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Posts Tagged ‘rationalism

“If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera”*…

A talk from Maciej Cegłowski that provides helpful context for thinking about A.I…

In 1945, as American physicists were preparing to test the atomic bomb, it occurred to someone to ask if such a test could set the atmosphere on fire.

This was a legitimate concern. Nitrogen, which makes up most of the atmosphere, is not energetically stable. Smush two nitrogen atoms together hard enough and they will combine into an atom of magnesium, an alpha particle, and release a whole lot of energy:

N14 + N14 ⇒ Mg24 + α + 17.7 MeV

The vital question was whether this reaction could be self-sustaining. The temperature inside the nuclear fireball would be hotter than any event in the Earth’s history. Were we throwing a match into a bunch of dry leaves?

Los Alamos physicists performed the analysis and decided there was a satisfactory margin of safety. Since we’re all attending this conference today, we know they were right. They had confidence in their predictions because the laws governing nuclear reactions were straightforward and fairly well understood.

Today we’re building another world-changing technology, machine intelligence. We know that it will affect the world in profound ways, change how the economy works, and have knock-on effects we can’t predict.

But there’s also the risk of a runaway reaction, where a machine intelligence reaches and exceeds human levels of intelligence in a very short span of time.

At that point, social and economic problems would be the least of our worries. Any hyperintelligent machine (the argument goes) would have its own hypergoals, and would work to achieve them by manipulating humans, or simply using their bodies as a handy source of raw materials.

… the philosopher Nick Bostrom published Superintelligence, a book that synthesizes the alarmist view of AI and makes a case that such an intelligence explosion is both dangerous and inevitable given a set of modest assumptions.

[Ceglowski unpacks those assumptions…]

If you accept all these premises, what you get is disaster!

Because at some point, as computers get faster, and we program them to be more intelligent, there’s going to be a runaway effect like an explosion.

As soon as a computer reaches human levels of intelligence, it will no longer need help from people to design better versions of itself. Instead, it will start doing on a much faster time scale, and it’s not going to stop until it hits a natural limit that might be very many times greater than human intelligence.

At that point this monstrous intellectual creature, through devious modeling of what our emotions and intellect are like, will be able to persuade us to do things like give it access to factories, synthesize custom DNA, or simply let it connect to the Internet, where it can hack its way into anything it likes and completely obliterate everyone in arguments on message boards.

From there things get very sci-fi very quickly.

[Ceglowski unspools a scenario in whihc Bostrom’s worst nightmare comes true…]

This scenario is a caricature of Bostrom’s argument, because I am not trying to convince you of it, but vaccinate you against it.

People who believe in superintelligence present an interesting case, because many of them are freakishly smart. They can argue you into the ground. But are their arguments right, or is there just something about very smart minds that leaves them vulnerable to religious conversion about AI risk, and makes them particularly persuasive?

Is the idea of “superintelligence” just a memetic hazard?

When you’re evaluating persuasive arguments about something strange, there are two perspectives you can choose, the inside one or the outside one.

Say that some people show up at your front door one day wearing funny robes, asking you if you will join their movement. They believe that a UFO is going to visit Earth two years from now, and it is our task to prepare humanity for the Great Upbeaming.

The inside view requires you to engage with these arguments on their merits. You ask your visitors how they learned about the UFO, why they think it’s coming to get us—all the normal questions a skeptic would ask in this situation.

Imagine you talk to them for an hour, and come away utterly persuaded. They make an ironclad case that the UFO is coming, that humanity needs to be prepared, and you have never believed something as hard in your life as you now believe in the importance of preparing humanity for this great event.

But the outside view tells you something different. These people are wearing funny robes and beads, they live in a remote compound, and they speak in unison in a really creepy way. Even though their arguments are irrefutable, everything in your experience tells you you’re dealing with a cult.

Of course, they have a brilliant argument for why you should ignore those instincts, but that’s the inside view talking.

The outside view doesn’t care about content, it sees the form and the context, and it doesn’t look good.

[Ceglowski then engages the question of AI risk from both of those perspectives; he comes down on the side of the “outside”…]

The most harmful social effect of AI anxiety is something I call AI cosplay. People who are genuinely persuaded that AI is real and imminent begin behaving like their fantasy of what a hyperintelligent AI would do.

In his book, Bostrom lists six things an AI would have to master to take over the world:

  • Intelligence Amplification
  • Strategizing
  • Social manipulation
  • Hacking
  • Technology research
  • Economic productivity

If you look at AI believers in Silicon Valley, this is the quasi-sociopathic checklist they themselves seem to be working from.

