Is requires ought

The thesis of this post is: “Each ‘is’ claim relies implicitly or explicitly on at least one ‘ought’ claim.”

I will walk through a series of arguments that suggest that this claim is true, and then flesh out the picture towards the end.

(note: I discovered after writing this post that my argument is similar to Cuneo’s argument for moral realism; I present it anyway in the hope that it is additionally insightful)

Epistemic virtue

There are epistemic virtues, such as:

  • Try to have correct beliefs.
  • When you’re not sure about something, see if there’s a cheap way to test it.
  • Learn to distinguish between cases where you (or someone else) is rationalizing, versus when you/they are offering actual reasons for belief.
  • Notice logical inconsistencies in your beliefs and reflect on them.
  • Try to make your high-level beliefs accurately summarize low-level facts.

These are all phrased as commands, which are a type of ought claim. Yet, they all assist one following such commands to have more accurate beliefs.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how someone who does not (explicitly or implicitly) follow rules like these could come to have accurate beliefs. There are many ways to end up in lala land, and guidelines are essential for staying on the path.

So, “is” claims that rely on the speaker of the claim having epistemic virtue to be taken seriously, rely on the “ought” claims of epistemic virtue itself.

Functionalist theory of mind

The functionalist theory of mind is “the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part.” For example, according to functionalism, for myself to have a world-representing mind, part of my brain must be performing the function of representing the world.

I will not here argue for the functionalist theory of mind, and instead will assume it to be true.

Consider the following “is” claim: “There is a plate on my desk.”

I believe this claim to be true. But why? I see a plate on my desk. But what does that mean?

Phenomenologically, I have the sense that there is a round object on my desk, and that this object is a plate. But it seems that we are now going in a loop.

Here’s an attempt at a way out. “My visual system functions to present me with accurate information about the objects around me. I believe it to be functioning well. And I believe my phenomenological sense of there being a plate on my desk to be from my visual system. Therefore, there is a plate on my desk.”

Well, this certainly relies on a claim of “function”. That’s not an “ought” claim about me, but it is similar (and perhaps identical) to an “ought” claim about my visual system: that presenting me with information about objects is what my visual system ought to do.

Things get hairy when examining the second sentence. “I believe it to be functioning well.” Why do I believe that?

I can consider evidence like “my visual system, along with my other sensory modalities, presents me with a coherent world that has few anomalies.” That’s a complex claim, and checking it requires things like checking my memories of how coherent the world my senses present to me is, which is again relying on the parts of my mind to perform their functions.

I can’t doubt my mind except by using my mind. And using my mind requires, at least tentatively, accepting claims like “my visual system is there for presenting me with accurate information about the objects around me.”

Indeed, even making sense of a claim such as “there is a plate on my desk” requires me to use some intuition-reliant faculty I have of mapping words to concepts; without trust in such a faculty, the claim is meaningless.

I, therefore, cannot make meaningful “is” claims without at the same time using at least some parts of my mind as tools, applying “ought” claims to them.

Social systems

Social systems, such as legal systems, academic disciplines, and religions, contain “ought” claims. Witnesses ought to be allowed to say what they saw. Judges ought to weigh the evidence presented. People ought not to murder each other. Mathematical proofs ought to be checked by peers before being published.

Many such oughts are essential for the system’s epistemology. If the norms of mathematics do not include “check proofs for accuracy” and so on, then there is little reason to believe the mathematical discipline’s “is” claims such as “Fermat’s last theorem is true.”

Indeed, it is hard for claims such as “Fermat’s last theorem is true” to even be meaningful without oughts. For, there are oughts involved in interpreting mathematical notation, and in resolving verbal references to theorems. Such as, “the true meaning of ‘+’ is integer addition, which can be computed using the following algorithm.”

Without mathematical “ought”s, “Fermat’s last theorem is true” isn’t just a doubtful claim, it’s a meaningless one, which is not even wrong.

Language itself can be considered as a social system. When people misuse language (such as by lying), their statements cannot be taken seriously, and sometimes can’t even be interpreted as having meaning.

(A possible interpretation of Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory is that level 1 is when there are sufficient “ought”s both to interpret claims and to ensure that they are true for the most part; level 2 is when there are sufficient “ought”s to meaningfully interpret claims but not to ensure that they are true; level 3 is when “ought”s are neither sufficient to interpret claims nor to ensure that they are true, but are sufficient for claims to superficially look like meaningful ones; and level 4 is where “ought”s are not even sufficient to ensure that claims superficially look meaningful.)

Nondualist epistemology

One might say to the arguments so far:

“Well, certainly, my own ‘is’ claims require some entities, each of which may be a past iteration of myself, a part of my mind, or another person, to be following oughts, in order for my claims be meaningful and/or correct. But, perhaps such oughts do not apply to me, myself, here and now.”

However, such a self/other separation is untenable.

Suppose I am a mathematical professor, who is considering performing academic fraud, to ensure that false theorems end up in journals. If I corrupt the mathematical process, then I cannot, in the future, rely on the claims of mathematical journals to be true. Additionally, if others are behaving similarly to me, then my own decision to corrupt the process is evidence that others also decide to corrupt the process. Some of these others are in the past; my own decision to corrupt the process is evidence that my own mathematical knowledge is false, as it is evidence that those before me have decided similarly. So, my own mathematical “is” claims rely on myself following mathematical “ought” claims.

(More precisely, both evidential decision theory and functional decision theory have a notion by which present decisions can have past consequences, including past consequences affecting the accuracy of presently-available information)

Indeed, the idea of corrupting the mathematical process would be horrific to most good mathematicians, in a quasi-religious way. These mathematicians’ own ability to take their work seriously enough to attain rigor depends on such a quasi-religious respect for the mathematical discipline.

Nondualist epistemology cannot rely on a self/other boundary by which decisions made in the present moment have no effects on the information available in the present moment. Lying to similar agents, thus, undermines both the meaningfulness and the truth of one’s own beliefs.


I will summarize the argument thusly:

  • Each “is” claim may or may not be justified.
  • An “is” claim is only justified if the system producing the claim is functioning well at the epistemology of this claim.
  • Specifically, an “is” claim that you make is justified only if some system you are part of is functioning well at the epistemology of that claim. (You are the one making the claim, after all, so the system must include the you who makes the claim)
  • That system (that you are part of) can only function well at the epistemology of that claim if you have some function in that system and you perform that function satisfactorily. (Functions of wholes depend on functions of parts; even if all you do is listen for a claim and repeat it, that is a function)
  • Therefore, an “is” claim that you make is justified only if you have some specific function and you expect to perform that function satisfactorily.
  • If a reasonable agent expects itself to perform some function satisfactorily, then according to that agent, that agent ought to perform that function satisfactorily.
  • Therefore, if you are a reasonable agent who accepts the argument so far, you believe that your “is” claims are only justified if you have oughts.

The second-to-last point is somewhat subtle. If I use a fork as a tool, then I am applying an “ought” to the fork; I expect it ought to function as an eating utensil. Similar to using another person as a tool (alternatively “employee” or “service worker”), giving them commands and expecting that they ought to follow them. If my own judgments functionally depend on myself performing some function, then I am using myself as a tool (expecting myself to perform that function). To avoid self-inconsistency between myself-the-tool-user and myself-the-tool, I must accept an ought, which is that I ought to satisfactorily perform the tool-function I am expecting myself to perform; if I do not accept that ought, I must drop any judgment whose justification requires me to perform the function generating this ought.

It is possible to make a similar argument about meaningfulness; the key point is that the meaningfulness of a claim depends on the functioning of an interpretive system that this claim is part of. To fail to follow the oughts implied by the meaningfulness of ones’ statements is not just to be wrong, but to collapse into incoherence.

Certainly, this argument does not imply that all “ought”s can be derived from “is”es. In particular, an agent may have degrees of freedom in how it performs its functions satisfactorily, or in doing things orthogonal to performing its functions. What the argument suggests instead is that each “is” depends on at least one “ought”, which itself may depend on an “is”, in a giant web of interdependence.

There are multiple possible interdependent webs (multiple possible mind designs, multiple possible social systems), such that a different web could have instead come in to existence, and our own web may evolve into any one of a number of future possibilities. Though, we can only reason about hypothetical webs from our own actual one.

Furthermore, it is difficult to conceive of what it would mean for the oughts being considered to be “objective”; indeed, an implication of the argument is that objectivity itself depends on oughts, at least some of which must be pre-objective or simultaneous with objectivity.

Related, at least some of those oughts that are necessary as part of the constitution of “is”, must themselves be pre-“is” or simultaneous with “is”, and thus must not themselves depend on already-constituted “is”es. A possible candidate for such an ought is: “organize!” For the world to produce a map without already containing one, it must organize itself into a self-representing structure, from a position of not already being self-representing. (Of course, here I am referring to the denotation of “organize!”, which is a kind of directed motion, rather than to the text “organize!”; the text cannot itself have effective power outside the context of a text-interpretation system)

One can, of course, sacrifice epistemology, choosing to lie and to confuse one’s self, in ways that undermine both the truth and meaningfulness of one’s own “is” claims.

