Simplicio and Sophisticus

Previously (Slate Star Codex): The Whole City is Center

Epistemic Status:

Image result for two spiderman meme

Note that after writing a lot of this, I checked and Sniffnoy anticipated a lot of this in the comments, but I think both takes are necessary.

There are many useful points to Scott’s philosophical dialogue, The Whole City is Center, between Simplicio and Sophisticus. I want to point out an extra one I think is important.

Here’s a short summary of some key points of disagreement they have.

Simplicio claims that there are words people use to describe concepts, and we should use those words to describe those concepts, even if those words have unfortunate implicaitons. Say true things about the world. Larry is lazy.

Sophisticus says no, if those words have unfortunate implications we shouldn’t use them. And in many cases, where the unfortunate implications are inevitable because people have those implications about the concept being described, we shouldn’t use any word at all to describe the concept. Larry can be counted on not to do things. But we shouldn’t treat lazy as a thing, because people think being lazy is bad and there’s no utility in thinking Larry is bad.

Simplicio says we should use whatever techniques work, regardless of whether they are negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, before the act, after the act, too big, too small, you name it, if that’s the system that works. And if people’s natural instincts are to do things that work best as a system, but are sometimes ‘overkill’ or have unfortunate side effects in a particular case, you should accept that.

Sophisticus says no. Studies show negative reinforcement reinforcement doesn’t work, so don’t do it. Studies show harsher prisons don’t deter people so don’t use them. You should only use exactly what is needed to cause a direct effect in each situation. Or, if you need to use deterrence, what the evidence says will actually deter people.

Sophisticus says, we should look upon motivations like ‘I want this person to suffer’ with horror, and assume something has gone horribly wrong. (He makes no comment on feeling ‘I want this particular person to be happy’, which doesn’t come up.)

Simplicio says, if having seemingly unreasonable desires in some situations, including potential future situations, is the way persons and groups get better results, stop looking at it as some crazy or horrible thing. People’s motivations are messy, they have lots of weird side effects like loving kittens (I would note, so much so that I am punished for not loving them, basically because not having bad side effects of a thing is evidence of not having the thing itself). Going all ‘these instincts seem superficially nice so we’re going to approve, and these instincts seem superficially not nice so we’re going to disapprove’ seems wrong.

Sophisticus says, that by refusing to use concepts like lazy, he has a value disagreement with Simplicio and those who do use the lazy concept. Because those people embrace the implications.

Simplicio says no, this isn’t about value disagreement.

But then, near the end, Sophisticus catches Simplicio by saying he’s refusing in context to use the term ‘value difference’ because he doesn’t like its implications, and insisting only upon some Platonic ideal version of value difference. Which, Sophisticus says, makes him a hypocrite! Rather than point out either that no, it doesn’t, or maybe it does and you get non-zero points for noticing but asking for people not to ever be a hypocrite is not a valid move, he instead gets so embarrassed he flees town, and only redeems himself ten years later by pointing out what happens if you reject the unfortunate implications of the term ‘city center.

The most important lesson is, as Sniffnoy observes, the characters have the wrong names. Simplicio should be Sophisticus. Sophisticus should be Simplicio.

(I will continue to refer to them by Scott’s names here.)

Sophisticus wants to solve the world by getting rid of all the things he doesn’t like, and all the things he can’t properly quantify. He only accepts actions that are based on fully described and measured reasons. He will accept second or third order causes and consequences, but only and exactly those with well-described and quantified causal pathways.

Then he says that such actions are intelligent, sophisticated and advanced. They reject the irrational, the non-scientific. So they denigrate people who think otherwise with labels like Simplicio, and pretend that word doesn’t have unfortunate implications. Because it’s never all right to label people, in ways that have unfortunate and false implications (e.g. that a person is simple or stupid) unless you catch someone labeling people.

Simplicio accepts that the world is complex, and that our systems for dealing with it are approximations and sets of rules and values that won’t always do the locally optimal thing, and that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Simplicio is comfortable with the idea that correlations and associations exist even when we don’t like them.

Sophisticus is what Nassim Taleb calls the Intellectual, Yet Idiot (IYI). By doing things that are more abstract, and discarding most of the valid and useful information and relationships, they fool themselves and others into thinking that they are smarter and more sophisticated. Simplicio is advocating for Taleb’s typical grandmother, who has learned what actually works and survives, even if she doesn’t understand all the reasons or implications.

Sophisticus is vastly simplifying the world.

He simplifies the world by cutting out the parts he does not like, and the parts he does not understand.

