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Aubrey de Grey Discussion, 19

I discussed epistemology and cryonics with Aubrey de Grey via email. Click here to find the rest of the discussion. Yellow quotes are from Aubrey de Grey, with permission. Bluegreen is me, red is other.
Hi Elliot - I’m in a busy phase right now so apologies for brevity. To me the purpose of our debate is to answer the question “Is Aubrey coming to substantively incorrect conclusions about what to do or say (such as about cryonics) as a result of using epistemologically invalid methods of reasoning?”. I’m not interested in the question “Is Aubrey’s method of reasoning epistemologically invalid?” except insofar as it can be shown that I would come to different conclusions (but in the same amount of time) if I adopted a different strategy. Similarly, I’m not interested in the question "Is Aubrey coming to incorrect conclusions about what to do or say (such as about cryonics) as a result of having incomplete information/understanding about things OTHER than what method of reasoning is best?” (which seems to be what happened to you in relation to recycling,
Sort of. If I'd had a better approach to reasoning, I could have found out about recycling sooner. If I hadn't already been learning a better method of reasoning, I might have stayed in favor of recycling after seeing those articles, and many other people have done. I think you're trying to create a distinction I disagree with, where you don't give reasoning methods credit in most of life, even though they are involved with everything.
and was also what happened to me in relation to my career change from computer science), because such examples consist only in switching to triage at a point that turned out to be premature (I could have discovered in my teens that biologists were mostly not interested in aging, which is all I needed to know in order to decide that I should work on aging rather than AI, but I didn’t consider that possibility), not in having a triage step per se. I’m quite sure that epistemology is hard, but I’m not interested in what’s epistemologically valid unless there is some practical result for my choices.
OK I see where you're coming from better now.
It’s the same as my attitude to the existence of God: I am agnostic, not because I’ve cogitated a lot and decided that the theist and atheist positions are too close to call, but because I know I’m already doing God’s work for reasons unrelated to my beliefs, hence it makes no difference to my life choices what my beliefs are. I’m perfectly happy to believe that induction can be robustly demonstrated to be epistemologically invalid - in fact, as I said before, I already think it seems to be - but why should I care? - you haven’t told me.
Because misunderstanding how knowledge is created (in science and more generally) blocks off ways of making progress. It makes it harder to learn anything. It slows down biology and every other field. More below.
I’m surprised at your statement about random sampling - I mean, clearly the precision of the fairness will be finite, but equally clearly the precision can be arbitrarily good, so again I don’t see why it bothers you - but again, I also don't see why I should care that I don’t see, because you haven’t given me a practical reason to care, i.e. a reason to suspect that continuing the debate may lead to my coming to different conclusions about what to do or say in the future (about cryonics or anything else).
I don't know how you propose to do arbitrarily good sampling, or anything that isn't terrible. That isn't clear to me at all, nor to several people I asked. I think it's a show-stopper problem (one of many) demonstrating the way you actually think is nothing like your claims.

I don't know how many steps I can skip for this and still be understood. You seem bored with this issue, so let's try several. I think you're assuming you have a fair ordering, and that arbitrarily fair/accurate information occurs early in the ordering. And you decide what's a fair ordering by knowing in advance what answer you want, so the sampling is pointless.
I’ll just answer this specific point quickly:
We're trying to decide what to get for dinner. I propose salmon sushi or tuna sushi. You propose pizza. We get sushi with 67% odds. Is that how it's supposed to work? (Note I only know the odds here because I have a full list of the ideas.)

But wait. I don't care what God's favorite natural number is; that's irrelevant. So there's infinite sushi variants like, "Get salmon sushi, and God's favorite natural number is 5" (vary the number).

Now what? Each idea just turned into infinite variants. Do we now say there are 2*infinity variants for sushi, and 1*infinity for pizza? And get sushi with what odds?
Sory for over-brevity there. What we do is we put the numbers in some order, and for each number N we double the number of variants for each of sushi and pizza by adding “God’s favourite number is N” and “God’s favourite number is not N" - so the ratio of numbers of variants always stays at 2. I can’t summon myself to care about the difference between countably and uncountably infinite classes, in case that was going to be your next question.
I think you missed some of the main issues here, e.g. that getting sushi with 67% odds is a stupid way to handle that situation. It doesn't deal with explanations or criticism (why should we get which food? does anyone mind or strongly object? stuff like that is important). And it's really really arbitrary, like I could mention two more types of sushi and now it's 80% odds? Why should the odds depend on how many I mention like that? That's a bad way of making decisions. I was trying to find out what you're actually proposing to do that'd be more reasonable.

