?

Log in

No account? Create an account
A view to the gallery of my mind

> recent entries
> calendar
> friends
> Website
> profile
> previous 20 entries

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018
1:20 pm - Mark Eichenlaub: How to develop scientific intuition

Recently on the CFAR alumni mailing list, someone asked a question about how to develop scientific intuition. In response, Mark Eichenlaub posted an excellent and extensive answer, which was so good that I asked for permission to repost it in public. He graciously gave permission, so I’ve reproduced his message below. (He otherwise retains the rights to this, meaning that the standard CC license on my blog doesn’t apply to this post.)


From: Mark Eichenlaub
Date: Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 9:34 AM
Subject: Re: [CFAR Alumni] Suggestions for developing scientific intuition

Sorry for the length, I recently finished a PhD on this topic. (After I wrote the answer kerspoon linked, I went to grad school to study the topic.) This is specifically about solving physics problems but hopefully speaks to intuition a bit more broadly in places.

I mostly think of intuition as the ability to quickly coordinate a large number of small heuristics. We know lots of small facts and patterns, and intuition is about matching the relevant ones onto the current situation. The little heuristics are often pretty local and small in scope.

For example, the other day I heard this physics problem:

You set up a trough with water in it. You hang just barely less than half of the trough off the edge of a table, so that it balances, but even a small force at the far end would make it tip over.

You put a boat in the trough at the end over the table. The trough remains balanced.

Then you slowly push the boat down to the other end of the trough, so that’s it’s in the part of the trough that hangs out from the table. What happens? (I.E. does the trough tip over?)

The answer is (rot13) Gur gebhtu qbrf abg gvc; vg erznvaf onynaprq (nf ybat nf gur zbirzrag bs gur obng vf fhssvpvragyl fybj fb gung rirelguvat erznvaf va rdhvyvoevhz).

I knew this “intuitively”, by which I mean I got it within a second or so of understanding the question, and without putting in conscious effort to thinking about it. (I wasn’t certain I was right until I had consciously thought it out, but I was reasonably confident within a second, and my intuition bore out.) I don’t think this was due to some sort of general intuition about problem solving, science, physics, mechanics, or even floating. It felt like I could solve the problem intuitively specifically because I had seen sufficiently-similar things that led me to the specific heuristic “a floating object spreads its weight out evenly over the bottom of the container it’s floating in.” Then I think of “having intuition” in physics as having maybe a thousand little rules like that and knowing when to call on which one.

For this particular heuristic, there is a classic problem asking what happens to the water level in a lake if you are in a boat with a rock, and you throw the rock into the water and it sinks to the bottom. One solution to that problem is that when the rock is on the bottom of the lake, it exerts more force on that part of the bottom of the lake than is exerted at other places. By contrast, when the rock is still in the boat, the only thing touching the bottom of the lake is water, and the water pressure is the same everywhere, so the weight of the rock is distributed evenly across the entire lake. The total force on the bottom of the lake doesn’t change between the two scenarios (because gravity pulls on everything just as hard either way), when the rock is sitting on the bottom of the lake and the force on the bottom of the lake is higher under the rock, it must be lower everywhere else to compensate. The pressure everywhere else is $\rho g h$, so if that goes down, the level of the lake goes down. Conclusion: when you throw the rock overboard, the level of the lake goes down a bit. When I thought about that problem, I presumably built the “weight distributed evenly” heuristic. All I had to do was quickly apply it to the trough problem to solve that one as well.

And if someone else also had a background in physics but didn’t find the trough problem easy, it’s probably because they simply hadn’t happened to think about the boat problem, or some other similar problems, in the right way, and hadn’t come away with the heuristic about the weight of floating things being spread out evenly.

To me, this picture of intuition as small heuristics doesn’t look good for the idea of developing powerful intuition. The “weight gets spread out by floating” heuristic is not likely to transfer to much else. I’ve used it for two physics problems about floating things and, as far as I know, nothing else.

You can probably think of lots of similar heuristics. For example, “conservation of expected evidence“. You might catch a mistake in someone’s reasoning, or an error in a long probability calculation you made, if you happen to notice that the argument or calculation violates conservation of expected evidence. The nice thing about this is that it can happen almost automatically. You don’t have to stop after every calculation or argument and think, “does this break conservation of expected evidence?”. Instead, you wind up learning some sorts of triggers that you associate with the principle that prime it in your mind, and then, if it becomes relevant to the argument, you notice that and cite the principle.

In this picture, building intuition is about learning a large number of these heuristics, along with their triggers.

However, while the individual small heuristics are often the easiest things to point to in an intuitive solution to a problem, I do think there are more general, and therefore more transferrable parts of intuition as well. I imagine that the paragraph I wrote explaining the solution to the boat problem will be largely incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t studied physics. That’s partially because it uses concepts they won’t have a rigorous understanding of (e.g. pressure), that it tacitly uses small heuristics it didn’t explain (e.g. that the reason the pressure is the same along the bottom of the lake is that if it weren’t, there would be horizontal forces that push the water around until the pressure did equalize in this way), partially that it made simplifications that it didn’t state and it might not be clear are justified (e.g. that the bottom of the lake is flat). More importantly, it relies on a general framework of Newtonian mechanics. For example, there are a number of tacit applications of Newton’s laws in the argument. For example, I stated that the total force on the bottom of the lake is the same whether the rock is resting on the bottom or floating in the boat “because gravity pulls on everything just as hard either way”, but these aren’t directly connected concepts. Gravity pulls the system (boat + water + rock) down just as hard no matter where the rock is. That system is not accelerating, so by Newton’s second law, the bottom of the lake pushes up on that system just as hard in each scenario. And by Newton’s third law, the system pushes down on the bottom of the lake just as hard in each scenario. So understanding the argument involves some fairly general heuristics such as “apply Newton’s second law to an object in equilibrium to show that two forces on it have equal magnitude” – a heuristic I’ve used hundreds of times, and “decide what objects to define as part of a system fluidly as you go through a problem” (in this case, switching from thinking about the rock as a system to thinking about rock+boat+water as a single system) – a skill I’ve used hundreds to thousands of times across all of physics. (My job is to teach high schoolers to be really good at solving problems like this, so I spend way more time on it than most people, so applying a heuristic specific to solving introductory physics problems in a thousand independent instances is realistic for me.)

Then there may be more meta-level skills and heuristics that you develop in solving problems. These could be things like valuing non-calculation solutions, or believing that persevering on a tough problem is worthwhile. It’s also important that intuition isn’t just about having lots of little heuristics. It’s about organizing them and calling the right one up at the right time. You’ll have to ask yourself the right sorts of questions to prompt yourself to find the right heuristics, and that’s probably a pretty general skill.

There is a fair amount of research on trying to understand what all these little heuristics are and how to develop them, but I’m mostly familiar with the research in physics.

In the Quora answer kerspoon linked, I cited George Lakoff, and I still that he’s a good source for understanding how we go about taking primitive sorts of concepts (e.g. “up” and “down”) and using and adapting them, via partial metaphor, to understanding more abstract things. For a specific example that’s well-argued, see:

Wittmann, Michael C., and Katrina E. Black. “Mathematical actions as procedural resources: An example from the separation of variables.” Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research 11.2 (2015): 020114.

They argue that students understand the arithmetic action “separation of variables” via analogy to their physical understanding of taking things and physically moving them around. However, I think Wittman and Black’s work is incomplete. For example, it doesn’t explain why students using the motion analogy for separation of variables do it correctly – they could just as well use motion to encode algebraically-invalid rules. Also, they don’t explain how the analogy develops. They just catalog that it exists.

A foundational work in trying to understand the components of physical intuition is:

DiSessa, Andrea A. “Toward an epistemology of physics.” Cognition and instruction 10.2-3 (1993): 105-225.

This work establishes “phenomenological primitives”; little core heuristics such as “near is more”, which are templates for physical reasoning. Drawing from these templates, we might conclude that the nearer you are to a speaker, the louder the sound, or that the nearer you are to the sun, the hotter it will be (and therefore that summer is hot because the Earth is nearer the sun – a false but common and reasonable belief).

That’s a long and somewhat-obscure paper. I really like his student’s work

Sherin, Bruce L. “How students understand physics equations.” Cognition and instruction 19.4 (2001): 479-541.

Like Disessa, Sherin builds his own framework for what intuition is. His scope is more limited though, focusing solely on building and interpreting certain types of equations in a manner that combines “intuitive” physical ideas and mathematical templates. He spells this out in detail more in the paper, and it’s incredibly clear and well-argued. Probably my favorite paper in the field.

A more general reference that’s much more accessible than Disessa and more general an overview of cognition in physics than Sherin is
“How Should We Think About How Our Students Think” by my advisor, Joe Redish http://media.physics.harvard.edu/video/?id=COLLOQ_REDISH_093013 (video) https://arxiv.org/abs/1308.3911 (paper).

The actual process of building new heuristics is also studied, but over all I don’t think we know all that much. See my friend Ben’s paper

Dreyfus, Benjamin W., Ayush Gupta, and Edward F. Redish. “Applying conceptual blending to model coordinated use of multiple ontological metaphors.” International Journal of Science Education 37.5-6 (2015): 812-838.

for an example of theory-building around how we create new intuitions. He calls on a framework from cognitive science called “conceptual blending” that is rather formal, but I think pretty entertaining to read.