But, due to the anthropic principle, we (to be a coherent “we” that can reason) are instead at an intermediate point of a process that does not habitually make such decisions, or one which tends to correct them. A process that made such decisions without correcting them would result in rubble, not reason. (And whether our own process results in rubble or reason in the future is, in part, up to us, as we are part of this process)

And so, when we are a we that can reason, we accept at least those oughts that our own reason depends on, while acknowledging the existence of non-reasoning processes that do not.

Truth-telling is aggression in zero-sum frames

If you haven’t seen The Invention Of Lying, watch some of this clip (1 minute long).

If you’re like most people, this will induce a cringe reaction. The things these people are saying, while true, are rude and would ordinarily be interpreted as socially aggressive.

In a world where white lies (and hiding things for the sake of politeness) are normalized, such truth-telling is highly unusual. One automatically suspects the motives of the truth-teller. Maybe the waiter is saying “I’m embarrassed I work here” in order to manipulate the others by garnering pity. Maybe the woman is saying the man is unattractive in order to lower his self-esteem and gain advantage over him.

These interpretations are false in the world of The Invention Of Lying, because everyone talks that way. So, revealing such information does not indicate any special plot going on, it’s just the thing to do.

In our world, revealing such information does (usually) indicate a special plot, because it is so unusual. It’s erratic , and quite possibly dangerous.

Special social plots are usually interpreted as aggressive. It’s as if the game has reached an equilibrium state, and out-of-equilibrium actions are surprise attacks.

Wiio’s law states: “communication usually fails, except by accident”. The equilibrium of the game is for no communication to happen. Breaks in the game allow real communication, something most hope for but rarely find.

If we adopt a frame that says that unusual social plots are actions that are against someone (which is a zero-sum frame), this leads to the conclusion that truth-telling is aggression, as it is necessarily part of an unusual social plot.

Non-zero-sum frames, of course, usually interpret truth-telling positively: it contributes to a shared information commons, which helps just about everyone, with few exceptions. People are often capable of switching to non-zero-sum frames in natural emergency situations, but such situations are rare.

To transition from a zero-sum frame to a non-zero-sum frame, from normalized lying to normalized truth-telling, requires a special social plot involving unusual truth-telling. Because it almost never happens by default.

Such plots are always acts of aggression, when interpreted from within a zero-sum frame. And this concern is not without merit. When lying is built into the system, and so is punishment for actions labeled as “lying”, punishment of an ordinary instance of lying (a likely result of uncareful truth-telling) isn’t part of a functional behavioral control system, it’s a random act of scapegoating.

And so, there is, in practice, a limit on the rate that truth will be told. Because truth-telling uncovers local norm-violations (which are normal), leading to scapegoating. And people who fear this (or, who detect an unusual social plot happening and reflexively oppose it) will coordinate to suppress truth-telling.

Metaphorical extensions and conceptual figure-ground inversions

Consider the following sentence: “A glacier is a river of ice.”

This is metaphorical. In some sense, a glacier isn’t actually a river. A “literal” river has flowing liquid water, not ice.

Let a river(1) be defined to be an archetypal flowing-water river. A glacier isn’t a river(1). Rather, a glacier shares some structure in common with a river(1). We may define river(2) to mean some broader category, of things that flow like a river(1), such as:

  • A glacier
  • A flowing of earth matter in a landslide
  • A flowing of chemicals down an incline in a factory

and so on.

A river(2) is a concept by metaphorically extending river(1). It is, in fact, easier to explain the concept of river(2) by first clearly delineating what a river(1) is. A child will have trouble grasping the metaphorical language of “a glacier is a river of ice” until understanding what a river(1) is, such that the notion of flow that generates river(2) can be pointed to with concrete examples.

Formally, we could think of metaphorical extensions in terms of generative probabilistic models: river(2) is formed by taking some generator behind river(1) (namely, the generator of flowing substance) and applying it elsewhere. But, such formalization isn’t necessary to get the idea intuitively. See also the picture theory of language; language draws pictures in others’ minds, and those pictures are formed generatively/recursively out of different structures; see also generative grammar, the idea that sentences are formed out of lawful recursive structures.

Is ice a form of water?

Consider the sentence: “Ice is a form of water.”

What does that mean? Suppose that, by definition, ice is frozen water. Then, the sentence is tautological.

However, the sentence may be new information to a child. What’s going on?

Suppose the child has seen liquid water, which we will call water(1). The child has also seen ice, in the form of ice cubes; call the ice of ice cubes ice(1). It is new information to this child that ice(1) is a form of water(1). Concretely, you can get ice(1) by reducing the temperature of water(1) sufficiently and waiting.

At some point, water(1) is metaphorically extended into water(2) to include ice, liquid water, and water vapor. Tautologically, ice(1) is water(2). It is not strange for someone to say “The tank contains water, and some of it is frozen.” However, the water(1) concept is still sometimes used, as in the sentence “Water is a liquid.”

The water/ice example is, in many ways, much like the river/glacier example (and not just because both are about liquid/solid water): water(1) is metaphorically extended into water(2).

(An etymology question: why do we say that ice is a form of water, not that water is a form of ice? A philosophy question: what would be the difference between the two?)

While I’ve focused on extensions, other conceptual/metaphorical refinements are also possible; note that the preformal concept of temperature (temperature(1)) which means approximately “things that feel hot, make things melt/boil, and heat up nearby things” is refined into the physics definition of temperature(2) as “average kinetic energy per molecule”.

Figure-ground inversion

A special case of metaphorical extension is a figure-ground inversion. Consider the following statements:

  • All is nature (naturalism).
  • All is material (materialism).
  • All is physical (physicalism).
  • All is mental (idealism).
  • All is God (pantheism).
  • All is one (monism).
  • All is meaningless (nihilism).

Let’s examine naturalism first. A child has a preformal concept of nature (nature(1)) from concrete acquaintance with trees, forests, wild animals, rocks, oceans, etc. Nature(1) doesn’t include plastic, computers, thoughts, etc.

According to naturalism, all is nature. But, clearly, not all is nature(1). Trivially, plastic isn’t nature(1).

However, it is possible to see an important sense in which all is nature(2) (things produces by the same causal laws that produce nature(1)). After all, even humans are animals (note, this is also an extension!), and the activities of humans, including the production of artifacts such as plastic, are the activities of animals, which happen according to the causal laws of the universe.

Naturalism is a kind of figure-ground inversion. We start with nature(1), initially constituting a particular part of reality (trees, rocks, etc). Then, nature(1) is metaphorically extended into nature(2), a “universal generator” than encompasses all of reality, such that even plastic is a form of nature(2). What starts as figure in the ground, becomes the ground in which all figures exist.

And, even after performing this extension, the nature(1) concept remains useful, for delineating what it delineates. While (according to naturalism) all is nature(2), some nature(2) is natural(1), while other nature(2) is unnatural(1). In fact, the nature(2) concept is mostly only useful for pointing at the way in which everything can be generated by metaphorically extending nature(1); after this extension happens, nature(2) is simply the totality, and does not need to be delineated from anything else.

Similarly, materialism extends material(1) (wood, brick, stone, water, etc) to material(2) (things that have substance and occupy space) such that material(2) encompasses all of reality. Notably, materialism is, in a sense, compatible with naturalism, in that perhaps all of reality can be formed out of the nature(2) generator, and all of reality can be formed out of the material(2) generator.

The other cases are left as exercises for the reader.

(thanks to Cassandra McClure for coming up with the terminology of figure-ground inversions applied to concepts)

Dialogue on Appeals to Consequences

[note: the following is essentially an expanded version of this LessWrong comment on whether appeals to consequences are normative in discourse. I am exasperated that this is even up for debate, but I figure that making the argumentation here explicit is helpful]

Carter and Quinn are discussing charitable matters in the town square, with a few onlookers.

Carter: “So, this local charity, People Against Drowning Puppies (PADP), is nominally opposed to drowning puppies.”

Quinn: “Of course.”

Carter: “And they said they’d saved 2170 puppies last year, whereas their total spending was $1.2 million, so they estimate they save one puppy per $553.”

Quinn: “Sounds about right.”

Carter: “So, I actually checked with some of their former employees, and if what they say and my corresponding calculations are right, they actually only saved 138 puppies.”

Quinn: “Hold it right there. Regardless of whether that’s true, it’s bad to say that.”

Carter: “That’s an appeal to consequences, well-known to be a logical fallacy.”

Quinn: “Is that really a fallacy, though? If saying something has bad consequences, isn’t it normative not to say it?”

Carter: “Well, for my own personal decisionmaking, I’m broadly a consequentialist, so, yes.”

Quinn: “Well, it follows that appeals to consequences are valid.”

Carter: “It isn’t logically valid. If saying something has bad consequences, that doesn’t make it false.”

Quinn: “But it is decision-theoretically compelling, right?”

Carter: “In theory, if it could be proven, yes. But, you haven’t offered any proof, just a statement that it’s bad.”

