Do you have problems commenting here?

Someone wrote in complaining that their comment was lost  because of a wrong answer to the anti-apam-quiz.

Said commenter presumed it was a cultural reference they weren’t getting. Actually the answer can always be found in the post. The idea  is that a commenter responding to a post they haven’t been reading carefully enough actually is spamming.

That’s the theory, but said commenter spent serious time here, and then was engaged enough to complain through the contact form. So maybe it’s really easy for new visitors to miss one little detail in the post. Also, there are apparently no second chances; pushing the back button on a failed entry brings you back to an empty comment form. I see how that would be annoying. I can’t easily change the no-second-chances thing, but I could change the quiz or use other anti-spam-measures entirely.

So, questions:

Is this an isolated case or do other people have problems with my anti-spam-quiz?

Have you ever lost a comment?

Would you prefer I used captchas or math problems?

If there was no human-proof at all, but innocent comments occasionally spent a day in the spam-queue  before I rescued them, would that be better or worse?

Have you ever been unable to comment because you just didn’t get the question? Or has the right answer ever  not worked?

Would you comment more if there was no quiz?

If you already comment, would you put less thought in it if there was no quiz?

Do you have other points on comments, moderation, and spam control you might want to share?

For obvious reasons, there is no anti-spam-quiz on this post. Update: Sorry, after 13 deleted spam comments, I decided to bring the quiz back even on this post.  Also sorry to the guy who actually did write a comment and will have to wait another day for an answer because I wrote this instead.

Posted in Meta | Tagged | 3 Comments

Relevance considered harmful

Third in a series about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.

Before I go on with the main argument, I’d like to go a little meta.

A discussion of the effectiveness of strategies can always be read as strategy advice. If doing X is the most effective way to achieve Y, people who want Y probably should do X. And if Y is something desirable, then it reduces to “you should do X”.

Mostly this is the source of our interest. Of course we can care about strategies for totally abstract reasons. For example, the four-color theorem is interesting even to people who never want to color any actual maps.  But most of the time I think we care about strategies because we care about results. Taking the theme of this series specifically, I  care about what kind of debating strategies annoy their targets, because I want  to have fights with people I like but disagree with without putting them of. By comparison, I don’t care about horses, so I don’t think I have any worthwhile thoughts on effective strategies for horse-training.  So we care about strategies because we care about results and that is fine.

But I think it can get more problematic when we start talking about strategies for other people’s  goals. We often have very strong preferences on other people’s behavior, so the question of what they could do to achieve their goals can easily get entangled with the question what we want them to do. And humans suck at reasoning against interest.

For example, some people want the Catholic church to become more like modern protestant churches and some people want it to undo the last council. Both sides  sell their respective policy not only as the right thing to do but also as the best way to reach people in these modern times. Similarly, now that the American Republicans have lost the last election, adherents of that party’s different wings are talking on how it could regain popularity by ditching their respective inner-party enemies. It’s funny how often the optimal strategy coincides with what the advisor wants the advisee to do anyway.

So basically I think our thinking is much less likely to be clouded by politics if it stays away from advice to people very different  from us. In some cases this can be achieved by simply avoiding that kind of question. For example, the usual “if you really wanted X you would Y” argument has  an extremely high Sturgeon Number. But sometimes we care about a strategy both for ourselves and for other people.  In that case I don’t have a solution, but I can offer some heuristics.

One is to look at symmetries. If my opponents should do something, there probably is something equivalent I should be doing and a self-serving bias might be reversed and more noticeable in that equivalent. For example, I tend to get fairly angry about the atheist canard of belief-in-belief. Not only is it a self-serving excuse to dismiss disagreeing people, it also sets up a classical “you can’t prove you’re not a witch” situation. That way the dumbest kind of atheist can stay sure nobody could disagree with them for intelligent reasons. But on the flip side, this means it’s probably not all that winsome to explain to atheists how they are motivated by pride or angriness at God or whatever. Of course I think I’m right and that means people who disagree with me while having the same information must be irrational at some level. Consistently they must think the same about me. But engaging opponents’s suspected irrational motives rather than their arguments will rarely be useful. For one internal motives are almost always much more complex than the average kitchen table psychology. But more importantly, people get angry and stubborn when they are engaged as psycho-fixing objects. Also there is the off chance it’s actually me being irrational. So it’s best to appeal to their rationality, so that it can ultimately overcome whatever is now in its way.

