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Conceptual Analysis and Moral Theory

60 Post author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 06:28AM

Part of the sequence: No-Nonsense Metaethics. Also see: A Human's Guide to Words.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Albert:  "Of course it does.  What kind of silly question is that?  Every time I've listened to a tree fall, it made a sound, so I'll guess that other trees falling also make sounds.  I don't believe the world changes around when I'm not looking."

Barry:  "Wait a minute. If no one hears it, how can it be a sound?"

Albert and Barry are not arguing about facts, but about definitions:

...the first person is speaking as if 'sound' means acoustic vibrations in the air; the second person is speaking as if 'sound' means an auditory experience in a brain.  If you ask "Are there acoustic vibrations?" or "Are there auditory experiences?", the answer is at once obvious. And so the argument is really about the definition of the word 'sound'.

Of course, Albert and Barry could argue back and forth about which definition best fits their intuitions about the meaning of the word. Albert could offer this argument in favor of using his definition of sound:

My computer's microphone can record a sound without anyone being around to hear it, store it as a file, and it's called a 'sound file'. And what's stored in the file is the pattern of vibrations in air, not the pattern of neural firings in anyone's brain. 'Sound' means a pattern of vibrations.

Barry might retort:

Imagine some aliens on a distant planet. They haven't evolved any organ that translates vibrations into neural signals, but they still hear sounds inside their own head (as an evolutionary biproduct of some other evolved cognitive mechanism). If these creatures seem metaphysically possible to you, then this shows that our concept of 'sound' is not dependent on patterns of vibrations.

If their debate seems silly to you, I have sad news. A large chunk of moral philosophy looks like this. What Albert and Barry are doing is what philosophers call conceptual analysis.1

 

The trouble with conceptual analysis

I won't argue that everything that has ever been called 'conceptual analysis' is misguided.2 Instead, I'll give examples of common kinds of conceptual analysis that corrupt discussions of morality and other subjects.

The following paragraph explains succinctly what is wrong with much conceptual analysis:

Analysis [had] one of two reputations. On the one hand, there was sterile cataloging of pointless folk wisdom - such as articles analyzing the concept VEHICLE, wondering whether something could be a vehicle without wheels. This seemed like trivial lexicography. On the other hand, there was metaphysically loaded analysis, in which ontological conclusions were established by holding fixed pieces of folk wisdom - such as attempts to refute general relativity by holding fixed allegedly conceptual truths, such as the idea that motion is intrinsic to moving things, or that there is an objective present.3

Consider even the 'naturalistic' kind of conceptual analysis practiced by Timothy Schroeder in Three Faces of Desire. In private correspondance, I tried to clarify Schroeder's project:

As I see it, [your book] seeks the cleanest reduction of the folk psychological term 'desire' to a natural kind, ala the reduction of the folk chemical term 'water' to H2O. To do this, you employ a naturalism-flavored method of conceptual analysis according to which the best theory of desire is one that is logically consistent, fits the empirical facts, and captures how we use the term and our intuitions about its meaning.

Schroeder confirmed this, and it's not hard to see the motivation for his project. We have this concept 'desire', and we might like to know: "Is there anything in the world similar to what we mean by 'desire'?" Science can answer the "is there anything" part, and intuition (supposedly) can answer the "what we mean by" part.

The trouble is that philosophers often take this "what we mean by" question so seriously that thousands of pages of debate concern which definition to use rather than which facts are true and what to anticipate.

In one chapter, Schroeder offers 8 objections4 to a popular conceptual analysis of 'desire' called the 'action-based theory of desire'. Seven of these objections concern our intuitions about the meaning of the word 'desire', including one which asks us to imagine the existence of alien life forms that have desires about the weather but have no dispositions to act to affect the weather. If our intuitions tell us that such creatures are metaphysically possible, goes the argument, then our concept of 'desire' need not be linked to dispositions to act.

Contrast this with a conversation you might have with someone from the Singularity Institute. Within 20 seconds of arguing about the definition of 'desire', someone will say, "Screw it. Taboo 'desire' so we can argue about facts and anticipations, not definitions."5

 

Disputing definitions

Arguing about definitions is not always misguided. Words can be wrong:

When the philosophers of Plato's Academy claimed that the best definition of a human was a "featherless biped", Diogenes the Cynic is said to have exhibited a plucked chicken and declared "Here is Plato's Man." The Platonists promptly changed their definition to "a featherless biped with broad nails."

Likewise, if I give a lecture on correlations between income and subjective well-being and I conclude by saying, "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my theory of the atom," then you have some reason to object. Nobody else uses the term 'atom' to mean anything remotely like what I've just discussed. If I ever do that, I hope you will argue that my definition of 'morality' is 'wrong' (or unhelpful, or confusing, or something).

