# Impossibility results for unbounded utilities

Some people think that they have unbounded utility functions. This isn’t necessarily crazy, but it presents serious challenges to conventional decision theory. I think it probably leads to abandoning probability itself as a representation of uncertainty (or at least any hope of basing decision theory on such probabilities). This may seem like a drastic response, but we are talking about some pretty drastic inconsistencies.

This result is closely related to standard impossibility results in infinite ethics. I assume it has appeared in the philosophy literature, but I couldn’t find it in the SEP entry on the St. Petersburg paradox so I’m posting it here. (Even if it’s well known, I want something simple to link to.)

(ETA: this argument is extremely similar to Beckstead and Thomas’ argument against Recklessness in A paradox for tiny probabilities and enormous values. The main difference is that they use transitivity +”recklessness” to get a contradiction whereas I argue directly from “non-timidity.” I also end up violating a dominance principle which seems even more surprising to violate, but at this point it’s kind of like splitting hairs. I give a slightly stronger set of arguments in Better impossibility results for unbounded utilities.)

# Weak version

We’ll think of preferences as relations over probability distributions over some implicit space of outcomes (and we’ll identify outcomes with the constant probability distribution). We’ll show that there is no relation which satisfies three properties: Antisymmetry, Unbounded Utilities, and Dominance.

Note that we assume nothing about the existence of an underlying utility function. We don’t even assume that the preference relation is complete or transitive.

## The properties

Antisymmetry: It’s never the case that both and .

Unbounded Utilities: there is an infinite sequence of outcomes each “more than twice as good” as the last.[1] More formally, there exists an outcome such that:

• for every .

• [2]

That is, is not as good as a chance of , which is not as good as a chance of , which is not as good as a chance of … This is nearly the weakest possible version of unbounded utilities.[3]

Dominance: let and be sequences of lotteries, and be a sequence of probabilities that sum to 1. If for all , then .

## Inconsistency proof

Consider the lottery

We can write as a mixture:

By definition . And for each , Unbounded Utilities implies that . Thus Dominance implies , contradicting Antisymmetry.

## How to avoid the paradox?

By far the easiest way out is to reject Unbounded Utilities. But that’s just a statement about our preferences, so it’s not clear we get to “reject” it.

Another common way out is to assume that any two “infinitely good” outcomes are incomparable, and therefore to reject Dominance.[4] This results in being indifferent to receiving \$1 in every world (if the expectation is already infinite), or doubling the probability of all good worlds, which seems pretty unsatisfying.

Another option is to simply ignore small probabilities, which again leads to rejecting even the finite version of Dominance—sometimes when you mix together lotteries something will fall below the “ignore it” threshold leading the direction of your preference to reverse. I think this is pretty bizarre behavior, and in general ignoring small probabilities is much less appealing than rejecting Unbounded Utilities.

All of these options seem pretty bad to me. But in the next section, we’ll show that if the unbounded utilities are symmetric—if there are both arbitrarily good and arbitrarily bad outcomes—then things get even worse.

# Strong version

I expect this argument is also known in the literature; but I don’t feel like people around LW usually grapple with exactly how bad it gets.

In this section we’ll show there is no relation which satisfies three properties: Antisymmetry, Symmetric Unbounded Utilities, and Weak Dominance.

(ETA: actually I think that even with only positive utilities you already violate something very close to Weak Dominance, which Beckstead and Thomas call Prospect-Outcome dominance. I find this version of Weak Dominance slightly more compelling, but Symmetric Unbounded Utilities is a much stronger assumption than Unbounded Utilities or non-Timidity, so it’s probably worth being aware of both versions. In a footnote[5] I also define an even weaker dominance principle that we are forced to violate.)

## The properties

Antisymmetry: It’s never the case that both and .

Symmetric Unbounded Utilities. There is an infinite sequence of outcomes each of which is “more than twice as important” as the last but with opposite sign. More formally, there is an outcome such that:

• For every even :

• For every odd :

That is, a certainty of is outweighed by a chance of , which is outweighed by a chance of , which is outweighed by a chance of ….

Weak Dominance.[5] For any outcome , any sequence of lotteries , and any sequence of probabilities that sum to 1:

• If for every , then .

• If for every , then .

## Inconsistency proof

Now consider the lottery

We can write as the mixture:

By Unbounded Utilities each of these terms is . So by Weak Dominance,

But we can also write as the mixture:

By Unbounded Utilities each of these terms is . So by Weak Dominance . This contradicts Antisymmetry.

## Now what?

As usual, the easiest way out is to abandon Unbounded Utilities. But if that’s just the way you feel about extreme outcomes, then you’re in a sticky situation.

You could allow for unbounded utilities as long as they only go in one direction. For example, you might be open to the possibility of arbitrarily bad outcomes but not the possibility of arbitrarily good outcomes.[6] But the asymmetric version of unbounded utilities doesn’t seem very intuitively appealing, and you still have to give up the ability to compare any two infinitely good outcomes (violating Dominance).

People like talking about extensions of the real numbers, but those don’t help you avoid any of the contradictions above. For example, if you want to extend to a preference order over hyperreal lotteries, it’s just even harder for it to be consistent.

Giving up on Weak Dominance seems pretty drastic. At that point you are talking about probability distributions, but I don’t think you’re really using them for decision theory—it’s hard to think of a more fundamental axiom to violate. Other than Antisymmetry, which is your other option.

At this point I think the most appealing option, for someone committed to unbounded utilities, is actually much more drastic: I think you should give up on probabilities as an abstraction for describing uncertainty, and should not try to have a preference relation over lotteries at all.[7] There are no ontologically fundamental lotteries to decide between, so this isn’t necessarily so bad. Instead you can go back to talking directly about preferences over uncertain states of affairs, and build a totally different kind of machinery to understand or analyze those preferences.

# ETA: replacing dominance

Since writing the above I’ve become more sympathetic to violations of Dominance and even Weak Dominance—it would be pretty jarring to give up on them, but I can at least imagine it. I still think violating “Very Weak Dominance”[5] is pretty bad, but I don’t think it captures the full weirdness of the situation.

So in this section I’ll try to replace Weak Dominance by a principle I find even more robust: if I am indifferent between and any of the lotteries , then I’m also indifferent between X and any mixture of the lotteries . This isn’t strictly weaker than Weak Dominance, but violating it feels even weirder to me. At any rate, it’s another fairly strong impossibility result constraining unbounded utilities.

## The properties

We’ll work with a relation over lotteries. We write if both and . We write if but not . We’ll show that can’t satisfy four properties: Transitivity, Intermediate mixtures, Continuous symmetric unbounded utilities, and Indifference to homogeneous mixtures.

Intermediate mixtures. If , then .

Transitivity. If and then .

Continuous symmetric unbounded utilities. There is an infinite sequence of lotteries each of which is “exactly twice as important” as the last but with opposite sign. More formally, there is an outcome such that:

• For every even :

• For every odd :

That is, a certainty of is exactly offset by a chance of , which is exactly offset by a chance of , which is exactly offset by a chance of ….

Intuitively, this principle is kind of like symmetric unbounded utilities, but we assume that it’s possible to dial down each of the outcomes in the sequence (perhaps by mixing it with ) until the inequalities become exact equalities.

Homogeneous mixtures. Let be an outcome, , a sequence of lotteries, and be a sequence of probabilities summing to 1. If for all , then .

## Inconsistency proof

Consider the lottery

We can write as the mixture:

By Unbounded Utilities each of these terms is . So by homogeneous mixtures,

But we can also write as the mixture:

By Unbounded Utilities each of these terms other than the first is . So by Homogenous Mixtures, the combination of all terms other than the first is . Together with the fact that , Intermediate Mixtures and Transitivity imply . But that contradicts .

1. ^

Note that we could replace “more than twice as good” with “at least 0.00001% better” and obtain exactly the same result. You may find this modified version of the principle more appealing, and it is closer to non-timidity as defined in Beckstead and Thomas. Note that the modified principle implies the original by applying transitivity 100000 times, but you don’t actually need to apply transitivity to get a contradiction, you can just apply Dominance to a different mixture.

2. ^

You may wonder why we don’t just write . If we did this, we’d need to introduce an additional assumption that if , . This would be fine, but it seemed nicer to save some symbols and make a slightly weaker assumption.

3. ^

The only plausibly-weaker definition I see is to say that there are outcomes and an infinite sequence such that for all : . If we replaced the with then this would be stronger than our version, but with the inequality it’s not actually sufficient for a paradox.

To see this, consider a universe with three outcomes and a preference order that always prefers lotteries with higher probability of and breaks ties using by preferring a higher probability of . This satisfies all of our other properties. It satisfies the weaker version of the axiom by taking for all , and it wouldn’t be crazy to say that it has “unbounded” utilities.

4. ^

For realistic agents who think unbounded utilities are possible, it seems like they should assign positive probability to encountering a St. Petersburg paradox such that all decisions have infinite expected utility. So this is quite a drastic thing to give up on. See also: Pascal’s mugging.

5. ^

I find this principle pretty solid, but it’s worth noting that the same inconsistency proof would work for the even weaker “Very Weak Dominance”: for any pair of outcomes with , and any sequence of lotteries each strictly better than , any mixture of the should at least be strictly better than !