I think this is a special case of a more generally useful strategy: Where there is a major social polarization it is often useful to look for isomorphisms between both sides and then use them to hunt for inconsistencies. More provocatively, if I need to annoy one side, it’s usually worthwhile to annoy both. So, for example, neither kind of sex-ed (abstinence only or comprehensive) shows any signs of effectiveness. Also creationists=Jesus Mythers, Ann Coulter=Michael Moore, Whiggism=the good old days, etc.

Another approach is simply to trying to be aware of our biases. For example, I’m trying to think about good proselytizing strategies for myself and using atheist proselytizing strategies as a mirror, because they are what I know from the other side. But the truth is, I would also like atheists to be more friendly so fighting with them would be more fun, so there is a potential bias there. I can’t totally avoid it, but often being aware of a problem is the most difficult part.

Lastly, it might help to  remember how little influence we have on other people. Most people just aren’t waiting for strategy advice from their adversaries. In my particular case, the log files indicate this blog has a  grand total of about twenty more or less regular readers, all of whom probably already  have strong  opinions on proselytizing strategies. So the chance of convincing anyone of anything here is basically zero.

So I don’t expect this series to convert anyone to my strategical approach. On the other hand, given that I know that, I think I’m relatively safe from the bias I’ve been discussing in this post.

Next in this series: What I originally promised for now, i.e. a much more effective atheist argumentation style (but it caught me only after its main window of opportunity had passed.) (And also it interest me mainly as a mirror image of a Christian one.)

Posted in Arguments | Tagged | 2 Comments

A propos

English translation of the text:

1. I am baptized an consecrated to God
through Christ’s name and sign,
the seal of the trinity
will never depart from me.
God has given me his spirit,
I am recessed into Christ
and lifted into his realm,
to praise him for ever.

2. From water and the holy spirit
I am now newly born;
God, who’s named the eternal love,
has chosen me as a child.
I may call him “Father mine”;
he appointed me his hear.
By him I am invited
to the banquet of his graces.

3. Christ the Lord has chosen me,
to him shall I henceforth live.
I want to serve him in the world
and give witness for him.
So I no longer live for me alone,
I’m allowed to be his friend and disciple.
I bear his name;
I stay his for ever. Amen.

Posted in Minor notes | Tagged | Leave a comment

The counter-productiveness of mockery

Second in a series about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.

In my last post I explained how I used to struggle with my faith a lot more than I do now. This wasn’t just emotional porn, it was preparing for the argument I want to make now. Basically I’m proffering myself as an example of someone reacting to a certain style of argumentation.

See, if, as I claim, throwing out my religion was a life option for years, well, why didn’t I? What was holding me back? I like to think it was  intellectual integrity, but  that’s not the whole story. Sure, intellectual integrity was what made me notice that the regular thoughts of it all  being bullshit weren’t founded in any new arguments but rather in the situation I described in that last post. So basically it explains why I didn’t want to capitulate to any particular pang of doubt. But, given that I wasn’t praying or really living Christianity in any other way, and given that people become what they do, how did I manage to resist that process for years on end?

Well, the answer is that I had a dirty little trick that would reliably quash that kind of thought if only for a while. And it could be done in half an hour tops. That trick was – tada – reading rabidly  atheist fora on the Internet. Thirty minutes at the then still extant forum  at Internet Infidels or later at reddit or in particularly hard cases Pharyngula would reliably crush any thought of those folks being on the right side.

One part of why this worked (the less interesting part for purposes of my present discussion) was that Internet atheists clearly didn’t conform to their self image of superior rationality. For example, Jesus Mythicism is, if anything, scientifically less respectable than creationism, but still extremely popular with Internet atheists. This is clearly an arguments are soldiers thing. Now this isn’t an argument against atheism any more than the existence of creationists is an argument against Christianity. But it does disrupt their narrative of atheism being a product of their superior rationality. If they were atheist because they were more rational, they actually would have to be more rational on average and that doesn’t comport with the actual facts on the ground.  And Jesus Mythicism isn’t an isolated example.  Load of Internet atheists also believe the Church thought the Earth was flat, inflate the number of inquisition victims by several orders of magnitude , etc. Basically the atheist creation myth is Enlightenment science escaping the authority trap, overcoming centuries of darkness and oppression caused by religion and ever since being involved in an irreconcilable conflict with the remnant of the dark forces it overcame in the beginning. And whatever its merits of that myth may be as a morality tale,  it is clearly worthless as history.