A relevant search terms in the education literature:

“conceptual change”

but I find a lot of this literature to be hard-to-follow and not always a productive use of time to read.

On the applied side, I think the state of the art in evidence-backed approaches to building intuition, at least in physics, is modeling instruction. I’m not sure what the best introduction to modeling instruction is. They have a website that seems okay. Eric Brewe writes on it and he’s usually very good. The basic idea is to have students collaboratively participate in the building of the theories of physics they’re using (in a specific way, with guidance and direction from a trained instructor), which gets them to think about the “whys” involved with a particular theory or model in a way they usually wouldn’t.

I have written some about why I think things like checking the extreme cases of a formula are powerful intuition-building tools. A preprint is available here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.01639.pdf

However, I think it’s dangerous to have rules like “always check the dimensions of your answer”, “always check the extreme cases of a formula”, or even “always check that the numbers come out reasonable.” The reason is that having these things as procedures tends to encourage students to follow them by rote. A large part of the cognitive work involved isn’t in checking the extreme cases or the dimensions, but in realizing that in this particular situation, that would be a good thing to do. If you’re doing it only because an external prompt is telling you to, you aren’t building the appropriate meta-level habits. See https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09500693.2017.1308037 for an example of this effect.

See papers on “metarepresentation” by Disessa and/or Sherin for another example of generalizable skills related to intuition and problem solving.

Unfortunately, I don’t think writing books well or writing courses of individual study is something we know much about. I don’t know anyone who has a significant grant for that; the most I’ve ever seen on it is a poster here or there at a conference. Generally, grants are awarded for improving high school and college courses, or for professional development programs, supporting department or institution level changes at schools, etc. So adults who just want to learn on their own are not really served much by the research on the area. If you’re an adult who wants to self-study theoretical physics with an eye towards intuition, I recommend Leonard Susskind’s series of courses “The Theoretical Minimum” (the first three courses exist as books, the rest only as video lectures). He approaches mathematical topics with what I find an intuitive approach in most cases. Of course the Feynman lectures on physics are also very good.

I’ll be building an introduction to physics course at Art of Problem Solving, starting work sometime this winter. It might be available in the spring, although students will mostly be middle and high school students (but anyone is welcome to take our courses). I currently teach an advanced physics problem-solving course at AoPS called “PhysicsWOOT”. I try to support intuition-building practices there, but the main aim is in training these many small heuristics which students need to solve contest problems.

There should be something like modeling instruction for adult independent learners, but I don’t know of it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018
7:40 am - On insecurity as a friend

There’s a common narrative about confidence that says that confidence is good, insecurity is bad. It’s better to develop your confidence than to be insecure. There’s an obvious truth to this.

But what that narrative does not acknowledge, and what both a person struggling with insecurity and their well-meaning friends might miss, is that that insecurity may be in place for a reason.

You might not notice it online, but I’ve usually been pretty timid and insecure in real life. But this wasn’t always the case. There were occasions earlier in my life when I was less insecure, more confident in myself.

I was also pretty horrible at things like reading social nuance and figuring out when and why someone might be offended. So I was given, repeatedly, the feedback that my behavior was bad and inappropriate.

Eventually a part of me internalized that as “I’m very likely to accidentally offend the people around me, so I should be very cautious about what I say, ideally saying nothing at all”.

This was, I think, the correct lesson to internalize at that point! It shifted me more into an observer mode, allowing me to just watch social situations and learn more about their dynamics that way. I still don’t think that I’m great at reading social nuance, but I’m at least better at it than I used to be.

And there have been times since then when I’ve decided that I should act with more confidence, and just get rid of the part that generates the insecurity. I’ve been about to do something, felt a sense of insecurity, and walked over the feeling and done the thing anyway.

Sometimes this has had good results. But often it has also led to things blowing up in my face, with me inadvertently hurting someone and leaving me feeling guilty for months afterwards.

Turns out, that feeling of insecurity wasn’t a purely bad thing. It was throwing up important alarms which I chose to ignore, alarms which were sounding because it recognized my behavior as matching previous behavior which had had poor consequences.

Yes, on many occasions that part of me makes me way too cautious. And it would be good to moderate that caution a little. But the same part which generates the feelings of insecurity is the same part which is constantly working to model other people and their experience, their reactions to me. The part that is doing its hardest to make other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this.

Just carving out that part would be a mistake. A moral wrong, even.

The answer is not to get rid of it. The answer is to integrate its cautions better, to keep it with me as a trusted friend and ally – one which feels safe enough about getting its warnings listened to, that it will not scream all the time just to be heard.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
9:04 am - New paper: Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization

Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization (free PDF). Foresight, forthcoming, DOI 10.1108/FS-04-2018-0037.

Authors: Seth D. Baum, Stuart Armstrong, Timoteus Ekenstedt, Olle Häggström, Robin Hanson, Karin Kuhlemann, Matthijs M. Maas, James D. Miller, Markus Salmela, Anders Sandberg, Kaj Sotala, Phil Torres, Alexey Turchin, and Roman V. Yampolskiy.

Abstract
Purpose: This paper formalizes long-term trajectories of human civilization as a scientific and ethical field of study. The long-term trajectory of human civilization can be defined as the path that human civilization takes during the entire future time period in which human civilization could continue to exist.
Approach: We focus on four types of trajectories: status quo trajectories, in which human civilization persists in a state broadly similar to its current state into the distant future; catastrophe trajectories, in which one or more events cause significant harm to human civilization; technological transformation trajectories, in which radical technological breakthroughs put human civilization on a fundamentally different course; and astronomical trajectories, in which human civilization expands beyond its home planet and into the accessible portions of the cosmos.
Findings: Status quo trajectories appear unlikely to persist into the distant future, especially in light of long-term astronomical processes. Several catastrophe, technological transformation, and astronomical trajectories appear possible.
Value: Some current actions may be able to affect the long-term trajectory. Whether these actions should be pursued depends on a mix of empirical and ethical factors. For some ethical frameworks, these actions may be especially important to pursue.

An excerpt from the press release over at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute:

Society today needs greater attention to the long-term fate of human civilization. Important present-day decisions can affect what happens millions, billions, or trillions of years into the future. The long-term effects may be the most important factor for present-day decisions and must be taken into account. An international group of 14 scholars calls for the dedicated study of “long-term trajectories of human civilization” in order to understand long-term outcomes and inform decision-making. This new approach is presented in the academic journal Foresight, where the scholars have made an initial evaluation of potential long-term trajectories and their present-day societal importance.

“Human civilization could end up going in radically different directions, for better or for worse. What we do today could affect the outcome. It is vital that we understand possible long-term trajectories and set policy accordingly. The stakes are quite literally astronomical,” says lead author Dr. Seth Baum, Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a non-profit think tank in the US.

The group of scholars including Olle Häggström, Robin Hanson, Karin Kuhlemann, Anders Sandberg, and Roman Yampolskiy have identified four types of long-term trajectories: status quo trajectories, in which civilization stays about the same, catastrophe trajectories, in which civilization collapses, technological transformation trajectories, in which radical technology fundamentally changes civilization, and astronomical trajectories, in which civilization expands beyond our home planet.

Available here: https://kajsotala.fi/assets/2018/08/trajectories.pdf

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Friday, August 3rd, 2018
3:00 pm - Finland Museum Tour 1/??: Tampere Art Museum

I haven’t really been to museums as an adult; not because I’d have been particularly Anti-Museum, but just because museums never happened to become a Thing That I Do. I vaguely recall having been to a few museums with my parents when I was little, an occasional Japan exhibition as a teen when Japan was a Thing, and a few visits to various museums with school. I think my overall recollection of those visits afterwards could be summarized as being around 5.5 on the BoardGameGeek rating scale grade of “5/10: Slightly boring, take it or leave it” and “6/10: Ok – will play if in the mood”. (The BGG rating scale is my favorite of the ones that I’ve seen, but I digress.)

So I’m not sure, but it’s at least possible that between becoming an adult and yesterday, I didn’t visit a single museum.

For the last year or so however, I’ve had a definite feeling of being stuck in a rut, life-wise. Up until summer last year, I used to have a lot of anxiety; I’m still not totally free of it, but I’ve reduced the amount of it enough that escaping from it is no longer my main driving motivation, the way that it used to be. Meaning that I’m more free to focus on things that I actually enjoy.

But once you have spent most of your adult life feeling a desperate need to escape from a constant level of background anxiety, anxiety which was preventing you from doing anything slow-paced as that would have been insufficient to drown out the suffering… then it’s hard to know *what* you really enjoy anymore. Because you haven’t really been looking for enjoyable things, you have been looking for things that would make the pain go away.

What I was left with, even after getting rid of most of the anxiety, was some level of anhedonia – a difficulty deriving any pleasure from something. And most of my old routines were built around doing things that were mainly palliatives for anxiety, rather than being particularly enjoyable.

Then one day, I happened to see a news article saying something about how the national Museum Card – a single card that you can buy for a year, that gives you free access to various museums around the country – had brought more visitors to museums. And it crossed my mind that visiting museums is a Thing That People Do, which I wasn’t doing, and that I probably hadn’t been able to properly appreciate museums as a kid.

Also, that it would be a fun adventure to go around the country and visit all the various museums that the card gives you access to (currently 278 of them). That kind of an adventure was also Something That People Did, but which hadn’t really been the Kind Of Thing That I Would Do.

