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Less Wrong: Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

A sequence on how to see through the disguises of answers or beliefs or statements, that don’t answer or say or mean anything. Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions is probably the most important core sequence in Less Wrong.

This channel includes:

  • 29 articles written by Eliezer Yudkowsky delivered to you as a podcast
  • over 2.5 hours of audio read by George Thomas

Making Beliefs Pay Rent (In Anticipated Experiences)

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  1. Making Beliefs Pay Rent (In Anticipated Experiences)

    Thus begins the ancient parable: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, "Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air." Another says, "No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain."

  2. Belief In Belief

    There's different kinds of belief in belief. You may believe in belief explicitly; you may recite in your deliberate stream of consciousness the verbal sentence "It is virtuous to believe that the Ultimate Cosmic Sky is perfectly blue and perfectly green."

  3. Bayesian Judo

    This story is related to the phenomena whereby the most intelligent and educated religious folks are very careful to define their beliefs so that there can be no conflict with observations, while ordinary people are more prone to allow their religion to have implications, which are then subject to challenges like Eliezer's.

  4. Professing And Cheering

    I once attended a panel on the topic, "Are science and religion compatible?" One of the women on the panel, a pagan, held forth interminably upon how she believed that the Earth had been created when a giant primordial cow was born into the primordial abyss, who licked a primordial god into existence, whose descendants killed a primordial giant and used its corpse to create the Earth, etc.

  5. Belief As Attire

    No, that's probably just belief as attire. My point is just that reasonable interpretations of "Suicide bombers are cowardly" allow the statement to be true, even if people don't mean the true version, or if they came to that conclusion for the wrong reason.

  6. Focus Your Uncertainty

    Will bond yields go up, or down, or remain the same? If you're a TV pundit and your job is to explain the outcome after the fact, then there's no reason to worry. No matter which of the three possibilities comes true, you'll be able to explain why the outcome perfectly fits your pet market theory .

  7. The Virtue Of Narrowness

    Within their own professions, people grasp the importance of narrowness; a car mechanic knows the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, and would not think of them both as "car parts". A hunter-gatherer knows the difference between a lion and a panther.

  8. Your Strength As A Rationalist

    It's strange that it sounds like a rationalist is saying that he should have listened to his instincts. A true rationalist should be able to examine all the evidence without having to rely on feelings to make a judgment, or would be able to truly understand the source of his feelings, in which case it's more than just a feeling.

  9. Absence Of Evidence Is Evidence Of Absence

    Post-hoc fitting of evidence to hypothesis was involved in a most grievous chapter in United States history: the internment of Japanese-Americans at the beginning of the Second World War. When California governor Earl Warren testified before a congressional hearing in San Francisco on February 21, 1942, a questioner pointed out that there had been no sabotage or any other type of espionage by the Japanese-Americans up to that time.

  10. Conservation Of Expected Evidence

    But you can't have it both ways-as a matter of probability theory, not mere fairness. The rule that " absence of evidence is evidence of absence" is a special case of a more general law, which I would name Conservation of Expected Evidence: The expectation of the posterior probability, after viewing the evidence, must equal the prior probability.

  11. Hindsight Bias

    Hindsight bias is when people who know the answer vastly overestimate its predictability or obviousness, compared to the estimates of subjects who must guess without advance knowledge. Hindsight bias is sometimes called the I-knew-it-all-along effect. Fischhoff and Beyth (1975) presented students with historical accounts of unfamiliar incidents, such as a conflict between the Gurkhas and the British in 1814.

  12. Hindsight Devalues Science

    This excerpt from Meyers's Exploring Social Psychology is worth reading in entirety. Cullen Murphy, editor of The Atlantic, said that the social sciences turn up "no ideas or conclusions that can't be found in [any] encyclopedia of quotations... Day after day social scientists go out into the world.

  13. Fake Explanations

    Really, I can quite understand the students... if you say "I don't know" you have a zero percent chance of getting the explanation right. If you say "that seems impossible," then you're guaranteed to get it 100% wrong - since it DID happen, and thus it must be possible.

  14. Guessing The Teacher's Password

    "Then you may think that "Light is arglebargle" is a good explanation, that "arglebargle" is the correct password. It happened to me when I was nine years old - not because I was stupid, but because this is what happens by default. This is how human beings think, unless they are trained not to fall into the trap.

