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Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline

88 Post author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 07:31PM

Part of the sequence: Rationality and Philosophy

Eliezer's anti-philosophy post Against Modal Logics was pretty controversial, while my recent pro-philosophy (by LW standards) post and my list of useful mainstream philosophy contributions were massively up-voted. This suggests a significant appreciation for mainstream philosophy on Less Wrong - not surprising, since Less Wrong covers so many philosophical topics.

If you followed the recent very long debate between Eliezer and I over the value of mainstream philosophy, you may have gotten the impression that Eliezer and I strongly diverge on the subject. But I suspect I agree more with Eliezer on the value of mainstream philosophy than I do with many Less Wrong readers - perhaps most.

That might sound odd coming from someone who writes a philosophy blog and spends most of his spare time doing philosophy, so let me explain myself. (Warning: broad generalizations ahead! There are exceptions.)

 

Failed methods

Large swaths of philosophy (e.g. continental and postmodern philosophy) often don't even try to be clear, rigorous, or scientifically respectable. This is philosophy of the "Uncle Joe's musings on the meaning of life" sort, except that it's dressed up in big words and long footnotes. You will occasionally stumble upon an argument, but it falls prey to magical categories and language confusions and non-natural hypotheses. You may also stumble upon science or math, but they are used to 'prove' things irrelevant to the actual scientific data or the equations used.

Analytic philosophy is clearer, more rigorous, and better with math and science, but only does a slightly better job of avoiding magical categories, language confusions, and non-natural hypotheses. Moreover, its central tool is intuition, and this displays a near-total ignorance of how brains work. As Michael Vassar observes, philosophers are "spectacularly bad" at understanding that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms.

 

A diseased discipline

What about Quinean naturalists? Many of them at least understand the basics: that things are made of atoms, that many questions don't need to be answered but instead dissolved, that the brain is not an a priori truth factory, that intuitions come from cognitive algorithms, that humans are loaded with bias, that language is full of tricks, and that justification rests in the lens that can see its flaws. Some of them are even Bayesians.

Like I said, a few naturalistic philosophers are doing some useful work. But the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower even in naturalistic philosophy than it is in, say, behavioral economics or cognitive neuroscience or artificial intelligence or statistics. Why? Here are some hypotheses, based on my thousands of hours in the literature:

  1. Many philosophers have been infected (often by later Wittgenstein) with the idea that philosophy is supposed to be useless. If it's useful, then it's science or math or something else, but not philosophy. Michael Bishop says a common complaint from his colleagues about his 2004 book is that it is too useful.
  2. Most philosophers don't understand the basics, so naturalists spend much of their time coming up with new ways to argue that people are made of atoms and intuitions don't trump science. They fight beside the poor atheistic philosophers who keep coming up with new ways to argue that the universe was not created by someone's invisible magical friend.
  3. Philosophy has grown into an abnormally backward-looking discipline. Scientists like to put their work in the context of what old dead guys said, too, but philosophers have a real fetish for it. Even naturalists spend a fair amount of time re-interpreting Hume and Dewey yet again.
  4. Because they were trained in traditional philosophical ideas, arguments, and frames of mind, naturalists will anchor and adjust from traditional philosophy when they make progress, rather than scrapping the whole mess and starting from scratch with a correct understanding of language, physics, and cognitive science. Sometimes, philosophical work is useful to build from: Judea Pearl's triumphant work on causality built on earlier counterfactual accounts of causality from philosophy. Other times, it's best to ignore the past confusions. Eliezer made most of his philosophical progress on his own, in order to solve problems in AI, and only later looked around in philosophy to see which standard position his own theory was most similar to.
  5. Many naturalists aren't trained in cognitive science or AI. Cognitive science is essential because the tool we use to philosophize is the brain, and if you don't know how your tool works then you'll use it poorly. AI is useful because it keeps you honest: you can't write confused concepts or non-natural hypotheses in a programming language.
  6. Mainstream philosophy publishing favors the established positions and arguments. You're more likely to get published if you can write about how intuitions are useless in solving Gettier problems (which is a confused set of non-problems anyway) than if you write about how to make a superintelligent machine preserve its utility function across millions of self-modifications.
  7. Even much of the useful work naturalistic philosophers do is not at the cutting-edge. Chalmers' update for I.J. Good's 'intelligence explosion' argument is the best one-stop summary available, but it doesn't get as far as the Hanson-Yudkowsky AI-Foom debate in 2008 did. Talbot (2009) and Bishop & Trout (2004) provide handy summaries of much of the heuristics and biases literature, just like Eliezer has so usefully done on Less Wrong, but of course this isn't cutting edge. You could always just read it in the primary literature by Kahneman and Tversky and others.

Of course, there is mainstream philosophy that is both good and cutting-edge: the work of Nick Bostrom and Daniel Dennett stands out. And of course there is a role for those who keep arguing for atheism and reductionism and so on. I was a fundamentalist Christian until I read some contemporary atheistic philosophy, so that kind of work definitely does some good.

But if you're looking to solve cutting-edge problems, mainstream philosophy is one of the last places you should look. Try to find the answer in the cognitive science or AI literature first, or try to solve the problem by applying rationalist thinking: like this.

Swimming the murky waters of mainstream philosophy is perhaps a job best left for those who already spent several years studying it - that is, people like me. I already know what things are called and where to look, and I have an efficient filter for skipping past the 95% of philosophy that isn't useful to me. And hopefully my rationalist training will protect me from picking up bad habits of thought.

 

Philosophy: the way forward

Unfortunately, many important problems are fundamentally philosophical problems. Philosophy itself is unavoidable. How can we proceed?

First, we must remain vigilant with our rationality training. It is not easy to overcome millions of years of brain evolution, and as long as you are human there is no final victory. You will always wake up the next morning as homo sapiens.

Second, if you want to contribute to cutting-edge problems, even ones that seem philosophical, it's far more productive to study math and science than it is to study philosophy. You'll learn more in math and science, and your learning will be of a higher quality. Ask a fellow rationalist who is knowledgeable about philosophy what the standard positions and arguments in philosophy are on your topic. If any of them seem really useful, grab those particular works and read them. But again: you're probably better off trying to solve the problem by thinking like a cognitive scientist or an AI programmer than by ingesting mainstream philosophy.

However, I must say that I wish so much of Eliezer's cutting-edge work wasn't spread out across hundreds of Less Wrong blog posts and long SIAI articles written in with an idiosyncratic style and vocabulary. I would rather these ideas were written in standard academic form, even if they transcended the standard game of mainstream philosophy.

But it's one thing to complain; another to offer solutions. So let me tell you what I think cutting-edge philosophy should be. As you might expect, my vision is to combine what's good in LW-style philosophy with what's good in mainstream philosophy, and toss out the rest:

  1. Write short articles. One or two major ideas or arguments per article, maximum. Try to keep each article under 20 pages. It's hard to follow a hundred-page argument.
  2. Open each article by explaining the context and goals of the article (even if you cover mostly the same ground in the opening of 5 other articles). What topic are you discussing? Which problem do you want to solve? What have other people said about the problem? What will you accomplish in the paper? Introduce key terms, cite standard sources and positions on the problem you'll be discussing, even if you disagree with them.
  3. If possible, use the standard terms in the field. If the standard terms are flawed, explain why they are flawed and then introduce your new terms in that context so everybody knows what you're talking about. This requires that you research your topic so you know what the standard terms and positions are. If you're talking about a problem in cognitive science, you'll need to read cognitive science literature. If you're talking about a problem in social science, you'll need to read social science literature. If you're talking about a problem in epistemology or morality, you'll need to read philosophy.
  4. Write as clearly and simply as possible. Organize the paper with lots of heading and subheadings. Put in lots of 'hand-holding' sentences to help your reader along: explain the point of the previous section, then explain why the next section is necessary, etc. Patiently guide your reader through every step of the argument, especially if it is long and complicated.
  5. Always cite the relevant literature. If you can't find much work relevant to your topic, you almost certainly haven't looked hard enough. Citing the relevant literature not only lends weight to your argument, but also enables the reader to track down and examine the ideas or claims you are discussing. Being lazy with your citations is a sure way to frustrate precisely those readers who care enough to read your paper closely.
  6. Think like a cognitive scientist and AI programmer. Watch out for biases. Avoid magical categories and language confusions and non-natural hypotheses. Look at your intuitions from the outside, as cognitive algorithms. Update your beliefs in response to evidence. [This one is central. This is LW-style philosophy.]
  7. Use your rationality training, but avoid language that is unique to Less Wrong. Nearly all these terms and ideas have standard names outside of Less Wrong (though in many cases Less Wrong already uses the standard language).
  8. Don't dwell too long on what old dead guys said, nor on semantic debates. Dissolve semantic problems and move on.
  9. Conclude with a summary of your paper, and suggest directions for future research.
  10. Ask fellow rationalists to read drafts of your article, then re-write. Then rewrite again, adding more citations and hand-holding sentences.
  11. Format the article attractively. A well-chosen font makes for an easier read. Then publish (in a journal or elsewhere).

Note that this is not just my vision of how to get published in journals. It's my vision of how to do philosophy.

Meeting journals standards is not the most important reason to follow the suggestions above. Write short articles because they're easier to follow. Open with the context and goals of your article because that makes it easier to understand, and lets people decide right away whether your article fits their interests. Use standard terms so that people already familiar with the topic aren't annoyed at having to learn a whole new vocabulary just to read your paper. Cite the relevant positions and arguments so that people have a sense of the context of what you're doing, and can look up what other people have said on the topic. Write clearly and simply and with much organization so that your paper is not wearying to read. Write lots of hand-holding sentences because we always communicate less effectively then we thought we did. Cite the relevant literature as much as possible to assist your most careful readers in getting the information they want to know. Use your rationality training to remain sharp at all times. And so on.

That is what cutting-edge philosophy could look like, I think.

 

Next post: How You Make Judgments

Previous post: Less Wrong Rationality and Mainstream Philosophy

 

 

Comments (431)

Comment author: FAWS 28 March 2011 08:12:29PM *  11 points [-]

Eliezer's anti-philosophy rant Against Modal Logics hovers near 0 karma points, while my recent pro-philosophy (by LW standards) post and my list of mainstream philosophy contributions were massively upvoted.

