52 episodes

Vaden Masrani, a PhD student in machine learning at UBC and Ben Chugg, a research fellow at Stanford Law School, get into trouble arguing about everything except machine learning and law. Coherence is somewhere on the horizon.
Bribes, suggestions, love-mail and hate-mail all welcome at incrementspodcast@gmail.com.

Increments Ben Chugg and Vaden Masrani

    • Society & Culture
    • 5.0 • 10 Ratings

Vaden Masrani, a PhD student in machine learning at UBC and Ben Chugg, a research fellow at Stanford Law School, get into trouble arguing about everything except machine learning and law. Coherence is somewhere on the horizon.
Bribes, suggestions, love-mail and hate-mail all welcome at incrementspodcast@gmail.com.

    #51 - Truth, Moose, and Refrigerated Eggplant: Critiquing Chapman's Meta-Rationality

    #51 - Truth, Moose, and Refrigerated Eggplant: Critiquing Chapman's Meta-Rationality

    Vaden comes out swinging against David Chapman's work on meta-rationality. Is Chapman pointing out a fatal flaw, or has Popper solved these problems long ago? Do moose see cups? Does Ben see cups? What the f*** is a cup?

    We discuss

    Chapman's concept of nebulosity
    Whether this concept is covered by Popper
    The relationship of nebulosity and the vagueness of language
    The correspondence theory of truth
    If the concept of "problem situation" saves us from Chapman's critique
    Why "conjecture and criticism" isn't everything


    The excellent Do Explain podcast. Go listen, right now!
    In the cells of the eggplant, David Chapman
    Chapman's website
    Jake Orthwein on Do Explain, Part I

    Chapman Quotes

    Reasonableness is not interested in universality. It aims to get practical work done in specific situations. Precise definitions and absolute truths are rarely necessary or helpful for that. Is this thing an eggplant? Depends on what you are trying to do with it. Is there water in the refrigerator? Well, what do you want it for? What counts as baldness, fruit, red, or water depends on your purposes, and on all sorts of details of the situation. Those details are so numerous and various that they can’t all be taken into account ahead of time to make a general formal theory. Any factor might matter in some situation. On the other hand, nearly all are irrelevant in any specific situation, so determining whether the water in an eggplant counts, or if Alain is bald, is usually easy.

    David Chapman, When will you go bald?

    Do cow hairs that have come out of the follicle but that are stuck to the cow by friction, sweat, or blood count as part of the cow? How about ones that are on the verge of falling out, but are stuck in the follicle by only the weakest of bonds? The reasonable answer is “Dude! It doesn’t matter!”

    David Chapman, Objects, objectively

    We use words as tools to get things done; and to get things done, we improvise, making use of whatever materials are ready to hand. If you want to whack a piece of sheet metal to bend it, and don’t know or care what the “right” tool is (if there even is one), you might take a quick look around the garage, grab a large screwdriver at the “wrong” end, and hit the target with its hard rubber handle. A hand tool may have one or two standard uses; some less common but pretty obvious ones; and unusual, creative ones. But these are not clearly distinct categories of usage.

    David Chapman, The purpose of meaning

    Popper Quotes

    Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. And its description presupposes a descriptive language, with property words; it presupposes similarity and classification, which in their turn presuppose interests, points of view, and problems. ‘A hungry animal’, writes Katz, ‘divides the environment into edible and inedible things. An animal in flight sees roads to escape and hiding places . . . Generally speaking, objects change . . . according to the needs of the animal.’ We may add that objects can be classified, and can become similar or dissimilar, only in this way—by being related to needs and interests. This rule applies not only to animals but also to scientists. For the animal a point of view is provided by its needs, the task of the moment, and its expectations; for the scientist by his theoretical interests, the special problem under investigation, his conjectures and anticipations, and the theories which he accepts as a kind of background: his frame of reference, his "horizon of expectations".

