Obviousness is not what it seems

Things can be obvious if they are simple. If something complicated is obvious, such as anything that anybody seriously studies, then for it to be simple you must be abstracting it a lot. When people find such things obvious, what they often mean is that the abstraction is so clear and simple its implications are unarguable. This is answering the wrong question. Most of the reasons such conclusions might be false are hidden in what you abstracted away. The question is whether you have the right abstraction for reality, not whether the abstraction has the implications it seems to.

e.g.1 I have heard that this is obvious: reality is made of optimizers, so when the optimizers optimize themselves there will be a recursive optimization explosion so something will become extremely optimized and take over the world. But to doubt this is not to doubt positive feedback works. The question is whether this captures the main dynamic taking place in the world.

e.g.2 I have thought before that it is obvious that a minimum wage would increase unemployment usually. This is probably because it’s so clear in an economic model, not because I had checked that that model fits reality well. I think it does, but it’s not obvious. It requires carefully looking at the world and at other possible abstractions.

9 responses to “Obviousness is not what it seems

  1. Well as far as I can see you are arguing that correctness is better than being simple to communicate for abstractions, then I agree. Something that might interest you is this article on how abstractions are leaky (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/LeakyAbstractions.html).

  2. Not quite what I meant. Everyone agrees that correctness is important. It is as important to check that reality fits concepts you model it with as to check that those concepts lead to conclusion. Often people forget the first part exists, especially when they don’t think of their model as being a model.

  3. People learn to emotionally reward themselves for being right instead of being correct. Righteousness seems to come from a lot of theorizing, whereas correctness seems to come from a deep curiosity. Ironically, since I’ve never studied this, I could be guilty of the phenomenon I’m talking about.

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  5. Reality is made of optimizers? Humans are powerful optimization processes, natural selection is a powerful optimization process, neither are ontologically fundamental, and nearly all of the visible universe is empty space and lifeless burning hydrogen.

    • ‘Reality’ needn’t refer to ontologically fundamental things. I meant that it can all be analyzed in terms of optimization strength (for most about zero at the moment). Sorry for being misunderstandable – I chronically misjudge how well others can read my mind it seems. Shall try to include more hints in writing.

  6. I agree with the post, but not with the second example. I think it’s obvious that in the real world, all else being equal, raising minimum wage raises unemployment, though it may be that “all else being equal” is a handwave.

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  8. This was a Fantastic blog post, I will save this in my Clipmarks account. Have a good day.


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