Terrible but not likely, likely but not terrible

May 17 JDN 2458985

The human brain is a remarkably awkward machine. It’s really quite bad at organizing data, relying on associations rather than formal categories.

It is particularly bad at negation. For instance, if I tell you that right now, no matter what, you must not think about a yellow submarine, the first thing you will do is think about a yellow submarine. (You may even get the Beatles song stuck in your head, especially now that I’ve mentioned it.) A computer would never make such a grievous error.

The human brain is also quite bad at separation. Daniel Dennett coined a word “deepity” for a particular kind of deep-sounding but ultimately trivial aphorism that seems to be quite common, which relies upon this feature of the brain. A deepity has at least two possible readings: On one reading, it is true, but utterly trivial. On another, it would be profound if true, but it simply isn’t true. But if you experience both at once, your brain is triggered for both “true” and “profound” and yields “profound truth”. The example he likes to use is “Love is just a word”. Well, yes, “love” is in fact just a word, but who cares? Yeah, words are words. But love, the underlying concept it describes, is not just a word—though if it were that would change a lot.

One thing I’ve come to realize about my own anxiety is that it involves a wide variety of different scenarios I imagine in my mind, and broadly speaking these can be sorted into two categories: Those that are likely but not terrible, and those that are terrible but not likely.

In the former category we have things like taking an extra year to finish my dissertation; the mean time to completion for a PhD is over 8 years, so finishing in 6 instead of 5 can hardly be considered catastrophic.

In the latter category we have things like dying from COVID-19. Yes, I’m a male with type A blood and asthma living in a high-risk county; but I’m also a young, healthy nonsmoker living under lockdown. Even without knowing the true fatality rate of the virus, my chances of actually dying from it are surely less than 1%.

But when both of those scenarios are running through my brain at the same time, the first triggers a reaction for “likely” and the second triggers a reaction for “terrible”, and I get this feeling that something terrible is actually likely to happen. And indeed if my probability of dying were as high as my probability of needing a 6th year to finish my PhD, that would be catastrophic.

I suppose it’s a bit strange that the opposite doesn’t happen: I never seem to get the improbability of dying attached to the mildness of needing an extra year. The confusion never seems to trigger “neither terrible nor likely”. Or perhaps it does, and my brain immediately disregards that as not worthy of consideration? It makes a certain sort of sense: An event that is neither probable nor severe doesn’t seem to merit much anxiety.

I suspect that many other people’s brains work the same way, eliding distinctions between different outcomes and ending up with a sort of maximal product of probability and severity.
The solution to this is not an easy one: It requires deliberate effort and extensive practice, and benefits greatly from formal training by a therapist. Counter-intuitively, you need to actually focus more on the scenarios that cause you anxiety, and accept the anxiety that such focus triggers in you. I find that it helps to actually write down the details of each scenario as vividly as possible, and review what I have written later. After doing this enough times, you can build up a greater separation in your mind, and more clearly categorize—this one is likely but not terrible, that one is terrible but not likely. It isn’t a cure, but it definitely helps me a great deal. Perhaps it could help you.

There is no problem of free will, just a lot of really confused people

Jan 15, JDN 2457769

I was hoping for some sort of news item to use as a segue, but none in particular emerged, so I decided to go on with it anyway. I haven’t done any cognitive science posts in awhile, and this is one I’ve been meaning to write for a long time—actually it’s the sort of thing that even a remarkable number of cognitive scientists frequently get wrong, perhaps because the structure of human personality makes cognitive science inherently difficult.

Do we have free will?

The question has been asked so many times by so many people it is now a whole topic in philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entire article on free will. The Information Philosopher has a gateway page “The Problem of Free Will” linking to a variety of subpages. There are even YouTube videos about “the problem of free will”.

The constant arguing back and forth about this would be problematic enough, but what really grates me are the many, many people who write “bold” articles and books about how “free will does not exist”. Examples include Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, and have been published in everything from Psychology Today to the Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s even a TED talk.

The worst ones are those that follow with “but you should believe in it anyway”. In The Atlantic we have “Free will does not exist. But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” Scientific American offers a similar view, “Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!””

This is a mind-bogglingly stupid approach. First of all, if you want someone to believe in something, you don’t tell them it doesn’t exist. Second, if something doesn’t exist, that is generally considered a pretty compelling reason not to believe in it. You’d need a really compelling counter-argument, and frankly I’m not even sure the whole idea is logically coherent. How can I believe in something if I know it doesn’t exist? Am I supposed to delude myself somehow?

