Trapped in Physics 2, or, Why We Have To Win

Content Warning: This one was painful to write, and may cause pain to people who are susceptible to empathic suffering.

I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned in prior posts, but I’m working on a paper for ALLFED, on ensuring adequate nutrition using the cheapest sources we’ve found, so as to ensure that the poorest people can still be adequately fed in disaster scenarios. Currently, I’m classifying the outcomes of various deficiency disorders by severity and recoverability, so that in situations where no optimal balance is available, we can at least aim for least bad, most recoverable malnutrition issues.

This has necessitated a fair amount of research into effects and outcomes of deficiencies, and that brought me to today’s topic. I was reading a paper, a case study on two people who’d gotten thiamine deficient (you can read it here) and subsequently acquired lifelong brain damage. Reading through it, I couldn’t help but notice how little control these people had over their situations. The female patient had been repeatedly sexually abused, had bipolar, and hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy-related condition “characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possibly dehydration.” This continued to affect her after her pregnancy, with the time leading up to her hospitalization including seven weeks of not being able to eat due to this.

The male patient in the study was schizophrenic, and was believed to have gone off his medication. This led to a belief that the local food and water was “harmful”, leading him to drink nothing but soda for at least three months.

Both of these cases are fairly stark examples of the situation we’re all in, the state I call being trapped in physics. SW, the aforementioned female patient, was instantiated on a brain with emotional disorders, handed a lot of severe abuse, and then her body kept her from eating anything. RW, the male patient, was schizophrenic, a condition that can be treated, but I’m given to understand that the medications can cause cognitive impairment themselves, and the insidious thing about psychological medications is that being on them makes you better. Since you’re better, it seems like you don’t have to keep taking the medications; you’re better, right? I’ve heard of several cases of this happening.

Neither of those people chose their circumstances. Nobody, given a totally free hand (IE perfect knowledge and a lack of constraints in hardware or soft) would choose to live those lives unless compelled. They were shoved into some of the lighter hells our reality contains, and the result was that they ended up malnourished, which resulted in permanent, severe brain damage. They both ended up with sub-80 IQs, and other specific impairments.

So, rounding this all up, reality shoved these people into hell, tortured them, and basically wrecked them; to the best of my knowledge neither of them went without needing constant care for the rest of their lives, and while I’ve never been a person who’s experienced my intelligence being fragmented and large chunks stolen away and then left to put together what’s left, I can say that Flowers for Algernon has left me with a lifelong horror of the possibility; being trapped more than we are right now, knowing that there used to be more of me that is now gone.

As the joke goes, this isn’t even the horror of reality’s final form. There are people out there in the world who undergo all of this, and worse, and don’t have medical treatment or systems that will take care of them in the aftermath. When I was a part of Origin, one of the things that we discussed was making an effort to really look at reality, to see the terrible things and not looking away, and I’ve never stopped doing that. Sometimes I look harder, sometimes I’m not specifically looking for the horrors, but when I notice one I never look away anymore, and I’m always aware on some level that reality is like that.

I said in Why I Want to Work at MIRI that death is horrible, insanely bad stuff. The destruction of a person, everything they ever knew or thought, everything they ever cared about, everything they ever wanted, every love they ever had, gone with the dissipation of their pattern. Death is, indeed, incredibly mind-bogglingly bad, but it’s not the only incredibly terrible thing our world contains.

This can’t be left to go on. There’s no person to find and bind, no ‘evil empire’ to topple. Just the vast bleakness of physics, torturing and destroying people whenever the rules get around to them. No one to fight, which is what the instincts want me to do to make them stop doing that, just the cold equations. As Eliezer says, We can’t modify fundamental physics, but on a higher level of organization we could build some guardrails and put down some padding; organize the particles into a pattern that does some internal checks against catastrophe..

Take care of yourself, dear reader. I’m going to go do some self-care things, myself.

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

For the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from the onset of my SAD, so I’ve been getting less done than I prefer, and that includes reading. This means that I had the option this week of not doing a review this week, or doing a review on something I read previously, and doing a piece on a work of fiction seems better to me than to do nothing, which would only further harm my expectancy.

