Category Archives: Philosophy

The Problem at the Heart of Pascal’s Wager

It is a most painful position to a conscientious and cultivated mind to be drawn in contrary directions by the two noblest of all objects of pursuit — truth and the general good.  Such a conflict must inevitably produce a growing indifference to one or other of these objects, most probably to both.

– John Stuart Mill, from Utility of Religion

Much electronic ink has been spilled on this blog about Pascal’s wager.  Yet, I don’t think that the central issue, and one that relates directly to the mission of this blog, has been covered.  That issue is this: there’s a difference between the requirements for good (rational, justified) belief and the requirements for good (rational, prudent — not necessarily moral) action.

Presented most directly: good belief is supposed to be truth and evidence-tracking.  It is not supposed to be consequence-tracking.  We call a belief rational to the extent it is (appropriately) influenced by the evidence available to the believer, and thus maximizes our shot at getting the truth.  We call a belief less rational to the extent it is influenced by other factors, including the consequences of holding that belief.  Thus, an atheist who changed his beliefs in response to the threat of torture from the Spanish Inquisition cannot be said to have followed a correct belief-formation process. 

On the other hand, good action is supposed (modulo deontological moral theories) to be consequence-tracking.  The atheist who professes changed beliefs in response to the threat of torture from the Spanish Inquisition can be said to be acting prudently by making such a profession.

A modern gloss on Pascal’s wager might be understood less as an argument for the belief in God than as a challenge to that separation.  If, Modern-Pascal might say, we’re in an epistemic situation such that our evidence is in equipoise (always keeping in mind Daniel Griffin’s apt point that this is the situation presumed by Pascal’s argument), then we ought to take consequences into account in choosing our beliefs. 

There seem to be arguments for and against that position… 

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The Robot’s Rebellion

I’m on my second read, and I think that this is quite an underappreciated book.  While it doesn’t have a lot of practical advice about methods to overcome bias, its general philosophy is (IMNSHO) both deeply true and quite rare.  It takes the logic of Dawkin’s Selfish Gene and unflinchingly explores the logical implications of the genes’-eye view of the world in which humans are lumbering robots constructed by coalitions of immortal genes for the sole purpose of copying those genes.  The idea that humans, the conscious, apparently self-directed actors in our world, are robots – in the sense of having been constructed by something very different for its own ends – is for me profound, unintuitive, and deeply unsettling.

The book uses a metaphor (originally by Daniel Dennett): suppose that you are trying to preserve your body for 400 years.  One option would be to cryopreserve it in a bunker (the "plant" strategy).  But suppose you are worried that no location is safe, or that your capsule may need more resources along the way.  You might build a robot to protect your cryocapsule, scavenging the landscape for energy and materials when necessary.  You’d want the robot to be intelligent enough to react to any survival situation it encounters with creative solutions, not just pre-programmed ones, which requires a certain degree of intellectual freedom (long-leash control).  You also want it to make the preservation of your capsule its highest priority (short-leash control).

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Where Does Pascal’s Wager Fail?

The topic of Pascal’s wager has been mentioned several times before on Overcoming Bias, most notably in Eliezer’s post on Pascal’s mugging. I’m interested in discussing the question with specific reference to its original context: religion. My assumption is that almost all readers agree that the wager fails in this context — but where exactly?

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The Meaning of Right

Continuation of:  Changing Your Metaethics, Setting Up Metaethics
Followup toDoes Your Morality Care What You Think?, The Moral Void, Probability is Subjectively Objective, Could Anything Be Right?, The Gift We Give To Tomorrow, Rebelling Within Nature, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, …

(The culmination of a long series of Overcoming Bias posts; if you start here, I accept no responsibility for any resulting confusion, misunderstanding, or unnecessary angst.)

What is morality?  What does the word "should", mean?  The many pieces are in place:  This question I shall now dissolve.

The key – as it has always been, in my experience so far – is to understand how a certain cognitive algorithm feels from inside.  Standard procedure for righting a wrong question:  If you don’t know what right-ness is, then take a step beneath and ask how your brain labels things "right".

It is not the same question – it has no moral aspects to it, being strictly a matter of fact and cognitive science.  But it is an illuminating question.  Once we know how our brain labels things "right", perhaps we shall find it easier, afterward, to ask what is really and truly right.

But with that said – the easiest way to begin investigating that question, will be to jump back up to the level of morality and ask what seems right.  And if that seems like too much recursion, get used to it – the other 90% of the work lies in handling recursion properly.

(Should you find your grasp on meaningfulness wavering, at any time following, check Changing Your Metaethics for the appropriate prophylactic.)

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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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Probability is Subjectively Objective

Followup toProbability is in the Mind

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away."
        — Philip K. Dick

There are two kinds of Bayesians, allegedly.  Subjective Bayesians believe that "probabilities" are degrees of uncertainty existing in our minds; if you are uncertain about a phenomenon, that is a fact about your state of mind, not a property of the phenomenon itself; probability theory constrains the logical coherence of uncertain beliefs.  Then there are objective Bayesians, who… I’m not quite sure what it means to be an "objective Bayesian"; there are multiple definitions out there.  As best I can tell, an "objective Bayesian" is anyone who uses Bayesian methods and isn’t a subjective Bayesian.

