Career, Physics and Goals (was: Artificial General Intelligence Speculations)

I request this discussion about career be separated into a new forum post. This discussion is very relevant to me as well. This topic is what I tried hiring Elliot for, to get personal philosophy consulting advice.

I can start a new post but I think a moderator is required to split discussions to separate threads.

Physics research itself can be okay, you can pick up worthwhile skills while doing it and academic libraries are good. Academic physics research has all of the problems of working in academia. IME academics are anti-capitalist and biased against non-academics. Going above the PhD. level will often involve teaching undergrads and many undergrads don’t like the subject they’re studying and are bad at it. You’d also have to do lots of paperwork to apply for grants. I also wonder how long government will keep funding academia: it’s basically welfare for intellectuals. I don’t recommend it as a career, but if you’re in it already working out a graceful exit is better than crashing and burning.

Some of it is closer to funding propaganda than to welfare.

In Atlas Shrugged, they only needed one State Science Institute, not hundreds. But, although it’s expensive, there are advantages to having a significant portion of society on the government payroll, directly or indirectly, because it helps control those people. Academics cost a lot per person but they’re some of the elite influencers who do books and TV appearances. The media wouldn’t want to let the general public speak, nor to only talk to themselves – they need some semi-independent allies so they can bring on “independent experts” to say things (they also use e.g. some friendly “business leaders” and non-profit CEOs). Having “experts” with intellectual authority over things is useful, especially when you have a lot of influence over their paychecks/grants/careers. Science funding related to climate change and psychiatry are two examples of how the government pushes agendas through non-governmental partners. BTW, banking, K-12 education, healthcare and utilities are some other areas where the government has a lot of control of stuff outside the government itself, some of which is unacknowledged.

AS:

“Still, I’m worried. The intellectuals are our friends. We don’t want to lose them. They can make an awful lot of trouble.”

“They won’t,” said Fred Kinnan. “Your kind of intellectuals are the first to scream when it’s safe—and the first to shut their traps at the first sign of danger. They spend years spitting at the man who feeds them—and they lick the hand of the man who slaps their drooling faces. Didn’t they deliver every country of Europe, one after another, to committees of goons, just like this one here? Didn’t they scream their heads off to shut out every burglar alarm and to break every padlock open for the goons? Have you heard a peep out of them since? Didn’t they scream that they were the friends of labor? Do you hear them raising their voices about the chain gangs, the slave camps, the fourteen-hour workday and the mortality from scurvy in the People’s States of Europe? No, but you do hear them telling the whip-beaten wretches that starvation is prosperity, that slavery is freedom, that torture chambers are brother-love and that if the wretches don’t understand it, then it’s their own fault that they suffer, and it’s the mangled corpses in the jail cellars who’re to blame for all their troubles, not the benevolent leaders! Intellectuals? You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they’ll swallow anything. I don’t feel so safe about the lousiest wharf rat in the longshoremen’s union: he’s liable to remember suddenly that he is a man—and then I won’t be able to keep him in line. But the intellectuals? That’s the one thing they’ve forgotten long ago. I guess it’s the one thing that all their education was aimed to make them forget. Do anything you please to the intellectuals. They’ll take it.”

“For once,” said Dr. Ferris, “I agree with Mr. Kinnan. I agree with his facts, if not with his feelings. You don’t have to worry about the intellectuals, Wesley. Just put a few of them on the government payroll and send them out to preach precisely the sort of thing Mr. Kinnan mentioned: that the blame rests on the victims. Give them moderately comfortable salaries and extremely loud titles—and they’ll forget their copyrights and do a better job for you than whole squads of enforcement officers.”

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If you want to talk about your issues, make your own topic.

I was aware of that. I looked it up the first time I found out about Deutsch and all I remember finding is this interview (I also did a search just now and couldn’t find anything better). I was not discouraged by DD’s attitude, because

  1. The only potentially decisive criticism of string theory he gives in the interview seems to be that it is “not motivated by trying to solve a problem within theoretical physics,” but that’s simply false.
  2. He said “superstring theory is a worthwhile thing to explore but unlikely to work,” which is almost a quasi-endorsement.

I found an offlist 2010 email to an FoR reader where DD wrote:

I regard string theory as a research project which, it is hoped, will eventually yield testable theories. Be that as it may, my guess is that it will not yield any true theories. Nevertheless, it is a honourable and rational thing to attempt. In addition, there has been a certain amount of hype associated with it, especially in the press, which is a bit silly but no big deal.

Why is that false?

I originally had really long answers to these questions, but I tried to trim my answers to their fundamentals.

I originally planned to be a professor, which is the only profession that can use string theory. More recently I’ve decided that I almost certainly don’t want to do this, because I don’t think I could be a professor and also keep my integrity: Professor salaries come from student tuition and government grants, both of which are scam-like.

In approximate order of importance

  1. I am ambitious and I want to do something groundbreaking, but I no longer think it’s possible to do anything truly important in my field.
  2. It’s a lot of work, which conflicts with other interests that I have. Much of it is soul-draining busywork too, and no matter how much work you’re doing, you aren’t doing nearly enough work to get the ~1 desirable tenure-track professorship that opens up in the world every year.
  3. The salary (especially for PhD students) is extremely low.

If I had a clear answer to that question, I would just do it.

One thing to note is that the term “superstring theory” is kind of vague, and it encompasses a very large set of ideas. Deutsch might have a specific thing in mind, but his statement is false if interpreted to apply to all the things that people mean when they talk about string theory.

