Responding to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Overcoming Bias”

This was originally email to Eliezer Yudkowsky about his excellent and thought-provoking blog Overcoming Bias (actually, the links here are to the older newer Less Wrong, which has been re-indexed at Overcoming Bias). Eliezer encouraged me to publish this commentary; I have provided HTML markup and fixed some typos. Warning: the following may be heavy sledding if you are not philosophically literate.

Comments on OB posts up to #252. I’d have done the whole set, but I need to go fight a fire on one of my coding projects.

These are going to sound far more negative about your writing and thinking than I actually am, because I generally won’t need to comment on the majority of stuff I agree on unless I can say something funny or illuminating about it. Often this is not the case.

The Simple Truth is funny, but takes an awful lot of time and effort to work its way around to a position equivalent to the Peircean fallibilist formulation of operationalism. I think you should have chosen a more direct route to avoid fatiguing the reader.

I’ve noticed before, e.g. in your expositions of Bayesian theory that you have a tendency to run too long and beat the point to death. Alas, this is still true of An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem upon rereading. It is formally correct but a pedagogical disaster.

The Twelve Virtues of Rationality was still damn impressive the second time I read it. Possibly your best piece of writing.

In Why truth? And… you overcomplicate the exposition. All the motives you cite can be explained in a simple and unified way: we are truth-seeking animals because we are prediction-seeking animals because we are control-seeking animals because we are goal-seeking animals. Or, to go at it from the other end: we want things, so we seek to control our environment, which we can only do by correctly predicting what it will do if we kick it. The conscious feeling of curiosity and the belief that truth is morally important are just the normal operating noises of our adaptive machinery.

In …What’s a bias, again?, you appear to be missing an important perspective about why we have cognitive biases. Normally, “bias” generally turns out to be an evaluative shortcut that was useful in the environment of ancestral adaptation, but is now misapplied by brains trying to cope with far more complex and varied challenges.

In The Proper Use of Humility you write: “The temptation is always to claim the most points with the least effort. The temptation is to carefully integrate all incoming news in a way that lets us change our beliefs, and above all our actions, as little as possible.” Alas, you are so busy knocking over that bad social-status reasons for belief inertia that you slight a good one: Changing beliefs is not costless, and may commit you to a decision procedure that is too heavyweight to be worth some very marginal gain in utility. Physics example: if I am doing ballistics under conditions normal near the Earth’s surface, it is instrumentally rational for me to believe Newton’s laws rather than Einstein’s.

Here, and elsewhere, I observe in your thinking a kind of predisposition that is common in analytical philosophers. You underweight the degree to which computational costs are a factor in theory formation and selection; more seriously, you also underweight the role of motivation in theory-building. It is not that you are unaware of these factors, it is that you tend to miss predictive hypotheses that lean heavily on them in favor of more elaborate
constructions that are no more predictive.

In Some Claims Are Just Too Extraordinary you write: “What about the claim that 2 + 2 = 5? What about journals that claim to publish replicated reports of ESP?”. Bad move. These claims are epistemically of two very different kinds. You should have omitted the first.

In Inductive Bias, you write: “A more general view of inductive bias would identify it with a Bayesian’s prior over sequences of observations…” Ding! You should be this pithy more often.

In Your Rationality is My Business, you write ‘The syllogism we desire to avoid runs: “I think Susie said a bad thing, therefore, Susie should be set on fire.”‘ Many years ago, I observed an implicit premise in the way many humans reason which I call the “Pressure Principle”. It goes like this: “The truth of the claim ‘I have a duty to do X’ justifies others in using force to coerce me to do X.” I reject this principle. Sometimes, pointing out that it is the implicit ground of an argument can persuade people to reject that argument

In Universal Fire, you write “If a match stops working, so do you. You can’t change just one thing.” Indeed. My favorite example of this isn’t deCamp’s match, but E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “inertialess drive”. Instant death…

In Think Like Reality: “You have the absolutely bizarre idea that reality ought to consist of little billiard balls bopping around, when in fact reality is a perfectly normal cloud of complex amplitude in configuration space. This is your problem, not reality’s, and you are the one who needs to change.” Thanks for that; I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks

Ibid., “Surprise exists in the map, not in the territory.” Yes. Many years ago I published a similar maxim: “Paradoxes only exist in language, not reality.”

The Third Alternative: “The last thing a Santa-ist wants to hear is that praise works better than bribes, or that spaceships can be as inspiring as flying reindeer.” … or that the result of attempting to ‘correct’ market failure with political intervention is almost always a worse failure.

In Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences) you choose an amazingly circuitous and vague way of getting to a conclusion that is as correct as possible while being seriously misleading. The correct answer to the question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is another question: “Why are you asking?” That is: what kind of prediction does your goal-seeking require?

You get the prediction part more or less right, but because your gut instinct is to tend to think of theories as cathedrals motivated only by the desire for Pure Truth (choose one per physical system, perfect correspondence required) you miss the fact that the appropriate microtheory of what “sound” is may differ depending on the goals of the theorizer. Instead, you hare off into a lot of fairly unnecessary pseudo-ontology and a random bash at postmodernism.

Note carefully that I am not arguing subjectivism or some sort of Feyerabendian conceptual anarchism here. The different microtheories of “sound” are commensurable, and can readily be fit into a consilient macrotheory; but any clear account of why we might choose either (an answer to the parable) requires an account of the chooser’s motivation.

In Professing and Cheering. you write “That’s why it mattered to her that what she was saying was beyond ridiculous. If she’d tried to make it sound more plausible, it would have been like putting on clothes.” I found it extremely odd that you did not fully understand what you were seeing, but perhaps that is only because I am a neopagan myself and used to pulling similar maneuvers. Or maybe you have borderline Aspergers or something and are poorly equipped to process some kinds of neurotypical interaction, including this one (that’s my wife Cathy’s guess, and not a hostile one; she rather likes you).

Your lady panelist was performing a mindfuck. The intent of her speech acts was not to persuade anyone that she believed the Norse creation myth, it was to hold up a funhouse mirror to the religious cognitive style. The question her provocation was implicitly posing to the audience is “If you reject this as absurd, on what basis do you maintain your own equally poetic and absurd creation myth?”

I speak from the authority of direct personal experience here, as I have done the same sort of thing for the same reasons in pretty much the same way.

In Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable you write: “Back in the old days, saying the local religion ‘could not be proven’ would have gotten you burned at the stake. This is not true in general. Actually, excepting political special cases like the Roman state cult of the Emperor as Sol Invictus, it is weakly true only of monotheisms and strongly true only of one family of monotheisms descended from or strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism (notably including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Most religions outside this group don’t give a flying crap about the state of your beliefs or “proof” or objective correlatives as long as you maintain ritual cleanliness and do what is socially expected -
religion as attire, in your terms.

In Fake Causality you write about phlogiston as a paradigmatic example. Here’s a story about that:

In 1992 I was an invited speaker at the Institute for Advanced Study. Yes, this was five years before I was famous; what I was doing there was a seminar on advanced Emacsing. My sponsor, the astrophycist Piet Hut, took me around to meet a number of the stellar eminences at the Institute.

One of them was a cosmologist whose name I don’t remember. We chatted for a while – he was doing interesting work on the apparent quantization of red-shift distributions. Then I said to him: “Oh, by the way, I know what dark matter is made from.”

Eying me dubiously, he said “What?”

I said “Phlogiston.”

He damn near fell out of his chair laughing.

I disagree with The Futility of Emergence. There is a semantic difference between saying “Human intelligence is an emergent product of neurons firing” and “Human intelligence is an product of neurons firing.” The word “emergent” is a signal that we believe a very specific thing about the relationship between “neurons firing” and “intelligence”, which is that there is no possible account of intelligence in which the only explanatory units are neurons or subsystems of neurons.

Planning Fallacy is the first post in which you have showed me something (reliable predictive superiority of the “outside view”) that I had no clue about before I read it. Well done.

In Einstein’s Arrogance, you write: “But from a Bayesian perspective, you need an amount of evidence roughly equivalent to the complexity of the hypothesis just to locate the hypothesis in theory-space.” Wow. Now that I think of it, there’s probably a law here: no theory can be confirmed (even in the loose, semi-definite fallibilist sense) by a communication with less Kolmgorov complexity than the theory itself.

In A Priori you wander around the mulberry bush discussing justifications of Occam’s Razor, and inexplicably miss the obvious and simple one: computation has a cost. Whenever we multiply entities beyond necessity. we commit ourselves to a decision procedure that is wasteful and will be outcompeted by actors who spend the resources we waste on solving other problems. You continue to have a very curious blind spot towards analysis like this.