Quinn: “Okay, let’s discuss that. My argument is: PADP is a good charity. Therefore, they should be getting more donations. Saying that they didn’t save as many puppies as they claimed they did, in public (as you just did), is going to result in them getting fewer donations. Therefore, your saying that they didn’t save as many puppies as they claimed to is bad, and is causing more puppies to drown.”

Carter: “While I could spend more effort to refute that argument, I’ll initially note that you only took into account a single effect (people donating less to PADP) and neglected other effects (such as people having more accurate beliefs about how charities work).”

Quinn: “Still, you have to admit that my case is plausible, and that some onlookers are convinced.”

Carter: “Yes, it’s plausible, in that I don’t have a full refutation, and my models have a lot of uncertainty. This gets into some complicated decision theory and sociological modeling. I’m afraid we’ve gotten sidetracked from the relatively clear conversation, about how many puppies PADP saved, to a relatively unclear one, about the decision theory of making actual charity effectiveness clear to the public.”

Quinn: “Well, sure, we’re into the weeds now, but this is important! If it’s actually bad to say what you said, it’s important that this is widely recognized, so that we can have fewer… mistakes like that.”

Carter: “That’s correct, but I feel like I might be getting trolled. Anyway, I think you’re shooting the messenger: when I started criticizing PADP, you turned around and made the criticism about me saying that, directing attention against PADP’s possible fraudulent activity.”

Quinn: “You still haven’t refuted my argument. If you don’t do so, I win by default.”

Carter: “I’d really rather that we just outlaw appeals to consequences, but, fine, as long as we’re here, I’m going to do this, and it’ll be a learning experience for everyone involved. First, you said that PADP is a good charity. Why do you think this?”

Quinn: “Well, I know the people there and they seem nice and hardworking.”

Carter: “But, they said they saved over 2000 puppies last year, when they actually only saved 138, indicating some important dishonesty and ineffectiveness going on.”

Quinn: “Allegedly, according to your calculations. Anyway, saying that is bad, as I’ve already argued.”

Carter: “Hold up! We’re in the middle of evaluating your argument that saying that is bad! You can’t use the conclusion of this argument in the course of proving it! That’s circular reasoning!”

Quinn: “Fine. Let’s try something else. You said they’re being dishonest. But, I know them, and they wouldn’t tell a lie, consciously, although it’s possible that they might have some motivated reasoning, which is totally different. It’s really uncivil to call them dishonest like that. If everyone did that with the willingness you had to do so, that would lead to an all-out rhetorical war…”

Carter: “God damn it. You’re making another appeal to consequences.”

Quinn: “Yes, because I think appeals to consequences are normative.”

Carter: “Look, at the start of this conversation, your argument was that saying PADP only saved 138 puppies is bad.”

Quinn: “Yes.”

Carter: “And now you’re in the course of arguing that it’s bad.”

Quinn: “Yes.”

Carter: “Whether it’s bad is a matter of fact.”

Quinn: “Yes.”

Carter: “So we have to be trying to get the right answer, when we’re determining whether it’s bad.”

Quinn: “Yes.”

Carter: “And, while appeals to consequences may be decision theoretically compelling, they don’t directly bear on the facts.”

Quinn: “Yes.”

Carter: “So we shouldn’t have appeals to consequences in conversations about whether the consequences of saying something is bad.”

Quinn: “Why not?”

Carter: “Because we’re trying to get to the truth.”

Quinn: “But aren’t we also trying to avoid all-out rhetorical wars, and puppies drowning?”

Carter: “If we want to do those things, we have to do them by getting to the truth.”

Quinn: “The truth, according to your opinion-

Carter: “God damn it, you just keep trolling me, so we never get to discuss the actual facts. God damn it. Fuck you.”

Quinn: “Now you’re just spouting insults. That’s really irresponsible, given that I just accused you of doing something bad, and causing more puppies to drown.”

Carter: “You just keep controlling the conversation by OODA looping faster than me, though. I can’t refute your argument, because you appeal to consequences again in the middle of the refutation. And then we go another step down the ladder, and never get to the truth.”

Quinn: “So what do you expect me to do? Let you insult well-reputed animal welfare workers by calling them dishonest?”

Carter: “Yes! I’m modeling the PADP situation using decision-theoretic models, which require me to represent the knowledge states and optimization pressures exerted by different agents (both conscious and unconscious), including when these optimization pressures are towards deception, and even when this deception is unconscious!”

Quinn: “Sounds like a bunch of nerd talk. Can you speak more plainly?”

Carter: “I’m modeling the actual facts of how PADP operates and how effective they are, not just how well-liked the people are.”

Quinn: “Wow, that’s a strawman.”

Carter: “Look, how do you think arguments are supposed to work, exactly? Whoever is best at claiming that their opponent’s argumentation is evil wins?”

Quinn: “Sure, isn’t that the same thing as who’s making better arguments?”

Carter: “If we argue by proving our statements are true, we reach the truth, and thereby reach the good. If we argue by proving each other are being evil, we don’t reach the truth, nor the good.”

Quinn: “In this case, though, we’re talking about drowning puppies. Surely, the good in this case is causing fewer puppies to drown, and directing more resources to the people saving them.”

Carter: “That’s under contention, though! If PADP is lying about how many puppies they’re saving, they’re making the epistemology of the puppy-saving field worse, leading to fewer puppies being saved. And, they’re taking money away from the next-best-looking charity, which is probably more effective if, unlike PADP, they’re not lying.”

Quinn: “How do you know that, though? How do you know the money wouldn’t go to things other than saving drowning puppies if it weren’t for PADP?”

Carter: “I don’t know that. My guess is that the money might go to other animal welfare charities that claim high cost-effectiveness.”

Quinn: “PADP is quite effective, though. Even if your calculations are right, they save about one puppy per $10,000. That’s pretty good.”

Carter: “That’s not even that impressive, but even if their direct work is relatively effective, they’re destroying the epistemology of the puppy-saving field by lying. So effectiveness basically caps out there instead of getting better due to better epistemology.”

Quinn: “What an exaggeration. There are lots of other charities that have misleading marketing (which is totally not the same thing as lying). PADP isn’t singlehandedly destroying anything, except instances of puppies drowning.”

Carter: “I’m beginning to think that the difference between us is that I’m anti-lying, whereas you’re pro-lying.”

Quinn: “Look, I’m only in favor of lying when it has good consequences. That makes me different from pro-lying scoundrels.”

Carter: “But you have really sloppy reasoning about whether lying, in fact, has good consequences. Your arguments for doing so, when you lie, are made of Swiss cheese.”

Quinn: “Well, I can’t deductively prove anything about the real world, so I’m using the most relevant considerations I can.”

Carter: “But you’re using reasoning processes that systematically protect certain cached facts from updates, and use these cached facts to justify not updating. This was very clear when you used outright circular reasoning, to use the cached fact that denigrating PADP is bad, to justify terminating my argument that it wasn’t bad to denigrate them. Also, you said the PADP people were nice and hardworking as a reason I shouldn’t accuse them of dishonesty… but, the fact that PADP saved far fewer puppies than they claimed actually casts doubt on those facts, and the relevance of them to PADP’s effectiveness. You didn’t update when I first told you that fact, you instead started committing rhetorical violence against me.”

Quinn: “Hmm. Let me see if I’m getting this right. So, you think I have false cached facts in my mind, such as PADP being a good charity.”

Carter: “Correct.”

Quinn: “And you think those cached facts tend to protect themselves from being updated.”

Carter: “Correct.”

Quinn: “And you think they protect themselves from updates by generating bad consequences of making the update, such as fewer people donating to PADP.”

Carter: “Correct.”

Quinn: “So you want to outlaw appeals to consequences, so facts have to get acknowledged, and these self-reinforcing loops go away.”

Carter: “Correct.”

Quinn: “That makes sense from your perspective. But, why should I think my beliefs are wrong, and that I have lots of bad self-protecting cached facts?”

Carter: “If everyone were as willing as you to lie, the history books would be full of convenient stories, the newspapers would be parts of the matrix, the schools would be teaching propaganda, and so on. You’d have no reason to trust your own arguments that speaking the truth is bad.”

Quinn: “Well, I guess that makes sense. Even though I lie in the name of good values, not everyone agrees on values or beliefs, so they’ll lie to promote their own values according to their own beliefs.”

Carter: “Exactly. So you should expect that, as a reflection to your lying to the world, the world lies back to you. So your head is full of lies, like the ‘PADP is effective and run by good people’ one.”

Quinn: “Even if that’s true, what could I possibly do about it?”

Carter: “You could start by not making appeals to consequences. When someone is arguing that a belief of yours is wrong, listen to the argument at the object level, instead of jumping to the question of whether saying the relevant arguments out loud is a good idea, which is a much harder question.”

Quinn: “But how do I prevent actually bad consequences from happening?”

