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September 15, 2008


From your perspective, you should chalk this up to the anthropic principle: if I'd fallen into a true dead end, you probably wouldn't be hearing from me on this blog.

I'm not sure that can properly be called anthropic reasoning; I think you mean a selection effect. To count as anthropic, my existence would have to depend upon your intellectual development; which it doesn't, yet. :)

(Although I suppose my existence as Allan-the-OB-reader probably does so depend... but that's an odd way of looking at it.)

Do you see any relationship between this and your current view of philosophy?

Many intellectuals (like me) find it hard to focus long on a particular topic, and easily succumb to weak excuses to read widely and try out new fields. I suspect your personality largely determined your history here.

Many intellectuals (like me) find it hard to focus long on a particular topic, and easily succumb to weak excuses to read widely and try out new fields. I suspect your personality largely determined your history here.

I don't say you're wrong, but the obvious next question is what kind of realization would lead you to focus long on a particular topic despite your personality, why the young Eliezer lacked that realization, and even whether that would have been appropriate (considering how things turned out).

I mean, if you'd told the young Eliezer that, he would have fired back that extreme specialization was an error produced by poor incentive structures in academia. Relative to his state of knowledge about not knowing which path to go down and specialize extremely in, this was a lucky mistake for him to make - though it was still a mistake, because you can't stay permanently in a state of shallow exploration, and depth isn't just an incentive failure.

My own change of opinion on this subject dates to my Bayesian Enlightenment, when my opinion changed about a lot of things, making it hard to untangle; but I would mostly chalk it up to reading E.T. Jaynes and seeing a higher level of precision in action.

Eliezer, "sluts" often eventually settle down with someone - their initial wide exploration was not so much a general preference for variety, but rather a strategy of exploring more widely before settling down.

So are we chalking this up to the successful execution of an adaptation?

It's common for non-depressed people to say things like "I made some mistakes in the past, but it all turned out for the best in the end and I'm happy where I've ended up". A big reason for this is that for most people it is psychologically very difficult to admit that their previous mistakes have put them in a situation significantly worse than they could have been in had they made better choices.

One way to recognize such cases is to find out if people are mostly positive about how they've ended up. For example, suppose that Fred works as a lawyer for five years. Over that period, Fred mostly says that he is happy with his choice to do law. After the five years, Fred switches to a non-legal job in a major corporation. After a few years, he says that it was a mistake for him to go into law, but that he's happy how things have turned out.

So: would Eliezer_1999 have said confidently that he was happy with how things had turned out? Would he have been able to give lots of reasons why he was in a better position than Eliezer_1996?

Also: If you had gone to a university with a good AI department, then you would have encountered people doing Bayesian stuff. (The same goes for a stat department, or a philosophy department with a strong philosophy of science orientation). Would you have been better going to college rather than being an auto-didact? I'm asking non-rhetorically. What advice would you give to pre-college teenagers in something like your position in 1996?

Bob: what do you think of my analysis of my mistakes. In general, I think that it is hugely desirable that *someone* fairly similar to me made roughly the mistakes that I made in terms of life path, but its unfortunate that I made them rather than someone somewhat less capable. In terms of other types of mistakes, I have made a few terrible ones but got reasonably lucky so there were no consequences of note.

Eliezer: one heuristic that could have given you roughly your behaviors if you formed it is "almost no-one invests adequately in information while still investing effort in action at all". As a general idea, high level intellectual exploration should consume substantially more time than goal-directed action, but there are few social encouragements to behave in this manner so the only people who do so are essentially those who are addicted to such intellectual exploration and have no propensity or willingness to take action at all.

...but the obvious next question is what kind of realization would lead you to focus long on a particular topic despite your personality...

My general rule is that we're inclined towards optimal opportunities to experience our personal affect in the world. We continue exploring widely as long as no specific topic quite matches our existing knowledge, circumstances, and cognitive disposition.

When we find knowledge that helps us interpret our circumstances in a way that we can personally identify with those interpretations (i.e. we recognize our previous knowledge and cognitive disposition in them, and subsequently we recognize the affects of our interpretations on our circumstances, e.g. when events correspond with our beliefs so well that events seem to occur because we anticipate them -- whether via Bayes's Theorem or the Bible or whatever it may be), then we can focus.

I think up to a point the more various fields of knowledge we study the more difficult it is to find some core interpretive principle that works well with everything we know -- there's always some contradiction.

The key is to keep organizing and digesting all that knowledge as we go, at some point (late 20's?), if we've worked hard and been lucky enough with your accidents, gaining new knowledge actually helps put the old knowledge to good use: like having a lot of clothes, there's a lot more to match with. Then we start to gain enough creative freedom to develop our own 'personalized specialization' to focus on, which is knowledge that really helps us interpret circumstances in a way we identify through.

Are you sure you want to use the word "addicted" as in "addicted to intellectual exploration", Michael Vassar? Einstein is on record as having derived great pleasure from learning and thinking about physics. Would you call it an addiction even though it did not prevent him from holding down a job as a clerk in a patent office when circumstances made that necessary.

Vassar: "what do you think of my analysis of my mistakes"

Um, which? Where? I am curious.

Well Richard, we all know that Einstein's thought habit left him incapable of holding down a "real job" as a professor in an era when the field was MUCH less competitive than it is today. Fortunately for him, he lived in a society where there was readily available credential-based government work for even the least impressive degree holders, largely because there were so many fewer of them. He was also empirically unable to make his refrigerator company profitable.

To clarify Z.M. I didn't do an analysis here, I just gave my conclusion, which is that I'm glad that someone made them because important information was learned which is not otherwise available in my social group (except maybe some of it from Phil Goetz) but I would rather that someone other than I had done so and had simply told me.

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