timfarkas

Pursuing an undergraduate degree
Pursuing a professional degree
Pursuing a doctoral degree (e.g. PhD)
181Berlin, DeutschlandJoined Dec 2021

Bio

Interested in societal/civilizational resilience & improving individual/collective decision-making through non-behavioral means (e.g. through biological self-improvement)

founder & president of High Impact Medicine Berlin and EA Students Berlin
board team member of High Impact Medicine Germany

studying at Charité Berlin with current focus on neurotechnology and psychiatry (modular medical degree)

Comments
17

I like this a lot, the world is an absurd place, and consciously realizing this once in a while can be very soothing, freeing, and strangely motivating!
I've found the books by Kurt Vonnegut, especially Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle supremely effective at reminding me of the glorious absurdity of civilization and the human experience and I try to re-read them semi-regularly for this reason. Big recommendation to anyone who wants to try a taste of realizing absurdity as it is described in this post but doesn't find it natural/easy to really viscerally see the world like that.

I strongly agree with this post.

Thinking consequentially, in terms of expected value and utility functions, will make you tend to focus on the first-order consequences of your actions and lead to a blind-spot for things that are fuzzy and not easily quantifiable, e.g. having loyal friends or being considered a trustworthy person. 

I think that especially in the realm of human relationships the value of virtues such as trust, honesty, loyalty, honor is tremendous - even if these virtues may often imply actions with first-order consequences that have 'negative expected value' (e.g. helping a friend clean the kitchen when you could be working on AI alignment). 

This is why I try to embrace deontological frameworks and heuristics in day-to-day life and in such things as social relationships, friendships, co-living etc.: Even if the upside of that is hard to quantify, I am convinced that the value of the higher-order consequences of it far outweigh the 'first-order inconvenience/downside'.

Thanks for your comment, very interesting!

I do not agree that UOM is necessarily non-naturalist in essence, it might very well be that some natural property of the world turns out to be synonymous with good/meaningful/right/UOM. I am currently agnostic in regards to this. (I might be misunderstanding the terminology, though.)

>Without knowing anything about the concept's content and without understanding the success criteria for having found the right content, is there a way for the concept to have a well-specified meaning (instead of being a pointer to a subjective feeling)? 

This is a valid point and you are right, I currently do not claim to know either content or success criteria. If this still allows for the concept to have 'well-specified meaning' depends on your definition of well-specified meaning. I claim that neither content nor success criteria are necessary for the concept to be well-specified enough that it retains its powerful metaphysical and practical implications: fulfillment of UOM being literally objectively good/right/meaningful and therefore highly relevant for how you live your life.

You make two good points: 

1 Why should objective meaning  trump subjective meaning?

2 The search for UOM might have some counter-intuitive implications in practice. (opportunity costs, When do we give up?,  Why don't we have a reason to give up now?, Doesn't this seem fanatical?)

1: Why should objective meaning  trump subjective meaning?

You are right, this begs the question, but so do subjectivist stances. 

Why should you do what feels meaningful or what feels right? Because it feels meaningful/feels right. Objectively, this might only feel meaningful due to arbitrary environmental circumstances: e.g. actions of reproductive fitness like human procreation feel meaningful because of us being the product of evolution, the process which will necessarily produce agents that have the subjective intuition that reproductive fitness is meaningful. However, subjectively we obviously do not care about this arbitrariness of the set of actions that feel good/meaningful.
 
Why should you do what is objectively universally meaningful or what you ought to do? Because it is per definition objectively universally meaningful and what you ought to do. Also, because you might subjectively feel like you should do what is truly (universally objectively) meaningful rather than just what feels meaningful. 

In the case of UOM, there is always a rational argument to do what UOM implies that is independent of subjective feelings. (as it is based on what is objectively true) However, any agent is per definition subjective and it is subjective whether they find this rational argument compelling. So in some sense actually adherence to both of these is powered by subjective intuitions about meaning: 

Do you have subjective intuitions that what you do should be objectively good? Or do you have subjective intuitions that what you should do is what should feel good

An agent that happens to have had the former intuition (maybe a hardcore rationalist/naturalist) will be pulled towards the sphere of influence of the objectivist belief system, UOM.

2: search for UOM might have some counter-intuitive implications in practice. (opportunity costs, When do we give up?,  Why don't we have a reason to give up now?, Doesn't this seem fanatical?)

You raise a good point about why search for UOM might in practice be absurd in some circumstances and I like the thought experiments. I think our crux might lie in our priors about the current extent of human intellect and our level of understanding of the universe. 

I agree that increasingly costly fanatic search for UOM at a point where you have some evidence pointing towards its non-existence (omniscient AI telling you it does not exist) is absurd. 