Also sampling in the infinite case is irrelevant here because you knew you wanted a 67% result beforehand (and your way of dealing with infinity here consists of just doing something with it that gets your predetermined answer).

I do think the different classes of infinity matter, because your approach implies they matter. You're the one who wanted numbers of variants to be a major issue. That brings up issues like powersets, like it or not. I think the consequences of fixing your approach to fully resolve that issue are far reaching, e.g. no longer looking at numbers of ideas. And then trying to figure out what to do instead.
More generally, you’re absolutely right that I’m making this up as I go along - I’m figuring out why what I do works. What do I mean by “works”? - I simply mean, I’ve found over the years that I rarely (though certainly not never) make decisions or form opinions that I later revise, and that as far as I can see, that’s not because I’m not open to persuasion or because I move to triage too soon, but because I have a method for forming opinions that really truly is quite good at getting them right, and in particular that it’s a good balance (pretty much as good as it can be) between reliability of the decision and time to make it.
From my perspective, you're describing methods that couldn't work. So whether you were a good thinker or a bad one, you wouldn't be describing what you actually do. This matters to the high-value possibility of critical discussion and improvement of your actual methods.

BTW here is another argument that you don't think the way you claim: What you're claiming is standard stuff, not original. But we agree you think better than most people. So wouldn't you be doing something different than them? But your statements about how you think don't capture the differences.
Take this debate. I’ve given you ample opportunity to come up with reasons why my advocacy for signing up for cryopreservation is mistaken. Potential reasons fall into two classes: data that I didn’t have (or didn’t realise I had) that affects the case, and flaws in my reasoning methods that have resulted in my drawing incorrect conclusions from the data I did have. You’ve been focusing me on the latter, and I’ve given you extended opportunity to make your case, because you’re (a) very smart and articulate and fun to talk to and (b) aligned with someone else I greatly admire. But actually all you’ve ended up doing is being frustrated by the limited amount of time I’m willing to allocate to the debate (even though for someone as busy as me it wasn’t very limited at all). That’s not actually all you’ve done, of course - from my POV, the main thing you’ve done is reinforce my confidence that the way I make decisions works well, by failing to show me a practical case where it doesn’t.
I'm not frustrated. I like you. I'm trying to speak to important issues unemotionally.

If I were to be frustrated, it would not be by you. I talk to a lot of people. I bet you can imagine that most are much more frustrating than you are.

Suppose I were to complain that people don't want to learn to think better, don't want to contribute to philosophy, don't want to learn the philosophy that would let them go be effective in other fields, don't want to stop approximately destroying the minds of approximately all children, etc.

Would I be complaining about you? No, you'd be on the bottom of the list. You're already doing something very important, and doing it well enough to make substantial progress. For the various non-SENS issues, others ought to step up.

Further, I don't know that talking with me will help with SENS progress. On the one hand, bad philosophy has major practical consequences (more below). But on the other hand, if you see things more my way, it will give you less common ground with your donors and colleagues. One fights the war on aging with the army he has, now not later. If the general changes his worldview, but no one else does, that can cause serious problems.

Maybe you should stay away from me. Reason is destabilizing (and seductive), and maybe you – rightly – have higher priorities. While there are large practical benefits available (more below), maybe they shouldn't be your priority. People went to space and built computers while having all sorts of misconceptions. If you think current methods are enough to achieve some specific SENS goals, perhaps you're right, and perhaps it's good for someone to try it that way.

So no I'm not frustrated. I can't damn you, whatever you do. I don't know what you should do. All I can do is offer things on a voluntary basis.

The wrong way of thinking slows progress in fields. Some examples:

The social sciences keep doing inadequately controlled, explanationless, correlation studies because they don't understand the methods of making scientific progress. They're wasting their time and sharing false results.

Quantum physicists are currently strongly resisting the best explanation (many worlds). Then they either try to rationalize very bad explanations (like Copenhagen theory) or give up on explanations (i.e. shut up and calculate). This puts them in a very bad spot to improve physics explanations.

AI researchers don't understand what intelligence is or how knowledge can be created. They don't understand the jump to universality, conjectures and refutations, or the falseness of induction and justificationism. They're trying to solve the wrong problems and the field has been stuck for decades.

