My Surprises

I am surprised that:

  1. I exist at all; the vast majority of possible things do not exist.
  2. I am alive; the vast majority of real things are dead.
  3. I have a brain; the vast majority of living things have none.
  4. I am a mammal; the vast majority of brains aren’t.
  5. I am a human; the vast majority of mammals aren’t.
  6. I am richer than the vast majority who have ever lived.
  7. I am alive earlier than the vast majority of human-like folks who will ever live.
  8. I am richer and smarter than most humans alive today.
  9. I write a popular blog, and unusually interesting articles.

Now how bothered should I be by these surprises? The bigger is some particular surprise, the more eager I should be to seek alternative theories, under which that surprise would be smaller.  But what alternative accounts could weaken these surprises?

One hypothesis that does the trick is the simulation argument – the idea that I’m really part of a simulation created in the distant future to explore their past world.  It lessens the surprise of #5-9, and maybe also #2-4 as well. Does this mean I should take the simulation argument a bit more seriously than I otherwise would?

Added 9a:  I find anything unusually interesting to be “surprising.” Sometimes that is of course just an accident, but the more surprising something is, the more one should seek alternate explanations.  If you can’t find them, you’ll just have to go back to considering them an accident.

Yes the fact that I am cognitively able to actually be surprised predicts other things, and given that fact those other things are no longer surprising.  But the fact that I am able to be surprised is itself surprising!

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  • Qiaochu Yuan

    I think you’re selectively measuring yourself along a few dimensions that make you seem exceptional. Given that there are an enormous number of possible dimensions along which to measure any given object in the universe, for any given object it should be easy to find a few interesting-sounding ones along which it is exceptional. Unless you have a more solid meta-criterion for choosing which dimensions along which to measure yourself fairly I don’t think any of these facts warrants an alternative theory of anything.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Qiaochu – you have a good point with respect to measurements on large objects, such as humans.

      Given that there are an enormous number of possible dimensions along which to measure any given object in the universe, for any given object it should be easy to find a few interesting-sounding ones along which it is exceptional.

      would be less plausible on objects like hydrogen atoms.

  • Boaz

    Is there a way to make this point which does not rely upon the pronoun ‘I.’ If that pronoun was removed, it seems unlikely that the points made would be the same.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I agree with Qiaochu. Conditional upon you being you, these things are unsurprising. I tend to think my existence and situation is unnervingly trivial.

  • John Judge

    Things that aren’t alive aren’t capable of being surprised, so it seems strange to say you’re surprised at being alive. Ditto for items 1 and 3, most likely 4, and to some extent 5. The odds that any one ‘thing’ (selected at random from all possible things) is an existing, living, human mammal with a brain are quite small. But the odds that someone who is capable of pondering this issue is an existing, living, human mammal with a brain are possibly close to 100%, so if you’re pondering the issue, it shouldn’t be surprising at all to find yourself such a someone.

  • Robin Hanson

    Qiaochu, wouldn’t that argument suggest I ignore all apparent surprises, and so never update my believes based on data?
    Boaz and Eric, why should I only attend to conditional surprises; why can’t I be surprised to be who I am?
    John, why should the cognitive inability of something else to process evidence effect how I update on the evidence available to me?

    • Anonymous

      Boaz and Eric, why should I only attend to conditional surprises; why can’t I be surprised to be who I am?

      lol, you have the freedom to be surprised that the sun comes up and the tide goes in if you want to. Bill O’Reilly does that.

    • nate

      “One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word ‘I'” (Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Remarks #57)

      Echoing Robert Koslover, the weak anthropic principle seems to take care of points 1-5, and these appear to be the things you should, statistically, be the most surprised about.
      As for #1 specifically, what constitutes the set of possible things is vague and not well defined, and the ontology of possible entities is similarly so.

