Employer and Employee Model: Happiness

We discussed Aristotle’s definition of happiness as activity according to virtue here, followed by a response to an objection.

There is another objection, however, which Aristotle raises himself in Book I, chapter 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with virtue.

Aristotle is responding to the implicit objection by saying that it is “impossible, or not easy” to act according to virtue when one is doing badly in other ways. Yet probably most of us know some people who are virtuous while suffering various misfortunes, and it seems pretty unreasonable, as well as uncharitable, to assert that the reason that they are somewhat unhappy with their circumstances is that the lack of “proper equipment” leads to a lack of virtuous activity. Or at any rate, even if this contributes to the matter, it does not seem to be a full explanation. The book of Job, for example, is based almost entirely on the possibility of being both virtuous and miserable, and Job would very likely respond to Aristotle, “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.”

Aristotle brings up a similar issue at the beginning of Book VIII:

After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. Again, parent seems by nature to feel it for offspring and offspring for parent, not only among men but among birds and among most animals; it is felt mutually by members of the same race, and especially by men, whence we praise lovers of their fellowmen. We may even in our travels how near and dear every man is to every other. Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

But it is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends.

There is a similar issue here: lack of friends may make someone unhappy, but lack of friends is not lack of virtue. Again Aristotle is in part responding by pointing out that the activity of some virtues depends on the presence of friends, just as he said that temporal goods were necessary as instruments. Once again, however, even if there is some truth in it, the answer does not seem adequate, especially since Aristotle believes that the highest form of happiness is found in contemplation, which seems to depend much less on friends than other types of activity.

Consider again Aristotle’s argument for happiness as virtue, presented in the earlier post. It depends on the idea of a “function”:

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘so-and-so-and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre, and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

Aristotle took what was most specifically human and identified happiness with performing well in that most specifically human way. This is reasonable, but it leads to the above issues, because a human being is not only what is most specifically human, but also possesses the aspects that Aristotle dismissed here as common to other things. Consequently, activity according to virtue would be the most important aspect of functioning well as a human being, and in this sense Aristotle’s account is reasonable, but there are other aspects as well.

Using our model, we can present a more unified account of happiness which includes these other aspects without the seemingly arbitrary way in which Aristotle noted the need for temporal goods and friendship for happiness. The specifically rational character belongs mainly to the Employee, and thus when Aristotle identifies happiness with virtuous action, he is mainly identifying happiness with the activity of the Employee. And this is surely its most important aspect. But since the actual human being is the whole company, it is more complete to identify happiness with the good functioning of the whole company. And the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.

Consider two ways in which someone might respond to the question, “How are you doing?” If someone isn’t doing very well, they might say, “Well, I’ve been having a pretty rough time,” while if they are better off, they might say, “Things are going pretty smoothly.” Of course people might use other words, but notice the contrast in my examples: a life that is going well is often said to be going “smoothly”, while the opposite is described as “rough.” And the difference here between smooth and rough is precisely the difference between predictive accuracy and inaccuracy. We might see this more easily by considering some restricted examples:

First, suppose two people are jogging. One is keeping an even pace, keeping their balance, rounding corners smoothly, and keeping to the middle of the path. The other is becoming tired, slowing down a bit and speeding up a bit. They are constantly off balance and suffering disturbing jolts when they hit unexpected bumps in the path, perhaps narrowly avoiding tripping. If we compare what is happening here with the general idea of predictive processing, it seems that the difference between the two is that first person is predicting accurately, while the second is predicting inaccurately. The second person is not rationing their energy and breath correctly, they suffer jolts or near trips when they did not correctly expect the lay of the land, and so on.

Suppose someone is playing a video game. The one who plays it well is the one who is very prepared for every eventuality. They correctly predict what is going to happen in the game both with regard to what happens “by itself,” and what will happen as a result of their in-game actions. They play the game “smoothly.”

Suppose I am writing this blog post and feel myself in a state of “flow,” and I consequently am enjoying the activity. This can only happen as long as the process is fairly “smooth.” If I stop for long periods in complete uncertainty of what to write next, the state will go away. In other words, the condition depends on having at each moment a fairly good idea of what is coming next; it depends on accurate prediction.