So I happened to mention this idea in a conversation with my good friend Tiina, who then mentioned that she also had a museum card, and that company would be welcome. That wasn’t quite an agreement to visit *all* the museums in the country, but still good enough to get started!

Our first visit, today, was to Tampere Art Museum. I had no particular reason for picking this place in particular: me and Tiina would be traveling elsewhere later in the day, so I let her as a Tampere local choose a place from which we could easily get to the bus station afterwards. I also found the notion of starting out with an art museum intriguing. Some of the other museums in Tampere, such as the Espionage Museum, Game Museum or Lenin Museum had topics that were intrinsically interesting. But just a generic “art museum” was probably closest to my inner stereotype of the kind of a dull museum that I wasn’t really able to appreciate as a kid. This time, I was determined to have an open mind and enjoy my experience, whatever it might be.

And I did.

The museum had two exhibitions. The first, Tuomo Rosenlund and Mika Hannu’s “Paikan muisti” (“The Memory of Place”) consisted of black-and-white drawings of different places in the city of Tampere, together with poems and writing about the history of those places.

I feel like I have recently done a number of things to help me connect with more intuitive parts of my mind, ranging from various psychotherapy-style practices like Focusing, to shaman drumming and mild vision trances. Looking at the various drawings, the thought came to me to let my subconscious complete them. I asked it to do so and it obliged, and in my mind’s eye, the black-and-white drawings were flooded with color and texture and depth, and I could experience myself standing in the depicted places, imagining myself into locations that I had never seen before. Not as vividly as actually being there, but as strongly as in a particularly vivid memory.

That felt enjoyable, like a pleasant meditation exercise.

And then there was the exhibition by J.A. Juvani, a visual artist who – as I learned – is the national Young Artist of the Year.

The essence of his pieces, as I experienced them, was that of pure, raw, unashamed sexuality; lust and desire shaded in colors of queer and kink. Furthermore, it was an obviously personal essence; an expression of the artist’s own sexuality, an expression of intimacy that drew you in, erotic even to someone like me who doesn’t ordinarily think of himself as being physically attracted to men.

One of his displays was a looping video, on a large screen right in front of the stairs leading to the second floor, placed so that you couldn’t avoid seeing it when you came up. At the end of the very suggestive video, he would be staring you right in the eyes; and as I stared back, I felt my breathing growing deeper and faster, as if he was propositioning to me in the flesh right there, me finding him too appealing to say no to.

What probably got me was the rawness – this was not the nice, unreal kind of erotica where everything is pink and nobody’s position ever feels uncomfortable, but the kind of primal lust that felt real and totally uninterested in Photoshopping any aspect of the experience. It was much more interested in just having a good, visceral, _physical_ fuck right then and there.

And it brought up partially forgotten memories. Memories of a same kind of pure, two-sided lust between people, with a force that I realized I probably hadn’t experienced since my teen years, in that roller-coaster relationship with my first girlfriend that was all shades of dysfunctional but never lacking in intensity.

There was a book on Juvani’s work on sale; I skimmed it, and his descriptions of his life, the casual sex, the friend who had visited “for a tea and a blowjob” further brought back memories of those first teenage sex experiences, when everything was novel and exciting and innocent and powerful; before I had accumulated the sexual traumas and problems that sometimes make me almost averse over the thought of having sex, even with a willing and desirable partner.

And there was a sense of catharsis, feeling somehow more *pure* as a result; the same kind of feeling that I may get from writing something that I’ve managed to really immerse myself in, or from really intensive fiction. A feeling of having connected with deeper, more emotional parts of my mind, and becoming more whole as a result.

It was a good experience. I’m glad that I went.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Sunday, March 18th, 2018
10:15 am - Is the Star Trek Federation really incapable of building AI?

In the Star Trek universe, we are told that it’s really hard to make genuine artificial intelligence, and that Data is so special because he’s a rare example of someone having managed to create one.

But this doesn’t seem to be the best hypothesis for explaining the evidence that we’ve actually seen. Consider:

  • In the TOS episode “The Ultimate Computer“, the Federation has managed to build a computer intelligent enough to run the Enterprise by its own, but it goes crazy and Kirk has to talk it into self-destructing.
  • In TNG, we find out that before Data, Doctor Noonian Soong had built Lore, an android with sophisticated emotional processing. However, Lore became essentially evil and had no problems killing people for his own benefit. Data worked better, but in order to get his behavior right, Soong had to initially build him with no emotions at all. (TNG: “Datalore“, “Brothers“)
  • In the TNG episode “Evolution“, Wesley is doing a science project with nanotechnology, accidentally enabling the nanites to become a collective intelligence which almost takes over the ship before the crew manages to negotiate a peaceful solution with them.
  • The holodeck seems entirely capable of running generally intelligent characters, though their behavior is usually restricted to specific roles. However, on occasion they have started straying outside their normal parameters, to the point of attempting to take over the ship. (TNG: “Elementary, Dear Data“) It is also suggested that the computer is capable of running an indefinitely long simulation which is good enough to make an intelligent being believe in it being the real universe. (TNG: “Ship in a Bottle“)
  • The ship’s computer in most of the series seems like it’s potentially quite intelligent, but most of the intelligence isn’t used for anything else than running holographic characters.
  • In the TNG episode “Booby Trap“, a potential way of saving the Enterprise from the Disaster Of The Week would involve turning over control of the ship to the computer: however, the characters are inexplicably super-reluctant to do this.
  • In Voyager, the Emergency Medical Hologram clearly has general intelligence: however, it is only supposed to be used in emergency situations rather than running long-term, its memory starting to degrade after a sufficiently long time of continuous use. The recommended solution is to reset it, removing all of the accumulated memories since its first activation. (VOY: “The Swarm“)

There seems to be a pattern here: if an AI is built to carry out a relatively restricted role, then things work fine. However, once it is given broad autonomy and it gets to do open-ended learning, there’s a very high chance that it gets out of control. The Federation witnessed this for the first time with the Ultimate Computer. Since then, they have been ensuring that all of their AI systems are restricted to narrow tasks or that they’ll only run for a short time in an emergency, to avoid things getting out of hand. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that your AI having more intelligence is generally useful, so e.g. starship computers are equipped with powerful general intelligence capabilities, which sometimes do get out of hand.

Dr. Soong’s achievement with Data was not in building a general intelligence, but in building a general intelligence which didn’t go crazy. (And before Data, he failed at that task once, with Lore.)

The Federation’s issue with AI is not that they haven’t solved artificial general intelligence. The Federation’s issue is that they haven’t reliably solved the AI alignment problem.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Monday, February 12th, 2018
11:33 am - Some conceptual highlights from “Disjunctive Scenarios of Catastrophic AI Risk”

My forthcoming paper, “Disjunctive Scenarios of Catastrophic AI Risk”, attempts to introduce a number of considerations to the analysis of potential risks from Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). As the paper is long and occasionally makes for somewhat dry reading, I thought that I would briefly highlight a few of the key points raised in the paper.

The main idea here is that most of the discussion about risks of AGI has been framed in terms of a scenario that goes something along the lines of “a research group develops AGI, that AGI develops to become superintelligent, escapes from its creators, and takes over the world”. While that is one scenario that could happen, focusing too much on any single scenario makes us more likely to miss out alternative scenarios. It also makes the scenarios susceptible to criticism from people who (correctly!) point out that we are postulating very specific scenarios that have lots of burdensome details.

To address that, I discuss here a number of considerations that suggest disjunctive paths to catastrophic outcomes: paths that are of the form “A or B or C could happen, and any one of them happening could have bad consequences”.

Superintelligence versus Crucial Capabilities

Bostrom’s Superintelligence, as well as a number of other sources, basically make the following argument:

  1. An AGI could become superintelligent
  2. Superintelligence would enable the AGI to take over the world

This is an important argument to make and analyze, since superintelligence basically represents an extreme case: if an individual AGI may become as powerful as it gets, how do we prepare for that eventuality? As long as there is a plausible chance for such an extreme case to be realized, it must be taken into account.

However, it is probably a mistake to focus only on the case of superintelligence. Basically, the reason why we are interested in a superintelligence is that, by assumption, it has the cognitive capabilities necessary for a world takeover. But what about an AGI which also had the cognitive capabilities necessary for taking over the world, and only those?

Such an AGI might not count as a superintelligence in the traditional sense, since it would not be superhumanly capable in every domain. Yet, it would still be one that we should be concerned about. If we focus too much on just the superintelligence case, we might miss the emergence of a “dumb” AGI which nevertheless had the crucial capabilities necessary for a world takeover.

That raises the question of what might be such crucial capabilities. I don’t have a comprehensive answer; in my paper, I focus mostly on the kinds of capabilities that could be used to inflict major damage: social manipulation, cyberwarfare, biological warfare. Others no doubt exist.

A possibly useful framing for future investigations might be, “what level of capability would an AGI need to achieve in a crucial capability in order to be dangerous”, where the definition of “dangerous” is free to vary based on how serious of a risk we are concerned about. One complication here is that this is a highly contextual question – with a superintelligence we can assume that the AGI may get basically omnipotent, but such a simplifying assumption won’t help us here. For example, the level of offensive biowarfare capability that would pose a major risk, depends on the level of the world’s defensive biowarfare capabilities. Also, we know that it’s possible to inflict enormous damage to humanity even with just human-level intelligence: whoever is authorized to control the arsenal of a nuclear power could trigger World War III, no superhuman smarts needed.

Crucial capabilities are a disjunctive consideration because they show that superintelligence isn’t the only level of capability that would pose a major risk: and there many different combinations of various capabilities – including ones that we don’t even know about yet – that could pose the same level of danger as superintelligence.

Incidentally, this shows one reason why the common criticism of “superintelligence isn’t something that we need to worry about because intelligence isn’t unidimensional” is misfounded – the AGI doesn’t need to be superintelligent in every dimension of intelligence, just the ones we care about.

How would the AGI get free and powerful?

In the prototypical AGI risk scenario, we are assuming that the developers of the AGI want to keep it strictly under control, whereas the AGI itself has a motive to break free. This has led to various discussions about the feasibility of “oracle AI” or “AI confinement” – ways to restrict the AGI’s ability to act freely in the world, while still making use of it. This also means that the AGI might have a hard time acquiring the resources that it needs for a world takeover, since it either has to do so while it is under constant supervision by its creators, or while on the run from them.

However, there are also alternative scenarios where the AGI’s creators voluntarily let it free – or even place it in control of e.g. a major corporation, free to use that corporation’s resources as it desires! My chapter discusses several ways by which this could happen: i) economic benefit or competitive pressure, ii) criminal or terrorist reasons, iii) ethical or philosophical reasons, iv) confidence in the AI’s safety, as well as v) desperate circumstances such as being otherwise close to death. See the chapter for more details on each of these. Furthermore, the AGI could remain theoretically confined but be practically in control anyway – such as in a situation where it was officially only giving a corporation advice, but its advice had never been wrong before and nobody wanted to risk their jobs by going against the advice.

Would the Treacherous Turn involve a Decisive Strategic Advantage?

Looking at crucial capabilities in a more fine-grained manner also raises the question of when an AGI would start acting against humanity’s interests. In the typical superintelligence scenario, we assume that it will do so once it is in a position to achieve what Bostrom calls a Decisive Strategic Advantage (DSA): “a level of technological and other advantages sufficient to enable [an AI] to achieve complete world domination”. After all, if you are capable of achieving superintelligence and a DSA, why act any earlier than that?

Even when dealing with superintelligences, however, the case isn’t quite as clear-cut. Suppose that there are two AGI systems, each potentially capable of achieving a DSA if they prepare for long enough. But the longer that they prepare, the more likely it becomes that the other AGI sets its plans in motion first, and achieves an advantage over the other. Thus, if several AGI projects exist, each AGI is incentivized to take action at such a point which maximizes its overall probability of success – even if the AGI only had rather slim chances of succeeding in the takeover, if it thought that waiting for longer would make its chances even worse.

Indeed, an AGI which defects on its creators may not be going for a world takeover in the first place: it might, for instance, simply be trying to maneuver itself into a position where it can act more autonomously and defeat takeover attempts by other, more powerful AGIs. The threshold for the first treacherous turn could vary quite a bit, depending on the goals and assets of the different AGIs; various considerations are discussed in the paper.

A large reason for analyzing these kinds of scenarios is that, besides caring about existential risks, we also care about catastrophic risks – such as an AGI acting too early and launching a plan which resulted in “merely” hundreds of millions of deaths. My paper introduces the term Major Strategic Advantage, defined as “a level of technological and other advantages sufficient to pose a catastrophic risk to human society”. A catastrophic risk is one that might inflict serious damage to human well-being on a global scale and cause ten million or more fatalities.

“Mere” catastrophic risks could also turn into existential ones, if they contribute to global turbulence (Bostrom et al. 2017), a situation in which existing institutions are challenged, and coordination and long-term planning become more difficult. Global turbulence could then contribute to another out-of-control AI project failing even more catastrophically and causing even more damage

Summary table and example scenarios

The table below summarizes the various alternatives explored in the paper.

AI’s level of strategic advantage
  • Decisive
  • Major
AI’s capability threshold for non-cooperation
  • Very low to very high, depending on various factors
Sources of AI capability
  • Individual takeoff
    • Hardware overhang
    • Speed explosion
    • Intelligence explosion
  • Collective takeoff
  • Crucial capabilities
    • Biowarfare
    • Cyberwarfare
    • Social manipulation
    • Something else
  • Gradual shift in power
Ways for the AI to achieve autonomy
  • Escape
    • Social manipulation
    • Technical weakness
  • Voluntarily released
    • Economic or competitive reasons
    • Criminal or terrorist reasons
    • Ethical or philosophical reasons
    • Desperation
    • Confidence
      • in lack of capability
      • in values
  • Confined but effectively in control
Number of AIs
  • Single
  • Multiple

And here are some example scenarios formed by different combinations of them:

The classic takeover

(Decisive strategic advantage, high capability threshold, intelligence explosion, escaped AI, single AI)

The “classic” AI takeover scenario: an AI is developed, which eventually becomes better at AI design than its programmers. The AI uses this ability to undergo an intelligence explosion, and eventually escapes to the Internet from its confinement. After acquiring sufficient influence and resources in secret, it carries out a strike against humanity, eliminating humanity as a dominant player on Earth so that it can proceed with its own plans unhindered.

The gradual takeover

(Major strategic advantage, high capability threshold, gradual shift in power, released for economic reasons, multiple AIs)

Many corporations, governments, and individuals voluntarily turn over functions to AIs, until we are dependent on AI systems. These are initially narrow-AI systems, but continued upgrades push some of them to the level of having general intelligence. Gradually, they start making all the decisions. We know that letting them run things is risky, but now a lot of stuff is built around them, it brings a profit and they’re really good at giving us nice stuff—for the while being.

The wars of the desperate AIs

(Major strategic advantage, low capability threshold, crucial capabilities, escaped AIs, multiple AIs)

Many different actors develop AI systems. Most of these prototypes are unaligned with human values and not yet enormously capable, but many of these AIs reason that some other prototype might be more capable. As a result, they attempt to defect on humanity despite knowing their chances of success to be low, reasoning that they would have an even lower chance of achieving their goals if they did not defect. Society is hit by various out-of-control systems with crucial capabilities that manage to do catastrophic damage before being contained.

Is humanity feeling lucky?

(Decisive strategic advantage, high capability threshold, crucial capabilities, confined but effectively in control, single AI)

Google begins to make decisions about product launches and strategies as guided by their strategic advisor AI. This allows them to become even more powerful and influential than they already are. Nudged by the strategy AI, they start taking increasingly questionable actions that increase their power; they are too powerful for society to put a stop to them. Hard-to-understand code written by the strategy AI detects and subtly sabotages other people’s AI projects, until Google establishes itself as the dominant world power.

This blog post was written as part of work for the Foundational Research Institute.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Thursday, January 25th, 2018
7:25 pm - On not getting swept away by mental content

There’s a specific subskill of meditation that I call “not getting swept away by the content”, that I think is generally valuable.

It goes like this. You sit down to meditate and focus on your breath or whatever, and then a worrying thought comes to your mind. And it’s a real worry, something important. And you are tempted to start thinking about it and pondering it and getting totally distracted from your meditation… because this is something that you should probably be thinking about, at some point.

So there’s a mental motion that you make, where you note that you are getting distracted by the content of a thought. The worry, even if valid, is content. If you start thinking about whether you should be engaging with the worry, those thoughts are also content.

And you are meditating, meaning that this is the time when you shouldn’t be focusing on content. Anything that is content, you dismiss, without examining what that content is.

So you dismiss the worry. It was real and important, but it was content, so you are not going to think about it now.

You feel happy about having dismissed the content, and you start thinking about how good of a meditator you are, and… realize that this, too, is a thought that you are getting distracted by.

So you dismiss that thought, too. Doesn’t matter what the content of the thought is, now is not the time.

And then you keep letting go of thoughts that came to your mind, but that doesn’t seem to do anything and you start to wonder whether you are doing this meditation thing right… and aha, that’s content too. So you dismiss that…

The thing that is going on here is that usually, when you experience a distracting thought and want to get rid of it, you often start engaging in an evaluation process of whether that thought should be dismissed or not. By doing so, you may end up engaging with the thought’s own internal logic – which might be totally wrong for the situation.

Yes, maybe your relationship is in tatters and your partner is about to leave you. And maybe there are things that you can do to avoid that fate. Or maybe there are not. But if you try to dismiss the thought by disputing the truth or importance of those things, you will fail. Because they are true and important.

The way to short-circuit that is to move the evaluation a meta-level up and just decide that whatever is content, gets dismissed on that basis. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s content, so not what you are doing now. You avoid getting entangled up with the thought’s internal logic, because you never engage with the internal logic in the first place.

Having this mental motion available to you is also useful outside meditation, if you are prone to having any other thoughts that aren’t actually useful.

As I write this, I’m sitting at a food place, eating the food and watching the traffic outside. And, like I often am, I am bothered by pessimistic thoughts about the future of humanity, and all the different disasters that could befall the world.

Yeah, I could live to see the day when AIs destroy the world, or worse.

That’s true.

That’s also content. I’m not going to engage with that content right now.

Hmm.

I look outside the window, watch cars pass by, and finish my dinner.