Sam Altman, the man who runs YCombinator, is my favorite example of this archetype. He seems entranced by the idea of reinventing the world from scratch, maximizing impact and personal productivity. He has assigned teams to work on reinventing cities, and is doing secret behind-the-scenes political work to swing the election.

Such skull-and-dagger behavior by the tech elite is going to provoke a backlash by non-technical people who don’t like to be manipulated. You can’t tug on the levers of power indefinitely before it starts to annoy other people in your democratic society.

I’ve even seen people in the so-called rationalist community refer to people who they don’t think are effective as ‘Non Player Characters’, or NPCs, a term borrowed from video games. This is a horrible way to look at the world.

So I work in an industry where the self-professed rationalists are the craziest ones of all. It’s getting me down… Really it’s a distorted image of themselves that they’re reacting to. There’s a feedback loop between how intelligent people imagine a God-like intelligence would behave, and how they choose to behave themselves.

So what’s the answer? What’s the fix?

We need better scifi! And like so many things, we already have the technology…

[Ceglowski eaxplains– and demostrates– what he means…]

In the near future, the kind of AI and machine learning we have to face is much different than the phantasmagorical AI in Bostrom’s book, and poses its own serious problems.

It’s like if those Alamogordo scientists had decided to completely focus on whether they were going to blow up the atmosphere, and forgot that they were also making nuclear weapons, and had to figure out how to cope with that.

The pressing ethical questions in machine learning are not about machines becoming self-aware and taking over the world, but about how people can exploit other people, or through carelessness introduce immoral behavior into automated systems.

And of course there’s the question of how AI and machine learning affect power relationships. We’ve watched surveillance become a de facto part of our lives, in an unexpected way. We never thought it would look quite like this.

So we’ve created a very powerful system of social control, and unfortunately put it in the hands of people who run it are distracted by a crazy idea.

What I hope I’ve done today is shown you the dangers of being too smart. Hopefully you’ll leave this talk a little dumber than you started it, and be more immune to the seductions of AI that seem to bedevil smarter people…

In the absence of effective leadership from those at the top of our industry, it’s up to us to make an effort, and to think through all of the ethical issues that AI—as it actually exists—is bringing into the world…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Superintelligence- the idea that eats smart people,” from @baconmeteor.

* John Rich


As we find balance, we might recall that it was on thsi date in 1936 that Alan Turing‘s paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” in which he unpacked the concept of what we now call the Turing Machine, was received by the London Mathematical Society, which published it several months later. It was, as (Roughly) Daily reported a few days ago, the start of all of this…


“Cogito, ergo sum”*…

Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia

Rene Descartes (and here), who laid the foundation for modern rationalism and ignited the interest in epistemology that began to grow in the 17th century, been called the father of modern philosophy. Erik Hoel argues that he had very influential help…

Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—the first person to fully understand the paradoxical nature of the mind-problem, a mathematician, the possible romantic interest of Descartes, and an eventual abbess—was born in 1618, and lived in exile with her family in the Netherlands, a political refuge after her father’s brief reign. Her father’s rule had ended after he lost what was called the “Battle of the White Mountain,” for which he would be known via the sobriquet “the winter king,” having been in power for merely a season.

Elisabeth was a great philosopher in her own right—whip-smart and engaged by the intellectually stimulating times, she maintained numerous correspondences throughout her life on all manner of subjects. For her learning, within her family she was known as “the Greek,” and this was in a set of siblings that included an eventual king, another brother who was a famous scientist in addition to being a co-founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, another sister who was a talented artist, and a further sister who was the eventual patron of Leibniz. Mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and politician, Elisabeth was, in her day, an important hub in that republic of letters that would become science.

The princess and Descartes only met in person a few times, but maintained a long correspondence over the years, exchanging a total of fifty-eight letters that have survived (more may not have). The correspondence began in 1643, and would last, on and off, until Descartes’s surprising death in 1650 (he died of pneumonia after being forced to wake early in the morning and walk through a cold castle to tutor a different and far more demanding queen). In the princess and the philosopher’s letters, Descartes usually signed off with “Your very humble and very obedient servant” and Elisabeth with “Your very affectionate friend at your service.”

Their letters are vivid historical reading—the two’s repartee is funny and humble and courteous, intimate and yet respectful of the difference in their classes (Elisabeth’s far above Descartes’s); but they also dig deep into Descartes’s philosophy, with Elisabeth always probing at holes and Descartes always on the defensive to cover them…

Philosophical letters from a possible Renaissance romance: “The mind-body problem was discovered by a princess,” from @erikphoel.

