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I believe that I am worse then I think I am:

June 1, 2016

(Pre-essay rant: one of the predecessors of the world wide web was a computer internetwork to allow scientists collaborating at CERN to talk to each other. As such and as scientists universally used the straightforward LaTeX to write mathematics for printing, there was a simple way of inserting LaTeX into html documents: simply bracket the LaTeX with “math” tags. This is not how “math” tags work in MTHL5. The new “math” tags, from what I can tell, are far more cumbersome without being any easier to read. There may be good reason for the transition but I now need to lean a new way to markup HTML in order to display math. I haven’t done so by the time I published this essay so I present my math in text as best I can for people who don’t know LaTeX. This is necessary to avoid confusion. If you care a lot more about this then I do (which is unlikely) then I suggest petitioning whoever makes changes to html to add in a “latex” tag to html and for browsers to render it.)

I’ve recently been reading through something called The Sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I’m doing this mostly because somebody who cares a lot about me being the best person I can be has asked me to. As I share that goal, maybe I can get something out of it. (As far as I gather from what people say of this work) it promises to fully train somebody in how to think and behave rationally. I am confident in saying that it falls short of this goal but beyond that I am hesitant to talk about results of the work. I have a rule which says that I wait three days after reading something or listening to something before passing judgment on it and since I haven’t finished The Sequances, not only do I not satisfy this condition yet but judging something before knowing everything it says is also a very risky thing to do.

“I believe that people are nicer than they really are” makes sense and can, for some people, be a beneficial concept to hold true.

Yudkowsky though does spend three of these essays being confused by the statement “I believe that people are nicer than they really are,” and criticizing the person that made this statement. There is an apparent paradox in that, taking the speaker at her word, has come to the conclusion that there is a value of niceness that she thinks people exhibit, a but she also believes that people exhibit a value of niceness that exceeds a. In short she believes a>a which is absurd for any well or partially ordered set which includes the real numbers. This is even absurd for irrational numbers (I made a joke). Yudkowsky also states that the speaker of the statement has made some mistake despite admitting to not understanding the statement.

People’s minds spend a great deal of effort convincing their operators that the operator’s thoughts are self-consistent. This is a very well-known aspect of human psychology. For example, people will want to think that since only good people should have nice things happen to them that if one does something nice for a person they must be a good person. There is a story of Ben Franklin who, while a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, was not on friendly terms with a rival. Franklin then asked to barrow a book from the rival who lent him the book for lack of good reason not to. The book went unread. After a period of time, Franklin then returned the book and thanked his rival for the favor. The two were on friendly terms from that point on. Franklin’s rival, after lending Franklin the book, concluded that Franklin was a good person in order to meet this requirement for self-consistency even though nothing of any practical consequence changed and no new information was generated.

The fact of the matter is that people do doublethink all the time. If somebody cuts me off on the highway then they’re a jerk whose actions cannot be explained any other way but if I cut someone off on the highway then it was an honest mistake and I shouldn’t be judged harshly for such. I am holding two contradictory beliefs in my mind at the same time and judging both of them to be true, simultaneously. These thoughts are, “cutting people off is inexcusable,” and “cutting people off is excusable.” The need to have consistency over the thoughts of “I cut someone off,” and “I’m a good person,” as well as “I’m mad at that person,” and “I don’t get mad at good people,” take prescience over the need to have the first two thoughts consistent. As a result I believe in completely contradictory statements about something and my mind works to try and prevent me from realizing it.

In an unexamined mind such contradictory thoughts would be formed somewhat regularly. As I have the capability of examining my mind (not everybody has the ability to and not everybody who has the ability has the willingness to examine one’s own mind) I can understand the contradiction and resolve it (there are several ways to do this) but unless I work hard at making the resolution visceral, when someone cuts me off or I cut someone else off, the lower order thoughts dominate my thinking at that time the cut off occurs.

Even people who have examined minds form such doublethink pairs (and triplets, et cetera). Seeing how human brainpower is limited and there is limited time and from what I (think I) know informally from my entire existence, I believe that it would be imposable for an ordinary human being to resolve all of these conflicts in their mind. Thus I believe that for everybody, it is highly likely that they hold to some form of doublethink. Human psychology readily accepts doublethink and it appears to be a necessary part of our experience (for in dealing with others if not for analyzing ourselves at-least).

Doublethink may be a useful and necessary tool but it can be dangerous as the person who coined the term demonstrates. One must be careful both when one accepts doublethink and when dealing with doublethink discovered in oneself and in others.