But the really sad part is that it’s totally unnecessary. There is no problem of free will. There are just an awful lot of really, really confused people. (Fortunately not everyone is confused; there are those, such as Daniel Dennett, who actually understand what’s going on.)

The most important confusion is over what you mean by the phrase “free will”. There are really two core meanings here, and the conflation of them is about 90% of the problem.

1. Moral responsibility: We have “free will” if and only if we are morally responsible for our actions.

2. Noncausality: We have “free will” if and only if our actions are not caused by the laws of nature.

Basically, every debate over “free will” boils down to someone pointing out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then arguing that this means that moral responsibility doesn’t exist. Then someone comes back and says that moral responsibility does exist, and then infers that this means noncausality must exist. Or someone points out that noncausality doesn’t exist, and then they realize how horrible it would be if moral responsibility didn’t exist, and then tells people they should go on believing in noncausality so that they don’t have to give up moral responsibility.

Let me be absolutely clear here: Noncausality could not possibly exist.

Noncausality isn’t even a coherent concept. Actions, insofar as they are actions, must, necessarily, by definition, be caused by the laws of nature.

I can sort of imagine an event not being caused; perhaps virtual electron-positron pairs can really pop into existence without ever being caused. (Even then I’m not entirely convinced; I think quantum mechanics might actually be deterministic at the most fundamental level.)

But an action isn’t just a particle popping into existence. It requires the coordinated behavior of some 10^26 or more particles, all in a precisely organized, unified way, structured so as to move some other similarly large quantity of particles through space in a precise way so as to change the universe from one state to another state according to some system of objectives. Typically, it involves human muscles intervening on human beings or inanimate objects. (Recently it has come to mean specifically human fingers on computer keyboards a rather large segment of the time!) If what you do is an action—not a muscle spasm, not a seizure, not a slip or a trip, but something you did on purpose—then it must be caused. And if something is caused, it must be caused according to the laws of nature, because the laws of nature are the laws underlying all causality in the universe!

And once you realize that, the “problem of free will” should strike you as one of the stupidest “problems” ever proposed. Of course our actions are caused by the laws of nature! Why in the world would you think otherwise?

If you think that noncausality is necessary—or even useful—for free will, what kind of universe do you think you live in? What kind of universe could someone live in, that would fit your idea of what free will is supposed to be?

It’s like I said in that much earlier post about The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science (we are our brains): If you don’t think a mind can be made of matter, what do you think minds are made of? What sort of magical invisible fairy dust would satisfy you? If you can’t even imagine something that would satisfy the constraints you’ve imposed, did it maybe occur to you that your constraints are too strong?

Noncausality isn’t worth fretting over for the same reason that you shouldn’t fret over the fact that pi is irrational and you can’t make a square circle. There is no possible universe in which that isn’t true. So if it bothers you, it’s not that there’s something wrong with the universe—it’s clearly that there’s something wrong with you. Your thinking on the matter must be too confused, too dependent on unquestioned intuitions, if you think that murder can’t be wrong unless 2+2=5.

In philosophical jargon I am called a “compatibilist” because I maintain that free will and determinism are “compatible”. But this is much too weak a term. I much prefer Eleizer Yudkowsky’s “requiredism”, which he explains in one of the greatest blog posts of all time (seriously, read it immediately if you haven’t before—I’m okay with you cutting off my blog post here and reading his instead, because it truly is that brilliant), entitled simply “Thou Art Physics”. This quote sums it up briefly:

My position might perhaps be called “Requiredism.” When agency, choice, control, and moral responsibility are cashed out in a sensible way, they require determinism—at least some patches of determinism within the universe. If you choose, and plan, and act, and bring some future into being, in accordance with your desire, then all this requires a lawful sort of reality; you cannot do it amid utter chaos. There must be order over at least over those parts of reality that are being controlled by you. You are within physics, and so you/physics have determined the future. If it were not determined by physics, it could not be determined by you.

Free will requires a certain minimum level of determinism in the universe, because the universe must be orderly enough that actions make sense and there isn’t simply an endless succession of random events. Call me a “requiredist” if you need to call me something. I’d prefer you just realize the whole debate is silly because moral responsibility exists and noncausality couldn’t possibly.

We could of course use different terms besides “free will”. “Moral responsibility” is certainly a good one, but it is missing one key piece, which is the issue of why we can assign moral responsibility to human beings and a few other entities (animals, perhaps robots) and not to the vast majority of entities (trees, rocks, planets, tables), and why we are sometimes willing to say that even a human being does not have moral responsibility (infancy, duress, impairment).