6. ^

Technically you can also violate Symmetric Unbalanced Utility while having both arbitrarily good and arbitrarily bad outcomes, as long as those outcomes aren’t comparable to one another. For example, suppose that worlds have a real-valued amount of suffering and a real-valued amount of pleasure. Then we could have a lexical preference for minimizing expected suffering (considering all worlds with infinite expected suffering as incomparable), and try to maximize pleasure only as a tie-breaker (considering all worlds with infinite expected pleasure as incomparable).

7. ^

Instead you could keep probabilities but abandon infinite probability distributions. But at this point I’m not exactly sure what unbounded utilities means—if each decision involves only finitely many outcomes, then in what sense do all the other outcomes exist? Perhaps I may face infinitely many possible decisions, but each involves only finitely many outcomes? But then what am I to make of my parent’s decisions while raising me, which affected my behavior in each of those infinitely many possible decisions? It seems like they face an infinite mixture of possible outcomes. Overall, it seems to me like giving up on infinitely big probability distributions implies giving up on the spirit of unbounded utilities, or else going down an even stranger road.

• I am not a fan of unbounded utilities, but it is worth noting that most (all?) the problems with unbounded utilties are actually a problem with utility functions that are not integrable with respect to your probabilities. It feels basically okay to me to have unbounded utilities as long as extremely good/​bad events are also sufficiently unlikely.

The space of allowable probability functions that go with an unbounded utility can still be closed under finite mixtures and conditioning on positive probability events.

Indeed, if you think of utility functions as coming from VNM, and you a space of lotteries closed under finite mixtures but not arbitrary mixtures, I think there are VNM preferences that can only correspond to unbounded utility functions, and the space of lotteries is such that you can’t make St. Petersburg paradoxes. (I am guessing, I didn’t check this.)

1. I strongly agree that the key problem with St. Petersburg (and Pasadena) paradoxes is utility not being integrable with respect to the lotteries/​probabilities. Non-integrability is precisely what makes 𝔼U undefined (as a real number), whereas unboundedness of U alone does not.

2. However, it’s also worth pointing out that the space of functions which are guaranteed to be integrable with respect to any probability measure is exactly the space of bounded (measurable) functions. So if one wants to save utilities’ unboundedness by arguing from integrability, that requires accepting some constraints on one’s beliefs (e.g., that they be finitely supported). If one doesn’t want to accept any constraints on beliefs, then accepting a boundedness constraint on utility looks like a very natural alternative.

3. I agree with your last paragraph. If the state space of the world is ℝ, and the utility function is the identity function, then the induced preferences over finitely-supported lotteries can only be represented by unbounded utility functions, but are also consistent and closed under finite mixtures.

4. Finite support feels like a really harsh constraint on beliefs. I wonder if there are some other natural ways to constrain probability measures and utility functions. For example, if we have a topology on our state-space, we can require that our beliefs be compactly supported and our utilities be continuous. “Compactly supported” is way less strict than “finitely supported,” and “continuous” feels more natural than “bounded.” What are some other pairs of “compromise” conditions such that any permissible utility function is integrable with respect to any permissible belief distribution? (Perhaps it would be nice to have one that allows Gaussian beliefs, say, which are neither finitely nor compactly supported.)

• Note that if dominates in the sense that there is a such that for all events , , is integrable wrt , then I think is integrable wrt . I propose the space of all probability distribution dominated by a given distribution .

Conveniently, if we move to semi-measures, we can take P to be the universal semi-measure. I think we can have our space of utility functions be anything integrable WRT the universal semi-measure, and our space of probabilities be anything lower semi-computable, and everything will work out nicely.

• I think bounded functions are the only computable functions that are integrable WRT the universal semi-measure. I think this is equivalent to de Blanc 2007?

The construction is just the obvious one: for any unbounded computable utility function, any universal semi-measure must assign reasonable probability to a St Petersburg game for that utility function (since we can construct a computable St Petersburg game by picking a utility randomly then looping over outcomes until we find one of at least the desired utility).

• Compact support still seems like an unreasonably strict constraint to me, not much less so than finite support. Compactness can be thought of as a topological generalization of finiteness, so, on a noncompact space, compact support means assigning probability 1 to a subset that’s infinitely tiny compared to its complement.

• I observe that I probably miscommunicated. I think multiple people took me to be arguing for a space of lotteries with finite support. That is NOT what I meant. That is sufficient, but I meant something more general when I said “lotteries closed under finite mixtures” I did not mean there only finitely many atomic worlds in the lottery. I only meant that there is a space of lotteries, some of which maybe have infinite support if you want to think about atomic worlds, and for any finite set of lotteries, you can take a finite mixture of those lotteries to get a new lottery in the space. The space of lotteries has to be closed under finite mixtures for VNM to make sense, but the emphasis is on the fact that it is not closed under all possible countable mixtures, not that the mixtures have finite support.

• Hm, what would that last thing look like?

Like, I agree that you can have gambles closed under finite but not countable gambling and the math works. But it seems like reality is a countably-additive sort of a place. E.g. if these different outcomes of a lottery are physical states of some system, QM is going to tell you to take some infinite sums. I’m just generally having trouble getting a grasp on what the world (and our epistemic state re. the world) would look like for this finite gambles stuff to make sense.

• Note that you can take infinite sums, without being able to take all possible infinite sums.

I suspect it looks like you have a prior distribution, and the allowable probability distributions are those that you can get to from this distribution using finitely many bits of evidence.

• [ ]
[deleted]
• 6 Feb 2022 21:59 UTC
27 points
6 ∶ 1

I think this argument is cool, and I appreciate how distilled it is.

Basically just repeating what Scott said but in my own tongue: this argument leaves open the option of denying that (epistemic) probabilities are closed under countable combination, and deploying some sort of “leverage penalty” that penalizes extremely high-utility outcomes as extremely unlikely a priori.

I agree with your note that the simplicitly prior doesn’t implement leverage penalties. I also note that I’m pretty uncertain myself about how to pull off leverage penalties correctly, assuming they’re a good idea (which isn’t clear to me).

I note further that the issue as I see it arises even when all utilities are finite, but some are (“mathematically”, not merely cosmically) large (where numbers like 10^100 are cosmically large, and numbers like 3^^^3 are mathematically large). Like, why are our actions not dominated by situations where the universe is mathematically large? When I introspect, it doesn’t quite feel like the answer is “because we’re certain it isn’t”, nor “because utility maxes out at the cosmological scale”, but rather something more like “how would you learn that there may or may not be 3^^^3 happy people with your choice as the fulcrum?” plus a sense that you should be suspicious that any given action is more likely to get 3^^^3 utility than any other (even in the presence of Pascall muggers) until you’ve got some sort of compelling account of how the universe ended up so large and you ended up being the fulcrum anyway. (Which, notably, starts to feel intertwined with my confusion about naturalistic priors, and I have at least a little hope that a good naturalistic prior would resolve the issue automatically.)

Or in other words, “can utilities be unbounded?” is a proxy war for “can utilities be mathematically large?”, with the “utilities must be bounded” resolution in the former corresponding (at least seemingly) to “utilities can be at most cosmically large” in the later. And while that may be the case, I don’t yet feel like I understand reasoning in the face of large utilities, and your argument does not dispell my confusion, and so I remain confused.

And, to be clear, I’m not saying that this problem seems intractible to me. There are various lines of attack that seem plausible from here. But I haven’t seen anyone providing the “cognitive recepits” from mapping out those lines of reasoning and deconfusing themselves about big utilities. For all I know, “utilities should be bounded (and furthermore, max utility should be at most cosmically large)” is the right answer. But I don’t confuse this guess for understanding.

• TL;DR: I think that the discussion in this post is most relevant when we talk about the utility of whole universes. And for that purpose, I think a leverage penalty doesn’t make sense.

A leverage penalty seems more appropriate for saying something like “it’s very unlikely that my decisions would have such a giant impact,” but I don’t think that should be handled in the utility function or decision theory.

Instead, I’d say: if it’s possible to have “pivotal” decisions that affect 3^^^3 people, then it’s also possible to have 3^^^3 people in “normal” situations all making their separate (correlated) decisions, eating 3^^^3 sandwiches, and so the stakes of everything are similarly mathematically big.

plus a sense that you should be suspicious that any given action is more likely to get 3^^^3 utility than any other

I think that if utilities are large but bounded, then I feel like everything “adds up to normality”—if there is a way to get 3^^^3 utility, it seems like “maximize option value, figure out what’s going on, stay sane” is a reasonable bet for maximizing EV (e.g. by maximizing probability of the great outcome).

Intuitively, this also seems like what you should end up doing even if utilities are “infinite” (an expression that seems ~meaningless).

You can’t actually make these arguments go through for unbounded or infinite utilities, and part of the point is to observe that no arguments go through with unbounded/​infinite utilities because the entire procedure is screwed.

Or in other words, “can utilities be unbounded?” is a proxy war for “can utilities be mathematically large?”, with the “utilities must be bounded” resolution in the former corresponding (at least seemingly) to “utilities can be at most cosmically large” in the later.

I feel like in this discussion it’s not helpful to talk directly about magnitudes of utility functions, and to just talk directly about our questions about preferences, since that’s presumably the thing we have intuitions about. (I’d say that even if we thought utility functions definitely made sense in the regime where you have unbounded preferences, but it seems doubly true given that utility functions don’t seem very likely to be the right abstraction for unbounded preferences.)

deploying some sort of “leverage penalty” that penalizes extremely high-utility outcomes as extremely unlikely a priori.

This seems to put you in a strange position though: you are not only saying that high-value outcomes are unlikely, but that you have no preferences about them. That is, they aren’t merely impossible-in-reality, they are impossible-in-thought-experiments.

