Cognition and Evolution

Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Sunday, January 7, 2018

How Steep is Your Empathy Curve?

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.
- Part III, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith

If we are honest, we all must admit that there are some people in the world we care about more than others. While we would never admit to having a favorite child, almost everyone is pretty quick to say they'd rather save their child than a stranger elsewhere nithe world that they've never met. But how about ten strangers? Or a hundred "millions"?

Of course people differ. Someone with no empathy for anyone including him or herself (autistic; badly depressed narcissist) would look like this:

A narcissist, psychopath or very young child would look like this.

This is what most of us look like.

This is what many people want to look like, but probably don't. Scott Alexander noted that people on the left often make a point of showing empathy for people more unlike them. (Is this a stable strategy?)

And finally, this is what the Buddha demonstrates - equal empathy for all beings (on the far right presumably are nonhuman primates, other animals, plants, etc.)

Of course these are all quick-and-dirty qualitative graphs to give you and idea, but the illustrate the hallmark of empathy curves, which is that for most, they are sigmoidal - there is an inflection point at some level of non-self. Questions that are raised by considering this relationship are:

a) before you get all excited that the graphs above are showing some progression toward a desirable goal - is it sustainable to show the same empathy to all others - either zero (narcissists) or full empathy (the Buddha)? Or even to show empathy in inverse proportion to how much like you someone else is? Empathy has real world impacts and there are obvious sociobiological reasons why most people's curves look like the third graph. The steepness of the empathy curve also produces a lot of the current political divide in the West.

b) These can change over time for an individual, and finding what else is different about them (neuroanatomically, psychologically) may be informative. For example, in psychiatry, there is the concept of the "burned out" antisocial, the person who commits vicious crimes indicating low empathy when he (usually he) is younger, then after about age 40, is unlikely to commit further violent crimes. Are these people not burned out but finally "grown in", i.e. their orbitofrontal cortex has finally produced enough synapses to affect their behavior? Many of us can think of anecdotal examples of a male who goes from being a hell-raiser only concerned with himself, to a family man - but he still has a very steep empathy curve that drops off once you move outside the family. I've looked for evidence of differing oxytocin levels or even ADH/vasopressin (or receptor mutations) in the literature about psychopaths and antisocial PD, but it seems once these people stop committing crimes, we're less interested in researching them.

Why Do People Remain Loyal to a Losing Team?

Cross-posted to the MDK10Outside and the Late Enlightenment.

tl;dr Sports fan behavior is explained by a combination of constant identity-forming team loyalty which is an end in itself, and status signaling by association which is modulated by team performance. These two factors differ between individuals and are associated with different cognitive styles, with constant loyalty more associated with moral foundations and intransitive preferences.

It's been observed that you can tell who a team's true fans are by noticing who remains loyal to the team even when that team is losing. I think this is meaningful, but it does beg the question: what are those fans getting out of it?[1] Of course any speculation about this must mention the very real example of the Cleveland Browns, who over the past 2 years have a 1-31 record, and this year after going 0-16 they were on the receiving end of a sarcastic "perfect season" parade.

Humans get utility from associating with others with high status. Much of the happiness that a sports fan gets from their emotional connection to their team derives from this, and many observations are consistent with what a status-by-association theory would predict: fans are happier when their teams win because they feel high status and can signal higher status, they engage in extreme dominance displays when their teams win important contests (i.e., people acting like idiots as they come out of a championship game if their team won, yelling, jumping on cars, setting off fireworks) but not if they didn't win, they attend games more when the team is winning and less when the team is losing, and they wear branded gear to identify themselves with the team and otherwise let others know of their association.[2]

But this theory falls short of explaining why, for example, there is any such thing as a team's consistent fanbase. By this model, everyone should just cheer for the best team, game by game (or even play by play!) It especially doesn't explain why the the Cleveland Browns have any fans left at all; supposedly they're a football team but I've seen a number of convincing arguments against that, for instance, every game of the 2017 season. During an 0-16 season you would expect that if fandom is about fully rational people maximizing utility by associating with high status teams, the fans would stop postin on forums, they would put their gear away and deny to others that they were fans, and the stadium would not just have lower attendance, it would be completely empty. Yet this is not what happened.

