Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Duplicating the Universe

I've been thinking about two forms of duplication. One is duplication of the entire universe from beginning to end, as envisioned in Nietzsche's eternal return (cf. Poincare's recurrence theorem on a grand scale). The other is duplication within an eternal (or very long) individual life (goldfish-pool immortality). In both cases, I find myself torn among four different evaluative perspectives.

For color, imagine a god watching our universe from Big Bang to heat death. At the end, this god says, "In total, that was good. Replay!" Or imagine an immortal life in which you loop repeatedly (without remembering) through the same pleasures over and over.

Consider four ways of thinking about the value of duplication:

1. The summative view: Duplicating a good thing doubles the world's goodness, all else being equal; and in particular duplicating the universe doubles the total sum of goodness. There's twice as much total happiness overall, for example. Although Nietzsche rejected the ethics of happiness-summing, something in the general direction of the summative view seems to be implicit in his suggestion that if we knew that the universe repeats infinitely, that would add infinite weight to every decision.

2. The indifference view: Repetition adds no value or disvalue, if it is a true repetition (no memory, no development, no audience-god watching saying "oh, I remember this... here comes the good part!"). You might even think, if the duplication is perfect enough, that there aren't even two metaphysically distinct things (Leibniz's identity of indiscernibles).

3. The diminishing returns view: A second run-through is good, but it doesn't double the goodness of the first run-through. For example, the total subjectively experienced happiness might be double, but there's something special about being the first person on the (or "a"?) moon, which is something that never happens in the second run -- and likewise something special about being the last episode of Seinfeld (or "Seinfeld"?) and about being the only copy of a Van Gogh painting (or a "Van Gogh" painting?), which the first run loses if a second run is added.

4. The precious uniqueness view: Expanding the last thought from the diminishing returns view, one might think that duplication somehow cheapens both runs, and that it's better to do things exactly once and be done.

Which of these four views is the best way of thinking about cosmic value (or the value of an extended life)?

You might think that this kind of question isn't amenable to rational argumentation -- that there is no discoverable fact of the matter about whether doubling is better. And maybe that's right. But consider this: Universe A is just like our universe. Universe B is just like our universe, but life on Earth never advances past microbial levels of complexity. If you think Universe A is overall better, or more creation-worthy (or, if you're enough of a pessimist, overall worse) than Universe B, then you think there are facts about the relative value of universes -- in which case, plausibly, there should also be some fact about whether a duplicative universe is a lot better, a little better, the same, or worse than a single-run universe. Yes?

There is, I think, at least a chance that this question, or a relative of it, will become a question of practical ethics in the future -- if we ever become "gods" who create universes of genuinely conscious people running inside of simulated environments (as I discuss here and here), or if we ever have the chance to "upload" into paradises of repetitive bliss.

Monday, April 27, 2015

How to Make Van Gogh's "Starry Night" Undulate

Not sure the original source of this one (maybe notbecauseitsironic on Reddit?).

First, look at the center of the image below for about 30 seconds.

Look at the center of this image for 30sec, then watch Van Gogh's *Starry Night* come to life
Then look at Van Gogh's "The Starry Night".
The technique also achieves interesting results when applied to Kincade:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

New Essay: Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi

Every nineteen years, I should write a new essay on the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, don't you think? This one should tide me over until 2034, then!

Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi defies interpretation. This is an inextricable part of the beauty and power of his work. The text – by which I mean the “Inner Chapters” of the text traditionally attributed to him, the authentic core of the book – is incomprehensible as a whole. It consists of shards, in a distinctive voice – a voice distinctive enough that its absence is plain in most or all of the “Outer” and “Miscellaneous” Chapters, and which I will treat as the voice of a single author. Despite repeating imagery, ideas, style, and tone, these shards cannot be pieced together into a self-consistent philosophy. This lack of self-consistency is a positive feature of Zhuangzi. It is part of what makes him the great and unusual philosopher he is, defying reduction and summary.
Full draft here.

