Monthly Archives: January 2009

War and/or Peace (2/8)

(Part 2 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

…"So the question then is – now what?"

The Lord Pilot jumped up, then, his face flushed.  "Put up shields.  Now.  We don't gain anything by leaving them down.  This is madness!"

"No," said the Ship's Confessor in professional tones, "not madness."

The Pilot slammed his fists on the table.  "We're all going to die!"

"They're not as technologically advanced as us," Akon said.  "Suppose the Babyeaters do decide that we need to be exterminated.  Suppose they open fire.  Suppose they kill us.  Suppose they follow the starline we opened and find the Huygens system.  Then what?"

The Master nodded.  "Even with surprise on their side… no.  They can't actually wipe out the human species.  Not unless they're a lot smarter than they seem to be, and it looks to me like, on average, they're actually a bit dumber than us."  The Master glanced at the Xenopsychologist, who waved her hand in a maybe-gesture.

"But if we leave the ship's shields down," Akon said, "we preserve whatever chance we have of a peaceful resolution to this."

"Peace," said the Lady Sensory, in a peculiar flat tone.

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The Baby-Eating Aliens (1/8)

(Part 1 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

This is a story of an impossible outcome, where AI never worked, molecular nanotechnology never worked, biotechnology only sort-of worked; and yet somehow humanity not only survived, but discovered a way to travel Faster-Than-Light:  The past's Future.

Ships travel through the Alderson starlines, wormholes that appear near stars.  The starline network is dense and unpredictable: more than a billion starlines lead away from Sol, but every world explored is so far away as to be outside the range of Earth's telescopes.  Most colony worlds are located only a single jump away from Earth, which remains the center of the human universe.

From the colony system Huygens, the crew of the Giant Science Vessel Impossible Possible World have set out to investigate a starline that flared up with an unprecedented flux of Alderson force before subsiding.  Arriving, the Impossible discovers the sparkling debris of a recent nova – and -

"ALIENS!"

Every head swung toward the Sensory console.  But after that one cryptic outburst, the Lady Sensory didn't even look up from her console: her fingers were frantically twitching commands.

There was a strange moment of silence in the Command Conference while every listener thought the same two thoughts in rapid succession:

Is she nuts?  You can't just say "Aliens!", leave it at that, and expect everyone to believe you.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -

And then,

They came to look at the nova too!

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Three Worlds Collide (0/8)

"The kind of classic fifties-era first-contact story that Jonathan Swift might have written, if Jonathan Swift had had a background in game theory."
        — (Hugo nominee) Peter Watts, "In Praise of Baby-Eating"

Three Worlds Collide is a story I wrote to illustrate some points on naturalistic metaethics and diverse other issues of rational conduct.  It grew, as such things do, into a small novella.  On publication, it proved widely popular and widely criticized.  Be warned that the story, as it wrote itself, ended up containing some profanity and PG-13 content.

  1. The Baby-Eating Aliens
  2. War and/or Peace
  3. The Super Happy People
  4. Interlude with the Confessor
  5. Three Worlds Decide
  6. Normal Ending
  7. True Ending
  8. Atonement

PDF version here.

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Dreams as Evidence

We treat dreams as evidence on a par with real events.  From the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

This research investigated laypeople's interpretation of their dreams. Participants from both Eastern and Western cultures believed that dreams contain hidden truths (Study 1) and considered dreams to provide more meaningful information about the world than similar waking thoughts (Studies 2 and 3). The meaningfulness attributed to specific dreams, however, was moderated by the extent to which the content of those dreams accorded with participants' preexisting beliefs–from the theories they endorsed to attitudes toward acquaintances, relationships with friends, and faith in God (Studies 3-6). Finally, dream content influenced judgment: Participants reported greater affection for a friend after considering a dream in which a friend protected rather than betrayed them (Study 5) and were equally reluctant to fly after dreaming or learning of a plane crash (Studies 2 and 3). Together, these results suggest that people engage in motivated interpretation of their dreams and that these interpretations impact their everyday lives.

I'll bet we process dream experiences much like we process fictional experiences.  Our tendency to treat fictional and dream experience as real evidence helps us to credibly believe things that it is in our interest for others to think we believe.  

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Academic Ideals

Academia doesn't live up to its noble image. Philosopher Peter Fosl: 

Although academics will hardly raise an eyebrow about this "open secret," it comes as a surprise to many others to learn that many philosophers … are little devoted to the love of wisdom. In only a merely "academic" way do they aspire to intellectual virtue. Even less often do they exhibit qualities of moral excellence. On the contrary, many philosophers, or what pass as philosophers, are, sadly, better described as petty social climbers, meretricious snobs, and acquisitive consumerists.  I blush a bit now to confess that part of what drove me into philosophy in the first place was the naive conviction that among those who call themselves lovers of wisdom I would find something different in kind from the repugnant and shallow brutalism of the worlds of finance, business, and the law.  …

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Value is Fragile

Followup toThe Fun Theory Sequence, Fake Fake Utility Functions, Joy in the Merely Good, The Hidden Complexity of WishesThe Gift We Give To Tomorrow, No Universally Compelling Arguments, Anthropomorphic Optimism, Magical Categories, …

If I had to pick a single statement that relies on more Overcoming Bias content I've written than any other, that statement would be:

Any Future not shaped by a goal system with detailed reliable inheritance from human morals and metamorals, will contain almost nothing of worth.

