Passing the Recursive Buck

Followup to: Artificial Addition, The Ultimate Source, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Yesterday, I talked about what happens when you look at your own mind, reflecting upon yourself, and search for the source of your own decisions.

Let’s say you decided to run into a burning orphanage and save a young child. You look back on the decision and wonder: was your empathy with children, your ability to imagine what it would be like to be on fire, the decisive factor? Did it compel you to run into the orphanage?

No, you reason, because if you’d needed to prevent a nuclear weapon from going off in the building next door, you would have run to disarm the nuke, and let the orphanage burn. So a burning orphanage is not something that controls you directly. Your fear certainly didn’t control you. And as for your duties, it seems like you could have ignored them (if you wanted to).

So if none of these parts of yourself that you focus upon, are of themselves decisive… then there must be some extra and additional thing that is decisive! And that, of course, would be this “you” thing that is looking over your thoughts from outside.

Imagine if human beings had a tiny bit more introspective ability than they have today, so that they could see a single neuron firing—but only one neuron at a time. We might even have the ability to modify the firing of this neuron. It would seem, then, like no individual neuron was in control of us, and that indeed, we had the power to control the neuron. It would seem we were in control of our neurons, not controlled by them. Whenever you look at a single neuron, it seems not to control you, that-which-is-looking...

So it might look like you were moved to run into the orphanage by your built-in empathy or your inculcated morals, and that this overcame your fear of fire. But really there was an additional you, beyond these emotions, which chose to give in to the good emotions rather than the bad ones. That’s moral responsibility, innit?

But wait—how does this additional you decide to flow along with your empathy and not your fear? Is it programmed to always be good? Does it roll a die and do whatever the die says?

Ordinarily, this question is not asked. Once you say that you choose of your own “free will”, you’ve explained the choice—drawn a causal arrow coming from a black box, which feels like an explanation. At this point, you’re supposed to stop asking questions, not look inside the black box to figure out how it works.

But what if the one does ask the question, “How did I choose to go along with my empathy and duty, and not my fear and selfishness?”

In real life, this question probably doesn’t have an answer. We are the sum of our parts, as a hand is its fingers, palm, and thumb. Empathy and duty overpowered fear and selfishness—that was the choice. It may be that no one factor was decisive, but all of them together are you just as much as you are your brain. You did not choose for heroic factors to overpower antiheroic ones; that overpowering was your choice. Or else where did the meta-choice to favor heroic factors come from? I don’t think there would, in fact, have been a deliberation on the meta-choice, in which you actually pondered the consequences of accepting first-order emotions and duties. There probably would not have been a detailed philosophical exploration, as you stood in front of that burning orphanage.

But memory is malleable. So if you look back and ask “How did I choose that?” and try to actually answer with something beyond the “free will!” stopsign, your mind is liable to start generating a philosophical discussion of morality that never happened.

And then it will appear that no particular argument in the philosophical discussion is absolutely decisive, since you could (primitive reachable) have decided to ignore it.

Clearly, there’s an extra additional you that decides which philosophical arguments deserve attention.

You see where this is going. If you don’t see where this is going, then you haven’t read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which makes you incomplete as a human being.

The general antipattern at work might be called “Passing the Recursive Buck”. It is closely related to Artificial Addition (your mind generates infinite lists of surface phenomena, using a compact process you can’t see into) and Mysterious Answer. This antipattern happens when you try to look into a black box, fail, and explain the black box using another black box.

Passing the Recursive Buck is rarer than Mysterious Answer, because most people just stop on the first black box. (When was the last time you heard postulated an infinite hierarchy of Gods, none of which create themselves, as the answer to the First Cause?)

How do you stop a recursive buck from passing?

You use the counter-pattern: The Recursive Buck Stops Here.

But how do you apply this counter-pattern?

You use the recursive buck-stopping trick.

And what does it take to execute this trick?

Recursive buck stopping talent.

And how do you develop this talent?

Get a lot of practice stopping recursive bucks.


So, the first trick is learning to notice when you pass the buck.

“The Recursive Buck Stops Here” tells you that you shouldn’t be trying to solve the puzzle of your black box, by looking for another black box inside it. To appeal to meta-free-will, or to say “Free will ordinal hierarchy!” is just another way of running away from the scary real problem, which is to look inside the damn box.

This pattern was on display in Causality and Moral Responsibility:

Even if the system is—gasp!- deterministic, you will see a system that, lo and behold, deterministically adds numbers. Even if someone—gasp! - designed the system, you will see that it was designed to add numbers. Even if the system was—gasp!- caused, you will see that it was caused to add numbers.

To stop passing the recursive buck, you must find the non-mysterious structure that simply is the buck.

Take the Cartesian homunculus. Light passes into your eyes, but how can you find the shape of an apple in the visual information? Is there a little person inside your head, watching the light on a screen, and pointing out the apples? But then does the little person have a metahomunculus inside their head? If you have the notion of a “visual cortex”, and you know even a little about how specifically the visual cortex processes and reconstructs the transcoded retinal information, then you can see that there is no need for a meta-visual-cortex that looks at the first visual cortex. The information is being transformed into cognitively usable form right there in the neurons.

I’ve already given a deal of advice on how to notice black boxes.

And I’ve even given some advice on how to start looking inside.

But ultimately, each black box is its own scientific problem. There is no easy, comforting, safe procedure you follow to “look inside”. They aren’t all as straightforward as free will. My main meta-advice has to do with subtasks like recognizing the black box, not running away screaming into the night, and not stopping on a fake explanation.