As always, comments, objections, suggestions welcome, either by email or as comments on this post.

See this post from March 5 for a briefer treatment of the same themes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rules of War, the Card Game, with Deck Management (aka Modern War)

I think you'll agree that few games are as tedious as the card game war. Unfortunately, my eight-year-old daughter likes the damned thing. So I cooked up some new rules, which make the game considerably more interesting and quicker to resolve.

(What does this have to do with the themes of this blog? Um. If widely adopted, the new rules will substantially reduce humanity's card-game-related dyshedons!)

War with Deck Management, aka Modern War

Simple Rules for Two Players:

Deal the 52-card deck face down, 26 cards to each player. As in standard war, each player turns their top card face up on the table. High card wins the trick (ace high, suit ignored). The winner of the trick collects the cards face up in a pile. In case of a tie, there's a "war", and each player lays three "soldier" cards face down then one "general" face up. The highest general wins all ten cards. If the generals tie, repeat. If there aren't enough face-down cards to play out the war, each player shuffles their face-up stack of won tricks and draws randomly from that stack to complete the war, then turns the stack back face up. If a player has insufficient cards to play out the war, that player loses the game.

When both players are out of face-down cards, one round (or "campaign" if you prefer) is over. Each player counts their face-up cards openly, for all to see. The player with more cards then discards enough cards to equal the number of cards in the pile of the player with fewer cards. For example, if after Round 1, Player A has 30 cards and Player B has 22, then Player A discards 8 cards of his or her choice, so they both have 22.

Each player then turns their stack face down and shuffles, then plays Round 2 by the same rules as Round 1. After all cards are face up, the player with more cards again discards to match the number of cards in the stack of the player with fewer. This is repeated until one player runs out of cards and loses.

• The game resolves much faster!
• The winner of each round enjoys discarding away low cards instead of accumulating a bunch of losers.
• In later rounds, wars are more common because the low cards are removed from the decks, leaving a smaller range of cards to match.
• Although aces are important, the original distribution of the aces isn't as important as in standard war. This is partly because there are more wars, so there are more chances for aces to change hands as soldiers, and partly because a generally strong deck that wins more total cards gives a major advantage in the discard phase.
• Advanced Rules with Deck-Order Management:

Rules as above, except that players may arrange their face down cards in any order they wish. Once the cards are arranged face down, they can't be rearranged, and any wars that require drawing from the face-up pile are still based on random draw from a face-down shuffle.

Tactics: Since the top card will never be a soldier, you might want to make it your ace. But then if the other player does the same, you'll have a war. Anticipating that, you might make cards 2-4 low and card 5 high. But maybe you know your general will lose if the other player employs the same tactics, so you might surprise them by putting your 2 on top, so that the ace you think they'll play will be wasted gathering a low card. Etc.

Rules for More Than Two Players:

Divide the deck equally face down among the players. Any leftover cards go face up in the middle, to be collected by the winner of the first trick. High card wins the trick. If the high card is a tie, then the two (or more) players with the high card play a war. Any remaining player sits out the war, playing neither soldiers nor general. Winner takes all cards.

The round is over when at most one player has face down cards remaining. Any player out of face down cards before the end of the round sits out the remainder of the round, neither losing nor winning cards. At the end of the round each player counts their total cards. The player with the most cards discards to reduce to the number of cards held by the player with the second most. For example, if after Round 1 Player A has 22, Player B has 18, and Player C has 12, then Player A discards 4 so that Players A and B have 18 and Player C has 12.

When a player is out of cards, that player is out. As in the two-player version, this can happen either because the player wins no tricks in a round or because the player does not have enough cards to complete a war. The game is over when all but one player is out.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Disregard Extremely Remote Possibilities

In 1% Skepticism, I suggest that it's reasonable to have about a 1% credence that some radically skeptical scenario holds (e.g., this is a dream or we're in a short-term sim), sometimes making decisions that we wouldn't otherwise make based upon those small possibilities (e.g., deciding to try to fly, or choosing to read a book rather than weed when one is otherwise right on the cusp).