I personally feel like even if the thought experiments are impossible, they fairly clearly illustrate that some of our claims about our preferences can’t be right. To the extent that those claims come in large part from the appeal of certain clean mathematical machinery, I think the right first move is probably to become more unhappy about that machinery. To the extent that we have strong intuitions about non-timidity or unboundedness, then “become disillusioned with certain mathematical machinery” won’t help and we’ll just have to deal directly with sorting out our intuitions (but I think it’s fairly unlikely that journey involves discovering any philosophical insight that restores the appeal of the mathematical machinery).

“how would you learn that there may or may not be 3^^^3 happy people with your choice as the fulcrum?”

How would you learn that there may or may not be a 10^100 future people with our choices as the fulcrum? Why would the same process not generalize? (And if it may happen in the future but not now, is that 0 probability?)

To give my own account of the situation:

• It’s easy to come to believe that there are 3^^^3 potential people and that their welfare depends on a small number of pivotal events (through exactly the same kind of argument that leads us to believe that there are 10^100 potential people).

• Under those conditions, it’s at least plausible that there will inevitably be roughly 3^^^3 dreamers who come to that belief incorrectly (or who come to that belief correctly, but who incorrectly believe that they themselves are participating in the pivotal event). This involves some kind of necessary relationship between moral value and agency, which isn’t obvious but at least feels plausible. Note that most rationalists already bite this bullet, in that they think that the vast majority of individuals who think they are at the “hinge of history” are in simulations (and hence mistaken).

• Despite believing that, the prospect of “I am actually in the pivotal event” can easily dominate expected utility calculations in particular cases.

• That said, it’s still the case that a large universe contains many mistaken dreamers, so the costs they pay (in pursuit of the mistaken belief that they are participating in the pivotal event) will be comparable to the scale of consequences of the pivotal event. You end up with a non-fanatical outlook on the pivotal event itself, such that it will only dominate the EV if you have normal evidence that the current time is pivotal. (You get this kind of “adding up to normality” under much weaker assumptions than a strong leverage penalty.)

• But it still matters how much more we care about bigger universes—if the universe appears to be finite or small, should we assume that we are missing something?

My personal answer is that infinite universes don’t seem infinitely more important than finite universes, and that 2x bigger universes generally don’t seem 2x as important. (I tentatively feel that amongst reasonably-large universes, value is almost independent of size—while thinking that within any given universe 2x more flourishing is much closer to 2x as valuable.)

But this really seems like a brute question about preferences. And in this context, I don’t think a leverage penalty feels like a plausible way to resolve the confusion.

• if it’s possible to have “pivotal” decisions that affect 3^^^3 people, then it’s also possible to have 3^^^3 people in “normal” situations all making their separate (correlated) decisions, eating 3^^^3 sandwiches, and so the stakes of everything are similarly mathematically big.

Agreed.

This seems to put you in a strange position though: you are not only saying that high-value outcomes are unlikely, but that you have no preferences about them. That is, they aren’t merely impossible-in-reality, they are impossible-in-thought-experiments.

Perhaps I’m being dense, but I don’t follow this point. If I deny that my epistemic probabilities are closed under countable weighted sums, and assert that the hypothesis “you can actually play a St. Petersburg game for n steps” is less likely than it is easy-to-describe (as n gets large), in what sense does that render me unable to consider St. Petersburg games in thought experiments?

How would you learn that there may or may not be a 10^100 future people with our choices as the fulcrum? Why would the same process not generalize? (And if it may happen in the future but not now, is that 0 probability?)

The same process generalizes.

My point was not “it’s especially hard to learn that there are 3^^^3 people with our choices as the fulcrum”. Rather, consider the person who says “but shouldn’t our choices be dominated by our current best guesses about what makes the universe seem most enormous, more or less regardless of how implausibly bad those best guesses seem?”. More concretely, perhaps they say “but shouldn’t we do whatever seems most plausibly likely to satisfy the simulator-gods, because if there are simulator gods and we do please them then we could get mathematically large amounts of utility, and this argument is bad but it’s not 1 in 3^^^3 bad, so.” One of my answers to this is “don’t worry about the 3^^^3 happy people until you believe yourself upstream of 3^^^3 happy people in the analogous fashion to how we currently think we’re upstream of 10^50 happy people”.

And for the record, I agree that “maximize option value, figure out what’s going on, stay sane” is another fine response. (As is “I think you have made an error in assessing your insane plan as having higher EV than business-as-usual”, which is perhaps one argument-step upstream of that.)

I don’t feel too confused about how to act in real life; I do feel somewhat confused about how to formally justify that sort of reasoning.

My personal answer is that infinite universes don’t seem infinitely more important than finite universes, and that 2x bigger universes generally don’t seem 2x as important. (I tentatively feel that amongst reasonably-large universes, value is almost independent of size—while thinking that within any given universe 2x more flourishing is much closer to 2x as valuable.)

That sounds like you’re asserting that the amount of possible flourishing limits to some maximum value (as, eg, the universe gets large enough to implement all possible reasonably-distinct combinations of flourishing civilizations)?

I’m sympathetic to this view. I’m not fully sold, of course. (Example confusion between me and that view: I have conflicting intuitions about whether running an extra identical copy of the same simulated happy people is ~useless or ~twice as good, and as such I’m uncertain about whether tiling copies of all combinations of flourishing civilizations is better in a way that doesn’t decay.)

While we’re listing guesses, a few of my other guesses include:

• Naturalism resolves the issue somehow. Like, perhaps the fact that you need to be embedded somewhere inside the world with a long St. Petersburg game drives its probability lower than the length of the sentence “a long St. Petersburg game” in a relevant way, and this phenomenon generalizes, or something. (Presumably this would have to come hand-in-hand with some sort of finitist philosophy, that denies that epistemic probabilities are closed under countable combination, due to your argument above.)

• There is a maximum utility, namely “however good the best arrangement of the entire mathematical multiverse could be”, and even if it does wind up being the case that the amount of flourishing you can get per-instantiation fails to converge as space increases, or even if it does turn out that instantiating all the flourishing n times is n times as good, there’s still some maximal number of instantiations that the multiverse is capable of supporting or something, and the maximum utility remains well-defined.

• The whole utility-function story is just borked. Like, we already know the concept is philosophically fraught. There’s plausibly a utility number, which describes how good the mathematical multiverse is, but the other multiverses we intuitively want to evaluate are counterfactual, and counterfactual mathematical multiverses are dubious above and beyond the already-dubious mathematical multiverse. Maybe once we’re deconfused about this whole affair, we’ll retreat to somewhere like “utility functions are a useful abstraction on local scales” while having some global theory of a pretty different character.

• Some sort of ultrafinitism wins the day, and once we figure out how to be suitably ultrafinitist, we don’t go around wanting countable combinations of epistemic probabilities or worrying too much about particularly big numbers. Like, such a resolution could have a flavor where “Nate’s utilities are unbounded” becomes the sort of thing that infinitists say about Nate, but not the sort of thing a properly operating ultrafinitist says about themselves, and things turn out to work for the ultrafinitists even if the infinitists say their utilities are unbounded or w/​e.

To be clear, I haven’t thought about this stuff all that much, and it’s quite plausible to me that someone is less confused than me here. (That said, most accounts that I’ve heard, as far as I’ve managed to understand them, sound less to me like they come from a place of understanding, and more like the speaker has prematurely committed to a resolution.)

• One of my answers to this is “don’t worry about the 3^^^3 happy people until you believe yourself upstream of 3^^^3 happy people in the analogous fashion to how we currently think we’re upstream of 10^50 happy people”.

My point was that this doesn’t seem consistent with anything like a leverage penalty.

And for the record, I agree that “maximize option value, figure out what’s going on, stay sane” is another fine response.

My point was that we can say lots about which actions are more or less likely to generate 3^^^3 utility even without knowing how the universe got so large. (And then this appears to have relatively clear implications for our behavior today, e.g. by influencing our best guesses about the degree of moral convergence.)

That sounds like you’re asserting that the amount of possible flourishing limits to some maximum value (as, eg, the universe gets large enough to implement all possible reasonably-distinct combinations of flourishing civilizations)?

In terms of preferences, I’m just saying that it’s not the case that for every universe, there is another possible universe so much bigger that I care only 1% as much about what happens in the smaller universe. If you look at a 10^20 universe and the 10^30 universe that are equally simple, I’m like “I care about what happens in both of those universes. It’s possible I care about the 10^30 universe 2x as much, but it might be more like 1.000001x as much or 1x as much, and it’s not plausible I care 10^10 as much.” That means I care about each individual life less if it happens in a big universe.

This isn’t why I believe the view, but one way you might be able to better sympathize is by thinking: “There is another universe that is like the 10^20 universe but copied 10^10 times. That’s not that much more complex than the 10^20 universe. And in fact total observer counts were already dominated by copies of those universes that were tiled 3^^^3 times, and the description complexity difference between 3^^^3 and 10^10 x 3^^^3 are not very large.” Of course unbounded utilities don’t admit that kind of reasoning, because they don’t admit any kind of reasoning. And indeed, the fact that the expectations diverge seem very closely related to the exact reasoning you would care most about doing in order to actually assess the relative importance of different decisions, so I don’t think the infinity thing is a weird case, it seems absolutely central and I don’t even know how to talk about what the view should be if the infinites didn’t diverge.

