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Posts Tagged ‘rationalism’

I think the normal way we think about lying is all wrong.

Here’s a thought experiment (paraphrased from memory) that I’ve heard Penn Jillette describe: A man’s wife comes to him and says: “Look, you’ve been really distant lately, and it feels like there’s something going on. You say you’ve been staying late at work every other night, but I’ve called your office and they said you weren’t there. You’ve been cagey about letting me look at your phone, like you’re worried about messages I might see, and also other examples of suspicious behaviour. I don’t know what’s going on, but I want you to look me in the eye and tell me: Are you seeing another woman?”

The man answers no.

The truth is that he’s cheating on his wife with another man.

Did he lie to her?

By a common interpretation of “lying”, the answer has to be that technically, no, he answered her question truthfully. But the fact that you need to insert that “technically” qualifier in there, for that to be an answer you’re comfortable with, should be a hint that it’s not an answer that’s good enough. Even if he gave a strictly accurate answer to the precise question posed, that’s less important than that he deliberately led her to a mistaken understanding.

A question like this doesn’t exist in a vacuum, outside of any cultural or interpersonal context. A wife who asks whether her husband is seeing another woman is seeking a clarification of a broad situation, not a single isolated data point.

Penn’s stance is that yes, the guy is lying. He might not actually be seeing another woman, as he was asked, but what she was getting at is clearly a more general issue of his marital fidelity. Hiding a same-sex affair and feeling like you haven’t been dishonest, because it technically doesn’t come under the scope of the exact question posed, is a perversion of the actual purpose of language: to share ideas and understanding, such that everyone involved can acquire a more accurate view of the state of the world.

And personally, I’d go further. I think as soon as he’s even having an affair, in the context of a relationship where fidelity and openness and sexual honesty have been agreed, the lie is already present. If you fail to mention something which would undermine a person’s implicit assumptions, when you know those assumptions are there, and when you’ve been instrumental in letting someone use those assumptions as part of their model of the world, then you’re playing a leading role in their deception.

And that’s a lie, in any meaningful, important sense. Saying you “haven’t lied” sounds like it means you’ve been honest and truthful. But if the guy in the above conversation is being honest and truthful, then our vocabulary for dealing with these things is badly letting us down.

This is why I’m not persuaded by the idea that words like “deception” already describe the kinds of misleading behaviour and omissions that I’m expecting “lie” to cover. Lying gets so much more press than implicit deception by cunning and deceitful wordplay. It’s a nice short word, easily and commonly used, and as such it seems to have largely become the yardstick for what meaningful deception is. But restricting its definition in such a sharply demarcated way tricks us into thinking that there must be some substantial, absolute difference between what does and doesn’t count as a lie.

If you haven’t technically lied then, according to the way we often talk about lying, whatever deception might actually have taken place was probably just some relatively minor, trivial, pernickety business. Which is often bullshit.

The guy in my example is cheating on his wife in every meaningful sense that she’s interested in. When confronted with her suspicion and her justified reasons for it, he doesn’t volunteer facts which would absolutely be relevant to her interests, he hides the information she’s seeking entirely for reasons of self-preservation, and he answers precisely within the technical limits of her spoken question – and he probably feels like he’s got away with it without lying. He probably feels in some way relieved about not compounding his guilt with a lie, in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to if she’d phrased her question slightly differently, as “Are you seeing someone else?”.

In that case, perhaps he would have given the same answer, in which case he technically “lied” in a way he didn’t above. But the difference between the two situations is totally unimportant. The phrasing of her question doesn’t make the deceitful nature of his answer and his actions any more or less morally wrong. Or perhaps he might have felt compelled to answer differently; maybe if he were confronted with a direct question like that, he’d feel compelled to answer “honestly”, and ‘fess up. In which case his moral compass rests on such a dumbass set of foundations I don’t even know where to start.

As is often the case, this comes back to the Less Wrong sequences for me, specifically this one, which may be the one area of the rationalist community which has most strongly and noticeably influenced my day-to-day thinking. The map is not the territory; whether or not some given statement of fact can be called “a lie” is not some concrete feature of reality. Words are a means for humans to provide each other with a more accurate mental conception of some feature of the universe. Deliberately steering someone anyway from that more accurate conception – whether through false statements, silence, or “technically true” assertions – should be called what it is.

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This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

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One thing I’ve been doing, in all that not-blogging time you may have noticed recently, is becoming something of a Scott Alexander fan-boy. So here’s a bunch of things he’s written which I’ve enjoyed and would recommend reading, which I made brief notes on at the time but which in practice I’m unlikely to write about myself at much length.

