Monday, August 17, 2015

Peter Watts & p-zombies

I was surprised, upon listening to a two part interview with Peter Watts, to find him tentatively supporting Chalmer's positions on qualia and the hard problem. Part of the reason is that Watts is a(n ex-) scientist with a background in biology and neuroscience, and also both very intelligent and spectacularly good at not avoiding unpleasant trains of thought. The other reason I was surprised is that I read Blindsight, and interpreted it as an amazingly good takedown of the Chalmers philosophical zombie idea along the same lines as Dennett's.

This essay will contain spoilers for Blindsight, probably. Also, spoilers for the epistemology of Chalmers and Dennett. If you don't like to learn things in orders not officially sanctioned by the establishment, I recommend you at least read Blindsight -- it's a great read, and Watts has been nice enough to put it online for free.

Chalmers presents the idea of consciousness as indicated by qualia -- a representation of the subjective feeling of the outside world. His position, in my understanding, is that subjective feeling is a more difficult thing to model than other properties of the world. While I'm not sure about Chalmers himself, other people have used this idea that qualia is a "hard problem" as an excuse for reintroducing cartesian dualism into the world of epistemology -- by claiming that qualia is so difficult to model that not even straight-up neurons can model it, and thus we need to bring in quantum nanotubules or some other structure as a stand-in for the soul.

A lot of people have been suspicious of the idea of qualia. After all, isn't a representation a representation? Isn't a subjective representation just a second-order representation? I agree with Dennett when he argues that it's an unnecessary complication, with no evidence for it. I would furthermore argue that it's a matter of preferring a mysterious answer to a mysterious question: complex behavior can be difficult to predict not because it's irreducible -- not because each piece is complex -- but because lots of simple pieces combine in a complex way, but there's a general tendency among people to try to keep emotional parity with explanations (mysterious things need to be explained in a way that retains the mystery or else you've lost the mystery; negative events can't be explained as an interaction between purely positive intentions, or else where did the negative essence come from?) but ultimately reality doesn't deal in emotional valences and so feelings of mystery do not need to be conserved.

Chalmers came up with a fascinating thought experiment in order to "prove" the existence of qualia. He suggested the idea of a 'philosophical zombie': a person indistinguishable from a regular person, but without qualia. Because qualia cannot be tested for, this person would be completely indistinguishable from a regular person.

Somehow, a lot of otherwise intelligent people thought that this was a good argument. I can't see the invisible dragon in my garage, and therefore it must exist.

In Blindsight, Watts plays with a few variations on the philosophical zombie idea. He puts forth the idea of vampires being said to lack qualia -- along with other cognitive anomalies that are of benefit to a humanoid with a very different position in the food chain. Certain optical illusions and cognitive biases don't work on them. They have some differences in social behavior. They are largely lacking in empathy, without having the problems with impulse control that tend to be comorbid with lack of empathy in human sociopaths. A vampire, along with a split-brain patient, a personality collective, a person with extreme sensory modifications, and some other various neurodivergents take a space trip to meet a colony of intelligent starfish/squid-like aliens that are determined to have no qualia either and no sense of identity.

But, the ideas about qualia don't line up here. I assumed it was on purpose.

Rather than 'qualia', each of these neurodivergent characters has some facility or attribute missing or strongly modified that is very clearly defined and very clearly not the same as qualia. And furthermore, each of these characters has very different behaviors based on their divergence from the norm. (This is along the same lines as the Rifters trilogy, particularly Starfish -- we're basically talking about circumstances where people who are psychologically and neurologically maladapted to normal life in a normal society end up being very well adapted to a fundamentally different environment.)

In other words, it's a strong argument against philosophical zombies.

In the end of Blindsight, our protagonist gets back within radio range of Earth and can tell it's been taken over by the vampires. Because Earth had stopped broadcasting music and entertainment, in favor of utilitarian communications. The vampires aren't philosophical zombies, because they can be distinguished from humans. Because the particular kinds of things that they don't experience lead them to live in a more utilitarian manner.