Carter: “If your head is full of lies, you can’t really trust ad-hoc object-level arguments against speech, like ‘saying PADP didn’t save very many puppies is bad because PADP is a good charity’. You can instead think about what discourse norms lead to the truth being revealed, and which lead to it being obscured. We’ve seen, during this conversation, that appeals to consequences tend to obscure the truth. And so, if we share the goal of reaching the truth together, we can agree not to do those.”

Quinn: “That still doesn’t answer my question. What about things that are actually bad, like privacy violations?”

Carter: “It does seem plausible that there should be some discourse norms that protect privacy, so that some facts aren’t revealed, if such norms have good consequences overall. Perhaps some topics, such as individual people’s sex lives, are considered to be banned topics (in at least some spaces), unless the person consents.”

Quinn: “Isn’t that an appeal to consequences, though?”

Carter: “Not really. Deciding what privacy norms are best requires thinking about consequences. But, once those norms have been decided on, it is no longer necessary to prove that privacy violations are bad during discussions. There’s a simple norm to appeal to, which says some things are out of bounds for discussion. And, these exceptions can be made without allowing appeals to consequences in full generality.”

Quinn: “Okay, so we still have something like appeals to consequences at the level of norms, but not at the level of individual arguments.”

Carter: “Exactly.”

Quinn: “Does this mean I have to say a relevant true fact, even if I think it’s bad to say it?”

Carter: “No. Those situations happen frequently, and while some radical honesty practitioners try not to suppress any impulse to say something true, this practice is probably a bad idea for a lot of people. So, of course you can evaluate consequences in your head before deciding to say something.”

Quinn: “So, in summary: if we’re going to have suppression of some facts being said out loud, we should have that through either clear norms designed with consequences (including consequences for epistemology) in mind, or individuals deciding not to say things, but otherwise our norms should be protecting true speech, and outlawing appeals to consequences.”

Carter: “Yes, that’s exactly right! I’m glad we came to agreement on this.”

Why artificial optimism?

Optimism bias is well-known. Here are some examples.

  • It’s conventional to answer the question “How are you doing?” with “well”, regardless of how you’re actually doing. Why?
  • People often believe that it’s inherently good to be happy, rather than thinking that their happiness level should track the actual state of affairs (and thus be a useful tool for emotional processing and communication). Why?
  • People often think their project has an unrealistically high chance of succeeding. Why?
  • People often avoid looking at horrible things clearly. Why?
  • People often want to suppress criticism but less often want to suppress praise; in general, they hold criticism to a higher standard than praise. Why?

The parable of the gullible king

Imagine a kingdom ruled by a gullible king. The king gets reports from different regions of the kingdom (managed by different vassals). These reports detail how things are going in these different regions, including particular events, and an overall summary of how well things are going. He is quite gullible, so he usually believes these reports, although not if they’re too outlandish.

When he thinks things are going well in some region of the kingdom, he gives the vassal more resources, expands the region controlled by the vassal, encourages others to copy the practices of that region, and so on. When he thinks things are going poorly in some region of the kingdom (in a long-term way, not as a temporary crisis), he gives the vassal fewer resources, contracts the region controlled by the vassal, encourages others not to copy the practices of that region, possibly replaces the vassal, and so on. This behavior makes sense if he’s assuming he’s getting reliable information: it’s better for practices that result in better outcomes to get copied, and for places with higher economic growth rates to get more resources.

Initially, this works well, and good practices are adopted throughout the kingdom. But, some vassals get the idea of exaggerating how well things are going in their own region, while denigrating other regions. This results in their own region getting more territory and resources, and their practices being adopted elsewhere.

Soon, these distortions become ubiquitous, as the king (unwittingly) encourages everyone to adopt them, due to the apparent success of the regions distorting information this way. At this point, the vassals face a problem: while they want to exaggerate their own region and denigrate others, they don’t want others to denigrate their own region. So, they start forming alliances with each other. Vassals that ally with each other promise to say only good things about each other’s regions. That way, both vassals mutually benefit, as they both get more resources, expansion, etc compared to if they had been denigrating each other’s regions. These alliances also make sure to keep denigrating those not in the same coalition.

While these “praise coalitions” are locally positive-sum, they’re globally zero-sum: any gains that come from them (such as resources and territory) are taken from other regions. (However, having more praise overall helps the vassals currently in power, as it means they’re less likely to get replaced with other vassals).

Since praise coalitions lie, they also suppress the truth in general in a coordinated fashion. It’s considered impolite to reveal certain forms of information that could imply that things aren’t actually going as well as they’re saying it’s going. Prying too closely into a region’s actual state of affairs (and, especially, sharing this information) is considered a violation of privacy.

Meanwhile, the actual state of affairs has gotten worse in almost all regions, though the regions prop up their lies with Potemkin villages, so the gullible king isn’t shocked when he visits the region.

At some point, a single praise coalition wins. Vassals notice that it’s in their interest to join this coalition, since (as mentioned before) it’s in the interests of the vassals as a class to have more praise overall, since that means they’re less likely to get replaced. (Of course, it’s also in their class interests to have things actually be going well in their regions, so the praise doesn’t get too out of hand, and criticism is sometimes accepted) At this point, it’s conventional for vassals to always praise each other and punish vassals who denigrate other regions.

Optimism isn’t ubiquitous, however. There are a few strategies vassals can use to use pessimism to claim more resources. Among these are:

  • Blame: By claiming a vassal is doing something wrong, another vassal may be able to take power away from that vassal, sometimes getting a share of that power for themselves. (Blame is often not especially difficult, given that everyone’s inflating their impressions)
  • Pity: By showing that their region is undergoing a temporary but fixable crisis (perhaps with the help of other vassals), vassals can claim that they should be getting more resources. But, the problem has to be solvable; it has to be a temporary crises, not a permanent state of decay. (One form of pity is claiming to be victimized by another vassal; this mixes blame and pity)
  • Doomsaying: By claiming that there is some threat to the kingdom (such as wolves), vassals can claim that they should be getting resources in order to fight this threat. Again, the threat has to be solvable; the king has little reason to give someone more resources if there is, indeed, nothing to do about the threat.

Pity and doomsaying could be seen as two sides of the same coin: pity claims things are going poorly (but fixably) locally, while doomsaying claims things are going poorly (but fixably) globally. However, all of these strategies are limited to a significant degree by the overall praise coalition, so they don’t get out of hand.

Back to the real world

Let’s relate the parable of the gullible king back to the real world.

  • The king is sometimes an actual person (such as a CEO, as in Moral Mazes, or a philanthropist), but is more often a process distributed among many people that is evaluating which things are good/bad, in a pattern-matching way.
  • Everyone’s a vassal to some degree. People who have more power-through-appearing-good are vassals with more territory, who have more of an interest in maintaining positive impressions.
  • Most (almost all?) coalitions in the real world have aspects of praise coalitions. They’ll praise those in the coalition while denigrating those outside it.
  • Politeness and privacy are, in fact, largely about maintaining impressions (especially positive impressions) through coordinating against the revelation of truth.
  • Maintaining us-vs-them boundaries is characteristic of the political right, while dissolving them (and punishing those trying to set them up) is characteristic of the political left. So, non-totalizing praise coalitions are more characteristic of the right, and total ones that try to assimilate others (such as the one that won in the parable) are more characteristic of the left. (Note, totalizing praise coalitions still denigrate/attack ones that can’t be safely assimilated; see the paradox of tolerance)
  • Coalitions may be fractal, of course.
  • A lot of the distortionary dynamics are subconscious (see: The Elephant in the Brain).

This model raises an important question (with implications for the real world): if you’re a detective in the kingdom of the gullible king who is at least somewhat aware of the reality of the situation and the distortonary dynamics, and you want to fix the situation (or at least reduce harm), what are your options?

The AI Timelines Scam

[epistemic status: that’s just my opinion, man. I have highly suggestive evidence, not deductive proof, for a belief I sincerely hold]

“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”Nasim Taleb

I was talking with a colleague the other day about an AI organization that claims:

  1. AGI is probably coming in the next 20 years.
  2. Many of the reasons we have for believing this are secret.
  3. They’re secret because if we told people about those reasons, they’d learn things that would let them make an AGI even sooner than they would otherwise.

His response was (paraphrasing): “Wow, that’s a really good lie! A lie that can’t be disproven.”

I found this response refreshing, because he immediately jumped to the most likely conclusion.

Near predictions generate more funding

Generally, entrepreneurs who are optimistic about their project get more funding than ones who aren’t. AI is no exception. For a recent example, see the Human Brain Project. The founder, Henry Makram, predicted in 2009 that the project would succeed in simulating a human brain by 2019, and the project was already widely considered a failure by 2013. (See his TED talk, at 14:22)

The Human Brain project got 1.3 billion Euros of funding from the EU.

It’s not hard to see why this is. To justify receiving large amounts of money, the leader must make a claim that the project is actually worth that much. And, AI projects are more impactful if it is, in fact, possible to develop AI soon. So, there is an economic pressure towards inflating estimates of the chance AI will be developed soon.

Fear of an AI gap

The missile gap was a lie by the US Air Force to justify building more nukes, by falsely claiming that the Soviet Union had more nukes than the US.