So, HPMOR! People seem to either hate it or love it; nobody’s told me about having a middle of the road opinion. Personally, I fall into the ‘love’ camp – I’ve read it almost as many times as Worm; I tend to read and reread my favorites, trying to patch bits that I appreciate and approve of into my soul.

Now, don’t mistake me – Harry makes a number of unforced errors, he’s intensely arrogant, and he is, at core, an inexperienced child, no matter that he has a vast library of literature to draw on. Still, his persistence, his loyalty, and his absolute opposition to death are valuable to me.

Every time I read it, and the times that I’ve read it aloud to others to express my values, the patronus speech has driven me to tears; I hope that I can learn to write in a way that conveys that kind of passion. I think, honestly, that I owe that passage a great deal for my ignition over the last few years. Previously, I was abstractly anti-death, I thought that it was something that needed to go and would, eventually, be resolved. Repeated rereadings have changed this position from one of abstract support into a burning need – mors delenda est!

Prior to reading HPMOR, I was generally against fanfiction. “Why,” I wondered, “can’t these authors have original characters? Even filing off the serial numbers and making some minor changes would be better than directly copying the originals.” HPMOR forced an update on this position, and let me enjoy a much more complex and rich Potterverse, one that includes such works as Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time and A Black Comedy, which to not have enjoyed would have been a loss.

HPMOR brought a lot of new blood into the rationality community, and if you have the right shape of mind, you, too, will love it. You can also learn a fair amount about rationality from it, which required a tricky balancing act on Eliezer’s part.

“I’m learning and enjoying it? What is this sorcery?”

The fandom, presumably.

HPMOR is worth your time to read, and reread, if you’re that sort of person. Grab a copy and delight in it today!

On Failure

As the Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries says,

“Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.”

If you’ve read the autobiographical posts, you know that I’ve had a fair share of exposure to the experience of failure. Honestly, any human of adult age who hasn’t been insulated by privilege and money has, but I’ve failed a lot. The Lost Decade was me deciding to let failure be the last thing I did, and The Hell Year was, at least in my eyes, me failing again – so much so that I ended it with the only solution I could see, removing myself from the situation and letting her hit rock bottom.

On the whole, it is better that I ended up going my own way; my life is significantly improved, as is my mental state, as are my prospects. From the perspective of my personal utility, it’s been quite good. Of course, this perspective requires taking a long-term view, and not taking count of what effect the experience had on her – while my understanding is that she did pull herself together, having my abandon her like that must have been crushing.

So yes, I consider that whole incident a failure of mine – I could have done far, far better. Instead, I focused on my pain, and assumed she could work out her problems herself. In light of this, I ask myself what I ask every time I observe a failure, mine or that of others: “What have we learned?”

I learned that I want to pay more and better attention to what’s going on in the heads of the people I care about. I learned that I want to be better at understanding people, and improving their situations. And I learned that sometimes, protecting people from the consequences of their decisions isn’t the best thing you can do for them.

I’ve noticed, in the last few weeks, that my depression seems to be building back up. My motivation has dropped quite a bit, I have less confidence, less faith in myself and my ability to have a positive effect on this world’s outcomes. My past failures have taught me that I don’t need to accept this as is. While I am going to and have been taking a hit on my output, I don’t have to give in to it. I don’t have to let it control me, and I won’t. I’m not going to let it turn into another spiraling failure that consumes me, because I’ve learned.

And you, dear reader? What failures have you lived through, and what have they taught you?

On Internal Alignment

I’ve spent a fair amount of the last year learning about and acting on issues of internal alignment – bringing satisfaction of values to all of my parts. In my life I’ve often been quite imbalanced, satisfying the parts that want ‘play’ and ‘escapism’ over all others. The part that wants to learn ended up being drowned out by the part that wants not to be confronted with not being so brilliant I understand everything instantly. The part that wants to save the world was overrun by the part that doesn’t want to be embarrassed, and the former didn’t have anything like enough expectancy to fight back with.

In short, I was a mess… but then, if you’ve been reading the autobiographical posts, you knew that.

I still haven’t sorted everything out, and gotten all of my parts on board, but we’re getting there, bit by bit.