I think the answer here very likely has to do with the gap we see between two types of beliefs/behaviors that often produce apparent impasses in other domains of life, especially religion and politics, the intensity of which differs between individuals. This gap in rational and more instinctual behavior will seem very familiar to readers of books like Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind, or Simler and Hanson's Elephant in the Brain. Humans demonstrate some domains in their cognition which are inflexible and impervious to reason - to use Haidt's categories, harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. By "inflexible" I mean "not open to discussion, or conversion into money or other goods/services." For example, you likely do not believe that murdering children is morally acceptable. Are you interested in hearing arguments about why it might be morally acceptable? If you would never consider such a thing, and you're uncomfortable that I would even suggest it in a thought experiment, you're showing inflexibility in discussing it. Okay - would you kill an adult for $50,000? I see that also upset you, I'm sorry to have opened with such a low offer! $75,000 then? You're being inflexible (I hope!) in reacting by thinking "It's not about the number!" Okay, what's the conversion rate between adults and children? Forget murder, how about urinating on a picture of your family for money? etc., you get the point. "Inflexible" means it can't even be suggested as open for discussion, which includes not being allowed to convert between moral-foundation-violating acts and money, or between different types immoral acts. (A favorite of action movies to demonstrate the extreme evil of an antagonist is to have them force someone declare the relative value of immoral acts, e.g. Sophie's Choice.)

I took you on this little tour of moral darkness to illustrate that morally normal humans do not adhere to consistent rationality, and the ones that actually do are psychopaths.[3] (You may be interested to know that Haidt found that when he surveyed the business students he was teaching, they scored low on every single moral dimension, taught as they are that everything is negotiable.) So what does all this have to do with the Cleveland Browns? Many of us have noticed that "hardcore" sports fans - the ones who stick around with long faces even when the Browns are losing, and falsify the first model above - tend to have certain personality and cultural characteristics that fit well with some of these inflexible moral foundations: they tend to be more religious, more nationalistic, more conservative and more valuing of loyalty and authority.[4] Sports fans rarely become hardcore about a team after entering adulthood, and very often there is a family lineage of fandom - and these are exactly the times and ways in which characteristics of core identity are formed. Also telling, while there were about 3,000 people who showed up for the Cleveland Browns parade, there were many fans who were quite angry about it - but online objections were mostly that it was "embarrassing". (No mention of the 0-16 record that inspired the parade.)

Before I put into words what might be motivating them and make predictions, here's a summary of the two kinds of of beliefs, producing two kinds of motivation. While these beliefs exist in everyone, there is going to be a distribution in the population, with one category of beliefs dominating the fandom-related cognition of some fans, and the other category dominating that of others.

motivated by moral foundations by utility calculations
end in themselves deliberate, external goal-oriented
higher value on loyalty lower value on loyalty
adopted in childhood, maybe from familyadopted voluntarily in adulthood
not negotiable negotiable
central to identity not central to identity
unwilling or unable to verbalize position clearly verbalized
more often encountered in person more often encountered online
sees casual fans as untrustworthy, sleazysees hardcore fans as stupid, gullible

Of course it's a spectrum, and every fan is somewhere on this spectrum, but many of us clearly lean toward one or the other end. (If you're reading this, you're more likely in the right column than the left.)

To summarize the hardcore fan: he is motivated by more basic, instinctual moral drives, especially loyalty. Being a good fan is an end in itself, and an offer to burn a team jersey, to cheer for the other team, etc. in exchange for money is likely to not only be immediately refused but to provoke active offense. These fans consider their fandom a crucial part of their identity, to the extent of including team-related themes in their weddings or mentioning it in obituaries ("he lives and dies by the Browns"; "a Browns fan to the core.") He can get uncomfortable when the business aspects of a professional sport are discussed and overshadow the games on the field. Asking him to explain his fandom will be met with puzzlement, anger, or a jumbled set of team cheers and slogans, in the same manner as a person asked to explain why they are patriotic or follow a certain religion - "If I have to explain it to you, you'll never understand." And finally, because tribal loyalty sentiments are more warning-barks or team cheers than any kind of actionable proposition, you're more likely to hear such sentiments when talking to him in person, where the nonverbal (affect-laden and irrational) part of communication dominates. He will be a fan for life. When the bandwagon people disappear during losing seasons the hardcore fan says "Good riddance, good-time Charlie."