Similarly, there’s historical precedent for an AI gap lie used to justify more AI development. Fifth Generation Computer Systems was an ambitious 1982 project by the Japanese government (funded for $400 million in 1992, or $730 million in 2019 dollars) to create artificial intelligence through massively parallel logic programming.

The project is widely considered to have failed.  From a 1992 New York Times article:

A bold 10-year effort by Japan to seize the lead in computer technology is fizzling to a close, having failed to meet many of its ambitious goals or to produce technology that Japan’s computer industry wanted.

That attitude is a sharp contrast to the project’s inception, when it spread fear in the United States that the Japanese were going to leapfrog the American computer industry. In response, a group of American companies formed the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, a consortium in Austin, Tex., to cooperate on research. And the Defense Department, in part to meet the Japanese challenge, began a huge long-term program to develop intelligent systems, including tanks that could navigate on their own.

The Fifth Generation effort did not yield the breakthroughs to make machines truly intelligent, something that probably could never have realistically been expected anyway. Yet the project did succeed in developing prototype computers that can perform some reasoning functions at high speeds, in part by employing up to 1,000 processors in parallel. The project also developed basic software to control and program such computers. Experts here said that some of these achievements were technically impressive.

In his opening speech at the conference here, Kazuhiro Fuchi, the director of the Fifth Generation project, made an impassioned defense of his program.

“Ten years ago we faced criticism of being too reckless,” in setting too many ambitious goals, he said, adding, “Now we see criticism from inside and outside the country because we have failed to achieve such grand goals.”

Outsiders, he said, initially exaggerated the aims of the project, with the result that the program now seems to have fallen short of its goals.

Some American computer scientists say privately that some of their colleagues did perhaps overstate the scope and threat of the Fifth Generation project. Why? In order to coax more support from the United States Government for computer science research.

(emphasis mine)

This bears similarity to some conversations on AI risk I’ve been party to in the past few years. The fear is that Others (DeepMind, China, whoever) will develop AGI soon, so We have to develop AGI first in order to make sure it’s safe, because Others won’t make sure it’s safe and We will. Also, We have to discuss AGI strategy in private (and avoid public discussion), so Others don’t get the wrong ideas. (Generally, these claims have little empirical/rational backing to them; they’re based on scary stories, not historically validated threat models)

The claim that others will develop weapons and kill us with them by default implies a moral claim to resources, and a moral claim to be justified in making weapons in response. Such claims, if exaggerated, justify claiming more resources and making more weapons. And they weaken a community’s actual ability to track and respond to real threats (as in The Boy Who Cried Wolf).

How does the AI field treat its critics?

Hubert Dreyfus, probably the most famous historical AI critic, published “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence” in 1965, which argued that the techniques popular at the time were insufficient for AGI. Subsequently, he was shunned by other AI researchers:

The paper “caused an uproar”, according to Pamela McCorduck.  The AI community’s response was derisive and personal.  Seymour Papert dismissed one third of the paper as “gossip” and claimed that every quotation was deliberately taken out of context.  Herbert A. Simon accused Dreyfus of playing “politics” so that he could attach the prestigious RAND name to his ideas. Simon said, “what I resent about this was the RAND name attached to that garbage.”

Dreyfus, who taught at MIT, remembers that his colleagues working in AI “dared not be seen having lunch with me.”  Joseph Weizenbaum, the author of ELIZA, felt his colleagues’ treatment of Dreyfus was unprofessional and childish.  Although he was an outspoken critic of Dreyfus’ positions, he recalls “I became the only member of the AI community to be seen eating lunch with Dreyfus. And I deliberately made it plain that theirs was not the way to treat a human being.”

This makes sense as anti-whistleblower activity: ostracizing, discrediting, or punishing people who break the conspiracy to the public. Does this still happen in the AI field today?

Gary Marcus is a more recent AI researcher and critic. In 2012, he wrote:

Deep learning is important work, with immediate practical applications.

Realistically, deep learning is only part of the larger challenge of building intelligent machines. Such techniques lack ways of representing causal relationships (such as between diseases and their symptoms), and are likely to face challenges in acquiring abstract ideas like “sibling” or “identical to.” They have no obvious ways of performing logical inferences, and they are also still a long way from integrating abstract knowledge, such as information about what objects are, what they are for, and how they are typically used. The most powerful A.I. systems … use techniques like deep learning as just one element in a very complicated ensemble of techniques, ranging from the statistical technique of Bayesian inference to deductive reasoning.

In 2018, he tweeted an article in which Yoshua Bengio (a deep learning pioneer) seemed to agree with these previous opinions. This tweet received a number of mostly-critical replies. Here’s one, by AI professor Zachary Lipton:

There’s a couple problems with this whole line of attack. 1) Saying it louder ≠ saying it first. You can’t claim credit for differentiating between reasoning and pattern recognition. 2) Saying X doesn’t solve Y is pretty easy. But where are your concrete solutions for Y?

The first criticism is essentially a claim that everybody knows that deep learning can’t do reasoning. But, this is essentially admitting that Marcus is correct, while still criticizing him for saying it [ED NOTE: the phrasing of this sentence is off (Lipton publicly agrees with Marcus on this point), and there is more context, see Lipton’s reply].

The second is a claim that Marcus shouldn’t criticize if he doesn’t have a solution in hand. This policy deterministically results in the short AI timelines narrative being maintained: to criticize the current narrative, you must present your own solution, which constitutes another narrative for why AI might come soon.

Deep learning pioneer Yann LeCun’s response is similar:

Yoshua (and I, and others) have been saying this for a long time.
The difference with you is that we are actually trying to do something about it, not criticize people who don’t.

Again, the criticism is not that Marcus is wrong in saying deep learning can’t do certain forms of reasoning, the criticism is that he isn’t presenting an alternative solution. (Of course, the claim could be correct even if Marcus doesn’t have an alternative!)

Apparently, it’s considered bad practice in AI to criticize a proposal for making AGI without presenting on alternative solution. Clearly, such a policy causes large distortions!

Here’s another response, by Steven Hansen (a research scientist at DeepMind):

Ideally, you’d be saying this through NeurIPS submissions rather than New Yorker articles. A lot of the push-back you’re getting right now is due to the perception that you haven’t been using the appropriate channels to influence the field.

That is: to criticize the field, you should go through the field, not through the press. This is standard guild behavior. In the words of Adam Smith: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

(Also see Marcus’s medium article on the Twitter thread, and on the limitations of deep learning)

[ED NOTE: I’m not saying these critics on Twitter are publicly promoting short AI timelines narratives (in fact, some are promoting the opposite), I’m saying that the norms by which they criticize Marcus result in short AI timelines narratives being maintained.]

Why model sociopolitical dynamics?

This post has focused on sociopolotical phenomena involved in the short AI timelines phenomenon. For this, I anticipate criticism along the lines of “why not just model the technical arguments, rather than the credibility of the people involved?” To which I pre-emptively reply:

  • No one can model the technical arguments in isolation. Basic facts, such as the accuracy of technical papers on AI, or the filtering processes determining what you read and what you don’t, depend on sociopolitical phenomena. This is far more true for people who don’t themselves have AI expertise.
  • “When AGI will be developed” isn’t just a technical question. It depends on what people actually choose to do (and what groups of people actually succeed in accomplishing), not just what can be done in theory. And so basic questions like “how good is the epistemology of the AI field about AI timelines?” matter directly.
  • The sociopolitical phenomena are actively making technical discussion harder. I’ve had a well-reputed person in the AI risk space discourage me from writing publicly about the technical arguments, on the basis that getting people to think through them might accelerate AI timelines (yes, really).

Which is not to say that modeling such technical arguments is not important for forecasting AGI. I certainly could have written a post evaluating such arguments, and I decided to write this post instead, in part because I don’t have much to say on this issue that Gary Marcus hasn’t already said. (Of course, I’d have written a substantially different post, or none at all, if I believed the technical arguments that AGI is likely to come soon had merit to them)

What I’m not saying

I’m not saying:

  1. That deep learning isn’t a major AI advance.
  2. That deep learning won’t substantially change the world in the next 20 years (through narrow AI).
  3. That I’m certain that AGI isn’t coming in the next 20 years.
  4. That AGI isn’t existentially important on long timescales.
  5. That it isn’t possible that some AI researchers have asymmetric information indicating that AGI is coming in the next 20 years. (Unlikely, but possible)
  6. That people who have technical expertise shouldn’t be evaluating technical arguments on their merits.
  7. That most of what’s going on is people consciously lying. (Rather, covert deception hidden from conscious attention (e.g. motivated reasoning) is pervasive; see The Elephant in the Brain)
  8. That many people aren’t sincerely confused on the issue.

I’m saying that there are systematic sociopolitical phenomena that cause distortions in AI estimates, especially towards shorter timelines. I’m saying that people are being duped into believing a lie. And at the point where 73% of tech executives say they believe AGI will be developed in the next 10 years, it’s a major one.

This has happened before. And, in all likelihood, this will happen again.