The reader might understand the point in relation to these limited examples, but how does this apply to life in general, and especially to virtue and vice, which are according to Aristotle the main elements of happiness and unhappiness?

In a basic way virtuous activity is reasonable activity, and vicious activity is unreasonable activity. The problem with vice, in this account, is that it immediately sets up a serious interior conflict. The Employee is a rational being and is constantly being affected by reasons to do things. Vice, in one way or another, persuades them to do unreasonable things, and the reasons for not doing those things will be constantly pulling in the opposite direction. When St. Paul complains that he wills something different from what he does, he is speaking of this kind of conflict. But conflicting tendencies leads to uncertain results, and so our CEO is unhappy with this situation.

Now you might object: if a vicious man is unhappy because of conflicting tendencies, what if they are so wicked that they have no conflict, but simply and contentedly do what is evil?

The response to this would be somewhat along the lines of the answer we gave to the objection that moral obligation should not depend on desiring some particular end. First, it is probably impossible for a human being to become so corrupted that they cannot see, at least to some degree, that bad things are bad. Second, consider the wicked men according to Job’s description:

Why do the wicked live on,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their children are established in their presence,
and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail;
their cow calves and never miscarries.
They send out their little ones like a flock,
and their children dance around.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.

Just as we said that if you assume that someone is entirely corrupt, the idea of “obligation” may well become irrelevant to them, without that implying anything wrong with the general idea of moral obligation, in a similar way, it would be metaphorical to speak of such a person as “unhappy”; you could say this with the intention of saying that they exist in an objectively bad situation, but not in the ordinary sense of the term, in which it includes subjective discontent.

We could explain a great deal more with this account of happiness: not only the virtuous life in general, but also a great deal of the spiritual, psychological, and other practical advice which is typically given. But this is all perhaps for another time.

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Employer and Employee Model: Truth

In the remote past, I suggested that I would someday follow up on this post. In the current post, I begin to keep that promise.

We can ask about the relationship of the various members of our company with the search for truth.

The CEO, as the predictive engine, has a fairly strong interest in truth, but only insofar as truth is frequently necessary in order to get predictive accuracy. Consequently our CEO will usually insist on the truth when it affects our expectations regarding daily life, but it will care less when we consider things remote from the senses. Additionally, the CEO is highly interested in predicting the behavior of the Employee, and it is not uncommon for falsehood to be better than truth for this purpose.

To put this in another way, the CEO’s interest in truth is instrumental: it is sometimes useful for the CEO’s true goal, predictive accuracy, but not always, and in some cases it can even be detrimental.

As I said here, the Employee is, roughly speaking, the human person as we usually think of one, and consequently the Employee has the same interest in truth that we do. I personally consider truth to be an ultimate end,  and this is probably the opinion of most people, to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, most people consider truth a good thing, even apart from instrumental considerations. Nonetheless, all of us care about various things besides truth, and therefore we also occasionally trade truth for other things.

The Vice President has perhaps the least interest in truth. We could say that they too have some instrumental concern about truth. Thus for example the VP desires food, and this instrumentally requires true ideas about where food is to be found. Nonetheless, as I said in the original post, the VP is the least rational and coherent, and may easily fail to notice such a need. Thus the VP might desire the status resulting from winning an argument, so to speak, but also desire the similar status that results from ridiculing the person holding an opposing view. The frequent result is that a person believes the falsehood that ridiculing an opponent generally increases the chance that they will change their mind (e.g. see John Loftus’s attempt to justify ridicule.)

Given this account, we can raise several disturbing questions.

First, although we have said the Employee values truth in itself, can this really be true, rather than simply a mistaken belief on the part of the Employee? As I suggested in the original account, the Employee is in some way a consequence of the CEO and the VP. Consequently, if neither of these places intrinsic value on truth, how is it possible that the Employee does?

Second, even if the Employee sincerely places an intrinsic value on truth, how is this not a misplaced value? Again, if the Employee is something like a result of the others, what is good for the Employee should be what is good for the others, and thus if truth is not intrinsically good for the others, it should not be intrinsically good for the Employee.