      7: Are you so sure you’re among the first of a much larger population of human like folks? This seems to be begging the question. If you presume that some version of the futurist vision will happen, than of course the simulation argument seems more likely. But I think evidence for #7 is lacking. The doomsday argument takes the same data and concludes the opposite:

      6, 8, & 9 are all really the same thing. You should be surprised you are so wealthy, but being the author of a popular blog isn’t that surprising if you are part of a socio-economic class who is likely to receive a fair bit of higher education. While these three points are together one thing you should be surprised about, I don’t think you should so surprised by it that you should conclude you’re living in a simulation.

      • nate

        oops, the paragraph long hyperlink is to the wikipedia entry on the doomsday argument

    • Qiaochu Yuan

      I think the difference lies in what questions you’re asking when you get surprised. If you investigate a phenomenon and are surprised by what you find, you should probably try to update your theories about the phenomenon. But it’s not clear to me what phenomenon you’re investigating when you are surprised by observations you make about your own life; isn’t it possible you could be finding a phenomenon to fit the surprise rather than the other way around?

      • Qiaochu Yuan

        Put another way: if an omnipotent being outside of time randomly selected an animal which had lived on the Earth at some point to study and selected you, that omnipotent being might be surprised about 3 and onward. (I have reservations about whether it is possible to meaningfully talk about 1 or 2.) But you are not an omnipotent being outside of time and you did not randomly select yourself. I’m not a fan of invoking the anthropic principle (it feels to me more like a cached thought than an argument), but in this case it really seems like that’s what’s going on here.

  • John Judge

    Also, I do not write a popular blog. Does that make me less likely to be a simulation than Robin?

  • josh

    On the other hand, you’re not particularly handsome. Call it a wash.

  • JTs Mum

    I am regularly very surprised that I exist right now .
    It seems a lucky coincidence, ( maybe I’d be better off if born 200 years in the future).

    “The Buddha used a metaphor to show the rarity of a human life of leisure and opportunity: Imagine a tortoise swimming submerged in a vast ocean and resurfacing only once every one hundred years. . An ox’s yoke floats on the same ocean. Consider the tortoise’s chances of poking his head through the yoke when he comes up for air every hundred years. The object of discursive meditation on the rare opportunity of a precious human life of leisure and opportunity is to motivate us to use our rare opportunity wisely”

    I experience myself as “me”. I wonder if a different sperm had got to the egg (and made, say a female) would I be experiencing that person as “me”? Or would it just be someone else?

  • Robert Koslover

    Doesn’t the Anthropic principle explain your items 1-5?

  • snarles

    Whether a statement is true or false is irrelevant if there are no practical consequences of the statement being true or false.

    The truth of the statement “I am an exact simulation of a human from the past” has no consequences for decision-making, because all decisions you make would by assumption have to be identical to the decisions made by the historical “you,” for whom the statement “I am an exact simulation of a human from the past” is false.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      snarles, I think fatalism is the most rational reaction, but the most rational agents don’t always persist in the context of incomplete information.

      For example, the scenario of “I am PROBABLY an exact simulation of a human from the past”.

  • Boaz

    Would Robin Hanson be less surprised if Robin Hanson, like the vast majority of possible beings, did not exist?

  • sark

    I’m sure you are familiar with observation selection effects the standard formulation of which can explain 1-5.

    I’m not sure if Bostrom dealt with this, but there can be a stronger version of it, which can explain 6,8,9 too. You think about such weird ideas as being surprised with being who/where you are. This requires that you are smart, rich (the poor do not have the luxury of deep thought), and devoted to the pursuit and dissemination of interesting out-there ideas. Which explains why you are Robin Hanson.

    As for 7… I have no idea. It’s frightening to think about…

  • Aris Katsaris

    I’m surprised that someone as supposedly rational as you is surprised at being in a condition able to think about their condition. Half of your problem has been *solved*, it’s called the anthropic principle.

    The other half has also been solved: it’s called selection bias. If you weren’t getting “surprised” about these particular details of your condition (having a popular blog), you’d be getting suprised about something else. I personally can’t get suprised about having a popular blog (because I don’t have one) but I can get “surprised” about e.g. my appreciation of “My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic”.

