Posts

Pursuing infinite positive utility at any cost 2018-11-11T21:10:35.233Z
Even non-theists should act as if theism is true 2018-11-08T23:26:12.837Z

Comments

Comment by alexrattee on Alienation and meta-ethics (or: is it possible you should maximize helium?) · 2021-01-17T22:19:46.009Z · EA · GW

This was one of my favourite EA Forum posts in a long time, thanks for sharing it!

Externalist realism is my preferred theory. Though I think we'd probably need something like God to exist in order for humans to have epistemic access to any normative facts. I've spent a bit of time reflecting on the "they understand everything there is to understand; they have seen through to the core of reality, and reality, it turns out, is really into helium. But they, unfortunately, aren’t."  style case. Of course it'd be really painful, but I think the appropriate response would be to understand the issue as one of human motivational brokenness. Something has gone wrong in my wiring which means my motivations are not properly functioning as they are out of kilter with what there is all-things-considered most reason to do, namely promote helium. That doesn't mean that I'm to blame for this mismatch. But I'd hope that I'd then push this acknowledgement of my motivational brokenness into a course of actions to see if I can get my motivations to fall in line with the normative truth.

On the hell case (which feels personally relevant as an active Christian) I think I'd take a lot of solace during my internment that this is just what there is all-things-considered most reason to happen. If my dispositions/motivations fail to fall in line, then as above they are failing to properly function and I think/hope that acknowledging this would take some of the edge off the dissonance of not being able to understand why this is a just punishment.

Comment by alexrattee on [Podcast] Rob Wiblin on self-improvement and research ethics · 2021-01-17T19:16:37.648Z · EA · GW

As a data point, I found this super useful and would love to see these happen for each episode. Two particular ways I'd benefit: (i) typically there are a few particularly interesting bits in each episode which I found particularly novel/helpful and reading over a post later which re-states those will help them sink in more, (ii) sometimes I skip an episode based on the title but would read over something like this to glean any quick useful things and then maybe listen to the whole thing if it looked particularly useful.

I haven't ever (and doubt I will) read over a full transcript, so posting those wouldn't do the same thing. Also, putting the particularly interesting insights as comments allows upvoting to triage the insights that are most useful for the community.

Comment by alexrattee on What are you grateful for? · 2020-11-30T23:27:29.568Z · EA · GW

Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed by just how vast the terrain of doing good is, how many niche questions there are to explore and interventions to test, and how little time/bandwidth I have to figure things out. Then I remember that I'm part of this incredible community of thousands of thoughtful and motivated people who are each beavering away on a small patch of the terrain, turning over the stones, and incrementally building a better view of the territory and therefore what our best bets are. It fills me with real hope and joy that in some important sense the graft that other people are putting in psychologically frees me up to double down on my small patch of activity with even more vigour knowing that other people will find gold veins in other parts of the terrain that I miss.

Comment by alexrattee on Please Take the 2020 EA Survey · 2020-11-13T21:45:03.468Z · EA · GW

Thanks for organising, always enjoy filling it in each year! Did questions on religious belief/practice get dropped this year? Or perhaps I just autopiloted through them without noticing. Aware that there are lots of pressures to keep the question count low, but to flag as part of EA for Christians we always found it helpful for understanding that side of the EA community.

Comment by alexrattee on Pursuing infinite positive utility at any cost · 2018-11-18T19:16:38.219Z · EA · GW
Human utility functions seem clearly inconsistent with infinite utility.

If you're not 100% sure that they are inconsistent then presumably my argument is still going to go through, because you'll have a non-zero credence that actions can elicit infinite utilities and so are infinite in expectation?

I don't identify 100% with future versions of myself, and I'm somewhat selfish, so I discount experiences that will happen in the distant future. I don't expect any set of possible experiences to add up to something I'd evaluate as infinite utility.

So maybe from the self interest perspective you discount future experiences. However from a moral perspective that doesn't seem too relevant, these are experiences and they count the same so if there are an infinite number of positive experiences then they would sum to an infinite utility. Also note that even if your argument counted in the moral realm too then unless you're 100% sure it does then my reply to your other point will work here too?

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-18T19:11:21.306Z · EA · GW

I've found the conversation productive, thanks for taking the time to discuss.

My intuitive response is that that is an incomplete definition and we would also need to say what impartial reasons are, otherwise I don't know how to identify the impartial reasons.

Impartial reasons would be reasons that would 'count' even if we were some sort of floating consciousness observing the universe without any specific personal interests.