But the much more interesting part is that reading atheist fora nicely undermined atheism as a moral option. I used  their way of arguing to demonstrate to myself that they were not a group I would be comfortable aligning myself with.

Part of this was the vacuous moral philosophy of movement atheism. Loads of Internet atheists explain that they are “good without gods”,  and often I believe them. Yup, lots of atheists are good people, or at least as good as people get given that we all are fallen. But that is not the question I’m really interested in. What I actually would want to know is how an atheist  can be good without Eupocrisy, or in other words how they can construct a coherent atheistic theory of morality. And for many of them I would also like to know how they propose to maintain their values on the social level given that they have  discarded others based on a discursive system that produces constant shifts but can only lift but not create moral obligations. Mainstream Internet atheist discourse is not only totally disinterested in that kind of question, it will also routinely misinterpret it as that straw-manny all atheists are evil argument.

But the other part was quite simply their way of arguing. For example the perfection of straw-manning. Not only is straw-manning their main mode of arguing to the point that one may wonder if those folks ever talked to a real life Christian, that straw-manning is also protected by the brilliantly evil meme of the Courtier’s reply. Thus arises an epistemic bubble where ignorance is a virtue. But also the relentless mockery, the permanent accusations of stupidity the consistent refusal to differentiate between different versions of Christianity (which is like arguing against communism and calling it an argument against atheism), etc., etc.  Basically I would see their writing and imagine them with foamy mouthy. And then I would feel reassured that this was not a group I would want to align myself with.

Now let me make two very obvious points.

First, my trick was unfair and epistemologically unsound. Sturgeon’s law practically guarantees it will be possible to find people arguing almost every proposition in that way. An atheist could easily pull the same trick by reading the right kind of Christian fora. I actually suspect many of them might be doing precisely this.  This method will reinforce basically every belief, which makes it totally unsuited to distinguish between true and false ones.

Second, my trick was unhealthy. Basically I was defining myself by opposition against something rather than by anything positive – ironically the main problem I see with the New Atheism. And in doing so I was building up a lot of disgust and resentment against other people and objectifying them as props. And I was running in an ever narrower circle of reading the same kind of bad stuff again and again and again. By entangling my identity with not being a specific kind of person I was slowly turning into that very kind of person.

So I absolutely do not recommend this method of squelching doubt.  It is unsound, evil, and, in the long run, counter-productive.

But my point is that it did work and that says something about that kind of argument: Basically trying to convince fence-sitters by mocking them and being  just generally mean is counter-productive and I know that from the experience of being that fence-sitter.

Next up: A much more effective atheist argumentation style (but it caught me only after its main window of opportunity had passed.)

Posted in Arguments | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

And another note on the circumcision bill

Like I predicted, the Bundesrat forworded the circumcision bill to the Bundestag without objections. The first reading in the Bundestag is scheduled for the 208th session on the 22nd of November.  Thats a bit later than I predicted, probably because there is the budget debate scheduled immediately before that.

This is not very interesting result-wise, because the result of a first reading is preordained: The bill will be sent to committee. Still they scheduled an hour of debate and I might report on that.

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My crisis of faith

I’m aware that my continuously starting new series’ and then letting them linger unfinished for ages is getting ridiculous. But I can’t help myself.

This new series is about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.

I’ll use myself as an example of how certain arguments affect people doubting their position, but to do that I first need to explain my experience of serious doubt.

Like many Christians I suffer occasional pangs of doubt. Like the common cold, they come, make me miserable for a while and then leave. In the big picture of things that’s not all that important.

But staying in that picture, I’ve also had the spiritual equivalent of chronic pneumonia. For several years giving up on all those strange ideas was a very real and at times attractive possibility.

It wasn’t an intellectual problem and there was no particular argument I was struggling with. Actually it happened after I had resolved all the intellectual questions of my teen-age years to my satisfaction and had a fairly good understanding of most stock arguments and their stock replies. Contrariwise, the root problem was that my  religion was a purely intellectual thing. I wasn’t going to confession ever or to mass with any kind of regularity and I surely wasn’t praying outside of mass either. The real life Church is often not a particularly fun group to be part of and at the time my strategy to deal with that was avoiding interaction with Church folks.  Not so long ago I met someone I got to know around that time at a church function and she was extremely surprised to find  out I’m Catholic, because back then I surely wasn’t giving even the subtlest hints of it. She actually told me that of the reference group she knew me in she would have thought me almost the least likely person to be a Christian. Outch! I did theoretically assent to all the propositions but there was nothing relational there. I think the best way to put it sounds awfully Evangelical: I assented to the abstract system but I didn’t let the living God into my hart or try to have a relationship with Jesus.

