Clarifying self-defeating beliefs

In a previous post, I mentioned self-defeating beliefs as a category that I am confused about. I wrote:

How should we reason about self defeating beliefs?

The classic self-defeating belief is “This statement is a lie.” If you believe it, then you are compelled to disbelieve it, eliminating the need to believe it in the first place. Broadly speaking, self-defeating beliefs are those that undermine the justifications for belief in them.

Here’s an example that might actually apply in the real world: Black holes glow. The process of emission is known as Hawking radiation. In principle, any configuration of particles with a mass less than the black hole can be emitted from it. Larger configurations are less likely to be emitted, but even configurations such as a human brain have a non-zero probability of being emitted. Henceforth, we will call such configurations black hole brains.

Now, imagine discovering some cosmological evidence that the era in which life can naturally arise on planets circling stars is finite, and that after this era there will be an infinite stretch of time during which all that exists are black holes and their radiation. In such a universe, the expected number of black hole brains produced is infinite (a tiny finite probability multiplied by an infinite stretch of time), while the expected number of “ordinary” brains produced is finite (assuming a finite spatial extent as well).

What this means is that discovering this cosmological evidence should give you an extremely strong boost in credence that you are a black hole brain. (Simply because most brains in your exact situation are black hole brains.) But most black hole brains have completely unreliable beliefs about their environment! They are produced by a stochastic process which cares nothing for producing brains with reliable beliefs. So if you believe that you are a black hole brain, then you should suddenly doubt all of your experiences and beliefs. In particular, you have no reason to think that the cosmological evidence you received was veridical at all!

I don’t know how to deal with this. It seems perfectly possible to find evidence for a scenario that suggests that we are black hole brains (I’d say that we havealready found such evidence, multiple times). But then it seems we have no way to rationally respond to this evidence! In fact, if we do a naive application of Bayes’ theorem here, we find that the probability of receiving any evidence in support of black hole brains to be 0!

So we have a few options. First, we could rule out any possible skeptical scenarios like black hole brains, as well as anything that could provide anyamount of evidence for them (no matter how tiny). Or we could accept the possibility of such scenarios but face paralysis upon actually encountering evidence for them! Both of these seem clearly wrong, but I don’t know what else to do.

A friend (whose blog Compassionate Equilibria you should definitely check out) left a comment in response, saying:

I think I feel somewhat less confused about self-defeating beliefs (at least when considering the black hole brain scenario maybe I would feel more confused about other cases).

It seems like the problem might be when you say “imagine discovering some cosmological evidence that the era in which life can naturally arise on planets circling stars is finite, and that after this era there will be an infinite stretch of time during which all that exists are black holes and their radiation.” Presumably, whatever experience you had that you are interpreting as this cosmological evidence is an experience that you would actually be very unlikely to have given that you exist in that universe and as a result shouldn’t be interpreted as evidence for existing in such a universe. Instead you would have to think about in what kind of universe would you be most likely to have those experiences that naively seemed to indicate living in a universe with an infinity of black hole brains.

This could be a very difficult question to answer but not totally intractable. This also doesn’t seem to rule out starting with a high prior in being a black hole brain and it seems like you might even be able to get evidence for being a black hole brain (although I’m not sure what this would be; maybe having a some crazy jumble of incoherent experiences while suddenly dying?).

I think this is a really good point that clears up a lot of my confusion on the topic. My response ended up being quite long, so I’ve decided to make it its own post.


*** My response starts here ***


The key point that I was stuck on before reading this comment was the notion that this argument puts a strong a priori constraint on the types of experiences we can expect to have. This is because P(E) is near zero when E strongly implies a theory and that theory undermines E.

Your point, which seems right, is: It’s not that it’s impossible or near impossible to observe certain things that appear to strongly suggest a cosmology with an infinity of black hole brains. It’s that we can observe these things, and they aren’t actually evidence for these cosmologies (for just the reasons you laid out).