    Conjectures and Refutations p. 61 (italics added)

    I believe that there is a limited analogy between this situation and the way we ‘use our terms’ in science. The analogy can be described in this way. In a branch of mathematics in which we operate with signs defined by implicit definition, the fact that these signs have no ‘definite me

    • 1 hr 12 min
    #50 - On the Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling, Art, and Science

    #50 - On the Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling, Art, and Science

    Fifty godd*** episodes! 'Tis been a ride full of debate, drinks, questionable arguments, Ben becoming both a dualist and a social media addict, and Vaden stalwartly not changing his mind about a single thing.

    To celebrate, we dive into a thesis which connects many strands of what we've discussed over the years: Brian Boyd's work on art and fiction. Boyd provides an evolutionary account of why we're heavily invested in both creating and consuming fictional narratives. If this was simply a fun habit without any real advantage, such a propensity would have been selected against long ago because creating fiction requires an enormous amount of time. This raises the question: What is the advantage of fiction? Why is producing it adaptive?

    Brian Boyd is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Auckland. His most well-known for his scholarship on Vladimir Nabokov, and is currently writing a biography on Karl Popper. You can understand why Vaden got so excited about him.

    We spend a lot of time giving background context for Boyd's theory - if you want to skip all that and get right to the theory itself, we've added chapter markers to take you there.

    Added after publishing : Looks like chapter markers aren't working correctly on some players, discussion of theory begins at 00:40:43

    We discuss

    Reflections on our 50th episode!
    Non-evolutionary theories of art and fiction, and why they fail
    Boyd's thesis that art results from playing with pattern and information
    Fiction as a kind of art which results from playing with social information
    How these theories explain why art is adaptive
    The link between art and creativity
    How Boyd's theory improves on the two other major evolutionary theories of art


    On the Origin of Stories
    Stacks of Stories, Stories of Stacks. Essay from the book Stalking Nabokov
    Steven Pinker's thesis on art
    Geoffrey Miller's thesis


    We crave information. But because we have a much more open-ended curiosity than other animals, we have a special appetite for pattern. We crave the high yield of novel kinds of pattern. So we not only chase and tussle, we not only play physically, but we also play cognitively, with patterns of the kinds of information that matter most to us: sound, sight, and, in our ultrasocial species, social information. We play with the rhythm and pitch and shape of sounds in music and song; with colors and shapes in drawing and painting and mudpies or sandcastles; and with patterns of social information in pretend play and story. In the social world, we see patterns of identity (who are they?), personality (what are they like?), society (whom are they related to? whom do they team up with? how do they rank?). In the world of events, we see patterns of cause and effect. In the world of social events, we see patterns of intention, action, and outcome. (Stacks of Stories, Stories of Stacks - Boyd)

    To sum up: I’ve explored the hypothesis that art—or at least many forms of art—exploit visual aesthetics for no direct adaptive reason. Making and looking at art does not, and probably never did, result in more surviving offspring. There are, to be sure, adaptive explanations why certain visual patterns give human beings aesthetic, intellectual and sexual pleasure: they are cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious or fertile things in the world. And since we are a toolmaking, technological species, one of the things that we can do with our ingenuity, aside from trapping animals, detoxifying plants, conspiring against our enemies and so on, is to create purified, concentrated, supernormal, artificial sources of these visual pleasures, just for the sheer enjoyment experienced by both maker and viewer. (Pinker)

    In the 1950s, when Desmond Morris supplied chimpanzees in his care with paint, brushes, and paper, they threw themselves into painting provided they received no external reward. Those who were offered food woul

    • 2 hr
    #49 - AGI: Could The End Be Nigh? (With Rosie Campbell)

    #49 - AGI: Could The End Be Nigh? (With Rosie Campbell)

    When big bearded men wearing fedoras begin yelling at you that the end is nigh and superintelligence is about to kill us all, what should you do? Vaden says don't panic, and Ben is simply awestruck by the ability to grow a beard in the first place.