    My gosh, is this evidence for me being in a simulation? If it is, then if you *don’t* appreciate “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”, then that must be evidence against *you* being in a simulation. And in favour of our simulation overlords wanting to simulate fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic only. But wait a sec! If such was the case, and the simulation was being run by pony-lovers then *more* people would love MLP: FIP, therefore it wouldn’t be a surprise, therefore any “suprising” condition is evidence against this being a simulation. Ooh, paradox.

    This is the sort of article that makes me seriously consider unsubscribing. Must we rediscover the anthropic principle from scratch? Are you pulling a prank on us by making this argument? Have I misunderstood the purpose of this blog — is it meant to providing rational-sounding nonsense, as an exercise for your readers to tear down?

    That would reduce *my* level of surprise at your surprise, but if so please, increase the level of difficulty, this was too easy an example.

    • http:/ Stephen R. Diamond

      Doesn’t selection bias make the anthropic principle otiose (in that the phenomenon the anthropic principle is invoked to explain don’t need explanation.

      It seems the fine-tuning impression is treated differently than other results of selection bias. But the argument about the “fine-tuning” supposedly required for life to arise ignores that, although we aren’t designed to recognize them, life is merely one of infinitely many patterns. In fact, the very judgment that life is “complex” depends on the selection bias as to what counts as complex.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      Aris Katsaris, I think you misunderstand the simulation hypothesis, which I think is strong even if misused by its creators.

      It’s a simple probabilities argument based on the distribution of simulations of a system in the only system we know -ours. I’d analogize it to skepticism that the earth or the sun is the center of the universe. I think it’s more likely that we’re N simulations deep -and I’d like to see that N calculated with some rigor (I forget if someone has already directed me to a link that does the calculation).

      It really has nothing to do with how special or surprised Prof. Hanson feels.

  • Cyan

    I notice you don’t list your surprise that your car’s licence plate has that particular value. (I’m assuming it’s not a vanity plate.) Why not?

  • Brian

    It seems callous of our computer simulating overlords to create consciousness in their simulations and simply let our consciousness be deleted after each of us has run our course. Hopefully they send us to simulation heaven. Or take us out of the simulation upon death and let us glimpse the real universe.

    • Kevin Dick

      Ian Banks, call your office regarding Brian ripping off your idea for Surface Detail 🙂

      • Brian

        I have no idea who Ian Banks is and I’ve never heard of Surface Detail. But I’m flattered that I shared an idea with someone smart and successful. I’m pissed that someone else thought of and profited from it first.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      Our reality seems callous, and I think the tendency is to sheild ourselves from the callousness. We tend to hide the dying and the severely disfigured, but they exist in all the variations one would expect from a randomishly callous reality. I doubt the next level up simulation (since I doubt we’re only one order removed from nonsimulated reality) is expending resources preserving our conscious experience, any more than they’re expending resources to prevent the distribution of experience as an extremely disfigured burn victim.

  • komponisto


    why should the cognitive inability of something else to process evidence effect how I update on the evidence available to me?

    It’s called the “anthropic principle”. Of course, telling you the name doesn’t tell you why it’s true, so here’s the reason: the evidence you’re considering is, roughly, “I can update on evidence”. In fact, let U be “I can update on evidence” and let R be “I am Robin Hanson”. Then P(R) is low, but P(U|R) is higher than P(U|~R), making P(R|U) not so low; the information about the cognitive inability of others is contained in P(U|~R).

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Robin: Conditionality is the trick that makes the Monte Hall problem interesting and counterintuitive. You should be surprised if you are remarkable, and let’s assume you are in the 98th percentile of people in terms of ‘general’ remarkableness. 150k people died yesterday, and 3000 of them were probably more remarkable than you. I don’t think any of them mattered to 99.9999% of the conscious entities in existence. It’s improbable you matter as well, thus you are unremarkable, and so unsurprising.

    To you and your family and friends (me too!), you are surprising, an interesting, valuable entity. But that’s just because you are in our constellation of interactions, another conditional.

