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Aubrey de Grey Discussion, 16

I discussed epistemology and cryonics with Aubrey de Grey via email. Click here to find the rest of the discussion. Yellow quotes are from Aubrey de Grey, with permission. Bluegreen is me, red is other.

The other parts so far are all my emails including quotes from Aubrey de Grey. For this part, I'm posting his email. That's because I didn't quote everything when replying. Outlined quotes are older.
A reason "strong refutation" seems to make sense is because of something else. Often what we care about is a set of similar ideas, not a single idea. A refutation can binary refute some ideas in a set, and not others. In other words: criticisms that refute many variants of an idea along with it seem "strong”.
That’s basically what I do. I agree with all you go on to say about closeness of variants etc, but I see exploration of variants (and choice of how much to explore variants) as coming down to a sequence of dice-rolls (or, well, coin-flips, since we’re discussing binary choices).
I don't know what this means. I don't think you mean you judge which variants are true, individually, by coin flip.

Maybe the context is only variants you don't have a criticism of. But if several won their coin flips, but are incompatible, then what? So I'm not clear on what you're saying to do.

Also, are you saying that amount of sureness, or claims criticisms are strong or weak (you quote me explaining how what matters is which set of ideas a criticism does or doesn't refute), play no role in what you do? Only CR + randomness?
The coin flips are not to decide whether a given individual idea is true or false, they are to decide between pairs of ideas. So let’s say (for simplicity) that there are 2^N ideas, of which 90% are in one group of close variants and the other 10% are in a separate group of close variants. “Close”, here, simply means differing only in ways I don’t care about. Then I can do a knockout tournament to end up choosing a winning variant, and 90% of the time it will be in the first group. Since I don’t actually care about the features that distinguish the variants within either group, only the features that distinguish the groups. I’m done. In other words, the solidity of an idea is measured by how many close variants it has - let’s call it the “variant density” in its neighbourhood. In practice, there will typically be numerical quantities involved in the ideas, so there will be an infinite number of close variants in each group - but if I have a sense of the variant densities in the two regions then that’s no problem, because I don’t need to do the actual tournament.
OK, I get the rough idea, though I disagree with a lot of things here.