Indeed, no novel could deal with philosophical zombies. Because, by definition, philosophical zombies could not be distinguished from normal people. A novel about philosophical zombies could not be distinguished from a novel with no philosophical zombies in it.

Now, the argument for qualia is that, while human beings can experience something through their senses (like the color green), that experience cannot be identified in the brain itself. There is no neuron for 'green', and even if there was, the neuron itself wouldn't be 'green' or contain the concept of 'green'.

This argument has a handful of big flaws, some of which have been dissected elsewhere, so I'm going to dispatch it as efficiently as possible. First off, while some things do seem to have dedicated neurons (this is the 'Grandmother Neuron' model), most things don't -- however, this is not terribly unusual; we are very accustomed to another system for modeling the world where some configurations of state have single symbols and others have sets of meaningfully interconnected symbols: language. The word 'green' is not necessarily green -- in fact, it might be red -- and does not contain the concept of green, but instead gains its meaning from its relationship to other things. Ultimately, we can say that it gains real meaning by being in a relationship with other symbols in a manner that represents some configuration of the outside world as perceived through some people's sensory apparatus, and gains utility insomuch as it allows us to communicate and make predictions. However, we can have syntactically meaningful configurations of symbols that could not have any semantic meaning -- the colorless green ideas sleep furiously -- or syntactically and semantically meaningful configurations of symbols that could not represent our universe -- maxwell's demon mounted the pink unicorn's dragon-skin saddle and rode off at six times the speed of light in order to find some anti-entropic material and transmogrify it into orgone. Since language does this, there's no reason for the brain to be incapable of it; since the brain makes language, the brain must be capable of doing it. It's also not mysterious -- even toy languages with heavily simplified grammars designed for computers to manipulate can do thing kind of thing (think RDF, or PROLOG).

As someone who has a background in biology and neurology, who works with words and language professionally, and who thinks deeply and clearly about most things, I would expect Watts to make these same judgments. If he has a counterargument in favor of qualia, I'd like to hear it. But, my general position is that to the extent that something that behaves similar to qualia exists, it is symbol manipulation, and to the degree that something like consciousness exists, it is something like self-simulation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On rationalist fiction

(Originally posted here)
Let’s ignore for a moment the association between ‘rationalist fiction’ and HPMOR, LessWrong, etc. Let’s ignore the cultural associations here. Let’s ignore that most existing rationalist fiction by word count is HPMOR and most existing rationalist fiction by title count is MLP fanfic. 
Because the techniques and guidelines given for rationalist fiction are a toolset not uniquely tied to the cultural and political atmosphere that gave rise to them, and they can be used in a different context.
One problem with popular fiction – a problem that negatively impacts representation and a problem that Storming the Ivory Tower & others have mentioned in a critical sense – is that characters make dumb or out of character decisions in order to avoid interfering with existing ideological constraints in the plot. This is a killer of meaningful representation – because non-white-male characters are the first to be compromised for dramatic effect, being typically supporting characters – and it’s a killer of immersion.
Let’s look at the toolset, and look at how these tools can be used to prevent flaws in characterization.
1) Level-1 intelligent characters consistently behave in ways that are realistic for people with interiority. In other words, they act in their own self-interest unless they have abiding reasons not to. (This can be taken too far, in the sense that you can easily drop realistic character attributes that might cause real people to act against their own self-interest, like infatuation or various forms of mental illness. I would argue against this strong interpretation, in favor of clearly establishing character traits that might cause deviation from self interest before plot points hinge upon them – someone with anger control problems should be shown being enraged in a context that establishes their tendency for anger to overwhelm their other traits, for instance. Furthermore, particular circumstances can definitely make poor self-control or other self-defeating behavior reasonable. However, the general rule should be: err on the side of the characters behaving in a reasonable way, and make the justification for any self-defeating behavior clear.) This particular rule prevents us from grossly misrepresenting the decisions of minor characters in order to move the plot along – it does away with the ‘magical negro’ trope, ‘fridging’, ‘badass’ female characters who are inexplicably kidnapped, and every other case wherein a character sacrifices themselves to the plot; it can furthermore act against inaccurate and stigmatic representations of mental illness, since even characters with established mental illness will act rationally within their mental framework (we cannot excuse a character’s behavior with “well, they’re crazy”, but we can point to manic or depressive behavior and explain it if the character is established to have those patterns of behavior).
2) Problem-solving tools are introduced prior to their use, and the setting and world rules are established prior to those elements being important to the plot. In other words, we cannot introduce a previously-unknown force during a dramatic moment that kills off half the characters. (It is possible for the characters to be unaware of these things and act accordingly, but the reader should not be.)
3) Stereotypical shorthand is not used to code particular types of characters; instead, the beliefs of the characters are extended out to produce their behavior. (In the original form, this was limited to intelligence – we eschew technobabble, bowties, and other nerd stereotypes in favor of spending more mental effort planning the behavior and thought processes of level-2-intelligent characters than level-1-intelligent characters. I think we can reasonably benefit from extending this to all characters.)
4) Eschew a good-versus-evil conflict in favor of a good-versus-good conflict. (In other words, avoid straw villains. If two intelligent, knowledgeable, and reasonable people cannot disagree on a subject, it does not make for a good conflict. However, to the extent that it is reasonable, two characters on opposite sides of the conflict can have access to different information.) As a corollary, avoid conflicts without an intellectual basis: while conflicts over resources are realistic, the intellectual justifications of imaginary conflicts over imaginary resources are relatively uninteresting.
5) When a primary character makes an important and well-reasoned decision, step through their reasoning. (This should probably be done for both protagonists and antagonists; furthermore, I would do this for supporting characters, for any important decisions they make.) Showing your work prevent you from accidentally causing a character to make a poor decision out of laziness, and establishes the interiority of the character to the readers, exposing beliefs that may not have been made as explicit from their actions as the author thinks. When performed with antagonists, it is a useful tool for the author to avoid straw-man antagonists and avoid giving readers the impression that an antagonist is a straw-man.
As for problems I have with the original formulation of rationalist fiction, I have a few:
1) Assuming all characters behave rationally all the time is not only unrealistic but also problematic. A clear head is a privileged position provided in part by resources like time, energy, food, and lack of mental and physiological stress. Behaving in one’s own interest in a complex and forward-thinking way when any of these resources is removed is a skill that must be learned from practice, and a skill that is rare. Furthermore, the occasional unconsidered decision – so long as it is not *transparently* stupid – injects some entropy into a story that would otherwise become a relatively predictable game of minimax. The general rule of thumb should be that poor decisions are rare and irrational decisions are both even rarer and justified, and that furthermore those decisions should lead to a more interesting world-state than could have been trivially predicted (but one that could with some effort be predicted).
2) While we all at some times learn a great deal from the though processes of others, it’s presumptuous to hold up the internal monologues of rationalist fiction as a model of rational thought. Certainly some readers will find certain ideas and strategies clever; however, an honest author will learn just as much from her own attempt to construct these trains of thought. Rather than considering these as models of rationality, consider them as interesting exercises in critical thinking and rhetoric – to benefit the author as much as the reader.
3) Trying to teach science in these stories is kind of stupid. Even if there’s a plot-justification, it’s liable to seem out of place; furthermore, you risk painting some of your characters into a corner in terms of justifying their familiarity with a topic and their ability to illustrate it – since teaching is a skill, and many characters are completely justified in not having it (particularly if it interferes with their other character traits). While Yudkowsky recommends avoiding it without sufficient plot justification, I would recommend avoiding it altogether unless it cannot be avoided.
4) Claiming that the only piece of media to do this before HPMOR is The World of Null-A betrays a lack of awareness of whole popular genres. Yudkowsky has seen Naruto, but despite his interest in rationalism and intelligent protagonists, is totally unaware of Spiral, Umineko, and every other anime that fits his ruleset to a tee? Having a highly rational protagonist engage in a battle of wits against highly rational antagonists is a pretty common pattern, and in many of these examples even my extensions of the rules are kept. I will admit that Spiral arguably fails in its attempts to keep itself as rational fiction in its second half; however, Yudkowsky described a set of rules defining the best of a genre that is alive and well across the Pacific and is claiming to have invented it.