I probably don't have any more intuitive explanations of impartial reasons than that, so sorry if it doesn't convey my meaning!

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-13T23:54:49.577Z · EA · GW
My main claim is that properties 1 and 2 need not be correlated, whereas you seem to have the intuition that they are, and I'm pushing on that.

I do think they are correlated, because according to my intuitions both are true of moral reasons. However I wouldn't want to argue that (2) is true because (1) is true. I'm not sure why (2) is true of moral reasons. I just have a strong intuition that it is and haven't come across any defeaters for that intuition.

A secondary claim is that if it does not satisfy property 3, then you can never infer it and so you might as well ignore it, but "irreducibly normative" sounds to me like it does not satisfy property 3.

This seems false to me. It's typically thought that an omniscient being (by definition) could know these non-natural irreducibly normative facts. All we'd need is some mechanism that connects humans with them. One mechanism as I discuss in my post is that God puts them in the brains of humans. We might wonder how God could know the non-natural facts, one explanation might be that God is the truthmaker for them, if he is then it seems plausible he would know them.

On your three options (a) seems closest to what I believe. Note my preferred definitions would be:

'What I have most prudential reason to do is what benefits me most (benefits in an objective rather than subjective sense).'

'What I have most moral reason to do is what there is most reason to do impartially considered (i.e. from the point of view of the universe).'

To be clear it's very plausible to me that what 'benefits you most' is not necessarily what you desire most as seen by Parfit's discussion of future Tuesday indifference mentioned above. That's why I use the objective caveat.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-12T22:41:17.168Z · EA · GW
There seems to be something that makes you think that moral reasons should trump prudential reasons.

The reason I have is in my original post. Namely I have a strong intuition that it would be very odd to say that someone who had done what there was most moral reason to do had failed to do what there was most 'all things considered' reason for them to do.

If my intuition here is right then moral reasons must always trump prudential reasons. Note I don't have anything more to offer than this intuition, sorry if I made it seem like I did!

On your list of bullets:

1. 95%

2. 99%

3. 99% (Supposing for simplicity's sake that I had a credence one in utilitarianism - which I don't)

4. I don't think I understand the set up of this question - it doesn't seem to make a coherent sentence to replace X with a number in the way you have written it.

This makes me mildly worried that you aren't able to imagine the worldview where prudential reasons exist.

I think I do have an intuitive understanding of what a prudential reason for action would be. Derek Parfit discusses the case of 'future Tuesday indifference' in On What Matters. Where prior to Tuesday a person is happy to sign up for any amount of pain on Tuesdays for the tiniest benefit before, even though it is really horrible when they get to Tuesdays. My view is that *if* prudential reasons exist, then avoiding future Tuesday indifference would be the most plausible sort of candidate for a prudential reason we might have.

Though I have to admit I'm confused why under this view there are any normative reasons for action -- surely all such reasons depend on descriptive facts? Even with religions, you are basing your normative reasons for action upon descriptive facts about the religion.

So I think my view is similar to Parfit's on this. If normative truths exist then they are 'irreducibly normative' they do not dissolve down to any descriptive statement. If someone has reason to do a descriptive statement X then this just means there is an irreducibly normative fact that makes this the case.

Comment by alexrattee on Pursuing infinite positive utility at any cost · 2018-11-12T22:13:42.710Z · EA · GW

Yep that seems right, though you might want more than one believer in each in case one of the assigned people messes it up somehow.

Comment by alexrattee on Pursuing infinite positive utility at any cost · 2018-11-12T22:11:55.035Z · EA · GW

Thanks @trammell.

Will read up on stochastic dominance, will presumably bring me back to my mirco days thinking about lotteries...

Note that I think there may be a way of dealing with it whilst staying in the expected utility framework. Where we ignore undefined expected utilities as they are not action guiding. Instead we focus on the part of our probability spaces where they don't emerge. In this case I suggest we should only focus on worlds in which you can't have both negative and positive infinities. We'd assume in our analysis that only one of them exists (you'd choose the one which is more plausible to exist on it's own). Interested to hear whether you think that's plausible.

On your second point I guess I doubt that sending a couple of thousand people into each religion would have big enough negative indirect effects to make it net negative. Obviously this would be hard to assess but I imagine we'd agree on the methodology?

