Happy Birthday to Me! I’m off to Geek Summer Camp!

(Not that one, but I do strongly recommend CTY to any readers with children).

I’m in California today and for the rest of the week for a rationality minicamp run by the people behind Less Wrong and the Singularity Institute.  This is the kind of summer camp where, before you go, they send you and two close friends a detailed survey, so they have a baseline to assess the impact of the camp on you in a year when they do the follow up.  Squee!

As a result, posting will be a little less frequent and more of it will be of the “This is an awesome thing to read!  Want to discuss it in the comments?” genre.  I’ve also had a folder for a while of some of my favorite LessWrong posts, so I’ll be featuring some of those for people who didn’t want to wade through all the Sequences without a tasting course, first.

So to start off with, I obviously recommend Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which along with, um, well, The Draco Trilogy is my favorite fanfic.  And “An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem” is perhaps the most logical way to begin, but I recognize that both of them can feel like a bit of a heavy lift.

So I like to point people to “Archimedes’s Chronophone” as an amuse-bouche.  The concept is a little weird, so I’m going to use a long pull quote:

Archimedes of Syracuse was the greatest mathematician and engineer of the ancient world. Imagine that Archimedes invented a temporal telephone (“chronophone” for short) which lets him talk to you, here in the 21st century. You can make suggestions! For purposes of the thought experiment, ignore the morality of altering history – just assume that it is proper to optimize post-Archimedean history as though it were simply the ordinary future. If so, it would seem that you are in a position to accomplish a great deal of good.

Unfortunately, Archimedes’s chronophone comes with certain restrictions upon its use: It cannot transmit information that is, in a certain sense, “too anachronistic”.

You cannot suggest, for example, that women should have the vote. Maybe you could persuade Archimedes of Syracuse of the issue, and maybe not; but it is a moot point, the chronophone will not transmit the advice. Or rather, it will transmit the advice, but it will come out as: “Install a tyrant of great personal virtue, such as Hiero II, under whose rule Syracuse experienced fifty years of peace and prosperity.” That’s how the chronophone avoids transmitting overly anachronistic information – it transmits cognitive strategies rather than words. If you follow the policy of “Check my brain’s memory to see what my contemporary culture recommends as a wise form of political organization”, what comes out of the chronophone is the result of Archimedes following the same policy of looking up in his brain what his era lauds as a wise form of political organization.

You might think the next step would be to prepare a careful series of Plato-style philosophical arguments, starting from known territory, and intended to convince an impartial audience, with which to persuade Archimedes that all sentient beings should be equal before the law. Unfortunately, if you try this, what comes out on Archimedes’s end is a careful series of Plato-style philosophical analogies which argue that wealthy male landowners should have special privileges. You followed the policy of “Come up with a line of philosophical argument intended to persuade a neutral observer to my own era’s point of view on political privilege,” so what comes out of the chronophone is what Archimedes would think up if he followed the same cognitive strategy.

What strategy would you need to use to get Archimedes to come to a new conclusion?

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  • Mark


    • jenesaispas

      Glad I’m not the only one!

  • Jubal DiGriz

    Under these extremely confining limitations, is it even possible to present new ideas? As far as I can tell the phone will not transmit anything that Archimedes could possibly disagree with.

    Even presenting objective facts would not appear to work. For instance, if I was going to try to persuade Archimedes of the heliocentric model by only offering a long list of detailed naked-eye observations of planetary movements, it seems the chronophone would only transmit data that would not contradict a geocentric model.

    If Archimedes is unable to to receive data OR ideas that contradict anything he thinks, logically there is no way to change the way he thinks. The only loophole I can think of is some method of exploiting some aspect of human psychology to illogically coax Archimedes into new thoughts without introducing novel premises. Perhaps by getting him into a hypnotic state or coaching him into making and consuming an amount of LSD (or are novel instructions forbidden too?) I could get Archimedes’ brain to create novel thoughts, but I would have little control over what those thoughts were.

  • On the chronophone, I see two possibilities. The constraint the chronophone really imposes is that you can’t tell Archimedes anything he couldn’t in principle have already known, if communication in his time had been less subject to accident. Thus the only way to be certain of getting around the chronophone is by selective presentation of ideas, positions, and arguments, that people in the third century BC already had access to, considered as a group.

