Making History Available

There is a habit of thought which I call the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence. Journalists who, for example, talk about the Terminator movies in a report on AI, do not usually treat Terminator as a prophecy or fixed truth. But the movie is recalled—is available—as if it were an illustrative historical case. As if the journalist had seen it happen on some other planet, so that it might well happen here.

There is an inverse error to generalizing from fictional evidence: failing to be sufficiently moved by historical evidence. The trouble with generalizing from fictional evidence is that it is fiction—it never actually happened. It’s not drawn from the same distribution as this, our real universe; fiction differs from reality in systematic ways. But history has happened, and should be available.

In our ancestral environment, there were no movies; what you saw with your own eyes was true. Is it any wonder that fictions we see in lifelike moving pictures have too great an impact on us? Conversely, things that really happened, we encounter as ink on paper; they happened, but we never saw them happen. We don’t remember them happening to us.

The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read. You may say with your lips that it is “truth,” rather than “fiction,” but that doesn’t mean you are being moved as much as you should be. Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.

Once upon a time, I gave a Mysterious Answer to a mysterious question, not realizing that I was making exactly the same mistake as astrologers devising mystical explanations for the stars, or alchemists devising magical properties of matter, or vitalists postulating an opaque “élan vital” to explain all of biology.

When I finally realized whose shoes I was standing in, there was a sudden shock of unexpected connection with the past. I realized that the invention and destruction of vitalism—which I had only read about in books—had actually happened to real people, who experienced it much the same way I experienced the invention and destruction of my own mysterious answer. And I also realized that if I had actually experienced the past—if I had lived through past scientific revolutions myself, rather than reading about them in history books—I probably would not have made the same mistake again. I would not have come up with another mysterious answer; the first thousand lessons would have hammered home the moral.

So (I thought), to feel sufficiently the force of history, I should try to approximate the thoughts of an Eliezer who had lived through history—I should try to think as if everything I read about in history books had actually happened to me. (With appropriate reweighting for the availability bias of history books—I should remember being a thousand peasants for every ruler.) I should immerse myself in history, imagine living through eras I only saw as ink on paper.

Why should I remember the Wright Brothers’ first flight? I was not there. But as a rationalist, could I dare to not remember, when the event actually happened? Is there so much difference between seeing an event through your eyes—which is actually a causal chain involving reflected photons, not a direct connection—and seeing an event through a history book? Photons and history books both descend by causal chains from the event itself.

I had to overcome the false amnesia of being born at a particular time. I had to recall—make available—all the memories, not just the memories which, by mere coincidence, belonged to myself and my own era.

The Earth became older, of a sudden.

To my former memory, the United States had always existed—there was never a time when there was no United States. I had not remembered, until that time, how the Roman Empire rose, and brought peace and order, and lasted through so many centuries, until I forgot that things had ever been otherwise; and yet the Empire fell, and barbarians overran my city, and the learning that I had possessed was lost. The modern world became more fragile to my eyes; it was not the first modern world.

So many mistakes, made over and over and over again, because I did not remember making them, in every era I never lived …

And to think, people sometimes wonder if overcoming bias is important.

Don’t you remember how many times your biases have killed you? You don’t? I’ve noticed that sudden amnesia often follows a fatal mistake. But take it from me, it happened. I remember; I wasn’t there.

So the next time you doubt the strangeness of the future, remember how you were born in a hunter-gatherer tribe ten thousand years ago, when no one knew of Science at all. Remember how you were shocked, to the depths of your being, when Science explained the great and terrible sacred mysteries that you once revered so highly. Remember how you once believed that you could fly by eating the right mushrooms, and then you accepted with disappointment that you would never fly, and then you flew. Remember how you had always thought that slavery was right and proper, and then you changed your mind. Don’t imagine how you could have predicted the change, for that is amnesia. Remember that, in fact, you did not guess. Remember how, century after century, the world changed in ways you did not guess.

Maybe then you will be less shocked by what happens next.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks,” in Global Catastrophic Risks, ed. Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 91–119. ↩︎

Failing to Learn from History

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