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-11T19:18:03.670Z · EA · GW

Agreed that unguided evolution might give us generally reliable cognitive faculties. However, there is no obvious story we can give for how our cognitive faculties would have access to moral facts (if they exist). Moral facts don't interact with the world in a way that gives humans the way to ascertain them. They're not like visual data where reflected/emitted photons can be picked up by our eyes. So it's not clear how information about them would enter into our cognitive system?

I'd be interested if you have thoughts on a mechanism whereby information about moral facts could enter our cognitive systems?

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-11T19:11:55.525Z · EA · GW

Thanks for the really thoughtful engagement.

I don't know how to argue against this, you seem to be taking it as axiomatic.

I agree, my view stems from a bedrock of intuition, that just as the descriptive fact that 'my table has four legs' won't create normative reasons for action, neither will the descriptive fact that 'Harry desires chocolate ice-cream' create them either. It doesn't seem obvious to me that the desire fact is much more likely to create normative reasons than the table fact. If we don't think the table fact would then we shouldn't think the desire fact would either.

This seems tautological when you define morality as "binding oughtness" and compare against regular oughtness (which presumably applies to prudential reasons).

Apologies for a lack of clarity, my use of 'binding oughtness' was meant to apply to both prudential and moral reasons for action, another way of describing the property that normative reasons seem to have is that they create this external rational tug on us to do a particular thing.

So I think both prudential and moral reasons create this sort of rational tug on us, and my further claim is that if both prudential and moral reasons exist and conflict in a given case then the moral reasons will override/outweigh the prudential reasons for the reasons given in your quotation.

Why not go to metamorality, or "binding meta-oughtness" that trumps "binding oughtness"? For example, "when faced with uncertainty over ought statements, choose the one that most aligns with prudential reasons".

I worry that I'm not understanding the full force of your objection here. I have a very low credence that your proposed meta-normative rule would be true? What arguments are there for it?

Comment by alexrattee on Tiny Probabilities of Vast Utilities: A Problem for Long-Termism? · 2018-11-10T22:56:15.006Z · EA · GW

So my claim I'm trying to defend here is not that we should be willing to hand over our wallet in Pascal's mugging cases.

Instead its a conditional claim that if you are the type of person who finds the Mugger's argument compelling then then the logic which leads you to find it compelling actually gives you reason not to hand over your wallet as there are more plausible ways of attempting to elicit the infinite utility than dealing with the mugger.

Comment by alexrattee on Tiny Probabilities of Vast Utilities: A Problem for Long-Termism? · 2018-11-10T07:53:31.545Z · EA · GW

Thanks for the interesting post. One thought I have is developed below. Apologies that it only tangentially relates to your argument, but I figured that you might have something interesting to say.

Ignoring the possibility of infinite negative utilities. All possible actions seem to have infinite positive utility in expectation. For all actions have a non-zero chance of resulting in infinite positive utility. For it seems that for any action there's a very small chance that it results in me getting an infinite bliss pill, or to go Pascal's route to getting into an infinitely good heaven.

As such, classic expected utility theory won't be action guiding unless we add an additional decision rule: that we ought to pick the action which is most likely to bring about the infinite utility. This addition seems intuitive to me, imagine two bets: one where there is 0.99 chance of getting infinite utility and one where there is a 0.01 chance. It seems irrational to not take the 0.99 deal even though they have the same expected utility.

Now lets suppose that the mugger is offering infinite expected utility rather than just very high utility. If my argument above is the case then I don't think the generic mugging case has much bite.

It doesn't seem very plausible that donating my money to the mugger is a better route to the infinite utility than say attempting to become a Muslim in case heaven exists or donating to an AI startup in the hope that a superintelligence might emerge that would one day give me an infinite bliss pill.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-10T07:25:23.831Z · EA · GW
I think your argument is that we should ignore worlds without a binding oughtness.

Agreed, I'm just using 'binding oughtness' here as a (hopefully) more intuitive way of fleshing out what I mean by 'normative reason for action'.

But in worlds without a binding oughtness, you still have your own desires and goals to guide your actions. This might be what you call 'prudential' reasons

So I agree that if there are no normative reasons/'binding oughtness' then you would still have your mere desires. However these just wouldn't constitute normative reason for action and that's just what you need for an action to be choice-worthy. If your desires do constitute normative reason for action then that's just a world in which there are prudential normative reasons. The distinction between normative/prudential is one developed in the relevant literature, see this abstract for a paper by Roger Crisp to get a sense for it. The way prudential reason is used in the relevant literature it is not the same as an instrumental reason.

