I discussed epistemology and cryonics with Aubrey de Grey
via email. Click here to find the rest of the discussion
. Yellow quotes are from Aubrey de Grey, with permission. Bluegreen is me, red is other.
Why are ideas with more variants better, more likely to be true, or something like that? And what is the Aubreyism thing to say there, and how does that concept work in detail?
Because they have historically turned out to be. Occam’s Razor, basically.
How do you know what happened historically? How does that tell you what will work in a particular case now?
What you wrote is a typical inductivist statement. The idea is there are multiple observations of history supporting the conclusion (that ideas with more variants turn out to be better). Then add an inductive principle like "the future is likely to resemble the past". Meanwhile no explanation is given for why this conclusion makes sense. Is induction what you mean?
Yes it is what I mean. I agree, we have no explanation for why the future has always resembled the past, and thus no basis for the presumption that it will continue to do so. So what? - how does Elliotism depart from that? And more particularly, how do you depart from it in your everyday life?
Popper (and DD) refuted induction. How do you want to handle this? Do you want me to rewrite the content in their books? I don't think that's a good approach.
Do you think the major points you're contradicting of Popper's (and DD's) work have been refuted, by you or someone else? If not, why reject them?
My friend thinks I should copy/paste BoI passages criticizing induction and ask if you have criticism. But I think that will encourage ad hoc replies out of context. And it's hard to judge which text to include in a quote for someone else. And I don't think you want to read from books. And I haven't gotten a clear picture of what you want to know or what would convince you, or e.g. why you think induction works. What do you think?
Also that isn't Occam's Razor, which is about favoring simpler ideas. More variants isn't simpler. At least I don't think so. Simpler is only defined vaguely, which does allow arbitrary conclusions. (There have been some attempts to make Occam's Razor precise, which most people aren't familiar with, and which don't work.) Ah, I see the answer now. More variants is simpler, yes, because there’s a fixed set of things that can vary, each of which is either relevant or irrelevant to the decision one is trying to make. So, having more variants is the consequence of having more things that can vary be irrelevant to the decision on is trying to make - which is the same as having fewer be relevant. Which is also the same as being harder to vary in the DD sense, if I recall it correctly.
- The coin flipping procedure wouldn't halt. So what good is it?
I’m not with you. Why wouldn’t it halt? It’s just a knockout tournalemt starting with 2^n players. Ah, are you talking about the infinite case? There, as I say, one indeed doesn’t do the flipping, one uses the densities. A way to estimate the densities would be just to sample 100 ideas that are in one of the two competing groups and see how many are in which group.
Yes I meant the infinite case. By sample do you mean a random sample? In the infinite case, how do you get a random sample or otherwise make the sample fair?
Yes I mean random. I don’t understand your other question - why does it matter what randomisation method I use?
The random sampling you propose is impossible to do. There is no physical process that random samples from an infinite set with equal probability.
Even setting infinity aside, I don't think your proposal was to enumerate every variant on a numbered list and then do the random sample using the list. Because why sample to estimate when you already have that list? But without a list of the ideas (or equivalent), I don't know how you suggest to do the sampling, without infinity, either.
This would be easier to comment on if it was more clear what you were proposing. And I prefer not to assume people are proposing impossible nonsense, rather than asking what they mean (whereas you think Elliotism's timeliness is impossible, and prefer to claim that without specifics, over asking more about how Elliotism works). And I won't be surprised if you now say you actually meant something that's unlike what I think sampling is, or say you don't care if the sampling is unfair or arbitrary (which I tried to ask about but didn't get a direct reply to).
It seems like your position is ad hoc and you hadn't figured out in advance how it works (e.g. working out the issues with sampling), figured out what the problems in the field to be addressed are, or researched previous attempts at similar positions or alternatives (and you don't want to research them, preferring to reinvent the wheel for some reason?).
Also, could you provide an example of using your method? I think I’ve answered that above, by my explanation of why seeking the alternative with more close variants is the same as Occam’s razor.
