Minds, Philosophy, Psychology

One person’s nit is another’s central pillar

If one person believes something is absolutely incontrovertibly true, then my first (and demonstrably unhelpful) reaction is that even the slightest demonstration of error should demolish the argument.

I know this doesn’t work.

People don’t make Boolean-logical arguments, they go with gut feelings that act much like Bayesian-logical inferences. If someone says something is incontrovertible, the incontrovertibility isn’t their central pillar — when I treated it as one, I totally failed to change their minds.

Steel man your arguments. Go for your opponent’s strongest point, but make sure it’s what your opponent is treating as their strongest point, for if you make the mistake I have made, you will fail.

If your Bayesian prior is 99.9%, you might reasonably (in common use of the words) say the evidence is incontrovertible; someone who hears “incontrovertible” and points out a minor edge case isn’t going to shift your posterior odds by much, are they?

They do? Are we thinking of the same things here? I don’t mean things where absolute truth is possible (i.e. maths, although I’ve had someone argue with me about that in a remarkably foolish way too), I mean about observations about reality which are necessarily flawed. Flawed, and sometimes circular.

Concrete example, although I apologise to any religious people in advance if I accidentally nut-pick. Imagine a Bible-literalist Christian called Chris (who thinks only 144,000 will survive the apocalypse, and no I’m not saying Chris is a Jehovah’s Witness, they’re just an example of 144k beliefs) arguing with Atheist Ann, specifically about “can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot move it?”:

P(A) = 0.999 (Bayesian prior: how certain Chris’s belief in God is)
P(B) = 1.0 (Observation: the argument has been made and Ann has not been struck down)
P(B|A) = 0.99979 (Probability that God has not struck down Ann for blasphemy, given that God exists — In the Bible, God has sometimes struck down non-believers, so let’s say about 21 million deaths of the 100 billion humans that have ever lived to cover the flood, noting that most were not in the 144k)

P(A|B) = P(B|A)P(A)/P(B) = 0.99979×0.999/1.0 = 0.99879021

Almost unchanged.

It gets worse; the phrase “I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” means P(B) is less than 1.0. If P(B) is less than 1.0 but all the rest is the same:

P(B) = 0.9 → P(A|B) = P(B|A)P(A)/P(B) = 0.99979×0.999/0.9 = 1.1097669

Oh no, it went up! Also, probability error, probability can never exceed 1.0! P>1.0 would be a problem if I was discussing real probabilities — if this was a maths test, this would fail (P(B|A) should be reduced correspondingly) — but people demonstrably don’t always update all their internal model at the same time: if we did, cognitive dissonance would be impossible. Depending on the level of the thinking (I suspect direct processing in synapses won’t do this, but that deliberative conscious thought can) we can sometimes fall into traps, so this totally explains another observation: some people can take the mere existence of people who disagree with them as a reason to believe even more strongly.

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Philosophy

Mathematical Universe v. Boltzmann Brains

I’m a fan of the Mathematical Universe idea. Or rather, I was. I think I came up with the idea independently of (and before) Max Tegmark, based on one of my old LiveJournal blog-post dated “2007-01-12” (from context, I think that’s YYYY-MM-DD, not YYYY-DD-MM).

Here’s what I wrote then, including typos and poor rhetorical choices:

Ouch, my mind hurts. I've been thinking about The Nature of Reality again. This time, what I have is the idea that from the point of view of current science, the universe can be described as a giant equation: each particle obeys the laws of physics, which are just mathematical formula. Add to this that an mathematical system can exist before anyone defines it (9*10 was still equal to 90 before anybody could count that high), and you get reality existing because its underlying definitions do not contradict each-other.

This would mean that there are a lot of very simple, for lack of a better word, "universes" along the lines of the one containing only Bob and Sarah, where Sarah is three times the age of Bob now, and will be twice his age in 5 years' time. But it would also mean that there are an infinite number of universes which are, from the point of view of an external observer looking at the behaviour of those within them, completely indistinguishable from this one; this would be caused by, amongst other things, the gravitational constant being represented by an irrational number, and the difference between the different universes' gravitational constants varies by all possible fractions (in the everyday sense) of one divided by Graham's number.