This is why my favored term is actually “rational volition”. The characteristic that human beings have (at least most of us, most of the time), which also many animals and possibly some robots share (if not now, then soon enough), which justifies our moral responsibility is precisely our capacity to reason. Things don’t just happen to us the way they do to some 99.999,999,999% of the universe; we do things. We experience the world through our senses, have goals we want to achieve, and act in ways that are planned to make the world move closer to achieving those goals. We have causes, sure enough; but not just any causes. We have a specific class of causes, which are related to our desires and intentions—we call these causes reasons.

So if you want to say that we don’t have “free will” because that implies some mysterious nonsensical noncausality, sure; that’s fine. But then don’t go telling us that this means we don’t have moral responsibility, or that we should somehow try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise in order to preserve moral responsibility. Just recognize that we do have rational volition.

How do I know we have rational volition? That’s the best part, really: Experiments. While you’re off in la-la land imagining fanciful universes where somehow causes aren’t really causes even though they are, I can point to not only centuries of human experience but decades of direct, controlled experiments in operant conditioning. Human beings and most other animals behave quite differently in behavioral experiments than, say, plants or coffee tables. Indeed, it is precisely because of this radical difference that it seems foolish to even speak of a “behavioral experiment” about coffee tables—because coffee tables don’t behave, they just are. Coffee tables don’t learn. They don’t decide. They don’t plan or consider or hope or seek.

Japanese, as it turns out, may be a uniquely good language for cognitive science, because it has two fundamentally different verbs for “to be” depending on whether an entity is sentient. Humans and animals imasu, while inanimate objects merely arimasu. We have free will because and insofar as we imasu.

Once you get past that most basic confusion of moral responsibility with noncausality, there are a few other confusions you might run into as well. Another one is two senses of “reductionism”, which Dennett refers to as “ordinary” and “greedy”:

1. Ordinary reductionism: All systems in the universe are ultimately made up of components that always and everywhere obey the laws of nature.

2. Greedy reductionism: All systems in the universe just are their components, and have no existence, structure, or meaning aside from those components.

I actually had trouble formulating greedy reductionism as a coherent statement, because it’s such a nonsensical notion. Does anyone really think that a pile of two-by-fours is the same thing as a house? But people do speak as though they think this about human brains, when they say that “love is just dopamine” or “happiness is just serotonin”. But dopamine in a petri dish isn’t love, any more than a pile of two-by-fours is a house; and what I really can’t quite grok is why anyone would think otherwise.

Maybe they’re simply too baffled by the fact that love is made of dopamine (among other things)? They can’t quite visualize how that would work (nor can I, nor, I think, can anyone in the world at this level of scientific knowledge). You can see how the two-by-fours get nailed together and assembled into the house, but you can’t see how dopamine and action potentials would somehow combine into love.

But isn’t that a reason to say that love isn’t the same thing as dopamine, rather than that it is? I can understand why some people are still dualists who think that consciousness is somehow separate from the functioning of the brain. That’s wrong—totally, utterly, ridiculously wrong—but I can at least appreciate the intuition that underlies it. What I can’t quite grasp is why someone would go so far the other way and say that the consciousness they are currently experiencing does not exist.

Another thing that might confuse people is the fact that minds, as far as we know, are platform independentthat is, your mind could most likely be created out of a variety of different materials, from the gelatinous brain it currently is to some sort of silicon supercomputer, to perhaps something even more exotic. This independence follows from the widely-believed Church-Turing thesis, which essentially says that all computation is computation, regardless of how it is done. This may not actually be right, but I see many reasons to think that it is, and if so, this means that minds aren’t really what they are made of at all—they could be made of lots of things. What makes a mind a mind is how it is structured and above all what it does.

If this is baffling to you, let me show you how platform-independence works on a much simpler concept: Tables. Tables are also in fact platform-independent. You can make a table out of wood, or steel, or plastic, or ice, or bone. You could take out literally every single atom of a table and replace it will a completely different atom of a completely different element—carbon for iron, for example—and still end up with a table. You could conceivably even do so without changing the table’s weight, strength, size, etc., though that would be considerably more difficult.
Does this mean that tables somehow exist “beyond” their constituent matter? In some very basic sense, I suppose so—they are, again, platform-independent. But not in any deep, mysterious sense. Start with a wooden table, take away all the wood, and you no longer have a table. Take apart the table and you have a bunch of wood, which you could use to build something else. There is no “essence” comprising the table. There is no “table soul” that would persist when the table is deconstructed.