    Thus one strategy would be (assuming you yourself had the knowledge to do it) to present oneself as the fictional ideal person who had the (from one’s own perspective) best constellation of ideas, positions, and arguments available in the day, and the most one could do is advise Archimedes to think (at least for the sake of argument) more like this (extremly eclectic) person and hope that his own ingenuity makes the connections. In ethics, for instance, one might give Platonic arguments for gender egalitarianism and Stoic arguments for cosmopolitanism, etc. That’s not much different from teaching the best ideas of the ancient Greeks to modern students, actually.

    In reality, though, we could never do this in any more than a crude way. Our knowledge of thought in the Hellenistic period is patchy and, depending as it often does on later sources, reconstructed; except on some points, we would never quite know what we were getting through, and could never be sure that we were overlooking some better view that Archimedes could in principle have known. A very great many of the comments on the post at Less Wrong massively underestimate the difficulty of this problem, for instance. One could use a different approach that gives up caring about whether we could ever know what Archimedes was getting, and just throw everything at him we could in the hope that something sticks. Some of it would, and some of that would be things we wouldn’t have expected. And that’s really not much different from ordinary teaching, either.

  • Slan21

    You talk to him about the singularity and other futuristic / progressive ideas ?

    Nice try to promote your teachings, Less Wrong :p

    • But how does it help to tell Archimedes to get initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries? 🙂

      • Slan21

        It seems any kind of argument is translated to some equivalent in Archimedes’era (like if i defend the dominant present opinion on something, it will defend his era’s dominant opinion).
        So if you want him to come to conclusions in advance for his time, you have to defend thesis in advance for our time (random guess, singularity ?…).
        In short, you have to talk to him exactly like you would talk to one of your contemporary if you wanted to make our society progress.

        That’s my guess, but i still find the problem unclearly defined.

        • I did get that, I’m just taking a dim view of the ideology sold at Less Wrong.

          Basically I think if Archimedes follows the cognitive strategies that nowadays lead to Less Wrong “rationalism” he’s more likely to end up with one of the mysteries than with democracy or the scientific method.

          Becoming a Pythagorean would be an even better fit, but he’s already living too late for that.

  • math_geek

    Well, that problem makes the idea of offering social reform seem very difficult. Perhaps the answer to this is science. Do I have time to do some research? A new farming technique that produces a lot of new food will pay large dividends not just to Greece, but to any people that adopt them. You wouldn’t even have to convince him of something he wasn’t prepared to believe. You’d just have to convince him to try it and see if it worked.

    The new wealth of food would accelerate social reforms as well. More food has always meant more people able to tackle philosophical, scientific, and moral questions. You’d just have to trust the past to figure it out for themselves.

    • suburbanbanshee

      Aristotle is a philosopher and a gentleman. He doesn’t get his hands dirty with yucky farming. If he’d wanted to be a farmer, he would have stayed home on his father’s tiny postage stamp of olive tree orchard.

      Anyways, Aristotle didn’t believe in experimentation, per se. As Sor Juana de la Cruz noted, if Aristotle had ever worked in a kitchen he would have been a better natural philosopher.

      • suburbanbanshee

        Oh, it’s Archimedes.

        Well, good luck getting him to notice you talking to him, then. The chronophone can ring all day, and he’ll be too busy concentrating to notice.

  • Skittle

    Well it seems like the thought experiment is constructed to direct you to use the standard methods used by “Less Wrong” and others, since those are the methods that they consider reliable (and will presumably be accepted by the chronophone). However, if you go into it thinking “I will use a method I uncovered through reading and private thinking, which I believe will allow me to reliably correct errors in my thinking and encourage me to be less wrong”, then surely (by rights) Archimedes will follow a different method which he has arrived at through reading and thinking, and which HE thinks will allow him to reliably correct errors in his thinking and encourage him to be less wrong.

    And Archimedes is already doing that. The chronophone, as defined (unless you play games to exclude your own personal mental strategy) cannot have Archimedes think or do anything he is not already thinking or doing.

  • grok87

    Hi Leah,
    Have fun at the rationality minicamp. I clicked through to their website (it does look interesting) and they mention the word “retreat” several times. Interestingly today’s gospel again (perhaps eerily) seems rather apropos to your life/post:


    Mk 6:30-34
    “The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.
    He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
    People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.
    So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place…”


  • AHBritton

    Happy birthday fellow cancer!

  • R.C.

    Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, but it seems to me as if the solution is to propose thought experiments to Archimedes intended not to convey your own ideas, but to lead him to discover errors in his own ideas.

    Then, once he discovers an error which seems insoluble in the context of his own society, ask him to use his imagination to try to come up with wild ideas about what some alternative society in a very different place might have done to “fix” that error.