Our universe contains representations of many more simple ones (I've described a simple one just now, and you get hundreds of others "universes" of this type in the mathematics books you had at school); you cannot, as an outside observer, interfere with such universes, because all you end up with is another universe. The original still exists, and the example Sarah is still 15. In this sense of existence, the Stargate universe is real because it follows fundamental rules which do not contradict themselves. These rules are of course not the rules the characters within it talk about, but the rules of the Canadian TV industry. There may be another universe where the rules the characters talk about do apply, but I'm not enough of a Stargate nerd to know if they are consistent in that way.

The point of this last little diversion, is that there could be (and almost certainly is) a universe much more complex than this one, which contains us as a component. The question, which I am grossly unqualified to contemplate but tried anyway (hence my mind hurting), is what is the most complex equation possible? (Apart from "God" in certain senses of that word). All I feel certain of at the moment, is that it would "simultaneously" (if you can use that word for something outside of time but containing it) contain every possible afterlife for every possible subset of people.

Tomorrow I will be in Cambridge.

Since writing that, I found out about Boltzmann brains. Boltzmann brains are a problem, because if they exist at all then it is (probably) overwhelmingly likely that you are one, and if you are one then it’s overwhelmingly likely that the you’re wrong about everything leading up to the belief that they exist, so any belief in them has to be irrational even if it’s also correct.

Boltzmann brains appear spontaneously in systems which are in thermal equilibrium for long enough (“long enough” being 101050 years from quantum fluctuations), but if you have all possible universes then you have a universe, an infinite number of universes, where Boltzmann brains are the most common form of brain — Therefore, all the problems that apply to Boltzmann brains must also apply to the Mathematical Universe.

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Minds

Dynamic range of Bayesian thought

We naturally use something close to Bayesian logic when we learn and intuit. Bayesian logic doesn’t update when the prior is 0 or 1. Some people can’t shift their opinions, no matter what evidence they have. This is compatible with them having priors of 0 or 1.

It would be implausible for humans to store neural weights with ℝeal numbers. How many bits (base-2) do we use to store our implicit priors? My gut feeling says it’s a shockingly small number, perhaps 4.

How little evidence do we need to become trapped in certainty? Is it even constant (or close to) for all humans?

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Psychology

Unlearnable

How many things are there, which one cannot learn? No matter how much effort is spent trying?

I’m aware that things like conscious control of intestinal peristalsis would fit this question (probably… I mean, who would’ve tried?) but I’m not interested in purely autonomous stuff.

Assuming the stereotypes are correct, I mean stuff like adults not being able to fully cross the Chinese-English language barrier in either direction if they didn’t learn both languages as children (if you read out The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den I can tell that the Shis are different to each other, but I can’t tell if the difference I hear actually conveys a difference-of-meaning or if it is just natural variation of the sort I produce if I say “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”, and I’m told this difficulty persists even with practice; in reverse, the ‘R’/’L’ error is a common stereotype of Chinese people speaking English). Is there something like that for visual recognition? Some people cannot recognise faces, is there something like that but for all humans? Something where no human can recognise which of two things they are looking at, even if we know that a difference exists?

Languages in general seem to be extremely difficult for most adults: personally, I’ve never been able to get my mind around all the tenses of irregular verbs in French… but is that genuinely unlearnable or something I could overcome with perseverance? I found German quite straightforward, so there may be something else going on.

Are there any other possibilities? Some people struggle with maths: is it genuinely unlearnable by the majority, or just difficult and lacking motive? Probability in particular comes to mind, because people can have the Monty Hall problem explained and not get it.

One concept I’ve only just encountered, but which suddenly makes sense of a lot of behaviour I’ve seen in politics, is called Morton’s demon by analogy with Maxwell’s demon. A filter at the level of perception which allows people to ignore and reject without consideration facts which ought to change their minds. It feels — and I recognise with amusement the oddity of using system 1 thinking at this point — like a more powerful thing than Cherry picking, Cognitive dissonance, Confirmation bias, etc., and it certainly represents — with regard to system 2 thinking — the sort of “unlearnable” I have in mind.

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AI, Philosophy

Unfortunate personhood tests for A.I.

What if the only way to tell if a particular A.I. design is or is not a person, is to subject it to all the types of experience — both good and harrowing — that we know impact the behaviour of the only example of personhood we all agree on, and seeing if it changes in the same way we change?

Is it moral to create a digital hell for a thousand, if that’s the only way to prevent carbon chauvinism/anti-silicon discrimination for a billion?

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AI, Futurology, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

How would you know whether an A.I. was a person or not?

