Follow whatever is helpful

I have a goal (or more precisely, I strongly prefer some world-outcomes over others). Philosophers can argue over the precise meanings of words, even the meaning of truth itself. But for me, the most important concept is not whether something is true but whether it is helpful to that goal.

  • Truth is a very helpful concept.
  • Scientific truth is an extremely helpful concept.
  • It is helpful to help people with similar goals to mine. It is unhelpful to help people with goals which go against mine.
  • Words are helpful, even poorly defined words. It may be helpful to try and find more precise definitions, but it’s not helpful to define a word too precisely prematurely.
  • The word “helpful” is poorly defined but helpful.
  • It’s helpful to check whether other people agree on what’s true and what’s helpful.
  • My goal is poorly defined. It may be helpful to speculate about what a better-defined goal might be. But it stops being helpful at the point where it’s unlikely to change the decisions I make.
  • I recognise that my goal may change. I don’t want it to change a lot – I’d consider that to be a betrayal by my future self. (Though from the point of view of my future self, it would feel like a change for the better). But some flexibility in my goal system – as a result of new information or reconsidering my position – is probably a good thing. Moral progress is tricky.
  • Mathematical axioms are extremely helpful. Axioms about the real world (such as “subjective experience is real”) usually aren’t. Helpful to consider that such axioms may be wrong.
  • Contemplating nonsense (e.g. p-zombies) can be helpful if it unlocks new ways of thinking. Non-logical modes of thinking can be helpful and it’s helpful to realise this.
  • The notion of a utility function, and a utility-maximising agent, is helpful. Not as a useful model of human behaviour, but as a model of how I want to behave.
  • The notion of bounded rationality is very helpful. I’m not a perfect optimiser; I seek to become more like one, and that requires recognising my failings. I’m not a deduction machine, I’m a chimpanzee with superpowers. So planning out future actions is essentially about placing a souped-up chimpanzee with my goals and memories in some particular future scenario. The chimp might not do what I want.
  • The notion of free will is very helpful, even if it ultimately doesn’t correspond to anything physical.

 

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Follow whatever is helpful”


  1. 1 jeanninemariedymphna September 21, 2011 at 11:07

    “The word “helpful” is poorly defined but helpful.” – Can you explain this more? How well defined do words need to be?

    “I recognise that my goal may change. I don’t want it to change a lot – I’d consider that to be a betrayal by my future self.” – So you feel that your future self has some sort of duty not to betray your present self. Why is that? Does this mean that your present self has a duty not to betray past selves?

    “Mathematical axioms are extremely helpful. Axioms about the real world (such as “subjective experience is real”) usually aren’t.” – Why not?

    “The notion of free will is very helpful, even if it ultimately doesn’t correspond to anything physical.” – Are there other such concepts which don’t correspond to anything physical which are helpful? Which ones are those?

  2. 2 edkins September 21, 2011 at 15:49

    “How well defined do words need to be?” – I guess I’m saying that if a word isn’t defined with mathematical precision, there’s potential for people to argue over its meaning. But that doesn’t mean we should try and define all words mathematically before using them – we’d be here forever trying to come up with definitions, and the definitions would probably be wrong (i.e. go against what we intuitively feel the word should mean in some cases).

    “So you feel that your future self has some sort of duty not to betray your present self.” – Not exactly a duty. I just don’t want it to. It’s an instrumental rationality thing – if I have a particular goal, I’m going to have a better chance of achieving it if my future self cooperates. But if my past self had different goals then I don’t really care, because those aren’t my goals any more.

    “– Why not? ” – hmm. I guess I’m saying that it’s best to assume as little as possible – and the set of things that we should assume should be chosen such that we can do interesting things with them, not chosen purely because they’re self-evident.

    “Are there other such concepts which don’t correspond to anything physical which are helpful?” – Yeah, lots. Some of the most important ones are ones which relate to my goals – if for example I discover that “happiness” can’t be given a meaningful physical defintion, then… I don’t know quite what I’d do, but I’d need to do something because I’d still care about whether or not people are happy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s





%d bloggers like this: