Anthropic principles

Convenience-sampling lived human experience



An anthropic principle in physics states that we can derive certain observations of the world to be likely based on the fact of our existence in it. The world must be one that can support life or we, as living things, would not be around to see it. This, for example, allows us to deduce that if there were many worlds and we know no good mechanism to choose among them, perhaps all possible worlds do exist but the ones that do not allow us to live are the ones that we never see because those universes are barren of anyone to see. Put another way, the sampling process that produces us observers is important in constraining the types of observations we are likely to make.

In fact, if we do put it that way, then this idea is nothing but a fairly standard tool in statistics, but it is one that we seem to forget fairly often. In some systems, the fact that we are likely, or even able, to make observations of those systems, says something significant about which part of the system we observe. (Observations through a keyhole are likely to be of something that was be hidden behind locked doors.)

Alternative name for this kind of observational bias problem, also from physics: geocentric models. Before Copernicus, it was frequent and natural to regard the earth as the centre of the universe because certainly al the people who cared about it seemed to be on the earth. This was the geocentric perspective. We have leveraged various evidence since then to understand that possibly out viewpoint might be typical from the perspective of humans, but from the perspective of mass in general, not so much. When we admit that the earth might orbit the sun, that is a heliocentric perspective, and we need to collect the evidence to support it despite the fact that we cannot see things directly from the perspective of the sun.

A popular geocentric cosmology before Copernicus.

On this page is a collection of systems that have this kind of observational bias baked in, for my own interest.

It turns out, of course, that I am not the only person to have become curious about this: See, e.g. Katja Grace’s Anthropic principles page Nick Bostrom’s Anthropic Bias for a published book on this theme.

Any argument you find yourself in is an unresolvable one

Anthropic principles meets memetics.

Any statistics you do is at a particular level of uncertainty

The anthropic principle in statistics. Ken Rice said

Re: the anthropic idea, that (I think) statisticians never see really large effects relative to standard errors, because problems involving them are too easy to require a statistician, this sounds a lot like the study of local alternatives, e.g., here and here.

This is old news, of course, but an interesting (and unpublished) variation on it might be of interest to you. When models are only locally wrong from what we assume, it’s possible we can’t ever reliably detect the model mis-specificiation based on the data, but yet that the mis-specification really does matter for inference. Thomas Lumley writes about this here and here.

Any philosophical debate you are in is a semantic quagmire

C’mon, why are we still arguing about free will? Is it because it these words identify something profound or just a deep hole? How about free speech?

You have the perspective of someone who is like you

Because much of our experience of the world is based on how other respond to us, and that is based on features of our appearance that are hard to change, we all live in our own private filter bubble based on the world view. e.g. because I am a confident, white, English-speaking male of a particular generational cohort, I elicit particular responses from the people around me, that people who are not confident, not male, or not white, are less likely to elicit, even in a situation which is otherwise identical. I will not generally experience that alternative experience without role-playing, cross-dressing or blackface, all of which are either taboo or difficult. Vice versa, people who look different to me are less likely to have a good insight into my perspective of the world. The term white privilege, as it is commonly used, presumably describes a particular manifestation of this general phenomenon.

The intriguing phenomenon for me is that, experientially, it seems hard for us to learn to compensate for the difference in world perspective, and we do tend to either erroneously assume our own experience is universal, or at least to do a bad job of understanding the differences between our experiences.

You have the perspective of your peers

TBD. See filter bubbles and/or inference on social graphs.

Hype cycles and Ponzi schemes

Where in the hype cycle do you encounter a product? Which is the most likely level that you will join a Ponzi scheme?

From the original Hobart essay, Sin, Secret, Series A. Every startup needs to know something:

A social media site might turn out to be the reductio ad absurdum of the brand-as-lie/lie-as-Schelling-Point phenomenon, since the entire point of user interaction on the site is to make the lie true. If a site markets itself as the place where a certain kind of cool person hangs out, and says it boldly enough to the right audience, it becomes exactly that.

A corollary to this is that for you, every social media site peaks in utility right after you join. When I was barely cool enough to qualify for Quora, Quora was pretty cool to me — but to anyone who’d been on the site for six months, Quora was a formerly cool site now populated by lamers.

Reverse all advice as necessary

C&C the Reverse advice you hear idea, although I think the framing in my head is broader and better. The concept I would like to get at is mentioned in Bravery Debates: “I feel pretty okay about both being sort of a libertarian and writing an essay arguing against libertarianism, because the world generally isn’t libertarian enough but the sorts of people who read long online political essays generally are way more libertarian than can possibly be healthy.”

We can imagine advice as a statistical problem, where we need to get external validity in our advice. If we are also learners should we not be concerned about how our own hypotheses generalise to the wider world outside our experience?

Rohit draws a distinction of use in Beware The Idle Kantian where he describes the Idle Kantian problem :

Categorical imperative misapplied from thinking the question “if everyone did as I, would it be moral”, into the statement “if everyone did as I think it would be moral”.

To be an Idle Kantian is to believe that any proof that an action isn’t a universal law means that its not lawful and should be toppled forthwith.

The insight that we have trouble working out what the universal aspects of our platform are, that is nice. Indeed, sometime we are OK at this:

… There are entire professions dedicated to not being Idle Kantians. Finance is one, where your entire edge often revolves in being able to do an action such that, if everyone else did it too, will be made irrelevant. Writing is another, where the novel you write or the essay you write has to be one that you wanted to write, not the one that would be best if everyone else wrote too.

I believe the verbal shorthand for this is seeking alpha.


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