Self-consciousness wants to make everything about itself

Here’s a pattern that shows up again and again in discourse:

A: This thing that’s happening is bad.

B: Are you saying I’m a bad person for participating in this? How mean of you! I’m not a bad person, I’ve done X, Y, and Z!

It isn’t always this explicit; I’ll discuss more concrete instances in order to clarify. The important thing to realize is that A is pointing at a concrete problem (and likely one that is concretely affecting them), and B is changing the subject to be about B’s own self-consciousness. Self-consciousness wants to make everything about itself; when some topic is being discussed that has implications related to people’s self-images, the conversation frequently gets redirected to be about these self-images, rather than the concrete issue. Thus, problems don’t get discussed or solved; everything is redirected to being about maintaining people’s self-images.

Tone arguments

A tone argument criticizes an argument not for being incorrect, but for having the wrong tone. Common phrases used in tone arguments are: “More people would listen to you if…”, “you should try being more polite”, etc.

It’s clear why tone arguments are epistemically invalid. If someone says X, then X’s truth value is independent of their tone, so talking about their tone is changing the subject. (Now, if someone is saying X in a way that breaks epistemic discourse norms, then defending such norms is epistemically sensible; however, tone arguments aren’t about epistemic norms, they’re about people’s feelings).

Tone arguments are about people protecting their self-images when they or a group they are part of (or a person/group they sympathize with) is criticized. When a tone argument is made, the conversation is no longer about the original topic, it’s about how talking about the topic in certain ways makes people feel ashamed/guilty. Tone arguments are a key way self-consciousness makes everything about itself.

Tone arguments are practically always in bad faith. They aren’t made by people trying to help an idea be transmitted to and internalized by more others. They’re made by people who want their self-images to be protected. Protecting one’s self-image from the truth, by re-directing attention away from the epistemic object level, is acting in bad faith.

Self-consciousness in social justice

A documented phenomenon in social justice is “white women’s tears”. Here’s a case study (emphasis mine):

A group of student affairs professionals were in a meeting to discuss retention and wellness issues pertaining to a specific racial community on our campus. As the dialogue progressed, Anita, a woman of color, raised a concern about the lack of support and commitment to this community from Office X (including lack of measurable diversity training, representation of the community in question within the staff of Office X, etc.), which caused Susan from Office X, a White woman, to feel uncomfortable. Although Anita reassured Susan that her comments were not directed at her personally, Susan began to cry while responding that she “felt attacked”. Susan further added that: she donated her time and efforts to this community, and even served on a local non-profit organization board that worked with this community; she understood discrimination because her family had people of different backgrounds and her closest friends were members of this community; she was committed to diversity as she did diversity training within her office; and the office did not have enough funding for this community’s needs at that time.

Upon seeing this reaction, Anita was confused because although her tone of voice had been firm, she was not angry. From Anita’s perspective, the group had come together to address how the student community’s needs could be met, which partially meant pointing out current gaps where increased services were necessary. Anita was very clear that she was critiquing Susan’s office and not Susan, as Susan could not possibly be solely responsible for the decisions of her office.

The conversation of the group shifted at the point when Susan started to cry. From that moment, the group did not discuss the actual issue of the student community. Rather, they spent the duration of the meeting consoling Susan, reassuring her that she was not at fault. Susan calmed down, and publicly thanked Anita for her willingness to be direct, and complimented her passion. Later that day, Anita was reprimanded for her ‘angry tone,’ as she discovered that Susan complained about her “behavior” to both her own supervisor as well as Anita’s supervisor. Anita was left confused by the mixed messages she received with Susan’s compliment, and Susan’s subsequent complaint regarding her.

The key relevance of this case study is that, while the conversation was originally about the issue of student community needs, it became about Susan’s self-image. Susan made everything about her own self-image, ensuring that the actual concrete issue (that her office was not supporting the racial community) was not discussed or solved.

Shooting the messenger

In addition to crying, Susan also shot the messenger, by complaining about Anita to both her and Anita’s supervisors. This makes sense as ego-protective behavior: if she wants to maintain a certain self-image, she wants to discourage being presented with information that challenges it, and also wants to “one-up” the person who challenged her self-image, by harming that person’s image (so Anita does not end up looking better than Susan does).

Shooting the messenger is an ancient tactic, deployed especially by powerful people to silence providers of information that challenges their self-image. Shooting the messenger is asking to be lied to, using force. Obviously, if the powerful person actually wants information, this tactic is counterproductive, hence the standard advice to not shoot the messenger.

Self-consciousness as privilege defense

It’s notable that, in the cases discussed so far, self-consciousness is more often a behavior of the privileged and powerful, rather than the disprivileged and powerless. This, of course, isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but there certainly seems to be a relation. Why is that?

Part of this is that the less-privileged often can’t get away with redirecting conversations by making everything about their self-image. People’s sympathies are more often with the privileged.

Another aspect is that privilege is largely about being rewarded for one’s identity, rather than one’s works. If you have no privilege, you have to actually do something concretely effective to be rewarded, like cleaning. Whereas, privileged people, almost by definition, get rewarded “for no reason” other than their identity.

Maintenance of a self-image makes less sense as an individual behavior than as a collective behavior. The phenomenon of bullshit jobs implies that much of the “economy” is performative, rather than about value-creation. While almost everyone can pretend to work, some people are better at it than others. The best people at such pretending are those who look the part, and who maintain the act. That is: privileged people who maintain their self-images, and who tie their self-images to their collective, as Susan did. (And, to the extent that e.g. school “prepares people for real workplaces”, it trains such behavior.)

Redirection away from the object level isn’t merely about defending self-image; it has the effect of causing issues not to be discussed, and problems not to be solved. Such effects maintain the local power system. And so, power systems encourage people to tie their self-images with the power system, resulting in self-consciousness acting as a defense of the power system.

Note that, while less-privileged people do often respond negatively to criticism from more-privileged people, such responses are more likely to be based in fear/anger rather than guilt/shame.

Stop trying to be a good person

At the root of this issue is the desire to maintain a narrative of being a “good person”. Susan responded to the criticism of her office by listing out reasons why she was a “good person” who was against racial discrimination.

While Anita wasn’t actually accusing Susan of racist behavior, it is, empirically, likely that some of Susan’s behavior is racist, as implicit racism is pervasive (and, indeed, Susan silenced a woman of color speaking on race). Susan’s implicit belief is that there is such a thing as “not being racist”, and that one gets there by passing some threshold of being nice to marginalized racial groups. But, since racism is a structural issue, it’s quite hard to actually stop participating in racism, without going and living in the woods somewhere. In societies with structural racism, ethical behavior requires skillfully and consciously reducing harm given the fact that one is a participant in racism, rather than washing one’s hands of the problem.

What if it isn’t actually possible to be “not racist” or otherwise “a good person”, at least on short timescales? What if almost every person’s behavior is morally depraved a lot of the time (according to their standards of what behavior makes someone a “good person”)? What if there are bad things that are your fault? What would be the right thing to do, then?

Calvinism has a theological doctrine of total depravity, according to which every person is utterly unable to stop committing evil, to obey God, or to accept salvation when it is offered. While I am not a Calvinist, I appreciate this teaching, because quite a lot of human behavior is simultaneously unethical and hard to stop, and because accepting this can get people to stop chasing the ideal of being a “good person”.

If you accept that you are irredeemably evil (with respect to your current idea of a good person), then there is no use in feeling self-conscious or in blocking information coming to you that implies your behavior is harmful. The only thing left to do is to steer in the right direction: make things around you better instead of worse, based on your intrinsically motivating discernment of what is better/worse. Don’t try to be a good person, just try to make nicer things happen. And get more foresight, perspective, and cooperation as you go, so you can participate in steering bigger things on longer timescales using more information.

Paradoxically, in accepting that one is irredeemably evil, one can start accepting information and steering in the right direction, thus developing merit, and becoming a better person, though still not “good” in the original sense. (This, I know from personal experience)

(See also: What’s your type: Identity and its Discontents; Blame games; Bad intent is a disposition, not a feeling)

Writing children’s picture books

Here’s an exercise for explaining and refining your opinions about some domain, X:

Imagine writing a 10-20 page children’s picture book about topic X. Be fully honest and don’t hide things (assume the child can handle being told the truth, including being told non-standard or controversial facts).

Here’s a dialogue, meant to illustrate how this could work:

A: What do you think about global warming?

B: Uhh…. I don’t know, it seems real?

A: How would you write a 10-20 page children’s picture book about global warming?

B: Oh, I’d have a diagram showing carbon dioxide exiting factories and cars, floating up in the atmosphere, and staying there. Then I’d have a picture of sunlight coming through the atmosphere, bounding off the earth, then going back up, but getting blocked by the carbon dioxide, so it goes back to the earth and warms up the earth a second time. Oh, wait, if the carbon dioxide prevents the sunlight from bouncing from the earth to the sky, wouldn’t it also prevent the sunlight from entering the atmosphere in the first place? Oh, I should look that up later [NOTE: the answer is that CO2 blocks thermal radiation much more than it blocks sunlight].