Philosophers mostly have terrible ideas and make no progress. And spread those bad ideas to other fields like the three examples above.

Feynman offers some examples:

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person--to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know the the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happened.
Repeating experiments is wasting time? What a stupid field that isn't going to figure anything out (and indeed it hasn't). And Feynman goes on to discuss how someone figured out how to properly control rat maze running by putting in sand so they can't hear their footsteps – and that got ignored and everyone just kept doing inadequately controlled rat studies.

What about medicine or biology? I don't know the field very well but I've seen articles saying things like:

Former drug company researcher Glenn Begley looked at 53 papers in the world's top journals, and found that he and a team of scientists could NOT replicate 47 of the 53 published studies—all of which were considered important and valuable for the future of cancer treatments!
Stuff like this worries me that perhaps current methods are not good enough for SENS to work. But somehow despite problems like this, tons of medicine does work. Maybe it's OK, somehow. More on this below.

Many journals don’t even have retraction policies, and the ones that do publish critical notices of retraction long after the original paper appeared—without providing explicit information as to why they are being retracted.
The article has various unpleasant stats about retractions.
It is worth noting that the results of *most negative clinical trials are never published*—neither are they disclosed anywhere, except in sponsors’ confidential files and FDA marketing submissions.
95% confidence is useless if there were 19 unpublished failures. Even one unpublished negative result matters a lot. Not publishing negative results is a huge problem.

Former University of Tokyo researcher Shigeaki Kato has notched his 26th, 27th, and 28th retractions, all in Nature Cell Biology. The three papers have been cited a total of 677 times.
Note how much work is built partly on top of falsehoods. Lots more retraction info on that blog; it's not pretty.

Note that all of these examples are relevant to fighting aging, not just the medical stuff.

You never know when a physics breakthrough will have an implication for chemistry which has an implication for biology.

You never know when progress in AI could lead to uploading people into computers and making backup copies.

Better social sciences or psychology work could have led to better ways to handle the pro-aging trance or better ways to deal with people to get large donations for SENS.

So many academic papers are so bad. I've checked many myself and found huge problems with a majority of them. And there's the other problems I talked about above. And the philosophy errors I claim matter a lot.

So, how does progress happen despite all this?

How come you're making progress while misunderstanding thinking methods? Does it matter?

Here's my perspective.

Humans are much better, more awesome, powerful and rational things than commonly thought. Fallible Gods. Really spectacular. And this is why humans can still be effective despite monumental folly. Humans are so effective that even e.g. losing 99% of their effectiveness to folly (on average, with many people being counterproductive) leaves them able to make progress and even create modern civilization.

And it's a testament to the human spirit. So many people suffer immensely, grit their teeth, and go on living – and even producing – anyway. Others twist themselves up to lie to themselves that they aren't suffering while somehow not knowing they're doing this, which is hugely destructive to their minds, and yet they go on with life too.

I think it's like Ayn Rand wrote:
"Don't be astonished, Miss Taggart," said Dr. Akston, smiling, "and don't make the mistake of thinking that these three pupils of mine are some sort of superhuman creatures. They're something much greater and more astounding than that: they're normal men—a thing the world has never seen—and their feat is that they managed to survive as such. It does take an exceptional mind and a still more exceptional integrity to remain untouched by the brain-destroying influences of the world's doctrines, the accumulated evil of centuries—to remain human, since the human is the rational."
John Galt is a normal man. That is what's possible. You fall way short of him. Philosophy misconceptions and related issues drop your effectiveness by a large factor, but you lack examples of people doing better so the problem is invisible to you. Most people are considerably worse off than you.

The world doesn't have to be the way it is. So much better is possible. BoI says the same thing in several ways, some subtle, I don't know if you would have noticed.

People do so much stuff wrong, drop their effectiveness massively, and then have low expectations about what humans can do.

It's important to understand that if you have problems, even huge ones, you won't automatically or presumably notice them. And actually you should expect to have all sorts of problems, some huge, some unnoticed – you're fallible and only at the beginning of infinity (of infinite progress). This makes it always important to work on philosophy topics like how problems are found and solved. It should be a routine part of every life to work on that kind of thing, because problems are part of life.