But what about extremely remote possibilities with extremely large payouts? Maybe it's reasonable to have a one in 10^50 credence in the existence of a deity who would give me at least 10^50 lifetimes' worth of pleasure if I decided to raise my arms above my head right now. One in 10^50 is a very low credence, after all! But given the huge payout, if I then straightforwardly apply the expected value calculus, such remote possibilities might generally drive my decision making. That doesn't seem right!

I see three ways to insulate my decisions from such remote possibilities without having to zero out those possibilities.

First, symmetry:
My credences about extremely remote possibilities appear to be approximately symmetrical and canceling. In general, I'm not inclined to think that my prospects will be particularly better or worse due to their influence on extremely unlikely deities, considered as a group, if I raise my arms than if I do not. More specificially, I can imagine a variety of unlikely deities who punish and reward actions in complementary ways -- one punishing what the other rewards and vice versa. (Similarly for other remote possibilities of huge benefit or suffering, e.g., happening to rise to an infinite Elysium if I step right rather than left.) This indifference among the specifics is partly guided by my general sense that extremely remote possibilities of this sort don't greatly diminish or enhance the expected value of such actions. I see no reason not to be guided by that general sense -- no argumentative pressure to take such asymmetries seriously in the way that there is some argumentative pressure to take dream doubt seriously.

Second, diminishing returns:
Bernard Williams famously thought that extreme longevity would be a tedious thing. I tend to agree instead with John Fischer that extreme longevity needn't be so bad. But it's by no means clear that 10^20 years of bliss is 10^20 times more choiceworthy than a single year of bliss. (One issue: If I achieve that bliss by repeating similar experiences over and over, forgetting that I have done so, then this is a goldfish-pool case, and it seems reasonable not to think of goldfish-pool cases as additively choiceworthy; alternatively, if I remember all 10^20 years, then I seem to have become something radically different in cognitive function than I presently am, so I might be choosing my extinction.) Similarly for bad outcomes and for extreme but instantaneous outcomes. Choiceworthiness might be very far from linear with temporal bliss-extension for such magnitudes. And as long as one's credence in remote outcomes declines sharply enough to offset increasing choiceworthiness in the outcomes, then extremely remote possibilities will not be action-guiding: a one in 10^50 credence of a utility of +/- 10^30 is negligible.

Third, loss aversion:
I'm loss averse rather than risk neutral. I'll take a bit of a risk to avoid a sure or almost-sure loss. And my life as I think it is, given non-skeptical realism, is the reference point from which I determine what counts as a loss. If I somehow arrived at a one in 10^50 credence in a deity who would give me 10^50 lifetimes of pleasure if I avoided chocolate for the rest of my life (or alternatively, a deity who would give me 10^50 units of pain if I didn't avoid chocolate for the rest of my life), and if there were no countervailing considerations or symmetrical chocolate-rewarding deities, then on a risk-neutral utility function, it might be rational for me to forego chocolate evermore. But foregoing chocolate would be a loss relative to my reference point; and since I'm loss averse rather than risk neutral, I might be willing to forego the possible gain (or risk the further loss) so as to avoid the almost-certain loss of life-long chocolate pleasure. Similarly, I might reasonably decline a gamble with a 99.99999% chance of death and a 0.00001% chance of 10^100 lifetimes' worth of pleasure, even bracketing diminishing returns. I might even reasonably decide that at some level of improbability -- one in 10^50? -- no finite positive or negative outcome could lead me to take a substantial almost-certain loss. And if the time and cognitive effort of sweating over decisions of this sort itself counts as a sufficient loss, then I can simply disregard any possibility where my credence is below that threshold.

These considerations synergize: the more symmetry and the more diminishing returns, the easier it is for loss aversion to inspire disregard. Decisions at credence one in 10^50 are one thing, decisions at credence 0.1% quite another.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dialogues on Disability

... a new series of interviews, by Shelley Tremain, launches today at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog with inaugural guest Bryce Huebner.