In response to the first question, the Employee can indeed believe in the intrinsic value of truth, and of many other things to which the CEO and VP do not assign intrinsic value. This happens because as we are considering the model, there is a real division of labor, even if the Employee arises historically in a secondary manner. As I said in the other post, the Employee’s beliefs are our beliefs, and the Employee can believe anything that we believe. Furthermore, the Employee can really act on such beliefs about the goodness of truth or other things, even when the CEO and VP do not have the same values. The reason for this is the same as the reason that the CEO will often go along with the desires of the VP, even though the CEO places intrinsic value only on predictive accuracy. The linked post explains, in effect, why the CEO goes along with sex, even though only the VP really wants it. In a similar way, if the Employee believes that sex outside of marriage is immoral, the CEO often goes along with avoiding such sex, even though the CEO cares about predictive accuracy, not about sex or its avoidance. Of course, in this particular case, there is a good chance of conflict between the Employee and VP, and the CEO dislikes conflict, since it makes it harder to predict what the person overall will end up doing. And since the VP very rarely changes its mind in this case, the CEO will often end up encouraging the Employee to change their mind about the morality of such sex: thus one of the most frequent reasons why people abandon their religion is that it says that sex in some situations is wrong, but they still desire sex in those situations.

In response to the second, the Employee is not wrong to suppose that truth is intrinsically valuable. The argument against this would be that the human good is based on human flourishing, and (it is claimed) we do not need truth for such flourishing, since the CEO and VP do not care about truth in itself. The problem with this is that such flourishing requires that the Employee care about truth, and even the CEO needs the Employee to care in this way, for the sake of its own goal of predictive accuracy. Consider a real-life company: the employer does not necessarily care about whether the employee is being paid, considered in itself, but only insofar as it is instrumentally useful for convincing the employee to work for the employer. But the employer does care about whether the employee cares about being paid: if the employee does not care about being paid, they will not work for the employer.

Concern for truth in itself, apart from predictive accuracy, affects us when we consider things that cannot possibly affect our future experience: thus in previous cases I have discussed the likelihood that there are stars and planets outside the boundaries of the visible universe. This is probably true; but if I did not care about truth in itself, I might as well say that the universe is surrounded by purple elephants. I do not expect any experience to verify or falsify the claim, so why not make it? But now notice the problem for the CEO: the CEO needs to predict what the Employee is going to do, including what they will say and believe. This will instantly become extremely difficult if the Employee decides that they can say and believe whatever they like, without regard for truth, whenever the claim will not affect their experiences. So for its own goal of predictive accuracy, the CEO needs the Employee to value truth in itself, just as an ordinary employer needs their employee to value their salary.

In real life this situation can cause problems. The employer needs their employee to care about being paid, but if they care too much, they may constantly be asking for raises, or they may quit and go work for someone who will pay more. The employer does not necessarily like these situations. In a similar way, the CEO in our company may worry if the Employee insists too much on absolute truth, because as discussed elsewhere, it can lead to other situations with unpredictable behavior from the Employee, or to situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty about how society will respond to the Employee’s behavior.

Overall, this post perhaps does not say much in substance that we have not said elsewhere, but it will perhaps provide an additional perspective on these matters.

Predictive Processing and Free Will

Our model of the mind as an embodied predictive engine explains why people have a sense of free will, and what is necessary for a mind in general in order to have this sense.

Consider the mind in the bunker. At first, it is not attempting to change the world, since it does not know that it can do this. It is just trying to guess what is going to happen. At a certain point, it discovers that it is a part of the world, and that making specific predictions can also cause things to happen in the world. Some predictions can be self-fulfilling. I described this situation earlier by saying that at this point the mind “can get any outcome it ‘wants.'”

The scare quotes were intentional, because up to this point the mind’s only particular interest was guessing what was going to happen. So once it notices that it is in control of something, how does it decide what to do? At this point the mind will have to say to itself, “This aspect of reality is under my control. What should I do with it?” This situation, when it is noticed by a sufficiently intelligent and reflective agent, will be the feeling of free will.

Occasionally I have suggested that even something like a chess computer, if it were sufficiently intelligent, could have a sense of free will, insofar as it knows that it has many options and can choose any of them, “as far as it knows.” There is some truth in this illustration but in the end it is probably not true that there could be a sense of free will in this situation. A chess computer, however intelligent, will be disembodied, and will therefore have no real power to affect its world, that is, the world of chess. In other words, in order for the sense of free will to develop, the agent needs sufficient access to the world that it can learn about itself and its own effects on the world. It cannot develop in a situation of limited access to reality, as for example to a game board, regardless of how good it is at the game.