Interacting with Fiction

Interacting with Fiction

(Originally posted here)
This essay may be disorganized. Treat it as a brain dump on the material, rather than a serious analysis.
I’d like to discuss a few different kinds of interactive fiction, coming from different traditions and with different attributes. I’d like to discuss how the forms themselves play with ideas about constraint and agency, and how treating them seriously might change the way we think about fiction and fictional worlds. I’d also like to discuss how each of these subverts certain ideas about interactive fiction taken from non-interactive fiction, and make connections between these forms and other related forms that I haven’t seen made due to accidents of history and geneology.

Dramatis Personae

I’d like to introduce our fictional forms, along with their attributes, an exemplar of each form, and a few other forms that bear similarities.
Classic IF: Also called the ‘text adventure’ genre, Classic IF (which I will use interchangably with ‘IF’ in this essay) is written fiction in the form of a computer program that can be interacted with via free-form text input. The exemplar I choose is Collosal Cave Adventure. Usually, when people talk about ‘interactive fiction’, they mean this. Most of the attributes of classic IF carry over into the ‘point and click adventure’ genre, because historically, most creators of point and click adventures started out in text adventures; I am treating the ability to click on any object in a crowded scene to be of the same class of player agency as free-form text input for the purposes of this essay and using IF to refer to both forms, for reasons that will become clear in the next section. Genre conventions in classic IF include difficult puzzles and a stance of habitual contempt for the player. Player habits developed by this form include exhaustive searches of possibility space (picking up all objects, trying all verbs, clicking everywhere on the screen).
Visual Novels: Also called ‘VNs’, visual novels consist of sequences of scenes interspersed with player choices. Visual novels differ from classic IF in that player choices are strictly limited — typically no more than four options are ever given, these options are clearly presented to the user (no free-form text input), and the options chosen almost always cause meaningful narrative changes. If classic IF has a maze structure, VNs have a tree structure. I’ve chosen as an exemplar of the form Everlasting Summer, because it’s free & contains many of the genre-typical attributes and features. Genre conventions include plotted routes based on romantic pairings (being associated romantically with a particular character will give you a very different sequence of choices and events than with another character) and framing devices involving time travel. Player habits include re-playing in order to play through all possible routes (or at least, get all possible endings). Many recent twine games are similar in structure to visual novels, and so I would classify them the same way; while some FMV games are best classified as part of the point and click adventure genre, many are better grouped with VNs.
Wiki-based Choose Your Own Adventure stories: While these are not typically considered in essays like this, I think they add several interesting dimensions of possibility. My chosen exemplar is the Infictive Research Wiki Adventure. Wiki adventures have a primary method of play similar to visual novels, but differ in that players can modify scenes and options.
Fan work: Here is where we get a bit meta. Fan work, also called doujinshi, is the blanket term for any creative work related to a franchise not made by the franchise license holders. If we include fanon in this definition, we can classify it as a genuine interaction with a static fictional world that can result in apparent mutations to that fictional world. My exemplar is the fan theories subreddit.
A note on our characters: I have avoided classifying the behemoth of triple-a games as part of interactive fiction because in modern high-budget games, gameplay mechanics and visual sophistication often take priority overstorytelling, and to the extent that storytelling is done it is entirely non-interactive. Unless the player character can meaningfully change the story being told (in a more complex way than winning or losing) and the story being told takes a prominent role in the experience, I would not classify it as interactive fiction. As far as I’m aware, the only recent triple-a game franchise to meet these criteria as well as the least suitable VN has been Mass Effect; however, that franchise also struggled with a percieved betrayal of the fanbase’s expectation for meaningful interaction with the fictional world during the end of the final game. Because our focus is on agency and constraint in interactive storytelling, my position is that games that allow the player character free and detailed movement in 3d space (or indeed 2d space) are, generally speaking, providing levels of agency superfluous to the goal of storytelling and potentially directly counter to it. The fact that these games often mimic the styles of non-interactive forms of storytelling like film for their storytelling elements while having primary gameplay mechanics be of no use during designated storytelling portions indicates that storytelling and gameplay are considered to be separate domains potentially at odds in this kind of game, while the genres I am focusing on have gameplay elements that directly interact with the structure of narrative.

