Disagree with Suicide Rock

Imagine you are walking in the wild and come across what looks like a big rock painted with the following words:

I may look like an ordinary painted rock, but I’m actually a conscious mind.  I know about you and your life, and I want to tell you: from the point of view of your values, you should commit suicide.  You may have good arguments against your suicide, and I will listen to any arguments you offer, but I know of very good arguments in favor of suicide.   I will listen, but if these words have not changed, then my conclusion has not changed. 

You may think you are smarter or know more about this topic than a rock, even a rock that can paint words.  And I admit that is true of most rocks.  But I am not a random rock.  I am a honest rock that tries hard not to be overconfident, and that understands how your opinion embodies information that I cannot see directly.  I would not say this to most people.  I have carefully considered the possibility that you may be right, and yet I remain confident that your best choice is suicide.

This seems to me a clear case of justified disagreement; it is very unlikely that coming across this rock should make you change your opinion on suicide.  You have strong reasons to think this is just a painted rock; while the person who painted it probably had a full mind, the rock itself is not listening.   Yes, we are biased to dismiss minds that disagree with us so that we can justify our disagreement, but even if we really liked what the rock had to say, we would still think it was just a rock.  And so would almost anyone whose opinion your had any respect for.

What variations would make you more persuaded by the rock?  What if:

  • It claimed instead you should not commit suicide?
  • It claimed instead rocks get itchy and like to be scratched?
  • It said true private facts about your life?
  • Skeletons were littered near the rock?
  • Someone had told you a story of a smart rock?
  • The words changed in front of your eyes?
  • It could beat you at chess, or trivia questions? 
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  • If the rock is just a rock there is no disagreement, a fortiori no justified disagreement, since nothing has been asserted. Cf PUtnam’s case of coming across army ants making a picture: made apt for here, suppose the words on the rock are spelt out by the army ants in the way they are spread out over the rock. They aren’t saying anything to you.

  • * It said true facts about your life?

    Horoscopes and fortune cookies also say true facts about your life.

    * Skeletons were littered near the rock?

    People are stupid and sometimes depressed.

    If it were able to communicate, it would be a bit harder to dismiss it. But I think a case can be made that such pronouncements could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and not really valid in the abstract. It’s simply hard to imagine the kind of arguments the rock could make that could convince any given person of this. That is, unless the rock only tells a certain few people to commit suicide.

  • Nicholas, in ordinary language my opinion can “disagree” with any other expression of opinion, including one written down. So I suspect you are invoking a specialized vocabulary again. But for the purposes of the rationality of disagreement I think we can set those issues aside; what matters is how persuaded you should be to change your mind by some apparent expression of opinion.

  • The Incomparable Hanson

    Here is one of the most original philosophical examples I’ve read in years. It starts: Imagine you are walking in…

  • Whether I should commit suicide is not a question of fact. It’s a value judgement. Who would be better off if I committed suicide? If it’s anyone but me, it’s probably not worth my life. If it is me, how could I possibly be served by my own death?

    If the rock demonstrated intelligence by beating me at chess, earning a reputation as a smart rock, etc., I would have reason to trust its intelligence, but not its wisdom. No demonstration of intelligence would cause me to accept the rock’s judgment that I (or the world) would be better off if I committed suicide. The only trick I can imagine that would so much as give me pause is some morbid reversal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” where the rock takes me on a believable tour of the world as it would be if I were to take its advice, and even then, a rock capable of such a stunt is surely capable of believable deceit.

  • Rocco, your choice of an action like suicide depends on both your values and on your beliefs about various facts. The rock claims to be considering the facts from the point of view of your values. Would you be more reluctant to disagree with the rock about cosmology?

  • Robin, I don’t know what you mean by ‘invoking a specialized vocabulary’ (let alone ‘again’). I am simply pointing out a necessary condition for disagreement. Who are you supposed to be justifiably disagreeing with if the rock is just a rock?

  • Nicholas, I was referring to our previous discussion where you said we couldn’t think of people on different days as different agents with different priors. The rock is obviously who you might disagree with.

  • “What variations would make you more persuaded by the rock?”

    Each of the ones you list would make me more persuaded, but only very marginally so. If you fill in a lot more details in the story, so that it becomes clear that it really is an intelligent rock, that it really has my best interest at heart, that other wise humans have chosen to follow its advise etc., then the reason to heed its recommendation would get much stronger. But the prior is extremely low, so it would take a lot of evidence to make the posterior significant.