To summarize the casual fan: he is motivated by utility calculations about external goals (this team might win this year so I'll cheer for them, maybe I can make friends this way, maybe I'll look successful if I follow a good team.) He doesn't see what's impressive about staying loyal to losers, and really doesn't understand why making fun of your team when they lose is shameful or embarrassing. He probably picked up his fandom after college, maybe when he moved to a new city. He probably don't care either way about the business dealings of the team. If someone offered him money to stay home from a game or burn team logos, he would seriously consider the offer. He doesn't introduce himself to strangers as a fan, and five years from now he might not be following the team, or might not be following the sport at all. He can give clear reasons why he started following the team, and you're more likely to hear from people like him online. He shakes his head at the hardcores who keep shelling out cash for losing teams' jerseys.

Both the hardcores and non-hardcores gain utility in proportion to the team's performance. A team's performance can be negative, causing you to lose utility by associating with them.[5] But there must be another source of utility for the hardcores, who somehow gain utility from the association no matter the team's performance - and that source of utility is a constant ability to demonstrate loyalty, period, to others as well as to themselves to reinforce their own identity. And this signal is most informative when your side is losing.[6] Speaking quantitatively, in the utility equation for this model, there are two terms, loyalty (a constant for everyone, hardcore or not), plus the product of team performance times associative utility. Associative utility is how much your utility changes per team winningness. Both loyalty and associative utility vary by individuals, and team performance of course is determined by the team. The equation looks like this:

Total utility = Loyalty-based utility + (Team performance * associative utility)

Team performance can be positive or negative. For the hardcores, loyalty is such a large term that it doesn't matter how negative team performance is, loyalty will alway be greater and the total utility will always be positive (this could be the definition of "hardcore", "rain or shine", etc.) Further toward the other end of the spectrum, the value of loyalty signaling decreases and the team performance makes more of a difference in whether people keep following the team. It's also worth pointing out that this explains people who don't care about sports at all, because they have zero loyalty and zero associative utility - that is, it doesn't matter how much the team wins, they still won't care.


Many of these predictions seem trivial, but the point is to relate these predictions to specific components of the hardcore fan's motivation structure as noted in the table above, which would be more informative.
  • While utility is hard to measure directly, there are good proxies for it, like revenues, attendance, or Nielsen ratings. Given that there will be a distribution of hardcore to non-hardcore fans, there will be a non-zero floor to revenues so even 0-16 teams don't go to zero, as we observed. If we graph all of the teams on performance vs utility proxy, I would expect a mostly linear-looking scatter plot with an increase in the slope at the good end, for those teams with some expectation of a national championship, and possibly a flattening at the bottom. This may depend more on expected utility (if fans are pleasantly surprised by a win vs. they expect their team always to win.) I plan to try to collect some kind of utility-proxy data and see if this is in fact the case.
  • In general a sport will be more successful in inspiring loyalty, the more similar it is to tribal warfare (always a reliable revenue stream for every team); maybe this is why football has eclipsed baseball as the national pastime.
  • The more hardcore, the more they will pay attention to the outside charity activities of their own team, and the more outraged they will be by disloyalty-demonstrating acts, e.g. kneeling during the national anthem. They will also be more interested in the moral failings of opposing teams, especially rivals.
  • The more hardcore, the less they will be interested in statistics, especially of other teams, even ones their teams are playing in important games.
  • The more hardcore, the greater the difference in their interest in a player when he is on their team, vs. after he is traded. That is, hardcores think each of their players is a great person on and off the field - when he plays for their team - and any suggestion that they'll stop caring about him the second he is traded is likely to be met with hostility, but in fact this is the behavior they demonstrate. (He will also be annoyed when asked why, or when Seinfeld is cited - "Essentially you're cheering for clothing.")
  • The more hardcore, the more they will feel sad or angry after a loss, and the more likely they are to attend or watch the next game despite having been very sad or angry at the last game's outcome.
  • The more hardcore, the less tolerant they will be of fans behaving negatively toward the team, even when the team loses (very concrete and contra expectations here: you might expect hardcore fans to support a parade showing anger against the people making their Browns lose, but it seems to be exactly the opposite. Parallels to gay marriage here too: how exactly does the 0-16 parade degrade your fandom, when you didn't attend?)
  • The more hardcore, the more they will confuse the team with a government agency or public good (i.e., demanding that the city finance a new stadium.)[7] More recent teams with cities that have highly educated and/or mobile populations (i.e. the coastal Pacific) will therefore find that they can't get what they want from those cities, because the voters don't care (Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego) where other cities filled with less mobile, less educated people would crucify their mayor for allowing a team to leave on their watch.
  • It's often been noted that the Midwest with its brutal early winters has far more rabid sports fans than the mild West Coast. One possibility is that the loyalty-demonstration value of attending every game is diminished when all of those games are 70 F and sunny, vs some of them being freezing cold. (Think of the people who still wait in line in the cold and dark on Black Friday morning to buy things for their families. They do know that Amazon exists. So what do you think they're really doing?) Of course there could be a climate-independent cultural difference between east and west coast, but the model's prediction would be that Miami has equally low loyalty.
  • The more hardcore, the more they will be upset if a star player leaves for another franchise, or the whole team moves to another city, and they use words like "betrayal."[7]
  • The more hardcore, the less tolerant they will be of long-term, off-field strategies, especially ones that alter play and result in on-field losses. (Both the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns had 4-0 preseasons, then went 0-16. Tanking (here and here) and/or salary cap manipulation? Difficult to explain as mere incompetence. And if it were confirmed that this is what is happening, the hardcore fans would be angry; casual fans might say "Huh, that's kind of clever, although it means you've been putting a bad product on the field." "My team is not a 'product'!" the hardcore fan says.)
  • I'm not sure what to predict about the impact of hardcoreness on betting. The hardcores' loyalty may make them become overconfident in their team's performance. On the other hand, moral foundations-related beliefs are often kept carefully separate from anything affecting real-world decision-making. By that I mean: sacred beliefs are often more tribal chant than actionable proposition, and in general, people desperately avoid any bet that touches their moral foundations (next time someone makes a verifiable statement about religion or politics that you disagree with, offer to bet them, and see what happens. Typically they backtrack to a non-verifiable version of what they said, and/or get very offended that you would "cheapen" such an important matter by betting on it - which are all moves to avoid testing their belief.) Then again, the hardcore fans presumably know more about their team than most others, which means they should be more confident in their predictions, and be more willing to bet. Consequently they may be less willing to bet proportional to their claimed confidence, than would a casual fan with equal knowledge of the team would be. In my one test of this during March Madness, I found that self-identified fans did more accurately predict the outcome of a game involving their team than non-fans, but I collected no information on willingness to bet.