On the purely  epistemic level the difference this makes is fairly subtle. I was firmly committed to believe the truth even if it sucks, but at the time I felt that it did suck. Even then, far from looking for an intellectual excuse to drop my faith, I was actually very vigilant against convenient rationalizations.  On the other hand even now I hope that I would still change my mind if I found compelling evidence against Christianity, so it’s not like the option has actually disappeared. But maybe I can put it like this: If I found compelling evidence against my religion now I would be sad that I’d have to give it up. If I had found it then I would have felt relieved.

I still interested in understanding unusual beliefs but back then it was more urgent. I talked to some Mormon missionaries and asking God about that Moroni 10 thing might have been my only prayer in months. If my experience hadn’t been so strongly disconfirming it would make a fine conversion story! Then like now mainstream atheists defined themselves by a mere rejection and were totally disinterested in actually providing arguments for anything. But I did look into some actual atheist philosophies on offer. I read Das Kapital and Atlas shrugged. I also followed The Sequences, which were then being written. And it was not just for a collection of 1000 philosophies that suck more than Catholicism, I was actually interested in giving a chance to other attempts at coming up with a coherent philosophy.

So long story short, I wasn’t convinced by any of these alternate philosophies, but at that time of my life they all had a much better shot than they do now.

Next up: How I managed to hold on to my faith.

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The circumcision bill

Most of you are probably bored of my reports on Germany dealing  with that idiotic court decision on circumcision a few months ago. But I’m not relenting, so here’s the newest update: Today the federal cabinet resolved on the bill it will be introducing, so now we have a text[pdf, in German]. I’m not translating the 25 pages of reasons and explanations, but here’s my translation of the actual bill’s text:

Bill of the Federal Government [Bundesregierung]

Draft of an act on the extent of the care for the person [Personensorge, basically this means guardianship -G.] in the circumcision of a male child

of … [Date will go here -G.]

The Federal Diet has passed the following act:

Article 1
Amendment of the civil code

After section 1631c of the Civil Code [Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch] in the version of the publication of January 2, 2002 (BGBl. I p. 42, 2909; 2003 I S. 738) [this is a citation of the Bundesgesetzblatt, basically the German version of the slip laws -G.], which has last been amended by article … of the act of … (BGBl. I p. …) the following section 1631d is inserted:

“Section 1631d
Circumcision of the male child

(1) The care for the person also includes the right to consent to a medically unnecessary circumcision of the male child incapable of understanding or consent, if it is to be done according to the rules of medical art. This doesn’t apply if the child’s welfare [Kindeswohl] is endangered by the circumcision even in view of its purpose.
(2) In the first six months after the birth of the child, persons designated  by a religious body [Religionsgesellschaft] for doing so too may perform circumcisions according to paragraph 1, if they are specially trained for it and, without being a physician, are similarly qualified for performing the circumcision.”

Article 2
Entry into force

This act enters into force on the day after the promulgation.

Looking at it, this is pretty much the plan on which I reported two weeks ago. The majority is clear, so this is basically what will end up on the book. The interesting question is how long the legislative process will take. I’ll keep reporting on that.

The next step is consulting the Federal Council.  I think it is most likely to recommend approval in its session of November 2, though the November 23 session too would be barely within the six week time limit it has to make a statement. Then the first reading in the Federal Diet would be the week after that. After that we’ll have to see how long the bill stays in committee.

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Returning to civilization

You may remember that in June a German court went berserk and found circumcision a crime. About two weeks later, I told you about government plans to clarify its legality statute.

Now the ministry of justice is polling the states and various lobbies for comments on its plan for a bill. The whole paper isn’t publicly available yet, but German media are quoting from it extensively. The main point is that a new section 1631d  of the civil code will specify that

Guardianship[Personensorge] also includes the right to consent to a medically not necessary circumcision of the male child incapable of understanding or consent, if it is to be done according to the rules of medical art.

This is better than I expected, because it will make circumcision outright legal rather than just non-punishable like abortion.

I think most of the “rules of medical art” will be left to legal practice. Mostly they are thinking of painkillers and hygiene, which is OK for both religions concerned. There is, however, a clear mohel clause:

In the first six months after the birth of the child persons designated by a religious association for that purpose, too, may perform circumcisions, if they are especially trained to do so, and, without being physicians, are comparably qualified for performing circumcisions.