The food is tasty.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Thursday, January 4th, 2018
9:53 am - Papers for 2017

I had three new papers either published or accepted into publication last year; all of them are now available online:

  • How Feasible is the Rapid Development of Artificial Superintelligence? Physica Scripta 92 (11), 113001.
    • Abstract: What kinds of fundamental limits are there in how capable artificial intelligence (AI) systems might become? Two questions in particular are of interest: 1) How much more capable could AI become relative to humans, and 2) how easily could superhuman capability be acquired? To answer these questions, we will consider the literature on human expertise and intelligence, discuss its relevance for AI, and consider how AI could improve on humans in two major aspects of thought and expertise, namely simulation and pattern recognition. We find that although there are very real limits to prediction, it seems like AI could still substantially improve on human intelligence.
    • Links: published version (paywalled), free preprint.
  • Disjunctive Scenarios of Catastrophic AI Risk. AI Safety and Security (Roman Yampolskiy, ed.), CRC Press. Forthcoming.
    • Abstract: ​ Artificial intelligence (AI) safety work requires an understanding of what could cause AI to become unsafe. This chapter seeks to provide a broad look at the various ways in which the development of AI sophisticated enough to have general intelligence could lead to it becoming powerful enough to cause a catastrophe. In particular, the present chapter seeks to focus on the way that various risks are disjunctive—on how there are multiple different ways by which things could go wrong, any one of which could lead to disaster. We cover different levels of a strategic advantage an AI might acquire, alternatives for the point where an AI might decide to turn against humanity, different routes by which an AI might become dangerously capable, ways by which the AI might acquire autonomy, and scenarios with varying number of AIs. Whereas previous work has focused on risks specifically only from superintelligent AI, this chapter also discusses crucial capabilities that could lead to catastrophic risk and which could emerge anywhere on the path from near-term “narrow AI” to full-blown superintelligence.
    • Links: free preprint.
  • Superintelligence as a Cause or Cure for Risks of Astronomical Suffering. Informatica 41 (4).
    • (with Lukas Gloor)
    • Abstract: Discussions about the possible consequences of creating superintelligence have included the possibility of existential risk , often understood mainly as the risk of human extinction. We argue that suffering risks (s-risks) , where an adverse outcome would bring about severe suffering on an astronomical scale, are risks of a comparable severity and probability as risks of extinction. Preventing them is the common interest of many different value systems. Furthermore, we argue that in the same way as superintelligent AI both contributes to existential risk but can also help prevent it, superintelligent AI can both be a suffering risk or help avoid it. Some types of work aimed at making superintelligent AI safe will also help prevent suffering risks, and there may also be a class of safeguards for AI that helps specifically against s-risks.
    • Links: published version (open access).

In addition, my old paper Responses to Catastrophic AGI Risk (w/ Roman Yampolskiy) was republished, with some minor edits, as the book chapters “Risks of the Journey to the Singularity” and “Responses to the Journey to the Singularity”, in The Technological Singularity: Managing the Journey (Victor Callaghan et al, eds.), Springer-Verlag.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Friday, December 8th, 2017
2:10 pm - Fixing science via a basic income

I ran across Ed Hagen’s article “Academic success is either a crapshoot or a scam”, which pointed out that all the methodological discussion about science’s replication crisis is kinda missing the point: yes, all of the methodological stuff like p-hacking is something that would be valuable to fix, but the real problem is in the incentives created by the crazy publish-or-perish culture:

In my field of anthropology, the minimum acceptable number of pubs per year for a researcher with aspirations for tenure and promotion is about three. This means that, each year, I must discover three important new things about the world. […]

Let’s say I choose to run 3 studies that each has a 50% chance of getting a sexy result. If I run 3 great studies, mother nature will reward me with 3 sexy results only 12.5% of the time. I would have to run 9 studies to have about a 90% chance that at least 3 would be sexy enough to publish in a prestigious journal.

I do not have the time or money to run 9 new studies every year.

I could instead choose to investigate phenomena that are more likely to yield strong positive results. If I choose to investigate phenomena that are 75% likely to yield such results, for instance, I would only have to run about 5 studies (still too many) for mother nature to usually grace me with at least 3 positive results. But then I run the risk that these results will seem obvious, and not sexy enough to publish in prestigious journals.

To put things in deliberately provocative terms, empirical social scientists with lots of pubs in prestigious journals are either very lucky, or they are p-hacking.

I don’t really blame the p-hackers. By tying academic success to high-profile publications, which, in turn, require sexy results, we academic researchers have put our fates in the hands of a fickle mother nature. Academic success is therefore either a crapshoot or, since few of us are willing to subject the success or failure of our careers to the roll of the dice, a scam.

The article then suggests that the solution would be to have better standards for research, and also blames prestigious journal publishers for exploiting their monopoly on the field. I think that looking at the researcher incentives is indeed the correct thing to do here, but I’m not sure the article goes deep enough with it. Mainly, it doesn’t ask the obvious question of why researchers have such a crazy pressure to publish: it’s not the journals that set the requirements for promotion or getting to the tenure track, that’s the universities and research institutions. The journals are just exploiting a lucrative situation that someone else created.

Rather my understanding is that the real problem is that there are simply too many PhD graduates who want to do research, relative to the number of researcher positions available. It’s a basic fact of skill measurement that if you try to measure skill and then pick people based on how well they performed on your measure, you’re actually selecting for skill + luck rather than pure skill. If the number of people you pick is small enough relative to the number of applicants, anyone you pick has to be both highly skilled and highly lucky; simply being highly skilled isn’t enough to make it to the top. This is the situation we have with current science, and as Hagen points out, it leads to rampant cheating when people realize that they have to cheat in order to make the cut. As long as this is the situation, there will remain an incentive to cheat.

This looks hard to fix; two obvious solutions would be to reduce the number of graduate students or to massively increase the number of research jobs. The first is politically challenging, especially since it would require international coordination and lots of nations view the number of graduating PhDs as a status symbol. The second would be expensive and thus also politically challenging. One thing that some of my friends also suggested was some kind of a researchers’ basic income (or just a universal basic income in general); for fields in which doing research isn’t much more expensive than covering the researchers’ cost of living, a lot of folks would probably be happy to do research just on the basic income.

A specific suggestion that was thrown out was to give some number of post-docs a 10-year grant of 2000 euros/month; depending on the exact number of grants given out, this could fund quite a number of researchers while still being cheap in comparison to any given country’s general research and education expenses. The existence of better-paid and more prestigious formal research positions like university professorships would still exist as an incentive to actually do the research, and historically quite a lot of research has been done by people with no financial incentive for it anyway (Einstein doing his research on the side while working at the patent office maybe being the most famous example); the fact that most researchers are motivated by the pure desire to do science is already shown by the fact that anyone at all decides to go to academia today. A country being generous handing out these kinds of grants also has the potential to be made into an international status symbol, creating the incentive to actually do this. Alternatively, this could just be viewed as yet another reason to just push for a universal basic income for everyone.

EDIT: Jouni Sirén made the following interesting comment in response to this article: “I think the root issue goes deeper than that. There are too many PhD graduates who want to do research, because money and prestige are insufficient incentives for a large part of the middle class. Too many people want a job that is interesting or meaningful, and nobody is willing to support all of them financially.” That’s an even deeper reason than the one I was thinking of!

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(1 echo left behind | Leave an echo)

Monday, December 4th, 2017
1:02 pm - Book review: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good

The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. By Todd Kashdan & Robert Biswas-Diener. Avery, 2014.

This book was written by a pair of psychologists who thought that the excessive focus on good and positive feelings in positive psychology was a little overblown, and that the value of so-called “negative” feelings or aspects of personality was being neglected. They do think that it’s good for us to be happy most of the time, but that it will be even better for us if we have a flexibility that allows us to switch to non-happy states of mind when it’s beneficial. They suggest an 80:20 ratio as a rough rule of thumb: be happy 80% of the time and non-happy 20% of the time. They call this philosophy “wholeness”: a person is whole if they are able to flexibly tap into all aspects of their being when it’s warranted.

The authors offer a number of examples about the value of so-called negative states. Too much comfort makes us oversensitive to inevitable discomfort. Anger motivates us to act, fix injustices, and defend ourselves and our loved ones; guilt tells us when we’ve screwed up and motivates us to improve our behavior; anxiety helps us catch mistakes and take safeguards against risks. Happy people are less persuasive, can be too trusting, and are lazier thinkers. Intentionally trying to become happy easily backfires and makes us less happy; and there are situations where happiness feels inappropriate and will make others respond worse to you. Sometimes it’s better to act on instinct or engage in mind-wandering than to always be mindful and think things through consciously. The “dark triad” traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are all useful in moderation and provide benefits such as fearlessness and self-assuredness.

The following paragraph from the final chapter is a pretty good summary of the book’s message:

The basic idea is that psychological states are instrumental. That is, they are useful for a specific purpose, such as finding your car keys, being physically safe in a parking garage, negotiating a business deal, or arguing with your child’s teacher. Rather than viewing your thoughts and feelings as reactions to external events, we argue that you ought to view these states as tools to be used as circumstances warrant. Simply put, quit labeling your inner states as good or bad or positive or negative, and start thinking of them as useful or not useful for any given situation.