[1] This very article is diagnostic. By trying to dissect loyalty, instead of taking it as an obvious good and discussing it in the context of a specific team, I mark myself as someone with a small loyalty term in my equation - whereas people whose sports utility equation is dominated by loyalty would not understand, and/or be actively be offended by, a question like "What do you get out of being a fan of your team?"

[2] One might argue that a purely rational human being would ignore sports altogether - what do a bunch of guys chasing a ball on a field somewhere else in my city have anything to do with me, I've never even met them! - and I'm sympathetic to that argument.

[3] I hope no one read the paragraph about the price of murder and thought, "Hmmm...What is my price to kill someone?" In the case of exemplar psychopath Richard Kuklinski, he got positive utility from harming people so he kept doing it even after he ran out of work.

[4] When people do not have VNM-consistent rationality (that is, they have these inflexible, non-negotiable, non-fungible beliefs - i.e., intransitive preferences) - they can be turned into money pumps, by observant and unscrupulous characters who can carve their motivation structure at the joints, i.e. focusing on the the inconsistencies. While this has been reproduced now in artificial settings, not only salespeople but politicians have been doing it since the dawn of civilization. The NFL and in particular the Cleveland Browns are doing exactly this to the fans by exploiting the intransitive preference of loyalty, and I would be very surprised if their marketing does not already have a model of their fans and spending patterns similar to what I've described here. Another follow-up is to look for literature on whether psychopathy allows one to see these disconnects more easily, or (hopefully) the ability to see them and the willingness to act on them are unrelated and therefore form a mercifully narrower sliver on a Venn diagram of the population.

[5] There's probably a Markovian/hedonic treadmill effect here too, where the utility multiplier from a team's win is not constant but rather influenced by expectations based on the team's record. Next year if the Patriots go 9-3, fans leaving a game after a win won't be as happy as Browns fans if the Browns have the same record.

[6] Remember Karl Rove dragging out the 2012 election night broadcast and refusing to accept the outcome, seeming a little nuts? But simultaneously advertising to ten million Republicans watching that he never ever gives up. Say what you will about Karl Rove, but "bad strategic thinker" was not among the many epithets hurled at him.