And—now for the hard part—so it is with minds. Your mind is your brain. The constituent atoms of your brain are gradually being replaced, day by day, but your mind is the same, because it exists in the arrangement and behavior, not the atoms themselves. Yet there is nothing “extra” or “beyond” that makes up your mind. You have no “soul” that lies beyond your brain. If your brain is destroyed, your mind will also be destroyed. If your brain could be copied, your mind would also be copied. And one day it may even be possible to construct your mind in some other medium—some complex computer made of silicon and tantalum, most likely—and it would still be a mind, and in all its thoughts, feelings and behaviors your mind, if not numerically identical to you.

Thus, when we engage in rational volition—when we use our “free will” if you like that term—there is no special “extra” process beyond what’s going on in our brains, but there doesn’t have to be. Those particular configurations of action potentials and neurotransmitters are our thoughts, desires, plans, intentions, hopes, fears, goals, beliefs. These mental concepts are not in addition to the physical material; they are made of that physical material. Your soul is made of gelatin.

Again, this is not some deep mystery. There is no “paradox” here. We don’t actually know the details of how it works, but that makes this no different from a Homo erectus who doesn’t know how fire works. Maybe he thinks there needs to be some extra “fire soul” that makes it burn, but we know better; and in far fewer centuries than separate that Homo erectus from us, our descendants will know precisely how the brain creates the mind.

Until then, simply remember that any mystery here lies in us—in our ignorance—and not in the universe. And take heart that the kind of “free will” that matters—moral responsibility—has absolutely no need for the kind of “free will” that doesn’t exist—noncausality. They’re totally different things.

Belief in belief, and why it’s important

Oct 30, JDN 2457692

In my previous post on ridiculous beliefs, I passed briefly over this sentence:

“People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.”

Today I’d like to talk about the fact that “to profess” is a very important phrase in that sentence. Part of understanding ridiculous beliefs, I think, is understanding that many, if not most, of them are not actually proper beliefs. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and has elsewhere been referred to as “anomalous belief”. They are not beliefs in the ordinary sense that we would line up with the other beliefs in our worldview and use them to anticipate experiences and motivate actions. They are something else, lone islands of belief that are not weaved into our worldview. But all the same they are invested with importance, often moral or even ultimate importance; this one belief may not make any sense with everyone else, but you must believe it, because it is a vital part of your identity and your tribe. To abandon it would not simply be mistaken; it would be heresy, it would be treason.

How do I know this? Mainly because nobody has tried to stone me to death lately.

The Bible is quite explicit about at least a dozen reasons I am supposed to be executed forthwith; you likely share many of them: Heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, nonbelief, sodomy, fornication, covetousness, taking God’s name in vain, eating shellfish (though I don’t anymore!), wearing mixed fiber, shaving, working on the Sabbath, making images of things, and my personal favorite, not stoning other people for committing such crimes (as we call it in game theory, a second-order punishment).

Yet I have met many people who profess to be “Bible-believing Christians”, and even may oppose some of these activities (chiefly sodomy, blasphemy, and nonbelief) on the grounds that they are against what the Bible says—and yet not one has tried to arrange my execution, nor have I ever seriously feared that they might.

Is this because we live in a secular society? Well, yes—but not simply that. It isn’t just that these people are afraid of being punished by our secular government should they murder me for my sins; they believe that it is morally wrong to murder me, and would rarely even consider the option. Someone could point them to the passage in Leviticus (20:16, as it turns out) that explicitly says I should be executed, and it would not change their behavior toward me.

On first glance this is quite baffling. If I thought you were about to drink a glass of water that contained cyanide, I would stop you, by force if necessary. So if they truly believe that I am going to be sent to Hell—infinitely worse than cyanide—then shouldn’t they be willing to use any means necessary to stop that from happening? And wouldn’t this be all the more true if they believe that they themselves will go to Hell should they fail to punish me?

If these “Bible-believing Christians” truly believed in Hell the way that I believe in cyanide—that is, as proper beliefs which anticipate experience and motivate action—then they would in fact try to force my conversion or execute me, and in doing so would believe that they are doing right. This used to be quite common in many Christian societies (most infamously in the Salem Witch Trials), and still is disturbingly common in many Muslim societies—ISIS doesn’t just throw gay men off rooftops and stone them as a weird idiosyncrasy; it is written in the Hadith that they’re supposed to. Nor is this sort of thing confined to terrorist groups; the “legitimate” government of Saudi Arabia routinely beheads atheists or imprisons homosexuals (though has a very capricious enforcement system, likely so that the monarchy can trump up charges to justify executing whomever they choose). Beheading people because the book said so is what your behavior would look like if you honestly believed, as a proper belief, that the Qur’an or the Bible or whatever holy book actually contained the ultimate truth of the universe. The great irony of calling religion people’s “deeply-held belief” is that it is in almost all circumstances the exact opposite—it is their most weakly held belief, the one that they could most easily sacrifice without changing their behavior.

