Monthly Archives: July 2008

Changing Your Metaethics

Followup toThe Moral Void, Joy in the Merely Real, No Universally Compelling Arguments, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, The Gift We Give To Tomorrow, Does Your Morality Care What You Think?, Existential Angst Factory, …

If you say, "Killing people is wrong," that’s morality.  If you say, "You shouldn’t kill people because God prohibited it," or "You shouldn’t kill people because it goes against the trend of the universe", that’s metaethics.

Just as there’s far more agreement on Special Relativity than there is on the question "What is science?", people find it much easier to agree "Murder is bad" than to agree what makes it bad, or what it means for something to be bad.

People do get attached to their metaethics.  Indeed they frequently insist that if their metaethic is wrong, all morality necessarily falls apart.  It might be interesting to set up a panel of metaethicists – theists, Objectivists, Platonists, etc. – all of whom agree that killing is wrong; all of whom disagree on what it means for a thing to be "wrong"; and all of whom insist that if their metaethic is untrue, then morality falls apart.

Clearly a good number of people, if they are to make philosophical progress, will need to shift metathics at some point in their lives.  You may have to do it.

At that point, it might be useful to have an open line of retreat – not a retreat from morality, but a retreat from Your-Current-Metaethic.  (You know, the one that, if it is not true, leaves no possible basis for not killing people.)

And so I’ve been setting up these lines of retreat, in many and various posts, summarized below.  For I have learned that to change metaethical beliefs is nigh-impossible in the presence of an unanswered attachment.

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Is Ideology About Status?

At lunch one day Tyler suggested the essence of ideology is which types of people should be admired.  I told him it seemed an excellent insight, pregnant with possibility and well worth pursuing.  He’s finally blogged it

Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status. … Some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners."  They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status.  … Some [left-wing] people … do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people.  …

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Gary Taubes, “Good Calories, Bad Calories”

Gary Taubes, a correspondent for Science magazine, contributed to the Atkins Diet craze with his New York Times article several years ago, "What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?." He then spent the past several years expanding on that article, and the result Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book of some 600 pages (nearly 70 of which are the bibliography).

Taubes has several overarching themes; he contends, for example, that eating refined carbohydrates is what makes you obese, and that refined carbohydrates contribute to many of what used to be called "diseases of civilization" (such as heart disease, which seems to have been less common in traditional cultures that ate less processed food, including Northern cultures that ate almost exclusively meat).  (These arguments are still controversial, although new evidence continues to support them.)

The most important theme, however, suffuses the entire book: bias in scientific inquiry

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Does Your Morality Care What You Think?

Followup toMath is Subjunctively Objective, The Moral Void, Is Morality Given?

Thus I recall the study, though I cannot recall the citation:

Children, at some relatively young age, were found to distinguish between:

  • The teacher, by saying that we’re allowed to stand on our desks, can make it right to do so.
  • The teacher, by saying that I’m allowed to take something from another child’s backpack, cannot make it right to do so.

Obert:  "Well, I don’t know the citation, but it sounds like a fascinating study.  So even children, then, realize that moral facts are givens, beyond the ability of teachers or parents to alter."

Subhan:  "You say that like it’s a good thing.  Children may also think that people in Australia have to wear heavy boots from falling off the other side of the Earth."

Obert:  "Call me Peter Pan, then, because I never grew up on this one.  Of course it doesn’t matter what the teacher says.  It doesn’t matter what I say.  It doesn’t even matter what I think.  Stealing is wrong.  Do you disagree?"

Subhan:  "You don’t see me picking your pockets, do you?  Isn’t it enough that I choose not to steal from you – do I have to pretend it’s the law of the universe?"

Obert:  "Yes, or I can’t trust your commitment."

Subhan:  "A… revealing remark.  But really, I don’t think that this experimental result seems at all confusing, in light of the recent discussion of subjunctive objectivity – a discussion in which Eliezer strongly supported my position, by the way."

Obert:  "Really?  I thought Eliezer was finally coming out in favor of my position."

Subhan:  "Huh?  How do you get that?"

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Refuge Markets

The topic of global catastrophic risk seems silly to many, and my conference talk last Friday on refuges against human extinction seemed even sillier to some – Ron Bailey had fun comparing me to Dr. Stranglelove, and Spiegel saw a colorful character.  Silly or not, however, refuges seem a cheap way to save humanity from worst-case disasters.

My talk went beyond my book chapter to reach a new height of silliness – I suggested refuge ticket markets.  Beyond my obvious need to be sillier-than-thou, I had another motive: to let prediction markets identify scenarios where catastrophe is a serious risk, and then advise us on how to avoid these scenarios.