[7] When the Baltimore Colts were about to move to Indianapolis in 1984, the city actually tried to pass an eminent domain act (!) to take over the team, but the Colts escaped with the team's property under cover of darkness the night before. Other teams like the Chargers have found a much more lukewarm reaction on threatening to leave, and found themselves without many fans.

[8] While I wrote this post I was wearing a Garfunkel and Oates sportsball T-shirt, so you can guess which end of the spectrum I'm near.

Evil Gandhis and Poor Executive Function: How the World Looks if You Have Poor Impulse Control

Cross-posted to the Late Enlightenment.

Imagine that in some distant, cloudy mountain hideaway there is a city of evil Gandhis - or just unempathic monks - who spend all their waking hours meditating. As a result of the self-control they've created in this manner, their executive function is superhuman - after all, extensive meditation builds not just cognitive discipline but EEG-measurable physical changes in the brain. When finally you scale the last soaring frozen wall and scramble over the edge onto the floor of their lookout points, you have finally arrived in this storied, isolated monastery-city. You are greeted by intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic, studying you from their great central plaza with piercing eyes. You find that you are the first visitor from your country. Suddenly a horrific pain erupts from the back of your neck, and you turn to see one of the monks withdrawing a red hot brand that he has just poked you with.

Obviously you demand to know why you deserved that. As they are merely dispassionately interested in collecting knowledge, this one calmly explains that they would like to see if your skin burns in the same way theirs does. You turn to see several more of them calmly approaching you with various glowing metal rods; behind them, in the fire at the center of the plaza, someone is handing out more metal rods. You tell them to stop, but they ignore you. Finally, you turn to the closest one approaching you, and punch him in the face. Your punch lays him flat out and his metal rod clangs to the ground.

"That's assault," one of the monks says. "We're going to have to lock you up now."

"Assault?" you shout. "What was I supposed to do? You made me assault you!"

The monk rolls his eyes. Only then do you notice various burns, knife and whip scars all over his face and arms. "You're like a child. It's not our problem if your self-control is so poor that you can't stand being burned a few times."

To a person with a Cluster B personality disorder - including narcissistic PD or especially borderline - the world must seem to be filled with such evil cold-blooded monks. If I have BPD, then these people just can't see that when they withhold affection, that's so intolerable - it's just the same as a hot iron - that they're making me attack them to protect myself. (I have heard a severe narcissist in a psychiatric hospital, fighting while being restrained by staff after being refused special treatment, literally say "Look what you're making me do! You're making me do this!" The resemblance to what a five year-old might say is not coincidental.)

But this is more than just an interesting perspective - it's relevant to a critical assumptions that we make in liberal democracies. Namely, that people have agency, and this agency allows them to be responsible for themselves, and to some degree others. While (so far as I know) pain-tolerating monks do not exist, people with severe borderline and narcissistic personality disorder - with poor executive function and low distress tolerance - do exist. And we do lock them up.

It turns out that "agency" has buried within it many components, which do vary quite a bit across the population, and which profoundly affect people's ability to run their own lives and live with others. The one case where we're comfortable saying that humans don't have agency is children - but even that is somewhat arbitrary and agranular (many of us can think of a sixteen year old more capable of running her own life than a twenty-eight year old.) The monks would lock you or me up because we're at the extreme bad end of their distribution, just like we lock up people in jails or long-term care facilities, but we wait for someone to commit an act, of the sort that they are guaranteed to commit at some point, if they're at the extreme end of the distribution. As society becomes more complex, more and more people will commit such acts, and we'll have to get more honest and clear about exactly how we deal with them.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

High Altitude Psychosis: A New Medical Entity?

Cross-posted at the MDK10Outside running and climbing blog.

A new paper breaks down cases of acute mountain sickness into several categories, including isolated psychosis with no evidence of cerebral edema (a quarter of cases!) Psychosis was more associated with accidents than the other subgroups, not surprising in retrospect. These cases were all taken from above 3500m/11,700'. It's always interesting that humans, and life on Earth generally, can tolerate some amazing extremes, but when the partial pressure of O2 drops a little bit, everything breaks.

Hüfner K, Brugger H, Kuster E, Dünsser F, Stawinoga AE, Turner R, Tomazin I, Sperner-Unterweger B. Isolated psychosis during exposure to very high and extreme altitude – characterisation of a new medical entity. Psychol Med. 2017 Dec 5:1-8. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717003397

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Whistled Languages are Not Distinct Languages

An article in the New Yorker re-romanticizes the idea of "whistled languages", moving from the more famous Silbo of the Canary Islands to a whistled version of Turkish found in northern Turkey. I wrote about Silbo previously, a whistled version of (now) Spanish. (And that's what it should be called - whistled Spanish. In fact Silbo means "whistle.")