"Well," says the one, "maybe according to your provincial human values, you wouldn't like it.  But I can easily imagine a galactic civilization full of agents who are nothing like you, yet find great value and interest in their own goals.  And that's fine by me.  I'm not so bigoted as you are.  Let the Future go its own way, without trying to bind it forever to the laughably primitive prejudices of a pack of four-limbed Squishy Things -"

My friend, I have no problem with the thought of a galactic civilization vastly unlike our own… full of strange beings who look nothing like me even in their own imaginations… pursuing pleasures and experiences I can't begin to empathize with… trading in a marketplace of unimaginable goods… allying to pursue incomprehensible objectives… people whose life-stories I could never understand.

That's what the Future looks like if things go right.

If the chain of inheritance from human (meta)morals is broken, the Future does not look like this.  It does not end up magically, delightfully incomprehensible.

With very high probability, it ends up looking dull.  Pointless.  Something whose loss you wouldn't mourn.

Seeing this as obvious, is what requires that immense amount of background explanation.

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Roberts’ Bias Therapy

My wife was once a professional therapist, but my first therapist gig was this EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts, where I help him come to terms with the fact that economists disagree.  In good therapist style, I'm quiet for 28 minutes while Russ agonizes, and then I tell him he has already answered his own question; he just doesn't like the answer. One blogger loves it:

It truly has been a long time since I've seen anything so original and so fascinating. … I can only hope that I can someday be as intellectually curious and honest as Robin.

Congrats to EconTalk for being voted Best Podcast in the 2008 Weblog Awards. 

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Rationality Quotes 25

"People want to think there is some huge conspiracy run by evil geniuses.  The reality is actually much more horrifying.  The people running the show aren't evil geniuses.  They are just as stupid as the rest of us."
        — Vaksel

"Rule of thumb:  Be skeptical of things you learned before you could read.  E.g., religion."
        — Ben Casnocha

"Truth is not always popular, but it is always right."
        — Anon

"Computer programming is omnipotence without omniscience."
        — Prospero

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good, and the very gentle, and the very brave, impartially."
        — Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

"Those who take delight in their own might are merely pretenders to power.  The true warrior of fate needs no adoration or fear, no tricks or overwhelming effort; he need not be stronger or smarter or innately more capable than everyone else; he need not even admit it to himself.  All he needs to do is to stand there, at that moment when all hope is dead, and look upon the abyss without flinching."
        — Shinji and Warhammer40k

"Though here at journey's end I lie
 in darkness buried deep,
 beyond all towers strong and high,
 beyond all mountains steep,
 above all shadows rides the Sun
 and Stars forever dwell:
 I will not say the Day is done,
 nor bid the Stars farewell."
        — Banazîr Galbasi (Samwise Gamgee), The Return of the King

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Different meanings of Bayesian statistics

I had a discussion with Christian Robert about the mystical feelings that seem to be sometimes inspired by Bayesian statistics.  The discussion originated with an article by Eliezer so it seemed appropriate to put the discussion here on Eliezer's blog.  As background, both Christian and I have done a lot of research on Bayesian methods and computation, and we've also written books on the topic, so in some ways we're perhaps too close to the topic to be the best judge of how a newcomer will think about Bayes.

Christian began by describing Eliezer's article about constructing Bayes’ theorem for simple binomial outcomes with two possible causes as "indeed funny and entertaining (at least at the beginning) but, as a mathematician, I [Christian] do not see how these many pages build more intuition than looking at the mere definition of a conditional probability and at the inversion that is the essence of Bayes’ theorem. The author agrees to some level about this . . . there is however a whole crowd on the blogs that seems to see more in Bayes’s theorem than a mere probability inversion . . . a focus that actually confuses—to some extent—the theorem [two-line proof, no problem, Bayes' theorem being indeed tautological] with the construction of prior probabilities or densities [a forever-debatable issue].

I replied that there are several different points of fascination about Bayes:

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OB Status Update

Followup toWhither OB?

Overcoming Bias currently plans to transition to a new format, including a new and more open sister site, tentatively entitled “Less Wrong”.  The new site will be built out of Reddit’s source code, but you won’t be limited to posting links – the new site will include a WYSIWYG HTML editor as well.  All posts will appear on Less Wrong and will be voted up or down by the readers.  Posts approved by the chief editors will be “promoted” to Overcoming Bias, which will serve as the front page of Less Wrong.

Once the initial site is up and running, the next items on the agenda include much better support for reading through sequences.  And I’ll organize more of my old posts (and perhaps some of Robin’s) into sequences.

Threaded comments and comment voting/sorting are on the way.  Anonymous commenting may go away briefly (it’s not built into the Reddit codebase) but I suspect it’s important for attracting new participation.  So I do hope to bring back non-registration commenting, but it may go away for a while.  On the plus side, you’ll only have to solve a captcha once when signing up, not every time you post.  And the 50-comment limit per page is on the way out as well.

Timeframe… theoretically, one to two weeks of work left.

I’ve reserved a final sequence on Building Rationalist Communities to seed Less Wrong.  Also, I doubt I could stop blogging completely even if I tried.  I don’t think Robin plans to stop completely either.  And it’s worth remembering that OB’s most popular post ever was a reader contribution.  So don’t touch that dial, don’t unsubscribe that RSS feed.  Exciting changes on the way.

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