For more, see: “Princess Elizabeth on the Mind-Body Problem” (source of the image above) and Elizabeth’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for the likely inspiration for Descartes’ most famous phrase– St. Teresa of Ávila– see “One of Descartes’ most famous ideas was first articulated by a woman.”

* Rene Descartes


As we duel with duality, we might spare a thought for Buddhadasa (born Phra Dharmakosācārya). A Thai ascetic-philosopher, he was an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs who fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country and abroad.

Buddhadasa developed a personal view that those who have penetrated the essential nature of religions consider “all religions to be inwardly the same,” while those who have the highest understanding of dhamma feel “there is no religion.”


“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”*…

Earlier (Roughly) Daily posts have looked at “Progress Studies” and at its relationship to the Rationalism community. Garrison Lovely takes a deeper look at this growing and influential intellectual movement that aims to understand why human progress happens – and how to speed it up…

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

Find out at: “Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?,” from @GarrisonLovely at @BBC_Future.

Then judge for yourself: was Adorno right? “It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.” Or can–should– we be more purposively, systemically ambitious?

* C. S. Lewis


As we get better at getting better, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the United States paid tribute to a man instrumental in the progress that Progress Studies is anxious to sustain, Alexander Graham Bell…

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell’s funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau “as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.



“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”*…

Descartes, the original (modern) Rationalist and Immanuel Kant, who did his best to synthesize Descartes’ thought with empiricism (a la Hume)

As Robert Cottrell explains, a growing group of online thinkers couldn’t agree more…

Much of the best new writing online originates from activities in the real world — music, fine art, politics, law…

But there is also writing which belongs primarily to the world of the Internet, by virtue of its subject-matter and of its sensibility. In this category I would place the genre that calls itself Rationalism, the raw materials of which are cognitive science and mathematical logic.

I will capitalise Rationalism and Rationalists when referring to the writers and thinkers who are connected in one way or another with the Less Wrong forum (discussed below). I will do this to avoid confusion with the much broader mass of small-r “rational” thinkers — most of us, in fact — who believe their thinking to be founded on reasoning of some sort; and with “rationalistic” thinkers, a term used in the social sciences for people who favour the generalised application of scientific methods.

Capital-R Rationalism contends that there are specific techniques, drawn mainly from probability theory, by means of which people can teach themselves to think better and to act better — where “better” is intended not as a moral judgement but as a measure of efficiency. Capital-R Rationalism contends that, by recognising and eliminating biases common in human judgement, one can arrive at a more accurate view of the world and a more accurate view of one’s actions within it. When thus equipped with a more exact view of the world and of ourselves, we are far more likely to know what we want and to know how to get it.

Rationalism does not try to substitute for morality. It stops short of morality. It does not tell you how to feel about the truth once you think you have found it. By stopping short of morality it has the best of both worlds: It provides a rich framework for thought and action from which, in principle, one might advance, better equipped, into metaphysics. But the richness and complexity of deciding how to act Rationally in the world is such that nobody, having seriously committed to Rationalism, is ever likely to emerge on the far side of it.

The influence of Rationalism today is, I would say, comparable with that of existentialism in the mid-20th century. It offers a way of thinking and a guide to action with particular attractions for the intelligent, the dissident, the secular and the alienated. In Rationalism it is perfectly reasonable to contend that you are right while the World is wrong.

Rationalism is more of an applied than a pure discipline, so its effects are felt mainly in fields where its adepts tend to be concentrated. By far the highest concentration of Rationalists would appear to cohabit in the study and development of artificial intelligence; so it hardly surprising that main fruit of Rationalism to date has been the birth of a new academic field, existential risk studies, born of a convergence between Rationalism and AI, with science fiction playing catalytic role. Leading figures in existential risk studies include Nicholas Bostrom at Oxford University and Jaan Tallinn at Cambridge University.

Another relatively new field, effective altruism, has emerged from a convergence of Rationalism and Utilitarianism, with the philosopher Peter Singer as catalyst. The leading figures in effective altruism, besides Singer, are Toby Ord, author of The Precipice; William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better; and Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell and blogger at Cold Takes.