One piece of making this happen has been paying better attention internally, and not trying to just force the outcomes “I” want. It turns out driving yourself that way works out badly over long timescales. I trace a lot of my personal akrasia to being at war inside myself, and I really enjoy the outcome of the massive boost in productivity I’ve gotten from not being at war.

This does, however, mean that sometimes I have to do stuff that’s less productive, on a short time horizon. At the end of last week I started getting requests to take a week or two off. I considered it, and consulted with my partner, and the end result is that I’m taking some me time this week and next. I’ll be taking care of that which is necessary, and that which I find I want to do, but I’m not going to drive myself the way I have been. It’s likely that my book review this week will be delayed, and next week will have fewer than three posts, but I think you’ll forgive me this.

What about you, dear reader? What does your internal alignment look like? What have you learned about working together with yourself?

Book Review – How to Actually Change Your Mind

If I had to point to one book of the six that compose AI to Zombies as the single most important, it would be How to Actually Change Your Mind. Without the ability this book strives to teach, true rationality is not possible – you’d simply believe whatever you were told first, and nevermind that ‘evidence’ stuff.

Leading off with what is possibly the single piece of writing that is my most linked, the book delves into the tools, tactics, and thought patterns that will enable you to truly entangle your beliefs with reality. Eliezer takes no prisoners in explaining what humility is really for, why lotteries are a waste of hope, and how false dilemmas sneakily try to get us to argue against (or for) limited option sets, constraining us from looking at how reality really is.

The next section digs into politics and rationality, with classics like Politics is the mind-killer and Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. The ancestral environment shaped us to have certainty all out of line with our evidence in dealing with political matters, and further, to have our emotions tightly tied to these discussions. This section closes with Human Evil and Muddled Thinking, a mighty argument that unclear thought is a key ingredient of human evil.

Following that, Against Rationalization talks about how we fool ourselves, how we turn fiction into facts and how we take only the tiniest steps forward, when shown that we must move. I think the ideas that most intrigued me in this chapter are in Motivated Stopping and Motivated Continuation. I recognized them in some of my past behavior, and having names for them has helped me over the years to recognize them happening, and stop it.

I could dig into the next few chapters, Seeing with Fresh Eyes, Death Spirals, and Letting Go, but honestly, I’d rather you go and read it yourself – it’s an excellent work that deserves its place in rationalist canon, and I can’t say enough good things about it (I do have other things to do, after all!). Go forth, acquire How to Actually Change Your Mind and become stronger!

On Resilience

I spend some of my time volunteering with ALLFED – the Alliance to Feed Earth in Disasters. I’m working on a paper on maintaining nutritional health in the face of major disaster – a 50% drop in incoming sunlight that reaches the surface is the primary scenario we’re planning around. It’s an interesting question – how do we ensure that everyone has their caloric needs met, and also doesn’t end up deficient in key nutrients, when the foods we grow currently won’t have their needs met?

We’ve found things that will grow under those conditions – potatoes, for example, already grow at that kind of sunlight level in Alaska. They’re impressively resilient. Potatoes can be found all over the planet, from the Andes to Alaska, and they are a great starting point if you want to get people fed. They aren’t, on their own, enough to keep everyone hale and healthy, though.

That said, potatoes aren’t perfectly resilient – as we’ve seen in history, there are ways in which we can lose access to them as a crop. Most crops have at least one problem along these lines – we of course want to grow the variation of a given crop that will give us the largest harvest, which means that one narrowly genetically defined breed ends up being the one that’s grown everywhere, and when something moves into that ecological niche, it explodes. While we have fairly good methods of control, farming as a whole is not resilient.

This has led me to think about resilience in and of itself; resilient systems, resilient species, and the resilience of particular people. In some ways, I’m fairly resilient. I wouldn’t have survived the hell year without it; every once in a while I tell someone that story and they tell me they don’t know how I made it through, or that they couldn’t have, something along those lines.

I’m also fairly fragile along some axes – I recently discussed with my partners, the fact that I have some difficulty taking certain kinds of criticism. They’ve been investing some amount of skull sweat into not breaking me when there are things I need to be told about myself. Always, always, there are ways to become stronger.