So it seems to me that in worlds with a binding oughtness that you know about, you should take actions according to that binding oughtness, and otherwise you should take actions according to your own desires and goals.

The issues is that we're trying to work out how to act with uncertainty about what sort of world we're in? So my argument is that you ought only to 'listen' to worlds which have normative realism/'binding oughtness' and ones where you have epistemic access to those normative reasons. As I don't think that mere desires create reasons for action I think we can ignore them unless they are actually prduential reasons.

You could argue that binding oughtness always trumps desires and goals, so that your action should always follow the binding oughtness that is most likely, and you can put no weight on desires and goals. But I would want to know why that's true.

I attempt to give an argument for this claim in the penultimate para of my appendix. Note that I'm interpreting that you think 'desires and goals' result in what I would call prudential reasons for action. I think this is fair because in terms of the way you operationalize the concept.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-10T07:06:23.524Z · EA · GW

Yep what you suggest I think isn't far from the fact. Though note I'm open to the possibility of normative realism being false, it could be that we are all fooled and that there are no true moral facts.

I just think this question of 'what grounds this moral experience' is the right one to ask. On the way you've articulated it I just think your mere feelings about behaviours don't amount to normative reasons for action, unless you can explain how these normative properties enter the picture.

Note that normative reasons are weird, they are not like anything descriptive, they have this weird property of what I sometimes call 'binding oughtness' that they rationally compel the agent to do particular things. It's not obvious to me why your mere desires will throw up this special and weird property of binding oughtness.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-10T00:01:13.138Z · EA · GW

This is a really nice way of formulating the critique of the argument, thanks Max. It makes me update considerably away from the belief stated in the title of my post.

To capture my updated view, it'd be something like this: for those who have what I'd consider a 'rational' probability for theism (i.e. between 1% and 99% given my last couple of years of doing philosophy of religion) and a 'rational' probability for some mind-dependent normative realist ethics (i.e. between 0.1% and 5% - less confident here) then the result of my argument is that a substantial proportion of an agent's decision space should be governed by what reasons the agent would face if theism were true.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T23:52:01.286Z · EA · GW
Another way to end up with reliable moral beliefs would be if they do provide an evolutionary benefit.

I wholeheartedly agree with this. However there is no structural reason to think that most possible sets of moral facts would have evolutionary benefit. You outline one option where there would be a connection, however that this is the story behind morality would be surprisingly lucky on our part.

We would also need to acknowledge the possibility that evolution has just tricked us into thinking that common sense morality is correct when really moral facts are all about maximising the number of paperclips and we're all horribly failing to do what is moral.

It's only if there is some sort of guiding control over evolution that we could have reason to trust that we were in the 'jammy' case and not the 'evolution tricking us case'?

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T23:44:29.302Z · EA · GW

My view is broadly that if reasons for action exist which create this sort of binding 'oughtness' in favour of you carrying out some particular thing, then there must be some story about why this binding oughtness applies to some things and not others.

It's not clear to me that mere human desires/goals are going to generate this special property that you now ought to do something. We don't think that the fact that 'my table has four legs results' in itself generates reasons for anyone to do anything, so why should the fact that I have a particular desire generate reasons either?

This is just to say that I don't think that prudential reasons emerge from my mere desires and I don't think moral reasons do either. There needs to be some further account of how these reasons appear. Many people don't think there is a plausible one and so settle for normative anti-realism.

What I'm most convinced of is that mere beliefs don't generate moral reasons for action in the same way that my table doesn't either.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T23:36:35.562Z · EA · GW

This is my response to your meta-level response.

I don't trust the intellectual tradition of this argumentative style.

It's not obvious that anyone's asking you to trust anything? Surely those offering arguments are just asking you to assess an argument on its merits, rather than by the family of thinkers the argument emerges from?

But my impression of modern apologetics is primarily one of rationalization, not the source of religion's understanding of meaning, but a post-facto justification.

I'm reasonably involved in the apologetics community. I think there is a good deal of rationalization going on, probably more so than in other communities, though all communities do this to some extent. However I don't think we need to worry about the intentions of those offering the arguments. We can just assess the offered arguments one by one and see whether they are successful?

William Lane Craig (who I watched a bunch as a young teenager), who sees argument and reason as secondary to his belief

I don't think the argument you quote is quite as silly as it sounds, a lot depends on your view within epistemology of the internalism/externalism debate. Craig subscribes to reformed epistemology, where one can be warranted in believing something without having arguments for the belief.