Muslims are OK with actual doctors doing the circumcision.

A religious reason will not be required, mainly because it would

confront legal practice with the difficult task of having to establish the content of religious convictions.

There will be a catch-all clause prohibiting the circumcision

if even in view of its purpose the child’s welfare is endangered by the circumscision

So far I have heard two examples that clause is meant to apply to: hemophiliacs and older kids who don’t want to be circumcised.

The polled institutions must reply by the first of October, because

the German federal diet expects introduction of a bill by the federal government ‘still within the autumn of 2012’ and the project is generally seen as urgent.

I’d have preferred a bit more urgency than introducing the bill before Christmas and than probably committing in in the new year, but well, Germans like lots of pondering even and especially if the result is already established. In practice nobody will be prosecuted before the law takes effect and the actual content seems good.

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The prophesy of Caiaphas

So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to kill him.

(John 11:47-53)

So the band of soldiers, the tribune, and the Jewish guards seized Jesus, bound him, and brought him to Annas first. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.

(John 18:12-14)

I’m sure Caiaphas didn’t know he was prophesying. He probably was proud of the courage of his convictions, but he wasn’t feeling supernatural. A pragmatic and savvy career politician, he was juggling a social system that was always on the brink of disaster.

As long as the Jews payed their taxes, the Romans gave them some cultural leeway, not because of respect, but because crushing rebellions is expensive. So the Jews could get away with some insolence, but how much exactly wasn’t defined all that well.  But if they got too cocky the Romans would come and take both their land and their nation. In fact, thirty years later they did. Add to that, that Roman governor Pilate was a lousy diplomat, triggering several skirmishes in that gray area during his tenure.

On the other hand, the Jews would mostly limit their opposition to bitching without action. But the oppression needed to be vague enough or else they would call principle and fight to death rather than live as slaves. And there were radical Zealots around, trying to incite them to do precisely that.

As long as nobody stepped over anyones invisible lines, that system could remain relatively stable.

Caiaphas was an expert at navigating that kind of situation and doing so was the air he breathed. Having married into the Annas clan (basically the Hebrew Kennedys)  he was High Priest for an epic 19 years. As a Sadducee he didn’t believe in an eternal life, so he focused on this one. And that meant coming up with pragmatic solutions. Abstract philosophy wouldn’t help solving the crisis at hand. This guy really knew the importance of realism in politics

Someone claiming to speak with divine authority and rapidly gathering followers looks dangerous in that context. And the Sanhedrin understood that. And they went along with Caiaphas’s proposal. But they did need a shove to come up with the simple solution of killing the guy. And Caiaphas had a good consequentialist justification. Just shut up and compare, one dead is better than many dead after a lost war. Better that one man should die rather than the people.

And he knew how to do it without rocking the boat. Of course the Romans had to be induced to do the killing, because otherwise it would look like a challenge to their authority. So there better be some charges Pilate will convict on.  A perceived power conflict will do the trick. But average Jews need to want him dead too, or else it might trigger a revolt. So the Sanhedrin should better find some blasphemy to convict him on. Caiaphas can arrange both.

But still there is more to his words than he understood. Jesus did die for the people in a way Caiaphas didn’t understand. So the highest earthly authority of the old covenant ends up unwittingly prefiguring the new one.

But there is a large difference between Caiaphas idea of the sacrifice and the real thing.  Jesus is not really a criminal.  And Jesus is submitting rather than being a pure object of the decision. Most importantly, Jesus is not just any man and actually can die for the people. Caiaphas is doing evil so that good may come from it. Jesus suffers evil to win the decisive victory against it.

In the end Jesus’s dying for the people saves the world and conquers Rome while the social system Caiaphas is trying to stabilize explodes within a generation. But that is still far out.  For the moment, the difference is in Caiaphas being comfortable doing the evil his sinful life context seems to enforce. The office of the High Priest receives the grace to announce what will happen. But, Caiaphas being evil, it comes through in a grotesque parody. On Caiaphas’s own side of the fence, the truth is subtly shifted into evil. He embraces the sin Jesus is beating.

But this is not his self-image. He thinks he is optimizing the consequences. The crisis at hand just doesn’t leave room for abstract principles.

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Thingspace is a mysterious answer

[Edit: My interpretation of the thingspace text was probably colored by the context in which I was thinking of it. I still have criticisms of it, but it’s not as useless as I was implying it to be. Read the comments for details or proceed with caution.]