This allows him to create a model of the world. That’s great! That’s super useful! I love me some models, and you can’t have models without throwing a lot of stuff out. Often the model gives much better answers despite this, and allows us to learn much and make better decisions.  What makes a model great is that when you get rid of all the fuzziness, you get rid of a lot of noise, and you can manipulate and do math to what is left. Over time, you can add more stuff back into the model, and make it more sophisticated.

When you start thinking in models, or like a rationalist, or an economist, either in general or about a particular thing, that kind of thinking starts out deeply, deeply stupid. You must count on your other ways of thinking to contain the damage and point out the mistakes, to avoid taking these stupid conclusions too seriously, rather than as additional perspectives, as points of departure and future development, and places to learn. It goes way beyond Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People.

Drop stuff from your model, and you fail to understand or optimize for those things. If you then optimize based on your model, the things you left out of the model will be left out, and sacrificed, because they’re using optimization pressure and atoms that can be used for something else. The results might or might not be an improvement. As the optimizations get more extreme, we should expect bigger disruptions and sacrifices of key excluded elements, so that had better be worth it.

One danger is that many people who develop the models either do so because they are really bad at navigating without models, or because they realized how bad everyone is at navigating without models. This provides motivation to work on the models even if they aren’t yet any good, but it also increases temptation to forget that the model is a map and not the territory.

I think this is related to how those who found a business are as a group completely delusional about their chances of success, but also that founding a business is a generally very good idea. Motivating the long term investment and endurance of high costs only works in such cases, even if many more people would be better off in the long run if they did it.

The struggle is, how does one combine these two approaches. Build up one’s models and toolboxes, to allow systematic thinking, while not losing the power of what you’re ignoring, and slowly incorporating that stuff into your systematic thinking. Otherwise, no matter how simplistic the average person might be, you risk being even more so.





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11 Responses to Simplicio and Sophisticus

  1. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  2. sniffnoy says:

    Hm — I said that Sophisticus and Simplicio have the wrong names insofar as Simplicio has properly learned how not to be an essentialist, whereas Sophisticus is basically thinking like an essentialist, who knows the words “there are no essences” but hasn’t properly grasped the implications. I don’t know that I’d make that claim more generally. Honestly both these positions, taken as bigger wholes, seem pretty weird to me; neither seems like anything I’m used to seeing. Note, btw, how are clearly responding to a third position who isn’t present.

    So let’s map out their responses to two questions — A. “Does laziness exist?” (noting that they will each interpret that question differently) and B. “Should we punish those who perpetrate wrongs, and if so, why? Do the wicked deserve to suffer?” (I guess that’s multiple questions stuffed into one, duh)

    Here’s Scott’s Simplicio and Sophisticus, as I understand them: (Note I’m using brackets to indicate my own clarifications that the speakers would not in fact say)

    Simplicio: A. Yes, laziness [meaning the behavior] exists. [And laziness-the-essence does not, since essences don’t exist.] B. Yes, we should punish wrongs, the reason being for deterrence. And if our instincts say that the wicked deserve to suffer, well, maybe we should follow those as a guideline for how much deterrence is appropriate. That’s not really saying that they do deserve to suffer in some fundamental moral sense, but if a person feels that way there’s no real need to correct them.

    Sophisticus: A. No, laziness [meaning the essence] does not exist. Laziness-the-behavior does, sure, but that’s not what people mean by “laziness”. B. Yes, we should punish wrongs, the reason being for deterrence. But that doesn’t mean people who commit transgressions deserve to suffer in any fundamental moral sense. We should empirically determine what sort of deterrence works best and use that, not rely on our instincts.

    By contrast, here’s the three I think I usually see:

    Essentialist: A. Yes, laziness [meaning the essence, with all its implications, moral and otherwise] exists. B. You punish people who do something wrong because they deserve it, duh. [Notice how deterrence, or any reason relating at all to facts rather than directly to values, is not mentioned.]

    “Half-essentialist”: A. No, laziness [meaning the essence] does not exist [and I would object to the category laziness-the-behavior, and especially the use of the word “laziness” for it, for various reasons, among which are that that’s just not what the word means]. B. Since people’s actions are just determined by their environment, those who do wrong do not deserve punishment. [Again notice the focus on desert rather than deterrence.]

    Non-essentialist: A. Yes, laziness [meaning the behavior] exists. [And laziness-the-essence does not, since essences don’t exist.] B. Yes, we should punish wrongs, the reason being for deterrence. But that doesn’t mean people who commit transgressions deserve to suffer in any fundamental moral sense. We should empirically determine what sort of deterrence works best and use that, not rely on our instincts.

    (The second of these is called “half-essentialist” because it’s someone who has incorporated the verbal belief that essences don’t exist into what is still fundamentally an essentialist worldview.)