That is, there just aren’t observations that provide evidence for radical skeptical scenarios. Observations that appear to provide such evidence, prove to not do so upon closer examination. It’s about the fact that the belief that you are a black hole brain is by construction unmotivateable: this is what it means to say P(E) ~ 0. (More precisely, the types of observations that actually provide evidence for black hole brains are those that are not undermined by the belief in black hole brains. Your “crazy jumble of incoherent experiences” might be a good example of this. And importantly, basically any scientific evidence of the sort that we think could adjudicate between different cosmological theories will be undermined.)

One more thing as I digest this: Previously I had been really disturbed by the idea that I’d heard mentioned by Sean Carroll and others that one criterion for a feasible cosmology is that it doesn’t end up making it highly likely that we are black hole brains. This seemed like a bizarrely strong a priori constraint on the types of theories we allow ourselves to consider. But this actually makes a lot of sense if conceived of not as an a priori constraint but as a combination of two things: (1) updating on the strong experiential evidence that we are not black hole brains (the extremely structured and self-consistent nature of our experiences) and (2) noticing that these theories are very difficult to motivate, as most pieces of evidence that intuitively seem to support them actually don’t upon closer examination.

So (1) the condition that P(E) is near zero is not necessarily a constraint on your possible experiences, and (2) it makes sense to treat cosmologies that imply that we are black hole brains as empirically unsound and nearly unmotivateable.

Now, I’m almost all the way there, but still have a few remaining hesitations.

One thing is that things get more confusing when you break an argument for black hole brains down into its component parts and try to figure out where exactly you went wrong. Like, say you already have a whole lot of evidence that after a finite length of time, the universe will be black holes forever, but don’t yet know about Hawking radiation. So far everything is fine. But now scientists observe Hawking radiation. From this they conclude that black holes radiate, though they don’t have a theory of the stochastic nature of the process that entails that it can in principle produce brains. They then notice that Hawking radiation is actually predicted by combining aspects of QM and GR, and see that this entails that black holes can produce brains. Now they have all the pieces that together imply that they are black hole brains, but at which step did they go wrong? And what should they conclude now? They appear to have developed a mountain of solid evidence that when put together (and combined with some anthropic reasoning) straightforwardly imply that they are black hole brains. But this can’t be the case, since this would undermine the evidence they started with.

We can frame this as a multilemma. The general reasoning process that leads to the conclusion that we are black hole brains might look like:

  1. We observe nature.
  2. We generate laws of physics from these observations.
  3. We predict from the laws of physics that there is a greater abundance of black hole brains than normal brains.
  4. We infer from (3) that we are black hole brains (via anthropic reasoning).

Either this process fails at some point, or we should believe that we are black hole brains. Our multilemma (five propositions, at least one of which must be accepted) is thus:

  1. Our observations of nature were invalid.
  2. Our observations were valid, but our inference of laws of physics from them was invalid.
  3. Our inference of laws of physics from our observations were valid, but our inference from these laws of there being a greater abundance of black hole brains than normal brains was invalid.
  4.  Our inference from the laws of there being a greater abundance of black hole brains from normal brains was valid, but the anthropic step was invalid.
  5. We are black hole brains.

Clearly we want to deny (5). I also would want to deny (3) and (4) – I’m imagining them to be fairly straightforward deductive steps. (1) is just some form of skepticism about our access to nature, which I also want to deny. The best choice, it looks like, is (2): our inductive inference of laws of physics from observations of nature is flawed in some way. But even this is a hard bullet to bite. It’s not sufficient to just say that other laws of physics might equally well or better explain the data. What is required is to say that in fact our observations don’t really provide compelling evidence for QM, GR, and so on.

So the end result is that I pretty much want to deny every possible way the process could have failed, while also denying the conclusion. But we have to deny something! This is clearly not okay!

Summing up: The remaining disturbing thing to me is that it seems totally possible to accidentally run into a situation where your best theories of physics inevitably imply (by a process of reasoning each step of which you accept is valid) that you are a black hole brain, and I’m not sure what to do next at that point.