In Do We Believe Everything We’re Told?…sure. I had never actually encountered Spinoza’s account before, but it now seems obvious to me that it must be true. For, how else can we evaluate a proposition other than plugging it into the rest of our prediction generators and running them forward to see if there are inconsistencies? Descartes’s neutral “consider” is a classic mysterious answer to a mysterious question; he never unpacks it.

In Self-Anchoring, you write “We can put our feet in other minds’ shoes, but we keep our own socks on.” It would be astonishing only if this were not true. We solve the other-minds problem by mirroring our own; really, how else could we do it?

In Expecting Short Inferential Distances you replicate part of my own thinking about the EEA basis of cognitive bias.

Beware of Stephen J. Gould. I think it is relevant that Gould seems to have been a believing Marxist who took some pains not to bruit about that fact (the evidence is not entirely unequivocal but pretty strong). At least part of what he was doing with his dishonesty was waging a kulturkampf (virtuous in Marxist terms) against hereditarian thinking.

In Purpose and Pragmatism you write: “You find yourself in an unheard-falling-tree dilemma, only when you become curious about a question with no pragmatic use, and no predictive consequences. Which suggests that you may be playing loose with your purposes.” Well, yeah. Why didn’t you get here the first time you analyzed this parable?

In Evaluability (And Cheap Holiday Shopping) you write: “If you have a fixed amount of money to spend – and your goal is to display your friendship, rather than to actually help the recipient – you’ll be better off deliberately not shopping for value. Decide how much money you want to spend on impressing the recipient, then find the most worthless object which costs that amount. The cheaper the class of objects, the more expensive a particular object will appear, given that you spend a fixed amount.” How delightfully evil. Now, the interesting utility-maximization question, given that we do our holiday shopping together, is: should I tell my wife this heuristic or not? The answer is not obvious…

In Uncritical Supercriticality, you write “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.” I think there is a good general rule, but it is vulnerable to misinterpretation. Buzz Aldrin was right: the correct response to the person who gravely insulted him was to smack the sorry little fucker a good one, even though the insult was superficially framed as an argument. Similarly, the correct response to a person who says “You do not own yourself, but are owned by society (or the state), and I am society (or the state) speaking.” is to injure him as gravely as you think you can get away with — because though this is formally framed as an argument, it is an assertion of a right to control you that is properly met with violence. (In fact, I think if you do not do violence in that situation you are failing in a significant ethical duty.)

Re When None Dare Urge Restraint: I am among those who fear (yes, “fear” is the correct and carefully chosen word) that the U.S. response to 9/11 was not nearly as violent and brutal as it needed to be. To prevent future acts of this kind, it is probably necessary that those who consider them should shit their pants with fear at the mere thought of the U.S.’s reaction. We did not achieve this, and I fear we are likely to pay for that failure in otherwise preventable mass deaths.

In Guardians of Ayn Rand. you write “Actually, I think Shermer’s falling prey to correspondence bias by supposing that there’s any particular correlation between Rand’s philosophy and the way her followers formed a cult.” I don’t agree. There are specific features of the awful mess called “Randian epistemology” that are conducive to map/territory confusion, specifically the notion that the Law of the Excluded Middle is ontologically fundamental rather than a premise valid only for certain classes of reasoning.

The Litany Against Gurus reminds me of this:

To follow the path:
look to the master,
follow the master,
walk with the master,
see through the master,
become the master.

From “How To Become A Hacker”. (Yes, I wrote it.)

Two Cult Koans: Dang, you’re good at the Zen-pastiche thing. Have you read these?

In Zen and the Art of Rationality you write “And yet it oftimes seems to me that my thoughts are expressed in conceptual language that owes a great deal to the inspiration of Eastern philosophy.” Well, sure: and the reason you’re attracted to that is because the good parts of Eastern philosophy that we’ve imported are all about something that is very important to you, but about which Western traditions lack language that is quite as precise and evocative: namely directed change in the style of consciousness.

In To Lead, You Must Stand Up, you write: ‘I briefly thought to myself: “I bet most people would be experiencing ‘stage fright’ about now. But that wouldn’t be helpful, so I’m not going to go there.”‘ Yup. Me too. But I think your exhortations here are nearly useless. Experience I’ve collected over the last ten years suggests to me that the kind of immunity to stage fright you and I have is a function of basic personality type at the neurotransmitter-balance level, and not really learnable by most people.

In Extensions and Intensions – er, I hope you are aware that you are restating basic General Semantics here.