It’s definitely something I want to work on, although at the moment things in people’s lives are a little bit too on fire for me to bring it up as an area to target. Soon, I hope, and of course I’ll keep digging into the resources I can work with on my own.

And yourself, dear reader? How resilient do you find yourself? What have you found that helped you become more resilient?

On Moral Relevance

I’ve been trying to decide for a while what moral relevance is made of. At the moment I have an answer that seems to serve in day to day life, but I still have the feeling that I haven’t fully resolved the question, a nagging feeling that I’m not yet capturing everything.

Backing up a step, what do I even mean when I say, “moral relevance”?

I consider a to be morally relevant if I think it’s something that I should take into account when choosing my actions. It is accounted for, so that I do not violate any preferences that it has. In short, violations of ‘s preferences is a bad thing, and to be avoided. matters.

A meaningful amount of the problem lies here. I have an intuitive felt sense of what it means to matter, and what it means for a thing to be bad rather than good, but I don’t think I could give a technical explanation of these concepts. I am in some senses a moral realist – it seems to me that there is something more than game theory in being kind to others. I don’t think that you can find an atom of good or the charge carrier of morality, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an atom of human, either, and they certainly seem to exist.

Axioms seem to be necessary to establishing systems, from what I can tell. Investigating this question, it seems that in at least some systems, with enough progress, you can then go back and prove your axioms (see this quora) but note that what I’ve found also supports another claim I’ve made – that a system with no axioms does and can prove nothing; it has no affordances with which one can do anything.

So, my moral axioms:

  1. There is an axis on which events can be measured, this axis runs from “bad” to “good”, and any given action, fully contextualized, has a location on this axis.
  2. The degree to which an event is bad or good depends strongly (although possibly not exclusively) on the degree of suffering that descends from it.
  3. Evil is a quality that bad events can, but do not necessarily have, which requires intentionality – an evil action is one where a bad event will result, the mind that initiated the action was aware of this, and either didn’t care, or (increasing the degree of evil) actively wanted this outcome.
  4. For two events identical in all respects except for the presence or absence of evil, the event which evil was a part of the existence of, is worse (“more bad”).

From this, it can be seen that moral relevance comes the capacity to suffer. Rocks are not morally relevant, because they don’t, as far as we know, experience suffering. People are morally relevant, because they do. This gets… problematic, if one considers engineered beings. Does a person who is identical to me in every respect, except that they experience suffering at twice the intensity, with their upper bound for suffering, matter twice as me? Does a person identical to me in every respect except that she has no capacity to suffer whatsoever, not matter?

I notice, once more, that I am confused.

On reflection, I think that a version of me who didn’t experience suffering at all might not be morally relevant. If she’s not bothered in the hypothetical case where I hit her with a stick as she walks past, I’m not sure where the bad lies.

Similarly, an action that hurts the double-suffering version of me is at least as bad as taking said action towards me. Is it twice as bad? She suffers twice as much, after all.

The incentive gradients are all screwy here, though. It suggests that the right thing to do is to make people who are capable of suffering as much as possible, and then make sure the world (or other people) don’t hurt them, and that seems obviously incorrect.

I need to think more on this topic, clearly, if I’m getting outcomes like this. What are your thoughts, reader?

Book Review – Map and Territory

Earlier this year I read Rationality: From AI to Zombies(at the bottom of the page, or online here. At 1800 pages, it’s not an adventure for those afraid of thick books, but I’ve read Worm several times. I ain’t afraid of no page count!

While I could reasonably say that I’ve read the Sequences, I did so in kind of a scattershot fashion, over the course of years, and reread by hopping around among pages when I was in Colorado and between calls at work. I wanted to be sure I had in fact read everything, to refresh my memory of it, and to be able to say that I had done so with confidence.

I set myself to the task, and spent quite a few hours working my way through that mighty tome, coming out the far side more rational and stronger (I hope). Last week I read Superforecasting, and when I was talking to a friend of mine about it, they mentioned that given the replication crisis, shouldn’t we be reviewing and updating the sequences to make sure it wasn’t based in any research that didn’t replicate?