I’m not very intuitively drawn to views like “count the distinct experiences,” and I think that in addition to being kind of unappealing those views also have some pretty crazy consequences (at least for all the concrete versions I can think of).

I basically agree that someone who has the opposite view—that for every universe there is a bigger universe that dwarfs its importance—has a more complicated philosophical question and I don’t know the answer. That said, I think it’s plausible they are in the same position as someone who has strong brute intuitions that A>B, B>C, and C>A for some concrete outcomes A, B, C—no amount of philosophical progress will help them get out of the inconsistency. I wouldn’t commit to that pessimistic view, but I’d give it maybe 50/​50---I don’t see any reason that there needs to be a satisfying resolution to this kind of paradox.

Perhaps I’m being dense, but I don’t follow this point. If I deny that my epistemic probabilities are closed under countable weighted sums, and assert that the hypothesis “you can actually play a St. Petersburg game for n steps” is less likely than it is easy-to-describe (as n gets large), in what sense does that render me unable to consider St. Petersburg games in thought experiments?

Do you have preferences over the possible outcomes of thought experiments? Does it feel intuitively like they should satisfy dominance principles? If so, it seems like it’s just as troubling that there are thought experiments. Analogously, if I had the strong intuition that A>B>C>A, and someone said “Ah but don’t worry, B could never happen in the real world!” I wouldn’t be like “Great that settles it, no longer feel confused+troubled.”

• My point was that this doesn’t seem consistent with anything like a leverage penalty.

I’m not particulalry enthusiastic about “artificial leverage penalties” that manually penalize the hypothesis you can get 3^^^3 happy people by a factor of 1/​3^^^3 (and so insofar as that’s what you’re saying, I agree).

From my end, the core of my objection feels more like “you have an extra implicit assumption that lotteries are closed under countable combination, and I’m not sold on that.” The part where I go “and maybe some sufficiently naturalistic prior ends up thinking long St. Petersburg games are ultimately less likely than they are simple???” feels to me more like a parenthetical, and a wild guess about how the weakpoint in your argument could resolve.

(My guess is that you mean something more narrow and specific by “leverage penalty” than I did, and that me using those words caused confusion. I’m happy to retreat to a broader term, that includes things like “big gambles just turn out not to unbalance naturalistic reasoning when you’re doing it properly (eg. b/​c finding-yourself-in-the-universe correctly handles this sort of thing somehow)”, if you have one.)

(My guess is that part of the difference in framing in the above paragraphs, and in my original comment, is due to me updating in response to your comments, and retreating my position a bit. Thanks for the points that caused me to update somewhat!)

My point was that we can say lots about which actions are more or less likely to generate 3^^^3 utility even without knowing how the universe got so large.

I agree.

In terms of preferences, I’m just saying...

This seems like a fine guess to me. I don’t feel sold on it, but that could ofc be because you’ve resolved confusions that I have not. (The sort of thing that would persuade me would be you demonstrating at least as much mastery of my own confusions than I possess, and then walking me through the resolution. (Which I say for the purpose of being upfront about why I have not yet updated in favor of this view. In particular, it’s not a request. I’d be happy for more thoughts on it if they’re cheap and you find generating them to be fun, but don’t think this is terribly high-priority.))

That means I care about each individual life less if it happens in a big universe.

I indeed find this counter-intuitive. Hooray for flatly asserting things I might find counter-intuitive!

Let me know if you want me to flail in the direction of confusions that stand between me and what I understand to be your view. The super short version is something like “man, I’m not even sure whether logic or physics comes first, so I get off that train waaay before we get to the Tegmark IV logical multiverse”.

(Also, to be clear, I don’t find UDASSA particularly compelling, mainly b/​c of how confused I remain in light of it. Which I note in case you were thinking that the inferential gap you need to span stretches only to UDASSA-town.)

Do you have preferences over the possible outcomes of thought experiments? Does it feel intuitively like they should satisfy dominance principles? If so, it seems like it’s just as troubling that there are thought experiments.

You’ve lost me somewhere. Maybe try backing up a step or two? Why are we talking about thought experiments?

One of my best explicit hypotheses for what you’re saying is “it’s one thing to deny closure of epistemic probabiltiies under countable weighted combination in real life, and another to deny them in thought experiments; are you not concerned that denying them in thought experiments is troubling?”, but this doesn’t seem like a very likely argument for you to be making, and so I mostly suspect I’ve lost the thread.

(I stress again that, from my perspective, the heart of my objection is your implicit assumption that lotteries are closed under countable combination. If you’re trying to object to some other thing I said about leverage penalties, my guess is that I micommunicated my position (perhaps due to a poor choice of words) or shifted my position in response to your previous comments, and that our arguments are now desynched.)

Backing up to check whether I’m just missing something obvious, and trying to sharpen my current objection:

It seems to me that your argument contains a fourth, unlisted assumption, which is that lotteries are closed under countable combination. Do you agree? Am I being daft and missing that, like, some basic weak dominance assumption implies closure of lotteries under countable combination? Assuming I’m not being daft, do you agree that your argument sure seems to leave the door open for people who buy antisymmetry, dominance, and unbounded utilities, but reject countable combination of lotteries?

• From my end, the core of my objection feels more like “you have an extra implicit assumption that lotteries are closed under countable combination, and I’m not sold on that.” [...] It seems to me that your argument contains a fourth, unlisted assumption, which is that lotteries are closed under countable combination. Do you agree?

My formal argument is even worse than that: I assume you have preferences over totally arbitrary probability distributions over outcomes!

I don’t think this is unlisted though—right at the beginning I said we were proving theorems about a preference ordering defined over the space of probability distributions over a space of outcomes . I absolutely think it’s plausible to reject that starting premise (and indeed I suggest that someone with “unbounded utilities” ought to reject this premise in an even more dramatic way).

If you’re trying to object to some other thing I said about leverage penalties, my guess is that I miscommunicated my position

It seems to me that our actual situation (i.e. my actual subjective distribution over possible worlds) is divergent in the same way as the St Petersburg lottery, at least with respect to quantities like expected # of happy people. So I’m less enthusiastic about talking about ways of restricting the space of probability distributions to avoid St Petersburg lotteries. This is some of what I’m getting at in the parent, and I now see that it may not be responsive to your view. But I’ll elaborate a bit anyway.

There are universes with populations of that seem only times less likely than our own. It would be very surprising and confusing to learn that not only am I wrong but this epistemic state ought to have been unreachable, that anyone must assign those universes probability at most 1/​. I’ve heard it argued that you should be confident that the world is giant, based on anthropic views like SIA, but I’ve never heard anyone seriously argue that you should be perfectly confident that the world isn’t giant.

If you agree with me that in fact our current epistemic state looks like a St Petersburg lottery with respect to # of people, then I hope you can sympathize with my lack of enthusiasm.

All that is to say: it may yet be that preferences are defined over a space of probability distributions small enough to evade the argument in the OP. But at that point it seems much more likely that preferences just aren’t defined over probability distributions at all—it seems odd to hold onto probability distributions as the object of preferences while restricting the space of probability distributions far enough that they appear to exclude our current situation.

You’ve lost me somewhere. Maybe try backing up a step or two? Why are we talking about thought experiments?

Suppose that you have some intuition that implies A > B > C > A.

At first you are worried that this intuition must be unreliable. But then you realize that actually B is impossible in reality, so consistency is restored.

I claim that you should be skeptical of the original intuition anyway. We have gotten some evidence that the intuition isn’t really tracking preferences in the way you might have hoped that it was—because if it were correctly tracking preferences it wouldn’t be inconsistent like that.

The fact that B can never come about in reality doesn’t really change the situation, you still would have expected consistently-correct intuitions to yield consistent answers.

(The only way I’d end up forgiving the intuition is if I thought it was correctly tracking the impossibility of B. But in this case I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure my intuition that you should be willing to take a 1% risk in order to double the size of the world isn’t tracking some deep fact that would make certain epistemic states inaccessible.)

(That all said, a mark against an intuition isn’t a reason to dismiss it outright, it’s just one mark against it.)

• Ok, cool, I think I see where you’re coming from now.

I don’t think this is unlisted though …

Fair! To a large degree, I was just being daft. Thanks for the clarification.

It seems to me that our actual situation (i.e. my actual subjective distribution over possible worlds) is divergent in the same way as the St Petersburg lottery, at least with respect to quantities like expected # of happy people.

I think this is a good point, and I hadn’t had this thought quite this explicitly myself, and it shifts me a little. (Thanks!)

(I’m not terribly sold on this point myself, but I agree that it’s a crux of the matter, and I’m sympathetic.)

But at that point it seems much more likely that preferences just aren’t defined over probability distributions at all

This might be where we part ways? I’m not sure. A bunch of my guesses do kinda look like things you might describe as “preferences not being defined over probability distributions” (eg, “utility is a number, not a function”). But simultaneously, I feel solid in my ability to use probabliity distributions and utility functions in day-to-day reasoning problems after I’ve chunked the world into a small finite number of possible actions and corresponding outcomes, and I can see a bunch of reasons why this is a good way to reason, and whatever the better preference-formalism turns out to be, I expect it to act a lot like probability distributions and utility functions in the “local” situation after the reasoner has chunked the world.

Like, when someone comes to me and says “your small finite considerations in terms of actions and outcomes are super simplified, and everything goes nutso when we remove all the simplifications and take things to infinity, but don’t worry, sanity can be recovered so long as you (eg) care less about each individual life in a big universe than in a small universe”, then my response is “ok, well, maybe you removed the simplifications in the wrong way? or maybe you took limits in a bad way? or maybe utility is in fact bounded? or maybe this whole notion of big vs small universes was misguided?”