In Disguised Queries, you write: “The question “Is this object a blegg?” may stand in for different queries on different occasions.” Or, to put it more precisely, the correct microtheory depends on the motivation of the theorizer. We’ve been here before.

To be continued…

36 thoughts on “Responding to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Overcoming Bias”

  1. The first time first time I saw that indeed excellent blog I asked myself: but is it sure it’s a good idea to always try to overcome every kind of bias? I think “we are truth-seeking animals because we are prediction-seeking animals because we are control-seeking animals because we are goal-seeking animals” is a good take on that, but it instantly outlines the constraints to truth-seeking: truth-seeking is useful within the subset of truths that help in attaining a goal. It might not be helpful to seek truth when, for example, it’s likely that the truth will prove that a very highly rated goal is unattainable and it would make us too depressed.

    What I’m driving at is something like what Leo Strauss said that there can be such a thing as deadly truths.

    Such deadly truth could be, for example, becoming 100% sure that death is indeed the end of everything, no afterlife, no reincarnation. Looking at it rationally, afterlife is almost certainly false, reincarnation is a bit more logical, but still unlikely. Still I chose to believe in reincarnation because I just can’t handle the thought of death. Or generally, the thought that every opportunity missed in life is indeed gone forever and won’t ever come back. Can you handle it? Can you handle the thought that the clock is ticking and everything that’s gone is gone forever? Dead loved ones stay dead forever without any possibility of a meetup etc. ? In this matter I’d rather stay in comfortable ignorance and hope.

    On using force. I don’t want to derail this excellent thread into yet another discussion about L. but hey, you started it :-) What is, _exactly_, force? I’m not interested in theoretical rights or the Kantian dignity of human autonomy, these concepts are too detached from how we are wired. I think Hume was wrong and the “ought” can and should be rooted in the “is”. Probably the “is” basis of every kind of ethics is our natural ability to feel empathy with others, we are wired to feel empathy, this empathy is what makes it possible to understand why don’t do stuff to others we don’t want to happen to ourselves and pretty much everything else comes from it. From the “is” point of view, force, coercion or violence are simply those things people really, really don’t want to happen to them. These are things we dislike having to bear more than other things. Being the target of violence is simply the extreme end of the discomfort scale or the “I don’t want scale”. But if being a victim of violence is nothing but an extreme case of discomfort, how can we be sure it’s better to accept that discomfort will happen to 100 than to violence to happen to 1 person?

    Is there any “is” basis of saying exerting violence is not simply quantitatively, but _essentially_ different from causing discomfort? Can we, for example, say, that the difference between discomfort or violence lies in that extreme discomfort tends to cause a positive-feedback situation (mutual revenge, mimetic violence, “runaway” mutual violence etc.) and thus the difference between causing discomfort and violence lies in that causing only so much discomfort is acceptable that doesn’t tend to incur such a positive-feedback loop?

  2. >In this matter I’d rather stay in comfortable ignorance and hope.

    Why do you assume that truths “deadly” to you are deadly to everyone else? I’m as close to 100% sure as I think I can be there isn”t an afterlife, and it doesn’t bother me. I think you’re describing a problem with you, not with rationality.

    >From the “is” point of view, force, coercion or violence are simply those things people really, really don’t want to happen to them.

    That’s sufficient. Now go study ethical egoism; it’s not really very hard to bootstrap from this to a coherent libertarian ethos. The key is not some kind of essentialist distinction between discomfort and violence; rather, it’s all about reciprocity, behavioral predictability and stable equilibria.

  3. >Why do you assume that truths “deadly” to you are deadly to everyone else? I’m as close to 100% sure as I think I can be there isn”t an afterlife, and it doesn’t bother me. I think you’re describing a problem with you, not with rationality.

    Exactly what I was going to post.

    With regards to Less Wrong…it’s newer than OB, not older.

  4. I disagree with The Futility of Emergence. There is a semantic difference between saying “Human intelligence is an emergent product of neurons firing” and “Human intelligence is an product of neurons firing.” The word “emergent” is a signal that we believe a very specific thing about the relationship between “neurons firing” and “intelligence”, which is that there is no possible account of intelligence in which the only explanatory units are neurons or subsystems of neurons.

    I agree with you here. That essay always bothered me, but I’d missed the party and leaving a comment at that point would be a little silly.

    But, yes, I thought of emergence as the absence of some intelligent top-down organizing force, sort of the opposite of what he means when he substitutes in “magical”. It does say something, though it only does so in a negative sense. It says what a phenomenon isn’t.