You are proposing a complex procedure, involving some tricky math. It looks to me like the kind of thing requiring, minimum, tens of thousands of words to explain how it works. And a lot of exposure to public criticism to fix some problems and refine, even if the main points are correct.
Not really, because the actual execution of the procedure is hugely condensed. It’s just the same as when mathematicians come up with a proof: they know that the only reason the proof is sound is because it can be reduced to set theory, but they also know that in Principia Mathematica it took a couple of hundred pages to prove that 1+1=2, so they are happy not to actually do the reduction.
Perhaps, with a fuller explanation, I could see why Aubreyism is correct about this and change my mind. I have some reasons not to think so, but I do try to keep an open mind about explanations I haven't read yet, and I'd be willing to look at a longer version. Does one exist?
No. Sorry :-)
Some sample issues where I'd want more detail include (no need to answer these now):
I will anyway, because all but the last two are easy (I think).
- Is the score the total variants anywhere, ignoring density, regions and neighborhoods? If so, why are those other things mentioned? If not, how is the score calculated?
No, it’s the total number of “close” variants, defined as I did before, i.e. variants that differ only in ways that one doesn’t care about.
- Why are ideas with more variants better, more likely to be true, or something like that? And what is the Aubreyism thing to say there, and how does that concept work in detail?
Because they have historically turned out to be. Occam’s Razor, basically.
- The "regions" discussed are not regions of space. What are they, how are they defined, what are they made out of, how is distance defined in them, how do different regions connect together?
See above - different ideas differ in multiple ways, some of which one cares about and some of which one doesn’t, so they fall into equivalence classes, and the larger classes win.
- The coin flipping procedure wouldn't halt. So what good is it?
I’m not with you. Why wouldn’t it halt? It’s just a knockout tournalemt starting with 2^n players. Ah, are you talking about the infinite case? There, as I say, one indeed doesn’t do the flipping, one uses the densities. A way to estimate the densities would be just to sample 100 ideas that are in one of the two competing groups and see how many are in which group.
- I can imagine skipping the coin flipping procedure because the probabilities will be equally distributed among the infinite ideas. But then the probabilities will all be infinitesimal. Dealing with those infinitesimals requires explanation.
I think I’ve covered that above. Yes?
- I'm guessing the approach involves grouping together infinitesimals by region. This maybe relies on there being a finite number of regions of ideas involved, which is a premise requiring discussion. It's not obvious because we're looking at all ideas in some kind of idea-space, rather than only looking at the finite set of ideas people actually propose (as Elliotism and CR do normally do).
I think this is all compatible with the above, since only the number of equivalence classes of ideas needs to be finite, not the number of ideas.
- When an idea has infinite variants, what infinity are we talking about? Is it in one-to-one correspondence with the integers, the reals, or what? Do all ideas with infinite variants have the same sort of infinity variants? Infinity is really tricky, and gets a lot worse when you're doing math or measurement, or trying to be precise in a way that depends on the detailed properties of infinity.
I don’t think this matters for the sampling procedure I described above.
- There are other ways to get infinite variants other than by varying numerical quantities. One of these approaches uses conjunctions – modify an idea by adding "and X". Does it matter if there are non-numerical ways to get infinite variants? Do they make a difference? Perhaps they are important to understanding the number and density of variants in a region?
I don’t think this breaks the sampling procedure either.
- Are there any cases where there's only finite variants of an idea? Does that matter?
Not sure, and not as far as I can see.
- You can't actually have 90% or 10% of 2^N and get a whole number. This won't harm the main ideas, but I think it's important to fix detail errors in one's epistemology (which I think you agree with: it's why you specified 2^N ideas, instead saying even or leaving unspecified).
Fair enough! - sample 128 ideas instead of 100.
- Do ideas actually have different numbers of variants? Both for total number, and density. How does one know? How does one figure out total variant count, and density, for a particular idea?
Let me know if you think the sampling procedure doesn’t do that.
- How is the distance between two ideas determined? Or whatever is used for judging density.
See above.
- What counts as a variant? In common discussion, we can make do with a loose idea of this. If I start with an idea and then think about a way to change it, that's a variant. This is especially fine when nothing much depends on what is a variant of what. But for measuring solidity, using a method which depends on what is a variant of what, we'll need a more precise meaning. One reason is that some variant construction methods will eventually construct ALL ideas, so everything will be regarded as a variant of everything else. (Example method: take ideas in English, vary by adding, removing or modifying one letter.) Addressing issues like this requires discussion.
Again, I think my definitions and procedure cover this.
- Where does criticism factor into things?
It elucidates whether two ideas differ in ways one cares about. Changing one’s mind about that results in changing which equivalence class the ideas fall into.
- What happens with ideas which we don't know about? Do we just proceed as if none of those exist, or is anything done about them?
I think that’s part of the CR part of Aubreyism, rather than the triage part, i.e. one does it in the same way whether one is using Aubreyism or Elliotism.
- Does one check his work to make sure he calculated his solidity measurements right? If so, for how long?
- Is this procedure truth-seeking? Why or why not? Does it create knowledge? If so, how? Is it somehow equivalent to evolution, or not?
No it isn’t/doesn’t/isn’t - it is the triage layer that terminates a CR effort. The CR part is what is truth-seeking and creates knowledge.
- Why do people have disagreements? Is it exclusively because some people don't know how to measure idea solidity like this, because of calculation errors, and because of different ideas about what they care about?
All those things, sure, but probably other things too -same as for CR.
- One problem about closeness in terms of what people care about is circularity. Because this method is itself supposed to help people decide things like what to care about.
I don’t see that that implies circularity. Recursiveness, sure, but that’s OK, isn’t it?
- How does this fit with DD's arguments for ideas that are harder to vary? Your approach seems to favor ideas that are easier to vary, resulting in more variants.
Ah, good point. I don’t adequately recall his argument, though. Can you summarise it?
- I suspect there may be lots of variants of "a wizard did it". Is that a good idea? Am I counting its variants wrong? I admit I'm not really counting but just sorta wildly guessing because I don't think you or I know how to count variants.
Is that, basically, DD’s "harder to vary” argument?
That is only an offhand sampling of questions and issues. I could add more. And then create new lists questioning some of the answers as they were provided. Regarding what it takes to persuade me, this gives some indication of what kind of level of detail and completeness it takes. (Actually a lot of precision is lost in communication.)
Does this assessment of the situation make sense to you? That you're proposing a complex answer to a major epistemology problem, and there's dozens of questions about it that I'd want answers to. Note: not necessarily freshly written answers from you personally, if there is anything written by you or others at any time.
Understood; yes it does.
Do you think you know answers to every issue I listed? And if so, what do you think is the best way for me to learn those full answers? (Note: If for some answers you know where to look them up as needed, instead of always saving them in memory, that's fine.)