In any case, the question remains: how does a mind decide what to do, when up until now it had no particular goal in mind? This question often causes concrete problems for people in real life. Many people complain that their life does not feel meaningful, that is, that they have little idea what goal they should be seeking.

Let us step back for a moment. Before discovering its possession of “free will,” the mind is simply trying to guess what is going to happen. So theoretically this should continue to happen even after the mind discovers that it has some power over reality. The mind isn’t especially interested in power; it just wants to know what is going to happen. But now it knows that what is going to happen depends on what it itself is going to do. So in order to know what is going to happen, it needs to answer the question, “What am I going to do?”

The question now seems impossible to answer. It is going to do whatever it ends up deciding to do. But it seems to have no goal in mind, and therefore no way to decide what to do, and therefore no way to know what it is going to do.

Nonetheless, the mind has no choice. It is going to do something or other, since things will continue to happen, and it must guess what will happen. When it reflects on itself, there will be at least two ways for it to try to understand what it is going to do.

First, it can consider its actions as the effect of some (presumably somewhat unknown) efficient causes, and ask, “Given these efficient causes, what am I likely to do?” In practice it will acquire an answer in this way through induction. “On past occasions, when offered the choice between chocolate and vanilla, I almost always chose vanilla. So I am likely to choose vanilla this time too.” This way of thinking will most naturally result in acting in accord with pre-existing habits.

Second, it can consider its actions as the effect of some (presumably somewhat known) final causes, and ask, “Given these final causes, what am I likely to do?” This will result in behavior that is more easily understood as goal-seeking. “Looking at my past choices of food, it looks like I was choosing them for the sake of the pleasant taste. But vanilla seems to have a more pleasant taste than chocolate. So it is likely that I will take the vanilla.”

Notice what we have in the second case. In principle, the mind is just doing what it always does: trying to guess what will happen. But in practice it is now seeking pleasant tastes, precisely because that seems like a reasonable way to guess what it will do.

This explains why people feel a need for meaning, that is, for understanding their purpose in life, and why they prefer to think of their life according to a narrative. These two things are distinct, but they are related, and both are ways of making our own actions more intelligible. In this way the mind’s task is easier: that is, we need purpose and narrative in order to know what we are going to do. We can also see why it seems to be possible to “choose” our purpose, even though choosing a final goal should be impossible. There is a “choice” about this insofar as our actions are not perfectly coherent, and it would be possible to understand them in relation to one end or another, at least in a concrete way, even if in any case we will always understand them in a general sense as being for the sake of happiness. In this sense, Stuart Armstrong’s recent argument that there is no such thing as the “true values” of human beings, although perhaps presented as an obstacle to be overcome, actually has some truth in it.

The human need for meaning, in fact, is so strong that occasionally people will commit suicide because they feel that their lives are not meaningful. We can think of these cases as being, more or less, actual cases of the darkened room. Otherwise we could simply ask, “So your life is meaningless. So what? Why does that mean you should kill yourself rather than doing some other random thing?” Killing yourself, in fact, shows that you still have a purpose, namely the mind’s fundamental purpose. The mind wants to know what it is going to do, and the best way to know this is to consider its actions as ordered to a determinate purpose. If no such purpose can be found, there is (in this unfortunate way of thinking) an alternative: if I go kill myself, I will know what I will do for the rest of my life.

Minimizing Motivated Beliefs

In the last post, we noted that there is a conflict between the goal of accurate beliefs about your future actions, and your own goals about your future. More accurate beliefs will not always lead to a better fulfillment of those goals. This implies that you must be ready to engage in a certain amount of trade, if you desire both truth and other things. Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that self-deception, and therefore also such trade, is either impossible or stupid, depending on how it is understood:

What if self-deception helps us be happy?  What if just running out and overcoming bias will make us—gasp!—unhappy?  Surely, true wisdom would be second-order rationality, choosing when to be rational.  That way you can decide which cognitive biases should govern you, to maximize your happiness.

Leaving the morality aside, I doubt such a lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen.