It looks to me like you’re arguing that one should either accept bounded utilities, or reject the probability/​utility factorization in normal circumstances, whereas to me it looks like there’s still a whole lot of flex (ex: ‘outcomes’ like “I come back from the store with milk” and “I come back from the store empty-handed” shouldn’t have been treated the same way as ‘outcomes’ like “Tegmark 3 multiverse branch A, which looks like B” and “Conway’s game of life with initial conditions X, which looks like Y”, and something was going wrong in our generalization from the everyday to the metaphysical, and we shouldn’t have been identifying outcomes with universes and expecting preferences to be a function of probability distributions on those universes, but thinking of “returning with milk” as an outcome is still fine).

And maybe you’d say that this is just conceding your point? That when we pass from everyday reasoning about questions like “is there milk at the store, or not?” to metaphysical reasoning like “Conway’s Life, or Tegmark 3?”, we should either give up on unbounded utilities, or give up on thinking of preferences as defined on probability distributions on outcomes? I more-or-less buy that phrasing, with the caveat that I am open to the weak-point being this whole idea that metaphysical universes are outcomes and that probabilities on outcome-collections that large are reasonable objects (rather than the weakpoint being the probablity/​utility factorization per se).

it seems odd to hold onto probability distributions as the object of preferences while restricting the space of probability distributions far enough that they appear to exclude our current situation

I agree that would be odd.

One response I have is similar to the above: I’m comfortable using probability distributions for stuff like “does the store have milk or not?” and less comfortable using them for stuff like “Conway’s Life or Tegmark 3?”, and wouldn’t be surprised if thinking of mathematical universes as “outcomes” was a Bad Plan and that this (or some other such philosophically fraught assumption) was the source of the madness.

Also, to say a bit more on why I’m not sold that the current situation is divergent in the St. Petersburg way wrt, eg, amount of Fun: if I imagine someone in Vegas offering me a St. Petersburg gamble, I imagine thinking through it and being like “nah, you’d run out of money too soon for this to be sufficiently high EV”. If you’re like “ok, but imagine that the world actually did look like it could run the gamble infinitely”, my gut sense is “wow, that seems real sus”. Maybe the source of the susness is that eventually it’s just not possible to get twice as much Fun. Or maybe it’s that nobody anywhere is ever in a physical position to reliably double the amount of Fun in the region that they’re able to affect. Or something.

And, I’m sympathetic to the objection “well, you surely shouldn’t assign probability less than <some vanishingly small but nonzero number> that you’re in such a situation!”. And maybe that’s true; it’s definitely on my list of guesses. But I don’t by any means feel forced into that corner. Like, maybe it turns out that the lightspeed limit in our universe is a hint about what sort of universes can be real at all (whatever the heck that turns out to mean), and an agent can’t ever face a St. Petersburgish choice in some suitably general way. Or something. I’m more trying to gesture at how wide the space of possibilities seems to me from my state of confusion, than to make specific counterproposals that I think are competitive.

(And again, I note that the reason I’m not updating (more) towards your apparently-narrower stance, is that I’m uncertain about whether you see a narrower space of possible resolutions on account of being less confused than I am, vs because you are making premature philosophical commitments.)

To be clear, I agree that you need to do something weirder than “outcomes are mathematical universes, preferences are defined on (probability distributions over) those” if you’re going to use unbounded utilities. And again, I note that “utility is bounded” is reasonably high on my list of guesses. But I’m just not all that enthusiastic about “outcomes are mathematical universes” in the first place, so \shrug.

The fact that B can never come about in reality doesn’t really change the situation, you still would have expected consistently-correct intuitions to yield consistent answers.

I think I understand what you’re saying about thought experiments, now. In my own tongue: even if you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t face a St. Petersburg gamble in real life, it still seems like St. Petersburg gambles form a perfectly lawful thought experiment, and it’s at least suspicious if your reasoning procedures would break down facing a perfectly lawful scenario (regardless of whether you happen to face it in fact).

I basically agree with this, and note that, insofar as my confusions resolve in the “unbounded utilities” direction, I expect some sort of account of metaphysical/​anthropic/​whatever reasoning that reveals St. Petersburg gambles (and suchlike) to be somehow ill-conceived or ill-typed. Like, in that world, what’s supposed to happen when someone is like “but imagine you’re offered a St. Petersburg bet” is roughly the same as what’s supposed to happen when someone’s like “but imagine a physically identical copy of you that lacks qualia”—you’re supposed to say “no”, and then be able to explain why.

(Or, well, you’re always supposed to say “no” to the gamble and be able to explain why, but what’s up for grabs is whether the “why” is “because utility is bounded”, or some other thing, where I at least am confused enough to still have some of my chips on “some other thing”.)

To be explicit, the way that my story continues to shift in response to what you’re saying, is an indication of continued updating & refinement of my position. Yay; thanks.

• I expect it to act a lot like probability distributions and utility functions in the “local” situation after the reasoner has chunked the world.

I agree with this: (i) it feels true and would be surprising not to add up to normality, (ii) coherence theorems suggest that any preferences can be represented as probabilities+utilities in the case of finitely many outcomes.

“utility is a number, not a function”

This is my view as well, but you still need to handle the dependence on subjective uncertainty. I think the core thing at issue is whether that uncertainty is represented by a probability distribution (where utility is an expectation).

(Slightly less important: my most naive guess is that the utility number is itself represented as a sum over objects, and then we might use “utility function” to refer to the thing being summed.)

Also, to say a bit more on why I’m not sold that the current situation is divergent in the St. Petersburg way wrt, eg, amount of Fun...

I don’t mean that we face some small chance of encountering a St Petersburg lottery. I mean that when I actually think about the scale of the universe, and what I ought to believe about physics, I just immediately run into St Petersburg-style cases:

• It’s unclear whether we can have an extraordinarily long-lived civilization if we reduce entropy consumption to ~0 (e.g. by having a reversible civilization). That looks like at least 5% probability, and would suggest the number of happy lives is much more than times larger than I might have thought. So does it dominate the expectation?

• But nearly-reversible civilizations can also have exponential returns to the resources they are able to acquire during the messy phase of the universe. Maybe that happens with only 1% probability, but it corresponds to yet bigger civilization. So does that mean we should think that colonizing faster increases the value of the future by 1%, or by 100% since these possibilities are bigger and better and dominate the expectation?

• But also it seems quite plausible that our universe is already even-more-exponentially spatially vast, and we merely can’t reach parts of it (but a large fraction of them are nevertheless filled with other civilizations like ours). Perhaps that’s 20%. So it actually looks more likely than the “long-lived reversible civilization” and implies more total flourishing. And on those perspectives not going extinct is more important than going faster, for the usual reasons. So does that dominate the calculus instead?

• Perhaps rather than having a single set of physical constants, our universe runs every possible set. If that’s 5%, and could stack on top of any of the above while implying another factor of of scale. And if the standard model had no magic constants maybe this possibility would be 1% instead of 5%. So should I updated by a factor of 5 that we won’t discover that the standard model has fewer magic constants, because then “continuum of possible copies of our universe running in parallel” has only 1% chance instead of 5%?

• Why not all of the above? What if the universe is vast and it allows for very long lived civilization? And once we bite any of those bullets to grant more people, then it starts to seem like even less of a further ask to assume that there were actually more people instead. So should we assume that multiple of those enhugening assumptions are true (since each one increases values by more than it decreases probability), or just take our favorite and then keep cranking up the numbers larger and larger (with each cranking being more probable than the last and hence more probable than adding a second enhugening assumption)?

Those are very naive physically statements of the possibilities, but the point is that it seems easy to imagine the possibility that populations could be vastly larger than we think “by default”, and many of those possibilities seem to have reasonable chances rather than being vanishingly unlikely. And at face value you might have thought those possibilities were actually action-relevant (e.g. the possibility of exponential returns to resources dominates the EV and means we should rush to colonize after all), but once you actually look at the whole menu, and see how the situation is just obviously paradoxical in every dimension, I think it’s pretty clear that you should cut off this line of thinking.

A bit more precisely: this situation is structurally identical to someone in a St Petersburg paradox shuffling around the outcomes and finding that they can justify arbitrary comparisons because everything has infinite EV and it’s easy to rewrite. That is, we can match each universe U with “U but with long-lived reversible civilizations,” and we find that the long-lived reversible civilizations dominate the calculus. Or we can match each universe U with “U but vast” and find the vast universes dominate the calculus. Or we can match “long-lived reversible civilizations” with “vast” and find that we can ignore long-lived reversible civilizations. It’s just like matching up the outcomes in the St Petersburg paradox in order to show that any outcome dominates itself.

The unbounded utility claim seems precisely like the claim that each of those less-likely-but-larger universes ought to dominate our concern, compared to the smaller-but-more-likely universe we expect by default. And that way of reasoning seems like it leads directly to these contradictions at the very first time you try to apply it to our situation (indeed, I think every time I’ve seen someone use this assumption in a substantive way it has immediately seemed to run into paradoxes, which are so severe that they mean they could as well have reached the opposite conclusion by superficially-equally-valid reasoning).

