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July 25, 2008


Question for Obert: Suppose there are intelligent aliens in a galaxy far far away... There is a pretty good chance they will discover math. They might use different symbols and they might represent their data differently but they will discover math because the universe pretty much runs on math. To them 2 + 3 will equal 5. Would they discover morality? Would their 'morality' be the same thing as our 'morality' here? Does morality converge into one thing like math does, no matter where you start from?

Admittedly OT meta-comment: I think Robin Hanson's an interesting thinker, and he has the discipline to self edit that this blog medium seems to require. Eliezer, on the other hand, seems both sophomorically self-impressed and logorrheic. Maybe there are interesting ideas lurking in these posts, but life is entirely too short to read them. Any chance of you guys getting, y'know, separate blogs, since the target audiences appear to be pretty different?

Anchovies have to die to make anchovy pizza, so depending on who you talk to it might still be immoral to eat anchovy pizza even if you want to.

There is not always a clear cut case that is best for every one, and part of morality is weighing the wants and needs of one being verses another in such cases.

morality is another one of those things that is true in the sense of consensus, which is a different meaning of truth from mathematical truth, or physical truth.

In the prisoners dilemma it is always advantageous to speak when the other player's action is fixed.
If you get to be both players and decide what both players do then it is adventurous to make both players not speak. Morality amounts to getting to be both players.

In some other cases there may be multiple reasonable options to choose when you control all players involved, possibly depending on how you weigh the wants and needs of the players, and as such multiple reasonable conflicting moralities.

Anchovy pizza is a good example. You have to weigh a delicious meal for a human against killing fish.

Obert: "In some ways the human species itself strikes me as being a sort of toddler in the 'No!' stage."
I am interested to know why.

what can i add to this that hasn't been already mentioned? morality is a choice, just like anything else? whether its god dictating your actions, or your malformed brain, it is up all up to you.

furthermore, since any collective notion can be revised at any time, all morality is ENTIRELY arbitrary. maybe math, or the laws of the universe play no role in the outcome of a string of decisions, nor is there anybody in there(behind the wheel, that is) that is capable of acting "rationally". whatever coincidences are presented by the setup of this reality we must take at face value, and that where, ladies and gentlemen, morality is defined by consequence and cost, etc...in essence redirecting the blame on the rest of the world....which is only a reflection of our actions....

has anyone ever lined up mirrors in attempt to see infinity? we are staring straight at it(with exception of the LCD panels in front of our faces).

I think the problem I have with the math example, and it may be that this is extensible to morality, is this:

If I have a certain quantity of apples, or sheep, or whatever, my mind has a tool (a number) ready to identify some characteristic about that quantity (how many it is). But that's all that number is: a tool. A reference.

Eliezer is right in saying that the teacher's teaching "2+3=5" doesn't make it true any more than the teacher's teaching "2+3=6" makes it true. But that's not because two plus three "actually" equals five. It's because we, as learning animals, have learned definitions of these concepts, and we conceive of them as being fundamental. We think of math as a fundamental part of reality, when it is in fact a low-level, extremely useful, but all-in-the-mind tool used to manipulate our understanding of reality. We're confusing the map with the territory.

Taking this over to morality:

"Killing is wrong" isn't true because someone told us it's true, any more than "Killing is right" would be true if someone were to tell us that. But that's not because killing another human being "actually" is wrong. It's because we, as learning animals, have learned (or evolved the low-level emotions that serve as a foundation for this rule) definitions of right and wrong, and we conceive of them as being fundamental. We think of morality as a fundamental part of reality, when it is in fact, an all-in-the mind tool. Should we throw it out because it's merely evolved? No. It's useful (at least for the species). But we shouldn't confuse the map with the territory.

This is still pretty fuzzy in my mind; please criticize, especially if I've made some fundamental error.

Keith Adams, if you're too busy to read the post and understand it, don't clog the comments.

Obert wins this one on points, but I'm still not convinced. Consider:

1) if humanity were extinguished in a flash, 2 + 3 = 5 would still hold.
2) if humanity were extinguished in a flash, murder would still be wrong.

While 1 is problematic in its own way, 2 just seems incoherent to me. Morality is generated by the actions of self-aware beings, and as such I can only ever think of it as a fluid abstract. Morality is as people do, nothing more. PK's aliens can conceivably hold theft to be perfectly moral.

One says 'murder is wrong'. I say 'show me the evidence'.