    To help us think through the potential risks and rewards of ever more impressive machine learning models, we invited Rosie Campbell on the podcast. Rosie is on the safety team at OpenAI and, while she's more worried about the existential risks of AI than we are, she's just as keen on some debate over a bottle of wine.

    We discuss:

    Whether machine learning poses an existential threat
    How concerned we should be about existing AI
    Whether deep learning can get us to artificial general intelligence (AGI)
    If AI safety is simply quality assurance
    How can we test if an AI system is creative?


    Mathgen: Randomly generated math papers

    Contact us

    Follow us on Twitter at @IncrementsPod, @BennyChugg, @VadenMasrani
    Follow Rosie at @RosieCampbell or https://www.rosiecampbell.xyz/
    Check us out on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_4wZzQyoW4s4ZuE4FY9DQQ
    Come join our discord server! DM us on twitter or send us an email to get a supersecret link

    Prove you're creative by inventing the next big thing and then send it to us at incrementspodcast@gmail.com
    Special Guest: Rosie Campbell.

    • 1 hr 24 min
    #48 (C&R Chap. 18) - Utopia and Violence

    #48 (C&R Chap. 18) - Utopia and Violence

    You may, perchance, have noticed that the sweeping utopian movements of the past did not end well. And most of them involved an horrific amount of violence. Is this connection just chance, or is there something inherent to utopian thinking which leads to violent ends? We turn to Chapter 18 of Conjectures and Refutations where Popper gives us his spicy take.

    We discuss

    How do you "see" your early memories?
    Vaden corrects the record on a few points
    Rationality grounded in humility versus goal-oriented rationality
    If ends can be decided rationally
    How and if goal-oriented rationality leads to violence
    Working to reduce concrete evils versus working to achieve abstract goods

    ** Link to chapter **:



    A rationalist, as I use the word, is a man who attempts to reach decisions by argument and perhaps, in certain cases, by compromise, rather than by violence. He is a man who would rather be unsuccessful in convincing another man by argument than successful in crushing him by force, by intimidation and threats, or even by persuasive propaganda.
    Pg. 478

    I believe that we can avoid violence only in so far as we practise this attitude of reasonableness when dealing with one another in social life; and that any other attitude is likely to produce violence—even a one-sided attempt to deal with others by gentle persuasion, and to convince them by argument and example of those insights we are proud of possessing, and of whose truth we are absolutely certain. We all remember how many religious wars were fought for a religion of love and gentleness; how many bodies were burned alive with the genuinely kind intention of saving souls from the eternal fire of hell. Only if we give up our authoritarian attitude in the realm of opinion, only if we establish the attitude of give and take, of readiness to learn from other people, can we hope to control acts of violence inspired by piety and duty.
    Pg. 479

    In the latter case political action will be rational only if we first determine the final ends of the political changes which we intend to bring about. It will be rational only relative to certain ideas of what a state ought to be like. Thus it appears that as a preliminary to any rational political action we must first attempt to become as clear as possible about our ultimate political ends; for example the kind of state which we should consider the best; and only afterwards can we begin to determine the means which may best help us to realize this state, or to move slowly towards it, taking it as the aim of a historical process which we may to some extent influence and steer towards the goal selected. Now it is precisely this view which I call Utopianism. Any rational and non-selfish political action, on this view, must be preceded by a determination of our ultimate ends, not merely of intermediate or partial aims which are only steps towards our ultimate end, and which therefore should be considered as means rather than as ends; therefore rational political action must be based upon a more or less clear and detailed description or blueprint of our ideal state, and also upon a plan or blueprint of the historical path that leads towards this goal.
    Pg. 481-482

    The Utopian method, which chooses an ideal state of society as the aim which all our political actions should serve, is likely to produce violence can be shown thus. Since we cannot determine the ultimate ends of political actions scientifically, or by purely rational methods, differences of opinion concerning what the ideal state should be like cannot always be smoothed out by the method of argument. They will at least partly have the character of religious differences. And there can hardly be tolerance between these different Utopian religions. Utopian aims are designed to serve as a basis for rational political action and discussion, and such action appears to be possible only if the ai

    • 1 hr
    #47 (Bonus) - Dualism, Reductionism, and Explanation Pancakes

    #47 (Bonus) - Dualism, Reductionism, and Explanation Pancakes

    Second holiday season bonus episode! Vaden joins Chesto on The Declaration podcast to talk about monism, dualism, the reality of abstractions, emergence, and reductionism. This convo was recorded in 2019, but much of the content is evergreen and we think it still makes for interestin' listenin'. Except the sound quality, which leaves much to be desired. Thanks Blue Yeti.