I mean an example like:
We're trying to decide what to get for dinner. I propose salmon sushi or tuna sushi. You propose pizza. We get sushi with 67% odds. Is that how it's supposed to work? (Note I only know the odds here because I have a full list of the ideas.)
But wait. I don't care what God's favorite natural number is; that's irrelevant. So there's infinite sushi variants like, "Get salmon sushi, and God's favorite natural number is 5" (vary the number).
Now what? Each idea just turned into infinite variants. Do we now say there are 2*infinity variants for sushi, and 1*infinity for pizza? And get sushi with what odds?
Should we have a sort of competition to see who can think up the most variants for their dinner choice to increase its odds? Will people who are especially clever with powersets win arguments, since they can better manufacture variants?
Or given your comments above about hard to vary, should I perhaps claim that there are fewer types of sushi than of pizza, so sushi is the better meal?
Could you adjust the example to illustrate how your approach works? I don't know how to use it.
Or perhaps you'll explain to me there's a way to live with a bunch of unanswered questions – and a reason to want to.
I think that’s exactly what I’m doing - Aubreyism is precisely that.
But you just attempted to give answers to many questions, rather than tell me why those questions didn't need answers.
Um, sure - my answers were an explanation for why a bunch of OTHER questions don’t need answers.
What are some example questions that don't need answers?
Excessive rumination is something you – but not me – think is a consequence of Elliotism. A consequence of what specific things, for what reason, I'm unclear on. Tell me. Well, for example, I think caring about what randomisation method to use (above) is excessive rumination.
I think you're dramatically underestimating the complexity of epistemology and the importance of details, and treating epistemology unlike you treat biology. In science, I think you know that details matter, like what sampling method is used in an experiment. And in general know that seemingly minor details can change the results of experiments, and can't just be ignored.
I think you see epistemology as a field where smart amateurs can quickly make stuff up that sounds about right and reasonably expect to do as well as anyone, whereas you wouldn't treat biology that way. You don't treat epistemology like a rigorous science.
This is common. Many scientists make statements straying into epistemology and other areas of philosophy (and sometimes even politics), and claim their scientific expertise still applies (and many people in the audience seem to accept this). They don't recognize field boundaries accurately, or recognize that there is a lot to learn about philosophy (or politics) that wasn't in their science education. This happens routinely.
A good example was Estep and other scientists wrote a criticism of SENS which discussed a bunch of philosophy of science (which is a sub-field of epistemology). No one writing it even claims philosophy credentials. Yet they act like they're writing within their expertise, not outside it. This was then judged by expert judges, none of whom were selected for having philosophy expertise. This is then presented as expert discussion even though there's a bunch of philosophy discussion but no philosophy experts. Look at their own summary:
1) SENS is based on the scientifically unsupported speculations of Aubrey de Grey, which are camouflaged by the legitimate science of others; 2) SENS bears only a superficial resemblance to science or engineering; 3) SENS and de Grey’s writings in support of it are riddled with jargon- filled misunderstandings and misrepresentations; 4) SENS’ notoriety is due almost entirely to its emotional appeal; 5) SENS is pseudoscience. We base these conclusions on our extensive training and individual and collective hands-on experience in the areas covered by SENS, including the engineering of biological organisms for the purpose of extending life span.
2,4,5 are primarily philosophy issues. 1 and 3 are more of a mix because they partly raise issues of whether some specific scientific SENS arguments are correct. Then after making mostly philosophy claims, they say they base their conclusions on their scientific expertise. (Note: how or whether to base conclusions is an epistemology issue too.)
Then you thought I'd have to rely on your answer to Estep to find fault with his paper, even though philosophy is my field.
Do you see what I'm talking about? My position is that philosophy is a real field, which has knowledge and literature that matter. And you won't understand it if you don't treat it that way. What do you think?
I think my interest in the sampling method is a consequence of my mathematical knowledge, not of Elliotism.
It won't have been excessive even if I'm mistaken, because if I'm mistaken (and you know better) then I'll learn something. Or do you think it would be somehow excessive to want to learn about my mistake, if I'm wrong?