Yvain of Less Wrong fame is presently  investigating scholastic metaphysics and has posted a list of exploratory questions on his blog. The list is a bit hefty, so I basically referred him to a book.  But now I’ll cherry-pick a question I found interesting:

5. On the very remote chance that there’s anyone here who is familiar both with Aristotelian forms and with the idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, does the latter totally remove the need for the former, do they address different questions, or what?

Do follow his link, because that’s the argument I want to bash and that won’t make much sense unless you know it.

On the philosophical side the easy answer would be no, because we also need forms to explain diachronic identity as well as creation and corruption. But right now I feel like arguing something more radical: Cluster-structures in thingspace remove the need for nothing because they are bunk. The idea is less than wrong, it is simply meaningless.

To see the meaninglessness consider this ladder of questions: What is a cluster? Basically a cloud of data points that each are close to the next member of the cluster but further away from data points not belonging to the cluster. What does “being close” mean? It means the distance is small. And here comes the main point: What does “distance in thingspace” mean?

The hand-wavy math metaphor of a space is a trap here, because it makes you think of a “nice” space like the real 3D space we (seem to) live in, where the normal laws of geometry apply. [1] If that was a correct analogy, you could just use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the distance from the coordinate differences. For example, if I walk 1 meter to the right and then 1 meter forward, I’ll end up \(\sqrt{2}\) meters away from where I started. So if I know the coordinates of two points I also know their distance.

But thingspace is not nearly that nice. You can see that from its different dimensions having different units. To take the sparrows example, you might measure volume in liters and mass in kilograms. But what is the sum of 1 liter and 3 kilograms? Is it more or less than the sum of 3 liters and 1 kilogram?[2] Even if you assume some conversion ratio of liters and kilograms, this way of calculating distances will not coincide with your intuitive sense of similarity. For example, if another man is a kilogram heavier than I am, that probably isn’t all that dissimilar. But if one amoeba is a kilogram heavier than another one, you’d better watch out for aliens planning to lay their eggs in you.

In fairness, Eliezer Yudkowsky knows it’s not quite that simple and proposes

using a distance metric that corresponds as well as possible to perceived similarity in humans

Mathematically, this doesn’t make much sense either[3], but at that point we get the meaning: “distance in thing-space” is just another formulation for “perceived dissimilarity”. And then a “cluster in thingspace” is just a set of things that seem similar to other things in the cluster and not to things outside of it. The whole pseudo-math-talk is just borrowing plausibility from a prestigious domain of knowledge that turns out not to  have much of a relation to the question at hand.

But dropping the math-stuff, doesn’t the idea make sense?  Can’t the squirrality of a squirrel consist simply in being similar to other squirrels and not so much to dogs? Well, it depends on what you mean by “similar”.  If you apply it naively, it will turn whales into fishes, because a whale clearly looks a lot more similar to a shark than to a cow. So basically your standard of similarity will have to use a lot of your knowledge of the problem domain. But at that point it gets circular: Essentially similarity is supposed to impose a structure on reality while being defined by that structure. Different fish are all fish by virtue of being similar to each other, but that similarity pretty much consists in them all being fish. At the end of the day you still need an explanation of what all fish have in common. Which means the whole idea of phlogiston thingspace buys you nothing.

While I’m at it, I think the “clusters in thingspace” idea is an instance of a more general failure mode that is fairly common in Less Wrong style arguments. The steps to reproduce the problem on other questions are (1) hand-wavingly map your question to a mathematical structure that isn’t well-defined, (2) use that mapping to transfer intuitions, and (3) pretend that settles it. Note that doing steps 1&2 without step 3 is a fine way to generate ideas. But those ideas can still be wrong. If you want them to be right, you either need to replace step 1 by something much more rigorous or restate the ideas without the mathematical analogy and check if they still make sense.

Major examples of the Less Wrong groupthink falling into this particular trap include their vulgar utilitarianism, where the individual utility functions and their sums turn out not to be well-definable, and their radical Bayesianism, which basically assumes  a universal probability measure that has no  sample space or σ-algebra to live on.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In this context the technical meaning of “nice” would be that it’s a Hilbert space and the given coordinates refer to an orthonormal basis. But don’t worry if you don’t know what that means, it’s unimportant for the argument
  2. Actually that should be squared liters and kilograms, but let’s not get pedantic
  3. because that metric would necessarily presuppose knowledge of the clusters, violate the triangle inequality, or result in highly counter-intuitive clusters
Posted in Arguments | Tagged , , | 17 Comments