Yet perhaps we can’t even say that to people, because they will get equally defensive and insist that they really do hold this very important anomalous belief, and how dare you accuse them otherwise. Because one of the beliefs they really do hold, as a proper belief, and a rather deeply-held one, is that you must always profess to believe your religion and defend your belief in it, and if anyone catches you not believing it that’s a horrible, horrible thing. So even though it’s obvious to everyone—probably even to you—that your behavior looks nothing like what it would if you actually believed in this book, you must say that you do, scream that you do if necessary, for no one must ever, ever find out that it is not a proper belief.

Another common trick is to try to convince people that their beliefs do affect their behavior, even when they plainly don’t. We typically use the words “religious” and “moral” almost interchangeably, when they are at best orthogonal and arguably even opposed. Part of why so many people seem to hold so rigidly to their belief-in-belief is that they think that morality cannot be justified without recourse to religion; so even though on some level they know religion doesn’t make sense, they are afraid to admit it, because they think that means admitting that morality doesn’t make sense. If you are even tempted by this inference, I present to you the entire history of ethical philosophy. Divine Command theory has been a minority view among philosophers for centuries.

Indeed, it is precisely because your moral beliefs are not based on your religion that you feel a need to resort to that defense of your religion. If you simply believed religion as a proper belief, you would base your moral beliefs on your religion, sure enough; but you’d also defend your religion in a fundamentally different way, not as something you’re supposed to believe, not as a belief that makes you a good person, but as something that is just actually true. (And indeed, many fanatics actually do defend their beliefs in those terms.) No one ever uses the argument that if we stop believing in chairs we’ll all become murderers, because chairs are actually there. We don’t believe in belief in chairs; we believe in chairs.

And really, if such a belief were completely isolated, it would not be a problem; it would just be this weird thing you say you believe that everyone really knows you don’t and it doesn’t affect how you behave, but okay, whatever. The problem is that it’s never quite isolated from your proper beliefs; it does affect some things—and in particular it can offer a kind of “support” for other real, proper beliefs that you do have, support which is now immune to rational criticism.

For example, as I already mentioned: Most of these “Bible-believing Christians” do, in fact, morally oppose homosexuality, and say that their reason for doing so is based on the Bible. This cannot literally be true, because if they actually believed the Bible they wouldn’t want gay marriage taken off the books, they’d want a mass pogrom of 4-10% of the population (depending how you count), on a par with the Holocaust. Fortunately their proper belief that genocide is wrong is overriding. But they have no such overriding belief supporting the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the personal liberty of marriage rights, so the very tenuous link to their belief-in-belief in the Bible is sufficient to tilt their actual behavior.

Similarly, if the people I meet who say they think maybe 9/11 was an inside job by our government really believed that, they would most likely be trying to organize a violent revolution; any government willing to murder 3,000 of its own citizens in a false flag operation is one that must be overturned and can probably only be overturned by force. At the very least, they would flee the country. If they lived in a country where the government is actually like that, like Zimbabwe or North Korea, they wouldn’t fear being dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they’d fear being captured and executed. The very fact that you live within the United States and exercise your free speech rights here says pretty strongly that you don’t actually believe our government is that evil. But they wouldn’t be so outspoken about their conspiracy theories if they didn’t at least believe in believing them.

I also have to wonder how many of our politicians who lean on the Constitution as their source of authority have actually read the Constitution, as it says a number of rather explicit things against, oh, say, the establishment of religion (First Amendment) or searches and arrests without warrants (Fourth Amendment) that they don’t much seem to care about. Some are better about this than others; Rand Paul, for instance, actually takes the Constitution pretty seriously (and is frequently found arguing against things like warrantless searches as a result!), but Ted Cruz for example says he has spent decades “defending the Constitution”, despite saying things like “America is a Christian nation” that directly violate the First Amendment. Cruz doesn’t really seem to believe in the Constitution; but maybe he believes in believing the Constitution. (It’s also quite possible he’s just lying to manipulate voters.)