  5. > With regards to Less Wrong…it’s newer than OB, not older.

    Yes. Eric, you have this backwards: Overcoming Bias is the older blog which is the original source of these posts. Less Wrong is the newer sister site, created a few months ago and differing from Overcoming Bias in being mostly fueled by reader contributions; all posts from Overcoming Bias are also indexed on Less Wrong.

  6. Similarly, the correct response to a person who says “You do not own yourself, but are owned by society (or the state), and I am society (or the state) speaking.” is to injure him as gravely as you think you can get away with — because though this is formally framed as an argument, it is an assertion of a right to control you that is properly met with violence. (In fact, I think if you do not do violence in that situation you are failing in a significant ethical duty.)

    You leave “you do not own yourself” and “I am the state speaking” pretty vague, here. Given what I’ve seen of your beliefs, I’d tentatively think that the former is satisfied by someone demanding to levy taxes on you, since taking a portion of your income is taking a portion of your labor, or by anyone enforcing state prohibitions on drug use. Of course, anyone acting in an official capacity for the state, such as an IRS agent or a police officer, fits the second part.

    Could you explain to me how you’re not arguing for a moral obligation to die in a hail of ATF bullets outside what will be reported in the news as a “compound”? Is it solely because that’s ineffective? How are you not deficient in what you’ve described as your own “significant ethical duty”?

  7. >With regards to Less Wrong…it’s newer than OB, not older.

    Correction accepted.

    >Is it solely because that’s ineffective?

    Yes, basically. The ethical goal of opposing coercive statism is not advanced if I merely die in some futile way. I would only be willing to expire in a hail of ATF bullets if I had strong reason to believe that the domino effect of my choice would change the system. I can imagine a future in which that might be the case, but it’s not a very plausible one.

    My ethics require me to fight. But they don’t require me to fight stupid, nor to use physical violence when the only outcome can be loss.

  8. esr: Yes, basically. The ethical goal of opposing coercive statism is not advanced if I merely die in some futile way. I would only be willing to expire in a hail of ATF bullets if I had strong reason to believe that the domino effect of my choice would change the system.

    Is there any particular way to distinguish this strong ethical goal of yours from meaningless chest-pounding about how you’d really kick their collective ass, no kidding, just you watch? Your previous descriptions of your relationships with cops haven’t really put them in mind of you thinking that you’d kill them all if you thought you could get away with it.

    [On 9/11] We did not achieve this, and I fear we are likely to pay for that failure in otherwise preventable mass deaths.

    What, do the lives of everyone who happens to live on that side of the globe not count as “preventable mass deaths” which haven’t occurred because nobody wanted to sate your rage by rolling through Asia like Caesar through Gaul? It confuses me how you can be so sanguine about the state committing untold numbers of bloody murders, so long as they serve some sort of political purpose which makes you happy, and they’re not in your backyard… and then assert your moral obligation to kill, kill, kill the agents of said state, so long as you could have a reasonable assurance of either getting away with it or setting off a libertarian revolution.

    I’m having a hard time believing that you’re serious about the latter part.

  9. I should add that it might seem like I’m attempting to troll you into saying something actionable. This is not the case, and if you want to tell me to knock it off, I’ll be more than glad to. It just seemed to come out of nowhere, a bit of macho posturing that you’d never really carry through on, like wanting to live in an actual anarchy (No True Anarchy being good enough to move to, no matter how oppressive you find the States).

  10. >Is there any particular way to distinguish this strong ethical goal of yours from meaningless chest-pounding about how you’d really kick their collective ass, no kidding, just you watch?

    From your exterior point of view, probably not. This fails to bother me. The important thing is that I live up to – or choose to die according to – my own values. My interest in your opinion of whether I am “posturing” or not is so close to zero it’s barely measurable. It doesn’t matter what you think, only what I do when the moment comes.

    >Your previous descriptions of your relationships with cops haven’t really put them in mind of you thinking that you’d kill them all if you thought you could get away with it.

    I wouldn’t. I understand cops; I like most of the ones I’ve met, and they tend to reciprocate. The job they do is necessary, and there would be people doing most of what they do in the kind of anarchy I want to live in. I wouldn’t cross over into wanting to do violence against them until and unless they chose to enforce a law I regard as unjust. You might wish to read my post on When to shoot a policeman for discussion.

    >I’m having a hard time believing that you’re serious about the latter part.