The karma of pre-LW OvercomingBias posts that were ported over should not be compared to that of LW post proper. Most of Eliezer's old posts are massively under-voted that way, though some frequently linked to posts less so.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 08:26:51PM 3 points [-]

True, but most of Eliezer's substantive pre-LW posts seem to have karma in the low teens, and the comments section of Against Modal Logics also shows that post was highly controversial.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 08:51:57PM *  4 points [-]

Not exactly. Most posts published around the same time have similar Karma level. Earliest posts or highly linked-to posts get more Karma, but people either rarely get far in reading of the archives, or their impulse to upvote atrophies by the time they've read hundreds of posts, and as a result Karma level of a typical post starting from about April 2008 currently stands at about 0-10. The post in question currently ranks 4 Karma.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 08:58:23PM 0 points [-]

Funny, I remember it having 0 points, and then when I published this post it had 2 points.

Anyway, thanks FAWS and Vladimir_Nesov for the correction. I've changed the wording of the original post.

Comment author: FAWS 28 March 2011 09:06:27PM 3 points [-]

Funny, I remember it having 0 points, and then when I published this post it had 2 points.

Yes, that's an example of the effect of linking. I guess the post in question will easily break 10 now, perhaps even 20.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 01:37:18PM 3 points [-]

Most posts published around the same time have similar Karma level. Earliest posts or highly linked-to posts get more Karma, but people either rarely get far in reading of the archives, or their impulse to upvote atrophies by the time they've read hundreds of posts,...

Also, many users read the early posts while still in the lurker stage, at which point they can't upvote.

Comment author: David_Gerard 30 March 2011 01:57:05PM -1 points [-]

Also, many users read the early posts while still in the lurker stage, at which point they can't upvote.

Do we actually know this?

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 02:05:40PM 0 points [-]

Well, whenever somebody starts posting and doesn't act like they've already read the sequences, they get told to go read the sequences and come back afterward.

Also, in the past year or so many new users have joined the site from MoR, and the link in the MoR author's notes goes to the main sequences list. I know that I at least decided to join LW when MoR linked me to the sequences and I liked them.

Comment author: David_Gerard 30 March 2011 02:30:46PM 3 points [-]

they get told to go read the sequences and come back afterward.

I haven't seen this in several months (and I've been watching); the admonishment seems to have vanished from the local meme selection. More often, someone links to a specific apposite post, or possibly sequence.

It's just entirely unclear how we'd actually measure whether people who read the sequences do so before or after logging in.

(I'd suspect not, given they're a million words of text and a few million of accompanying comments, but then that's not even an anecdote ...)

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 02:41:12PM 2 points [-]

I haven't seen this in several months (and I've been watching); the admonishment seems to have vanished from the local meme selection. More often, someone links to a specific apposite post, or possibly sequence.

You may be right. I think there has been less of that lately.

It's just entirely unclear how we'd actually measure whether people who read the sequences do so before or after logging in.

I wouldn't say it's entirely unclear. I'm curious enough to start a poll.

Comment author: David_Gerard 30 March 2011 02:59:58PM -1 points [-]

Could also do with "Poll: If you still haven't read the sequences, upvote this comment."

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 03:22:02PM 0 points [-]

I'd been considering that, and since you agree I went and added it.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 02:42:16PM *  9 points [-]

Poll: If you read the sequences after opening your account, upvote this comment.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 02:42:23PM *  25 points [-]

Poll: If you read the sequences before opening your account, upvote this comment.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 March 2011 03:16:25PM 16 points [-]

If you read the sequences before LessWrong was created upvote this comment.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 30 March 2011 03:21:21PM 1 point [-]

Poll: If you haven't read the sequences yet, upvote this comment.

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 March 2011 10:21:48PM 2 points [-]

Should this perhaps be made into a discussion article where it will be noticed more?

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 March 2011 10:20:50PM 1 point [-]

I think this has mainly declined after a number of posts discussing the sheer length of the sequences and the deceptive difficulty of the demand, and potential ways to make the burden easier.

Comment author: David_Gerard 28 March 2011 09:07:58PM 9 points [-]

Have you considered taking some of EY's work and jargon-translating it into journal-suitable form?

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 09:13:12PM 9 points [-]

I'd love to do that if I had time, and if Yudkowsky was willing to answer lots of questions.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 March 2011 09:40:49PM 7 points [-]

The Sequences are daunting for me specifically because of the idiosyncratic writing style style you mentioned. If you and/or atucker could remedy this, I'd be much obliged. You guys are super readable.

Comment author: atucker 29 March 2011 03:23:11AM *  3 points [-]

If you and/or atucker could remedy this, I'd be much obliged. You guys are super readable.

I'm flattered that you think so, and to be mentioned in the same sentence as lukeprog.

Out of a mixture of a desire to help and curiosity (probably along with a dash of vanity), what comments have you found particularly readable?

That would actually help me a lot in improving my writing style.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 03:29:04AM 1 point [-]

All of 'em! That's why I mentioned you. Sorry if that's no help, but it's true. If I come upon an especially clear one, I'll link it here.

Comment author: atucker 29 March 2011 11:34:25AM 2 points [-]

Presumably, Eliezer's upcoming book would do the same.

Comment author: Emile 30 March 2011 03:26:30PM 5 points [-]

For what it's worth, I greatly enjoy Eliezer's style, and usually find him quite clear and understandable (except maybe some older texts like the intuitive explanantion of Bayes and the technical explanation of technical explanations).

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 05:57:12PM *  1 point [-]

My difficulty with Eliezer's style is mostly due to my weak scientific background, which I'm slowly working to improve.

EDIT: Further explanation: If I need directions, I can look at a satellite view of my town because I'm familiar with the territory via other experiences. A person who lacks those experiences benefits more from a simple street map, even if lacks specificity (individual trees, for example, are not represented).

Comment author: Jordan 29 March 2011 12:50:40AM 13 points [-]

You could probably find other philosophers to help out. The end result, if supported properly by Eliezer, could be very helpful to SIAI's cause.

If SIAI donations could be earmarked for this purpose I would double my monthly contribution.

Comment author: byrnema 28 March 2011 09:20:48PM 1 point [-]

What is an example of a magical category being used in philosophy? (That is, a convenient handle that I can use to represent the term, 'magical category' when I read it).

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 09:32:27PM 2 points [-]

Yudkowsky gives some good examples. Or, consider "objectification." Really, they are ubiquitous in philosophy.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 28 March 2011 10:10:55PM *  4 points [-]

I'm not sure that it's fair to apply the "magical categories" critique to philosophers who discuss "objectification".

Nussbaum would have committed the fallacy of magical categories if she had thought that her discussion would suffice to teach an AI to recognize instances of objectification. But the most that she would purport to have done is to teach humans in her intellectual community how to recognize instances of objectification. So she is allowed the "anthropomorphic optimism" that would be fallacious if she were trying to train an AI. And probably, after reading her article, you could do a very reliable job of categorizing (what she would call) instances of objectification.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 10:17:05PM 0 points [-]

Fair enough; it's a magical category in one sense, and not a magical category in another sense.

Comment author: byrnema 28 March 2011 11:35:06PM 0 points [-]

In what sense is it a magical category?

Comment author: Strange7 29 March 2011 12:47:47PM 4 points [-]

Would it qualify as ironic if "magical categories" turned out to be a member of the set of all sets that contain themselves as members?

Comment author: byrnema 29 March 2011 03:30:32PM *  0 points [-]

Would it qualify as ironic if "magical categories" turned out to be a member of the set of all sets that contain themselves as members?

I guess what is ironic is that if "magical categories" are themselves magical, we could never know that they are.

Further, not knowing the meaning of a magical category (not even knowing if the meaning is knowable) it is possible that the set of all sets that contain themselves is magical.

I'm trying to guess from the context, but I think that being a magical category means that there is no universal algorithm that could be applied to determine if an object x is contained within it. Suppose that this is the definition and that being a magical category strongly means that there is also no algorithm to determine if an object x is not contained within it.

All this to quip that if magical categories are magical, then they are contained in the set of all sets containing themselves. If magical categories are strongly magical, they are contained in and contain the set of sets containing themselves. (Since using the property of strongness, it would be impossible to determine if the set-of-sets-containing-themselves are magical or not, making the set-of-sets-containing-themselves magical.)

Comment author: Jack 29 March 2011 08:53:51PM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure I believe in non-magical categories.

Comment author: byrnema 28 March 2011 11:42:27PM *  3 points [-]

Those examples don't have citations.* I would like to see how magical categories actually appear in an argument in a philosophy article.

This is how I like to handle assimilating generalizations.. I will accept a generalization as true, but I tie it to an actual example. That way, if the generalization is later challenged I can look to see if the context/meaning/framing is different.

I am also curious as to whether there is any self awareness of this problem of magical categories in philosophy.

* I see now that your post did. However, I still haven't studied enough of your post to gather the details of the magical category there.

Comment author: Emile 28 March 2011 09:24:58PM 3 points [-]

I'd welcome more quality discussion of philosophical topics such as morality here. You occasionally see people pop up and say confused things about morality, like

It has been suggested that animals have less subjective experience than people. For example, it would be possible to have an animal that counts as half a human for the purposes of morality.

... that got downvoted, but I still get the impression that confused thinking like that pops up more often on the topic of morality than on others (except Friendly AI), and that Eliezer didn't do a good enough job teaching sane and clear thinking about morality to his readers - including myself.

And morality is a topic that's whack in the middle of philosophy, and AI and statistics don't teach us much about it (though cognitive science and experimental philosophy do). So I have the hope that more input from academic philosophy might raise the quality of thinking here about morality.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 09:29:06PM *  3 points [-]

Metaethics is my specialty, so I've got some 'dissolving moral problems' posts coming up, but I need to write some dependencies first.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 09:35:46PM 2 points [-]

justification bottoms out in the lens that can see its flaws

This statement seems misleading, since justification doesn't actually "hit bottom", doesn't stop. For contrast, a quotation from the post:

So what I did in practice, does not amount to declaring a sudden halt to questioning and justification. I'm not halting the chain of examination at the point that I encounter Occam's Razor, or my brain, or some other unquestionable. The chain of examination continues - but it continues, unavoidably, using my current brain and my current grasp on reasoning techniques.