Agency and meta-agency

In classic IF, the player is in control of a player character. His control is, genrally speaking, limited to physics — he can control the player character’s geographical location in the game world, pick up and manipulate objects, and have limited interaction with characters, based on the limits of the command parser and the variety of interactions planned by the game designer. I call this physical and limited-conversational agency: the player can manipulate the physical state of the game and initiate pre-scripted entire conversations.
In a VN, the player is also in control of a player character. However, the player’s decisions are much more limited. Rather than being able to try whatever obscure sequence of words he can imagine, the set of possible options is laid out. The responsibility for enumerating the possibilities of the world has moved from player to developer, which makes for easier play — no rules are hidden. Classic IF will appear more mysterious than a VN of similar complexity, and it is possible to have options in a VN that in classic IF would make it unplayable because the player could not reasonably be expected to guess them. In both IF and VNs, the world is crystallized and all possible narrative paths through the world have been predetermined; however, in a VN, because of the requirement that these options be enumerated, we have limited the player’s agency to actions that have meaningful narrative effects. I call this narrative agency: the player’s actions directly select which path to take through the story tree.
In a wiki adventure, we have both narrative agency and meta-agency. A player can take whatever choices he likes, but can also create new narrative paths. The story is crystallized until the user decides to change it. Furthermore, there is a social element: stories are being mutated by a group, and feedback loops cause strange attractors in the group’s psychology to manifest in the fiction.
Finally, in fan work, we have only meta-agency. Fan work itself has no protagonist; the player navigates his own mental model of a narrative and creates new narratives from it. Once these narratives are released into the world they are crystallized; but, their mutability is ensured because new versions can be created by other fans. Occasionally, fan work creates a culture significantly divorced from the original and invents a very independent narrative universe, based more on trends and patterns in the fanbase than on any genuine attributes of the supposed source material — an extreme form of the feedback loops found in wiki adventure, generating narrative simulacra.


A common habit of VN players is to get 100% completion — to visit all routes and view all possible outcomes. On one hand, this is a show of dedication, and an in-group signaling mechanism: VNs can be extremely long, so getting 100% completion is often time-consuming in addition to requiring some careful note-taking and book-keeping. Some VN engines include features to aid in keeping track of options and routes already taken, or features useful only on re-play (such as skipping over already-seen content). On the other hand, this kind of completionism is a godlike ability to model the entire work completely — akin to viewing every alternate timeline in a Burroughs-Wheeler MWI universe. This completionism is made possible by the enumeration of responses. It is not possible in classic IF, which can have a structure of similar complexity and choices of similar granularity, unless the player determines the set of all possible options and uses them at all possible points — and while engines that can recognize only expressions of the form can be iterated over using all possible combinations of recognized verbs and nouns, some engines support more elaborate language constructs including embedding, which makes enumeration of all possible recognizable strings impossible.
However, our mutable forms (fan work and wiki adventures) are incompletable on yet another order of magnitude. They change along the axis of real time as well as fictional time. While you can take a snapshot of a wiki adventure at any given time and play it to 100% completion, it can be modified the next time you play it — at any point along its timeline. Fan work is even more extreme; by its nature it forks, so any given fanwork is at any given time geneologically connected to several others that differ and are themselves mutable in real time. Fan work is the most amorpous — combining the flexibility of language with mutation along time and geographic axes, yet still operating directly upon narrative without the use of a player-character intermediary. Nevertheless, fan work is a game — a game with no author and no end, created entirely by the players.