I did an A-level in Philosophy. (For non UK people, A-levels are a 2-year course that happens after highschool and before university).

I did it for fun rather than good grades — I had enough good grades to get into university, and when the other A-levels required my focus, I was fine putting zero further effort into the Philosophy course. (Something which was very clear when my final results came in).

What I didn’t expect at the time was that the rapid development of artificial intelligence in my lifetime would make it absolutely vital that humanity develops a concrete and testable understanding of what counts as a mind, as consciousness, as self-awareness, and as capability to suffer. Yes, we already have that as a problem in the form of animal suffering and whether meat can ever be ethical, but the problem which already exists, exists only for our consciences — the animals can’t take over the world and treat us the way we treat them, but an artificial mind would be almost totally pointless if it was as limited as an animal, and the general aim is quite a lot higher than that.

Some fear that we will replace ourselves with machines which may be very effective at what they do, but don’t have anything “that it’s like to be”. One of my fears is that we’ll make machines that do “have something that it’s like to be”, but who suffer greatly because humanity fails to recognise their personhood. (A paperclip optimiser doesn’t need to hate us to kill us, but I’m more interested in the sort of mind that can feel what we can feel).

I don’t have a good description of what I mean by any of the normal words. Personhood, consciousness, self awareness, suffering… they all seem to skirt around the core idea, but to the extent that they’re correct, they’re not clearly testable; and to the extent that they’re testable, they’re not clearly correct. A little like the maths-vs.-physics dichotomy.

Consciousness? Versus what, subconscious decision making? Isn’t this distinction merely system 1 vs. system 2 thinking? Even then, the word doesn’t tell us what it means to have it objectively, only subjectively. In some ways, some forms of A.I. looks like system 1 — fast, but error prone, based on heuristics; while other forms of A.I. look like system 2 — slow, careful, deliberative weighing all the options.

Self-awareness? What do we even mean by that? It’s absolutely trivial to make an A.I. aware of it’s own internal states, even necessary for anything more than a perceptron. Do we mean a mirror test? (Or non-visual equivalent for non-visual entities, including both blind people and also smell-focused animals such as dogs). That at least can be tested.

Capability to suffer? What does that even mean in an objective sense? Is suffering equal to negative reinforcement? If you have only positive reinforcement, is the absence of reward itself a form of suffering?

Introspection? As I understand it, the human psychology of this is that we don’t really introspect, we use system 2 thinking to confabulate justifications for what system 1 thinking made us feel.

Qualia? Sure, but what is one of these as an objective, measurable, detectable state within a neural network, be it artificial or natural?

Empathy or mirror neurons? I can’t decide how I feel about this one. At first glance, if one mind can feel the same as another mind, that seems like it should have the general ill-defined concept I’m after… but then I realised, I don’t see why that would follow and had the temporarily disturbing mental concept of an A.I. which can perfectly mimic the behaviour corresponding to the emotional state of someone they’re observing, without actually feeling anything itself.

And then the disturbance went away as I realised this is obviously trivially possible, because even a video recording fits that definition… or, hey, a mirror. A video recording somehow feels like it’s fine, it isn’t “smart” enough to be imitating, merely accurately reproducing. (Now I think about it, is there an equivalent issue with the mirror test?)

So, no, mirror neurons are not enough to be… to have the qualia of being consciously aware, or whatever you want to call it.

I’m still not closer to having answers, but sometimes it’s good to write down the questions.

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AI, Philosophy

Nietzsche, Facebook, and A.I.

“If you stare into The Facebook, The Facebook stares back at you.”

I think this fits the reality of digital surveillance much better than it fits the idea Nietzsche was trying to convey when he wrote the original.

Facebook and Google look at you with an unblinking eye; they look at all of us which they can reach, even those without accounts; two billion people on Facebook, their every keystroke recorded, even those they delete; every message analysed, even those never sent; every photo processed, even those kept private; on Google maps, every step taken or turn missed, every place where you stop, becomes an update for the map.

We’re lucky that A.I. isn’t as smart as a human, because if it was, such incomprehensible breadth and depth of experience would make Sherlock look like an illiterate child raised by wild animals in comparison. Even without hypothesising new technologies that a machine intelligence may or may not invent, even just a machine that does exactly what its told by its owner… this dataset alone ought to worry any who fear the thumb of a totalitarian micro-managing your life.

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