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

Happy Birthday to Me! I’m off to Geek Summer Camp! July 21, 2012

(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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