If I recall correctly, E. T. Jaynes, master of the art, once described himself as a subjective-objective Bayesian.  Jaynes certainly believed very firmly that probability was in the mind; Jaynes was the one who coined the term Mind Projection Fallacy.  But Jaynes also didn’t think that this implied a license to make up whatever priors you liked.  There was only one correct prior distribution to use, given your state of partial information at the start of the problem.

How can something be in the mind, yet still be objective?

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Rebelling Within Nature

Followup toFundamental Doubts, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, No Universally Compelling Arguments, Joy in the Merely Real, Evolutionary Psychology

"Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it."
        — T. H. Huxley ("Darwin’s bulldog", early advocate of evolutionary theory)

There is a quote from some Zen Master or other, who said something along the lines of:

"Western man believes that he is rebelling against nature, but he does not realize that, in doing so, he is acting according to nature."

The Reductionist Masters of the West, strong in their own Art, are not so foolish; they do realize that they always act within Nature.

You can narrow your focus and rebel against a facet of existing Nature – polio, say – but in so doing, you act within the whole of Nature.  The syringe that carries the polio vaccine is forged of atoms; our minds, that understood the method, embodied in neurons.  If Jonas Salk had to fight laziness, he fought something that evolution instilled in him – a reluctance to work that conserves energy.  And he fought it with other emotions that natural selection also inscribed in him: feelings of friendship that he extended to humanity, heroism to protect his tribe, maybe an explicit desire for fame that he never acknowledged to himself – who knows?  (I haven’t actually read a biography of Salk.)

The point is, you can’t fight Nature from beyond Nature, only from within it.  There is no acausal fulcrum on which to stand outside reality and move it.  There is no ghost of perfect emptiness by which you can judge your brain from outside your brain.  You can fight the cosmic process, but only by recruiting other abilities that evolution originally gave to you.

And if you fight one emotion within yourself – looking upon your own nature, and judging yourself less than you think should be – saying perhaps, "I should not want to kill my enemies" – then you make that judgment, by…

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Fundamental Doubts

Followup toThe Genetic Fallacy, Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom

Yesterday I said that – because humans are not perfect Bayesians – the genetic fallacy is not entirely a fallacy; when new suspicion is cast on one of your fundamental sources, you really should doubt all the branches and leaves of that root, even if they seem to have accumulated new evidence in the meanwhile.

This is one of the most difficult techniques of rationality (on which I will separately post, one of these days).  Descartes, setting out to "doubt, insofar as possible, all things", ended up trying to prove the existence of God – which, if he wasn’t a secret atheist trying to avoid getting burned at the stake, is pretty pathetic.  It is hard to doubt an idea to which we are deeply attached; our mind naturally reaches for cached thoughts and rehearsed arguments.

But today’s post concerns a different kind of difficulty – the case where the doubt is so deep, of a source so fundamental, that you can’t make a true fresh beginning.

Case in point:  Remember when, in the The Matrix, Morpheus told Neo that the machines were harvesting the body heat of humans for energy, and liquefying the dead to feed to babies?  I suppose you thought something like, "Hey!  That violates the second law of thermodynamics."

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My Kind of Reflection

Followup toWhere Recursive Justification Hits Bottom

In "Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom", I concluded that it’s okay to use induction to reason about the probability that induction will work in the future, given that it’s worked in the past; or to use Occam’s Razor to conclude that the simplest explanation for why Occam’s Razor works is that the universe itself is fundamentally simple.

Now I am far from the first person to consider reflective application of reasoning principles.  Chris Hibbert compared my view to Bartley’s Pan-Critical Rationalism (I was wondering whether that would happen).  So it seems worthwhile to state what I see as the distinguishing features of my view of reflection, which may or may not happen to be shared by any other philosopher’s view of reflection.

• All of my philosophy here actually comes from trying to figure out how to build a self-modifying AI that applies its own reasoning principles to itself in the process of rewriting its own source code.  So whenever I talk about using induction to license induction, I’m really thinking about an inductive AI considering a rewrite of the part of itself that performs induction.  If you wouldn’t want the AI to rewrite its source code to not use induction, your philosophy had better not label induction as unjustifiable.

• One of the most powerful general principles I know for AI in general, is that the true Way generally turns out to be naturalistic – which for reflective reasoning, means treating transistors inside the AI, just as if they were transistors found in the environment; not an ad-hoc special case.  This is the real source of my insistence in "Recursive Justification" that questions like "How well does my version of Occam’s Razor work?" should be considered just like an ordinary question – or at least an ordinary very deep question.  I strongly suspect that a correctly built AI, in pondering modifications to the part of its source code that implements Occamian reasoning, will not have to do anything special as it ponders – in particular, it shouldn’t have to make a special effort to avoid using Occamian reasoning.

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Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom

Followup toNo Universally Compelling Arguments, Passing the Recursive Buck, Wrong Questions, A Priori

Why do I believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow?

Because I’ve seen the Sun rise on thousands of previous days.

Ah… but why do I believe the future will be like the past?

Even if I go past the mere surface observation of the Sun rising, to the apparently universal and exceptionless laws of gravitation and nuclear physics, then I am still left with the question:  "Why do I believe this will also be true tomorrow?"

I could appeal to Occam’s Razor, the principle of using the simplest theory that fits the facts… but why believe in Occam’s Razor?  Because it’s been successful on past problems?  But who says that this means Occam’s Razor will work tomorrow?

And lo, the one said:

"Science also depends on unjustified assumptions.  Thus science is ultimately based on faith, so don’t you criticize me for believing in [silly-belief-#238721]."

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