    I would say to be surprising you have to be a 7-standard deviation person on some objective measure. That is, not merely the ‘funniest guy on late night tv’ or ‘the President’ because there would always be someone. Some author I like may write clever things I find interesting and may be a good person, but without him I’d suffice with someone else and not recognize the loss–our preferences are relative, and it’s no surprise we have favorites.

    In contrast, Usain Bolt or Griori Perelman, do things all of us would have liked to have done, but have not the objective ability. Those guys that solve Rubik’s cubes blindfolded…I simple could never do that, and I appreciate their remarkable exceptionalism.

    • John

      We’ve never met, but I’m a fan. I hope you don’t mind my tooting your horn (?) – for other readers, Eric has an outstanding blog worth checking out.

  • Doug

    The mathematical universe explains 1.

  • MPS

    You have described a question I have been posing to my colleagues: is it reasonable for the king to actually believe in his divine right?

    I will say that 8 and 9 highly correlate. (Not blog-writing specifically, of course, but being generally prominent in one’s field.)

    Also, if civilization doesn’t really last too much longer, indeed if exceedingly rarely do civilizations ever last much longer (because perhaps evolution hardwires us and any other evolved creatures to unsustainably consume resources), then 7 is untrue, and 6 is basically the same as 8.

    All of the others I suspect have a sort of “anthropic” explanation. For instance, most humans (most potential combinations of sperm and egg) will never exist; but at the same time they will never appreciate that they never exist. I doubt the ants and other insects and lower forms of life and most higher forms of life appreciate that they are not among the most cognizant forms of life. So there’s a selection effect, in your even being able to appreciate these issues.

  • Jonathan Campbell

    Why don’t you make it much simpler:

    1. I am surprised that, with respect to any imaginable measure, I am exactly equal to a particular person named Robin Hanson.

  • Matthew C.

    It seems callous of our computer simulating overlords to create consciousness in their simulations and simply let our consciousness be deleted after each of us has run our course.

    You are assuming that “consciousness” has a plural. Just about all serious and experienced explorers of consciousness would disagree with you about that.

    When you watch a movie and identify with one of the characters, are you being “callous” when the movie ends and you stop identifying with him or her?

    The “Simulation Hypothesis” is what mystics have been saying about the world for thousands of years. It’s just that they have seen through the part of the simulation called “me”, while most who use the words “Simulation Hypothesis” have not.

  • Pablo Stafforini

    Robin, I think you are right in being surprised at some of the facts you list, but wrong in being surprised at others.

    You should indeed be surprised at the fact that you are smarter than nearly everyone else, since being at one end of the distribution is more special than being at most other possible locations. By contrast, being a mammal is not at all surprising, since there is nothing special about that particular biological class relative to the existing others.

    The criterion for distinguishing these two types of cases seems to be this. If you are as surprised at your occupying a particular location on some dimension as you would have if you had occupied the alternative locations on that same dimension, then your occupying that particular location is not surprising; otherwise it is.

    This criterion, incidentally, shows that whether having a trait is or isn’t surprising doesn’t turn on whether the trait is “special” in some mysterious sense, as is often assumed in discussions of fine-tuning. Rather, the surprisingness of a trait is dependent on whether the creature finds that trait more surprising that it would under the relevant counterfactual scenarios, for whatever contingent reasons the creature does in fact find such a trait surprising.

  • dirk

    Here is an alternative account which would completely explain away all of these surprises except #1: The entire universe is a single being, and it is that single being which experiences being everyone and everything at the same time.

    This would mean that the odds of points 2 through 9 would be 100%. Of course, then you would have the surprise that the entire universe is experienced by a single being — but if 1 surprise explains away 8 others, which are you going to go with?

    • Aron

      And now here’s Tom with the weather…

      • dirk

        Yeah, make fun of my point, which I don’t necessarily agree with myself, yet take the simulation argument seriously. Is Buddhism less crazy than the simulation argument? If you think so, you are quite likely displaying your nerd bias and not being objective.

