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A classification of Newcomb problems and decision theories


Newcomb-like problems are classified by the payoff table of their act-state pairs, and the causal structure that gives rise to the act-state correlation. Decision theories are classified by the one or more points of intervention whose causal role is taken to be relevant to rationality in various problems. Some decision theories suggest an inherent conflict between different notions of rationality that are all relevant. Some issues with causal modeling raise problems for decision theories in the contexts where Newcomb problems arise.

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    His version of the theory has some additional complexities because he characterizes agents as deterministic algorithms, so that the intervention must be in some sense logically impossible. In a case like Prisoner’s Dilemma with a Twin, the evaluation works by assuming that I and the twin both implement some particular deterministic algorithm X. Then we note, if algorithm X were to output cooperation we would both do pretty well, and if algorithm X were to output defection we would both do pretty badly, so it ought to output cooperation. Strictly speaking, at least one of those counterfactuals will be counter-logical, if an algorithm has its outputs as a matter of logical certainty.

  2. 2.

    The idea for this paper was originally developed at a workshop at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley in September, 2013. The paper was presented at the workshop, “Self Prediction in Decision Theory and AI” at Cambridge University in May, 2015, as well as at the University of Houston philosophy department colloquium in October, 2015, and at the Texas A&M University Workshop in Decision Theory and Epistemology in December, 2015. I also discussed the idea of pluralist decision theory on Julia Galef’s “Rationally Speaking” podcast on August 9, 2015.


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Correspondence to Kenny Easwaran.

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Easwaran, K. A classification of Newcomb problems and decision theories. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02272-z

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  • Newcomb problem
  • Act-state dependence
  • Causal modeling
  • Decision theory
  • Rationality