What kind of place is this?

I started getting LessWrong posts in my email about a year ago—I don’t remember signing up, but I must have done it intentionally. I like most of what I’ve been reading so far: it’s a civil forum in which people think about the process of thought and its application, though some of the specific topics are out of context for me. (What’s The Alignment? It sounds like something from The Dark Crystal.)

It occurred to me that maybe I could post some of my own thoughts, since I’m at a turning point in how I’m thinking about meta-ethics and the concept of a person, and maybe some feedback would be good for me. Normally, I go it alone, reading books and only discussing them internally. (Most people I know don’t want to talk philosophy.)

Twice since the invention of the world wide web, I’ve written up grand summaries of my beliefs and “put them out there.” I squirm to read them now, but they’re true to some core ideas that I still have. In 2006, I wrote a Manifesto about my conversion from atheism to Christianity in the decade leading up to it, and in 2020, I wrote Could Have, Would Have, Should Have, about my newfound understanding of causality (defining the subjunctive “would be”).

Poking around on this site, I noticed that LessWrong has a foundational text, The Sequences, so if I’m going to get involved here, I’d better go read them. ALL of them.

(Time passes...)

Well! I guess I was surprised that, with the exception of a few section-introductions, they were all written by a single person, Eliezer Yudkowsky. They’re also entirely from 2007‒2009, so maybe he wouldn’t stand behind everything he said now. But they’re really, really arrogant.

I mean, in No, Really, I’ve Deceived Myself,

I recently spoke with a person who… it’s difficult to describe. Nominally, she was an Orthodox Jew. She was also highly intelligent, conversant with some of the archaeological evidence against her religion, and the shallow standard arguments against religion that religious people know about. For example, she knew that Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Vashti were not in the Persian historical records, but that there was a corresponding old Persian legend about the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar, and the rival Elamite gods Humman and Vashti. She knows this, and she still celebrates Purim.

Knowing that the biblical account is false and yet celebrating a religious holiday anyway—this is a problem? Maybe she likes hamantaschen. I like hamantaschen.

More personally, because I’m a physicist, was Outside the Laboratory,

Now what are we to think of a scientist who seems competent inside the laboratory, but who, outside the laboratory, believes in a spirit world? We ask why, and the scientist says something along the lines of: “Well, no one really knows, and I admit that I don’t have any evidence—it’s a religious belief, it can’t be disproven one way or another by observation.” I cannot but conclude that this person literally doesn’t know why you have to look at things. They may have been taught a certain ritual of experimentation, but they don’t understand the reason for it—that to map a territory, you have to look at it—that to gain information about the environment, you have to undergo a causal process whereby you interact with the environment and end up correlated to it. This applies just as much to a double-blind experimental design that gathers information about the efficacy of a new medical device, as it does to your eyes gathering information about your shoelaces.

This annoys me deeply because the reason I got interested in experimental physics was because of how well it formalized the process of looking at your shoelaces!

Before grad school, I didn’t have much interest in the experimental side of things: my main motivation was to learn the two most counterintuitive parts of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics. But there came a point when I had taken the last course, beyond which is research, and I was less enthused about going deep into a technical corner—it was the big picture that had interested me. Along the way, I had gotten some experience in experimental physics from summer projects at a few particle physics labs. The goals of these summer projects were nowhere near as cool and esoteric as the theories that originally drew me to the field, but I was blown away by the idea of really knowing things: “I know that this detector is misaligned 3.4 mm relative to that one! How cool is that?”

I was absolutely giddy with the idea of having a procedure for establishing physical facts—and of course I was applying it outside the laboratory. “Look! This pen exists because we can apply a clustering procedure to the atoms in space, weighted by the strength of mutual attraction, and the atoms in this volume form a stable cluster. Your clusters may differ from mine by a few atoms, or might not even converge, depending on your initial seed, but maybe we can define an ensemble of clustering runs, and in the preponderance of those runs...” This, by the way, is why my wife doesn’t like to talk philosophy with me.

In fact, from my 2006 Manifesto,

I believe that we live in two overlapping worlds: an objective, physical world of matter, energy, and space-time, and an artificial world of objects, relationships, attributes, qualities and purposes. In the seamless continuum of nature, we draw boundaries and selectively identify meaningful entities. When I open my eyes, I see the mash of atoms before me as a pen, and that pen has well-defined borders which distinguish it from the surrounding air and my hand. My pen is more real than Macbeth’s impalpable knife, because unlike a hallucination, matter fills the space occupied by the pen and this matter is distinct from air in a way that can be quantified. We must remember, though, that the quantification scheme is itself a human invention. Distinguishing the pen from the air is as much an interpretation as distinguishing letters of the alphabet from squiggles and ink splotches on paper, and good expressions from poor word choice.

(I learned about clustering algorithms a few years later.) By 2020, I had concluded that we’re paying the various concepts of “reality” a disservice by using a single word for them all: there are different kinds of reality, such as mathematical reality (π exists) and physical reality (pie exists). The way these realities are distinguished is by the procedures used to establish true from false in each realm: deductive proof for mathematical reality (thanks, Euclid!) and scientific observation for physical reality (thanks, Galileo!).

These aren’t the only kinds of reality, though. Still staying close to the hard sciences, there are explanations, or “reasons why.” Explanations, even scientific explanations, aren’t in the same category as observed facts, because the procedures for establishing explanations go beyond matching models to observations, and yes, even Bayes’ theorem.

My favorite example is the reason why planetary orbits are ellipses, rather than epicycles-upon-epicycles. Both models perfectly fit the data (in Kepler’s time—nowadays, perfect ellipses don’t fit, but epicycles still do, since they are a Fourier series. But let’s stick to the original problem). Physical observations can’t distinguish between the models; Bayes theorem wouldn’t put more probability mass on one or the other, but the ellipse theory won out because there’s something about it that’s more reasonable.