As before, I emphasize here that I'm not trying to diminish the significance of these innovations in human culture, just argue against the misconception that these whistled versions of languages are in fact languages in themselves. I'm thrilled that people have caught on to the cultural value and worked to preserve them, and furthermore whistled language provides fertile testing grounds for hypotheses about the comprehension of language, like the lateralization study in Current Biology conducted by Güntürkün, Güntürkün and Hahn cited in the New Yorker. And there are multiple places in the world where a whistled version of a language has developed, for obvious adaptive advantage (hard-to-cross mountains and/or thick forests.) But whistled languages are not distinct languages.

Why not?

1. Whistled communication is never used as the primary method. People use Silbo to call across canyons to each other (effective and clever) but there was no report of the ear-splitting sound of story-tellers around the campfire (because then they were speaking normally.) I place this claim first because reports of whistled Turkish state that it was used in non-work settings, which on its face would seem to undermine my argument. BUt this loses sight of why it matters whether people use whistled Turkish in more than a few restricted settings - because there is still no such thing as a first-language whistle-language speaker, and certainly there never has been a monolingual. At best, this makes it a pidgin, like Chinook Jargon or Russenorsk.

2. Whistled communication is a whistled version of a primary, "normal" spoken language. If a whistled language is distinct, then when we whisper in English next to each other, that would count as a separate language as well. And of course it doesn't - it's a restricted, rarely-used, context-specific form of communication which makes some phonetic sacrifices due to its usefulness in that setting.

3. Can you learn the Turkish whistled language without learning Turkish? No. Granted, a first-language Turkish speaker might not understand it at first, much like you didn't understand Pig Latinthe first time you heard it. But you can learn Pig Latin - only if you know English first.

No comment on how this bears on my (partly tongue-in-cheek and now mostly abandoned) cultural affinity argument about whistling in other Altaic languages.

Friday, October 27, 2017

If You Take Parfit Seriously, You Should Commit Yourself To Creating Superintelligence

Cross posted at Speculative Nonfiction and The Late Enlightenment.

Derek Parfit makes the argument that if utilitarianism as it is commonly understood is to be taken to its conclusion - the greatest good for the greatest number - that mathematically we should care not just about making individuals happy, but making more individuals, to be happy. If you can have a world of a billion people all just as happy as a world of a million people, then that that's a no brainer.

The problem is when you get to the math of it. The "repugnant conclusion" that if the total amount of happiness is what matters, then you should favor numbers over quality of life. That is, a world of a hundred billion people with lives just barely worth living is better than a world of a hundred people with great lives - because the great lives are probably not a billion times greater than those of the hundred billion in almost total misery.

The obvious objection is that you're talking about theoretical people when you talk about those hundred billion. The counterargument is that we do care about theoretical people - our descendants - and you might already make environmental decisions to preserve the environment for the happiness of your grandchildren; right now you avoid (hopefully) littering the street to avoid upsetting people you've never met and will probably never meet.

There are other objections of course; for instance, that experienced happiness in an individual is what matters; otherwise slave plantations could be (in fact, probably are) morally acceptable.

But following Parfit's repugnant conclusion to its end, if the total amount of utility is what matters, then increasing the amount of utility possible to be experienced also matters. That is to say, there is no reason to stop at considering theoretical people, but rather we should consider theoretical kinds of experience, and theoretical kinds of experiencers. And there is nothing in Parfit's thesis provincial to or chauvinistic about humans. (If there were, that might solve the problem, because you could say "the closer something is related to me, the more I should be concerned with its happiness" - me and my brother against my cousin, et cetera - which, at very close genetic distances, is in fact what most humans already do.)

Therefore, we should try to make a world of a hundred million bipolar (manic) people who can experience hedonic value far in excess of what most of us ever do (assuming we can keep them manic and not depressed.) Or, even better, created an artificial superintelligence capable of experiencing these states, and not devoting all our resources to creating as many copies of it as possible. But cast aside those constraints - if you believe it is possible for a self-modifying general artificial intelligence with consciousness (and pleasure) to exist, then by Parfit, the only moral act is to give up all your recreation and resources to live in misery and dedicate your life to the single-minded pursuit of getting us one second closer to the creation of this superintelligence. The total suffering and happiness of life on Earth up until the moment of the singularity would quickly shrink to a rounding error, compared to the higher states these replicating conscious superintelligences might experience. Therefore, if you are not already singlemindedly dedicating yourself to bringing such a superintelligence to life, you are forestalling seconds of these agents' pleasurable experiences (which far offset your own suffering and maybe those of all living things) and you are committing the most immoral act possible.