While I liked the book’s message and agreed with many of its points, I felt like it was mostly trying to tell a story that sounds plausible to a layman, rather than making a particularly rigorous argument. The authors tend to base their claims on isolated studies with no mention of their replication status; some of their example studies draw on paradigms and methods that have been seriously challenged (social priming and implicit association tests); occasionally they made claims that I thought contradicted things I knew from elsewhere; and some of the cited empirical results seem to have alternative interpretations that are more natural than the ones offered in the book. It’s plausible that they are drawing on much more rigorous academic work and that the argument has been dumbed down for a popular audience: even granting them the benefit of doubt, the book still feels way too much like a collection of examples that have been cherry-picked to make the wanted points.

Regardless, the book’s general message feels almost certainly correct – after all, why would we have evolved negative states if they weren’t sometimes useful? – so if anyone feels like they’ve been overwhelmed with too many messages of positivity, I would recommend this book for inspiration and an alternative viewpoint, if not for any of its specific details.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Monday, November 6th, 2017
1:05 pm - Meditation and mental space

One effect that I often notice after my meditation practice has been interrupted and I then manage to resume it again, is an increase in a kind of mental resilience.

That is, when I have a lower resilience, feeling bad for any reason feels much more like an emergency. It’s something that forces itself into my consciousness, takes over, and refuses to go away. I would like to ignore it, but I can’t; as long as it’s there, it’s hard to think of anything else.

When my resilience is higher, it’s like my mind has more room for thoughts and emotions. Something might be making me feel bad, but something else might also be making me feel good, and there’s space for those two to intermingle. It becomes much easier to accept that I’m feeling a little bad, but I don’t need to do anything about it. I can just go on and do something else, and the nasty feeling might go away on its own – or if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

Interestingly, being on antidepressants can also give me a similar effect.

Of course, in itself this kind of an effect isn’t too surprising, given that it’s one of the explicit goals of the practice. Culadasa’s The Mind Illuminated notes that two of the goals of mindfulness practice are an increase in the amount of “conscious power” (roughly, the amount of things that can be consciously processed at a time), as well as learning to more intentionally shift the focus of attention, so that it won’t just automatically go to the most painful or pleasant thing and become preoccupied with that, but can rather be controlled in a more useful manner. Still, it’s nice to see that the practice is bearing fruit.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017
10:19 am - Anti-tribalism and positive mental health as high-value cause areas

I think that tribalism is one of the biggest problems with humanity today, and that even small reductions of it could cause a massive boost to well-being.

By tribalism, I basically mean the phenomenon where arguments and actions are primarily evaluated based on who makes them and which group they seem to support, not anything else. E.g. if a group thinks that X is bad, then it’s often seen as outright immoral to make an argument which would imply that X isn’t quite as bad, or that some things which are classified as X would be more correctly classified as non-X instead. I don’t want to give any specific examples so as to not derail the discussion, but hopefully everyone can think of some; the article “Can Democracy Survive Tribalism” lists lot of them, picked from various sides of the political spectrum.

Joshua Greene (among others) makes the argument, in his book Moral Tribes, that tribalism exists for the purpose of coordinating aggression and alliances against other groups (so that you can kill them and take their stuff, basically). It specifically exists for the purpose of making you hurt others, as well as defend yourself against people who would hurt you. And while defending yourself against people who would hurt you is clearly good, attacking others is clearly not. And everything being viewed in tribal terms means that we can’t make much progress on things that actually matter: as someone commented, “people are fine with randomized controlled trials in policy, as long as the trials are on things that nobody cares about”.

Given how deep tribalism sits in the human psyche, it seems unlikely that we’ll be getting rid of it anytime soon. That said, there do seem to be a number of things that affect the amount of tribalism we have:

* As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general has declined over historical time, replaced by more cooperation and an assumption of human rights; Democrats and Republicans may still hate each other, but they generally agree that they still shouldn’t be killing each other.
* As a purely anecdotal observation, I seem to get the feeling that people on the autism spectrum tend to be less tribal, up to the point of not being able to perceive tribes at all. (this suggests, somewhat oddly, that the world would actually be a better place if everyone was slightly autistic)
* Feelings of safety or threat seem to play a lot into feelings of tribalism: if you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that a group Y is out to get you and that they are a real threat to you, then you will react much more aggressively to any claims that might be read as supporting Y. Conversely, if you feel safe and secure, then you are much less likely to feel the need to attack others.

The last point is especially troublesome, since it can give rise to self-fulfilling predictions. Say that Alice says something to Bob, and Bob misperceives this as an insult; Bob feels threatened so snaps at Alice, and now Alice feels threatened as well, so shouts back. The same kind of phenomenon seems to be going on a much larger scale: whenever someone perceives a threat, they are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of doubt, and would rather treat the other person as an enemy. (which isn’t too surprising, since it makes evolutionary sense: if someone is out to get you, then the cost of misclassifying them as a friend is much bigger than the cost of misclassifying a would-be friend as an enemy. you can always find new friends, but it only takes one person to get near you and hurt you really bad)

One implication might be that general mental health work, not only in the conventional sense of “healing disorders”, but also the positive psychology-style mental health work that actively seeks to make people happy rather than just fine, could be even more valuable for society than we’ve previously thought. Curing depression etc. would be enormously valuable even by itself, but if we could figure out how to make people generally happier and resilient to negative events, then fewer things would threaten their well-being and they would perceive fewer things as being threats, reducing tribalism.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Saturday, October 14th, 2017
11:29 am - You can never be universally inclusive

A discussion about the article “We Don’t Do That Here” (h/t siderea) raised the question about the tension between having inclusive social norms on the one hand, and restricting some behaviors on the other hand.

At least, that was the way the discussion was initially framed. The thing is, inclusivity is a bit of a bad term, since you can never really be universally inclusive. Accepting some behaviors is going to attract people who like engaging in those behaviors while repelling people who don’t like those behaviors; and vice versa for disallowing them.

Of course, you can still create spaces that are more inclusive than others, in being comfortable to a broader spectrum of people. But the way you do that, is by disallowing behaviors that would, if allowed, repel more people that the act of disallowing them does.

If you use your social power to shut up people who would otherwise be loudly racist and homophobic and who then leave because they don’t want to be in a place where those kinds of behaviors aren’t allowed, then that would fit the common definition of “inclusive space” pretty well.

That said, the “excluding racists and homophobes” thing may make it sound like you’re only excluding “bad” people, which isn’t the case either. Every set of rules (including having no rules in the first place) is going to repel some completely decent people.

Like, maybe you decide to try to make a space more inclusive by having a rule like “no discussing religion or politics”. This may make the space more inclusive towards people of all kinds of religions and political backgrounds, since there is less of a risk of anyone feeling unwelcome when everyone else turns out to disagree with their beliefs.

But at the same time, you are making the space less inclusive towards people who are perfectly reasonable and respectful people, but who would like to discuss religion or politics. As well as to people who aren’t so good at self-regulation and will feel uncomfortable about having to keep a constant eye on themselves to avoid saying the wrong things.

And maybe these people would feel more comfortable at a different event with different rules, which was more inclusive towards them. Which is fine. Competing access needs:

Competing access needs is the idea that some people, in order to be able to participate in a community, need one thing, and other people need a conflicting thing, and instead of figuring out which need is ‘real’ we have to acknowledge that we can’t accommodate all valid needs. I originally encountered it in disability community conversations: for example, one person might need a space where they can verbally stim, and another person might need a space where there’s never multiple people talking at once. Both of these are valid, but you can’t accommodate them both in the same space.

I wrote a while ago that I think this concept extends to a lot of activist/social justice community challenges and a lot of the difficulty of designing good messages. For example, body positivity: some people need to hear “love your body! no matter who you are you are soooo sexy” and some people really hate being told that they’re ‘sexy’. Or some gay people might need a space where it’s against the rules to ask “well, what if it actually is morally wrong to be gay?” but other gay people (like me of a few years ago) might need a space where they can ask that so there can be a serious discussion and they can become convinced that they’re okay.

Every set of rules is going to be bad for someone, so a better question than “how to make this space inclusive” is “who do we want to make this space inclusive towards”. You’re always going to exclude some people who aren’t jerks or bad people, but would just prefer a different set of rules. And you just have to accept that.

See also: The Unit of Caring on Safe Spaces and Competing Access Needs.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(2 echoes left behind | Leave an echo)

Saturday, October 7th, 2017
5:30 pm - What are your plans for the evening of the apocalypse?
If everyone found out for sure that the world would end in five years, what would happen?

My guess is that it would take time before anything big happened. Finding out about the end of the world, that’s the kind of a thing that you need to digest for a while. For the first couple of days, people might go “huh”, and then carry on with their old routines while thinking about it.

A few months later, maybe there still wouldn’t be all that much change. Sure, people would adjust their life plans, start thinking more near-term, some would decide not to go to college after all. But a lot of people already don’t plan much beyond a couple of years; five years is a long time, and you’ll still need to pay your bills until the Apocalypse hits. So many people might just carry on with their jobs as normal; if they were already doing college, well, you need to pass the time until the end of the world somehow. Might as well keep studying.

Of course, some people would have bigger reactions, right from day one. Quit their unsatisfying job, that kind of thing. People with a lot of savings might choose this moment to start living off them. And as the end of the world got closer and closer, people might get an increasingly relaxed attitude to work; though there might also be a feeling of, we’re all in this together, let’s make our existing institutions work until the end. I could imagine doctors and nurses in a hospital, who had decided that they want to make sure the hospital runs for as long as it can, and that nobody has to die before they really have to.