Comment author: SilasBarta 28 March 2011 09:51:41PM 1 point [-]

I think that sentence was written just to include the names of the articles when linking them, not because it should be taken literally.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 10:01:51PM 1 point [-]

I don't expect Luke misunderstood the posts in question to the point of making this error, so I'm not talking about his intention behind writing the statement. I'm merely pointing out that, as written, it's somewhat misleading, whatever the circumstances that shaped it.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 10:30:16PM 1 point [-]

I'm struggling to come up with a very quick way to say this more accurately in the post. Can you think of anything?

Comment author: Vaniver 28 March 2011 10:48:46PM 2 points [-]

Does "justification rests in the lens that can see its flaws" work?

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 01:48:04AM 1 point [-]

I chose this one, thanks.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 11:00:07PM 1 point [-]

Say, "The process of justification should never stop, not even flaws in the lens itself are to be overlooked."

Comment author: nhamann 28 March 2011 09:42:32PM 13 points [-]

Note that this is not just my vision of how to get published in journals. It's my vision of how to do philosophy.

Your vision of how to do philosophy suspiciously conforms to how philosophy has traditionally been done, i.e. in journals. Have you read Michael Nielsen's Doing Science Online? It's written specifically about science, but I see no reason why it couldn't be applied to any kind of scholarly communication. He makes a good argument for including blog posts into scientific communication, which, at present, doesn't seem to be amenable with writing journal articles (is it kosher to cite blog posts?):

Many of the best blog posts contain material that could not easily be published in a conventional way: small, striking insights, or perhaps general thoughts on approach to a problem. These are the kinds of ideas that may be too small or incomplete to be published, but which often contain the seed of later progress.

You can think of blogs as a way of scaling up scientific conversation, so that conversations can become widely distributed in both time and space. Instead of just a few people listening as Terry Tao muses aloud in the hall or the seminar room about the Navier-Stokes equations, why not have a few thousand talented people listen in? Why not enable the most insightful to contribute their insights back?

I would much rather see SIAI form an open-access online journal or scholarly FAI/existential risks wiki or blog for the purposes of disseminating writings/thoughts on these topics. This likely would not reach as many philosophers as publishing in philosophy journals, but would almost certainly reach far more interested outsiders. Plus, philosophers have access to the internet, right?

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 10:20:48PM 7 points [-]

No, I agree that much science and philosophy can be done in blogs and so on. Usually, it's going to be helpful to do some back-and-forth in the blogosphere before you're ready to publish a final 'article.' But the well-honed article is still very valuable. It is much easier for people to read, it cites the relevant literature, and so on.

Articles could be, basically, very well-honed and referenced short summaries of positions and arguments that have developed over dozens of conversations and blog posts and mailing list discussions and so on.

Comment author: Dustin 29 March 2011 03:25:39AM 3 points [-]

I often get lost in back-and-forth on blogs because it jumps from here to there and assumes the reader has kept track of everything everyone involved has said on the subject.

My point being, that I agree that both the blogosphere and article are important.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 10:08:38PM *  2 points [-]

It is not easy to overcome millions of years of brain evolution [...]

Since evolution, in particular, formed our moral inclination and our reasoning ability, this statement sounds a bit unfair/one-sided.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 10:31:14PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 10:50:59PM 0 points [-]

From The Gift We Give To Tomorrow:

But it still seems to me that, in this creation of humans by evolution, something happened that is precious and marvelous and wonderful. If we cannot call it a physical miracle, then call it a moral miracle.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 01:46:39AM 2 points [-]

I don't know what you're getting at. Is there a problem with the statement, "It's not easy to overcome millions of years of brain evolution"?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 March 2011 09:17:49AM 2 points [-]

You don't want to "overcome" a lot of what millions of years of brain evolution have formed, only some things.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 March 2011 10:24:30PM *  3 points [-]

Use your rationality training, but avoid language that is unique to Less Wrong. All these terms and ideas have standard names outside of Less Wrong

Most, probably not all. Universal statements like this are brittle and rarely correct.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 March 2011 10:27:46PM 2 points [-]

True, dat.

Fixed. Thanks.

Comment author: ksolez 28 March 2011 10:37:13PM 1 point [-]

It may just be my physician's bias, but "diseased" seems like a very imprecise term. The title would be more informative and more widely quoted with another word choice. In medicine you would not find that word in an article title.

There needs to be more cross-talk between philosophy and science. It is not an "either or" choice; we need an amalgam of the two. As a scientist I object strongly to your statement "Second, if you want to contribute to cutting-edge problems, even ones that seem philosophical, it's far more productive to study math and science than it is to study philosophy." Combined approaches are what is needed, not abandonment of philosophy.

Comment author: FAWS 29 March 2011 12:27:14AM 3 points [-]

It may just be my physician's bias, but "diseased" seems like a very imprecise term.

It's a callback to an earlier less wrong article

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 28 March 2011 10:56:00PM *  4 points [-]

This feels more like a style guide than a "vision of how to do philosophy".

Comment author: Perplexed 28 March 2011 11:05:46PM 3 points [-]

This feels more like a style guide than a "vision of how to do philosophy".

I agree, though it might be redeemed by (1) an argument why this style is the best for doing philosophy successfully, and (2) an explanation of how success at doing philosophy ought to be measured and why anyone should seek this kind of success.

The question that Prase asks, nearby, seems to be related.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 01:45:30AM 1 point [-]

All throughout the 'style guide', I gave reasons for why these suggestions matter. Then in penultimate paragraph, I repeated these reasons.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 29 March 2011 07:53:13PM 4 points [-]

I'd phrase the complaint this way: the "vision" part said much about how to communicate philosophical results once you've obtained them, but little about how to obtain those results in the first place. Out of the 11 items, only two (6 and 8) are about the latter instead of the former.

Of course how to obtain philosophical results is a much harder problem, so you can't really be blamed for not having a huge amount to say on that. It's really just an expectation management issue. If you declare a "vision of how to do philosophy", people will naturally expect more than writing tips.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 08:26:33PM *  0 points [-]

Yes, I understand, but the subject of how to do philosophy is, like, half of Less Wrong. That's why I kept talking about dissolving semantic problems, reductionism, thinking like a cognitive scientist and an AI programmer. Those are all part of my vision of how to do philosophy, and I talked about them in the post and linked to articles on those subjects, but of course I can't repeat all of that content in this little blog post.

Don't be fooled by the count of items on the list devoted to style vs. content. Item #6 is really, really important, and covered in detail throughout the archives of Less Wrong.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 29 March 2011 08:55:46PM 3 points [-]

In that case, the problem is ironically one of style. Given that #6 is really, really important, you didn't indicate its importance in any way stylistically. It's listed smack in a middle of a bunch of writing tips. It's not bolded or italicized. It doesn't link or cite any other articles.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 10:36:06PM 2 points [-]

Sheesh you guys are picky. :)

Seriously though, I've improved the original post in response. Thanks.

Comment author: prase 28 March 2011 10:56:41PM 14 points [-]

Unfortunately, many important problems are fundamentally philosophical problems. Philosophy itself is unavoidable.

Isn't this true just because the way philosophy is effectively defined? It's a catch-all category for poorly understood problems which have nothing in common except that they aren't properly investigated by some branch of science. Once a real question is answered, it no longer feels like a philosophical question; today philosophers don't investigate motion of celestial bodies or structure of matter any more.

In other words, I wonder what are the fundamentally philosophical questions. The adverb fundamentally creates the impression that those questions will be still regarded as philosophical after being uncontroversially answered, which I doubt will ever happen.

Comment author: ata 29 March 2011 12:16:46AM 14 points [-]

Strongly agreed. I think "philosophical questions" are the ones that are fun to argue endlessly about even if we're too confused to actually solve them decisively and convincingly. Thinking that any questions are inherently philosophical (in that sense) would be mind projection; if a question's philosophicalness can go away due to changes in facts about us rather than facts about the question, then we probably shouldn't even be using that as a category.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 March 2011 12:20:44AM 3 points [-]

due to changes in facts about us rather than facts about the question

Nice pattern.

Comment author: Perplexed 29 March 2011 01:13:43AM 2 points [-]

I think "philosophical questions" are the ones that are fun to argue endlessly about even if we're too confused to actually solve them decisively and convincingly.

The thing that I find attractive about logic and 'foundations of mathematics' is that no one argues endlessly about philosophical questions, even though the subject matter is full of them.

Instead, people in this field simply assume the validity of some resolution of the philosophical questions and then proceed on to do the real work.

What I think that most fans of philosophy fail to realize is that answers to philosophical questions are like mathematical axioms. You don't justify them. Instead, you simply assume them and then work out the consequences.

Don't care for the consequences? Well then choose a different set of axioms.

Comment author: shokwave 29 March 2011 08:10:05AM 3 points [-]

if a question's philosophicalness can go away due to changes in facts about us rather than facts about the question, then we probably shouldn't even be using that as a category.

I think that's a good reason to keep using the category. By looking at current philosophy, we can determine what facts about us need changing. Cutting-edge philosophy (of the kind lukeprog wants) would be strongly determining what changes need to be made.

To illustrate: that there is a "philosophy of the mind" and a "free will vs determinism debate" tells us there are some facts about us (specifically, what we believe about ourselves) that need changing. Cutting-edge philosophy would be demonstrating that we should change these facts to ones derived from neuroscience and causality. Diagrams like this would be cutting-edge philosophy.

Comment author: prase 29 March 2011 09:25:27AM 3 points [-]

I would say that the sole thing which philosophical questions have in common is that it is only imaginable to solve them using intuition. Once a superior method exists (experiment, formal proof), the question doesn't belong to philosophy.