This doesn't seem to me to be as silly as it first sounds. Imagine we simulated beings and then just dropped true beliefs into their heads about complicated maths theorems that they'd have no normal way of knowing. It seems to me that the simulated beings would be warranted to believe these facts (as they emerged from a reliable belief forming process) even if they couldn't give arguments for why those maths theorems are the case.

This is what Craig and other reformed epistemologists are saying that God does when the Holy Spirit creates belief in God in people even if they can't offer arguments for it being the case. Given that Craig believes this, he doesn't think that we need arguments if we have the testimony of the Holy Spirit and that's why he's happy to talk about reason being non-magisterial.

My high-confidence understanding of the whole space of apologetics is that the process generating them is, on a basic level, not systematically correlated with reality

I have sympathy for your concern, this seems to be a world in which motivated reasoning might naturally be more present than in chemistry. However, I don't know how much work you've done in philosophy of religion or philosophy more generally, but my assessment is that philosophy of religion is as well argued and thoughtful as many of the other branches of philosophy. As a result I don't have this fear that motivated reasoning wipes the field out. As I defended before, we can look at each argument on its own merit.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T23:14:54.632Z · EA · GW

Thanks Ben! I'll try and comment on your object level response in this comment and your meta level response in another.

Alas I'm not sure I properly track the full extent of your argument, but I'll try and focus on the parts that are trackable to me. So apologies if I'm failing to understand the force of your argument because I am missing a crucial part.

I see the crux of our disagreement summed up here:

My model of the person who believes the OP wants to say
"Yes, but just because you can tell a story about how evolution would give you these values, how do you know that they're actually good?"
To which I explain that I do not worry about that. I notice that I care about certain things, and I ask how I was built. Understanding that evolution created these cares and desires in me resolves the problem - I have no further confusion.

I don't see how 'understanding that evolution created these cares and desires in me resolves the problem.'

Desires on their own are at most relevant for *prudential* reason for action, i.e. I want chocolate so I have a [prudential] reason to get chocolate. I attempt to deal (admittedly briefly) with prudential reasons in the appendix. Note that I don't think that these sort of prudential reasons (if they exist) amount to moral reasons.

Unless a mere desire finds itself in a world where some broader moral theory is at play i.e. preference utilitarianism, which would itself need to enjoy an appropriate meta-ethical grounding/truthmaker (i.e. perhaps Parfit's Non-Metaphysical Non-Naturalist Normative Cognitivism). Then the mere desire won't create moral reasons for action. However if you do offer some moral theory then this just runs into the argument of my post, how would the human have access to the relevant moral theory?

In short, if you're just saying: 'actually what we talk about as moral reasons for action just boil down to prudential reasons for action as they are just desires I have' then you'll need to decide whether it's plausible to think that a mere desire actually can create an objectively binding prudential reason for action.

If instead you're saying 'moral reasons are just what I plainly and simply comprehend, and they are primitive so can have no further explanation' then I have the simple question about why you think they are primitive when it seems we can ask the seemingly legitimate question which you preempt of 'but why is X actually good?'

However, I imagine that neither of my two summaries of your argument really are what you are driving for, so apologies if that's the case.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T22:34:28.404Z · EA · GW

So I think that's broadly right but it's a much narrower argument than Plantinga's.

Plantinga's argument defends that we can't trust our beliefs *in general* if unguided evolution is the case. The argument I defend here is making a narrower claim that it's unlikely that we can trust our normative beliefs if unguided evolution is the case.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T08:07:50.006Z · EA · GW

I've never heard a plausible account of someone solving the is-ought problem, I'd love to check it out if people here have one. To me it seems structurally to not be the sort of problem that can be overcome.

I find subjectivism a pretty implausible view of morality. It seems to me that morality cannot be mind-dependent and non-universal, it can't be the sort of thing that if someone successfully brainwashes enough people then they can get morality to change. Again, I'd be interested if people here defend a sophisticated view of subjectivism that doesn't have unpalatable results.

Comment by alexrattee on Even non-theists should act as if theism is true · 2018-11-09T07:58:04.198Z · EA · GW

Good point - this sort of worry seems sensible, for example if you have a zero credence in God then the argument just obviously won't go through.

I guess from my assessment of the philosophy of religion literature it doesn't seem plausible to have a credence so low for theism that background uncertainties about being confused on some basic question of morality would be likely to make the argument all things considered unsuccessful.

Regardless, I think that the argument should still result in the possibility of theism having a larger influence on your decisions then the mere part of your probability space it takes up.