Second-order rationality implies that at some point, you will think to yourself, “And now, I will irrationally believe that I will win the lottery, in order to make myself happy.”  But we do not have such direct control over our beliefs.  You cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.  You might be able to believe you believed it—though I have just made that more difficult for you by pointing out the difference.  (You’re welcome!)  You might even believe you were happy and self-deceived; but you would not in fact be happy and self-deceived.

For second-order rationality to be genuinely rational, you would first need a good model of reality, to extrapolate the consequences of rationality and irrationality.  If you then chose to be first-order irrational, you would need to forget this accurate view. And then forget the act of forgetting.  I don’t mean to commit the logical fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, but I think Orwell did a good job of extrapolating where this path leads.

You can’t know the consequences of being biased, until you have already debiased yourself.  And then it is too late for self-deception.

The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.

There are several errors here. The first is the denial that belief is voluntary. As I remarked in the comments to this post, it is best to think of “choosing to believe a thing” as “choosing to treat this thing as a fact.” And this is something which is indeed voluntary. Thus for example it is by choice that I am, at this very moment, treating it as a fact that belief is voluntary.

There is some truth in Yudkowsky’s remark that “you cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.” But this is not because the thing itself is intrinsically involuntary. On the contrary, you could, if you wished, choose to treat the greenness of the sky as a fact, at least for the most part and in most ways. The problem is that you have no good motive to wish to act this way, and plenty of good motives not to act this way. In this sense, it is impossible for most of us to believe that the sky is green in the same way it is impossible for most of us to commit suicide; we simply have no good motive to do either of these things.

Yudkowsky’s second error is connected with the first. Since, according to him, it is impossible to deliberately and directly deceive oneself, self-deception can only happen in an indirect manner: “The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.” The idea is that ordinary beliefs are simply involuntary, but we can have beliefs that are somewhat voluntary by choosing “blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.” Since this is “willful stupidity,” a reasonable person would completely avoid such behavior, and thus all of his beliefs would be involuntary.

Essentially, Yudkowsky is claiming that we have some involuntary beliefs, and that we should avoid adding any voluntary beliefs to our involuntary ones. This view is fundamentally flawed precisely because all of our beliefs are voluntary, and thus we cannot avoid having voluntary beliefs.

Nor is it “willful stupidity” to trade away some truth for the sake of other good things. Completely avoiding this is in fact intrinsically impossible. If you are seeking one good, you are not equally seeking a distinct good; one cannot serve two masters. Thus since all people are interested in some goods distinct from truth, there is no one who fails to trade away some truth for the sake of other things. Yudkowsky’s mistake here is related to his wishful thinking about wishful thinking which I discussed previously. In this way he views himself, at least ideally, as completely avoiding wishful thinking. This is both impossible and unhelpful, impossible in that everyone has such motivated beliefs, and unhelpful because such beliefs can in fact be beneficial.

A better attitude to this matter is adopted by Robin Hanson, as for example when he discusses motives for having opinions in a post which we previously considered here. Bryan Caplan has a similar view, discussed here.

Once we have a clear view of this matter, we can use this to minimize the loss of truth that results from such beliefs. For example, in a post linked above, we discussed the argument that fictional accounts consistently distort one’s beliefs about reality. Rather than pretending that there is no such effect, we can deliberately consider to what extent we wish to be open to this possibility, depending on our other purposes for engaging with such accounts. This is not “willful stupidity”; the stupidity would to be engage in such trades without realizing that such trades are inevitable, and thus not to realize to what extent you are doing it.

Consider one of the cases of voluntary belief discussed in this earlier post. As we quoted at the time, Eric Reitan remarks:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

Here, Reitan is proposing that someone believe that “a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil” for the purpose of having “the sense that their lives have positive meaning.” If we look at this as it is, namely as proposing a voluntary belief for the sake of something other than truth, we can find ways to minimize the potential conflict between accuracy and this other goal. For example, the person might simply believe that “my life has a positive meaning,” without trying to explain why this is so. For the reasons given here, “my life has a positive meaning” is necessarily more probable and more known than any explanation for this that might be adopted. To pick a particular explanation and claim that it is more likely would be to fall into the conjunction fallacy.

