X-Message-Number: 8241
Date: Sat, 24 May 1997 09:17:19 -0700
From: Tim Freeman <>
Subject: Unfalsifiable hypotheses not needed for day-person problem

In cryomsg 8232,  says:
>The recent discussion on simulation, etc. has raised the issue of 
>whether non-falsifiable hypotheses should be taken seriously, with 
>the suggestion that since they are untestable they should not. But I 
>think this is not true of all non-falsifiables. For instance, 
>the day-person hypothesis (that we become a new person every time
>we wake up from unconsciousness) is not falsifiable, yet it makes a 
>difference whether we accept it or not. A bank robber, for instance, 
>could take a snooze afterward and, if caught, say "*I* didn't do it. It 
>was some guy whose memories I've inherited, true, but I'm a different 

We can provide adequate incentives for the bank robber without dealing
with unfalsifiable hypotheses.  Here are some premises, all of which
are falsifiable:

1. Any given humanoid blob of protoplasm is legally responsible for
actions it took before its previous nap.  (I say "humanoid blob of
protoplasm" to avoid the issue of what is a person -- for contemporary
legal issues, a person is a blob of protoplasm.  To test the
hypothesis, observe the behavior of lawyers, judges, and courts for a

2. Bank robbers generally don't expect to be able to use the "I took a
nap since then" defense.  (Test by examining court records.)

3. Bank robbers are generally motivated by things that will happen
after their next sleep.  (Plausible from evolutionary considerations,
and testable by checking records of pursuits of bank robbers.)

Enough of bank robbers.  Here's a more interesting question -- without
using non-falsifiable hypotheses, how do we motivate ourselves to take
actions that only will bear fruit after we have slept?  Ultimately it
comes down to making a choice about what to value, not to believing a

I like pan-critical rationalism because it applies to choices and
plans of action as well as beliefs.  Here the choice is how much to
value tomorrow's consequences, and the relevant criticism here is: Is
the choice something that is evolutionarily stable?  That is, if
evolution were given time to operate, would the agents present after
evolution operated make this choice?  In this case the answer is clear
-- since all the self-reproducing intelligent agents constructed with
current technology require much more than a day to construct, the
evolutionarily stable choice for them is to value tomorrow's
consequences highly.

Nothing keeps a person from ignoring the criticism and acting like a
day-person, any more than people are prevented from having
non-falsifiable beliefs about invisible rabbits.  The criticism is
simply there, and you get to choose what to do about it.  Of course,
if you don't deliberately adopt evolutionarily stable behaviors, then
you'll be selected out once things have changed enough that the
evolutionarily stable behaviors you acquired through real evolution no
longer promote survival.
Tim Freeman       
Web-centered Java and Perl programming in Silicon Valley or offsite

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