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Analysis / Three Worlds Collide

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Narrative Necessity vs. Authorial Intent

One of the commonest reactions to "Three Worlds Collide" is, "Wait, I thought the 'Normal Ending' was better than the 'True Ending'!" What makes this surprising, rather than simple Values Dissonance, is that Eliezer Yudkowsky is generally considered a good writer, and yet the authorial intent of the story is undermined if the former is more compelling than the latter. Why does the story fail in this fashion for a large contingent of readers?

Let me briefly state the principal question facing the crew of the Impossible Possible World. There is an alien species, significantly more powerful than humanity, which has expressed an intent to alter humanity on a fundamental level. I will quote the relevant section:

"All right," the Lady 3rd said. "We consider that the obvious starting point upon which to build further negotiations, is to combine and compromise the utility functions of the three species until we mutually satisfice, providing compensation for all changes demanded. The Babyeaters must compromise their values to eat their children at a stage where they are not sentient - we might accomplish this most effectively by changing the lifecycle of the children themselves. We can even give the unsentient children an instinct to flee and scream, and generate simple spoken objections, but prevent their brain from developing self-awareness until after the hunt."

Akon straightened. That actually sounded - quite compassionate - sort of -

"Our own two species," the Lady 3rd said, "which desire this change of the Babyeaters, will compensate them by adopting Babyeater values, making our own civilization of greater utility in their sight: we will both change to spawn additional infants, and eat most of them at almost the last stage before they become sentient."

The Conference room was frozen. No one moved. Even their faces didn't change expression.

Akon's mind suddenly flashed back to those writhing, interpenetrating, visually painful blobs he had seen before.

A cultural translator could change the image, but not the reality.

"It is nonetheless probable," continued the Lady 3rd, "that the Babyeaters will not accept this change as it stands; it will be necessary to impose these changes by force. As for you, humankind, we hope you will be more reasonable. But both your species, and the Babyeaters, must relinquish bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic troubles. In exchange, we will change our own values in the direction of yours. We are willing to change to desire pleasure obtained in more complex ways, so long as the total amount of our pleasure does not significantly decrease. We will learn to create art you find pleasing. We will acquire a sense of humor, though we will not lie. From the perspective of humankind and the Babyeaters, our civilization will obtain much utility in your sight, which it did not previously possess. This is the compensation we offer you. We furthermore request that you accept from us the gift of untranslatable 2, which we believe will enhance, on its own terms, the value that you name 'love'. This will also enable our kinds to have sex using mechanical aids, which we greatly desire. At the end of this procedure, all three species will satisfice each other's values and possess great common ground, upon which we may create a civilization together."

There are two obvious objections to this plan from a human standpoint. The more obvious one is that infanticide-via-cannibalism is widely considered to be nasty business — so much so that it's a trope. The less obvious one is stated earlier, in a conversation between Akon and the Confessor:

A sigh came from that hood. "Well... would you prefer a life entirely free of pain and sorrow, having sex all day long?"

"Not... really," Akon said.

The shoulders of the robe shrugged. "You have judged. What else is there?"

There is a name for a life entirely free of pain and sorrow and full of simple pleasure: it's called "wireheading". It's so-called because there have been experiments performed with animals, where electrodes were attached to certain parts of their brains and these parts were activated. One specific story comes to mind: of a population of rats given a pedal which would stimulate this part of their brain whenever they pressed it. These rats would do so until they died.


Pretty pathetic, isn't it? Sure, the wirehead might have more pleasure on average than the ordinary — but quite a few human beings wouldn't want it. They might want to stay with their friends. They might want to create new things, accomplish what hasn't been before. They might want to make new discoveries about the outside world. Their wants would not be compatible with sitting around being happy all day.

And reading the story, we find that this is actually the more compelling of the two reasons to at least one protagonist at the conclusion of Part 7:

"Um, if anyone has anything they want to add to our final report," the Ship's Engineer said, "they've got around ten seconds."

"Tell the human species from me -" the Lord Pilot said.

"Five seconds."

The Lord Pilot shouted, fist held high and triumphant: "To live, and occasionally be unhappy!"

This concludes
the full and final report
of the Impossible Possible World.

The Lord Pilot doesn't want to be a wirehead. I suspect this is Eliezer Yudkowsky's point, that preferences don't have to be simplified.

But in designing this scenario, in creating a plot to convey his message, the message has been undermined. Becuase the Super Happies do have friends, create new things, and make new discoveries about the outside world. They arrived at that star system because they detected a flux in the starline — the same reason that brought the Babyeaters and the humans. They were happy to meet new species, optimistic about discovering new people to communicate with. (And 'communicate' with, being as that's the same thing for Super Happies, but that's unimportant.) And their technology was more advanced than either humanity's or the Babyeaters. The very reasons why wireheading is an ugly prospect are empirically baseless in the universe of "Three Worlds Collide".

Given the choice between being Socrates dissatisfied and a pig satisfied, one might be forgiven for desiring the cleverness of Socrates. But given the choice between Socrates dissatisfied and Archimedes satisfied, the former becomes difficult to defend.

Robin Zimm

P.S. A few commenters on Less Wrong have requested that a note be added regarding wireheading: it has been discovered recently that wanting and liking run on different circuits. Being wireheaded to want may well cause behavior like that of the rats without any pleasure at all.

P.P.S. I don't actually have a citation for the wireheading rats. I cannot attest to whether any such experiments was actually performed, nor as to the results of said experiments, nor as to the effect of other parameters (e.g. the presence of alternative forms of entertainment) in the test environment.

Edit: This Less Wrong article makes reference to a set of rodent experiments performed in the 1950s that fit my description above. The caveat about the effect of other parameters remains in force.