  • Nick, I want to identify clear cases both where disagreement is justified and where not – next Sunday I’ll post a clear not justified case. These clear cases can then hopefully help us with the next task, clarifying which factors weigh how much in determining when a disagreement is justified.

  • Robin, I didn’t invoke a specialized vocabulary there, simply made use of some basic metaphysical distinctions. The rock that is just a rock is not ‘obviously who you might disagree with’ simply because it is not a person.

  • tweedledee

    If I don’t think that the rock’s priors are as correlated with the truth as my priors, there’s no good reason why I should agree with it. Unlike with humans, there is no substantial scientific literature establishing that the prior origins of rocks are as correlated with the truth as the priors of humans.

  • michael vassar

    I think that I would be much more likely to agree with the rock if I had no experience with disagreement or with statements being false.

  • To make your point, you should use an example that doesn’t involve suicide. Because of option value, to commit suicide you have to be very, very certain that it is the right thing to do since once you commit suicide you can’t reverse the decision whereas you could easily reverse a non-suicide decision.

  • James, the fact that this decision has an option value does not seem relevant – the rock claims to have evaluated all relevant considerations, and so it must be claiming to consider that one too.

    Nicholas, it is possible to define words to use them the way you do, but it is also possible to define words so that other uses are valid. We are not really interested in the definition of these words here; the issue is how much to let your beliefs be influenced in this situation.

  • Michael Wall

    The rock having been backed up by any of the variables mentioned below would not convince me.

    The necessary step that the rock skipped was actually proving why this suicide contention is true. It isn’t enough to just assert and and promise that there is logic to back it up. No matter how smart the rock can prove itself to be, an argument cannot be won on ethos alone. Logos must be the backbone.

  • Walt Guyll

    What if you came upon a bible in the woods and written inside were stories about the world and instructions for your life.
    What would possibly make you believe it?

  • Robin,

    But there is always going to be at least a tiny chance that the rock (or anything like the rock) is crazy or lying to me. Given this chance and the option value of not killing myself I should not follow the rock’s advice. A better example would be one where you would be willing to follow the rock’s advice if you were 99% but not 100% sure it was sane and honest.

  • James, the fact that there is a large option value to waiting makes it a apriori unlikely that not waiting is the best decision. But we often listen to and believe people who tell us things we initially thought were unlikely.

    Michael, if you never believe anyone who has not proven their claim to you, you will have little use for the news media or journals or education or any professional advisor like a doctor.

  • Robin, I think James D. Miller has a point. The extremity of this advice obscures many potential reasons for agreement because those reasons are not quite strong enough to justify suicide. What if the rock told you to bury $1000 underneath it at midnight?

  • If a dialogue can be established, such I say or write or communicate anything and the rock reacts intelligently, topically, then the rock’s position and reasoning could be understood. Still nothing the rock says could lead me to suicide, since I live not because of rational arguments (where the rock may have the upper hand) but because I want to or I dont want the contrary or just lazyness or curiosity or whatever.

    following Eliezer’s argument, what if the rock – that looks like a lion’s head – said “put 1000 $ cash in my mouth and I will make you lucky etc. Would you invest 1 $ to see if it works?

    What if the rock doesnt look like a rock but like an ordinary human being and asks for 1000 $?

    As we say in Yiddish, if my grandmother had beitzes (testicles) she wouldnt be my grandmother, he would be my grandfather. And what if my grandmother had wheels instead of legs? she would be a byclicle.

    The Gemoyre says… enough.

  • rcriii

    Maybe part of the problem here is the utter lack of common priors, about anything. This, I think, is where Michaels point come in. I sometimes accept the word of others (doctors, journalists, certain pundits) without delving into their argument because I have knowledge about their reliability from other sources. This rock, on the other hand, contradicts everything I know about rocks, so will have to work extra hard to convince me of anything.

    Eliezer’s suggestion reminds me of a joke from a Terry Pratchett book:

    In the old country there was a magic glade with a tree stump in the middle. If your pony throws a shoe, you can take it to the glade and tie it to the stump and leave a gold piece on the stump. When you come back the next morning the gold piece will be gone … and so will the pony.