Anyway, after that I’d have some diagrams showing global average temperature versus global CO2 level that show how the average temperature is tracking CO2 concentration, with some lag time. Then I’d have some quotes about scientists and information about the results of surveys. I’d show a graph showing how much the temperature would increase under different conditions… I think I’ve heard that, with substantial mitigation effort, the temperature difference might be 2 degrees Celsius from now until the end of the century [NOTE: it’s actually 2 degrees from pre-industrial times till the end of the century, which is about 1 degree from now]. And I’d want to show what 2 degrees Celsius means, in terms of, say, a fraction of the difference between winter and summer.

I’d also want to explain the issue of sea level rise, by showing a diagram of a glacier melting. Ice floats, so if the glacier is free-floating, then it melting doesn’t cause a sea level rise (there’s some scientific principle that says this, I don’t remember what it’s called), but if the glacier is on land, then when it melts, it causes the sea level to rise. I’d also want to show a map of the areas that would get flooded. I think some locations, like much of Florida, get flooded, so the map should show that, and there should also be a pie chart showing how much of the current population would end up underwater if they didn’t move (my current guess is that it’s between 1 percent and 10 percent, but I could be pretty wrong about this [NOTE: the answer is 30 to 80 million people, which is between about 0.4% and 1.1%]).

I’d also want to talk about possible mitigation efforts. Obviously, it’s possible to reduce energy consumption (and also meat consumption, because cows produce methane which is also a greenhouse gas). So I’d want to show a chart of which things produce the most greenhouse gases (I think airplane flights and beef are especially bad), and showing the relationship between possible reductions in that and the temperature change.

Also, trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere, so preserving forests is a way to prevent global warming. I’m confused about where the CO2 goes, exactly, since there’s some cycle it goes through in the forest; does it end up underground? I’d have to look this up.

I’d also want to talk about the political issues, especially the disinformation in the space. There’s a dynamic where companies that pollute want to deny that man-made global warming is a real, serious problem, so there won’t be regulations. So, they put out disinformation on television, and they lobby politicians. Sometimes, in the discourse, people go from saying that global warming isn’t real, to saying it’s real but not man-made, to saying it’s real and man-made but it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s a clear example of motivated cognition. I’d want to explain how this is trying to deny that any changes should be made, and speculate about why people might want to, such as because they don’t trust the process that causes changes (such as the government) to do the right thing.

And I’d also want to talk about geoengineering. There are a few proposals I know of. One is to put some kind of sulfer-related chemical in the atmosphere, to block out sunlight. This doesn’t solve ocean acidification, but it does reduce the temperature. But, it’s risky, because if you stop putting the chemical in the atmosphere, then that causes a huge temperature swing.

I also know it’s possible to put iron in the ocean, which causes a plankton bloom, which… does something to capture CO2 and store it in the bottom of the ocean? I’m really not sure how this works, I’d want to look it up before writing this section.

There’s also the proposal of growing and burning trees, and capturing and storing the carbon. When I looked this up before, I saw that this takes quite a lot of land, and anyway there’s a lot of labor involved, but maybe some if it can be automated.

There are also political issues with geoengineering. There are people who don’t trust the process of doing geoengineering to make things better instead of worse, because they expect that people’s attempts to reason about it will make lots of mistakes (or people will have motivated cognition and deceive themselves and each other), and then the resulting technical models will make things that don’t work. But, the geoengineering proposals don’t seem harder than things that humans have done in the past using technical knowledge, like rockets, so I don’t agree that this is such a big problem.

Furthermore, some people want to shut down discussion of geoengineering, because such discussion would make it harder to morally pressure people into reducing carbon emissions. I don’t know how to see this as anything other than an adversarial action against reasonable discourse, but I’m sure there is some motivation at play here. Perhaps it’s a motivation to have everyone come together as one, all helping together, in a hippie-ish way. I’m not sure if I’m right here, I’d want to read something written by one of these people before making any strong judgments.

Anyway, that’s how I’d write a picture book about global warming.

So, I just wrote that dialogue right now, without doing any additional research. It turns out that I do have quite a lot of opinions about global warming, and am also importantly uncertain in some places, some of which I just now became aware of. But I’m not likely to produce these opinions if asked “what do you think about global warming?”

Why does this technique work? I think it’s because, if asked for one’s opinions in front of an adult audience, it’s assumed that there is a background understanding of the issue, and you have to say something new, and what you decide to say says something about you. Whereas, if you’re explaining to a child, then you know they lack most of the background understanding, and so it’s obviously good to explain that.

With adults, it’s assumed there are things that people act like “everyone knows”, where it might be considered annoying to restate them, since it’s kind of like talking down to them. Whereas, the illusion or reality that “everyone knows” is broken when explaining to children.

The countervailing force is that people are tempted to lie to children. Of course, it’s necessary to not lie to children to do the exercise right, and also to raise or help raise children who don’t end up in an illusory world of confusion and dread. I would hope that someone who has tendencies to hide things from children would at least be able to notice and confront these tendencies in the process of imagining writing children’s picture books.

I think this technique can be turned into a generalized process for making world models. If someone wrote a new sketch of a children’s picture book (about a new topic) every day, and did the relevant research when they got stuck somewhere, wouldn’t they end up with a good understanding of both the world and of their own models of the world after a year? It’s also a great starting point from which to compare your opinions to others’ opinions, or to figure out how to explain things to either children or adults.

Anyway, I haven’t done this exercise for very many topics yet, but I plan on writing more of these.

Occamian conjecturalism: we posit structures of reality

Here’s my current explicit theory of ontology and meta-epistemology. I haven’t looked into the philosophical literature that much, but this view has similarities to both conjectural realism and to minimum description length.

I use “entity” to mean some piece of data in the mind, similar to an object in an object-oriented programming language. They’re the basic objects perception and models are made of.

Humans start with primitive entities, which include low-level physical percepts, and perhaps other things, though I’m not sure.

We posit entities to explain other entities, using Occam/probability rules; some entities are rules about how entities predict/explain other entities. Occam says to posit few entities to explain many.
Probability says explanations may be stochastic (e.g. dogs are white with 30% probability). See minimum description length for more on how Occam and probability interact.

High-level percepts get posited to explain low-level percepts, e.g. a color splotch gets posited to explain all the individual colored points that are close to each other. A line gets posited to explain a bunch of individual colored points that are in, well, a line.

Persistent objects are posited (object permanence) to explain regularities in high-level percepts over spacetime. Object-types get posited to explain similarities between different objects.

Generalities (e.g. “that swans are white”) get posited to explain regularities between different objects. Generalities may be stochastic (coins turn up heads half the time when flipped). It’s hard to disentangle generalities from types themselves (is being white a generality about swans, or a defining feature?). Logical universals (such as modus ponens) are generalities.

Some generalities are causal relations, e.g. that striking a match causes a flame. Causal relations explain “future” events from “past” events, in a directed acyclic graph structure.

So far, the picture is egocentric, in that percepts are taken to be basic. If I adopt a percept-based ontology, I will believe that the world moves around me as I walk, rather than believing that I move through the world. Things are addressed in coordinates relative to my position, not relative to the ground. (This is easy to see if you pay attention to your visual field while walking around)

Whence objectivity? As I walk, most of those things around me “don’t move” if I posit that the ground is stable, as they have the same velocity as the ground. So by positing the ground is still while I move, I posit fewer motions. While I could in theory continue using an egocentric reference frame and posit laws of motion to explain why the world moves around me, this ends up more complicated and epicyclical than simply positing that the ground is still while I move. Objectivity-in-general is a result of these shifts in reference frame, where things are addressed relative to some common ground rather than egocentrically.

Objectivity implies theory of mind, in that I take my mental phenomena to be “properties of me-the-person” rather than “the mental phenomena that are apparent”, as an egocentric reference frame would take them to be. I posit other minds like my own, which is a natural result of the generalization that human bodies are inhabited by minds. Empathy is the connection I effectively posit between my own mental phenomena and others’ through this generalization.

An ontology shift happens when we start positing different types of entities than we did previously. We may go from thinking in terms of color splotches to thinking in terms of objects, or from thinking in terms of chemical essences to thinking in terms of molecules. Each step is justified by the Occam/probability rules; the new ontology must make the overall structure simpler.

Language consists of words, which are themselves entities that explain lower-level percepts (phonemes, dots of ink on paper, etc). Children learning language find that these entities are correlated with the reality they have already posited. (This is clear in the naive case, where teachers simply use language to honestly describe reality, but correlation is still present when language use is dishonest). The combination of objectivity and language has the result of standardizing a subset of ontology between different speakers, though nonverbal ontology continues to exist.

Mathematical entities (e.g. numbers) are posited to explain regularities in entities, such as the regularity between “two things over here” and “two things over there”, and between linguistic entities such as the word “two” and the actual “two things over here”. Mathematical generalizations are posited to explain mathematical entities.