Comment author: ksolez 29 March 2011 02:03:30AM 0 points [-]

In a recent interview on Singularity One on One http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/question-everything-max-more-on-singularity-1-on-1/ (first video) Max More, one of the founders of transhumanism talks about how important philosophy was as the starting point for the important things he has done. Philosophy provided an important vantage point from which he wrote the influential papers which started transhumanism. Philosophy is not something to give up or shun, you just need to know what parts of it to ignore in pursuing important objectives.

Comment author: prase 29 March 2011 09:20:01AM *  2 points [-]

I am not questioning the importance of philosophy, but the use of the label "philosophical" together with "fundamental". If someone draw a map of human knowledge, mathematics and biology and physics and history would form wedges starting from well-established facts near the center and reaching more recent and complex theories further away; philosophy, on the other hand, would be the whole ever receding border region of uncertain conjectures still out of reach of scientific methods. To expand the human knowledge these areas indeed must be explored, but once that happens, some branch of science will claim their possession and there will be no reason to further call them philosophy.

Comment author: quen_tin 29 March 2011 02:30:40PM -1 points [-]

In a sense, science is nothing but experimental philosophy (in a broad sense), and the job of non-experimental-philosophy (what we label philosophy) is to make any question become an experimental question... But I would say that philosophy remains important as the framework where science and scientific fundamental concepts (truth, reality, substance) are defined and discussed.

Comment author: prase 29 March 2011 03:41:01PM 0 points [-]

science is nothing but experimental philosophy

Not universally. It's hard to find experiments in mathematics.

Comment author: Marius 29 March 2011 03:50:58PM 0 points [-]

Which is why mathematics isn't science.

Comment author: cousin_it 29 March 2011 04:10:35PM *  3 points [-]

I sense an argument about definitions of words. Please don't.

Comment author: Marius 29 March 2011 08:42:36PM -2 points [-]

"what is science" is not a mere matter of definitions. It's fundamental to how we decide how certain we are of various propositions.

Comment author: cousin_it 29 March 2011 08:44:42PM *  3 points [-]

Um... no it isn't? A Bayesian processes evidence the same way whether or not it's labeled "science".

If you're talking about the word "science" as some sort of FDA seal of approval, invented so people can quickly see who to trust without examining the claims in detail, then I see no reason to exclude math. Do you think math gives less reliable conclusions than empirical disciplines?

Comment author: Marius 29 March 2011 10:22:40PM 3 points [-]

A Bayesian may process probabilities the same way, but information is not evaluated the same way. Determining that a piece of information was derived scientifically does not provide a "seal of approval", it tells us how to evaluate the likelihood of that information being true.

For instance, if I know that a piece of information was derived via scientific methods, I know to look at related studies. A single study is never definitive, because science involves reproducible results based on empirical evidence. Further studies may alter my understanding of the information the first study produced.

On the other hand, if I know that a piece of information was derived mathematically, I need only look at a single proof. If the proof is sound, I know that the premises lead inexorably to the conclusion. On the other hand, encountering a single incorrect premise or step means that the conclusion has zero utility to the Bayesian - a new proof must be created. On the other hand, experiments may yield some useful evidence even if the study has flawed premises or methods; precisely what parts are useful requires an understanding of what science is.

So this is actually important - it's not just a matter of definitions.

Comment author: twanvl 29 March 2011 10:31:34PM 1 point [-]

A single study is never definitive, because science involves reproducible results based on empirical evidence.

That simply doesn't follow: why does involving reproducible results imply not being definitive?

Empirical results are never 'definitive' as in being 100.0% certain, but we can get very close. Whether this is done in a single study or with multiple studies doesn't matter at all. In practice there are good reasons to want multiple studies, but they have more to do with questions not addressed in a single study, trustworthiness of the authors, etc.

On the other hand, encountering a single incorrect premise or step means that the conclusion has zero utility

Even wrong mathematical proofs have a non-zero utility, because they often lead to new insights. For example, if only the last of 100 steps is wrong, then you are 99 steps closer to some goal.

Comment author: Marius 29 March 2011 10:39:34PM 2 points [-]

A single study can't get close to 100% certainty, because that's just not how science works. If you look at all the studies that were true with 95% certainty, you'll find that well over 5% have found conclusions now believed to be false. There are issues of trust, issues of data collection errors, issues of statistical evaluation, the fact that scientific methods are designed under the assumption that studies will be repeated, etc.

The steps within unsound mathematical proofs may be valuable, but their conclusions are not.

Comment author: cousin_it 29 March 2011 10:50:01PM *  3 points [-]

Thanks, that's a valid argument that I didn't think of.

But it's sorta balanced by the fact that a lot of established math is really damn established. For example, compare Einstein's general relativity with Brouwer's fixed point theorem. Both were invented at about the same time, both are really important and have been used by lots and lots of people. Yet I think Brouwer's theorem is way more reliable and less likely to be overturned than general relativity, and I'm not sure if anyone anywhere thinks otherwise.

Comment author: Marius 30 March 2011 02:15:21AM 1 point [-]

Oh, I'm not calling mathematics more or less reliable than science. I'm saying that the ways in which one would overturn an established useful theorem would be very different from the ways in which one would overturn an established scientific theory. Another way in which mathematics is more reliable is that bias is irrelevant. Scientists have to disclose their conflicts of interest because it's easy for those conflicts to interfere with their objectivity during data collection or analysis, and so others must pay special attention. Mathematicians don't need to because all their work can be contained in one location, and can be checked in a much more rigorous fashion.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 30 March 2011 02:52:56AM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure if "overturning" general relativity is the appropriate description. We may well find a broader theory which contains general relativity as a limiting case, just as general relativity has special relativity and Newtonian mechanics as limiting cases. With the plethora of experimental verifications of general relativity, however, I wouldn't expect to see it completely discarded in the way that, e.g., phlogiston theory was.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 30 March 2011 02:36:43AM *  2 points [-]

On the other hand, if I know that a piece of information was derived mathematically, I need only look at a single proof. If the proof is sound, I know that the premises lead inexorably to the conclusion. On the other hand, encountering a single incorrect premise or step means that the conclusion has zero utility to the Bayesian - a new proof must be created. On the other hand, experiments may yield some useful evidence even if the study has flawed premises or methods; precisely what parts are useful requires an understanding of what science is.

This doesn't follow. If for example, one does have a single proof and one encounters a hole in it and the hole looks like it makes plausible assumptions then one should still increase one's confidence that the claim is true. Thus, physicists are very fond of assuming that terms in series are of lower order even when they can't actually prove it. Very often, under reasonable assumptions, their claims are correct. To use a specific example, Kempe's "proof" of the four color theorem had a hole and so a repaired version could only prove that planar maps require at most five colors. But, the general thrust of the argument provided a strong plausibility heuristic for believing the claim as a whole.

Similarly, from a Bayesian stand-point, seeing multiple distinct proofs of a claim should make one more confident in the claim since even if one of the proofs has an unseen flaw, the others are likely to go through.

(There are complicating factors here. No one seems to have a good theory of confidence for mathematical statements which allows for objective priors since most standard objective priors (such as those based on some notion of computability) only make sense if one can perform arbitrary calculations correctly. Similarly it isn't clear how one meaningfully can talk about say the probability that Peano arithmetic is consistent.)

Comment author: Marius 30 March 2011 03:12:39AM *  0 points [-]

I don't think we actually disagree at all. Your "hole" is really the introduction of additional premises. If the premises are true and the reasoning sound, the conclusions follow. If they are shown to be untrue, you can discard the conclusion. Mathematics rarely has a way to evaluating the likelihood its premises are true - usually the best it can do is to show that certain premises are or are not compatible with one another. What you are saying regarding multiple distinct proofs of a claim is true according to some informal logic, but not in any strict mathematical sense. Mathematically, you've either proven something or you haven't. Mathematicians may still be convinced by scientific, theologic, literary, financial, etc. arguments of course.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 08:57:25PM 4 points [-]

It's hard to find experiments in mathematics.

You'd have to look inside mathematicians' heads.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 March 2011 10:33:40AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Clippy 30 March 2011 04:17:48PM 0 points [-]

I do a lot of that when I experiment with various strings to find preimages for a class of hashes.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 March 2011 04:28:47PM 3 points [-]

It's hard to find experiments in mathematics.

In a sense, computers are nothing but devices for doing experimental mathematics.

Comment author: Clippy 30 March 2011 04:29:52PM 7 points [-]

In a sense, apes are nothing but devices for making ape DNA.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 March 2011 04:32:24PM 6 points [-]

I think Richard Dawkins made that observation a while ago at book length.

Comment author: Clippy 30 March 2011 04:45:27PM 9 points [-]

In a sense, Richard Dawkins is nothing but a device for making books.

Comment author: ata 29 March 2011 12:10:30AM *  8 points [-]

Format the article attractively. A well-chosen font makes for an easier read. Then publish (in a journal or elsewhere).

I'd add "Learn LaTeX" to this one; if you're publishing in a journal, that matters more than your font preferences and formatting skills (which won't be used in the published version), and if you're publishing online, it can make your paper look like a journal article, which is probably good for status. Even TeX's default Computer Modern font, which I wouldn't call beautiful, has a certain air of authority to it — maybe due to some of its visual qualities, but possibly just by reputation.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 01:38:14AM *  2 points [-]

The ironic bit is that I don't know a modern philosophy journal that accepts TeX.

EDIT: Minds and Machines, as mentioned below. Also, Mind doesn't.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 01:44:02AM 5 points [-]

You just export to PDF. Lyx is a fairly easy-to-use LaTeX editor.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 02:42:23PM 0 points [-]

That doesn't make sense to me. One can't re-typeset PDF -- well, perhaps you can, but I can't imagine it would be easy.

Comment author: Manfred 29 March 2011 03:42:20PM 0 points [-]

Adobe's business model is to give away the reader for free and then sell the editor for a profit. So I would guess most publishers would have no problem.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 05:26:01PM 1 point [-]

I'm a bit confused. What I'm used to is, I make a TeX document (editable) then I typeset it into a PDF document. Anybody can read the PDF, but can't edit it. If I want the receiver to be able to edit, I send both the TeX file and the PDF.