      • dirk

        Why is it so hard to believe that perhaps matter is being? Why do I experience being me and not you? Maybe I experience being me and you. Maybe you experience being you and me. Who is to say for sure?

      • dirk

        just got your bill hicks reference…

    • richard silliker

      the vast majority of possible things are inexpressed

      the universe is a rational paradigm and as a result metabolic.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    There’s a short list of people that if I were them, I’d seriously consider that I existed in a simulation created by an older, more “real” version of myself. Zuckerberg, Brin, Gates. I don’t think you make the short list.
    I think you’re lucky in the many ways you’re positively deviant from the historic and present central tendencies. But it’s an ironic luck in the context of the deep unluckiness we all seem to me to share, since we’re all most likely going to suffer information theoretic death.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      I’d also consider that I was in a simulation created by a rival of those folks. The possibility that we’re n-simulations deep in a prediction by some entity who has a forthcoming decision to optimize seems plausible to me. Also I thinks it’s more likely that this is a reduced simulation for a decision about something specific than a general simulation for more of a basic research about reality purpose.

      So the people and organizations on a contested track to rule the world we live in presently would be my best guess for the subjects of the simulation, by some older, “realer” version of them in a place that resembles our near future.

  • mjgeddes

    If I was trader on a prediction market, I’ve have to strongly bet that there will soon be ‘reversion to the mean’ for Hanson on all points.

  • Pavitra

    1-3 can be attributed to anthropic selection bias. 4 was not specified in advance; if the dominant lifeform on this planet were sentient blogging lizards, you’d be asking why you’re a reptile. 5 likewise was not specified in advance. 7 remains to be seen.

    6, 8, and 9 require explanation. However, I notice that these things are *not* true about me; rather, they’re true of someone whose blog I happen to be reading. 9 can thus be attributed to selection bias, and 6 and 8 follow as unexceptional examples of the set of possible reasons why someone’s blog might be interesting.

  • Philo

    “[T]he vast majority of possible things do not exist.” Let P = the number of possible things, and E = the number of things that exist. The “vast majority” number is (P – E)/P. But what are the values of ‘P’ and ‘E’ (and so: how vast is this “vast”)?
    “[T]he vast majority of real things are dead.” This may be a different “vast”: with A = the number of things that are alive, it is (E – A)/E. (I assume existence – reality, and ‘dead’ means the same as ‘not alive’.) Again, numerical values would be appreciated.

  • Zach Kurtz

    The last ones bring to mind the Texas sharpshooter fallacy:

  • name

    Robin, why do you imagine so easily that “your” descendants will think of you as the same human-like species?

  • Robin Hanson

    I just added to the post.

  • Dave

    Yes the fact that I am cognitively able to actually be surprised predicts other things, and given that fact those other things are no longer surprising. But the fact that I am able to be surprised is itself surprising!
    The numbers of cycles you can carry one of these infinite regressions in your mind probably depends on how smart you are.You can carry more of them than I can.
    The surprising thing is that the concept of infinity and similar ones comes so easily to humans.I have never heard anyone discuss this. It is not a mathematical ability.For example alcohol consumption seems not to inhibit it and perhaps fuels it. Have you ever tried to do calculus or even balance a check book when you are drunk? How ever abstruse speculations ,Ah yes.

  • botogol

    this post seems strangely religious to me.
    Robin’s surprises 1-9 cause him to take the simulation theory more seriosuly.
    For many people things like 1-9 cause them to conclude that there is a God, who has a individual purpose and plan for them.

    perhaps those two things are not dissimilar.

  • Michael Anissimov

    Reading this list just reminds me of Doomsday Argument, the areas with the most “measure” (or whatever) might be immediately prior to some big catastrophe. In that sense it is less surprising we are smart and rich because most people exist around that time.

    You’re definitely jumping the gun with 7. Civilization is fragile. You or me could suffer a fatal accident at any time. Mankind could suffer a fatal accident.

  • ovaut

    I don’t understand what it means to be surprised that ‘you’ are not not a mammal.