This problem is superficially similar to Roko's basilisk (in the sense of your actions being changed by knowledge of a possible superintelligence) but I think it should still be called Caton's basilisk.

As a result of these objections, I do not think we need to take the repugnant conclusion seriously, and I do not think not dedicating yourself to creating a super-hedonic superintelligence is immoral.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The People Afraid of Their IQs

[Cross-posted to The Late Enlightenment.]

There has been some gnawing of tongues on the topic of IQ. Here I'm not talking about its very existence, which isn't open to debate (it's very real - disagree? Then you, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are equally smart. I thought so.) It's that some people - young people, mostly - seem to be scared to find out what their IQ is, because it might not be as good as they would like, and then their life would be ruined.

These people are assuming a high degree of determinism. Yes, IQ is important (go to the link above and follow the links.) But at the same time, Warren Buffet has said that if you could trade every IQ point above 120 for money, you should. The greatest chess player in history Magnus Carlsen has said that too-high intelligence has been a handicap to some of his predecessors, who got distracted by other endeavors. Jeff Bezos of Amazon studied undergraduate physics at Princeton, noted how much harder he had to work than some of his peers, and switched out. What are we to make of this?

Let's start off by assuming that IQ is completely determined by factors out of your control, and furthermore completely determines your future. That being the case, learning one's IQ has been likened to being handed an envelope with your date and manner of death inside.[1][2] Anxiety-provoking? Sure, just like getting the result of an important test back - which, by the way, is invariably the direction the discussion goes, and no, no one likes the day the envelope comes, but everyone would be very upset if one year the nice people at ETS decided to rip up all the tests and give everyone an average. And just like the day you get your test results back, the only possible rational answer to whether you would want to know your death date is YES, and when people actually have such a choice in real life, they almost invariably DO want to know it. Cryonics crowd aside, you already KNOW you're going to die. You even have a rough idea of about when it will happen, statistically. You don't know what from, but you can make some guesses. When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, now they DO know what they'll die from, and they have a much narrower statistical window on when. So put yourself in this position: your doctor has just told you that you have pancreatic cancer. What is your VERY NEXT THOUGHT? "How long do I have?" You'd be pretty angry, and justifiably so, if she told you "I typically don't tell people the life expectancy because they might not want to know that."

There are many other mostly genetically predetermined attributes that strongly affect our quality of life, but the difference is that the rest are all obvious and easy to compare, so we can't remain ignorant of them; e.g., height, physical attractiveness, and to some degree wealth. Readjusting expectations and recovering from narcissistic injuries is hard, but for people who don't want to know their IQ, what's causing them to suffer is much more likely to be their anxiety tolerance and ego strength (which you can improve), than it is their intelligence (which you basically can't.)[3] Jordan Peterson has made the interesting comment that people who are more intelligent than the median in their communities unsurprisingly tend to elevate this trait above all others, but (more insightfully) because of the nature of intelligence as something that we use to build a worldview, people become unidimensional about human value and take intelligence as an end in itself rather than one of many traits to be prized, along with, e.g. impulse control or emotional stability, which are certainly not the same thing even if they co-vary. This tendency leads to these people who define themselves as "intelligent" avoiding communities filled with people smarter than themselves, and in so doing, limiting their own progress in life and the amount they can contribute to the world at large. It also leads the ridiculous convention of clubs for smart people (Mensa.) Is there a club for tall people? No. Well actually yes. But it's not called a club for tall people, it's called the NBA, and they DO something with their tallness. And by golly, come to think of it, there ARE clubs for smart people (physics departments, Google engineering, medical schools, law firms, consulting agencies, etc.)[4]

Two specific reflections on this.