Fictional worlds are posited to explain fictional media. We, in some sense, assume that a fiction book is an actual description of some world. Unlike with nonfiction media, we don’t expect this world to be the same as the one we move through in everyday life; it isn’t the actual world. Reality is distinguished from fantasy by their differing correlational structures.

If everything but primitive entities is posited, in what sense are these things “ultimately real”? There is no notion of “ultimately real” outside the positing structure. We may distinguish reality from fantasy within the structure, as the previous paragraph indicates. We may also distinguish illusion from substance, as we expect substance but not illusion to generate concordant observations upon being viewed differently. We may distinguish persistent ontology (which stays the same as we get more data) from non-persistent ontology (which changes as we get more data). And we may distinguish primitive entities from posited ones. But, there doesn’t seem to be a notion of ultimate reality beyond these particular distinctions and ones like them. I think this is a feature, not a bug. However, it’s at least plausible that when I learn more, my ontology will stabilize to the point where I have a natural sense of ultimate reality.

What does it mean for propositions to be true or false? A proposition is some sentence (an entity) corresponding to a predicate on worlds; it is true if and only if the predicate is true of the world. For example, “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. This is basically a correspondence theory, where we may speak of correspondences between the (already-ontologized) territory and ontological representations of it.

But, what about ontological uncertainty? It’s hard to say whether an ontology, such as the ontology of objects, is “true” or “false”. We may speak of it “fitting the territory well” or “fitting the territory badly”, which is not the same thing as “true” or “false” in a propositional sense. If we expect our ontologies to shift in the future (and I expect mine to shift), then, from the perspective of our new ontology, our current ontology will be false, the way Newtonian mechanics is false. However, we don’t have access to this hypothetical future ontology yet, so we can’t use it to judge our current ontology as false; the judgment that the original ontology is false comes along with a new worldview, which we don’t have yet. What we can say is whether or not we expect our reasoning processes to produce ontology shifts when exposed to future data.

May non-falsifiable entities be posited? Yes, if they explain more than they posit. Absent ability to gain more historical data, many historical events are non-falsifiable. Still, positing such an event explains the data (e.g. artifacts supposedly left at the site of the event) better than alternatives (e.g. positing that the writing was produced by people who happened to have the same delusion). So, entities need not be falsifiable in general, although ones that are completely unrelated to any observational consequences will never be posited in the first place.

Is reality out there, or is it all in our heads? External objects are out there; they aren’t in your brain, or they would be damaging your brain tissue. Yet, our representations of such objects are in our heads. Objects differ from our representations of them; they’re in different places, are different sizes, and are shaped differently. When I speak of posited structures, I speak of representations, not the objects themselves, although our posited structures constitute our sense of all that is.

Reductionism and physicalism

But isn’t reality made of atoms (barring quantum mechanics), not objects? We posit atoms to explain objects and their features. Superficially, positing so many atoms violates Occamian principles, but this is not an issue in probabilistic epistemologies, where we may (implicitly) sum over many possible atomic configurations. The brain doesn’t actually do such a sum; in practice we rarely posit particular atoms, and instead posit generalities about atoms and their relation to other entities (such as chemical types). Objects still exist in our ontologies, and are explained by atoms. Atoms explain, but do not explain away, objects.

But couldn’t you get all the observations you’re using objects to explain using atoms? Perhaps an AI can do this, but a human can’t. Humans continue to posit objects upon learning about atoms. The ontology shift to believing in only-atoms would be computationally intractable.

But doesn’t that mean the ultimate reality is atoms, not objects? “Ultimate reality” is hard to define, as explained previously. Plausibly, I would believe in atoms and not believe in objects if I thought much faster than I actually do. This would make objects a non-persistent ontology, as opposed to the more-persistent atomic ontology. However, this conterfactual is strange, as it assumes my brain is larger than the rest of the universe. Even then, I would be unable to model my brain as atomic. So it seems that, as an epistemic fact, atoms aren’t all there are; I would never shift to an atom-only ontology, no matter how big my brain was.

But isn’t this confusing the territory and the best map of the territory? As explained previously, our representations are not the territory. Our sense of the territory itself (not just of our map of it) contains objects, or, to drop the quotation, the territory itself contains objects. (Why drop the quotation? I’m describing my sense of the territory to you; there is nothing else I could proximately describe, other than my sense of the territory; in reaching for the territory itself, I proximately find my sense of it)

This discussion is going towards the idea of supervenience, which is that high-level phenomena (such as objects) are entirely determined by low-level phenomena (such as atoms). Supervenience is a generality that relates high-level phenomena to low-level ones. Importantly, supervenience is non-referential (and thus vacuous) if there are no high-level phenomena.

If all supervenes on atoms, then there are high-level phenomena (such as objects), not just atoms. Positing supervenience yields all the effective predictions that physicalism could yield (in our actual brains, not in theoretical super-AIs). Supervenience may imply physicalism, depending on the definition of physicalism, but it doesn’t imply that atoms are the only entities.

Supervenience leaves open a degree of freedom, namely, the function mapping low-level phenomena to high-level phenomena. In the case of consciousness as the high-level phenomenon, this function will, among other things, resolve indexical/anthropic uncertainty (which person are the experiences I see happening to?) and uncertainty about the hard problem of consciousness (which physical structures are conscious, and of what?).

Doesn’t this imply that p-zombies are conceivable? We may distinguish “broad” notions of conceivability, under which just about any posited structure is conceivable (and under which p-zombies are conceivable), and “narrow” notions, where the structure must satisfy certain generalities, such as logic and symmetry. Adding p-zombies to the posited structure might break important general relations we expect will hold, such as logic, symmetry of function from physical structure to mental structure, or realization-independence. I’m not going to resolve the zombie argument in this particular post, but will conclude that it is at least not clear that zombies are conceivable in the narrow sense.


This is my current best simple, coherent view of ontology and meta-epistemology. If I were to give it a name, it would be “Occamian conjecturalism”, but it’s possible it has already been named. I’m interested in criticism of this view, or other thoughts on it.

Conditional revealed preference

There’s a pretty common analysis of human behavior that goes something like this:

“People claim that they want X. However, their actions are optimizing towards Y instead of X. If they really cared about X, they would do something else instead. Therefore, they actually want Y, and not X.”

This is revealed preference analysis. It’s quite useful, in that if people’s actions are effectively optimizing for Y and not X, then an agent-based model of the system will produce better predictions by predicting that people want Y and not X.

So, revealed preference analysis is great for analyzing a multi-agent system in equilibrium. However, it often has trouble predicting what would happen when a major change happens to the system.

As an example, consider a conclusion Robin Hanson gives on school:

School isn’t about learning “material,” school is about learning to accept workplace domination and ranking, and tolerating long hours of doing boring stuff exactly when and how you are told.

(note that I don’t think Hanson is claiming things about what people “really want” in this particular post, although he does make such claims in other writing)

Hanson correctly infers from the fact that most schools are highly authoritarian that school is effectively “about” learning to accept authoritarian work environments. We could make “about” more specific: the agents who determine what happens in schools (administrators, teachers, voters, parents, politicians, government employees) are currently taking actions that cause schools to be authoritarian, in a coordinated fashion, with few people visibly resisting this optimization.

This revealed preference analysis is highly useful. However, it leaves degrees of freedom open in what the agents terminally want. These degrees of freedom matter when predicting how those agents will act under different circumstances (their conditional revealed preferences). For example:

  • Perhaps many of the relevant agents actually do want schools to help children learn, but were lied to about what forms of school are effective for learning. This would predict that, upon receiving credible evidence that free schools are more effective for learning while being less authoritarian, they would support free schools instead.
  • Perhaps many of the relevant agents want school to be about learning, but find themselves in a grim trigger equilibrium where they expect to get punished for speaking out about the actual nature of school, and also to be punished for not punishing those who speak out. This would predict that, upon seeing enough examples of people speaking out and not being punished, they would join the new movement.
  • Perhaps many of the relevant agents have very poor world models of their own, and must therefore navigate according to imitation and to “official reality” narratives, which constrain them to acting as if school is for learning. This would predict that, upon gaining much more information about the world and gaining experience in navigating it according to their models (rather than the official narratives), they would favor free schools over authoritarian schools.

It’s hard to tell which if these hypotheses (or other hypotheses) are true given only information about how people act in the current equilibrium. These hypotheses make conditional and counterfactual predictions: they predict what people would do, given different circumstances than their current ones.

This is not to say that people’s stories about what they want are to be taken at face value; the gold standard for determining what people want is not what they say, but what they actually optimize for under various circumstances, including ones substantially different from present ones. (Obviously, their words can be evidence about their counterfactual actions, to the extent that they are imaginative and honest about the counterfactual scenarios)

To conclude, I suggest the following heuristics:

  • In analyzing an equilibrium, look mainly at what people actually optimize for with their actions, not what they say they’re optimizing for.
  • In guessing what they “really want”, additionally imagine their actions in alternative scenarios where they e.g. have more information and more ability to coordinate with those who have similar opinions.
  • Actually find data about these alternative scenarios, by e.g. actually informing people, or finding people who were informed and seeing how their actions changed.