But I could also imagine, say, the waiter at some restaurant carrying on, serving customers even on the night of the apocalypse. (Be sure to make a reservation, we expect to have no free tables that evening.) Maybe out of principles, maybe out of professional pride, but maybe just out of habit.

I’m guessing there would be gradual changes to society, with occasional tipping points when a lot of people decided to stop whatever they had been doing and that created a chain reaction of others doing so as well. But it seems really hard to guess for how long things would remain mostly normal.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Thursday, October 5th, 2017
11:24 am - Meaningfulness and the scope of experience

I find that the extent to which I find life meaningful, seems strongly influenced by my scope of experience [1, 2].

Say that I have a day off, and there’s nothing in particular that I need to get done or think about. This makes it easy for the spatial scope of my experience to become close. My attention is most strongly drawn to the sensations of my body, nearby sounds, tempting nearby things like the warmth of the shower that I could take, the taste of a cup tea that I could prepare, or the pleasant muscle fatigue that I’d get if I went jogging in the nearby forest. The temporal scope of my experience is close as well; these are all things that are nearby in time, in that I could do them within a few minutes of having decided to do them.

Say that I don’t have a day off, and I’m trying to focus on work. My employer’s website says that our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies; this is a pretty accurate description of what I try to do. Our focus is on really large-scale stuff, including the consequences of eventual space colonization; this requires thinking in the scale of galaxies, a vast spatial scope. And we are also trying to figure out whether there is anything we can do to meaningfully influence the far future, including hundreds if not thousands of years from now; that means taking a vast temporal scope.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is much easier to feel that things are meaningful when the scope of my experience is close, than when it is far.


My favorite theory of meaning actually comes from a slightly surprising direction: the literature on game design and analysis. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define meaningful play in a game as emerging when the relationships between actions and outcomes are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. In other words:

The consequences of your actions in a game have to be discernable: you need to have some idea of what happened as a result of your actions. If you shoot at an opponent and the opponent dies, that’s pretty clear and discernable. If you press a button and a number changes but you have no idea of what that number means or why it’s relevant, that’s not very clear nor discernable. If you don’t know what happens as a result of your actions, you might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards.

The consequences of your actions have to be integrated into the larger context of the game: they need to affect the game experience at some later point in the game. If you move a piece in a game of chess, then that move will directly shape the whole rest of the game, making the moves deeply integrated. But if every game of chess included three opening moves after which the board was reset to the initial position, throwing away everything that happened during those three moves, then those moves would not be integrated to the gameplay. People would just make some moves at random as fast as possible, to get on with the actual opening moves of the game.

As Salen & Zimmerman write: “Whereas discernability of game events tells players what happened (I hit the monster), integration lets players know how it will affect the rest of the game (If I keep on hitting the monster I will kill it. If I kill enough monsters, I’ll gain a level.).”

My own model is that regardless of whether we’re playing a game or living our ordinary lives, our minds will automatically keep looking for actions whose outcomes are discernable and integrated, relative to the current scope of experience.

When the scope is close, it is easy to find such actions. Taking a shower, making a cup of tea, going out for a jog; the consequences of these actions will manifest as concrete and enjoyable bodily sensations, clearly discernable both within the temporal and spatial scope. And because the scope is so close, almost everything I do will affect the whole scope, so it will feel tightly integrated.  I imagine getting a taste of tea, and think no farther out in time; thus, getting up from bed, going to the kitchen, preparing the tea, and sitting down to drink it, feels like a tight chain of actions where each step gives rise to the next, culminating in the warmth of the tea cup pressing against my lips, the sensation of taste on my tongue.

When the scope is far, it is much different. What action could one even think of, whose consequences were discernable on a scale spanning entire galaxies? Or whose consequences could be traced out for tens, maybe hundreds of years? It’s hard to imagine anything. An intellectual analysis may suggest things that could plausibly result as a consequence of our actions, but unless one can really visualize those and translate them into emotional terms, it’s still going to feel hard to connect them to the small-scale things happening in our daily lives.

I find that my mind will automatically look for objectives that makes sense within a given scope. When my scope is relatively close, things like finding a romantic partner and maybe having children feel strongly appealing; they would have a strong impact within the entire scope. When my scope gets more remote, such things seem to lose their appeal: what is one more family going to matter? It is highly unlikely to change the course of history. Better to ignore those things, as my chances to make a lasting impact are remote already; better to concentrate on finding something that would inch those chances ever-so-slightly upwards.


The naive implication of this would be, “keep your scopes close, and you’ll be happy”. But of course, it’s not that simple.

For one, most of us can’t just focus on small pleasures and not worry at all about things like earning an income, what we’ll be doing next year, or whatever it is that we need to think about at work. The necessities of everyday life force us to think long term and in a larger context, which forces us to attend to a broader scope of experience.

Even if we did have the opportunity to keep our scope small, the effect would be to make ourselves happy by ignoring everything else that’s going on in the world. It’s easy to be happy, if you can just the ignore the suffering of your neighbor; a small scope easily gets very self-centered. (Of course, a large scope can be centered on the self as well; it’s just that it’s big enough to also contain other beings, regardless of who happens to be in the center.)

Even if you widen your scope to contain family and friends, that scope will only contain a small fraction of everybody who exists. You don’t necessarily want to only think about what happens to those you personally have reason to care about, if it means neglecting the well-being of everyone else.

Of course, it also makes no sense to burden yourself with things that you realistically can’t affect. Better to exclude those from your scope.

Except… how certain are you of not being able to affect them? The only thing that guarantees that you can’t knowingly affect somebody, is if you make the decision to never think about them. If you do keep them in your scope, even only occasionally, then you might come up with something that lets you help them after all.

So the right thing is not to stick with a certain scope, but to learn to adjust the scope if needed. Draw it closer when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you are at risk of neglecting yourself or your loved ones; broaden it out when you have the resources to deal with the larger scope, and its demands. When you are operating in a larger scope, see if you can find ways to visualize your impact in a way that makes your current actions feel more integrated to the whole context, so as to experience their meaningfulness.

It’s easier said than done.

Exercise: see if you can consciously manipulate the scope of your experience. Try pulling it close, both spatially and temporally: focus only on your immediate surroundings and let your attention be drawn to things that you could be doing right away. Then try gradually expanding the scope, maybe all the way up to the level of galaxies and multiverses and millions of years, but also stopping at more intermediate points: e.g. your own life in a few years, or your country or your planet in the same time. How do those changes make a difference to what you feel, and what you feel like doing?

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
10:32 am - Nobody does the thing that they are supposedly doing

I feel like one of the most important lessons I’ve had about How the World Works, which has taken quite a bit of time to sink in, is:

In general, neither organizations nor individual people do the thing that their supposed role says they should do. Rather they tend to do the things that align with their incentives (which may sometimes be economic, but even more often they are social and psychological). If you want to really change things, you have to change people’s incentives.

But I feel like I’ve had to gradually piece this together from a variety of places, over a long time; I’ve never read anything that would have laid down the whole picture. I remember that Freakonomics had a few chapters about how incentives cause unexpected behavior, but that was mostly about economic incentives, which are just a small part of the whole picture. And it didn’t really focus on the “nothing in the world works the way you’d naively expect” thing; as I recall, it was presented more as a curiosity.

On the other hand, Robin Hanson has had a lot of stuff about “X is not about Y“, but that has mostly been framed in terms of prestige and signaling, which is the kind of stuff that’s certainly an important part of the whole picture (the psychological kind of incentives), but again just a part of the picture. (However, his upcoming book goes into a lot more detail on why and how the publicly-stated motives for human or organizational behavior aren’t actually the true motives.)

And then in social/evolutionary/moral psychology there’s a bunch of stuff about social-psychological incentives, of how we’re motivated to denounce outgroups and form bonds with our ingroups; and how it can be socially costly to have accurate beliefs about outgroups and defend them to your ingroup, whereas it would be much more rewarding to just spread inaccuracies or outright lies about how terrible the outgroups are, and thus increase your own social standing. And how even well-meaning ideologies will by default get hijacked by these kinds of dynamics and become something quite different from what they claimed to be.

But again, that’s just one piece of the whole story. And you can find more isolated pieces of the whole story scattered around in a variety of articles and books, also stuff like the iron law of oligarchy, rational irrationality, public choice theory, etc etc. But no grand synthesis.

There’s also a relevant strand of this in the psychology of motivation/procrastination/habit-formation, on why people keep putting off various things that they claim they want to do, but then don’t. And how small things can reshape people’s behavior, like if somebody ends up as a much more healthy eater just because they don’t happen to have a fast food restaurant conveniently near their route home from work. Which isn’t necessarily so much about incentives themselves, but an important building block in understanding why our behavior tends to be so strongly shaped by things that are entirely separate from consciously-set goals.

Additionally, the things that do drive human behavior are often things like maintaining a self-concept, seeking feelings of connection, autonomy and competence, maintaining status, enforcing various moral intuitions, etc., things that only loosely align one’s behavior with one’s stated goals. Often people may not even realize what exactly it is that they are trying to achieve with their behavior.

“Experiental pica” is a misdirected craving for something that doesn’t actually fulfill the need behind the craving. The term originally comes from a condition where people with a mineral deficiency start eating things like ice, which don’t actually help with the deficiency. Recently I’ve been shifting towards the perspective that, to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire, with that deeper desire being something like social connection, feeling safe and accepted, or having a feeling of autonomy or competence. That is, most of the things that people will give as reasons for why they are doing something will actually miss the mark, and also that many people are engaging in things that are actually relatively inefficient ways of achieving their true desires, such as pursuing career success when the real goal is social connection. (This doesn’t mean that the underlying desire would never be fulfilled, just that it gets fulfilled less often than it would if people were aware of their true desires.)