    That’s your problem, not mine. Your confusion on this score probably stems from not understanding how ruthless a pragmatist I am. I consider the state murdering people by truckloads to be a horrible thing, but I accept it when I think the alternative is worse.

    A successful CBW attack on a major American city would be worse. And the thing my country could become in reaction to such an attack might be far, far worse.

  11. This “predictionalist” attitude of yours is interesting… probably it comes from you studying a lot of physics. There, the quantitative predictions of mathemathical models and equations are easy enough to compare with the similarly quantitative results from measuring devices… but outside such narrow fields, in general life, just exactly what should a prediction predict? A result interpreted in sloppy, informal, ill-defined human languages, or a raw empirical result of shape, size or colour?

  12. >This “predictionalist” attitude of yours is interesting… probably it comes from you studying a lot of physics.

    No, it comes from having figured out that what you call “predictionalism” (the technical term for it would be “fallibilism” or perhaps “skeptical operationalism”) yields the only definition of “truth” that is both applicable outside formal mathematical systems and doesn’t collapse into circularity or complete ungroundedness when you poke at it.

    >A result interpreted in sloppy, informal, ill-defined human languages, or a raw empirical result of shape, size or colour?

    Usually the former. Sad, but that’s the reality we’re stuck with.

  13. (Long-time OB/LW reader here, happy to see your thoughts.)

    In The Proper Use of Humility you write: “The temptation is always to claim the most points with the least effort. The temptation is to carefully integrate all incoming news in a way that lets us change our beliefs, and above all our actions, as little as possible.” Alas, you are so busy knocking over that bad social-status reasons for belief inertia that you slight a good one: Changing beliefs is not costless, and may commit you to a decision procedure that is too heavyweight to be worth some very marginal gain in utility. Physics example: if I am doing ballistics under conditions normal near the Earth’s surface, it is instrumentally rational for me to believe Newton’s laws rather than Einstein’s.

    It’s instrumentally rational to use Newton’s laws, but believing that relativity is what’s actually going on is still a good idea, and hardly stops you from using approximations. Somewhat pedantic, yes – but it’s important to note that belief is not monolithic, and doesn’t commit you to nearly as much as one might think.

    Here, and elsewhere, I observe in your thinking a kind of predisposition that is common in analytical philosophers. You underweight the degree to which computational costs are a factor in theory formation and selection [...]

    and later:

    In A Priori you wander around the mulberry bush discussing justifications of Occam’s Razor, and inexplicably miss the obvious and simple one: computation has a cost. Whenever we multiply entities beyond necessity. we commit ourselves to a decision procedure that is wasteful and will be outcompeted by actors who spend the resources we waste on solving other problems. You continue to have a very curious blind spot towards analysis like this.

    One might want to set computational costs aside in order to develop an idealized formalism for decision-making (e.g. AIXI), and refine it before applying its insights to designing physically-realizable approximations, rather than tackling the whole messy problem at once – particularly if, like Eliezer, your goal is to build an agent that provably preserves motivational invariants, rather than a hack that ends up destroying the world as soon as it’s smart enough to. Even in the human domain, if you want to improve yourself, it helps to have a specific ideal of normative reasoning (or, at least, reasoning that would be normative if you had a halting oracle).

  14. > which I call the “Pressure Principle”. It goes like this: “The truth of the claim ‘I have a duty to
    > do X’ justifies others in using force to coerce me to do X.” I reject this principle.

    What would be the corresponding principle that you accept?

    My first thought was “The state has a right to legislate X” AND “The state has chosen to legislate X” THEREFORE “I have a duty to do X” THEREFORE “The State can use force to coerce people to do X” (Note that i’m assuming that by “others” you mean legal law enforcement and not vigilantism).

    As i was writing it I thought the “I have a duty to do X” might be an unnecessary term therefore another possibility would be “The state has a right to legislate X” AND “The state has chosen to legislate X” THEREFORE “The State can use force to coerce people to do X”

    Or am i missing the nature of your rejection entirely?