I totally believe you might end up with a very different way of handling big universes than “bounded utilities,” but I suspect it will also lead to the conclusion that “the plausible prospect of a big universe shouldn’t dominate our concern.” And I’d probably be fine with the result. Once you divorce unbounded utilities from the usual theory about how utilities work, and also divorce them from what currently seems like their main/​only implication, I expect I won’t have anything more than a semantic objection.

More specifically and less confidently, I do think there’s a pretty good chance that whatever theory you end up with will agree roughly with the way that I handle big universes—we’ll just use our real probabilities of each of these universes rather than focusing on the big ones in virtue of their bigness, and within each universe we’ll still prefer have larger flourishing populations. I do think that conclusion is fairly uncertain, but I tentatively think it’s more likely we’ll give up on the principle “a bigger civilization is nearly-linearly better within a given universe” than on the principle “a bigger universe is much less than linearly more important.”

And from a practical perspective, I’m not sure what interim theory you use to reason about these things. I suspect it’s mostly academic for you because e.g. you think alignment is a 99% risk of death instead of a 20% risk of death and hence very few other questions about the future matter. But if you ever did find yourself having to reason about humanity’s long-term future (e.g. to assess the value of extinction risk vs faster colonization, or the extent of moral convergence), then it seems like you should use an interim theory which isn’t fanatical about the possibility of big universes—because the fanatical theories just don’t work, and spit out inconsistent results if combined with our current framework. You can also interpret my argument as strongly objecting to the use of unbounded utilities in that interim framework.

• This is my view as well,

(I, in fact, lifted it off of you, a number of years ago :-p)

but you still need to handle the dependence on subjective uncertainty.

Of course. (And noting that I am, perhaps, more openly confused about how to handle the subjective uncertainty than you are, given my confusions around things like logical uncertainty and whether difficult-to-normalize arithmetical expressions meaningfully denote numbers.)

It’s unclear whether we can have an extraordinarily long-lived civilization …

I agree. Separately, I note that I doubt total Fun is linear in how much compute is available to civilization; continuity with the past & satisfactory completion of narrative arcs started in the past is worth something, from which we deduce that wiping out civilization and replacing it with another different civilization of similar flourish and with 2x as much space to flourish in, is not 2x as good as leaving the original civilization alone. But I’m basically like “yep, whether we can get reversibly-computed Fun chugging away through the high-entropy phase of the universe seems like an empiricle question with cosmically large swings in utility associated therewith.”

But nearly-reversible civilizations can also have exponential returns to the resources they are able to acquire during the messy phase of the universe.

This seems fairly plausible to me! For instance, my best guess is that you can get more than 2x the Fun by computing two people interacting than by computing two individuals separately. (Although my best guess is also that this effect diminishes at scale, \shrug.)

By my lights, it sure would be nice to have more clarity on this stuff before needing to decide how much to rush our expansion. (Although, like, 1st world problems.)

But also it seems quite plausible that our universe is already even-more-exponentially spatially vast, and we merely can’t reach parts of it

Sure, this is pretty plausible, but (arguendo) it shouldn’t really be factoring into our action analysis, b/​c of the part where we can’t reach it. \shrug

Perhaps rather than having a single set of physical constants, our universe runs every possible set.

Sure. And again (arguendo) this doesn’t much matter to us b/​c the others are beyond our sphere of influence.

Why not all of the above? What if the universe is vast and it allows for very long lived civilization? And once we bite any of those bullets to grant 10^100 more people, then it starts to seem like even less of a further ask to assume that there were actually 10^1000 more people instead

I think this is where I get off the train (at least insofar as I entertain unbounded-utility hypotheses). Like, our ability to reversibly compute in the high-entropy regime is bounded by our error-correction capabilities, and we really start needing to upend modern physics as I understand it to make the numbers really huge. (Like, maybe 10^1000 is fine, but it’s gonna fall off a cliff at some point.)

I have a sense that I’m missing some deeper point you’re trying to make.

I also have a sense that… how to say… like, suppose someone argued “well, you don’t have 1/​∞ probability that “infinite utility” makes sense, so clearly you’ve got to take infinite utilities seriously”. My response would be something like “That seems mixed up to me. Like, on my current understanding, “infinite utility” is meaningless, it’s a confusion, and I just operate day-to-day without worrying about it. It’s not so much that my operating model assigns probability 0 to the proposition “infinite utilities are meaningful”, as that infinite utilities simply don’t fit into my operating model, they don’t make sense, they don’t typecheck. And separately, I’m not yet philosophically mature, and I can give you various meta-probabilities about what sorts of things will and won’t typecheck in my operating model tomorrow. And sure, I’m not 100% certain that we’ll never find a way to rescue the idea of infinite utilities. But that meta-uncertainty doesn’t bleed over into my operating model, and I’m not supposed to ram infinities into a place where they don’t fit just b/​c I might modify the type signatures tomorrow.”

When you bandy around plausible ways that the universe could be real large, it doesn’t look obviously divergent to me. Some of the bullets you’re handling are ones that I am just happy to bite, and others involve stuff that I’m not sure I’m even going to think will typecheck, once I understand wtf is going on. Like, just as I’m not compelled by “but you have more than 0% probability that ‘infinite utility’ is meaningful” (b/​c it’s mixing up the operating model and my philosophical immaturity), I’m not compelled by “but your operating model, which says that X, Y, and Z all typecheck, is badly divergent”. Yeah, sure, and maybe the resolution is that utilities are bounded, or maybe it’s that my operating model is too permissive on account of my philosophical immaturity. Philosophical immaturity can lead to an operating model that’s too permisive (cf. zombie arguments) just as easily as one that’s too strict.

Like… the nature of physical law keeps seeming to play games like “You have continua!! But you can’t do an arithmetic encoding. There’s infinite space!! But most of it is unreachable. Time goes on forever!! But most of it is high-entropy. You can do reversible computing to have Fun in a high-entropy universe!! But error accumulates.” And this could totally be a hint about how things that are real can’t help but avoid the truly large numbers (never mind the infinities), or something, I don’t know, I’m philisophically immature. But from my state of philosophical immaturity, it looks like this could totally still resolve in a “you were thinking about it wrong; the worst enhugening assumptions fail somehow to typecheck” sort of way.

Trying to figure out the point that you’re making that I’m missing, it sounds like you’re trying to say something like “Everyday reasoning at merely-cosmic scales already diverges, even without too much weird stuff. We already need to bound our utilities, when we shift from looking at the milk in the supermarket to looking at the stars in the sky (nevermind the rest of the mathematical multiverse, if there is such a thing).” Is that about right?

If so, I indeed do not yet buy it. Perhaps spell it out in more detail, for someone who’s suspicious of any appeals to large swaths of terrain that we can’t affect (eg, variants of this universe w/​ sufficiently different cosmological constants, at least in the regions where the locals aren’t thinking about us-in-particular); someone who buys reversible computing but is going to get suspicious when you try to drive the error rate to shockingly low lows?

To be clear, insofar as modern cosmic-scale reasoning diverges (without bringing in considerations that I consider suspicious and that I suspect I might later think belong in the ‘probably not meaningful (in the relevant way)’ bin), I do start to feel the vice grips on me, and I expect I’d give bounded utilities another look if I got there.

• A side note: IB physicalisms solves at least a large chunk of naturalism/​counterfactuals/​anthropics but is almost orthogonal to this entire issue (i.e. physicalist loss functions should still be bounded for the same reason cartesian loss functions should be bounded), so I’m pretty skeptical there’s anything in that direction. The only part which is somewhat relevant is: IB physicalists have loss functions that depend on which computations are running so two exact copies of the same thing definitely count as the same and not twice as much (except potentially in some indirect way, such as being involved together in a single more complex computation).

• I am definitely entertaining the hypothesis that the solution to naturalism/​anthropics is in no way related to unbounded utilities. (From my perspective, IB physicalism looks like a guess that shows how this could be so, rather than something I know to be a solution, ofc. (And as I said to Paul, the observation that would update me in favor of it would be demonstrated mastery of, and unravelling of, my own related confusions.))

• In the parenthetical remark, are you talking about confusions related to Pascal-mugging-type thought experiments, or other confusions?

• Those & others. I flailed towards a bunch of others in my thread w/​ Paul. Throwing out some taglines:

• “does logic or physics come first???”

• “does it even make sense to think of outcomes as being mathematical universes???”

• “should I even be willing to admit that the expression “3^^^3″ denotes a number before taking time proportional to at least log(3^^^3) to normalize it?”

• “is the thing I care about more like which-computations-physics-instantiates, or more like the-results-of-various-computations??? is there even a difference?”

• “how does the fact that larger quantum amplitudes correspond to more magical happening-ness relate to the question of how much more I should care about a simulation running on a computer with wires that are twice as thick???”

Note that these aren’t supposed to be particularly well-formed questions. (They’re more like handles for my own confusions.)

Note that I’m open to the hypothesis that you can resolve some but not others. From my own state of confusion, I’m not sure which issues are interwoven, and it’s plausible to me that you, from a state of greater clarity, can see independences that I cannot.

Note that I’m not asking for you to show me how IB physicalism chooses a consistent set of answers to some formal interpretations of my confusion-handles. That’s the sort of (non-trivial and virtuous!) feat that causes me to rate IB physicalism as a “plausible guess”.

In the specific case of IB physicalism, I’m like “maaaybe? I don’t yet see how to relate this Γ that you suggestively refer to as a ‘map from programs to results’ to a philosophical stance on computation and instantiation that I understand” and “I’m still not sold on the idea of handling non-realizability with inframeasures (on account of how I still feel confused about a bunch of things that inframeasures seem like a plausible guess for how to solve)” and etc.