1. I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

Putting this one up front because it’s possibly the most important and worth reading. It’s long. Read it all.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

3. Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor

4. Fifty Swifties

If you’re not familiar with the format, Tom Swifties are pretty straight-forward, and can be fantastically pleasing when well crafted. I’d particularly like to draw your attention to: “Satan is the original source of evil,” Tom said urbanely.

My own contribution: “I used to go out with that girl with a balloon stuck to her hair,” Tom said ecstatically.

5. Radicalizing The Romanceless

Pull-quote: “As usual with gender issues, this can be best explained through a story from ancient Chinese military history.”

This one’s really interesting, and the sort of thing I could burble for a few thousand words about myself, covering most of the same ground but with different emphases and disclaimers added, in part to make sure I’m also not inadvertently signalling allegiance with the manosphere, or whatever.

One thing to note is that I don’t think I do envy Henry what he has, in terms of emotional relationships. He might “get women” for a certain meaning of the phrase, but not in any way I’m interested in replicating. When I was single, I wouldn’t have envied him in the way that someone who works hard for low pay would envy the financial security of the richly rewarded.

But it’s an interesting exploration of the core idea: expressing frustration at your basic human animal needs not being met is totally okay when it comes to earning enough money to look after yourself, but completely unacceptable when it comes to engaging in human social interaction and sexual congress. Hard work is good and noble, but we’ll understand and be sympathetic if you’re just in it for the paycheck – whereas yearning for more of a human connection, or simply being horny and wanting to get laid, is treated as shameful, and not granted much serious consideration as to how much of a basic human need our sexuality can be.

There are sensible reasons why these two scenarios might garner differing reactions, of course – the historical societal relationships between men and women and between capitalist employers and workers are in many ways divergent – but not necessarily enough to justify such a split in how we treat people who are lacking in one area of life or the other.

In particular, feeling entitled to this thing from someone else is intolerable in one instance in particular. Which may be related to how things have historically tended to work out when men’s sense of “entitlement” to women hasn’t been stifled and tabooed.

This follow-up from Jai is also especially worth reading.

6. Book Review: Red Plenty, a “semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning”.

It turns out that the concentration of centralised political authority was the not-that-hard-to-identify main problem with Stalinism (or one of them, anyway). I’m still optimistic about eventually orchestrating some way of maximising the benefits of both communist and capitalist systems while minimising the downsides that have tended to come with either in practice, so far.

But it also strikes me that whatever political system ought to work for us – whether it’s some variant on communism, capitalism, or something else – we shouldn’t expect that its fundamental philosophy can be summed up in any single pithy phrase. The history of communism-in-practice might seem like an object lesson in the value of letting people enjoy the direct profits of the work they do, but even that’s not a simple concept, and there’s no reason to suppose anything like this can be summed up simply, in a way that’s unambiguous to everyone. If you start insisting it can, you’re in danger of convincing yourself that your ideological slogan is more important than the real-world practical results of our efforts to organise ourselves efficiently and fairly.

7. The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

8. The Toxoplasma Of Rage

9. Untitled

This is not the first ten-thousand word rant about feminism by Scott Alexander that I’ve read, and so far they’ve all been worth it.

10. Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

The thing about advocating libertarian/anarchist principles, though, is that it tends to be more about living by those principles in your personal life and allowing their beneficial influence to infuse the culture around you and spread that way, than about setting up a small nation-state somewhere to test them out immediately on a huge scale working from scratch.

It’s clear we need some sort of system of working collectively to achieve the things we want to achieve as a society, but whether that system involves a “government” in the sense that anarchists would have no truck with isn’t the most interesting or important point. It’s allowed to be blurry around the edges and not easily summed up. Like I was saying earlier, it’s unlikely that adopting a single unifying idea like the non-aggression principle will make things all fall into place, or that a statement of political philosophy brief enough for an elevator pitch will provide us with any clue how to actually do stuff in the real world. But so long as we’re keeping track of the ideas and not getting too hung up on how to label things, we can always be aiming for utopia, and creating something with more associated benefits and fewer costs than whatever we have now.

11. Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

I mean, I’d suggest that the “spirit in which it’s conceived” is not anything as noble as intellectually curious moral philosophical investigation in the Duck Dynasty guy’s case, but this is still interesting.

12. Against Tulip Subsidies

There’s so much more where all that came from, but those are some of the highlights.

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