It’s not simplicity. Eliezer correctly points out in Occam’s Razor,

The formalism of Solomonoff induction measures the “complexity of a description” by the length of the shortest computer program which produces that description as an output. To talk about the “shortest computer program” that does something, you need to specify a space of computer programs, which requires a language and interpreter.

If this were really a quantitative procedure, we’d have to have a way to pick one language to represent it in, rather than another. (In an unpublished grand summary, I was going to use Kolmogorov complexity to describe that same conundrum.) Even if you could pick a favorite language, the simplest description would have to be measured in a number of bits, and that’s definitely not how scientists pick theories.

In the case of ellipses versus epicycles, the ellipse theory eventually provided the most insight. Kepler’s laws were revealed to be special cases of angular momentum and an inverse square law, which predicts that orbits should be conic sections, and an ellipse is a conic section. The ellipse theory is more insightful than the epicycle theory because of where it leads.

The conclusion that one model fits the data better than another can be formalized very nicely by Bayes’ theorem, but a different procedure is needed to favor a model when its alternatives fit the data equally well. There are a lot of these discriminators in theoretical physics, to decide among models that can’t be distinguished yet: naturalness, the Copernican principle, unification, aesthetics… (The charm quark is called “charm” because the theory was cute. Then it turned out to be true.) None of these principles have the sharp cutting-edge that observation has—a charming theory would be dropped in a heartbeat if it’s clearly at odds with data—but there’s a lot more in a scientific paper than the progression from prior probability to observations to posterior probability.

In fact, the same could be said of math papers. “585788223554050573278377 + 3611957383042997565190926 = 4197745606597048138469303” is a true theorem, arrived at by the laws of mathematical deduction, but it’s not an interesting one. Criteria beyond proof need to be brought in to decide what to conjecture and prove.

Eliezer used criteria like this to claim that Decoherence is Falsifiable and Testable, where by “decoherence,” he meant “Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation.” (“Decoherence” is a more general word, and when physicists use it, they rarely mean the many worlds interpretation.) But we also use “falsifiable” and “testable” to refer to the distinguish-models-by-observation method, which decides claims in the category of physical fact. This isn’t one of them. Eliezer argued that the many worlds interpretation is simpler (that other interpretations have to explain the non-existence of these many worlds), which is an argument about what makes it a better explanation or about what needs to be explained. But that’s different from “falsifiability” or “testability.”

Some arguments need to use these non-observational methods because the data are out of reach (such as string theory), but others are trying to address topics that are in principle not even about measurable data. Eliezer wrote a long article dismissing David Chalmers’s stance on consciousness in Zombies! Zombies?, which ended with

Chalmers wrote a big book, not all of which is available through free Google preview.

Well, it was a good book, worth reading. But even in the free preview, Chalmers wrote,

Everyday scientific methodology has trouble getting a grip on it, not least because of the difficulties in observing the phenomenon. Outside the first-person case, data are hard to come by. This is not to say that no external data can be relevant, but we first have to arrive at a coherent philosophical understanding before we can justify the data’s relevance. So the problem of consciousness may be a scientific problem that requires philosophical methods of understanding before we can get off the ground.

...And if you don’t like that example, how about ethics?

Eliezer wrote a lot about ethics, and anybody who says, “You should be rational” has ethical beliefs. “Should” statements don’t clearly follow from the “is” statements that the scientific method provides, as David Hume pointed out long ago.

Eliezer distinguishes between Terminal Values and Instrumental Values, but what determines the terminal values? Somehow, he has to populate the objective function whose maximum is what he will rationally try to do. How he ends up assigning those intrinsic values relies on methods of argument that are neither deductive nor observational.

So when a scientist outside the laboratory says,

“Well, no one really knows, and I admit that I don’t have any evidence—it’s a religious belief, it can’t be disproven one way or another by observation.”

it’s not because they don’t understand the scientific method. It’s because they do understand that there are different kinds of statements, and different procedures are used to argue for or against statements in each category. The methods for two of these categories are very sharp, effective, and mechanically verifiable: the method of logical deduction and the method of experimental observation.

Maybe another Euclid or Galileo will someday develop a third method for one of these other kinds of reality, but it won’t look like deduction or observation. (And keep in mind that there were 1900 years between Euclid and Galileo!) Until then, or perhaps forever, we have less turn-the-crank methods of describing the experience of consciousness or determining what the goals of our lives should be. They’re harder to talk about, but they’re not worthless, either, any more than the pre-deductive methods that Babylonians used to discover the Pythagorean theorem.

If you ask me about my religious beliefs, it’s going to be along the lines of Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable. In the late 1990′s, it seemed to me that people arguing about whether God exists differed primarily in their definitions of “God,” and so were Arguing “By Definition”. I thought it better to just use that word as a label for whatever the foundation of reality might be and ask about its attributes; the other direction seems to be a Wrong Question. I was quite content (and in some ways, still am) with An Alien God, and since I was starting from a philosophy of Camus-inspired absurdism, admitting the existence of an objective world was what I considered the biggest part of my religious conversion—the rest was details.

I don’t plan to use much God-language here—that’s the thing that bothers me most about my 2006 Manifesto. In fact, I found a survey of the LessWrong Diaspora (2016), and some 88.3% of the respondents said they were either atheistic or agnostic (page 28). Certainly if I used the word “God” the way Einstein did, I would be misunderstood, so I’ll Taboo My Words.

Also, what I’m interested in nowadays are not the kinds of philosophical questions that Christian churches fight over, they’re more the kinds of questions Buddhist sects politely disagree about.

So is this the right place for me? I suppose I am in the 12%...