Maybe at some point I’ll write more about the difference, in my accounting, between plausible guesses and solutions.

• Hmm… I could definitely say stuff about, what’s the IB physicalism take on those questions. But this would be what you specifically said you’re not asking me to do. So, from my perspective addressing your confusion seems like a completely illegible task atm. Maybe the explanation you alluded to in the last paragraph would help.

• I’d be happy to read it if you’re so inclined and think the prompt would help you refine your own thoughts, but yeah, my anticipation is that it would mostly be updating my (already decent) probability that IB physicalism is a reasonable guess.

A few words on the sort of thing that would update me, in hopes of making it slightly more legible sooner rather than later/​never: there’s a difference between giving the correct answer to metaethics (“‘goodness’ refers to an objective (but complicated, and not objectively compelling) logical fact, which was physically shadowed by brains on account of the specifics of natural selection and the ancestral environment”), and the sort of argumentation that, like, walks someone from their confused state to the right answer (eg, Eliezer’s metaethics sequence). Like, the confused person is still in a state of “it seems to me that either morality must be objectively compelling, or nothing truly matters”, and telling them your favorite theory isn’t really engaging with their intuitions. Demonstrating that your favorite theory can give consistent answers to all their questions is something, it’s evidence that you have at least produced a plausible guess. But from their confused perspective, lots of people (including the nihilists, including the Bible-based moral realists) can confidently provide answers that seem superficially consistent.

The compelling thing, at least to me and my ilk, is the demonstration of mastery and the ability to build a path from the starting intuitions to the conclusion. In the case of a person confused about metaethics, this might correspond to the ability to deconstruct the “morality must be objectively compelling, or nothing truly matters” intuition, right in front of them, such that they can recognize all the pieces inside themselves, and with a flash of clarity see the knot they were tying themselves into. At which point you can help them untie the knot, and tug on the strings, and slowly work your way up to the answer.

(The metaethics sequence is, notably, a tad longer than the answer itself.)

(If I were to write this whole concept of solutions-vs-answers up properly, I’d attempt some dialogs that make the above more concrete and less metaphorical, but \shrug.)

In the case of IB physicalism (and IB more generally), I can see how it’s providing enough consistent answers that it counts as a plausible guess. But I don’t see how to operate it to resolve my pre-existing confusions. Like, we work with (infra)measures over , and we say some fancy words about how is our “beliefs about the computations”, but as far as I’ve been able to make out this is just a neato formalism; I don’t know how to get to that endpoint by, like, starting from my own messy intuitions about when/​whether/​how physical processes reflect some logical procedure. I don’t know how to, like, look inside myself, and find confusions like “does logic or physics come first?” or “do I switch which algorithm I’m instantiating when I drink alcohol?”, and disassemble them into their component parts, and gain new distinctions that show me how the apparent conflicts weren’t true conflicts and all my previous intuitions were coming at things from slightly the wrong angle, and then shift angles and have a bunch of things click into place, and realize that the seeds of the answer were inside me all along, and that the answer is clearly that the universe isn’t really just a physical arrangement of particles (or a wavefunction thereon, w/​e), but one of those plus a mapping from syntax-trees to bits (here taking ). Or whatever the philosophy corresponding to “a hypothesis is a ” is supposed to be. Like, I understand that it’s a neat formalism that does cool math things, and I see how it can be operated to produce consistent answers to various philosophical questions, but that’s a long shot from seeing it solve the philosophical problems at hand. Or, to say it another way, answering my confusion handles consistently is not nearly enough to get me to take a theory philosophically seriously, like, it’s not enough to convince me that the universe actually has an assignment of syntax-trees to bits in addition to the physical state, which is what it looks to me like I’d need to believe if I actually took IB physicalism seriously.

• I don’t think I’m capable of writing something like the metaethics sequence about IB, that’s a job for someone else. My own way of evaluating philosophical claims is more like:

• Can we a build an elegant, coherent mathematical theory around the claim?

• Does the theory meet reasonable desiderata?

• Does the theory play nicely with other theories we have high confidence of?

• If there are compelling desiderata the theory doesn’t meet, can we show that meeting them is impossible?

For example, the way I understood objective morality is wrong was by (i) seeing that there’s a coherent theory of agents with any utility function whatsoever (ii) understanding that, in terms of the physical world, “Vanessa’s utility function” is more analogous to “coastline of Africa” than to “fundamental equations of physics”.

I agree that explaining why we have certain intuitions is a valuable source of evidence, but it’s entangled with messy details of human psychology that create a lot of noise. (Notice that I’m not saying you shouldn’t use intuition, obviously intuition is an irreplaceable core part of cognition. I’m saying that explaining intuition using models of the mind, while possible and desirable, is also made difficult by the messy complexity of human minds, which in particular introduces a lot of variables that vary between people.)

Also, I want to comment on your last tagline, just because it’s too tempting:

how does the fact that larger quantum amplitudes correspond to more magical happening-ness relate to the question of how much more I should care about a simulation running on a computer with wires that are twice as thick???

I haven’t written the proofs cleanly yet (because prioritizing other projects atm), but it seems that IB physicalism produces a rather elegant interpretation of QM. Many-worlds turns out to be false. The wavefunction is not “a thing that exists”. Instead, what exists is the outcomes of all possible measurements. The universe samples those outcomes from a distribution that is determined by two properties: (i) the marginal distribution of each measurement has to obey the Born rule (ii) the overall amount of computation done by the universe should be minimal. It follows that, outside of weird thought experiments (i.e. as long as decoherence applies), agents don’t get split into copies and quantum randomness is just ordinary randomness. (Another nice consequence is that Boltzmann brains don’t have qualia.)

• I think that this confusion results from failing to distinguish between your individual utility function and the “effective social utility function” (the result of cooperative bargaining between all individuals in a society). The individual utility function is bounded on a scale which is roughly comparable to Dunbar’s number[1]. The effective social utility function is bounded on a scale comparable to the current size of humanity. When you conflate them, the current size of humanity seems like a strangely arbitrary parameter so you’re tempted to decide the utility function is unbounded.

The reason why distinguishing between those two is so hard, is because there are strong social incentives to conflate them, incentives which our instincts are honed to pick up on. Pretending to unconditionally follow social norms is a great way to seem trustworthy. When you combine it with an analytic mindset that’s inclined to reasoning with explicit utility functions, this self-deception takes the form of modeling your intrinsic preferences by utilitarianism.

Another complication is, larger universes tend to be more diverse and hence more interesting. But this also saturates somewhere (having e.g. books to choose from is not noticeably better from having books to choose from).

1. ↩︎

It seems plausible to me both for explaining how people behave in practice and in terms of evolutionary psychology.

• 2 Feb 2022 12:11 UTC
12 points
2 ∶ 2

The proof doesn’t run for me. The only way I know to be able to rearrange the terms in a infinite series is if the starting starting series converges and the resultant series converges. The series doesn’t fullfill the condition so I am not convinced the rewrite is a safe step.

I am a bit unsure about my maths so I am going to hyberbole the kind of flawed logic I read into the proof. Start with series that might not converge 1+1+1+1+1+1… (oh it indeed blatantly diverges) then split each term to have a non-effective addition (1+0)+(1+0)+(1+0)+(1+0)… . Blatantly disregard safety rules about paranthesis messing with series and just treat them as paranthesis that follow familiar rules 1+0+1+0+1+0+1+0+1… so 1+1+1+1… is not equal to itself. (unsafe step leads to non-sense)

With converging series it doesn’t matter whether we get “twice as fast” to the limit but the “rate of ascension” might matter to whatever analog a divergent series would have to a value.

• The correct condition for real numbers would be absolute convergence (otherwise the sum after rearrangement might become different and/​or infinite) but you are right: the series rearrangement is definitely illegal here.

• But in the post I’m rearranging a series of probabilities, which is very legal. The fact that you can’t rearrange infinite sums is an intuitive reason to reject Weak Dominance, and then the question is how you feel about that.

• Those probabilities are multiplied by s, which makes it more complicated.
If I try running it with s being the real numbers (which is probably the most popular choice for utility measurement), the proof breaks down. If I, for example, allow negative utilities, I can rearrange the series from a divergent one into a convergent one and vice versa, trivially leading to a contradiction just from the fact that I am allowed to do weird things with infinite series, and not because of proposed axioms being contradictory.
EDIT: concisely, your axioms do not imply that the rearrangement should result in the same utility.

• The rearrangement property you’re rejecting is basically what Paul is calling the “rules of probability” that he is considering rejecting.

If you have a probability distribution over infinitely (but countably) many probability distributions, each of which is of finite support, then it is in fact legal to “expand out” the probabilities to get one distribution over the underlying (countably infinite) domain. This is standard in probability theory, and it implies the rearrangement property that bothers you.

• I’m not rearranging a sum of real numbers. I’m showing that no relationship over probability distributions satisfies a given dominance condition.

• I am not familiar with the rules of lotteries and mixtures to know whether the mixture rewrite is valid or not. If the outcomes were for example money payouts then the operations carried out would be invalid. I would be surprised if somehow the rules for lotteries made this okay.

The bit where there is too much implicit steps for me is

Consider the lottery

We can write as a mixture:

I would benefit from babystepping throught this process or atleast pointers what I need to learn to be convinced of this

• I’m using the usual machinery of probability theory, and particularly countable additivity. It may be reasonable to give up on that, and so I think the biggest assumption I made at the beginning was that we were defining a probability distribution over arbitrary lotteries and working with the space of probability distributions.

