Complexity of value
In general, human choices do compress; someone who wants to survive will, over the course of a lifetime, take many different actions, and pursue many different goals, in order to survive. In this sense, human choices definitely compress beyond the raw list of actions.
But people don't just want to survive - although you can compress many human activities to that desire, you cannot compress all of human existence into it. The human equivalents of a utility function, our terminal values, contain many different elements that are not strictly reducible to one another. William Frankena offered this list of things which many cultures and people seem to value (for their own sake rather than strictly for their external consequences):
- "Life, consciousness, and activity; health and strength; pleasures and satisfactions of all or certain kinds; happiness, beatitude, contentment, etc.; truth; knowledge and true opinions of various kinds, understanding, wisdom; beauty, harmony, proportion in objects contemplated; aesthetic experience; morally good dispositions or virtues; mutual affection, love, friendship, cooperation; just distribution of goods and evils; harmony and proportion in one's own life; power and experiences of achievement; self-expression; freedom; peace, security; adventure and novelty; and good reputation, honor, esteem, etc."
The complexity of value is a major theme of Yudkowsky's writing for two reasons:
- Caricatures of rationalists often have them moved by artificially simplified values - for example, only caring about personal pleasure. This becomes a template for arguing against rationality: X is valuable, but rationality says to only care about Y, in which case we could not value X, therefore do not be rational.
- Underestimating the complexity of value leads to underestimating the difficulty of Friendly AI; and there are notable cognitive biases and fallacies which lead people to underestimate this complexity.
- The Fun Theory Sequence describes some of the many complex considerations that determine what sort of happiness we most prefer to have - given that many of us would decline to just have an electrode planted in our pleasure centers.
- Thou Art Godshatter describes the evolutionary psychology behind the complexity of human values - how they got to be complex, and why, given that origin, there is no reason in hindsight to expect them to be simple. We certainly are not built to maximize genetic fitness.
- Not For the Sake of Happiness (Alone) tackles the Hollywood Rationality trope that "rational" preferences must reduce to selfish hedonism - caring strictly about personally experienced pleasure. An ideal Bayesian agent - implementing strict Bayesian decision theory - can have a utility function that ranges over anything, not just internal subjective experiences.
- Fake Utility Functions describes the seeming fascination that many have with trying to compress morality down to a single principle. The sequence leading up to this post tries to explain the cognitive twists whereby people smuggle all of their complicated other preferences into their choice of exactly which acts they try to justify using their single principle; but if they were really following only that single principle, they would choose other acts to justify.