Or perhaps you'll explain to me there's a way to live with a bunch of unanswered questions – and a reason to want to.
I think that’s exactly what I’m doing - Aubreyism is precisely that.
Or maybe something else I haven't thought of.
To try to get at one of the important issues, when and why would you assign X a higher percent (aka strength, plausibility, justification, etc) than Y or than ruminating more? Why would the percents ever be unequal? I say either you have a criticism of an option (so don't do that option), or you don't (so don't raise or lower any percents from neutral). What specifically is it that you think lets you usefully and correctly raise and lower percents for ideas in your decision making process?

I think your answer is you judge positive arguments (and criticisms) in a non-binary way by how "solid" arguments are. These solidity judgments are made arbitrarily, and combined into an overall score arbitrarily.
I think my clarification above of the role of “variant density” as a measure of solidity answers this, but let me know if it doesn’t.
I agree with linking issues. Measuring solidity (aka support aka justification) is a key issue that other things depend on.

It's also a good example issue for the discussion below about how I might be persuaded. If I was persuaded of a working measure of solidity, I'd have a great deal to reconsider.
OK - but then the question is whether yout current view permits you to change your mind about this (or indeed about anything big).
Sure - and that’s what I claim I do (and also what I claim you in fact do, even though you don’t think you do).
I do claim to do this [quoted below]. Do you think it's somehow incompatible with CR?
On reflection, and especially given your further points below, I’d prefer to stick with Aubreyism and Elliotism rather than justificationism and CR, because I’m new to this field and inadequately clear as to precisely how the latter terms are defined, and because I think the positions we’re debating between are our own rather than other people’s.
OK, switching terminology.

Do you think
doing your best with your current knowledge (nothing special), and also specifically having methods of thinking which are designed to be very good at finding and correcting mistakes.
is incompatible with Elliotism? How?
I think the first part is imcompatible, yes; Elliotism does not deliver doing one’s best with current knowledge, because it overly favours excessive rumination.
OK - as above, let’s forget unmodified CR and also unmodified justificationism. I think we’ve established that my approach is not unmodified justificationism, but instead it is (something like) CR triaged by justificationism. I’m still getting the impression that your stated approach, whether or not it’s reeeeally close to CR, is unable to make decisions adequately rapidly for real life, and thus is not what you actually do in real life.
I don't know what to do with that impression.

Do you believe you have a reason Elliotism could not be timely in theory no matter what? Or only a reason Elliotism is not timely today because it's not developed enough and the current approach is flawed, but one day there might be a breakthrough insight so that it can be timely?
I can’t really answer the first question, because I can’t identify the set of all possible variants of current Elliotism that you would still recognise as Elliotism. For the second question, yes, that’s what I think, and moreover I think the breakthrough in question is simply to add a triage step, which would turn it into Aubreyism.
I think the timeliness thing is a second key issue. If I was persuaded Elliotism isn't or can't be timely, I'd have a lot to reconsider. But I'm pretty unclear on the specifics of your counter-arguments regarding timeliness.
What's the problem for CR with consensus-low fields?
Speed of decision-making. The faster CR leads to consensus in a given field, the less it needs to be triaged.
OK, I have a rough idea of what you mean. I don't think this is important to our main disagreements.
I agree.
This is a general CR approach: do something with no proof it will work, no solidity, no feeling of confidence (or if you do feel confidence, it doesn't matter, ignore it). Instead, watch out for problems, and deal with them as they are found.
Again, I can’t discern any difference in practice between that and what I already do.
Can you discern a difference between it and what most people do or say they do?
Oh, sure - I think most people are a good deal more content than me to hold pairs of views that they recognise to be mutually incompatible.
What I was talking about above was an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to ideas, which is found in both CR and Elliotism (without requiring infallible proof). You indicated agreement, but now bring up the issue of holding contradictory ideas, which I consider a different issue. I am unclear on whether you misunderstood what I was saying, consider these part of the same issue, or what.
I think holding contradictory ideas is the same issue - it’s equivalent to not watching out for problems.
Regarding holding contradictory ideas, do you have a clear limit? If I were to adopt Aubreyism, how would I decide which mutually incompatible views to keep or change? If the answer involves degrees of contentness, how do I calculate them?
Sampling to estimate variant density, followed by deciding based on coin-flips. No it doesn’t involve degrees of contentness.
Part of the Elliotism answer to this issue involves context. Whether ideas relevantly contradict each other is context dependent. Out of context contradictions aren't important. The important thing is to deal with relevant contradictions in one's current context. Put another way: deal with contradictions relevant to choices one makes.