Some unfortunate words are used in a wide variety of vague and ambiguous ways.6 Moral terms are among these. As one example, consider some commonly used definitions for 'morally good':

  • that which produces the most pleasure for the most people
  • that which is in accord with the divine will
  • that which adheres to a certain list of rules
  • that which the speaker's intuitions approve of in a state of reflective equilibrium
  • that which the speaker generally approves of
  • that which our culture generally approves of
  • that which our species generally approves of
  • that which we would approve of if we were fully informed and perfectly rational
  • that which adheres to the policies we would vote to enact from behind a veil of ignorance
  • that which does not violate the concept of our personhood
  • that which resists entropy for as long as possible

Often, people can't tell you what they mean by moral terms when you question them. There is little hope of taking a survey to decide what moral terms 'typically mean' or 'really mean'. The problem may be worse for moral terms than for (say) art terms. Moral terms have more powerful connotations than art terms, and are thus a greater attractor for sneaking in connotations. Moral terms are used to persuade. "It's just wrong!" the moralist cries, "I don't care what definition you're using right now. It's just wrong: don't do it."

Moral discourse is rife with motivated cognition. This is part of why, I suspect, people resist dissolving moral debates even while they have no trouble dissolving the 'tree falling in a forest' debate.

 

Disputing the definitions of moral terms

So much moral philosophy is consumed by debates over definitions that I will skip to an example from someone you might hope would know better: reductionist Frank Jackson7:

...if Tom tells us that what he means by a right action is one in accord with God's will, rightness according to Tom is being in accord with God's will. If Jack tells us that what he means by a right action is maximizing expected value as measured in hedons, then, for Jack, rightness is maximizing expected value...

But if we wish to address the concerns of our fellows when we discuss the matter - and if we don't, we will not have much of an audience - we had better mean what they mean. We had better, that is, identify our subject via the folk theory of rightness, wrongness, goodness, badness, and so on. We need to identify rightness as the property that satisfies, or near enough satisfies, the folk theory of rightness - and likewise for the other moral properties. It is, thus, folk theory that will be our guide in identifying rightness, goodness, and so on.8

The meanings of moral terms, says Jackson, are given by their place in a network of platitudes ('clauses') from folk moral discourse:

The input clauses of folk morality tell us what kinds of situations described in descriptive, non-moral terms warrant what kinds of description in ethical terms: if an act is an intentional killing, then normally it is wrong; pain is bad; 'I cut, you choose' is a fair procedure; and so on. The internal role clauses of folk morality articulate the interconnections between matters described in ethical, normative language: courageous people are more likely to do what is right than cowardly people; the best option is the right option; rights impose duties of respect; and so on. The output clauses of folk morality take us from ethical judgements to facts about motivation and thus behaviour: the judgement that an act is right is normally accompanied by at least some desire to perform the act in question; the realization that an act would be dishonest typically dissuades an agent from performing it; properties that make something good are the properties we typically have some kind of pro-attitude towards, and so on. Moral functionalism, then, is the view that the meanings of the moral terms are given by their place in this network of input, output, and internal clauses that makes up folk morality.9

And thus, Jackson tosses his lot into the definitions debate. Jackson supposes that we can pick out which platitudes of moral discourse matter, and how much they matter, for determining the meaning of moral terms - despite the fact that individual humans, and especially groups of humans, are themselves confused about the meanings of moral terms, and which platitudes of moral discourse should 'matter' in fixing their meaning.

This is a debate about definitions that will never end.

 

Austere Metaethics vs. Empathic Metaethics

In the next post, we'll dissolve standard moral debates the same way Albert and Barry should have dissolved their debate about sound.

But that is only the first step. It is important to not stop after sweeping away the confusions of mainstream moral philosophy to arrive at mere correct answers. We must stare directly into the heart of the problem and do the impossible.

Consider Alex, who wants to do the 'right' thing. But she doesn't know what 'right' means. Her question is: "How do I do what is right if I don't know exactly what 'right' means?"

The Austere Metaethicist might cross his arms and say:

Tell me what you mean by 'right', and I will tell you what is the right thing to do. If by 'right' you mean X, then Y is the right thing to do. If by 'right' you mean P, then Z is the right thing to do. But if you can't tell me what you mean by 'right', then you have failed to ask a coherent question, and no one can answer an incoherent question.