Here's a specific example. The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, by Aubrey de Grey, p 85:
In gerontology, as in any field of science, the development of a hypothesis involves a perpetual oscillation between creative and analytical thinking. Advances of understanding are rarely achieved by purely deductive analysis of existing data; instead, scientists formulate tentative and incomplete generalisations of that data, which allow them to identify which questions are useful to ask by further observation or experiment. ...

The above is, in fact, so universally accepted as a cornerstone of the scientific method that some may wonder why I have chosen to belabor it. I have three reasons.
This is all wrong. Tons of errors despite being short and – as you say – widely accepted.

Does it matter? Well, you wouldn't have written it if you didn't think it mattered.

Since your current concern is whether my claims matter, I'm going to focus on why they do, rather than arguing why they are true. So let's just assume I'm right about everything for a minute. What are the consequences of that?

One mistake in the passage is the deduction/data false dichotomy for approaches. This has big practical consequences because people look for progress in two places, both wrong. That they figure anything out anyway is a testament – as above – to how amazing humans are.

It also speaks to how much people's actual methods differ from their stated methods. People routinely do things like say they are doing induction, like you imply in the passage. Even though induction impossible and has never been used to figure anything out a single time in human history. So then what you must actually do is think a different way, get an answer, and then credit induction for the answer.

Is this harmless? No! Lots of times they try to do induction or some other wrong method and end up with no answer. There are so many times they didn't figure anything out, but could have. People get stuck on problems all the time. Not consciously or explicitly understanding how to think is a big aspect of these failures.

Knowing the right philosophy for how to think allows one to better compare what one is doing to the right way. Everyone deviates some and there's room for improvement. Most people deviate a lot, so there's tons of room for improvement.

And understanding what you're doing exposes it to criticism better. The more thinking gets done in a hidden and misunderstood way, the more it's shielded from criticism.

Understanding methods correctly also allows a much better opportunity to come up with potentially better methods and try different things out. You could improve the state of the art. Or if someone else makes a breakthrough, then if you understand what's going on then you would be in a much better position to use his innovation.

You have an idea about a pro-aging trance. It's a sort of philosophical perspective on society, far outside your scientific expertise. How are you to know if it's right? By doing all the philosophy yourself? That'd be time consuming, and you've acknowledged philosophy is a serious and substantive field and you don't have as much expertise to judge this kind of question as you could. Could you outsource the issue? Consult an expert? That's tough. How do you know who really is a philosophy expert, and who isn't, without learning the whole field yourself? Will you take Harvard or Cambridge's word for it? I really wouldn't recommend that. Many prestigious philosophers are terrible.

What if you asked me? I think whether I said you're right or wrong about the pro-aging trance, either way, you wouldn't take my word for it. That's fine. This kind of thing is really hard to outsource and trust an answer without understanding yourself. Whatever I said, I could give some abbreviated explanations and it's possible you'd understand, but also quite possible you wouldn't understand my abbreviated explanations and we'd have to discuss underlying issues like epistemology details.

And the issue isn't just whether your pro-aging trance idea is right or not. Maybe it's a pretty good start but could be improved using e.g. an understanding of anti-rational memes.

And if it's right, what should be done about it? Maybe if you read "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?" by Ayn Rand, you'd understand that better. (Though that particular essay is hard to understand for most people. It clashes with lots of their background knowledge. To understand it, they might need to study other Rand stuff, have discussions, etc. But then when one does understand all that stuff, it matters, including in many practical ways.)

I think millions of people won't shift mindsets as abruptly as you hope. One reason is because of anti-life philosophies, which you don't address. Which I don't think you know what those are, as I mean them.

One aspect of this is that lots of people don't like their lives. They aren't happy, they aren't having a good time. Most of them won't admit this and lie about it. And it's not like they only dislike their lives, they like some parts too, it's mixed. Anyway they don't want to admit this to themselves (or others). Aging gives them an excuse, a way out, without having to face that they don't like their lives (and also without suicide, which is taboo, and it's hard for people to admit they'd rather be dead).

There's other stuff too, which could be explained much faster if you had certain philosophical background knowledge I could reference. The point for now is there's a bunch of philosophical issues here and getting them right matters to SENS. You basically say people are rationalizing not having effective anti-aging technology, and that does happen some, but there's other things going on too. Your plan as you present it is focused on addressing the doubts that anti-aging technology is ready, but not other obstacles.

Does it matter if you're right about the pro-aging trance? Well, you think so, or you wouldn't bring it up. One reason it matters is because if the pro-aging trance doesn't end, it could prevent large-scale funding and effort from materializing. And some other things besides doubts about SENS effectiveness may also need to be addressed.