    The idea here is to first make him a stranger and an orphan in his own location and his own time by leading him to the conclusion that something here and now is wrong. Make him feel that his own society doesn’t quite make logical sense, that it’s untenable. Push him to intellectually “leave home,” so to speak, in search of explanations or of frameworks of thought that are more internally consistent than that of his society (now that the framework of his society has been debunked, not by you saying so, but by you asking him probing questions until he says so).

    Once you’ve done that, you need to make sure that his imagination is free to run in any direction it needs to run in order to find a solution. So you propose to him hypotheticals, not about the future, but about distant lands where they do things differently. “Strange but true, Archimedes, there’s this distant land where the women are in charge of everything. They say it’s called Amazonia. Perhaps the error of their odd social structure is the mirror-image of the intractable error you’ve been thinking about in your own?” Let him stew on that for awhile, then ask, “I wonder what a society might look like in which folks didn’t make either error, in either direction, but steered some kind of middle path. What would that look like?”

    In the end, you’re not trying to transmit anachronistic data. You’re trying to lead him to see logic problems in his own framework of assumptions — and logic is at home in any age — and then lead him to use his own imagination to come up with solutions.

    That way you’re not transmitting any anachronisms; he’s inventing them out of necessity.

    • R.C.

      Well, I thought I had a good idea, there.

      But I’d only read the excerpt given by Leah, here.

      Then I went and read the original, which includes some rules beyond those excerpted here. One of them is:

      “You might think the next step would be to prepare a careful series of Plato-style philosophical arguments, starting from known territory, and intended to convince an impartial audience, with which to persuade Archimedes that all sentient beings should be equal before the law. Unfortunately, if you try this, what comes out on Archimedes’s end is a careful series of Plato-style philosophical analogies which argue that wealthy male landowners should have special privileges. You followed the policy of “Come up with a line of philosophical argument intended to persuade a neutral observer to my own era’s point of view on political privilege,” so what comes out of the chronophone is what Archimedes would think up if he followed the same cognitive strategy.

      The chronophone, to prevent paradox, will not transmit arguments that you constructed already knowing the desired destination. And because this is a law of physics governing time travel, the chronophone cannot be fooled. No matter how cleverly you construct your neutral-sounding philosophical argument, the chronophone “knows” you started with the desired conclusion already in mind.”

      So, okay, nevermind.

  • Am envious of your rationality mini-camp (what a fantastic idea), and pleased to see on their website that they plan to expand to more dates and more cities in the future. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get something like this added to, say, standard public school curriculum…

  • keddaw

    If you’re a US citizen you could share your strong doubts (if you had them) about the existence of gods – as belief is the prevailing view for both Archimedes’s time and yours it would come out unchanged.

    If you’re libertarian, you can argue against the benefits of strong government or standing army, military adventurism (also available to many liberals), your doubts about unquestioning patriotism and many other things that we have failed miserably to move on from from Archimedes’s time.

  • Ted Seeber

    GK Chesterton’s advice on Tradition is what I’d transmit, in the hopes that giving the dead a vote would change the nature of Greek Democracy.

  • It seems pretty clear that you can get Archie to consider new arguments if you make carefully reasoned and logical arguments for positions that you yourself or your times don’t share.

  • RED

    I just went and spent all my free hours of the last couple days reading “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” due to this post, and it was so worth it. But why don’t you have a link to “The Draco Trilogy”? I have a hard time finding fan-fiction I actually like, so it would be awesome to find more. I am relatively new to this blog, so if you already mentioned this fanfic elsewhere, sorry for bringing it up again. 🙂

    • leahlibresco

      I’ve got it in pdf form, since the author pulled the fic once she got book contracts to write non-fanfic YA. Try googling “Draco Trilogy” and “Cassandra Claire” to find download links.

  • Maybe I’m the only one, but I would totally clue him in on some of the more basic principles of physics and mathematics which would appear in the next millennia that would be understandable in his language. At a minimum, get him thinking about “every action… equal and opposite” and Euclidian geometry. Or you could tell him, “It is a good idea to make sure you are in a safe, secure location when the Romans attack” (so that he could survive a bit longer).

    If I *were* to try to effect social change, I would just borrow from the Church Fathers, Augustine especially. While there may be 600 years separating Archimedes and the theologian, many of Augustine’s arguments are not terribly anachronistic. Much of the first half of the book “City of God” would be very appropriate for Archimedes. The only exceptions I can think of are the parts where Augustine is referencing events which happened in the intervening years, and those might be altered sufficiently by the chronophone that it would not practically matter.