Now, I do not hold to the phrase, “I believe that people are nicer than they really are,” but it isn’t that hard to understand how one could say such a statement truthfully: they are using doublethink and are, at some level, aware of it. I have no problem with this and it elicited no confusion from myself. I do think that I should treat people as if they are nicer than they really are. There are good reasons for this which include but are not limited to: not accidentally insulting nice people until one can form a more personal judgement, compensate for uncertainties and known and unknown prejudices in the determination one makes on the niceness of others, encouraging nicer behavior from people, treating people like they are nice has positive psychological benefits for the actor, and behaving like a decent human being.

Now treating people like they are nicer than they really are has its own self consistency problem. Shouldn’t I treat people like the best evidence leads me to believe that they are? If I treat somebody nicer than they really are then aren’t I saying the person really is nicer? By obeying the rule I obey, I am treating other people as if they had a niceness value, a greater than their actual niceness value, a. I am mentally flexible enough that I don’t see a contradiction here but not everybody is as mentally flexible as I am. I have worked hard to develop mental flexibility and doing so gives me large benefits including in understanding how the minds of other people work. Somebody who has done nothing to exercise their own mental flexibility is not likely to be as flexible as me.

Someone with no mental flexibility would also not be able to articulate “I believe that people are nicer than they really are” and mean it so they would be forced to either treat people as nice as they actually think them to be or to think people are as nice as they treat them to be. Somebody with a different type of mental flexibility then I am using here (I also possess this type of mental flexibility but I am not using it here) who is unable to use the type of mental flexibility that I am using, could still hold this statement as true and get the benefits I talked about from the behavior I demonstrate. Holding to such doublethink is well understood (I just understood it), beneficial (I gave benefits it could accrue), and leads to better outcomes for most people (this is an unsupported conclusion).

Not everybody has the same mental abilities. The woman to which Yudkowsky refers is apparently more mentally flexible than Yudkowsky and reaps rewards of possessing such ability. It is interesting that despite admitting ignorance of the reasons for the woman’s actions that Yadkowsky voices an opinion that this woman has something wrong with her. It is Yadkowski that is clearly lacking (off topic note: Yadkowski also states a few times that, for anything, there is only one correct opinion on it). Yadkowski doesn’t understand the behavior of the people he interacts with and yet considers himself fit to pass judgement on such behavior.

Is humility a good thing?

I hope most of the people who end up reading this essay answer in the affirmative. One of the rules I use to govern my behavior is that if I don’t understand the reason for a thing, I don’t pass judgement on it. I think this is beneficial. If I don’t understand the reason for a thing then I have no ability to pass judgement on said reason and thus no legitimate ability to pass judgement for the thing itself. Apparently Yadkowski disagrees with me.

Passing judgement on a thing one has no legitimate ability to pass judgement on is an act of arrogance. Refraining from doing so is an act of humility. I may lack precision in understanding the world around me but, if this is the only difference between me and somebody else, my understanding of the world around me is more likely to be accurate.

There is some logic in taking a guess at what one should believe if one cannot narrow down the possibilities of what one should believe with valid reasoning. Afterall one must determine how one should act and some people become paralyzed at the time action is called for if they cannot form one specific belief set regarding reality. Such a person must make a guess or have their actions chosen for them.

I, in general, do not become so paralyzed. I am able to make an estimation of what the results would be given different actions if I have several different possible realities in mind as I make a decision. In general, doing so carries a higher cognitive burden but it is a burden I have worked hard to be able to carry. There are specific times when I cannot carry such a burden and at times I switch to making a guess. In these times, I may be making judgements I have no legitimate ability to make but in the heat of the moment such is sometimes necessary.

Always seeking to choose one such reality (I think this is something that Yudkowsky does not do but I know people who do) and never holding multiple possibilities in mind is often an act of arrogance. Some people have psychologies that are predisposed to always making a guess and then having complete fidelity in that guess. I do not fault these people for not having mental abilities they do not have no more than I fault myself for my inability to dunk on a basketball net higher than six feet but since I have the ability to hold multiple contradictory possibilities in my mind at once and make good use of this then I should, in general.

On developing humility.

By being more humble than Yudkowsky, I am better able to understand the mind of the woman to which Yudkowsky refers. This has benefits. I would be better able to relate to this woman, for example, and more easily and likely to form a mutually beneficial interpersonal bond. Making negative conclusions about the beliefs of others without understanding the beliefs themselves or understanding the reasons why (both stated and actual) this person holds them is alienating. I could mask such conclusions by never sharing them and thus avoiding the alienation (which I sometimes do in other circumstances) but, in this situation, forming the conclusion comes with the opportunity cost of missing out on the opportunity to form a stronger bond.

