Thanks for this! - My tentative view is that cluelessness is an important issue with practical implications, and so I'm particularly interested in thoughtful arguments for opposing views.
I'll post some reactions in separate comments to facilitate discussion.
I agree that are strong arguments that credence functions should be sharp. So I don't think the case for cluelessness is a slam dunk. (Granting that, roughly speaking, considering cluelessness to be an interesting problem commits one to a view using non-sharp credence functions. I'm not in fact sure if one is thus committed.) It just seems to me that the arguments for taking cluelessness seriously as a problem are stronger. Still, I'm curious what you think the best arguments for credence functions being sharp are, or where I can read about them.
comment by MichaelA
· score: 8 (3 votes) · EA
) · GW
[I know I'm late to the party but...]
I'm certainly not an expert here, and I think my thinking is somewhat unclear, and my explanation of it likely will be too. But I share the sense that Knightian uncertainty can't be rational. Or more specifically, I have a sense that in these sorts of discussions, a lot of the work is being done by imprecise terms that imply a sort of crisp, black-and-white distinction between something we could call "regular" uncertainty and something we could call "extreme"/"radical"/"unquantifiable" uncertainty, without this distinction being properly made explicit or defended.
For example, in Hilary Greaves's paper on cluelessness (note: similar thoughts from me would apply to Mogensen's paper, though explained differently), she discusses cases of "simple cluelessness" and then argues they're not really a problem, because in such cases the "unforeseeable effects" cancel out in expectation, even if not in reality. E.g.,
While there are countless possible causal stories about how helping an old lady across the road might lead to (for instance) the existence of an additional murderous dictator in the 22nd century, any such story will have a precise counterpart, precisely as plausible as the original, according to which refraining from helping the old lady turns out to have the consequence in question; and it is intuitively clear that one ought to have equal credences in such precise counterpart possible stories.
Greaves is arguing that we can therefore focus on whether the "foreseeable effects" are positive or negative in expectation, just as our intuitions would suggest.
I agree with the conclusion, but I think the way it's juxtaposed with "complex cluelessness" (which she does suggest may be a cause for concern) highlights the sort of unwarranted (and implicit) sharp distinctions between "types" of uncertainty which I think are being made.
The three key criteria Greaves proposes for a case to involve complex cluelessness are:
(CC1) We have some reasons to think that the unforeseeable consequences of A1 would systematically tend to be substantially better than those of A2;
(CC2) We have some reasons to think that the unforeseeable consequences of A2 would systematically tend to be substantially better than those of A1;
(CC3) It is unclear how to weigh up these reasons against one another.
I think all of that actually applies to the old lady case, just very speculatively. One reason to think CC1 is that the old lady and/or anyone witnessing your kind act and/or anyone who's told about it could see altruism, kindness, community spirit, etc. as more of the norm than they previously did, and be inspired to act similarly themselves. When they act similarly themselves, this further spreads that norm. We could tell a story about how that ripples out further and further and creates huge amount of additional value over time.
Importantly, there isn't a "precise counterpart, precisely as plausible as the original", for this story. That'd have to be something like people seeing this act therefore thinking unkindness, bullying, etc. are more the norm that they previously thought they were, which is clearly less plausible.
One reason to think CC2 for the old lady case could jump off from that story; maybe your actions sparks ripples of kindness, altruism, etc., which leads to more people donating to GiveWell type charities, which (perhaps) leads to increased population (via reduced mortality), which (perhaps) leads to increased x-risk (e.g., via climate change or more rapid technological development), which eventually causes huge amounts of disvalue.
I'd argue you again can't tell a precise counterpart story that's precisely as plausible as this, and that's for reasons very similar to those covered in both Greaves and Mogensen's paper - there are separate lines of evidence and argument for GiveWell type charities leading to increased population vs them leading to decreased population, and for increased population increasing vs decreasing x-risk. (And again, it seems less plausible that witnessing your good deed would make people less likely to donate to GiveWell charities than more likely - or at least, a decrease would occur via different mechanisms than an increase, and therefore not be a "precise counterpart" story.)
I think both of these "stories" I've told are extremely unlikely, and for practical purposes aren't worth bearing in mind. But they do seem to me to meet the criteria in CC1 and CC2. And it doesn't seem to me there's a fundamental difference between their plausibility and worthiness-of-attention and that of the possibility for donations to AMF to increase vs decrease x-risk (or other claimed cases of [complex] cluelessness). I think it's just a difference of degree - perhaps a large difference in degree, but degree nonetheless. I can't see how we could draw some clear line somewhere to decide what uncertainties can just be dealt with in normal ways and which uncertainties make us count as clueless and thus unable to use regular expected value reasoning.
(And as for CC3, I'd say it's at least slightly "unclear" how to weigh up these reasons against one another.)
I think my thoughts here are essentially a criticism of the idea of a sharp, fundamental distinction between "risk" and "Knightian uncertainty"*, rather than of Greaves and Mogensen's papers as a whole. That is, if we did accept as a premise that distinction, I think that most of what Greaves and Mogensen say seems like it may well follow. (I also found their papers interesting, and acknowledge that I'm very much not an expert here and all of this could be unfounded, so for all these reasons this isn't necessarily a case of me viewing their papers negatively.)
*I do think that those can be useful concepts for heuristic-type, practical purposes. I think we should probably act differently when are credences are massively less well-founded than usual, and probably be suspicious of traditional expected value reasoning then. But I think that's because of various flaws with how humans think (e.g., overconfidence in inside-view predictions), not because different rules fundamentally should apply to fundamentally different types of uncertainty.
comment by MichaelA
· score: 4 (3 votes) · EA
) · GW
Also, when reading Greaves and Mogensen's papers, I was reminded of the ideas of cluster thinking (also here) and model combination [LW · GW]. I could be drawing faulty analogies, but it seemed like those ideas could be ways to capture, in a form that can actually be readily worked with, the following idea (from Greaves; the same basic concept is also used in Mogensen):
in the situations we are considering, instead of having some single and completely precise (real-valued) credence function, agents are rationally required to have imprecise credences: that is, to be in a credal state that is represented by a many-membered set of probability functions (call this set the agent’s ‘representor’)
That is, we can consider each probability function in the agent's representor as one model, and then either qualitatively use Holden's idea of cluster thinking, or get a weighted combination of those models. Then we'd actually have an answer, rather than just indifference.
This seems like potentially "the best of both worlds"; i.e., a way to capture both of the following intuitively appealing ideas:
- perhaps we shouldn't present singular, sharp credence functions over extremely hard-to-predict long-term effects
- we can still make educated guesses like "avoiding extinction is probably bad in expectation" and (perhaps) "giving to AMF is probably good in expectation".
- (This second intuition can rest on ideas like "Yeah, ok, I agree that it's 'unclear' how to weigh up these arguments, but I weigh up arguments when it's unclear how to do so all the time. I'm still at least slightly more convinced by argument X, so I'm going to go with what it suggests, and just also remain extremely open to new evidence.")