A third new field, progress studies, has emerged very recently from the convergence of Rationalism and economics, with Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison as its founding fathers. Progress studies seeks to identify, primarily from the study of history, the preconditions and factors which underpin economic growth and technological innovation, and to apply these insights in concrete ways to the promotion of future prosperity. The key text of progress studies is Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments

I doubt there is any wholly original scientific content to Rationalism: It is a taker of facts from other fields, not a contributor to them. But by selecting and prioritising ideas which play well together, by dramatising them in the form of thought experiments, and by pursuing their applications to the limits of possibility (which far exceed the limits of common sense), Rationalism has become a contributor to the philosophical fields of logic and metaphysics and to conceptual aspects of artificial intelligence.

Tyler Cowen is beloved of Rationalists but would hesitate (I think) to identify with them. His attitude towards cognitive biases is more like that of Chesterton towards fences: Before seeking to remove them you should be sure that you understand why they were put there in the first place…

From hands-down the best guide I’ve found to the increasingly-impactful ideas at work in Rationalism and its related fields, and to the thinkers behind them: “Do the Right Thing,” from @robertcottrell in @TheBrowser. Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason


As we ponder precepts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Hormel went public with its own exercise in recombination when it introduced Spam. It was the company’s attempt to increase sales of pork shoulder, not at the time a very popular cut. While there are numerous speculations as to the “meaning of the name” (from a contraction of “spiced ham” to “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”), its true genesis is known to only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.

As a result of the difficulty of delivering fresh meat to the front during World War II, Spam became a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet. It became variously referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meatloaf without basic training,” and “Special Army Meat.” Over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end. During the war and the occupations that followed, Spam was introduced into Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific. Immediately absorbed into native diets, it has become a unique part of the history and effects of U.S. influence in the Pacific islands.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The merit of all things lies in their difficulty”*…

Francesco Libetta tackles the toughest…

Critic Harold C. Schonberg called Leopold Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Études “the most impossibly difficult things ever written for the piano”; Godowsky said they were “aimed at the transcendental heights of pianism.” In the “Badinage,” above, the pianist plays Chopin’s “Black Key” étude with the left hand while simultaneously playing the “Butterfly” étude with the right and somehow preserving the melodies of both. One observer calculated that this requires 1,680 independent finger movements in the space of about 80 seconds, an average of 21 notes per second. “The pair go laughing over the keyboard like two friends long ago separated, now happily united,” marveled James Huneker in the New York World. “After them trails a cloud of iridescent glory.”

The studies’ difficulty means that they’re rarely performed even today; Schonberg said they “push piano technique to heights undreamed of even by Liszt.” Only Italian pianist Francesco Libetta, above, has performed the complete set from memory in concert.

Francesco Libetta takes on Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Études: “Extra Credit.”

* Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers


As we tickle the ivories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1619, after the Vigil of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, that Rene Descartes had his famous dream (actually a series of three dreams that night)– that ignited his commitment to treat all systems of thought developed to date, especially Scholasticism, as “pre-philosophical,” and– starting from scratch (“Cogito, ergo sum”)– to create anew.

Of these three dreams, it is the third that best expresses the original thought and intention of Rene Descartes’ rationalism. During the dream that William Temple aptly refers to as, “the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe,” Descartes saw before him two books. One was a dictionary, which appeared to him to be of little interest and use. The other was a compendium of poetry entitled Corpus Poetarum in which there appeared to be a union of philosophy with wisdom. Moreover, the way in which Descartes interpreted this dream set the stage for the rest of his life-long philosophical endeavors. For Descartes, the dictionary stood merely for the sciences gathered together in their sterile and dry disconnection; the collection of poems marked more particularly and expressly the union of philosophy with wisdom. He indicates that one should not be astonished that poets abound in utterances more weighty, more full of meaning and better expressed, than those found in the writings of philosophers. In utterances which appear odd when coming from a man who would go down in history as the father of Rationalism, Descartes ascribes the “marvel” of the wisdom of the poets to the divine nature of inspiration and to the might of phantasy, which “strikes out” the seeds of wisdom (existing in the minds of all men like the sparks of fire in flints) far more easily and directly than does reason in the philosophers. The writings of the professional philosophers of his time, struck Descartes as failing to supply that certitude, human urgency, and attractive presentation which we associate with a wise vision capable of organizing our knowledge and influencing our conduct.  (Peter Chojnowski)

And so was born the Modern Age in the West, and the particular form of Rationalism that characterizes it.

Many scholars suggest that Descartes probably “protests too much” when he insists in his autobiographical writings that he had abstained from wine for some time before the night of his oh-so-significant slumber.


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