Of course, real life is unfortunately more complicated. The woman in Reitan’s discussion might well respond to our proposal somewhat in this way (not a real quotation):

Probability is not the issue here, precisely because it is not a question of the truth of the matter in itself. There is a need to actually feel that one’s life is meaningful, not just to believe it. And the simple statement “life is meaningful” will not provide that feeling. Without the feeling, it will also be almost impossible to continue to believe it, no matter what the probability is. So in order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to believe a stronger and more particular claim.

And this response might be correct. Some such goals, due to their complexity, might not be easily achieved without adopting rather unlikely beliefs. For example, Robin Hanson, while discussing his reasons for having opinions, several times mentions the desire for “interesting” opinions. This is a case where many people will not even notice the trade involved, because the desire for interesting ideas seems closely related to the desire for truth. But in fact truth and interestingness are diverse things, and the goals are diverse, and one who desires both will likely engage in some trade. In fact, relative to truth seeking, looking for interesting things is a dangerous endeavor. Scott Alexander notes that interesting things are usually false:

This suggests a more general principle: interesting things should usually be lies. Let me give three examples.

I wrote in Toxoplasma of Rage about how even when people crusade against real evils, the particular stories they focus on tend to be false disproportionately often. Why? Because the thousands of true stories all have some subtleties or complicating factors, whereas liars are free to make up things which exactly perfectly fit the narrative. Given thousands of stories to choose from, the ones that bubble to the top will probably be the lies, just like on Reddit.

Every time I do a links post, even when I am very careful to double- and triple- check everything, and to only link to trustworthy sources in the mainstream media, a couple of my links end up being wrong. I’m selecting for surprising-if-true stories, but there’s only one way to get surprising-if-true stories that isn’t surprising, and given an entire Internet to choose from, many of the stories involved will be false.

And then there’s bad science. I can’t remember where I first saw this, so I can’t give credit, but somebody argued that the problem with non-replicable science isn’t just publication bias or p-hacking. It’s that some people will be sloppy, biased, or just stumble through bad luck upon a seemingly-good methodology that actually produces lots of false positives, and that almost all interesting results will come from these people. They’re the equivalent of Reddit liars – if there are enough of them, then all of the top comments will be theirs, since they’re able to come up with much more interesting stuff than the truth-tellers. In fields where sloppiness is easy, the truth-tellers will be gradually driven out, appearing to be incompetent since they can’t even replicate the most basic findings of the field, let alone advance it in any way. The sloppy people will survive to train the next generation of PhD students, and you’ll end up with a stable equilibrium.

In a way this makes the goal of believing interesting things much like the woman’s case. The goal of “believing interesting things” will be better achieved by more complex and detailed beliefs, even though to the extent that they are more complex and detailed, they are simply that much less likely to be true.

The point of this present post, then, is not to deny that some goals might be such that they are better attained with rather unlikely beliefs, and in some cases even in proportion to the unlikelihood of the beliefs. Rather, the point is that a conscious awareness of the trades involved will allow a person to minimize the loss of truth involved. If you never look at your bank account, you will not notice how much money you are losing from that monthly debit for internet. In the same way, if you hold Yudkowksy’s opinion, and believe that you never trade away truth for other things, which is itself both false and motivated, you are like someone who never looks at your account: you will not notice how much you are losing.

Vaguely Trading Away Truth

Robin Hanson asks his readers about religion:

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religious people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

Look, Robin is saying, maybe you think that religions aren’t true. But the fact is that it isn’t very plausible that you care that much about truth anyway. So why not be religious anyway, regardless of the truth, since there are known benefits to this?

A few days after the above post, Robin points out some evidence that stories tend to distort a person’s beliefs about the world, and then says:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

We have discussed in an earlier post some of the reasons why stories can distort a person’s opinions about the world.

It is very plausible to me that Robin’s proposed explanation, namely status seeking, does indeed exercise a great deal of influence among his target audience. But this would not tend to be a very conscious process, and would likely be expressed consciously in other ways. A more likely conscious explanation would be this representative comment from one of Robin’s readers:

There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

The basic argument would be that if a non-religious person simply decides to be religious, he is choosing to believe something he thinks to be false, which is against the love of truth. But if the person reads a story, he is not choosing to believe anything he thinks to be false, so he is not going against the love of truth.