Did you mean that philosophy journals won't accept the .tex file format, or that they'll reject a .pdf written in LaTeX for stylistic reasons?

Comment author: thomblake 29 March 2011 01:48:54PM 0 points [-]

Last I checked, Minds and Machines requires LaTeX.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 March 2011 02:40:27PM 0 points [-]

Ah, okay. I knew Mind didn't, and now I realize I was generalizing from one example. Oops.

Comment author: ata 29 March 2011 05:52:53PM 1 point [-]

The ironic bit is that I don't know a modern philosophy journal that accepts TeX.

Hey, I didn't say it wasn't a diseased discipline. :P

Comment author: atucker 29 March 2011 03:18:08AM 4 points [-]

Use your rationality training, but avoid language that is unique to Less Wrong. Nearly all these terms and ideas have standard names outside of Less Wrong (though in many cases Less Wrong already uses the standard language).

Could you please write a translation key for these?

I think it would help LWers read mainstream philosophy, and people with philosophy backgrounds read LW.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 03:21:06AM *  3 points [-]

Not a bad idea, though it's far more complicated than termX = termY.

Comment author: atucker 29 March 2011 11:07:40PM 1 point [-]

Fair enough.

I think that reading about how the terms differ would actually help a lot with getting a brief background in the subject, more than a direct but inaccurate one to one mapping.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 March 2011 04:05:20AM *  16 points [-]

Eliezer's anti-philosophy rant Against Modal Logics was pretty controversial, while my recent pro-philosophy (by LW standards) post and my list of useful mainstream philosophy contributions were massively up-voted. This suggests a significant appreciation for mainstream philosophy on Less Wrong - not surprising, since Less Wrong covers so many philosophical topics.

This opening paragraph set off a huge warning claxon in my bullshit filter. To put it generously it is heavy on 'spin'. Specifically:

  • It sets up a comparison based on upvotes between a post written in the last month and a post written on a different blog.
  • Luke's post is presented as a contrast to controversy despite being among the most controversial posts to ever appear on the site. This can be measured based on the massive series of replies and counter replies, most of which were heavily upvoted - which is how controversy tends to present itself here. (Not that controversy is a bad thing.)
  • Upvotes for a well written post that contains useful references are equivocated with support for the agenda that prompted the author to write it.
  • The first 3.5 words were "Eliezer's anti-philosophy rant". Enough said.

All of the above is unfortunate because the remainder of this post was overwhelmingly reasonable and a promise of good things too come.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 04:32:19AM *  1 point [-]

Interesting, thanks.

By the way, what is 'the agenda that prompted the author to write it'?

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 04:59:52AM 6 points [-]

I just realized that 'rant' doesn't have the usual negative connotations for me that it probably does for others. For example, here is my rant about people changing the subject in the middle of an argument.

For the record, the article originally began "Eliezer's anti-philosophy rant..." but I'm going to change that.

Comment author: FAWS 29 March 2011 05:26:52AM *  3 points [-]

Rant doesn't necessarily have negative connotations for me either, it really depends on the context. Your usage didn't look pejorative at all to me. It's sort of like a less intensive version of "vitriol" and there is no problem (implied) if the target deserves it (or is presented so).

Comment author: lessdazed 30 March 2011 10:00:31AM 1 point [-]

It is similar to the word "extremist", the technical definition is rarely only what people mean to invoke, and it's acquiring further connotations.

Losing precise meaning is the way to newspeak, and it distresses me. It is sometimes the result of being uncomfortable with or incapable of discussing specific facts, which is harder than the inside view.

Comment author: wnewman 29 March 2011 02:33:13PM 2 points [-]

lukeprog wrote "philosophers are 'spectacularly bad' at understanding that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms." I am pretty confident that minds are physical/chemical systems, and that intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms. (Furthermore, many of the alternatives I know of are so bizarre that given that such an alternative is the true reality of my universe, the conditional probability that rationality or philosophy is going to do me any good seems to be low.) But philosophy as often practiced values questioning everything, and so I don't think it's quite fair to expect philosophers to "understand" this (which I read in this context as synonymous as "take this for granted"). I'd prefer a formulation like "spectacularly bad at seriously addressing [or, perhaps, even properly understanding] the obvious hypothesis that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms." It seems to me that the criticism rewritten in this form remains severe.

Comment author: quen_tin 29 March 2011 02:54:28PM 0 points [-]

I agree, and I really doubt philosophers fail to deeply question their own intuitions.

Comment author: curiousepic 29 March 2011 03:24:17PM *  7 points [-]

I posted this on Reddit r/philosophy, if anyone would like to upvote it there.

Comment author: mtraven 29 March 2011 04:57:18PM *  4 points [-]

A few points:

  • Philisophy is (by definition, more or less) meta to everything else. By its nature, it has to question everything, including things that here seem to be unuqestionable, such as rationality and reductionism. The elevation of these into unquestionable dogma creates a somewhat cult-like environment.

  • Often people who dismiss philosophy end up going over the same ground philosophers trode hundreds or thousands of years ago. That's one reason philosophers emphasize the history of ideas so much. It's probably a mistake to think you are so smart you will avoid all the pitfalls they've already fallen into.

  • I agree with the linked post of Eliezer's that much of analytic philosophy (and AI) is mostly just slapping formal terms over unexamined everyday ideas, which is why I find most of it bores me to tears.

  • Continental philosophy, on the other hand, if you can manage to make sense of it, actually can provide new perspectives on the world, and in that sense is worthwhile. Don't assume that just because you can't understand it, it doesn't have anything to say. Complaining because they use what seems like an impenetrable language is about on the level of an American traveling to Europe and complaining that the people there don't speak English. That said, Sturgeon's law definitely applies, perhaps at the 99% level.

  • I'm recomending Bruno Latour to everyone these days. He's a French sociologist of science and philosopher, and if you can get past the very French style of abstraction he uses, he can be mind-blowing in the manner described above.

Comment author: lukeprog 29 March 2011 06:16:20PM 5 points [-]

A reply on just one point:

I don't mean to make reductionism unquestionable, I'm just not making reductionism "my battle" so much anymore. Heck, for several years I spent my time arguing about theism. I'm just moving on to other subjects, and taking for granted the non-existence of magical beings, and so on. Like I say in my original post, I'm glad other people are working those out, and of course if I was presented with good reason to believe in magical beings or something, I hope I would have the honesty to update. Nobody's suggesting discrimination or criminal charges for not "believing in" reductionism.

Comment author: jwdink 30 March 2011 09:36:09PM 4 points [-]

Continental philosophy, on the other hand, if you can manage to make sense of it, actually >can provide new perspectives on the world, and in that sense is worthwhile. Don't assume >that just because you can't understand it, it doesn't have anything to say.

It's not that people coming from the outside don't understand the language. I'm not just frustrated the Hegel uses esoteric terms and writes poorly. (Much the same could be said of Kant, and I love Kant.) It's that, when I ask "hey, okay, if the language is just tough, but there is content to what Hegel/Heidegger/etc is saying, then why don't you give a single example of some hypothetical piece of evidence in the world that would affirm/disprove the putative claim?" In other words, my accusation isn't that continental philosophy is hard, it's that it makes no claims about the objective hetero-phenomenological world.

Typically, I say this to a Hegelian (or whoever), and they respond that they're not trying to talk about the objective world, perhaps because the objective world is a bankrupt concept. That's fine, I guess-- but are you really willing to go there? Or would you claim that continental philosophy can make meaningful claims about actual phenomena, which can actually be sorted through?

I guess I'm wholeheartedly agreeing with the author's statement:

You will occasionally stumble upon an argument, but it falls prey to magical categories >and language confusions and non-natural hypotheses.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 01:19:01AM *  4 points [-]

philosophers are "spectacularly bad" at understanding that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms.

What makes you think this? It's true that many philosophers recognize the genetic fallacy, and hence don't take "you judge that P because of some fact about your brain" to necessarily undermine their judgment. But it's ludicrously uncharitable to interpret this principled epistemological disagreement as a mere factual misunderstanding.

Again: We can agree on all the facts about how human psychology works. What we disagree about (some of us, anyway -- there's much dispute here within philosophy too, as seen e.g. if you browse the archives of the Arche methodology weblog ) is the epistemological implications.

Similar objections apply to the claim that "Most philosophers don't understand the basics... that people are made of atoms and intuitions don't trump science." Are you serious?

Comment author: lukeprog 30 March 2011 01:44:30AM *  7 points [-]

Richard Chappell,

Of course, you know how intuitions are generally used in mainstream philosophy, and why I think most such arguments are undermined by facts about where our intuitions come from, which undermine the epistemic usefulness of those intuitions. (So does the cross-checking problem.)

I'll break the last part into two bits:

What I'm saying with the 'people are made of atoms' bit is that it looks like a slight majority of philosophers may now think that is at least a component of a person that is not made of atoms - usually consciousness.

As for intuitions trumping science, that was unclear. What I mean is that, in my view, philosophers still often take their intuitions to be more powerful evidence than the trends of science (e.g. reductionism) - and again I can point to this example.

I'm sure this post must have been highly annoying to a pro such as yourself, and I appreciate the cordial tone of your reply.

Comment author: jhuffman 30 March 2011 02:40:56PM *  2 points [-]

As for intuitions trumping science, that was unclear. What I mean is that, in my view, >philosophers still often take their intuitions to be more powerful evidence than the >trends of science (e.g. reductionism) - and again I can point to this example.

The comments on your linked article really do a good job of demonstrating the enormous gulf between many philosophical thinkers and the LW community. I especially enjoyed the comments about how physicalism always triumphs because it expands to include new strange idea. So, the dualists understand that their beliefs are not based on evidence, and in fact they sneer at evidence as if its a form of cheating.

Sorry but I do not think this patient can be saved.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 30 March 2011 07:40:00PM 1 point [-]

Which comments do you agree or disagree with?

What is the patient? LW? Many-philosophers? The idea of LW-contributing-to-philosophy (or conversely)?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 04:58:00PM 0 points [-]

As for intuitions trumping science, that was unclear. What I mean is that, in my view, philosophers still often take their intuitions to be more powerful evidence than the trends of science (e.g. reductionism) - and again I can point to this example.