One heuristic for deciding whether further search for UOM would be misguided could be to consider current knowledge of the universe and the nature of reality, current rate of change of that knowledge and existence of evidence that there is no UOM. If knowledge is high, rate of change is almost zero (i.e. we seem to be converging on maximum understanding) and especially if there is evidence of non-existence, search for UOM is likely misguided.

I think we are far from this point currently, knowing almost nothing about the universe and not even knowing the full extent of how much we actually do not know about it. Therefore I think that working towards search for UOM (which currently mostly implies x-risk reduction anyways) is currently far from fanatic or absurd. On the contrary, I believe that it is in some sense endlessly primitive and hubristic to take our own (arbitrary) subjective feelings about morality and the meaning of life as the non-plus-ultra and discount the possibility of UOM. (and potentially lock in these potentially objectively meaningless subjectivist stances forever if a certain form of AGI alignment is successful)

In this sense, I currently think that the opportunity costs of not considering UOM are (astronomically) higher than of considering it. This might definitely change in the future or in some sufficiently sophisticated thought experiment but I think we are in practice far from this point.

Hi Kat, thanks so much for your post, that's a lot of food for thought! Do you have any examples that you're thinking of when writing about crucial considerations, evidence, social/psychological factors? I'd love to hear more about the specific cases where these were so important. :)

A very small fraction of MDs are admitted to joint MD-PhDs. [...] in many other degrees a similar fraction of students would be publishing papers with supervisors. And the PhD that a medic does will not necessarily be as relevant as those of a computer scientist. <

It being a small fraction doesn't make it less viable for an EA approach to studying med school. Every EA approach to uni will incorporate some tight admission rate.. It might not be relevant for AI safety but it will be super relevant for e. g. neartermist EAs or EAs that don't rank AI risk as high and want to focus on biorisk.

I believe you're overthinking it. From a zoomed out view, medical classes are approximately useless, and this talk of a specialised class becoming useful by being "embedded in a translational framework" is basically waffle.<

We do not have 'medical classes'. We have classes on systems of the body: foundational classes (biochemistry, molecular biology, physics, physiology) and classes that incorporate practical info, where you would argue they're approximately useless such as pharmacology. I disagree that they are entirely useless as it teaches you on a daily basis how the fancy science translates to practice, a skill that I will continue to argue is highly important (and at the core of any problem solving inside and beyond academia) and a skill that a pure fundamental science degree is 'approximately useless' for.

funding

Fair points, as I said, I reserve my judgements here for now..

Hi Ryan, thank you for your comment!

Great to hear that you agree with most of the post (two out of its three main points), let me focus on the disagreements regarding the impact potential of choosing to go to med school:

As far as I can see, you raise three general points of disagreement. (do let me know if you don't feel like I represented your points well)

  1. Disagreements based on personal experiences with studying medicine in Australia
  2. Disagreements regarding the value/transferability of knowledge taught in med school for high impact work
  3. Disagreements regarding the relevance of EA meta risks (funding dependencies, cause X, etc.) and whether a medical degree actually makes you resilient against these

 

Regarding 1) Disagreements based on personal experiences with studying medicine in Australia:

I think some of the negative aspects you describe about med school are very important but might not be general to all medical degrees. I'll give some personal examples just to show that I disagree that your descriptions are generally accurate, of course you might actually be right in the majority of cases.. I do not have a good intuition if the median medical school internationally is more similar to the one that you describe or to the counterexamples I offer!

You write of highest workloads, few electives, all for a medical degree with no doctorate. (and that networking opportunities suffer from all that) I see how all of this is generally sub-optimal for high impact career paths, such as the research career in AI safety that you're currently pursuing.

Credentials

This is not the right comparison. A medical degree doesn't help you to do many of the things that a doctorate does.

In Germany, as an option additional to the medical degree ('Staatsexamen') , most medical schools offer a Dr. med. (MD) degree track and some offer an advanced MD/PhD track (e.g. here). Both of these are considered a doctorate and are a very good foundation on which to build a career in research/academia or to go into industry.  (given sufficiently good grades on either, with the MD/PhD generally being more valuable)

Electives and workload

15% of my  modules are wholly elective, two further semesters offer longitudinal electives.  I am sure that a lot of degrees offer way more, but I consider general workload being reasonable to be even more important.

Because, in my experience the workload is actually not that high in some medical schools, such as mine. A lot of my friends/acquaintances studying fundamental/applied sciences degree at elite universities such as Oxford or ETH Zurich have much higher workload. This means that the majority of my time is 'elective' in that  I currently have enough of it to use it for 1) being main organizer and founder at my uni, 2) a research assistant job at a lab and for 3) things such as writing this post (and I am currently actually in the most time-intensive year). I know that this would not possible to this extent in all other courses that I could be doing.