  15. esr I checked your link of Overcoming Bias . The author is Robin Hanson and the current subject concerns President Obama loss of political capital and being hoodwinked. Read the blog The Futility of Emergence, which Eliezer_Yudkowsky did write. It is interesting to ponder semantics but more interesting to ponder the nature of intelligence. Either it is a mechanical product of matter , coming from matter and energy or intelligence was first and matter and energy proceeded from intelligence. Scientist are finding a lot of information is in the laws and make up of the universe and particularly living things. Something had to code that in. Which ever way you see it , will color the way you see reality. There was years ago a special on PBS entitled the day the universe changed. A historian , forgot his name although he was British, looked at key ideas in history and how that changed the way we looked at the world and literally change our reality. He had weeks of shows. He shows mainly dealt with technology but ideas of religion and politics have done the same. I think that the mind does change reality. Does it just reveal possibles or change the universe itself? By the way notice you always have Lazarus Long in the upper right hand corner. Is that in reference to Heinlein’s character? He was one of my favorite authors.

  16. >Or am i missing the nature of your rejection entirely?

    You are. My position is that governments have no legitimacy other than as collective organizations of the individual right of self-defense; therefore, they cannot can create ethical duties by legislation. The subject of legislation often coincides with an ethical duty (such as not robbing and murdering others, to take an obvious case) but the legislation is binding to the extent it expresses the ethical duty, not the reverse.

  17. ESR,

    ESR,

    Here’s a thought experiment.

    1. Take a city in the state of private-property anarchy, everybody owning the street in front of their house etc.

    2. People start to make contracts with each other because we are social animals: paying together for a security service to police the streets etc. Given the general human characteristics of desiring power, being nosy about other people’s business and the “don’t just sit around, do something GOOD!” attitude, this can and probably would take the characteristics of a miniature version of a modern state, such as some welfare payments, some business subsidies, “protective” tariffs etc.

    3. The major difference would be that such a pseudo-state would not have the right to use violence. What it would have instead is the right to exclusion – that citizens can refuse to do business with people who don’t want to go along with the communal plans, up to and including even forbidding them to walk the majority of the streets, because they are all private property.

    4. Such arrangements, although technically not violent, would make life still difficult enough for a dissenting individual that the difference between violence and this stuff would feel quite unimportant for those who have to suffer it – both state violence and this stuff makes it practically impossible to disobey.

    5. Thus, the only major difference would be that while individuals, on their own, probably have to go along with the communal plans, if enough individuals can form a dissenting group, they can _secede_ from such a pseudo-state. While from a modern government they cannot. This seems to be the only important difference. For example, a city district, that forms a distinct community with shared values, with different values than the majority of the city, like, Chinatown, Harlem, or Bronx, or Little Italy, could secede. While the leaders of the majority community can threaten them with exclusion, in practical life it would not happen because the majority of people just don’t want to lose many good customers, many good employees etc.

    6. Thus, the logical result of anarchism would be basically a loose, distributed, decentralized federalism, with tiny governments similar in practice to modern ones, non-violent in theory but still can be damn annoyingly repressive in practice, except that every community big and brave enough to risk the still non-zero chance of being exluded, could secede.

    7. But if it is so, the same result could be achieved by forgetting the whole stuff about anarchy and simply advocating for one simple right: for the right to secede. So why don’t you just do so?

    (This is not an original idea. Von Mises found it like 80 years ago that you can’t forbid other people to have governments if they want to, you can only demand they don’t impose their governments on you i.e. allow you to secede. Thus, L. at the core is basically demanding the right to secede.

    (Sidenote: this may be the main reason Rothbard, Rockwell & co. talk about stuff like “The War of Northern Agression” – that’s nothing but an over-romanticised view of the American Civil War by people who were very influenced by von Mises’ idea that liberty means secession, and, probably they have inverted the logic and began to think it’s true the other way around i.e. secession means liberty, which is, of course, a mistake, because it’s not always so. ) )

  18. In re “The Twelve Virtues of Rationality”: Is curiosity actually a virtue? It seems more like a character trait. There may be ways to cultivate it, but I think it’s a less direct process than the other virtues, which seem more like conscious choices.

  19. I tend to agree (based on less comprehensive reading of his writing than ER’s) that EY tends to underweight considerations of computational cost. But I’m not convinced that computational cost is a particularly good argument for Occam’s Razor. For two ways to be led into Occam’s Razor fairly naturally by limited data and plausible priors, as opposed to limited computer power, see (1) the example and discussion in section 28.1 of Mackay’s _Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms_ and (2) the general Minimum Description Length idea (anywhere, as in book or Wikipedia article of that name). I find those approaches more convincing than prioritizing theories in order of computational cost. (Prioritizing theories by computational cost is somewhat compatible with Mackay or MDL stuff, though; more generally compatible than prioritizing theories by age of the person who first formulated the theory, or by whether the theory has a prime number of consonants in its Latin translation.)

