Reading Yudkowsky, part 38

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 22, 2011 in Eliezer Yudkowsky,Resources,Reviews

AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky is something of an expert at human rationality, and at teaching it to others. His hundreds of posts at Less Wrong are a treasure trove for those who want to improve their own rationality. As such, I’m reading all of them, chronologically.

I suspect some of my readers want to “level up” their rationality, too. So I’m keeping a diary of my Yudkowsky reading. Feel free to follow along.

His 297th post is a meetup post, and the next one is The Beauty of Settled Science:

Facts do not need to be unexplainable, to be beautiful; truths do not become less worth learning, if someone else knows them; beliefs do not become less worthwhile, if many others share them…

…and if you only care about scientific issues that are controversial, you will end up with a head stuffed full of garbage.

The media thinks that only the cutting edge of science is worth reporting on.  How often do you see headlines like “General Relativity still governing planetary orbits” or “Phlogiston theory remains false”?  So, by the time anything is solid science, it is no longer a breaking headline.  “Newsworthy” science is often based on the thinnest of evidence and wrong half the time – if it were not on the uttermost fringes of the scientific frontier, it would not be breaking news.

The moral is one I enthusiastically endorse: Read textbooks!

Reading a well-written textbook, you get:  Carefully phrased explanations for incoming students, math derived step by step (where applicable), plenty of experiments cited as illustration (where applicable), test problems on which to display your new mastery, and a reasonably good guarantee that what you’re learning is actually true.

Reading press releases, you usually get:  Fake explanations that convey nothing except the delusion of understanding of a result that the press release author didn’t understand and that probably has a better-than-even chance of failing to replicate.

…A steady diet of science news is bad for you:  You are what you eat, and if you eat only science reporting on fluid situations, without a solid textbook now and then, your brain will turn to liquid.

The cool thing, according to Amazing Breakthrough Day, is that “news” sites like Reddit and Digg don’t only point to news, but also to good explanations of old science news.

New topic. Is Humanism a Religion-Substitute? No:

The choice between God and humanity is not just a choice of drugs.  Above all, humanity actually exists.

Scarcity notes that we are unhealthily attracted to things that appears scarce:

Leaping on disappearing options may be a good adaptation in a hunter-gatherer society – gather the fruits while the tree is still in bloom – but in a money-based society it can be rather costly.   Cialdini (1993) reports that in one appliance store he observed, a salesperson who saw that a customer was evincing signs of interest in an appliance would approach, and sadly inform the customer that the item was out of stock, the last one having been sold only twenty minutes ago.  Scarcity creating a sudden jump in desirability, the customer would often ask whether there was any chance that the salesperson could locate an unsold item in the back room, warehouse, or anywhere.  “Well,” says the salesperson, “that’s possible, and I’m willing to check; but do I understand that this is the model you want, and if I can find it at this price, you’ll take it?”

As Cialdini remarks, a chief sign of this malfunction is that you dream of possessing something, rather than usingit.  (Timothy Ferriss offers similar advice on planning your life: ask which ongoing experiences would make you happy, rather than which possessions or status-changes.)

But the really fundamental problem with desiring the unattainable is that as soon as you actually get it, it stops being unattainable.  If we cannot take joy in the merely available, our lives will always be frustrated…

To Spread Science, Keep it Secret proposes a different way to sell science. Initiation Ceremony is a parody sketch about “the Bayesian Conspiracy.” Next is Hand vs. Fingers:

Back to our original topic:  Reductionism, which (in case you’ve forgotten) is part of a sequence on the Mind Projection Fallacy.  There can be emotional problems in accepting reductionism, if you think that things have to be fundamental to be fun.  But this position commits us to never taking joy in anything more complicated than a quark, and so I prefer to reject it.

To review, the reductionist thesis is that we use multi-level models for computational reasons, but physical reality has only a single level.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, please reread “Reductionism“.

Now, on to a specific case of reductionism:

Today I’d like to pose the following conundrum:  When you pick up a cup of water, is it your hand that picks it up?