You see, speculative markets have an obvious problem forecasting the end of the world, as no one is left afterward to collect on bets.  So to let speculators advise us about world’s end, we need them to trade an asset available now that remains valuable as close as possible to the end.  Refuge tickets fit that bill.

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Math is Subjunctively Objective

Followup to:  Probability is Subjectively Objective, Can Counterfactuals Be True?

I am quite confident that the statement 2 + 3 = 5 is true; I am far less confident of what it means for a mathematical statement to be true.

In "The Simple Truth" I defined a pebble-and-bucket system for tracking sheep, and defined a condition for whether a bucket’s pebble level is "true" in terms of the sheep.  The bucket is the belief, the sheep are the reality.  I believe 2 + 3 = 5.  Not just that two sheep plus three sheep equal five sheep, but that 2 + 3 = 5.  That is my belief, but where is the reality?

So now the one comes to me and says:  "Yes, two sheep plus three sheep equals five sheep, and two stars plus three stars equals five stars.  I won’t deny that.  But this notion that 2 + 3 = 5, exists only in your imagination, and is purely subjective."

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Can Counterfactuals Be True?

Followup toProbability is Subjectively Objective

The classic explanation of counterfactuals begins with this distinction:

  1. If Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t shoot John F. Kennedy, then someone else did.
  2. If Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t shot John F. Kennedy, someone else would have.

In ordinary usage we would agree with the first statement, but not the second (I hope).

If, somehow, we learn the definite fact that Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else must have done so, since Kennedy was in fact shot.

But if we went back in time and removed Oswald, while leaving everything else the same, then – unless you believe there was a conspiracy – there’s no particular reason to believe Kennedy would be shot:

We start by imagining the same historical situation that existed in 1963 – by a further act of imagination, we remove Oswald from our vision – we run forward the laws that we think govern the world – visualize Kennedy parading through in his limousine – and find that, in our imagination, no one shoots Kennedy.

It’s an interesting question whether counterfactuals can be true or false.  We never get to experience them directly.

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When (Not) To Use Probabilities

Followup toShould We Ban Physics?

It may come as a surprise to some readers of this blog, that I do not always advocate using probabilities.

Or rather, I don’t always advocate that human beings, trying to solve their problems, should try to make up verbal probabilities, and then apply the laws of probability theory or decision theory to whatever number they just made up, and then use the result as their final belief or decision.

The laws of probability are laws, not suggestions, but often the true Law is too difficult for us humans to compute.  If P != NP and the universe has no source of exponential computing power, then there are evidential updates too difficult for even a superintelligence to compute – even though the probabilities would be quite well-defined, if we could afford to calculate them.

So sometimes you don’t apply probability theory.  Especially if you’re human, and your brain has evolved with all sorts of useful algorithms for uncertain reasoning, that don’t involve verbal probability assignments.

Not sure where a flying ball will land?  I don’t advise trying to formulate a probability distribution over its landing spots, performing deliberate Bayesian updates on your glances at the ball, and calculating the expected utility of all possible strings of motor instructions to your muscles.

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Banning Bad News

Bad news often has self-fulfilling prophesy effects.  Tell a student his work is bad and he might give up.  Telling friends someone is unpopular makes her even less popular.  Tell a sport team they will lose and they might not try as hard.  Tell customers a product is bad and they might look at it more carefully for flaws or switch products, and with fewer customers the producer has fewer resources to improve the product.  Tell people a bank is in trouble and they withdraw their deposits, stressing the bank further.

But most of us think it crazy to therefore ban bad news.  Sure some might maliciously spread negative rumors to hurt a rival, but this hardly means we should forbid anyone from ever talking negatively about anything!  We should instead rely on listeners treating rumors skeptically and listening less to those they find to be unreliable sources.

Alas, all this common sense goes out the window when bad news comes via financial markets.  When we buy stock observers reasonably interpret that as our saying we have good news about that stock, while selling is reasonably interpreted as bad news.   And so the US SEC is doing more to ban bad news

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Fake Norms, or “Truth” vs. Truth

Followup toApplause Lights

When you say the word "truth", people know that "truth" is a good thing, and that they’re supposed to applaud.  So it might seem like there is a social norm in favor of "truth".  But when it comes to some particular truth, like whether God exists, or how likely their startup is to thrive, people will say:  "I just want to believe" or "you’ve got to be optimistic to succeed".

So Robin and I were talking about this, and Robin asked me how it is that people prevent themselves from noticing the conflict.

I replied that I don’t think active prevention is required.  First, as I quoted Michael Vassar:

"It seems to me that much of the frustration in my life prior to a few years ago has been due to thinking that all other human minds necessarily and consistently implement modus ponens."

But more importantly, I don’t think there does exist any social norm in favor of truth.  There’s a social norm in favor of "truth".  There’s a difference.

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