 

2) value/transferability of knowledge taught in med school 

It is hard to say how much of the disagreement here arises from uni to uni differences in course structure and how much is more about theories of value of knowledge.

First, regarding uni to uni differences: Of the 40 modules during my 5 theoretical years, only 9 focus on specific pathologies (and related pharmacology, etc.).  A lot of the rest does contain knowledge on pathologies, pharmacology, etc. but always embedded in a general, translational framework  which furthers understanding of the human. It might be that this is more focus on transferable knowledge than in the median course.

Re theories of value of knowledge: Since you focus mostly on transferable knowledge for research: From the experience that I gathered so far, academic research requires deep specialization in very specific methods researching very thin slices of reality, all of which with a depth that goes far beyond any  course curriculum. This means that learning and special knowledge beyond uni material will always be necessary for academic research. While fundamental science degrees may arguably make this easier (especially the more fundamental the research is), knowledge from a medical degree will rarely make this further work impossible! It would be interesting to know how much harder you'll have it with a medical degree and thus how big this cost is but right now I am not convinced it is big enough to make me update! (The fact that you did manage to specialize in AI safety at FHI, Oxford with a medical degree is a nice anecdote in this regard that I couldn't help noticing)

Furthermore, over here there is the option of specializing into research and starting your doctorate as early as 2-3 years into the course, which could arguably make your specialized knowledge & fit for a specific research direction by the end of med school much better than that of someone with a general fundamental science degree. This is again of course something that will vary from uni to uni.

Lastly, when it comes to potential high impact career paths outside of research such as policy, entrepreneurship, (industry?) I suspect that we have a similar general picture:

Some more specific degrees could have arguably been an even better fit in terms of knowledge, but some aspects could yet again be in favor of the medical degree: e.g. translational understanding and firsthand experience of health systems on all levels, trained social skills,  credentials of being a doctor (which is might be more of a thing in fields outside academia), job/income security allowing for time for other things etc.

And of course, the last point about income/job security is dependent on:

 

3), Disagreements regarding the relevance of EA meta risks (funding dependencies, cause X, etc.) and whether a medical degree actually makes you resilient against these:

Funding

You might be right that there's nothing to worry about in being dependent on EA funding due to historic successes in getting funds and the funding diversity you speak of. However, my own prior is generally quite low when it comes to placing trust in getting funds without problems, even when being 'smart enough to be admitted to a medical degree'. I've got some more to say about this topic but I to some more research/thinking on this specific aspect and then write another post discussing it in a more general context! 

Cause X / Resilience 

I think you might have changed my mind on this point while I was writing this reply. Here are my thoughts:
Regarding the question of how well a medical degree prepares you for cause X:

I agree that we can not assume that a medical school graduate is magically better suited for cause x, however I personally believe that EA right now is too focused on narrow quantifiable causes (due to inherent uncertainty of anything that's broader) and focused too little on general resilience-building. (Here are my rough thoughts regarding this) 

I was going to say here that while potential future high impact resilience building efforts don't necessarily have to relate to medical fields, a broad degree such as medicine will be more likely to be valuable for them than a narrower one such as a specific fundamental sciences degree. 
However I think you raised a good point in that some fundamental science degrees such as e.g. physics or biology are actually broader than medicine in important ways and might thus arguably be more valuable/applicable to future high impact resilience building efforts. (at least in my current abstract understanding of the term)

This is something that I would like to think more about and that I will reserve my judgement on for now!


I hope I could give some more perspective as to why we disagree on some points, overall you did cause me to update regarding my views on a medical degree resilience, potentially causing me to update on the value of spending time to apply for unis abroad after all! Let's see! ;)

 

PS:

I'm not sure it's a matter of personal opinion. Greg has convincingly argued the opposite.

I agree, I updated the wording on this

Thanks for creating the event Toni, looking forward to seeing you all! :)

Great, congratulations on the high agency and the great success so far!
I like this a lot and I know from experience that other national groups are dealing with similar questions of balancing precaution/quality over proactiveness/quantity when discussing meta community building strategies!  (and currently balancing more on the precautionary side, e.g. High Impact Medicine Germany, EA Germany)
What do you think were the greatest risks of this fast approach and what did you do to proactively mitigate them?  

+1 für Zukunftsschutz, da sehr treffend und relativ kurz, dadurch wahrscheinlich für die breitere Öffentlichkeit weniger abschreckend als andere Wortmonster in diesem Thread; positiv konnotiert durch Nähe zu Naturschutz!

Thanks for your comment!
Fascinating, haven't heard of them thus far, I will look into their work!
Yes, I agree. I believe that past successes with cause prioritization and forecasting could lead to some overconfidence in regard to competence at discovering unknown cause areas: It will be important to keep up the cause-neutrality, especially in regards to the unknown!

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