Most people, of course, go with the naive popular answer:  “Yes.”

Recently, however, scientists have made a stunning discovery:  It’s not your hand that holds the cup, it’s actually your fingers, thumb, and palm.

Yes, I know!  I was shocked too.  But it seems that after scientists measured the forces exerted on the cup by each of your fingers, your thumb, and your palm, they found there was no force left over – so the force exerted by yourhand must be zero.

The theme here is that, if you can see how (not just know that) a higher level reduces to a lower one, they will not seem like separate things within your map; you will be able to see how silly it is to think that your fingers could be in one place, and your hand somewhere else; you will be able to see how silly it is to argue about whether it is your hand picks up the cup, or your fingers.

Angry Atoms argues that yes, even something like anger can be reduced to atoms. But there is an even simpler example of reductionism jumping a gap of things that are apparently different in kind: Heat vs. Motion. Also see: Brain Breakthrough! It’s Made of Neurons!

Reductive Reference concludes:

The map is multilevel, the territory is single-level.  This doesn’t mean that the higher levels “don’t exist”, like looking in your garage for a dragon and finding nothing there, or like seeing a mirage in the desert and forming an expectation of drinkable water when there is nothing to drink.  The higher levels of your map are not false, without referent; they have referents in the single level of physics.  It’s not that the wings of an airplane unexist – then the airplane would drop out of the sky.  The “wings of an airplane” exist explicitly in an engineer’s multilevel model of an airplane, and the wings of an airplane exist implicitly in the quantum physics of the real airplane.  Implicit existence is not the same as nonexistence.  The exact description of this implicitness is not known to us – is not explicitly represented in our map.  But this does not prevent our map from working, or even prevent it from beingtrue.

Though it is a bit unnerving to contemplate that every single concept and belief in your brain, including these meta-concepts about how your brain works and why you can form accurate beliefs, are perched orders and orders of magnitude above reality…

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur May 23, 2011 at 3:23 am

How often do you see headlines like “General Relativity still governing planetary orbits”

Well, we had big headlines about that like three weeks ago.

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MarkD May 24, 2011 at 12:34 am

Gag, I hate repeating myself but another example of why I find it hard to read EY:

“Leaping on disappearing options may be a good adaptation in a hunter-gatherer society – gather the fruits while the tree is still in bloom”

Maybe…but just maybe. Its really thin gruel as explanation. Too many presumptions packed into too compact a claim.

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soupsayer May 24, 2011 at 2:43 am

Gag, I hate repeating myself but another example of why I find it hard to read EY:
“Leaping on disappearing options may be a good adaptation in a hunter-gatherer society – gather the fruits while the tree is still in bloom”

MarkD, these sort of classic Yudkowskian outbursts are far easier to take if you approach his writing as poetic comedy, as I do. However, even within that context, my teeth somehow still involuntary clench when he writes “Let it be said…” – like some proclamation from Moses. Or maybe he likes The Beatles.

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cl May 25, 2011 at 10:55 am

Hehe, you guys are touching on the exact same things that throw red flags for me. Haukur already nailed it, but:

The media thinks that only the cutting edge of science is worth reporting on. How often do you see headlines like “General Relativity still governing planetary orbits” or “Phlogiston theory remains false”? So, by the time anything is solid science, it is no longer a breaking headline.

Total overgeneralization, not true at all. I often see solid science in the headlines.

I don’t have a direct link handy–and I’m willing to dig it up if anyone protests–but a few days ago I read some older EY crap where he basically said anyone who holds various beliefs–from ghosts to explosives at 9/11–was “insane,” or otherwise rationally impoverished. Yeah, whatever buddy! You’re soooo superior to those dogmatic irrational religious superstitious folk, ain’t ya!

MarkD, these sort of classic Yudkowskian outbursts are far easier to take if you approach his writing as poetic comedy, as I do. However, even within that context, my teeth somehow still involuntary clench when he writes “Let it be said…” – like some proclamation from Moses. Or maybe he likes The Beatles.

LOL!

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