  20. >his can and probably would take the characteristics of a miniature version of a modern state, such as some welfare payments, some business subsidies, “protective” tariffs etc.

    I’m sorry, you went off the rails right at that point, making the rest of your scenario uninteresting. These are practices that require a level of coercion libertarians flatly refuse to accept as legitimate. Until you understand why, you won’t be able to make a cogent argument that libertarianism is “really” about anything.

    Um, could we try sticking closer to the philosophy of rationality on this comment thread, please?

  21. “Paradoxes only exist in language, not reality.”

    Aw fuck you Eric, where did you first write that? Honestly, I’ve had the same thing bouncing around in my head for years, and I’ve never been able to formulate it that succintly, and I wish I had read your formulation before to save me a lot of sleepless nights…

  22. >Aw fuck you Eric, where did you first write that? Honestly, I’ve had the same thing bouncing around in my head for years, and I’ve never been able to formulate it that succintly,

    In a fanzine in the late 1970s or early ’80s, I believe. I was writing in my capacity as Amphigoricus the Turgid, Arch-Stochast and Chief Charlatan of the William Claude Dukenfied Discordian Cabal.

    It probably helped that I was in training to be a mathematical logician at the time.

  23. It’s a characteristic of people who are neurotransmitterically weak. WEAK, I tell you.

  24. Eric, you say “These are practices that require a level of coercion libertarians flatly refuse to accept as legitimate.” Don’t forget that everyone who is choosing this scenario is freely agreeing to the terms of a contract. The contract includes unpleasant terms, as do many contracts. Is it rational to agree to a contract which includes threats of violence against you?

  25. I’m as close to 100% sure as I think I can be there isn”t an afterlife, and it doesn’t bother me.

    Interesting. This belief is atypical for a neopagan, assuming you are lumping reincarnation in with “there isn’t an afterlife.” I’ve heard the physics arguments citing the Law of Conservation and what not (matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed) and I find them uninteresting in that, if there were an afterlife, who is to say that such is located outside the physical universe?

    Personally, it does not matter to me whether there is an afterlife or not; as I’m really not emotionally invested in either concept.

  26. Is it rational to agree to a contract which includes threats of violence against you?

    Maybe. What are you getting in exchange for that? You’re already agreeing to threats of violence against you simply by continuing to live in the United States, for example.

  27. >This belief is atypical for a neopagan, assuming you are lumping reincarnation in with “there isn’t an afterlife.

    There actually isn’t any “typical” belief about this among the neopagans I know; reincarnation can best be described one of several competing guesses, none of which anybody is really strongly invested in.

  28. >It’s a characteristic of people who are neurotransmitterically weak. WEAK, I tell you.

    Actually, I think it’s a characteristic of neurotypicals. When your whole cognitive apparatus is organized around getting and keeping social approval, the possibility of group ridicule is terrifying.

    Neither Eliezer nor I work that way. He resembles a borderline Asperger’s case, while I’m more like a borderline Tourette’s Syndrome case.

    But I admit your remark was very funny.

  29. BTW have you heard of this guy? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson

    His general MO – writing dry, data-heavy articles purely for the consumption of scientific community as everybody else would fall asleep by the fifth page, avoiding writing any popular books or generally avoiding to raise popular support – is more typical of a honest researcher than that of a fraudster, I think he deserves the benefit of doubt.

  30. When I read the title “Overcoming Bias” I got a whiff of Objectivism. Not that they actually are Randians, but there is something about all right-wingers that makes them think that their biases are unbiased, that they have the ability to discover and properly interpret The Truth. Sure enough, I click the link and it is absolutely, drippingly, pro-capitalist. Perhaps the blog should be titled “Overcoming Commie Pinko Bias (i.e., Anything to the Left of von Mises)”.

  31. >click the link and it is absolutely, drippingly, pro-capitalist

    I don’t know where you get this idea. Eliezer almost never touches politics in his OB posts; the one time I saw him do it was actually a mildly anti-Bush remark derogating the Iraq War.

    Note that I think “not drippingly pro-capitalist” is a misspelling of “toxic idiocy”, so if he did have that “bias” I would think it only rational. But I don’t see it – and I was actually kind of looking, because I know him personally and I know what his politics are.

  32. “It’s what I call ‘mental masturbation’, when you engage is some pointless intellectual exercise that has no possible meaning.” – Linus Torvalds

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