Beware Selective Nihilism

In a pre­vi­ous post, I ar­gued that nihilism is of­ten short changed around here. How­ever I’m far from cer­tain that it is cor­rect, and in the mean time I think we should be care­ful not to dis­card our val­ues one at a time by en­gag­ing in “se­lec­tive nihilism” when faced with an on­tolog­i­cal crisis, with­out even re­al­iz­ing that’s what’s hap­pen­ing. Karl re­cently re­minded me of the post Time­less Iden­tity by Eliezer Yud­kowsky, which I no­ticed seems to be an in­stance of this.

As I men­tioned in the pre­vi­ous post, our val­ues seem to be defined in terms of a world model where peo­ple ex­ist as on­tolog­i­cally prim­i­tive en­tities ruled heuris­ti­cally by (mostly in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ings of) physics and psy­chol­ogy. In this kind of de­ci­sion sys­tem, both iden­tity-as-phys­i­cal-con­ti­nu­ity and iden­tity-as-psy­cholog­i­cal-con­ti­nu­ity make perfect sense as pos­si­ble val­ues, and it seems hu­mans do “na­tively” have both val­ues. A typ­i­cal hu­man be­ing is both re­luc­tant to step into a tele­porter that works by de­struc­tive scan­ning, and un­will­ing to let their phys­i­cal struc­ture be con­tin­u­ously mod­ified into a psy­cholog­i­cally very differ­ent be­ing.

If faced with the knowl­edge that phys­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity doesn’t ex­ist in the real world at the level of fun­da­men­tal physics, one might con­clude that it’s crazy to con­tinue to value it, and this is what Eliezer’s post ar­gued. But if we ap­ply this rea­son­ing in a non-se­lec­tive fash­ion, wouldn’t we also con­clude that we should stop valu­ing things like “pain” and “hap­piness” which also do not seem to ex­ist at the level of fun­da­men­tal physics?

In our cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, there is wide­spread agree­ment among hu­mans as to which macro­scopic ob­jects at time t+1 are phys­i­cal con­tinu­a­tions of which macro­scopic ob­jects ex­ist­ing at time t. We may not fully un­der­stand what ex­actly it is we’re do­ing when judg­ing such phys­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity, and the agree­ment tends to break down when we start talk­ing about more ex­otic situ­a­tions, and if/​when we do fully un­der­stand our crite­ria for judg­ing phys­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity it’s un­likely to have a sim­ple defi­ni­tion in terms of fun­da­men­tal physics, but all of this is true for “pain” and “hap­piness” as well.

I sug­gest we keep all of our (po­ten­tial/​ap­par­ent) val­ues in­tact un­til we have a bet­ter han­dle on how we’re sup­posed to deal with on­tolog­i­cal crises in gen­eral. If we con­vince our­selves that we should dis­card some value, and that turns out to be wrong, the er­ror may be un­re­cov­er­able once we’ve lived with it long enough.