I don't see how I could use Aubreyism (on purpose, consciously) without knowing how to do the sampling part. That strikes me as pretty important, and I don't understand how you expect to gloss it over. I also don't see why I should find Aubreyism appealing without having an answer to my arguments about sampling (and some other arguments too).
Regardless, if there was a reason not to question and ruminate about some category of things, I could learn that reason and then not do it. So excessive rumination would not be built into Elliotism. It wouldn't be a problem with Elliotism, only potentially a problem with my ignorance of how much to ruminate about what.
Elliotism says that "how much to ruminate about what" is a topic open to knowledge creation. How will making the topic open to critical thinking lead to the wrong answer? What should be done instead?
So I ask again: why is excessive rumination a consequence of Elliotism? Which part of Elliotism causes or requires it? (And why don't you focus more on finding out what Elliotism is, before focusing on saying it's bad?)
I wrote about how the amount of time (and other resources) used on an arbitration is tailored to the amount of time one thinks should be used. I'm not clear on what you objected to. My guess is you didn't understand, which I would have expected to take more clarifying questions. Maybe I don’t understand, but what you’ve seemed to be saying about that is what I’m saying is identical to what I do - triaging what you elsewhere describe as Elliotism, by reaching a point where you’re satisfied not to have answers.
I think you don't understand, and have been trying to teach me induction (among other things), and arguing with me. Rather than focusing on the sort of question-asking, misunderstanding-and-miscommunication-clearing-up, and other activities necessary to learn a complex philosophy like CR or Elliotism.
This is something I don't know how to handle well.
One difficulty is I don't know which parts of my explanations you didn't understand, and why. I've tried to find out several times but without much success. Without detailed feedback on my initial explanations, I don't know what to change (e.g. different emphasis, different details included, different questions and criticisms answered) for a second iteration to explain it in a way more personalized to your worldview. Communicating about complex topics and substantial disagreements typically requires many iterations using feedback.
I did try explaining some things multiple ways. But there are many, many possible ways to explain something. Going through a bunch semi-randomly without feedback is a bad approach.
I think there's also confusion because you don't clearly and precisely know what your position is, and modify it ad hoc during the discussion – often trying to incorporate points you think are good without realizing how they contradict other aspects of your position (e.g incorporating DD's epistemology for hard to vary, while using Occam's razor which is contradicted by DD's epistemology). Above you say, "Ah, I see the answer now," (regarding redefining Occam's Razor after introducing it) indicating that you're working out Aubreyism as you go along and it's a moving target. This nebulous and changing nature makes Aubreyism harder to differentiate from other positions, and also serves to partially immunize it from criticism by not presenting clear targets for criticism. (And it's further immunized because you accept things like losing, arbitrariness and subjectivity – so what's left to criticize? Even induction, which Popper says is an impossible myth, becomes possible again if you're willing to count reaching arbitrary conclusions as "induction".)
By contrast, my epistemology position hasn't changed at all during this discussion, and has targets for criticism such as public writing.
Also your figure-stuff-out-as-you-go approach makes the discussion much longer than if you knew the field and your position when we started. I don't mind, but it becomes unfair when you blame the discussion length on me and complain about it. You think I ask too many questions. But I don't know what you think I should do instead. Make more assumptions about what your positions are, and criticize those?
An example is you say you use some CR. But CR is a method of dealing with issues, of reaching conclusions. So what's left to do after that? Yet you, contrary to CR, want to have CR+triage. (And this while you don't really know what CR is.) And then you advocate justificationism and induction, both of which contradict the CR you claim to be (partly) using. I don't know what to make of this without asking questions. Lots of questions, like to find out how you deal with these issues. I could phrase it more as criticism instead of questions, but questions generally work better when a position is vague or incomplete.
(Why didn't I mention all of these things earlier? Because there's so many things I could mention, I haven't had the opportunity to discuss them all.)
Perhaps I should have written more meta discussion sooner, more like I've done in this email, rather than continuing to try in various ways to get somewhere with substantive points. DD for one would say I shouldn't be writing meta discussion even now. There are a bunch of ways meta discussion is problematic. Perhaps you'll like it, but I'm not confident.