This struck me as a pretty good idea, enough so that I would have been willing to put my time into that project. Given this, I reached out to Rob Bensinger, Head of Research Communications at MIRI, since he’d done the original editing to make the Sequences into AI to Zombies, and asked if that was something that was going to happen.

He informed me that not only was AI to Zombies being updated, the first two books had already been released. Big win, and they went straight to the top of my to-read pile.

The first book, Map and Territory, took me four hours to go through. At 354 pages, it was a much less intimidating piece to take on than the whole stack of six-in-one, and the quality’s definitely gone up a bit – I’d be hard pressed to point to any single item, but I found it flowed more smoothly than the AI to Zombies version. It does an excellent job of explaining the relevant concepts, and of keeping you (me, at least) turning pages – I could see sitting down and reading it end to end without moving.

From Scope Insensitivity to The Simple Truth, Map and Territory has excellent flow and kept me hooked. Eliezer’s writing practically sparkles in this edition, with all of the polish that’s been added. If you haven’t read the Sequences yet, definitely pick up the new editions and remedy this. You’ll be glad you did!

On Soul-Forging

As I’ve alluded to before, my childhood was not the best. In all honesty, I was a demon child, and a source of great stress and grief to my mother. I got in vast amounts of trouble in school, and that wasn’t even my trouble-causing final form. Without going into too much detail, it was enough that my mother threw up her hands, unable to deal, and I ended up in the care of the state. This is how I ended up never setting foot in a high school.

I don’t blame her, to be clear – demon child is not an exaggeration, or not much. I definitely needed that shock, and if the programs were not in fact an ideal environment, they did lead to my being the person I am now, and I’m glad to be me, although of course I’m still striving to be someone better.

Something that happened fairly early on here ended up making a huge impact on the shape of my life, and I’ve never properly thanked the person responsible. My mother and stepfather visited me, and dropped of some books, novels. On the cover of one of them was a post-it from my stepfather, with a note stating, roughly, that I should read these books with an eye to learning how good people acted.

I don’t know what he expected. What actually happened, though, was that I got the idea of incorporating, actively, facets of characters I admired. I read a lot, then and now, and I’m always on the lookout for something new to attach. One of the reasons I’ve reread Worm as many times as I have is that I want Taylor’s refusal to lose. As I’ve also noted, I think as a species we are up against some Serious Shit, and I want to bring everything I possibly can to bear on the problems facing us.

I’ve cribbed from books, from games, from television. “I will quote the truth wherever I find it,” says Richard Bach in Illusions, and the concept generalizes – I will add to my self that which is worthy wherever I find it.

The last major addition I consciously made was from Unsong. I can’t do the Comet King justice without a direct quote, and so –

“Do you know,” interrupted Jalaketu, “that whenever it’s quiet, and I listen hard, I can hear them? The screams of everybody suffering. In Hell, around the world, anywhere. I think it is a power of the angels which I inherited from my father.”

He spoke calmly, without emotion. “I think I can hear them right now.”

Ellis’ eyes opened wide. “Really?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t . . . ”

“No,” said the Comet King. “Not really.”

They looked at him, confused. “No, I do not really hear the screams of everyone suffering in Hell. But I thought to myself, ‘I suppose if I tell them now that I have the magic power to hear the screams of the suffering in Hell, then they will go quiet, and become sympathetic, and act as if that changes something.’ Even though it changes nothing. Who cares if you can hear the screams, as long as you know that they are there? So maybe what I said was not fully wrong. Maybe it is a magic power granted only to the Comet King. Not the power to hear the screams. But the power not to have to. Maybe that is what being the Comet King means.”

I read this when I lived in Colorado and it had a huge impact on me. We don’t need to hear the screams to know it’s happening, and when I look inside myself at the place that knows this, it grabs the part of me that said in a philosophy class once that if your ethical system tells you the right thing to do is something you don’t want to, you either need to run your ethical calculations again, do the thing, or admit that you’re not good, according to your system. It grabs that part, and shakes it, and demands that I make it stop Make It Stop MAKE IT STOP.

And so I work to fix the vast holes in my education, so that I can do something about the state of things. I’ve built myself a soul from parts I found lying around, and it turns out having done so makes me need to do certain things.

I’m happier about this being the case than the child I was could ever have understood.