Ah, you mean capital-S 'Science', as opposed to just the empirical data. One might have a view compatible with all the scientific data without buying in to the ideological picture that we can't use non-empirical methods (viz. philosophy) when investigating non-empirical questions.

Comment author: lukeprog 30 March 2011 07:25:50PM 3 points [-]

Non-empirical questions like... what? Mathematical questions?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 09:48:34PM *  0 points [-]

Like, whether phenomenal properties just are certain physical/functional properties, or whether the two are merely nomologically co-extensive (going together in all worlds with the same natural laws as our own). This is obviously neither mathematical nor empirical. Similarly with normative questions: what's a reasonable credence to have given such-and-such evidence, etc.

See: Overcoming Scientism

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 March 2011 02:47:33AM 3 points [-]

Richard, I'm pretty sure I remember you treating the apparent conceivability of zombies as a primary fact about the conceivability of zombies to which you have direct access, rather than treating it as an output of some cognitive algorithm in your brain and asking what sort of thought process might have produced it.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 02:59:20AM 2 points [-]

Can you make the connection between Richard's comment and yours clearer?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 03:08:32AM *  0 points [-]

Distinguish two questions: (1) Are zombies logically coherent / conceivable? (2) What cognitive processes make it seem plausible that the answer to Q1 is 'yes'?

I'm fully aware that one can ask the second, cogsci question. But I don't believe that cogsci answers the first question.

Comment author: komponisto 30 March 2011 05:01:42AM 7 points [-]

The first question should really be: what does the apparent conceivability of zombies by humans imply about their possibility?

Philosophers on your side of the debate seem to take it for granted (or at least end up believing) that it implies a lot, but those of us on the other side think that the answer to the cogsci question undermines that implication considerably, since it shows how we might think zombies are conceivable even when they are not.

It's been quite a while since I was actively reading philosophy, so maybe you can tell me: are there any reasons to believe zombies are logically possible other than people's intuitions?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 March 2011 07:16:55AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for laying this out. I'm one of the people who thinks philosophical zombies don't make sense, and now I understand why-- they seem like insisting that a result is possible while eliminating the process which leads to the result.

This doesn't explain why it's so obvious to me that pz are unfeasible and so obvious to many other people that pz at least make enough sense to be a basis for argument. Does the belief or non-belief in pz correlate with anything else?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:16:57PM *  3 points [-]

The first question should really be: what does the apparent conceivability of zombies by humans imply about their possibility?

I'm aware that the LW community believes this, but I think it is incorrect. We have an epistemological dispute here about whether non-psychological facts (e.g. the fact that zombies are coherently conceivable, and not just that it seems so to me) can count as evidence. Which, again, reinforces my point that the disagreement between me and Eliezer/Lukeprog concerns epistemological principles, and not matters of empirical fact.

For more detail, see my response to TheOtherDave downthread.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 07:29:36AM *  5 points [-]

It's hard to be sure that I'm using the right words, but I am inclined to say that it's actually the connection between epistemic conceivability and metaphysical possibility that I have trouble with. To illustrate the difference as I understand it, someone who does not know better can epistemically conceive that H2O is not water, but nevertheless it is metaphysically impossible that H2O is not water. I am not confident I know the meanings of the philosophical terms of the preceding comment, but employing mathematics-based meanings of the words "logic" and "coherent", then it is perfectly logically coherent for someone who happens to be ignorant of the truth to conceive that H2O is not water, but this of course tells us very little of any significant interest about the world. It is logically coherent because try as he might, there is no way for someone ignorant of the facts to purely logically derive a contradiction from the claim that H2O is not water, and therefore reveal any logical incoherence in the claim. To my way of understanding the words, there simply is no logical incoherence in a claim considered against the background of your (incomplete) knowledge unless you can logically deduce a contradiction from inside the bounds of your own knowledge. But that's simply not a very interesting fact if what you're interested in is not the limitations of logic or of your knowledge but rather the nature of the world.

I know Chalmers tries to bridge the gap between epistemic conceivability and metaphysical possibility in some way, but at critical points in his argument (particularly right around where he claims to "rescue" the zombie argument and brings up "panprotopsychism") he loses me.

Comment author: AlephNeil 30 March 2011 10:04:25AM *  6 points [-]

My view on this question is similar to that of Eric Marcus (pdf).

When you think you're imagining a p-zombie, all that's happening is that you're imagining an ordinary person and neglecting to imagine their experiences, rather than (impossibly) imagining the absence of any experience. (You can tell yourself "this person has no experiences" and then it will be true in your model that HasNoExperiences(ThisPerson) but there's no necessary reason why a predicate called "HasNoExperiences" must track whether or not people have experiences.)

Here, I think, is how Chalmers might drive a wedge between the zombie example and the "water = H2O" example:

Imagine that we're prescientific people familiar with a water-like substance by its everyday properties. Suppose we're shown two theories of chemistry - the correct one under which water is H2O and another under which it's "XYZ" - but as yet have no way of empirically distinguishing them. Then when we epistemically conceive of water being XYZ, we have a coherent picture in our minds of 'that wet stuff we all know' turning out to be XYZ. It isn't water, but it's still wet.

To epistemically but not metaphysically conceive of p-zombies would be to imagine a scenario where some physically normal people lack 'that first-person experience thing we all know' and yet turn out to be conscious after all. But whereas there's a semantic gap between "wet stuff" and "real water" (such that only the latter is necessarily H2O), there doesn't seem to be any semantic gap between "that first-person thing" and "real consciousness". Consciousness just is that first-person thing.

Perhaps you can hear the sound of some hairs being split. I don't think we have much difference of opinion, it's just that the idea of "conceiving of something" is woolly and incapable of precision.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 12:04:48PM 1 point [-]

Thanks, I like the paper. I understand the core idea is that to imagine a zombie (in the relevant sense of imagine) you would have to do it first person - which you can't do, because there is nothing first person to imagine. I find the argument for this persuasive.

And this is just what I have been thinking:

the idea of "conceiving of something" is woolly and incapable of precision.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 04:41:16PM 1 point [-]

When you think you're imagining a p-zombie, all that's happening is that you're imagining an ordinary person and neglecting to imagine their experiences, rather than (impossibly) imagining the absence of any experience. (You can tell yourself "this person has no experiences" and then it will be true in your model that HasNoExperiences(ThisPerson) but there's no necessary reason why a predicate called "HasNoExperiences" must track whether or not people have experiences.)

This is an interesting proposal, but we might ask why, if consciousness is not really distinct from the physical properties, is it so easy to imagine the physical properties without imagining consciousness? It's not like we can imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world that's lacking chairs. Once we've imagined the atoms-arranged-chairwise, that's all it is to be a chair. It's analytic. But there's no such conceptual connection between neurons-instantiating-computations and consciousness, which arguably precludes identifying the two.

Comment author: Clippy 30 March 2011 04:47:27PM 3 points [-]

This is an interesting proposal, but we might ask why, if consciousness is not really distinct from the physical properties, is it so easy to imagine the physical properties without imagining consciousness?

World-models that are deficient at this aspect of world representation in ape brains.

Comment author: FAWS 30 March 2011 04:58:19PM 12 points [-]

But there's no such conceptual connection between neurons-instantiating-computations and consciousness

Only for people who haven't properly internalized that they are brains. Just like people who haven't internalized that heat is molecular motion could imagine a cold object with molecules vibrating just as fast as in a hot object.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 09:27:18PM 3 points [-]

Distinguish physical coldness from phenomenal coldness. We can imagine phenomenal coldness (i.e. the sensation) being caused by different physical states -- and indeed I think this is metaphysically possible. But what's the analogue of a zombie world in case of physical heat (as defined in terms of its functional role)? We can't coherently imagine such a thing, because physical heat is a functional concept; anything with the same microphysical behaviour as an actual hot (cold) object would thereby be physically hot (cold). Phenomenal consciousness is not a functional concept, which makes all the difference here.

Comment author: FAWS 30 March 2011 09:43:51PM *  5 points [-]

You are simply begging the question. For me philosophical zombies make exactly as much sense as cold objects that behave like hot objects in every way. I can even imagine someone accepting that molecular movement explains all observable heat phenomena, but still confused enough to ask where hot and cold come from, and whether it's metaphysically possible for an object with a lot of molecular movement to be cold anyway. The only important difference between that sort of confusion and the whole philosophical zombie business in my eyes is that heat is a lot simpler so people are far, far less likely to be in that state of confusion.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:09:11PM 2 points [-]

This comment is unclear. I noted that out heat concepts are ambiguous, between what we can call physical heat (as defined by its causal-functional role) and phenomenal heat (the conscious sensations). Now you write:

I can even imagine someone accepting that molecular movement explains all observable heat phenomena, but still confused enough to ask where hot and cold come from...

Which concept of 'hot' and 'cold' are you imagining this person to be employing? If the phenomenal one, then they are (in my view) correct to see a further issue here: this is simply the consciousness debate all over again. If the physical-functional concept, then they are transparently incoherent.

Now, perhaps you are suggesting that you only have a physical-function conception of consciousness, and no essentially first-personal (phenomenal) concepts at all. In that case, we are talking past each other, because you do not have the concepts necessary to understand what I am talking about.

Comment author: SilasBarta 30 March 2011 10:19:31PM *  2 points [-]

still confused enough to ask ... whether it's metaphysically possible for an object with a lot of molecular movement to be cold anyway.

Not so fast! That is possible, and that was EY's point here:

Suppose there was a glass of water, about which, initially, you knew only that its temperature was 72 degrees. Then, suddenly, Saint Laplace reveals to you the exact locations and velocities of all the atoms in the water. You now know perfectly the state of the water, so, by the information-theoretic definition of entropy, its entropy is zero. Does that make its thermodynamic entropy zero? Is the water colder, because we know more about it?

Ignoring quantumness for the moment, the answer is: Yes! Yes it is!