One of DD's common strategies would be to delete most of what you write every email and ask a short question about a point of disagreement, and then repeat it (maybe with minor variations, or brief comments on why something isn't an answer) for the next three emails, without explaining why it matters. Usually ends badly. Here's an example of how I could have replied to you, in full:
On Nov 2, 2014, at 9:22 AM, Aubrey de Grey wrote:
On 28 Oct 2014, at 02:39, Elliot Temple wrote: Do you believe that all possible sampling methods would be acceptable?
In the infinite case, how do you get a random sample or otherwise make the sample fair? why does it matter what randomisation method I use?
If not, then in the infinite case, how do you get a random sample or otherwise make the sample fair?
This approach controls the discussion, avoids meta discussion, and is short. If you want me to write to you in this style, I can do that. But most people don't like it. It also needs a larger number of iterations than is necessary with longer emails.
I instead (in broad strokes) tried to explain where I was coming from earlier on, and now have been trying to explain why your position is problematic, and throughout I've tried to answer your questions and individual points you raise. Meanwhile you do things like ask what would persuade me, but don't answer what would persuade you. And you talk about how Aubreyism works while not asking many questions about how Elliotism works. And you make claims (e.g. about Elliotism having a timeliness flaw) and I respond by asking you questions to try to find out why you think that, so I can answer, so then you talk about your ideas more instead of finding out how Elliotism works.
I let this happen. I see it happening, see problems with it, but don't know how to fix it. I'm more willing than you to act like a child/learner/student, ask questions and not control discussion. And I have more patience. I don't think this discussion flow is optimal, but I don't know what to do about it. I don't know how to get someone to ask more questions and try to learn more. Nor do I know how to explain something to someone, so that they understand it, without adequate feedback and questions regarding my initial explanation, to give me some indication of where to go with iteration 2 (and 3 and 4). When the feedback is vague or non-specific, or sometimes there is none, then what is one to say next? Tough problem.
Big picture, one can't force a mind, and one can't provide the initiative or impetus for someone to learn something. People make their own choices. I think it's mostly out of my hands. Sometimes I try to explain to people what methods they'll have to use if they want to learn more (e.g. ask more questions), but it usually goes badly, e.g. b/c they say "Well maybe you should learn more" (I'm already trying to, very hard, and they aren't, and they're trying to lie about this reality) or they just don't do it and don't tell me what went wrong.
Why do you think Elliotism itself is lacking, rather than the lacking being in your incomplete understanding of Elliotism? I could equally ask "Why do you think Elliotism itself is not lacking, rather than the lacking being in your incomplete understanding of Elliotism?”.
I'm open to public debate about this, with all comers. I've been taking every reasonable step I can figure out to find out about these things, while also being open to any suggestions from anyone about other steps to take.
Additionally, I have studied the field. In addition to reading things like Popper, I've also read about other approaches. And have sought out discussion with many people who disagree. I've made an extensive effort to find out what alternative views there are, and what's good about them, and what criticisms they have relevant to CR and Elliotism.
This includes asking people if they know anything to look into more, anyone worth talking to, etc. And looking at all those leads. It also includes work by others besides myself. There has been a collaborative effort to find any knowledge contrary to Popper.
E.g. an Australian Popperian looked over the philosophy books being taught in the Australian universities to check for anything good. He later checked over 200 university philosophy curriculums, primarily from the US, using their websites. Looking for new ideas, new leads, material not already refuted by Popper, material that may answer one of Popper's arguments, anything unexpected, and so on. (Nothing good was found.)
This is not to say Elliotism is perfect, but I've made an extensive effort to find and address flaws, and continue to make such an effort. If there are any flaws, no one knows them, or they're keeping the information to themselves. (Or in your case, we can consider the matter pending, but so far you haven't presented any new challenge to CR or Elliotism.)
What I've found is there are a lot of CR and Elliotism arguments which no one has refutations of. But e.g. there are no unanswered inductivist arguments.