When I first determined to learn humility I would often make humble statements I didn’t really believe, in order to make myself seam humble. An example would be, “No, I don’t understand the subject you’re trying to teach me about, please teach me,” while at the same time I thought there was no way the other person could actually teach me anything about the subject. This false humility may seem inhumble or dishonest but it has its positive effects one of which being, in this example, sometimes I get proven that my judgement is wrong.

Not only do such situations teach me that my high assessments of myself were wrong and thus teach me real humility but over time the more I expressed my false humility to others the more I started to believe in my statements. Through both mechanisms (and others) I started to adjust my self-assessments. I have gained some measure of real humility through, in part, deliberately using false humility while incidentally increasing my knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom in the process (when the other person does actually have something to teach me, for instance, which they always do).

I’m not through with my false humility.

This brings me to the conclusion that is the title of this essay: I believe that I am a worse person then I think I am. If I take in all of the measures of how good a person I am, make my best honest effort to assign values of some kind to these measures, and combine these values into an overall judgement I will come to a conclusion of how good a person I think I am. This includes all sorts of biases, prejudices, systematic errors, and other flaws that will invariably lead to an artificially high assessment. It will almost certainly be a higher than justified assessment because I am human and human psychology (absent specific thought processes to contradict this tendency) is prone to overestimate how good one thinks oneself is. This value I get is almost assuredly an overestimate of how good a person I really am and thus I believe that I’m not as good as a person as I think I am when I do such an assessment.

Now, someone with the requisite mental flexibility would be able to think “I am not as good of a person as I am prone to thinking I am,” but I am not so mentally flexible (yet). I am incapable of thinking this and meaning it. I lack the ability to do so. I just tried to do so and failed. I’ll try again. I failed again. My natural disposition is towards someone who is really arrogant and this is something against which I constantly fight. For me, the doublethink that I present is the best way for me to achieve the benefits of humility that holding the statement “I believe that I am worse then I think I am” true nets me.

There is an apparent paradox in this statement. I think the paradox apparently exists because English is an inexact language. I am not really saying the exact same thing when I say “believe” and when I say “think” in the statement but the English meanings for these terms, to my ears, don’t suggest a difference. I also am nowhere near good enough in English to know which of the two would be better, “I believe that I am worse then I think I am,” or “I think that I am worse then I believe I am.” I hope a detailed description of what I am actually trying to say when I say such a statement will make my meaning clear.

I go through the exercise described above and make an almost certainly false judgement on how good a person I am that most accurately reflects the knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom that I possess. I hold this assessment to be a true and accurate assessment in my mind. I then make a judgment that I am actually a worse person then this and hold this assessment to be a true and accurate assessment in my mind. If I drop the first assessment from my mind or if I label it false, my mind, in its fallibility, loses the second assessment because it has either lost faith in or lost altogether its reference point. If I drop the second assessment from my mind then I am only left with an assessment that I know to be false also causing me to lose both assessments.

In short, the doublethink is necessary because my mind’s self-consistency mechanisms, in this situation, cannot accept that my judgement of how good I am as a person could be accurate if it’s based on an assessment that I know to be false. In other words, I cannot have faith in assessment 2 if I believe assessment 1 to be false and thus in order to believe in assessment 2 then I need to also believe in assessment 1. The doublethink in my mind is beneficial as it allows me to hold an assessment that is beneficial to me. I am correcting for one flawed thinking pattern with another flawed thinking pattern.

This is the best I can do… for now.

To think “I am not as good as a person as I am prone to thinking I am” and mean it would be a better solution but I’m not capable of doing so: my arrogance won’t allow it. Maybe you can make this statement and mean it. Maybe your self-consistency mechanisms aren’t the same as mine and you don’t need to go through the doublethink I need to go through. Maybe your self-consistency mechanisms forbid you from doing the same thing I do. We all have failures in the way we think, I work hard to correct for and eliminate mine, but our failures are different failures. Maybe your failures reject my solution as my failures reject the consistent statement. Maybe they don’t. I try my best and I have no doubt that you try your best. The solution that is best for you is not necessarily best for me.

I should try and develop the ability to say “I am not as good as a person as I am prone to thinking I am” and mean it as just having the ability to do such a thing would be beneficial. I am already thinking about strategies to get my mind to a point where I could do this. Until I achieve this ability the doublethink, which requires that I actively and affirmatively believe something that I know to be wrong (both statements in the doublethink cannot both be true), produces the best results for me of the options of which I am aware.


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