Here are some problems in theoretical physics that have motivated string theorists:

  • They were looking for a microscopic description of what we now call quarks. It turns out that the theory describing quarks as open strings was false, but it’s how string theory got started.
  • Classically, black holes can’t have microstates, but we know that they nonetheless must have entropy, which is a problem. String theory offers consistent descriptions of black hole -like structures that have a clear notion of microstates (basically you can model a black hole as a string in a highly excited state).
  • Classical gravitational field theories are notoriously badly behaved when you try to apply the methods of QFT to them. One problem is that they blow up at low length-scales. String theory solves the problem of wanting to have a gravitational theory that is well-behaved at low length-scales, and which reproduces a classical or quasi-classical theory at large length-scales.

There are problems with all the above solutions, but at least they are motivated by problems in theoretical physics.

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Are these thoughts and problems related to CF in some way, or pre-existing?

Writing more quickly/casually/informally/chatty might be better.

I’m going to split these posts into their own topic since they aren’t about AI. Would you prefer I put it in Unbounded or Other?

unbounded

Well, I didn’t have any of these problems before I started learning more philosophy, and the type of philosophy I think is true happens to be related to CF, so my problems are both related to CF and pre-existing.

One part of the thoughts I’m having that is closely related to CF stuff is that I’ve realized (edit: CF has made me realize) the epistemological importance of goals. Basically, my main reason for thinking this:

is that it seems impossible for me to come up with good goals to pursue in my field.

Basically, none of the things being worked on seem to have known current or future practical applications, so there is no objective standard of value. There’s no way to objectively say that one project matters more than another. It’s like playing a video game.

In practice, since people need some standard of value or else they can’t function, I think that the standard of value I was adopting in practice (before I started learning more philosophy) was some mix of the following bad things:

  1. A social, Peter Keating-like standard of value, thinking stuff like, “it’s worthwhile to try to prove this result because others think it would be valuable, and if I can do it I’ll get lots of citations and accolades” or “I need to prove I’m smarter than that other guy.”

  2. A mystic / Platonic standard of value, believing that what I was doing is Important (writ large) because I was accessing these eternal Platonic objects from another realm—things which “practical” people *scoffs* can’t even begin to conceive of.

  3. I had a partially pro-life standard of value, but deluded myself into thinking that the things I was working on were much closer to being applicable in the real world than they actually are.

  4. I became cynical about it all and didn’t work as hard as I otherwise would have worked.

I think a lot of people in string theory or pure math (my field is also closely related to pure math by the way; for a period of time I was strongly considering transitioning into that) are the same, but it’s really hard to know. All I know is that my peers can’t ever give me clear answers for why they are doing what they are doing.

Okay, I’ll try. I tried with this post, but I had to think hard about what I wanted to say.

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Do you know what my answer to that question is?

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Having read Dialog: Non-Consumption of Philosophy · Elliot Temple, I think I can make an educated guess that you think doing philosophy full time would be better.

Do you have a disagreement with my reasoning? Regarding the abstract issue. Not regarding what you should do with your life. Never mind that. Switching careers is revolutionary and problematic. Let’s just focus on the conceptual issues for now.

Also, here’s a short viewpoint for discussion which should be easier to engage with than the dialog, but you can also quote from the dialog if you find it useful.


People in all fields make systematic errors due to bad philosophy (which is common/widespread), because they’re all using some philosophy in important roles in their activities. So there’s significant risk of doing things that won’t work or are bad.

(I really mean “all fields”, not all other fields. Philosophers screw up due to bad philosophy!)

Philosophy is currently unsafe to outsource to experts. You can’t just assume the mainstream views are right, build on them, and focus on your own field. Lots of mainstream philosophy is wrong.

Philosophy is the most fundamental field. (Specifically epistemology: stuff about critical thinking, how to create, use, judge and deal with ideas, how to learn, how to resolve disagreements between ideas, etc.) When you make errors and check your premises, you will end up having to deal with philosophy (and other things too, but definitely philosophy).

Philosophy is a pretty dead/empty field. There’s almost no good work being done in it currently. This has some advantages and disadvantages.

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I think you found CR a few years ago and CF more recently. When did you find Objectivism and what’s your history with it? Is there any other philosophy that’s important to you?

The abstract point I agree with. Like, a lot of people are wasting their lives doing something that would be a complete waste of time if their philosophical premises are wrong, and they evade thinking about it, implicitly adopting someone else’s philosophical ideas in a second-handed way.

Correct.

I found it in ~December of 2020. My history with it is literally just that I’ve read a bunch of Rand/Peikoff and listened to lectures/podcasts. I have also spent a significant amount of time (waayyyyy too much tbh) debating with a friend of mine, who is somewhat sympathetic to Objectivism but is not an Objectivist. We haven’t been doing things in a systematic way or using anything like paths forward, but I do think it has really helped me understand the ideas better.

Short answer: no.

Long answer:

I used to be interested in mainstream philosophy, and the things that they consider problems (is/ought, hard problem of consciousness, how do we know that we aren’t brains in a vat, what are we doing when we do math, what do Godel’s theorems really mean, many-world semantics and the principal principle, AI alignment, anthropic selection, free will, interpretations of quantum mechanics, weird stuff like Newcomb’s paradox, and more). edit: It was only a passing interest though, I never spent huge amounts of time digging into it.

Most of those things that mainstream philosophy considers problems are things that I think CR / Deutsch’s ideas either solved or exposed as non-problems, but admittedly I haven’t thought about some of them in a long time, so I might still value some of that stuff.

I don’t remember being a particularly huge fan of any individual philosophers until I found Deutsch/Popper, probably because none of them actually seemed to solve any problems. I want to read Aristotle at some point. Also some of the philosophers or quasi-philosophers you list on the FI books list look interesting, like Godwin.