And then he gave the later example of the flywheel, which we see as cooler than a set of metal atoms with the same velocity profile but which is not constrained to move in a circle:

But the more important point: Suppose you've got an iron flywheel that's spinning very rapidly. That's definitely kinetic energy, so the average kinetic energy per molecule is high. Is it heat? That particular kinetic energy, of a spinning flywheel, doesn't look to you like heat, because you know how to extract most of it as useful work, and leave behind something colder (that is, with less mean kinetic energy per degree of freedom).

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 March 2011 05:01:45PM 8 points [-]

If you met someone who said with a straight face "Of course I can imagine something that is physically identical to a chair, but lacks the fundamental chairness that chairs in our experience partake of... and is therefore merely a fake chair, although it will pass all our physical tests of being-a-chair nevertheless," would you consider that claim sufficient evidence for the existence of a non-physical chairness?

Or would you consider other explanations for that claim more likely?

Would you change your mind if a lot of people started making that claim?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 09:29:32PM *  2 points [-]

You misunderstand my position. I don't think that people's claims are evidence for anything.

When I invite people to imagine the zombie world, this is not because once they believe that they can do so, this belief (about their imaginative capabilities) is evidence for anything. Rather, it's the fact that the zombie world is coherently conceivable that is the evidence, and engaging in the appropriate act of imagination is simply a psychological precondition for grasping this evidence.

That's not to say that whenever you believe that you've coherently imagined X, you thereby have the fact that X is coherently conceivable amongst your evidence. For this may not be a fact at all.

(This probably won't make sense to anyone who doesn't know any epistemology. Basically I'm rejecting the dialectical or "neutral" view of evidence. Two participants in a debate may be unable to agree even about what the evidence is, because sometimes whether something qualifies as evidence or not will depend on which of the contending views is actually correct. Which is to reiterate that the disagreement between me and Lukeprog, say, is about epistemological principles, and not any empirical matter of fact.)

Comment author: Alicorn 30 March 2011 09:38:41PM *  0 points [-]

I don't think that people's claims are evidence for anything.

I claim to be wearing blue today.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 09:53:40PM 0 points [-]

It's a restricted quantifier :-)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 March 2011 09:51:49PM 3 points [-]

I agree that your belief that you've coherently imagined X does not imply that X is coherently conceivable.

I agree that, if it were a fact that the zombie world were coherently conceivable, that could be evidence of something.

I don't understand your reasons for believing that the zombie world is coherently conceivable.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:02:00PM 0 points [-]

Are you assuming that in order for me to be able to justifiedly believe and reason from the premise that the zombie world is conceivable, I need to be able to give some independent justification for this belief? That way lies global skepticism.

I can tell you that the belief coheres well with my other beliefs, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for my being justified in believing it. There's no good reason to think that it's false. (Though again, I don't mean to suggest that this fact suffices to make it reasonable to believe.) Whether it's reasonable to believe depends, in part, on facts that cannot be agreed upon within this dialectic: namely, whether there really is any contradiction in the idea.

Comment author: komponisto 30 March 2011 05:21:12PM 5 points [-]

we might ask why, if consciousness is not really distinct from the physical properties, is it so easy to imagine the physical properties without imagining consciousness?

And that is a question of cognitive science, is it not?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:19:52PM 0 points [-]

Ha, indeed, poorly worded on my part :-)

Comment author: SilasBarta 30 March 2011 10:24:41PM 1 point [-]

What was poor about it? The rest of your point is consistent with that wording. What would you put there instead so as to make your point more plausible?

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:48:37PM *  1 point [-]

Good question. It really needed to be stated in more objective terms (which will make the claim less plausible to you, but more logically relevant):

It's a fact that a scenario containing a microphysical duplicate of our world but lacking chairs is incoherent. It's not a fact that the zombie world is incoherent. (I know, we dispute this, but I'm just explaining my view here.)

With the talk of what's easily imaginable, I invite the reader to occupy my dialectical perspective, and thus to grasp the (putative) fact under dispute; but I certainly don't think that anything I'm saying here forces you to take my position seriously. (I agree, for example, that the psychological facts are not sufficient justification.)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 07:13:13PM 9 points [-]

This is an interesting proposal, but we might ask why, if consciousness is not really distinct from the physical properties, is it so easy to imagine the physical properties without imagining consciousness? It's not like we can imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world that's lacking chairs.

But these kinds of imagining are importantly dissimilar. Compare:

1) imagine the physical properties without imagining consciousness

2) imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world that's lacking chairs

The key phrases are: "without imagining" and "that's lacking". It is one thing to imagine one thing without imagining another, and quite another to imagine one thing that's lacking another. For example, I can imagine a ball without imagining its color (indeed, as experiments have shown, we can see a ball without seeing its color), but I may not be able to imagine a ball that's lacking color.

This is no small distinction.

To bring (2) into line with (1) we would need to change it to this:

2a) imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world without imagining chairs

And this, I submit, is possible. In fact it is possible not only to imagine a physical duplicate of our world without imagining chairs, it is (in parallel to the ball example above) possible to see a duplicate of our world (namely the world itself) without seeing (i.e. perceiving, recognizing) chairs. It's a regular occurrence that we fail to see (to recognize) what's right in front of us in plain view. It is furthermore possible for a creature like Laplace's Demon to imagine every particle in the universe and all their relations to each other without recognizing, in its own imagined picture, that a certain group of particles make up a chair, etc. The Demon can in other words fail to see the forest for the trees in its own imagined world.

Now, if instead of changing (2) to bring it into line with (1), we change (1) to bring it into line with (2), we get:

1a) imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world that's lacking consciousness

Now, your reason for denying (2) was:

Once we've imagined the atoms-arranged-chairwise, that's all it is to be a chair.

Converting this, we have the following proposition:

Once we've imagined the atoms-arranged-personwise, that's all it is to be a person.

But this seems to be nothing other than the issue in question, namely, the issue of whether there is anything more to being a person than atoms-arranged-personwise. If you assume that there is, then you are assuming the possibility of philosophical zombies. In other words this particular piece in the argument for the possibility of philosophical zombies assumes the possibility of philosophical zombies.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 10:32:13PM 3 points [-]

we get: 1a) imagine a microphysical duplicate of our world that's lacking consciousness

Right, that's the claim. I explain why I don't think it's question-begging here and here

Comment author: quen_tin 30 March 2011 08:07:14PM 2 points [-]

Once we've imagined the atoms-arranged-chairwise, that's all it is to be a chair. It's analytic. But there's no such conceptual connection between neurons-instantiating-computations and consciousness, which arguably precludes identifying the two.

That's true. The difference between chairs and consciousness is that chair is a 3rd person concept, whereas consciousness is a 1st person concept. Imagining a world without consciousness is easy, because we never know if there are consciousnesses or not in the world - consciousness is not an empirical data, it's something we speculate other have by analogy with ourselves.

Comment author: RichardChappell 30 March 2011 04:34:51PM 0 points [-]

Aleph basically has it right in his reply: 'water' is a special case because it's a rigid designator, picking out the actual watery stuff in all counterfactual worlds (even when some other stuff, XYZ, is the watery stuff instead of our water).

Conceiving of the "twin earth" world (where the watery stuff isn't H2O) is indeed informative, since if this really is a coherent scenario then there really is a metaphysically possible world where the watery stuff isn't H2O. It happens that we shouldn't call that stuff "water", if it differs from the watery stuff in our world, but that's mere semantics. The reality is that there is a possible world corresponding to the one we're (coherently) conceiving of.

For more detail, see Misusing Kripke; Misdescribing Worlds, or my undergrad thesis on Modal Rationalism

Comment author: Liosis 30 March 2011 05:11:52AM 0 points [-]

The philosophers I study under criticise the sciences for not being rigorous enough. The problem goes both ways. The sciences often do not understand the basic concepts from which they are functioning. A good scientist will also have a rudimentary understanding of philosophy, in order to fiddle with the background epistemology of their work.

You are correct in thinking that Continental philosophy is not continuous with the sciences, because it is the core of the humanities and as such being continuous with the sciences would be unnatural for it. I still think that asking questions about our connection to existence is interesting and important, although I personally do not find Continental philosophy as potentially fruitful as Analytic.

Intuitions are by no means accepted within the discipline as a whole, and are also an interesting topic of debate within it. Because philosophy is a highly speculative discipline it isn't going to be following a normal scientific model, but instead will model constant discovery. If you want to see where science connects up with philosophy what you should look at is the disciplines that end up coming out of philosophy as questions that can be answered scientifically. This is what we produce with regard to science.

Philosophy is the core of the academic disciplines. It isn't in the business of scientific inquiry and it should not be. Some philosophers are still looking for universal truths after all. Simply disagreeing with the idea of a priori does not make it go away.

It is good that you recognise there are problems in philosophy. Too many people take it as dogma and do not question the area they have explored. My advice is to take what you can from the discipline well keeping in mind that every piece you take comes with a centuries long dialogue.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 March 2011 05:19:23AM 9 points [-]

The philosophers I study under criticise the sciences for not being rigorous enough.

Acid test 1: Are they complaining about experimenters using arbitrary subjective "statistical significance" measures instead of Bayesian likelihood functions?

Acid test 2: Are they chiding physicists for not decisively discarding single-world interpretations of quantum mechanics?

Acid test 3: Are all of their own journals open-access?

It may be ad hominem tu quoque, but any discipline that doesn't pass the three acid tests has not impressed me with its superiority to our modern, massively flawed academic science.

Comment author: jimrandomh 30 March 2011 04:07:27PM *  6 points [-]

(2) appears to reject any discipline that ignores quantum mechanics entirely, or which pays attention to quantum mechanics but whose practitioners consider themselves too confused about it to challenge the consensus position.

(3) appears to reject almost all of academia. In particular, it rejects disciplines stuck at the common equilibrium of closed-access journals combined with authors publishing the same articles on their own web pages.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 30 March 2011 04:11:46PM *  1 point [-]

Acid test 2: Are they chiding physicists for not decisively discarding single-world interpretations of quantum mechanics?

ETA: The following comment is mostly off-base due to the reason pointed out in JGWeissman's reply. Mea culpa.