  15. Science As Attire

    So is the conjunction of two contradictory phenomena not zero? I am confused. I believe if that is so the rest of bayes falls apart, no? Bayes requires that you give zero probabilities to contradictions, if you do not then you can be dutch booked, right?

  16. Fake Causality

    So what went wrong in phlogiston theory? When we observe that fire is hot, the [fire] node can send a backward-evidence to the ["phlogiston"] node, leading us to update our beliefs about phlogiston. But if so, we can't count this as a successful forward-prediction of phlogiston theory.

  17. Semantic Stopsigns

    I once called this kind of thinking "the divine right of democracy". But it is more precise to say that "Democracy!" functioned for him as a semantic stopsign. If anyone had said to him "Turn it over to the Coca-Cola corporation!", he would have asked the obvious next questions: "Why?

  18. Mysterious Answers To Mysterious Questions

    This is the ultimate and fully general explanation for why, again and again in humanity's history, people are shocked to discover that an incredibly mysterious question has a non-mysterious answer. Mystery is a property of questions, not answers.

  19. The Futility Of Emergence

    Prerequisites: Belief in Belief, Fake Explanations, Fake Causality, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions The failures of phlogiston and vitalism are historical hindsight. Dare I step out on a limb, and name some current theory which I deem analogously flawed?

  20. Say Not "Complexity"

    Complexity is not a useless concept. It has mathematical definitions attached to it, such as Kolmogorov complexity, and Vapnik-Chervonenkis complexity. Even on an intuitive level, complexity is often worth thinking about-you have to judge the complexity of a hypothesis and decide if it's "too complicated" given the supporting evidence, or look at a design and try to make it simpler.

  21. Positive Bias: Look Into The Dark

    One may be lectured on positive bias for days, and yet overlook it in-the-moment. Positive bias is not something we do as a matter of logic, or even as a matter of emotional attachment. The 2-4-6 task is "cold", logical, not affectively "hot". And yet the mistake is sub-verbal, on the level of imagery, of instinctive reactions.

  22. My Wild And Reckless Youth

    As a Traditional Rationalist, the young Eliezer was careful to ensure that his Mysterious Answer made a bold prediction of future experience. Namely, I expected future neurologists to discover that neurons were exploiting quantum gravity, a la Sir Roger Penrose.

  23. Failing To Learn From History

    Continuation of: My Wild and Reckless Youth Once upon a time, in my wild and reckless youth, when I knew not the Way of Bayes, I gave a Mysterious Answer to a mysterious-seeming question. Many failures occurred in sequence, but one mistake stands out as most critical: My younger self did not realize that solving a mystery should make it feel less confusing.

  24. Making History Available

    What I first thought was: "Heh, a rationalist espousing the same rather moving sentiments that occasionally get to my head when I use psychoactive drugs". I will not bore you with the details of my lives as a Japanese noble and an SS officer (hallucinated/vividly imagined after reading Akutagawa and some WW2 history respectively), but I have indeed seen some of humanity's less savory moments that way.

  25. Explain/Worship/Ignore?

    Haha, that's a pretty good analogy. Unfortunately I think most people (myself in the past included and probably even still now) by default have their mouse cursor hovering over wherever the Ignore or Worship buttons appear when such a dialog shows up.

  26. "Science" As Curiosity Stopper

    Now I think that if you said 'science' that would dispel the interest from most folk but wouldn't do much to dispel the interest of scientists. I mean why should common folk be curious about this since saying 'science' means it's going to be just another of the innumerable technologies they don't really understand but see every day.

  27. Applause Lights

    This case is remarkable only in that I mistook the applause light for a policy suggestion, with subsequent embarrassment for all. Most applause lights are much more blatant, and can be detected by a simple reversal test. For example, suppose someone says:

  28. Truly Part Of You

    The same experiences that lead us to formulate a belief, connect that belief to other knowledge and sensory input and motor output. If you see a beaver chewing a log, then you know what this thing-that-chews-through-logs looks like, and you will be able to recognize it on future occasions whether it is called a "beaver" or not.

  29. Chaotic Inversion

    I had a similar problem during my PhD. Basically I had to be a workaholic in order to get through it. However, I still wanted to have some kind of life and occasionally relax my brain. I found that when I tried to watch a DVD, I would either have an idea, or I would start feeling guilty about not working.