1) While genetics is the single greatest determinant of IQ, it is not the be-all end-all deterministic measure that many fear it is. In particular, "smart" may correlate with, but does certainly not equal, happy, moral, or successful, and furthermore there is an endless list of capacities, tendencies and talents that may correlate somewhat, but certainly not entirely, that determine the chances of success in various paths in life. I suspect that Peterson's unidimensionals get most upset in the U.S., where we most resent anyone telling us that any characteristic outside of our control has any influence over our future, despite the obvious reality.[5] Think of the trigger points in these discussions: race, socioeconomic class, upbringing, genes, the wiring in your brain - somehow the second we turn 18 we should be able to leave all the behind and emerge as an un-caused cause, right? (I wonder how much of the hostility to the very concept of IQ stems from this kind of thinking.) Below I've reproduced a figure in the Vox article (which in turn is reproduced from elsewhere) but what's interesting is how broad some of the bars are. What a broad bar should tell you is that there are more people in that profession (more outliers in absolute terms), and/or that IQ isn't as important. Case in point, protective service workers - intelligence appears to be less of a determinant there than for some of the others. I would expect ability to remain calm and vigilant and tolerate distress is at least as important.

2) As an aside, what Buffet was really saying is that there's an inflection point for the marginal value of IQ points around 120. We should grant that an additional IQ point in 2017 is more likely to benefit you than it was in 1917 - the world is hopefully a truer meritocracy, and a lot more value created by industries requiring intelligence rather than brawn or bravado. But there is still more likely to be an inflection point for the IQ vs wealth graph (as opposed to IQ vs overall utility - see #1 above.)

To the extent that IQ is a proxy for achievement, happiness, and self-worth, then just go try to do the things you're worried about and you will get rapid feedback - i.e., Scott Aaronson's recommendation that you just go try to do physics. "But what if I fail?" Think about it this way. How many people have actually said, "You know, if only I had an IQ test, I would've known better, and I wouldn't have made this massive career commitment that I now can't retreat from without massive damage to my finances, freedom, etc." But - interestingly - people certainly do say things like "If only I'd known X about myself, I would've chosen a different career," where X is something about your utility function, like the value you place on time vs. money vs. freedom, security vs. opportunity, ability to get along with certain personality types, etc. The key is to learn about your own many dimensions and find your selective advantage. How sad is Jeff Bezos that he couldn't keep up with the physics students at Princeton?

[1]If a genie told me I was going to die on a certain date and time from a certain thing, I would enjoy making life difficult for fate. Shark attack in 2022? I will move to the Mojave desert and not come out. Yes, I know, something will happen with a great white shark being transported by air between aquariums, and the plane will blow up and the shark will fall on me or something, but I'm really really going to make the universe work for it. I would grant my wife exclusive rights to my story in advance.

[2]While knowing your death date would help you plan, it would mess up the possibility of insurance, assuming everyone gets such an envelope and knows that everyone else does.

[3]If you're still not convinced that you shouldn't be crushed by your potentially low IQ, then consider that many people smarter than you and me both believe that by the end of this century, machines of far greater intelligence than any human who ever lived will exist, and none of the at-that-point meaningless differences in processing power between us flatworms will matter anymore.

[4]In a forum discussion I once referred to academia, medical schools, etc. as "clubs for smart people" and was immediately told "NO. Those are clubs for people with IQs 120-130." Yikes! I guess this particular Einstein had just cured cancer AND made a killing in the stock market that morning so they had time to police the forums for claims like this.

[5]Social media is not helping this, and I'm not the first to think there's a connection between prevalence of social media and the rise in social anxiety in Millennials. But I propose a specific mechanism which accounts for it, which is the failure of insulation between status hierarchies, or between layers of the same hierarchy. For example, growing up in an outer suburb of a rural state that doesn't touch saltwater, until the early 2000s it was easy to be blissfully unaware of the pecking order of academic, corporate and governmental hierarchies; you went to State U., got a good education, and worked in a nearby town without any sense that people in the Big City or at Corporate HQ were better or smarter. That's no longer the case, and at 15 there's no hiding from this reality. (I believe this is the hardest thing about growing up now as opposed to when I grew up.) I also think this explains part of the virulence of the culture wars, as each group, particular social conservative bloc in middle America, is suddenly aware that there are people who despise them, and that they're at the bottom of, and being relentlessly judged by, this status hierarchy they've suddenly noticed and which is ruled by exactly the wrong kind of people. (Contexts with overlapping status hierarchies would therefore be expected to improve happiness at least in the short term, and status hierarchy monoculture to make it worse; e.g. North Korea, professional training programs where you're at the bottom of the totem pole, spend all your time with people at the program, and have no social contacts outside the program.)]