Consider the contradicting ideas of quantum mechanics and general relativity. In a typical dinner-choosing context, neither of those ideas offers a meal suggestion. They both say essentially "no comment" in this context, which doesn't contradict. They aren't taking different sides in the dinner arbitration. I can get pizza for dinner without coming into conflict with either of those ideas.

On the other hand if there was a contradiction in context – basically meaning they are on disagreeing sides in an arbitration – then I'd address that with a win/win solution. Without such a solution, I could only proceed in a win/lose way and the loser would be part of me. And the loser would be chosen arbitrarily or irrationally (because if it weren't, then what was done would be a rational solution and we're back to win/win).

Understanding of context is one of the things which allows Elliotism to be timely. (A refutation of my understanding of context is another thing which would lead to me reconsidering a ton.)
I think we agree on context. In the language of variants and equivalence classes and sampling and coin flips, the introduction of an out-of-context issue simply doubles the number of variants in each equivalence clas, so it doesn’t affect the decision-making outcome (nor the time it takes to make the decision).
If I were to change my mind and live by Aubreyism, I would require a detailed understanding of how to handle context under Aubreyism (for meals, contradictions, and everything else).
Let me know if the above suffices.
I don’t think our disparate conclusions with regard to the merits of signing up with Alcor arise from you doing the above and me doing something different; I think they arise from our having different criteria for what constitutes a problem. And I don’t think this method allows a determination of which criterion for what constitutes a problem is correct, because each justifies itself: by your criteria, your criteria are correct, and by mine, mine are. (I mentioned this bistability before; I’ve gone back to your answer - Sept 27 - and I don’t understand why it’s an answer.)
Criteria for what is a problem are themselves ideas which can be critically discussed.

Self-justifying ideas which block criticism from all routes are a general category of idea which can be (easily) criticized. They're bad because they block critical discussion, progress, and the possibility of correction if they're mistaken.
OK then: what theoretical sequence of events would conclude with you changing your mind about how you think decisions should be made, in favour of my view?
Starting at the end, I'd have to understand Aubreyism to my satisfaction, think it was right, think Elliotism and (unmodified) CR were both wrong. The exact details are hard to specify in advance because in the sequence of events I would change my mind about what criteria to use when deciding what ideas to favor. So I would not think Aubreyism has no known criticism, rather I'd understand and use Aubreyism's own criteria. And similarly I wouldn't be rejecting Elliotism or CR for having one outstanding criticism (taking into account context), but rather because of some reasons I learned from Aubreyism.

For that matter, I might not have to understand Aubreyism to my satisfaction. Maybe it'd teach me how to adopt ideas without understanding them to my current criteria of satisfaction. It could offer different criteria of satisfaction, but it could also offer a different approach.

So, disclaimer: the below discussion of persuasion contains Elliotist ideas. But if Elliotism is false, then I guess persuasion works some other way, which I don't know and can't speak to.
Right - we’re back to bistability.

I know, I have a better idea. I think you mentioned some time ago that before you encountered DD you thought differently about all this. Is that correct? If so, perhaps it will help if you relate the sequence of events that led you to change your mind. Since that will be a sequence of events that actually occurred, rather than a story about a hypothetical sequence, I think I’ll find it more useful.

Cheers, Aubrey
Continue reading the next part of the discussion.

Elliot Temple on November 8, 2014


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