For Robin, the two situations are roughly equivalent, because there are known reasons why reading fiction will distort one’s beliefs about the world, even if we do not know in advance the particular false beliefs we will end up adopting, or the particular false beliefs that we will end up thinking more likely, or the true beliefs that we might lose or consider less likely.

But there is in fact a difference. This is more or less the difference between accepting the real world and accepting the world of Omelas. In both cases evils are accepted, but in one case they are accepted vaguely, and in the other clearly and directly. In a similar way, it would be difficult for a person to say, “I am going to start believing this thing which I currently think to be false, in order to get some benefit from it,” and much easier to say, “I will do this thing which will likely distort my beliefs in some vague way, in order to get some benefit from it.”

When accepting evil for the sake of good, we are more inclined to do it in this vague way in general. But this is even more the case when we trade away truth in particular for the sake of other things. In part this is precisely because of the more apparent absurdity of saying, “I will accept the false as true for the sake of some benefit,” although Socrates would likely respond that it would be equally absurd to say, “I will do the evil as though it were good for the sake of some benefit.”

Another reason why this is more likely, however, is that it is easier for a person to tell himself that he is not giving up any truth at all; thus the author of the comment quoted above asserted that reading fiction does not lead to any false beliefs whatsoever. This is related to what I said in the post here: trading the truth for something else, even vaguely, implies less love of truth than refusing the trade, and consequently the person may not care enough to accurately discern whether or not they are losing any truth.

Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture

Michael Matt at The Remnant, relieved at the results of the US presidential election, writes:

If Mrs. Clinton had achieved victory last night, today would seem the darkest in history. The future would be beyond dire for a people that willingly raised up a corrupt and immoral radical, who hates the laws of God, defends the murder of babies, and zealously works for the destruction of the family.

Had she been elected it would have said much more about us than about her. We would’ve exposed ourselves as a soulless and heartless people, beyond hope and beneath contempt.

There was so much at stake. Much of our work here at The Remnant, for example, would have been criminalized over the next four years. Our homeschools were to become illegal enterprises in the village Mrs. Clinton had in mind. Even our ability to move about freely would have been undermined by Mrs. Clinton who had promised to expand the ‘no fly’ list against “haters”. (As the “leader of a hate group”, according to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center, it isn’t difficult for this writer to imagine how enthusiastically President Hillary would have enforced hate crime legislation against Christian America.)

On the other side, Scott Aaronson says:

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

“Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.”

Robin Hanson, in contrast with both of the above statements, tries to calm people down about all this:

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

Robin has the better attitude here, and provides a good illustration of a topic that I was planning to discuss at some point, namely the need for recognizing the bigger picture in order to exercise the virtue of humility.

In the linked post, I remarked on St. Therese’s identification of humility with truth, and pointed in particular to the truth that we are neither the first cause nor the ultimate end. But this is just to locate ourselves in reality in a vague way, and the truth is much more detailed than this. A more distinct way to think about this would be that the error of pride consists in thinking that the partial view that we have is the whole truth, while humility would consist in recognizing that there is a bigger picture.

A proud person is often said to believe that the “world revolves around him,” and similar things. But consider: this is not such a strange view. Look around, and it does indeed look like the world is all around you. And the causes of pride are in fact very similar to this, and in that sense, not so unnatural. In this case, if someone were actually to believe it, the error is clear: the person takes his partial view as the full truth about the world, while in reality, his view is extremely limited, and only reaches to certain aspects of the world.

This account applies to virtually every case in which a person behaves proudly. For example when someone stubbornly insists on his own ideas, when he is mistaken, or when he is right, but in a way that is dismissive of others, we rightly identify this as pride, precisely because the person refuses to accept that there is more to reality than he sees himself.

Likewise, if a person is stubbornly attached to his own good, the mistake consists in believing that the only thing that is important is his own desires, while in reality this is only a small part of what is important.

Someone might object: how can humility be about seeing the big picture? Humility seems to be about being small and unimportant, so it seems the opposite of anything big.

