"Success-First Decision Theories" forthcoming in Newcomb's Problem, Cambridge University Press.
The standard formulation of Newcomb's problem compares evidential and causal conceptions of
expected utility, with those maximizing evidential expected utility tending to end up far richer. Thus, in a
world in which agents face Newcomb problems, the evidential decision theorist might ask the causal
decision theorist: "if you're so smart, why ain’cha rich?” Ultimately, however, the expected riches of
evidential decision theorists in Newcomb problems do not vindicate their theory, because their success
does not generalize. Consider a theory that allows the agents who employ it to end up rich in worlds
containing Newcomb problems and continues to outperform in other cases. This type of theory, which I
call a “success-first” decision theory, is motivated by the desire to draw a tighter connection between
rationality and success, rather than to support any particular account of expected utility. The primary aim
of this paper is to provide a comprehensive justification of success-first decision theories as accounts of
rational decision. I locate this justification in an experimental approach to decision theory supported by the
aims of methodological naturalism.
"Against Time Bias" featured in an online debate at PEA Soup.
Human beings tend to be time biased when it comes to hedonic experiences: i.e., we often favor a pleasurable or painful experience over another solely because of temporal properties like nearness. Our activities also have non-hedonic features that we care about, such as their impact, social context, or importance to future generations. I argue that the concept of time bias does not apply to non-hedonic valuing (despite some prominent philosophical arguments to the contrary, and intergenerational time discounting models in social science). Rather, it is social distance, rather than temporal distance, that matters in non-hedonic valuing. Social bias is easy to confuse with time bias because they have similar attributes and are often correlated. The social bias account provides a superior conceptual framework for both philosophical research on non- hedonic valuing and social-scientific research on intergenerational discounting.
Historically, the hypothesis that our world is a computer simulation has struck many as just another improbable-but-possible “skeptical hypothesis” about the nature of reality. Recently, however, the simulation hypothesis has received significant attention from philosophers, physicists, and the popular press. This is due to the discovery of an epistemic dependency: If we believe that our civilization will one day run many simulations concerning its ancestry, then we should believe that we are probably in an ancestor simulation right now. This essay examines a troubling but underexplored feature of the ancestor-simulation hypothesis: the termination risk posed by both ancestor-simulation technology and experimental probes into whether our world is an ancestor simulation. It evaluates the termination risk by using extrapolations from current computing practices and simulation technology. The conclusions, while provisional, have great implications for debates concerning the fundamental nature of reality and the safety of contemporary physics.
The inference that life does not matter because it will end is an ongoing source of despair for many reflective people, and literature, popular culture, and philosophy demonstrate its widespread influence. Given its power and prominence, alleviating the despair would be both an intellectual achievement and a contribution to welfare. I evaluate existing philosophical models of the despair, which diagnosis it as involving an unreasonable desire for permanence or positive “final outcome.” I conclude that these diagnoses are sometimes unsatisfactory, and especially so for lifelong atheists. I then argue that a temporal argument for nihilism often generates the despair and that this argument applies to all naturalistic evaluations of mattering, meaning, and value. The temporal argument for nihilism, however, involves an inconsistent shift between temporally neutral and temporally biased evaluations of mattering/meaning/value. Resolving the inconsistency, one way or the other, would remove the source of despair.
"The Real Problem with Prepunishment"
Postpunishment legal systems punish people for crimes that they have committed, while prepunishment legal systems punish people for crimes that they will or would commit. This paper debunks two assumptions in the philosophical literature: 1) that prepunishment exists only in science fiction, and 2) that prepunishment is unproblematic for deterrence theorists. First, I show that the differences between the actual world and hypothetical cases of prepunishment — even those presented in Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report” — are nothing but smoke and mirrors. In fact, there is no morally relevant difference between what happens in “Minority Report” and what often happens in the real-world punishment of “attempt” offenses. Therefore, if prepunishment is morally wrong, as non-consequentialist moral philosophers have argued, then vast reforms to current legal theory are required. Second, I reveal severe problems with prepunishment that stem from purely consequentialist considerations. Most importantly for deterrence theorists, prepunishment systems have no deterrent power. These conclusions call for changes in our thinking about both the philosophical importance and moral status of prepunishment.
"The (Ir)rationality of Temporal Discounting: A Heuristics and Biases Approach" (with Christopher Suhler)
The discount function is a centerpiece of empirical and theoretical discussions of intertemporal choice. In philosophy, discussions of temporal discounting look not just at whether and to what extent we actually do discount the future, but whether and to what extent doing so is rational. Given its robustness and the ubiquity of discount functions in other species, there is good reason to think that the (human) discount function has a strong evolutionary basis.
In this paper, we use this evolutionary backdrop, along with the heuristics and biases framework from psychology and behavioral economics, to develop a novel perspective on the rationality of temporal discounting. Our analysis has two main steps. First, we posit that time-neutral calculation concerning probability-weighted goods is the standard for rational choice, and that the discount function evolved as a cognitive heuristic that approximates the probability of obtaining a good on the basis of its temporal location. Second, a suite of relatively recent changes in human societies have dramatically altered the relationship between temporal location and probability. As a result of these changes, the discount function now leads to severe and systematic deviations from the rational standard.
"Rationality and Success" (2013)