For example, there's bad parenting. This does major harm to the minds of children, leaving them less able to want and enjoy life, less able to think rationally, and so on. Dealing with these problems – possibly by Taking Children Seriously, or something focused on helping adults, or a different way – may be important to SENS getting widespread acceptance and funding. It's also important to the quality of scientists available to keep working on SENS, beyond the initial stages, as each new problem at later ages is found.

Part of what the pro-aging trance idea is telling people is there's this one major issue which people are stuck on and have a coping strategy for. And you even present this coping as like a legitimate reasonable way to deal with a tough situation. This underplays how irrational people are, which is encouraging to donors by being optimistic. As mentioned earlier, sometimes people succeed at stuff, somehow, despite big problems, so SENS stuff could conceivably work anyway. But it may be that some of the general irrationality issues with society are going to really get in the way of SENS and need more addressing.

(And people learning epistemology is a big help in dealing with those. If people understand better how they are thinking, and how they should think, that's a big step towards improving their thinking.)

Ending Aging by Aubrey de Grey:
The most immediately obvious actions would be to lobby for more funding for rejuvenation research, and for the crucial lifting of restrictions on federal funding to embryonic stem cell research in the United States, by writing letters to your political representatives, demanding change.
The very questionable wisdom of government science is a philosophical issue with practical consequences like whether people should actually do this lobbying. Perhaps it'd help more to lobby for lower taxes and for government+science separation instead. Or maybe it'd be better to create a high quality Objectivist forum which can teach many people about the virtues of life, of science, of separating the government from science, and more.

This is an example of a philosophical issue important to SENS. Regardless of whether you're right in this case, getting philosophical issues like this correct at a higher rate is valuable to SENS.
I’ve had a fairly difficult time convincing my colleagues in biogerontology of the feasibility of the various SENS components, but in general I’ve been successful once I’ve been given enough time to go through the details. When it comes to LEV, on the other hand, the reception to my proposals can best be described as blank incomprehension. This is not too surprising, in hindsight, because the LEV concept is even further distant from the sort of scientific thinking that my colleagues normally do than my other ideas are: it’s not only an area of science that’s distant from mainstream gerontology, it’s not even science at all in the strict sense
Here you're trying to use philosophical skills to advance SENS. You're trying to do things like understand why people are being irrational and how to deal with it. Every bit of philosophical skill could help you do this better. Elliotism contains valuable ideas addressing this kind of problem.

OK, so, big picture. The basic thing is if you know the correct thinking methods, instead of having big misconceptions about how you think, you can think better. This has absolutely huge practical consequences, like getting more right answers to SENS issues. I've gone through some real life examples. Here are some simplified explanations to try to get across how crucially important epistemology is.

Say you're working on some SENS issue and the right thinking method in that situation involves trying five different things to get an answer. You try three of them. Since you don't know the list of things to do, you don't realize you missed two. So 40% of the time you get stuck on the issue instead of solve it.

Later you come up with a bad idea and think it over and look for flaws. You find two but don't recognize them as flaws due to philosophy misconceptions. You miss another flaw because you don't try a flaw-finding method you could have. Even if you knew that method, you still might skip it because you don't understand how thinking works, how you're thinking about an issue, and when to use that method.

Meanwhile, whenever you think about stuff, you spend 50% of your time on induction, justificationism, and other dead ends. Only half your thinking time is productive. That could easily be the case. The ratio could easily be worse than that.

And you have no experiences which contradict these possibilities. How would you know what it's like to think way more effectively, or that it's possible, from your past experiences? That you've figured out some stuff tells you nothing about what kind of efficiency rate you're thinking at. Doing better than some other people also does not tell you the efficiency rate.

These problems are the kinds of things which routinely happen to people. They can easily happen without being noticed. Or if some of the negative consequences are noticed, they can be attributed to the wrong thing. That's common. Like if a person believes he does thinking by some series of false and irrelevant steps, he'll try to figure out which of those steps has the problem and try some adjustments to those steps. Whereas if he knew how he actually thought, he'd have a much better opportunity to find and fix his actual problems.

You may find these things hard to accept. The point is, they are the situation if I'm right about philosophy. So it does matter.

Continue reading the next part of the discussion.

Elliot Temple on November 8, 2014


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