A more parallel question to ask me is why I think induction is lacking, rather than the lacking being with my understanding of induction. The reason is because I've made every effort to find out about induction and how it works and what defenses of it exist for the criticisms I have.
Induction could be better than I know – but in that case it's also better than any inductivist knows, too. It's better in some unimagined way which no one knows about. (Or maybe some hermit knows and hasn't told anyone.)
The current state of the debate – which I've made every effort to advance, and which anyone may reply to whenever they want – is that induction faces many unanswered questions and criticisms, while CR/Elliotism don't. Despite serious and responsible effort, I have been unable to find any inductivist or writing with information to the contrary.
Whereas with Elliotism, you're just initially encountering it and don't know much about it (or much about the rest of the field), so I think you should have a more neutral undecided view.
None of these things would be a major issue if you wanted to simply debate some points, in detail, to a conclusion. But they become major issues when you consider giving up on the discussion, try to form an opinion without answering some of my arguments, think questioning aspects of your position is excessive rumination, don't want to read some arguments relevant to your claims (which is like a form of judging ideas by source instead of content. You treat the sources of written in a book by Popper or on a website by Elliot differently than the source of written in an email by Elliot), etc.
Recall: my claim is that you actually perform Aubreyism, you just don’t realise it. It could be that I understand Elliotism better than you, just as it could be that you understand it better than I. Right?
Elliotism is not defined by what I actually do.
For example, if what I actually do involves any induction ever, then Elliotism is false. In that case, you'd be right about that and I'd be wrong. But that wouldn't mean you understand what Elliotism is better than me.
How could we know? Using Aubreyism, we’d know by looking at how you and I have actually made decisions, changed our minds etc in the past, and comparing those actions with the descriptions of Aubreyism and Elliotism. Using Elliotism as you describe it, I’m not sure how we would decide.
If you could find any counter-example to Elliotism from real life, that would refute it.
By a counter-example I mean something that contradicts Elliotism, not merely something Elliotism says is unwise. If I or anyone else did something Elliotism says is impossible, Elliotism would be false.
If it turned out that I wasn't very good at doing Elliotism, but did nothing that contradicts what Elliotism claims about reality, then it could still be the case that people can and should do exclusively Elliotism.
What I (and you) personally do has little bearing on the issues of what epistemology is true.
A different way to approach these things is critical discussion focusing on what explanations and logic make sense. What should be done, and why? What's possible to do? What plans about what to do are actually ambiguous and ill-defined?
For example, induction is a lot like saying, "Take a bunch of data points. Plot them on a graph. Now draw a curve connecting them and continue it along the paper too. Now predict that additional data points will (likely) fall on that curve." But there are infinite such curves you could draw, and induction doesn't say which one to draw. That ambiguity is a big non-empirical problem. (Some people have tried to specify which curve, but there are problems with their answers.)
Note this initial argument about induction, like all initial arguments, doesn't cover everything in full. Because I don't know which additional details are important to your thinking, and there's far too many to include them all indiscriminately. The way to get from initial statements of issues to understanding generally involves multiple rounds of clarifying questions.
What about the win/win vs win/lose issue? I go with arbitrary win/lose, i..e. coin flips.
Do you understand that that doesn't count as a "solution" for BoI's "problems are soluble"? By a solution DD means only a win/win solution. But you're trying to make losing and non-solutions a fundamental feature of epistemology, contrary to BoI. Do you have some criticisms of BoI? Do you think DD was mistaken not to include a chapter about how most problems will never be solved and you have to find a way to go through life that copes with losing in regard to most issues that come up?
