Thursday, April 14, 2011

Smoking or nonsmoking?

I have found myself in (okay, perhaps instigated) a lot of conversations about information lately. And there's one tension that keeps coming up, and which never seems to be entirely clear, even though when I sit down and think about it, I feel like I ought to be able to make it clear without too many words. This is an attempt at that.

Information is a double-edged sword. In one sense it is necessarily good for you, but in another sense it need not be. Which sense is right, depends specifically on the question you're trying to answer. If you're trying to find the optimal solution to a problem, then becoming more informed can only help you find it. But finding it not the same thing as attaining it. In some contexts it's important to recognize that information itself is an end goal -- a consumable thing that people may or may not want -- and it is the unfortunate nature of the beast that sometimes you cannot know what information would be good for you unless you know the information in the first place. Which is to say, sometimes finding the optimal solution comes at the expense of attaining it; what if in the process of finding the optimal solution, we get stuck with a bunch of information we don't want? Information doesn't satisfy free disposal!

Because finding and attaining are both worthwhile goals which I go back and forth pretty freely between, it's not hard to see why confusion might arise. I will quite happily agree with you that the pursuit of Truth need not be synonymous with trying to attain your goals in life...but at the same time I will uncompromisingly assert that Truth is uniquely best suited to the task of finding optimal solutions to any problem, including even the question: "What is the best way to attain your goals in life?"

I mean, suppose you are wondering whether cigarettes are right for you. The answer certainly isn't obvious; there are costs and benefits to smoking, both of which depend quite a lot on how your body will react, which unfortunately you won't know unless you actually start smoking. But if you happen to have a sympathetic clone who starts smoking, then your clone can simply report back to you whether it was a good or bad idea in retrospect. Indeed, you may end up in a situation where you don't smoke but your clone does; in the end you both just wanted to know the optimal action, and it's unfortunate that to find out, your clone also had to irrevocably learn the taste of nicotine. Your clone's body now knows something yours doesn't, and it happens that this additional knowledge prevents the clone from attaining the optimum to the original problem. (Even if the clone manages to quit smoking, (s)he will forever carry around a memory that you don't have, making cigarettes annoyingly tempting when encountered here and there, instead of neutral).

More generally, if someone knew everything, and they cared about you, and you knew (somehow) that you could trust them, then they could tell you exactly what was best for you to hear. You would get all the benefits of them finding the optimal solution for you, without being burdened by the information that was necessary in order to find it, information that might prevent you from attaining the goal.

In any case, in the absence of either an experimenting clone or an all-knowing benevolent and trustworthy soul, we must typically ask the much harder question of what information we really should seek out, in order to get as close as we can to attaining our goals, given the extremely limited information we begin with.

And so I say: If we are in a serious discussion about what is optimal, I will invoke truth and logic and rationalism to find the answer, and in this matter you cannot win by departing from that path. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that truth and logic and rationalism are what is optimal.

Is that clear?

1 comment:

  1. Very well said, Xan. Seems perfectly clear to me.

    Now I want to know how to determine _when_ truth and logic and rationalism is optimal.