Another thing way to look at this idea of math being a tool that exists only in the mind has occurred to me:

Does addition happen outside the mind? What is something "plus" something else? If we've got a quantity of two sheep, and a quantity of three sheep, and they're standing next to each other, then we can consider the two quantities together, and count five sheep. But let's say a quantity of two sheep wander through a meadow until they come across a quantity of three sheep, and then stop. Where did the actual addition happen? Outside the mind, there are only quantities.

Physics is made of math. Physics describes the physical universe.

The physical universe is not made of math.

If you figure out a way to describe a physical event by taking some measured numbers and cutting them into an infinite number of pieces and putting them together in a different way, does that mean that the physical event happened by dividing something into an infinite number of pieces and rearranging them? Possibly. More likely the event just happened. The math comes from our need to start with the things we can measure and compute from that things that we want to know.

Would an alien society build the same math we do? Probably, if they happen to measure the same things and want to compute the same things. If they can easier measure something different or they care about something different then maybe not.

The idea that we shouldn't take things from other people without their permission is a human one. No predator has that idea about their prey. The concept of human ownership is complex and changeable too. We come up with lots of exceptions -- imminent domain, the abolition of slavery, etc. It's a matter of continuing negotiation. I'm not supposed to burn my own charcoal in my own backyard -- something about pollution. Is it really my own charcoal or my own land or my own air if I can't do as I want with them? If one of my neighbors tells on me the fire department will confiscate my grill. My five-year-old doesn't understand the complexities of the concept, but she knows how to argue about it. "We said we were going to share this toy and now Eris won't share!" "I want it now, she can have it later!" Sometimes my solution is to have a "toy timeout" and take it away from both of them for awhile.

How can anybody argue this stuff is simple and easy and obvious when anybody can see how much we argue about it?

GBM, I tend to agree with where you're going (or at least where you're starting). But saying that we shouldn't throw morality out because it's "useful" seems a little question-begging. It may indeed be useful for some purpose, X, but if someone doesn't care about X, this doesn't really give you much traction.

There's a big difference between saying "morality is the product of human minds" and saying "morality is purely arbitrary". Similarly, there's a big difference between saying "there are objective reasons why we make the moral judgments we do" and "all moral questions have objective answers which in no way depend on human minds".

Life is not a zero sum game. I think nearly everyone would agree that it would be advantageous to nearly everyone if one could somehow guarantee that neither one's self nor one's loved ones would be killed at the cost of forgoing the ability to kill one's enemies. I think this fact, not repeated arbitrary assertion, is the basis for the nearly universal belief that "murder is wrong". I think the fact that, in many societies, refraining from killing those outside one's own tribe does nothing to prevent those outside the tribe from killing one's self or one's loved ones, and not arbitrary bigotry, is the reason that in those societies killing those outside one's tribe does not count as murder.

When I first started reading the post, I had Keith's reaction, 'Get down to the point!', but I'm now *very* interested to see where Eliezer is going with this...

Obert: "I rather expect so. I don't think we're all entirely past our childhoods. In some ways the human species itself strikes me as being a sort of toddler in the 'No!' stage."

This in a way explains some of my own questions about my behavior... The first and only time I tried cocaine, I was shocked by just how much I loved it (I had thought it would be like smoking a joint and drinking three cups of coffee, fuck was I wrong)... And I thought to myself, "This is *way* too much fun, I don't care if you didn't crash, DON'T do it again." I think I realize that reactions that beyond my control, really are beyond my control, and thus should not be tampered with in my 'sophomoric' state.

I have to agree with PK and Ben; there's a heck of a lot more pressure for minds to converge on 2+3=5 than on any ethical statement. A mind that believes 2+3=6 will make wrong predictions about reality; a mind that has 'wrong' 'beliefs' about murder won't. (George has a point about game theory, but that's different from regarding someone else's death as terminally undesirable.) "The Platonic computation I implement judges murder as undesirable regardless of what anybody thinks" isn't the same as "murder is wrong regardless of what anybody thinks". I could define 'wrong' according to the output of my computation, but such an agent-relative definition would be silly.

...unless most humans converge to the same terminal values, in which case we could sensibly define "wrong" as the output of the computation implemented by humanity. There, it adds up to normality.

...well, kind of. That definition won't do by itself for moral arguments - it'd be like the calculator that computes "what does this calculator compute as the result of 2 + 3?" - any answer is correct. Some actual content is still needed.

Physics is made of math. Physics describes the physical universe. The physical universe is not made of math.

Two out of three isn't bad. The trick, of course, is to identify which two.

Not hard at all, Caledonian.

Also, stop trolling. Offer some insight, or go away.

What if a neutrino storm made you believe "If a neutrino storm makes me believe 'stealing is wrong', then stealing is wrong'"?

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