    So yeah — Scott’s Simplicio and Sophisticus don’t map very well to this. His Sophisticus oddly mashes together the half-essentialist and non-essentialist viewpoints. A 1/4-essentalist, you might say. :P His Simplicio is more coherent — Simplicio is, it would seem, a non-essentialist who is nonetheless willing to trust the actions of the essentialists around him as likely correct, even if he actually disagrees with the reasons for those actions. Which is an interesting point of view, but not, I don’t think, a common one like Scott implies it to be.

    • TheZvi says:

      That makes sense (and having read this I have zero idea why it got flagged, but the rest of the spam filter contained things that were obviously spam, so it’s generally pretty good?)

      I especially like the name half-essentialist.

      I also think that Scott is indeed pointing at a different distinction, at least in additional to the one you’re pointing at – the idea that the Essentialist above, because they say that without explicitly saying things about deterrence to justify it, is doing a simplistic or nonsensical thing, whereas the non-essentialist is doing something more advanced, whereas in many ways he’s actually doing something foolish because he’s forcing himself to re-invent the wheel. Which makes me think whether this all relates more to Zeroing Out than I thought, and how that actually relates to Chesterson’s Fence? Hmm.

      • sniffnoy says:

        I mean ultimately the question becomes which actually works better, right? It can be worth spending the effort to reinvent things if you do in fact reinvent them better. I don’t think there’s any way to determine that in advance. In actual fact I think Sophisticus is right on this one, that this is a case where the reinvention is worth it, but I don’t know how we’d have any idea as to the matter had Sophisticus not tried, you know? If it had truly worked out to be more or less the same, then we could have said, like Simplicio, that the essentialists, while not correct in facts and philosophy, were right all along in action; but it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case, and more importantly, if it were the case, I don’t see how you’d determine in advance that it was the case and that reinvention is a waste of effort here.

      • TheZvi says:

        In this particular case, I think the reinvention *can* be worth it if done well. It can also backfire, if you forget that lazy is bad and we need to disapprove of and punish bad things or we see a lot more of them. I often see people saying, basically, “When you encounter poor behavior along axis X, [basically actual everything anyone ever tries] ends up simply making things worse, you’re just making the people suffer, so instead Stop It, and when people do the problem goes up an order of magnitude, because of course it does.

        My favorite reinvention of lazy was when I was learning to code (still very much a work in progress, mind you!) and my friend Alan looked at what I’d written and said “You’re not lazy enough!” Which I think is an important insight here…

      • sniffnoy says:

        Also, quick addition here, I think my claim that Sophisticus is indeed correct on the issue of punishment becomes much clearer when you imagine the debate happening not in the modern day but rather back in the 18th century. If Simplicio’s position that the essentialists are correct in action if not philosophy seems reasonable now, I think it’s largely only because the essentialists these days have already, in the centuries since then, incorporated into their action substantial parts of Sophisticus’s conclusions.

      • sniffnoy says:

        (And now things are out of sequence. :P )

        TheZvi: Yes, that’s an important point.

    • sniffnoy says:

      [Mostly not a reply to you, just some quick corrections to my comment above.]

      I guess a better name for “non-essentialist” would be “reductionist”; better to describe things by what they are rather than what they aren’t. Of course, as you and Scott point out, that’s not the only possible reductionist position, as Simplicio is a reductionist but disagrees with it.

      Also I think my description of “half-essentialist” was a little off. Above I described it as someone who states a verbal belief in reductionism but is still really using essentialism; I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s someone who’s observed various manifestations of the fact of reductionism (e.g., brain damage affects behavior) but is, as mentioned, trying to fit these facts into a framework that is still essentialist rather than reductionist.

      Also where I wrote “Note, btw, how are clearly responding…” I obviously meant “Note, btw, how both are clearly responding…”

  3. sniffnoy says:

    Hm I wrote a comment but it looks like it got caught in the spam filter. (Either that or comments just, like, don’t display until approved; having commented here before I should remember whether that’s the case but I don’t.) Anyway if it is caught in the spam filter would you mind fishing it out? Thank you!

  4. Quixote says:

    Your point about model and how they simplify great and to good effect, but sometimes at cost, is well taken and reminds me of a paper which I think should probably be more widely read in the rational sphere.
    The paper discusses models and thinking with models and talks a little bit about what makes models good or bad. One of the highlights is it gives a counterintuitive example from cartography which illustrates how sometimes moving to a better modeling paradigm can result in worse understanding and worse predictions (at least temporally until the new paradigm gets more filled in).
    Overall it’s a little econ heavy for a community who’s background is mostly in comp-sci, but it’s got some clear thought about an important subject.

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