  • Eliezer, some kinds of advice tend to be given by people trying to exploit you, so it makes perfect sense to be less trusting of someone conditional on hearing that sort of advice. It is not obvious what the rock has to gain from your suicide though.

    Rcrii, your feeling uncertain about the rock’s priors has nothing to do with the priors being uncommon. In a formal model, priors are always common knowledge; everyone knows that everyone knows … them.

  • Carl Shulman

    The prior that an interactive Suicide Rock is a result of insanity may be so strong as to create an unrebuttable presumption, a closed intellectual system akin to solipsism. Good performance from the rock on the above factors could bring belief up to a maximum, but no further.

    If I were to encounter a burning bush that demonstrated godlike abilities, I would have to conclude that my reality is not what it appeared to be, but is perhaps a Matrix-style simulation or a ‘basement-level’ universe with magic. My priors would favour the former, and no sensory evidence could defeat that judgment, including claims by the bush.

    • Donald Hobson

      An interactive rock creates a very high probability for a projector hiding in the bushes. An overly elaborate practical joke is the most likely explanation unless it totally breaks physics.

  • rcriii

    After thinking about this, I’m going to take the rock’s side.

    There are probably claims that a rock could make that I might accept. Consider the weather rock – “If I’m wet it’s raining, if I’m white it’s snowing…”

    And I’m willing to posit the possibility that there is some sequence the rock could follow to gain my confidence.

    After all, saying “I cannot imagine what a rock could do to convince me of something” or “There is no way anyone or anything can convince me of this proposition” is in some part a statement about my imagination and sophistication.

    That said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and here we have two extraordinary claims. Do evidentiary requirements add or multiply?

  • Rciii, imagine I told you that I would meet you at a particular address at a particular time. Given all the possible times and places I could have said, the prior probability you would have assigned to that exact combination is very low. Nevertheless, you would probably believe me anyway. So it is not clear to me what an “extraordinary” claim is.

  • rcriii

    I consider the claim that I should commit suicide extraordinary. I also consider the claim that a rock has knowledge to impart extraordinary.

    Are you suggesting that the claim that i should commit suicide is reasonable on the basis that there are only two choices (to be or not to be)?

  • My values are such that from the point of view of my values, I should never commit suicide. Therefore, I know the rock is “lying” when it says, “I know about you and your life.”

    Problem solved!

  • I go one step further. I destroy the rock.

    I take it as axiomatic that humans best understand humans because humans experience life as humans do. Rocks do not. No matter how you might embed a rock with consciousness, it cannot be human consciousness – only rock consciousness which must be held inferior.

    I would thus see in the rock some alien intelligence whose purpose is to incite people to self-destruction without a human capacity to empathize. It is therefore a threat to humanity. As such, I destroy the rock.

    Or I move it to the territory of my enemy.

  • Cobb, a practical person would only ever give you good news, as it is not clear you take bad news very well. Yup, nothing but good stuff for you here …

  • Forrest Pugh

    This is such an absurd scenario, and as such I cannot imagine a situation in which I would even begin to debate the topic. The premise itself is similar to comparing the relative merits of baseball games, and fruit salad.

    I understand that I am *supposed* to suspend disbelief; however what a rock and the mammal in this scenario have in common in short summation include: similar molecular composition, similar fixation in time/space, identical observance of physical laws.

    A rock’s existential experience would be so remarkably different that no “values” can be equated and so no value judgments are valid. To imagine that a rock can have relate-able experiences would be to fundamentally change the nature of a rock. This isn’t just a bias, it is a completely nonviable interaction.

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  • Dragon Dave

    I would accept the reverse-case as a self-esteem boost, but I wouldn’t believe it to be more true.

    Any text that is not clearly directly relevant to me *alone* (i.e. the text clearly does not apply to other people) implies it’s just a painted rock. If it refers to me alone, it implies it’s a painted rock that’s been designed to single me out.

    In the event of the legend of the smart rock, I’d give it a very small but non-zero belief; so long as other people see different text: “I would not say this to most people.” is falsifiable.

    Words changing in front of my eyes is clear evidence of ‘magic’ – or at least, insufficiently understood technology. I would attempt to question the rock; attempt to understand what it believes my beliefs are and what evidence it has for its statement. I would generally believe the rock as much as I would believe anyone who has shown some evidence of actively trying to harm me with allegedly good intentions.

    Beating me at chess or trivia? That’s no stronger than the changing words.