realism imply that compliance with morality results from freely willed acts. I’m not going to defend this premise thoroughly here, but this thought experiment might carry some persuasive weight. Read the following in near mode, and introspect your emotions:


Sexual predator Jerry Sandusky will serve his time in a minimal security prison, where he’s allowed groups of visitors five days a week.


Some readers will experience a sense of outrage. Then remind yourself: There’s no free will.If you believe the reminder, your outrage will subside; if you’ve long been a convinced and consistent determinist, you might not need to remind yourself. Morality inculpates based on acts of free will: morality and free will are inseparable.

A point I must emphasize because of its novelty: it’s System 1 that ordinarily determines what you want. System 2 doesn’t ordinarily deliberate about the subject directly; it deliberates about relevant facts, but in the end, you can only intuit your volition. You can’t deduce it.

What a belief in moral realism and free will do is nothing less than change the architecture of decision-making. When we practice principles of integrity and internalize them, they and nonmoral considerations co-determine our System 1 judgments, whereas according to moral realism and free will, moral good is the product of conscious free choice, so System 2 contrastsits moral opinion to System 1’s intuition, for which System 2 compensates—and usually overcompensates. The voter had to weigh the imperatives of the duty to vote and the duty to avoid “lowering the bar” when both candidates are ideologically and programmatically distasteful. System 2 can prime and program System 1 by studying the issues, but the multifaceted decision is itself best made by System 1. What happens when System 2 tries to decide these propositions? System 2 makes the qualitative judgment that System 1 is biased one way or the other and corrects System 1. This will implicate the overcompensation bias, in which conscious attempts to counteract biases usually overcorrect. A voter who thinks correction is needed for a bias toward shirking duty will vote when not really wanting to, all things considered. A voter biased toward "lowering the bar" will be excessively purist. Whatever standard the voter uses will be taken too far.

Belief in moral realism and free will biases practical reasoning

This essay presents the third of three ways that belief in objective morality and free will can cause people to do what they don’t want to do:


  1. It retards people in adaptively changing their principles of integrity.
  2. It prevents people from questioning their so-called foundations.
  3. It systematically exaggerates the compellingness of moral claims.


Some will be tempted to think that the third either is contrary to experience or is socially desirable. It’s neither. In moralism, an exaggerated subjective sense of duty and excessive sense of guilt co-exist with unresponsiveness to morality’s practical demands.

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