Ontological Crisis in Humans

Imagine a robot that was designed to find and collect spare change around its owner’s house. It had a world model where macroscopic everyday objects are ontologically primitive and ruled by high-school-like physics and (for humans and their pets) rudimentary psychology and animal behavior. Its goals were expressed as a utility function over this world model, which was sufficient for its designed purpose. All went well until one day, a prankster decided to “upgrade” the robot’s world model to be based on modern particle physics. This unfortunately caused the robot’s utility function to instantly throw a domain error exception (since its inputs are no longer the expected list of macroscopic objects and associated properties like shape and color), thus crashing the controlling AI.

According to Peter de Blanc, who used the phrase “ontological crisis” to describe this kind of problem,

Human beings also confront ontological crises. We should find out what cognitive algorithms humans use to solve the same problems described in this paper. If we wish to build agents that maximize human values, this may be aided by knowing how humans re-interpret their values in new ontologies.

I recently realized that a couple of problems that I’ve been thinking over (the nature of selfishness and the nature of pain/​pleasure/​suffering/​happiness) can be considered instances of ontological crises in humans (although I’m not so sure we necessarily have the cognitive algorithms to solve them). I started thinking in this direction after writing this comment:

This formulation or variant of TDT requires that before a decision problem is handed to it, the world is divided into the agent itself (X), other agents (Y), and “dumb matter” (G). I think this is misguided, since the world doesn’t really divide cleanly into these 3 parts.

What struck me is that even though the world doesn’t divide cleanly into these 3 parts, our models of the world actually do. In the world models that we humans use on a day to day basis, and over which our utility functions seem to be defined (to the extent that we can be said to have utility functions at all), we do take the Self, Other People, and various Dumb Matter to be ontologically primitive entities. Our world models, like the coin collecting robot’s, consist of these macroscopic objects ruled by a hodgepodge of heuristics and prediction algorithms, rather than microscopic particles governed by a coherent set of laws of physics.

For example, the amount of pain someone is experiencing doesn’t seem to exist in the real world as an XML tag attached to some “person entity”, but that’s pretty much how our models of the world work, and perhaps more importantly, that’s what our utility functions expect their inputs to look like (as opposed to, say, a list of particles and their positions and velocities). Similarly, a human can be selfish just by treating the object labeled “SELF” in its world model differently from other objects, whereas an AI with a world model consisting of microscopic particles would need to somehow inherit or learn a detailed description of itself in order to be selfish.

To fully confront the ontological crisis that we face, we would have to upgrade our world model to be based on actual physics, and simultaneously translate our utility functions so that their domain is the set of possible states of the new model. We currently have little idea how to accomplish this, and instead what we do in practice is, as far as I can tell, keep our ontologies intact and utility functions unchanged, but just add some new heuristics that in certain limited circumstances call out to new physics formulas to better update/​extrapolate our models. This is actually rather clever, because it lets us make use of updated understandings of physics without ever having to, for instance, decide exactly what patterns of particle movements constitute pain or pleasure, or what patterns constitute oneself. Nevertheless, this approach hardly seems capable of being extended to work in a future where many people may have nontraditional mind architectures, or have a zillion copies of themselves running on all kinds of strange substrates, or be merged into amorphous group minds with no clear boundaries between individuals.

By the way, I think nihilism often gets short changed around here. Given that we do not actually have at hand a solution to ontological crises in general or to the specific crisis that we face, what’s wrong with saying that the solution set may just be null? Given that evolution doesn’t constitute a particularly benevolent and farsighted designer, perhaps we may not be able to do much better than that poor spare-change collecting robot? If Eliezer is worried that actual AIs facing actual ontological crises could do worse than just crash, should we be very sanguine that for humans everything must “add up to moral normality”?

To expand a bit more on this possibility, many people have an aversion against moral arbitrariness, so we need at a minimum a utility translation scheme that’s principled enough to pass that filter. But our existing world models are a hodgepodge put together by evolution so there may not be any such sufficiently principled scheme, which (if other approaches to solving moral philosophy also don’t pan out) would leave us with legitimate feelings of “existential angst” and nihilism. One could perhaps still argue that any current such feelings are premature, but maybe some people have stronger intuitions than others that these problems are unsolvable?

Do we have any examples of humans successfully navigating an ontological crisis? The LessWrong Wiki mentions loss of faith in God:

In the human context, a clear example of an ontological crisis is a believer’s loss of faith in God. Their motivations and goals, coming from a very specific view of life suddenly become obsolete and maybe even nonsense in the face of this new configuration. The person will then experience a deep crisis and go through the psychological task of reconstructing its set of preferences according the new world view.

But I don’t think loss of faith in God actually constitutes an ontological crisis, or if it does, certainly not a very severe one. An ontology consisting of Gods, Self, Other People, and Dumb Matter just isn’t very different from one consisting of Self, Other People, and Dumb Matter (the latter could just be considered a special case of the former with quantity of Gods being 0), especially when you compare either ontology to one made of microscopic particles or even less familiar entities.

But to end on a more positive note, realizing that seemingly unrelated problems are actually instances of a more general problem gives some hope that by “going meta” we can find a solution to all of these problems at once. Maybe we can solve many ethical problems simultaneously by discovering some generic algorithm that can be used by an agent to transition from any ontology to another?

(Note that I’m not saying this is the right way to understand one’s real preferences/​morality, but just drawing attention to it as a possible alternative to other more “object level” or “purely philosophical” approaches. See also this previous discussion, which I recalled after writing most of the above.)