A way to look at it is: the thing I’m taking sums over are the probabilities of possible outcomes. I’m never talking anywhere about utilities or cash payouts or anything else. The fact that I labeled some symbols does not mean that the real number 8 is involved anywhere.

But these sums over the probabilities of worlds are extremely convergent. I’m not doing any “rearrangement,” I’m just calculating .

• So there are some missing axioms here, describing what happens when you construct lotteries out of other lotteries. Specifically, the rearranging step Slider asks about is not justified by the explicitly given axioms alone: it needs something along the lines of “if for each i we have a lottery , then the values of the lotteries and are equal”.

(Your derivation only actually uses this in the special case where for each i only finitely many of the are nonzero.)

You might want to say either that these two “different” lotteries have equal value, or else that they are in fact the same lottery.

In either case, it seems to me that someone might dispute the axiom in question (intuitively obvious though it seems, just like the others). You’ve chosen a notation for lotteries that makes an analogy with infinite series; if we take this seriously, we notice that this sort of rearrangement absolutely can change whether the series converges and to what value if so. How sure are you that rearranging lotteries is safer than rearranging sums of real numbers?

(The sums of the probabilities are extremely convergent, yes. But the probabilities are (formally) multiplying outcomes whose values we are supposing are correspondingly divergent. Again, I am not sure I want to assume that this sort of manipulation is safe.)

• I’m handling lotteries as probability distributions over an outcome space , not as formal sums of outcomes.

To make things simple you can assume is countable. Then a lottery assigns a real number to each , representing its probability under the lottery , such that . The sum is defined by . And all these infinite sums of real numbers are in turn defined as the suprema of the finite sums which are easily seen to exist and to still sum to 1. (All of this is conventional notation.) Then and are exactly equal.

• OK! But I still feel like there’s something being swept under the carpet here. And I think I’ve managed to put my finger on what’s bothering me.

There are various things we could require our agents to have preferences over, but I am not sure that probability distributions over outcomes is the best choice. (Even though I do agree that the things we want our agents to have preferences over have essentially the same probabilistic structure.)

A weaker assumptions we might make about agents’ preferences is that they are over possibly-uncertain situations, expressed in terms of the agent’s epistemic state.

And I don’t think “nested” possibly-uncertain-situations even exist. There is no such thing as assigning 50% probability to each of (1) assigning 50% probability to each of A and B, and (2) assigning 50% probability to each of A and C. There is such a thing as assigning 50% probability now to assigning those different probabilities in five minutes, and by the law of iterated expectations your final probabilities for A,B,C must then obey the distributive law, but the situations are still not literally the same, and I think that in divergent-utility situations we can’t assume that your preferences depend only on the final outcome distribution.

Another way to say this is that, given that the and are lotteries rather than actual outcomes and that combinations like mean something more complicated than they may initially look like they mean, the dominance axioms are less obvious than the notation makes them look, and even though there are no divergences in the sums-over-probabilities that arise when you do the calculations there are divergences in implied something-like-sums-over-weighted utilities, and in my formulation you really are having to rearrange outcomes as well as probabilities when you do the calculations.

• I agree that in the real world you’d have something like “I’m uncertain about whether X or Y will happen, call it 5050. If X happens, I’m 5050 about whether A or B will happen. If Y happens, I’m 5050 about whether B or C will happen.” And it’s not obvious that this should be the same as being 5050 between B or X, and conditioned on X being 5050 between A or C.

Having those two situations be different is kind of what I mean by giving up on probabilities—your preferences are no longer a function of the probability that outcomes occur, they are a more complicated function of your epistemic state, and so it’s not correct to summarize your epistemic state as a probability distribution over outcomes.

I don’t think this is totally crazy, but I think it’s worth recognizing it as a fairly drastic move.

• To anyone who is still not convinced—that last move, , is justified by Tonelli’s theorem, merely because (for all ).

• The way I look at this is that objects like live in a function space like , specifically the subspace of that where the functions are integrable with respect to counting measure on and . In other words, objects like are probability mass functions (pmf). is , and is , and of anything else is . When we write what looks like an infinite series , what this really means is that we’re defining a new by pointwise infinite summation: . So only each collection of terms that contains a given needs to form a convergent series in order for this new to be well-defined. And for it to equal another , the convergent sums only need to be equal pointwise (for each , ). In Paul’s proof above, the only for which the collection of terms containing it is even infinite is . That’s the reason he’s “just calculating” that one sum.

• The outcomes have the property that they are step-wise more than double the worth.

In the real part only halfs on each term. So as the series goes on each term gets bigger and bigger instead of smaller and smaller and smaller associated with convergent-like scenario. So it seems to me that even in isolation this is a divergent-like series.

• Here’s a concrete example. Start with a sum that converges to 0 (in fact every partial sum is 0):

0 + 0 + …

Regroup the terms a bit:

= (1 + −1) + (1 + −1) + …

= 1 + (-1 + 1) + (-1 + 1) + …

= 1 + 0 + 0 + …

and you get a sum that converges to 1 (in fact every partial sum is 1). I realize that the things you’re summing are probability distributions over outcomes and not real numbers, but do you have reason to believe that they’re better behaved than real numbers in infinite sums? I’m not immediately seeing how countable additivity helps. Sorry if that should be obvious.

• Your argument doesn’t go through if you restrict yourself to infinite weighted averages with nonnegative weights.

• Aha. So if a sum of non-negative numbers converges, than any rearrangement of that sum will converge to the same number, but not so for sums of possibly-negative numbers?

Ok, another angle. If you take Christiano’s lottery:

and map outcomes to their utilities, setting the utility of to 1, of to 2, etc., you get:

Looking at how the utility gets rearranged after the “we can write as a mixture” step, the first “1/​2″ term is getting “smeared” across the rest of the terms, giving:

which is a sequence of utilities that are pairwise higher. This is an essential part of the violation of Antisymmetry/​Unbounded/​Dominance. My intuition says that a strange thing happened when you rearranged the terms of the lottery, and maybe you shouldn’t do that.

Should there be another property, called “Rearrangement”?

Rearrangement: you may apply an infinite number of commutivity () and associativity () rewrites to a lottery.

(In contrast, I’m pretty sure you can’t get an Antisymmetry/​Unbounded/​Dominance violation by applying only finitely many commutivity and associativity rearrangements.)

I don’t actually have a sense of what “infinite lotteries, considered equivalent up to finite but not infinite rearrangements” look like. Maybe it’s not a sensible thing.

• I am having trouble trying to translate between infinity-hiding style and explicit infinity style. My grievance with might be stupid.

split X_0 into equal number parts to final form

move the scalar in

combine scalars

Take each of these separately to the rest of the original terms

Combine scalars to try to hit closest to the target form

is then quite far from

Within real precision a single term hasn’t moved much

This suggests to me that somewhere there are “levels of calibration” that are mixing levels corresponding to members of different archimedean fields trying to intermingle here. Normally if one is allergic to infinity levels there are ways to dance around it /​ think about it in different terms. But I am not efficient in translating between them.

• New attempt

I think I now agree that can be written as

However this uses a “de novo” indexing and gets only to

()

taking terms out form the inner thing crosses term lines for the outer summation which counts as “messing with indexing” in my intuition. The suspect move just maps them out one to one

But why is this the permitted way and could I jam the terms differently in say apply to every other term

If I have I am more confident that they “index at the same rate” to make . However if I have I need more information about the relation of a and b to make sure that mixing them plays nicely. Say in the case of b=2a then it is not okay to think only of the terms when mixing.

• I had the same initial reaction. I believe the logic of the proof is fine (it is similar to the Mazur swindle), basically because it it not operating on real numbers, but rather on mixtures of distributions.

The issue is more: why would you expect the dominance condition to hold in the first place? If you allow for unbounded utility functions, then you have to give it up anyway, for kind of trivial reasons. Consider two sequences Ai and Bi of gambles such that EA_i<EB_i and sum_i p_iEA_i and sum_i p_i EB_i both diverge. Does it follow that E(sum_i p_iA_i)< E(sum_i p_i B_i) ? Obviously not, since both quantities diverge. At best you can say <=. A bit more formally; in real analysis/​measure theory one works with the so-called extended real numbers, in which the value “infinity” is assigned to any divergent sum, with this value assumed to be defined by the algebraic property x<=infinity for any x. In particular, there is no x in the extended real numbers such that infinity<x. So at least in standard axiomatizations of measure theory, you cannot expect the strict dominance condition to hold in complete generality; you will have to make some kind of exception for infinite values. Similar considerations apply to the Intermediate Mixtures assumption.

• With surreals I might have transfinite quantities that can reliably compare every which way despite both members being beyond a finite bound. For “tame” entities all kinds of nice properties are easy to get/​prove. The game of “how wild my entities can get while retaining a certain property” is a very different game. “These properties are impossible to get even for super-wild things” is even harder.

Mazur seems (atleast based on the wikipedia article) not to be a proof of certain things, so that warrants special interest whether the applicability conditions are met or not.

• The sum we’re rearranging isn’t a sum of real numbers, it’s a sum in . Ignoring details of what means… the two rearrangements give the same sum! So I don’t understand what your argument is.

Abstracting away the addition and working in an arbitrary topological space, the argument goes like this: . For all Therefore, f is not continuous (else 0 = 1).