Re: Iconoclasm (was: Chunking intelligence functions)

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Fri May 11 2001 - 11:58:22 MDT

Ben Goertzel wrote:
> > As for your assertion that my distaste for cultural relativism is
> > religiously derived, does that mean that science, which states that
> > Einstein's theory is THE law of gravitation and superior to any law of
> > gravitation that uses an inverse-cube law, is religiously derived?
> Indeed, I do think that, at its heart, Western science's quest for "one true
> equation" underlying everything can be directly derived from Judeochristian
> religion with its "one true god."

Ben, don't assume that because there's a single word, "Judeo-Christian",
that Judaism and Christianity have the same basic pattern. They're more
alike than, say, Islam and Buddhism, but they aren't the same.

One of the strongest driving causes behind my original break with Judaism
was when my teachers and parents tried to explain to me that two ancient
rabbis making contradictory statements could be "both right" and that
"you'll understand when you're older". The original cause of my break
with orthodoxy was at age five, when they tried to explain that you didn't
have to understand the words in order to pray. Even at that age - before
I had even begun to formulate abstract concepts about relative
trustworthiness - I was basically sure that I was right and they were
wrong. But people trying to explain to me that two contradictory
statements could be "both right" was when I started to totally distrust
the *system*.

One of the reasons why I have confidence - too much confidence, you would
undoubtedly say - is that from the very beginning of my life I have
refused to compromise with blatant nonsense and I have so far always
turned out to be right, even as a five-year-old opposing my parents, my
teachers, an entire community of adults and a thousand-year-old
tradition. Maybe you would chalk that down as another problem caused by
religion - getting away with breaking with it makes you overconfident -
except that, as I understand the pattern, people usually accept what
they're told when they're young and reject it only in the course of
growing up, with great stress. I simply never accepted the really dumb
ideas to begin with, and I'm proud of that. So maybe it's not just a
fortunate coincidence. To phrase it in Hansonian Bayes-speak, maybe a
refusal to compromise in the face of social pressure is a powerful enough
factor that it licenses one five-year-old reasoner to maintain his own
opinion in the face of the disagreement of his entire social universe -
because the independent intelligence of one five-year-old Eliezer is
closer to rationality than the forces that underlie memes.

> Perhaps the universe is not actually structured such that there is one
> compact pattern that explains everything, either in the domain of spiritual
> experience or in the domain of physical law. Perhaps there are multiple
> overlapping patterns.... This is how it seems right now in the physics
> domain -- quantum theory and general relativity being examples of deep,
> overlapping, difficult-to-unify patterns -- but we, our archetypal view
> being the Judeochristian "one true law" approach, persist in believing there
> MUST be an elegant underlying unifying equation.... Perhaps the one who
> creates the next great physics theory will be an AI who lacks this bias!!

I don't think there must be an elegant underlying unifying equation. I
think there's very probably an underlying equation or underlying cellular
automaton or underlying something, but our civilization is too young to
make pronouncements about that. Cultural relativism, though, exists for
memetic reasons, not because someone examined the ultimate underlying laws
of physics. The idea that there could be "more than one truth" is a
social and memetic event, used to avoid unpleasant disagreements, not a
theory of physics.

The reason why physics searches for one unifying equation is simple: The
last generation of physicists got away with it. Maybe it won't work for
the next step beyond relativity and quantum mechanics; maybe we've reached
the point where the Universe has complex structure rather than simple
structure. I, for one, think that string theory is but sheer bogosity.

Incidentally, aren't you the person who insists that intelligence has an
equation, and aren't I the person who insists that the
hundred-trillion-synapse problem is as mathematically intractable as the
three-body problem?

As a general rule, I'd be careful in stating that the search for truth is
a religious concept. Religious concepts exist for reasons. The drive to
discover truth is innate and hardwired. Religions insist that they are
objective truth in order to take advantage of our evolved drive to believe
objectively true things. Cultural relativists who argue over whether
tigers are "really" dangerous get eaten.

> For instance, it seems extreme to me to claim that music from all different
> cultures can be "compared" in some way, so that the best Chinese opera can
> be judged objectively against the best Western opera. Yet, within a single
> culture, comparison is much easier -- there's something close to a consensus
> about which Western operas are great and which are not, and which Chinese
> operas are great and which are not. Traditionally, adherents of absolute
> truthism claimed that Western music was intrinsically superior to all other
> forms of music, which were somehow primitive and intrinsically inharmonious.

Here, again, we see the standard argument for cultural relativism: "A
said that [totally arbitrary cultural construct 1] was objectively true,
but B said that [totally arbitrary cultural construct 2] was objectively
true, and there's no way to decide between them; therefore, there must be
no such thing as objective truth." A truthist would simply say that A and
B are both wrong and that they both mistakenly believe their personal
preferences to be objective truth. It doesn't mean that objective truth
is nonexistent, just that humans are evolved to sometimes try and state
that something subjective is really objective, in order to give it greater
memetic potential. What possible bearing could that have on whether
underlying reality is subjective or objective?

> I'm looking forward to your absolute and incontrovertible definition of
> truth.

Suppose I didn't have one. Would that prove there was no truth? Anyway,
there's a rough definition of the Consensus in:

> >Science isn't somebody's opinion.
> It's no individual's opinion, but it may be a mass nonlinear superposition
> of many peoples' opinions.

Describe it as a mass nonlinear superposition of many peoples'
*convergent* opinions, where the thing converged *to* is actual reality,
and you've just reinvented the idea of the Consensus. All our ideas are
ultimately subjective, in the sense that they exist in our brains rather
than underlying reality. But there is *still* an underlying reality, and
in some cases the ideas are very tightly bound. You cannot "say whatever
you want" and be "just as right, ultimately" because that violates the
binding - the sensory, predictive, and manipulative binding that is the
reason why intelligence exists in the first place. The Consensus is
nearly as unforgiving as physical reality; it is not 100% right, but it is
99.99% right, and the instant you cross the line you get eaten by one of
those subjectively "dangerous" tigers.

This precise, unforgiving binding is what we call "truth". The stuff
truths are bound to is what we call "reality". Within the Consensus, a
"subjective" issue is one that is roughly arbitrary in the sense of being
determined primarily by initial values, with little or no convergence; an
issue that is determined primarily by reference to the initial settings of
internal cognitive values. An "objective" issue is one settled primarily
by reference to external reality and therefore convergent. Cultural
relativism consists of arguing that since some subjective issues were
claimed to be objective, nothing is objective and everything is true. A
truthist would simply say that the claimants were WRONG.

> > Ben, take a stand on something. You'll feel better.
> Eli, take a few hits of blotter acid...

Hah! Now it is *you* who fail to notice my subtle ironies!

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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