One interesting feature of the interview is Bryce's discussion of whether his celiac disease should be viewed as a disability. There is a broad sense in which virtually everyone is disabled -- we are nearsighted, have allergies, experience back pain, etc. Yet, given our social structures, many of these disabilities are hardly disabilities at all. If I lived in a world in which corrective lenses were inaccessible, my 20/500 nearsightedness would have a huge impact on my life. As it is, I pop on my glasses and no problem! (In fact, I'm terrific at reading tiny print that eludes most others my age.) When I was in southern China a couple years ago, I had an allergic reaction to shellfish almost every day of my visit -- the food is so pervasive in the culture that even when it's not an ingredient, some residue often gets mixed in -- but in southern California, no problem. Conversely, in some culinary cultures, Bryce's celiac disease might hardly manifest; and we might imagine cultures or subcultures where being in a wheelchair is similarly experienced as only a minor inconvenience.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Comment Moderation Being Implemented

I will try to approve comments within 24 hours of submission. I'm sorry to have to do this! Eric

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Blogging and Philosophical Cognition

Yesterday or today, my blog got its three millionth pageview since its launch in 2006. (Cheers!) And at the Pacific APA last week, Nancy Cartwright celebrated "short fat tangled" arguments over "tall skinny neat" arguments. (Cheers again!)

To see how these two ideas are related, consider this picture of Legolas and his friend Gimli Cartwright. (Note the arguments near their heads. Click to enlarge if desired.) [modified from image source]

Legolas: tall, lean, tidy! His argument takes you straight like an arrowshot all the way from A to H! All the way from the fundamental nature of consciousness to the inevitability of Napoleon. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.) All the way from seven abstract Axioms to Proposition V.42, "it is because we enjoy blessedness that we are able to keep our lusts in check". (Sorry, Baruch, I wish I were more convinced.)

Gimli: short, fat, knotty! His argument only takes you from versions of A to B. But it does it three ways, so that if one argument fails, the others remain. It does without without need of a string of possibly dubious intermediate claims. And finally, the different premises lend tangly sideways support to each other: A2 supports A1, A1 supports A3, A3 supports A2. I think of Mozi's dozen arguments for impartial concern or Sextus's many modes of skepticism.

In areas of mathematics, tall arguments can work -- maybe the proof of Fermat's last theorem is one -- long and complicated, but apparently sound. (Not that I would be any authority.) When each step is unshakeably secure, tall arguments go through. But philosophy tends not to be like that.

The human mind is great at determining an object's shape from its shading. The human mind is great at interpreting a stream of incoming sound as a sly dig on someone's character. The human mind is stupendously horrible at determining the soundness of philosophical arguments, and also at determining the soundness of most individual stages within philosophical arguments. Tall, skinny philosophical arguments -- this was Cartwright's point -- will almost inevitably topple.

Individual blog posts are short. They are, I think, just about the right size for human philosophical cognition: 500-1000 words, enough to put some flesh on an idea, making it vivid (pure philosophical abstractions being almost impossible to evaluate for multiple reasons), enough to make one or maybe two novel turns or connections, but short enough that the reader can get to the end without having lost track of the path there.

In the aggregate, blog posts are fat and tangled: Multiple posts can get at the same general conclusion from diverse angles. Multiple posts can lend sideways support to each other. I offer, as an example, my many posts skeptical of philosophical expertise (of which this is one): e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here.

I have come to think that philosophical essays, too, often benefit from being written almost like a series of blog posts: several shortish sections, each of which can stand semi-independently and which in aggregate lead the reader in a single general direction. This has become my metaphilosophy of essay writing, exemplified in "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind" and "1% Skepticism".

Of course there's also something to be said for Legolas -- for shooting your arrow at an orc halfway across the plain rather than waiting for it to reach your axe -- as long as you have a realistically low credence that you will hit the mark.