The answer to this is that the objection is no different from noticing that the person going about claiming, “I am a humble person!” is most likely not the most humble of people. Humility consists in seeing the bigger picture, but a humble person is not in general the one who is most likely to go about claiming to see the bigger picture. We might ask why not. In particular, if humility is truth, as St. Therese says, then why should a humble person not say that he is humble, since it is the truth? And likewise, if you see the bigger picture, why should you not admit it, since it is the truth?

This is really a question of the right behavior in particular circumstances, and there is no definitive answer for all cases. Sometimes a humble person should indeed say they are humble, as St. Therese did in fact say of herself, although she put it somewhat delicately. But the danger here is twofold: first, if you see a bigger picture than someone else, you might identify your picture as the whole and his as the part, and thus you fall into the error of pride, because your picture remains partial, even if it is larger. Second, your view of the other person’s picture is itself partial, and you will again fall into the error of pride if you assume that you fully see his picture.

Humility tends to a make a person calm, basically for the reason suggested by Robin Hanson, namely by relativizing the importance of the person’s immediate concerns as a small part of the greater whole. And if you agree that the world at its heart is neither evil nor indifferent, but rather the world is rooted in goodness itself, then humility will also make you happy, because you will be looking at the whole and seeing that it is very good.

As the Heavens are Higher than the Earth

Job accuses God:

It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

Ezekiel 18 seems to say something very opposed to this:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

If life and death here refer to physical life, then the passage indeed would be opposed to Job’s claims, and Job might well respond:

How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
    How often does calamity come upon them?
    How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    and like chaff that the storm carries away?
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care for their household after them,
    when the number of their months is cut off?
Will any teach God knowledge,
    seeing that he judges those that are on high?
One dies in full prosperity,
    being wholly at ease and secure,
his loins full of milk
    and the marrow of his bones moist.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having tasted of good.
They lie down alike in the dust,
    and the worms cover them.

Oh, I know your thoughts,
    and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
    Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath?
Who declares their way to their face,
    and who repays them for what they have done?
When they are carried to the grave,
    a watch is kept over their tomb.
The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
    everyone will follow after,
    and those who went before are innumerable.
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
    There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.

But if we understand Ezekiel to refer to happiness and misery, there is surely some truth in his claims, because happiness consists in activity according to virtue. So one who lives virtuously, at least to that degree, will be happy, even if he did not always live in that manner. At the same time, there is some qualification on this, both because human life is not merely an instant but a temporal whole, and also because even if virtue is the most formal element of happiness, it is not the only thing that is relevant to it.

Job and Ezekiel’s opponents seem to agree in an important way, even if they disagree about the facts. Both seem to be saying that God’s ways are bad. Either God’s ways are indifferent to good and evil, or worse, God supports evil himself. Either God treats the good and evil alike, and thus he is indifferent, or he gives better things to the evil, and is thus evil. Or, according to Ezekiel’s opponents, he unjustly spares the lifelong wicked on account of a moment of repentance.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God responds that it is not his ways that are unjust, but their ways. In the context of the particular dispute, the implication is that people fear this account because it implies that even if you have lived a good life for many years, a single evil deed may result in your condemnation. That is only bad, God responds, if you plan to do evil, in other words if your ways are evil, not his. Isaiah says, speaking of the same thing, namely the repentance of the wicked,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As I pointed out earlier, Jesus presents Job’s characterization of God as something to be imitated:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, Jesus says, and consequently his activity is perfect towards all. And that results in apparent indifference, because it means that God treats all alike. Jesus is quite explicit that this applies to the very kinds of situations that Job and his friends are concerned with:

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This would be inconsistent if it meant that “unless you repent, a tower will fall on you or some similar evil,” because Jesus is saying that the ones are no different from the others. It may be that nine of the eighteen were repentant people, and the other nine wicked. Or it could be broken down in any other way. The whole point is that the virtue of the people involved was not relevant to the physical disaster. The implication is that the physical disaster should be understood as a representation of the moral disaster that necessarily overtakes anyone who does evil. And that same disaster is avoided by anyone who does good.

More importantly, however, Jesus’s understanding is that God treats all alike because of his love towards all. And this implies that even the disaster of the tower resulted from love, just as the rain and sun do in the other examples.

How can this be? This will be the topic of a later post. Of course, a reasonable inductive inference, which may or may not be mistaken, would be that it might be not only later, but much later.