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017
3:27 pm - Debiasing by rationalizing your own motives
 Some time back, I saw somebody express an opinion that I disagreed with. Next, my mind quickly came up with emotional motives the other person might have for holding such an opinion, that would let me safely justify dismissing that opinion.

Now, it’s certainly conceivable that they did have such a reason for holding the opinion. People do often have all kinds of psychological, non-truth-tracking reasons for believing in something. So I don’t know whether this guess was correct or not.

But then I recalled something that has stayed with me: a slide from a presentation that Stuart Armstrong held several years back, that showed the way that we tend to think of our own opinions as being based on evidence, reasoning, etc.. And at the same time, we don’t see any of the evidence that caused other people to form their opinion, so instead we think of the opinions of others as being only based on rationalizations and biases.

Yes, it was conceivable that this person I was disagreeing with, held their opinion because of some bias. But given how quickly I was tempted to dismiss their view, it was even more conceivable that I had some similar emotional bias making me want to hold on to my opinion.

And being able to imagine a plausible bias that could explain another person’s position, is a Fully General Counterargument. You can dismiss any position that way.

So I asked myself: okay, I have invented a plausible bias that would explain the person’s commitment to this view. Can I invent some plausible bias that would explain my own commitment to my view?

I could think of several, right there on the spot. And almost as soon as I could, I felt my dismissive attitude towards the other person’s view dissolve, letting me consider their arguments on their own merits.

So, I’ll have to remember this. New cognitive trigger-action plan: if I notice myself inventing a bias that would explain someone else’s view, spend a moment to invent a bias that would explain *my* opposing view, in order to consider both more objectively.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Thursday, August 24th, 2017
1:47 pm - The muted signal hypothesis of online outrage

Everyone, it sometimes seems, has their own pet theory of why social media and the Internet often seem like so unpleasant and toxic places. Let me add one more.

People want to feel respected, loved, appreciated, etc. When we interact physically, you can easily experience subtle forms of these feelings. For instance, even if you just hang out in the same physical space with a bunch of other people and don’t really interact with them, you often get some positive feelings regardless. Just the fact that other people are comfortable having you around, is a subtle signal that you belong and are accepted.

Similarly, if you’re physically in the same space with someone, there are a lot of subtle nonverbal things that people can do to signal interest and respect. Meeting each other’s gaze, nodding or making small encouraging noises when somebody is talking, generally giving people your attention. This kind of thing tends to happen automatically when we are in each other’s physical presence.

Online, most of these messages are gone: a thousand people might read your message, but if nobody reacts to it, then you don’t get any signal indicating that you were seen. Even getting a hundred likes and a bunch of comments on a status, can feel more abstract and less emotionally salient than just a single person nodding at you and giving you an approving look when you’re talking.

So there’s a combination of two things going on. First, many of the signals that make us feel good “in the physical world” are relatively subtle. Second, online interaction mutes the intensity of signals, so that subtle ones barely even register.

Depending on how sensitive you are, and how good you are generally feeling, you may still feel the positive signals online as well. But if your ability to feel good things is already muted, because of something like depression or just being generally in a bad mood, you may not experience the good things online at all. So if you want to consistently feel anything, you may need to ramp up the intensity of the signals.

Anger and outrage are emotional reactions with a very strong intensity, strong enough that you can actually feel them even in online interactions. They are signals that can consistently get similar-minded people rallied on your side. Anger can also cause people to make sufficiently strongly-worded comments supporting your anger that those comments will register emotionally. A shared sense of outrage isn’t the most pleasant way of getting a sense of belonging, but if you otherwise have none, it’s still better than nothing.

And if it’s the only way of getting that belonging, then the habit of getting enraged will keep reinforcing itself, as it will give all of the haters some of what they’re after: pleasant emotions to fill an emotional void.

So to recap:

When interacting physically, we don’t actually need to do or experience much in order to experience positive feelings. Someone nonverbally acknowledging our presence or indicating that they’re listening to us, already feels good. And we can earn the liking and respect of others, by doing things that are as small as giving them nonverbal signals of liking and respect.

Online, all of that is gone. While things such as “likes” or positive comments serve some of the same function, they often fail to produce much of a reaction. Only sufficiently strong signals can consistently break through and make us feel like others care about us, and outrage is one of the strongest emotional reactions around, so many people will learn to engage in more and more of it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017
2:03 pm - The parliamentary model as the correct ethical model

In 2009, Nick Bostrom brought up the possibility of dealing with moral uncertainty with a “parliamentary model” of morality. Suppose that you assign (say) 40% probability to some form particular of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some other form of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some form of deontology being true. Then in the parliamentary model, you imagine yourself as having a “parliament” that decides on what to do, with the first utilitarian theory having 40% of the delegates, the other form having 20% of the delegates, and the deontological theory having 20% of the delegates. The various delegates then bargain with each other and vote on different decisions. Bostrom explained:

The idea here is that moral theories get more influence the more probable they are; yet even a relatively weak theory can still get its way on some issues that the theory think are extremely important by sacrificing its influence on other issues that other theories deem more important. For example, suppose you assign 10% probability to total utilitarianism and 90% to moral egoism (just to illustrate the principle). Then the Parliament would mostly take actions that maximize egoistic satisfaction; however it would make some concessions to utilitarianism on issues that utilitarianism thinks is especially important. In this example, the person might donate some portion of their income to existential risks research and otherwise live completely selfishly.

As I noted, the model was proposed for dealing with a situation where you’re not sure of which ethical theory is correct. I view this somewhat differently. I lean towards the theory that the parliamentary model itself is the most correct ethical theory, as the brain seems to contain multiple different valuation systems that get activated in different situations, as well as multiple competing subsystems that feed inputs to these higher-level systems. (E.g. there exist both systems that tend to produce more deontological judgments, and systems that tend to produce more consequentialist judgments.)

Over time, I’ve settled upon something like a parliamentary model for my own decision-making. Different parts of me clearly tend towards different kinds of ethical frameworks, and rather than collapse into constant infighting, the best approach seems to go for a compromise where the most dominant parts get their desires most of the time, but less dominant parts also get their desires on issues that they care particularly strongly about. For example, a few days back I was considering the issue of whether I want to have children; several parts of my mind subscribed to various ethical theories which felt that the idea of having them felt a little iffy. But then a part of my mind piped up that clearly cared very strongly about the issue, and which had a strong position of “YES. KIDS”. Given that the remaining parts of my mind only had ambivalent or weak preferences on the issue, they decided to let the part with the strongest preference to have its way, in order to get its support on other issues.

There was a time when I had a strong utilitarian faction in my mind which did not want to follow a democratic process and tried to force its will on all the other factions. This did not work very well, and I’ve felt much better after it was eventually overthrown.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017
9:34 pm - Confidence and patience don’t feel like anything in particular

After doing my self-concept work, I’ve been expecting to feel confident in social situations. And observing myself in them or after them, I have been more confident. But I haven’t felt particularly confident.

The thing is, being confident doesn’t feel like much in particular. I was pretty confident in my ability to open my laptop and write this post. I’m also confident in my ability to go to the shower and wash my hair, and I’m confident in my ability to go to the grocery store to buy stuff.

But writing this, or washing my hair, or going to the grocery store, aren’t things that would fill me with any particular “feeling of confidence”. They’re just things that I do, without thinking about them too much.

Similarly, being confident in a social situation doesn’t mean you’d actually have any strong feeling of confidence. It just means you don’t have any feeling of unconfidence.

Which is obvious when I think about it. So why did I expect otherwise?

I think the explanation is, the only times when I have previously paid conscious attention to my confidence, have been in situations where I’ve felt unconfident. And if you lack confidence, you try to psych yourself up. You try to summon some *other* emotion to flood your mind and push the feeling of unconfidence away.

If you are successfully suppressing your lack of confidence with some other emotion, you do “feel confident”. You are feeling whatever the other emotion is, that’s temporarily allowing you to be confident.

But if you don’t have any uncertainties that are actively surfacing, you don’t need to summon any other emotion to temporarily suppress them. Just those uncertainties not being around, is enough by itself. And something that’s just not around, doesn’t feel like anything.

Another similar thing is “patience”. If we feel impatient with someone, we might struggle to “try to be patient”. But if you actually are patient with someone, it usually doesn’t feel like anything in particular. You don’t have a glow of patience as you think about how badly the other person is getting on your nerves but how you withstand it anyway; rather the other person’s behavior just doesn’t bother you very much in the first place.

Edited to add: somebody pointed out that there exists good feeling of “you’ve got this” that one can feel. That’s true, and I agree that this could sensibly be called “confidence”. What I was trying to say was less “there’s no sensation that could reasonably be called confidence” but more “most everyday confidence doesn’t feel like anything in particular”. Paradoxically, even if confidence wouldn’t usually feel like anything, the lack of a feel can make you unconfident if you think that you should feel something to be confident. Somebody else mentioned that they do also have an actual feeling of patience; I’m not sure if I’ve experienced this myself, but the same thing applies.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

(Leave an echo)

> previous 20 entries
> top of page
LiveJournal.com