    We discuss:

    The mind-body problem
    Why Vaden is a filthy pluralist and Chesto is a sober, sane, rational materialist
    Reductonism vs dualism vs pluralism
    The reality of abstractions
    Why explanations are central to science
    Would you get into a Star Trek transporter?
    And, a little bit out of left field, some advice for talking about mental health


    Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
    Beginning of Infinity
    Chesto's instagram for your eyes and soundcloud for your ears.


    In the Domino example from BOI the prime number was 641, not whatever number Vaden said
    The Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, not 1972

    Contact us

    Follow us on Twitter at @IncrementsPod, @BennyChugg, @VadenMasrani
    Check us out on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_4wZzQyoW4s4ZuE4FY9DQQ
    Come join our discord server! DM us on twitter or send us an email to get a supersecret link

    Are emails real? Tell us at incrementspodcast@gmail.com.

    Photo credit: https://www.johndcook.com/blog/2019/11/07/optimization-dominoes-and-frankenstein/

    • 1 hr 32 min
    #46 (Bonus) - Arguing about probability (with Nick Anyos)

    #46 (Bonus) - Arguing about probability (with Nick Anyos)

    We make a guest appearance on Nick Anyos' podcast to talk about effective altruism, longtermism, and probability. Nick (very politely) pushes back on our anti-Bayesian credo, and we get deep into the weeds of probability and epistemology.

    You can find Nick's podcast on institutional design here, and his substack here.

    We discuss:

    The lack of feedback loops in longtermism
    Whether quantifying your beliefs is helpful
    Objective versus subjective knowledge
    The difference between prediction and explanation
    The difference between Bayesian epistemology and Bayesian statistics
    Statistical modelling and when statistics is useful


    Philosophy and the practice of Bayesian statistics by Andrew Gelman and Cosma Shalizi
    EA forum post showing all forecasts beyond a year out are uncalibrated.
    Vaclav smil quote where he predicts a pandemic by 2021:

    The following realities indicate the imminence of the risk. The typical frequency of influenza pan- demics was once every 50–60 years between 1700 and 1889 (the longest known gap was 52 years, between the pandemics of 1729–1733 and 1781–1782) and only once every 10–40 years since 1889. The recurrence interval, calculated simply as the mean time elapsed between the last six known pandemics, is about 28 years, with the extremes of 6 and 53 years. Adding the mean and the highest interval to 1968 gives a span between 1996 and 2021. We are, probabilistically speaking, very much inside a high-risk zone.

    - Global Catastropes and Trends, p.46

    Reference for Tetlock's superforecasters failing to predict the pandemic. "On February 20th, Tetlock’s superforecasters predicted only a 3% chance that there would be 200,000+ coronavirus cases a month later (there were)."

    Contact us

    Follow us on Twitter at @IncrementsPod, @BennyChugg, @VadenMasrani
    Check us out on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_4wZzQyoW4s4ZuE4FY9DQQ
    Come join our discord server! DM us on twitter or send us an email to get a supersecret link


    At the beginning of the episode Vaden says he hasn't been interviewed on another podcast before. He forgot his appearence on The Declaration Podcast in 2019, which will be appearing as a bonus episode on our feed in the coming weeks.

    Sick of hearing us talk about this subject? Understandable! Send topic suggestions over to incrementspodcast@gmail.com.

    Photo credit: James O’Brien for Quanta Magazine

    • 1 hr 59 min

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