Or instead of asking questions, should I simply state that you're contradicting BoI, have no idea what you're talking about, and ought to reread it more carefully? And add that I've seen the same misconceptions with many other beginners. And add that people who read books quietly on their own often come away with huge misunderstandings, so what you really need to do is join the Fallible Ideas discussion group and post public critical analysis as you go along (not non-specific doubts after finishing the book). It's important to discuss the parts of BoI you disagree with – using specific quotes while having the context fresh in memory – and it's important to do this with BoI's best advocates who are willing to have public discussions (they can be found on FI list, which was created by merging BoI list, TCS list, and a few others). If I was more pushy like this, would that help? I'm capable of a variety of styles and approaches, but have had difficulty soliciting information about what would actually be helpful to you, or what you want. This style involves less rumination, drawn-out discussion, etc. I'm guessing you won't appreciate it or want to refute its claims. What would you like? Tell me.
You might want to read Popper's essay "The Myth of the Framework”. I might, but on the other hand I might consider the time taken to do so to be a case of excessive rumination.
What would it take to persuade you of Elliotism or interest you in reading about epistemology? What would convince you Aubreyism is mistaken?
For example, will the sampling issue get your attention? Or will you just say to sample arbitrarily using unstated (and thereby shielded from criticism) subjective intuition? You've already recommended doing things along those lines and don't seem to mind, so what would you mind?
You could tell me which things you considered false from what I said, and why. I don't know which are Aubreyism-compatible and which contradict Aubreyism. And you could tell me how you think persuasion should work. It takes more communication. Quite - maybe, excessively more.
How am I supposed to answer your objections if you don't tell them to me? Or if I'm not to answer them, what do you expect or want to happen?
What I was asking was, can you concisely summarise a particular, concrete thing about which your mind was changed? - a specific question (ideally a yes/no question) that you answer differently now that you did before you encountered DD and his ideas. And then can you summarise (as concisely as possible) how you came to view his position as superior to yours. I’m presuming that the thing will be a thing about how to make decisions, so your answer to the second question needs to be couched in terms of the decision-making method that you favoured prior to changing your mind.
Yes/no question: Is recycling a good idea? The typical residential stuff where you sort your former-trash for pickup.
My old position: yes.
DD's position: no.
What happened? A few arguments, like pointing out the human cost of the sorting. Links to some articles discussing issues like how much energy recycling plants use and how some recycling processes are actually destroying wealth. Answers to all questions and criticisms I had about the new position (I had some at the time, but don't remember them now).
Another thing I would do is take an idea I learned and then argue it with others who don't know it. Then sometimes I'd find I could win the argument no problem. But other times I'd run into some further issue to ask DD about.
In other words: arguments and discussion. That's it. There's no magic formula. You seem to think there are lessons to be learned from my past experience and want to know what they are. But I already incorporated them into Elliotism (and into my explanation of how persuasion can happen) to the extent that I know what they are. To the extent I missed something, I will be unable to tell you that part of my experience, even if I remember it, because I don't know it's important and I can't write everything down including every event I regard as unimportant.
If you want raw data, so you can find the parts you think are important, there are archives available. But if you want summary from me, then it's going to contain what I regard as the important parts, basically discussion, answering all criticisms and questions, reading supplementary material, etc, all the stuff I've been talking about.
The story regarding epistemology is similar to above, except spread out over many questions and over years. And it involves a lot of mixing of issues, rather than going one topic at a time. E.g. discussing parenting and education, or politics. Epistemology has implications for those fields, *and vice versa*.
One thing I can add, that I think was really helpful, is reading lots of stuff DD wrote (anywhere, to me or not). That provided a good examples and showed what level of precise answering of all the issues is reasonably achievable. Though not fully at first – it takes a lot of skill not to miss 95% of what he's doing and getting right. And it takes skill to ask the right questions or otherwise find out more than his initial statement (there's always much more, though many people don't realize that). Early on, even if one isn't very good at this, one can read discussions he had with others and see what questions and counter-arguments they tried and see what happened, and see how DD always has further answers, and see what sorts of replies are productive, and so on. One can gradually get a better feel for these things and build up skill.
By an effort, people can understand each other and reality better. There's no shortcut. That's the principle, and it's my history. If you want to learn philosophy, you can do that. If you'd rather continue with ideas about how life is full of losing in arbitrary ways and induction, which are refuted in writing you'd rather skip reading, you can do that instead.
Continue reading the next part of the discussion