Ugh, it's not like many worlds is even the most elegant interpretation: http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.1066 . Talk of MWI is kind of misleading if people haven't already thought about spatially infinite universes for more than 5 minutes, which they mostly haven't.

I realize that world-eater supporters are almost definitely wrong, but I'm really suspicious of putting people into the irrational bin because they've failed according to a metric that is knowably fundamentally flawed. I doubt the utility lost via setting a precedent (even if you're damn well sure they're wrong in this case) of actually figuring out ways a person could have fundamentally correct epistemology is more than the utility lost by disregarding everyone and going all Only Sane Man. But my experience is with SIAI and not SL4. Maybe I'd think differently if I was Quirrell.

Comment author: JGWeissman 30 March 2011 09:20:52PM 5 points [-]

Ugh, it's not like many worlds is even the most elegant interpretation:

The proposed theory does not seem to be an alternative to MW QM so much as a possible answer to "What adds up to MW QM?". In this light, does pushing MW over Collapse really warrant an "ugh" response?

Comment author: quen_tin 30 March 2011 04:17:00PM 2 points [-]

Acid test (1) and (2): this is where dogma starts.

Comment author: Emile 30 March 2011 03:23:50PM 4 points [-]

This doesn't do much to convince me; for example in these bits you could substitute "philosophy" with "theology", and it would sound the same:

Because philosophy is a highly speculative discipline it isn't going to be following a normal scientific model, but instead will model constant discovery.

[...] It isn't in the business of scientific inquiry and it should not be. Some philosophers are still looking for universal truths after all. Simply disagreeing with the idea of a priori does not make it go away.

It is good that you recognise there are problems in philosophy. Too many people take it as dogma and do not question the area they have explored. My advice is to take what you can from the discipline well keeping in mind that every piece you take comes with a centuries long dialogue.

The bit about "take what you can" and "every piece comes with a centuries long dialogue" especially could be said of a lot of things (law, for example) and it's not clear why those are good things in themselves.

Comment author: djc 30 March 2011 05:22:56AM *  25 points [-]

As a professional philosopher who's interested in some of the issues discussed in this forum, I think it's perfectly healthy for people here to mostly ignore professional philosophy, for reasons given here. But I'm interested in the reverse direction: if good ideas are being had here, I'd like professional philosophy to benefit from them. So I'd be grateful if someone could compile a list of significant contributions made here that would be useful to professional philosophers, with links to sources.

(The two main contributions that I'm aware of are ideas about friendly AI and timeless/updateless decision theory. I'm sure there are more, though. Incidentally I've tried to get very smart colleagues in decision theory to take the TDT/UDT material seriously, but the lack of a really clear statement of these ideas seems to get in the way.)

Comment author: lukeprog 30 March 2011 05:32:31AM 15 points [-]

Yes, this is one reason I'm campaigning to have LW / SIAI / Yudkowsky ideas written in standard form!

Comment author: radical_negative_one 30 March 2011 06:23:59AM *  1 point [-]

Incidentally I've tried to get very smart colleagues in decision theory to take the TDT/UDT material seriously, but the lack of a really clear statement of these ideas seems to get in the way.

Just in case you haven't seen it, here is Eliezer's Timeless Decision Theory paper. It's over a hundred pages so i'd hope that it represents a "clear statement". (Although i can't personally comment on anything in it because i don't currently have time to read it.)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2011 06:31:40AM 6 points [-]

It's somewhat painful to read. I've tried to read it in the past and get a bit eyesore after the first twenty pages.

Doing the math, I realize it's probably irrational for Yudkowsky-san to spend time learning LaTeX or some other serious typesetting system, but I can dream, right?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 March 2011 10:14:56AM *  5 points [-]

The LaTeX to format a document like that can be learnt in an hour or two with no previous experience, assuming at least basic technically-minded smarts.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 30 March 2011 12:10:42PM *  5 points [-]

The LaTeX to format a document like that can be learnt in an hour or two

And the learning (and formatting of the document) does not have to be done by the author of the document.

Comment author: djc 30 March 2011 06:45:48AM 24 points [-]

That's the one. I sent it to five of the world's leading decision theorists. Those who I heard back from clearly hadn't grasped the main idea. Given the people involved, I think this indicates that the paper isn't a sufficiently clear statement.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 March 2011 10:51:20AM 3 points [-]

Incidentally I've tried to get very smart colleagues in decision theory to take the TDT/UDT material seriously, but the lack of a really clear statement of these ideas seems to get in the way.

Do you know about the TDT paper?

Comment author: XiXiDu 30 March 2011 01:23:59PM 6 points [-]

So I'd be grateful if someone could compile a list of significant contributions made here that would be useful to professional philosophers, with links to sources.

Actually in one case this "forum" could benefit from the help of professional philosophers, as the founder Eliezer Yudkowsky especially asks for help on this problem:

I don't feel I have a satisfactory resolution as yet, so I'm throwing it open to any analytic philosophers...

I think that if you show that professional philosophy can dissolve that problem then people here would be impressed.

Comment author: marcad 30 March 2011 04:17:59PM *  -1 points [-]

In these articles, I believe Less Wrong is approaching extraordinary levels of group think. I had the misfortune of growing up as the child of bona fide cult members, complete with guru. There are many similarities here.

And what is significantly absent is self-awareness of the blatant conceit in believing that some super smart dude can reinvent all thinking all-by-self (don't deny it, that's what's going on). I have been disgusted by articles written by Eleazar which virtually lifted whole swaths of Nietzsche, completely unattributed. There is no way that most of this is original thinking.

And I'll also point out to all the people with rationality blinders on that if the poor dumb sheeples (as appears to be the general attitude around here) get wind that you're anywhere close to installing super-awesome robot overlords that you are certain will rule with love and compassion, then we'll see an uprising which will make the French Revolution look like a love-in.

Really super disgusted. And I don't even give a shit about Wittgenstein. Though I think rationalists who believe they have found or are close to finding the key to living and thinking non-metaphorically are living in their own very delusional altered reality.

What's most ironic is that Less Wrong IS mainstream philosophy. Look around peeps, this IS the zeitgeist of the scientific set. Just because universities haven't caught up with you means Nothing. Get some self-awareness, this is pure and simply an advanced step in the progression of the Enlightenment, although more accurately it's an advanced step in scientific reason a-la the school of Socrates. Of course you're different, advanced, but you are a part of that specific genealogy. And this is the damning lack of awareness most present in this mindset. You are children of Enlightenment. (Go ahead, murder your fathers ;)

The analysis of mainstream philosophy is missing some key analytical components. Namely, the big picture: the nature, progression of change at, and priorities of academia overall. The political and social world in which that academic progression took shape. The rationalizations and biases supporting major universities as suppliers of ruling classes, as well as the rationalizations and biases of the academia in working class university, and of course the funding of all of the above, and how those shape thinking. Not exploring this issues is tantamount to not exploring the problem. It's just hand wringing.

And why this glaring lack? Those are the hard problems. Hard to talk about aren't they. Hell, all this philosophy debate sparks hundreds of comments, but this is a particularly abstract topic. 10% concrete development, 90% repainting the bike shed.

Here's my contribution to LW: the Fallacy of the Single Solution (to society's ills), i.e. AI; i.e. Rationality. Particularly abstract solutions, mind you. A lot of what goes on around here is quite Utilitarian, a point alone which should make people sit back and consider, "do we really have the knowledge and capabilities yet to resolve through advanced AI the serious unresolved problems of Utilitarianism?" I'd say that you'd better be Insanely Sure. The bar for evidence better be high, this is high-risk territory. Or, instead, are the Old Dead Guys who have discussed these problems Not Worth Reading either? "Stick with our dogma peeps, don't confuse yourselves!"...

..Oh man, when you're telling people "don't confuse yourselves with the old literature, you are in really altered reality. Wow. Cults.

Quite strange all the denial. But then again, that's what group think is all about.

Comment author: wnoise 30 March 2011 04:39:27PM *  4 points [-]

all thinking all-by-self.

All thinking all-by-himself? No. Great chunks, while being immersed in the culture that resulted from that thinking, sure.

I have been disgusted by articles written by Eleazar which virtually lifted whole swaths of Nietzsche, completely unattributed. There is no way that most of this is original thinking.

For direct influences, Eliezer is quite willing to cite e.g. Feynmann, Dennet, Pearl and Drescher.

I don't see the connection you see to Nietzsche in particular, merely a bunch of things that are tangential at best. Would you be willing to spell out which bits of his writings are like which bits of Nietzsche? I would strongly guess that anything you identify is not particularly unique to Nietzsche, and similar points had been made both before and after him, and any that did have no antecedents before him leaked out into the broader culture.

It depends on what you mean by this being "original thinking". Eliezer almost certainly isn't directly mining 19th century German philosophers for ideas. I doubt he has read much if any Nietzsche and would thus not be able to directly copy Nietzsche. Nonetheless, some ideas of Nietzsche have made their way into modern world view. Ideas are generally dense and interconnected. Starting at one idea of a philosopher and thinking about the implications are going to produce similar new ideas to others the philosopher had.

Yes, one should keep clear that one's ideas that apparently arise from within are crucially dependent on previous experiences and culture. But that doesn't extend to a requirement to track down and cite previous articulators of similar ideas. Once an idea is encountered indirectly, it's free game to build upon. It's long been recognized that certain ideas arise multiple times apparently independently when the prerequisites take root in a given culture. Newton and Liebniz independently invented calculus, with no direct connection. I'm sure neither could cite any direct influence from prior mathematicians that would directly lead to calculus. But there was still enough commonality in mathematical culture that they developed it at roughly the same time.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 March 2011 04:53:35PM 2 points [-]

What's also ironic is that luke, who wrote the post you're responding to, has recently argued at some length that it's important to acknowledge the relationships between LW and mainstream philosophy and in particular the places where LW/EY owe debts to mainstream philosophy.

A reasonable man might infer from this that he's not entirely blinded by groupthink on this particular subject.

Of course, that doesn't mean all the rest of us aren't... though we sure do seem to have a lot of internal disagreement for a bona fide cult.