The Empathic Metaethicist takes up a greater burden. The Empathic Metaethicist says to Alex:

You may not know what you mean by 'right.' You haven't asked a coherent question. But let's not stop there. Here, let me come alongside you and help decode the cognitive algorithms that generated your question in the first place, and then we'll be able to answer your question. Then not only can we tell you what the right thing to do is, but also we can help bring your emotions into alignment with that truth... as you go on to (say) help save the world rather than being filled with pointless existential angst about the universe being made of math.

Austere metaethics is easy. Empathic metaethics is hard. But empathic metaethics is what needs to be done to answer Alex's question, and it's what needs to be done to build a Friendly AI. We'll get there in the next few posts.

 

Next post: Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Previous post: What is Metaethics?

 

 

Notes

1 Eliezer advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will "teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work." Conceptual analysis is, I think, exactly that: a very bad habit of thought that renders many people unable to do real work. Also: My thanks to Eliezer for his helpful comments on an early draft of this post.

2 For example: Jackson (1998), p. 28, has a different view of conceptual analysis: "conceptual analysis is the very business of addressing when and whether a story told in one vocabulary is made true by one told in some allegedly more fundamental vocabulary." For an overview of Jackson's kind of conceptual analysis, see here. Also, Alonzo Fyfe reminded me that those who interpret the law must do a kind of conceptual analysis. If a law has been passed declaring that vehicles are not allowed on playgrounds, a judge must figure out whether 'vehicle' includes or excludes rollerskates. More recent papers on conceptual analysis are available at Philpapers. Finally, read Chalmers on verbal disputes.

3 Braddon-Mitchell (2008). A famous example of the first kind lies at the heart of 20th century epistemology: the definition of 'knowledge.' Knowledge had long been defined as 'justified true belief', but then Gettier (1963) presented some hypothetical examples of justified true belief that many of us would intuitively not label as 'knowledge.' Philosophers launched a cottage industry around new definitions of 'knowledge' and new counterexamples to those definitions. Brian Weatherson called this the "analysis of knowledge merry-go-round." Tyrrell McAllister called it the 'Gettier rabbit-hole.'

4 Schroeder (2004), pp. 15-27. Schroeder lists them as 7 objections, but I count his 'trying without desiring' and 'intending without desiring' objections separately.

5 Tabooing one's words is similar to what Chalmers (2009) calls the 'method of elimination'. In an earlier post, Yudkowsky used what Chalmers (2009) calls the 'subscript gambit', except Yudkowsky used underscores instead of subscripts.

6 See also Gallie (1956).

7 Eliezer said that the closest thing to his metaethics from mainstream philosophy is Jackson's 'moral functionalism', but of course moral functionalism is not quite right.

8 Jackson (1998), p. 118.

9 Jackson (1998), pp. 130-131.

 

References

Braddon-Mitchell (2008). Naturalistic analysis and the a priori. In Braddon-Mitchell & Nola (eds.), Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism (pp. 23-43). MIT Press.

Chalmers (2009). Verbal disputes. Unpublished.

Gallie (1956). Essentially contested concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, 56: 167-198.

Gettier (1963). Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis, 23: 121-123.

Jackson (1998). From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford University Press.

Schroeder (2004). Three Faces of Desire. Oxford University Press.

Comments (455)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 18 May 2011 04:14:23AM 5 points [-]

Analysis [had] one of two reputations. On the one hand, there was sterile cataloging of pointless folk wisdom - such as articles analyzing the concept VEHICLE, wondering whether something could be a vehicle without wheels. This seemed like trivial lexicography.

This work is useful. Understanding how people conceptualize and categorize is the starting point for epistemology. If Wittgenstein hadn't asked what qualified as a game, we might still be trying to define everything in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 May 2011 05:02:02AM 1 point [-]

I largely disagree, for these reasons.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 19 May 2011 04:00:34AM 0 points [-]

Wasn't the whole point of Wittgenstein's observation that the question of whether something can be a vehicle without wheels is pretty much useless?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 May 2011 05:28:06PM *  5 points [-]

(I'll reiterate some standard points, maybe someone will find them useful.)

The explicit connection you make between figuring out what is right and fixing people's arguments for them is a step in the right direction. Acting in this way is basically the reason it's useful to examine the physical reasons behind your own decisions or beliefs, even though such reasons don't have any normative power (that your brain tends to act a certain way is not a very good argument for acting that way). Understanding these reasons can point you to a step where the reasoning algorithm was clearly incorrect and can be improved in a known way, thus giving you an improved reasoning algorithm that produces better decisions or beliefs (while the algorithm, both original and improved, remains normatively irrelevant and far from completely understood).

In other words, given that you have tools for making normative decisions that sometimes work, you should seek out as many opportunities for usefully applying them as you can find. If they don't tell you what you should do, perhaps they can tell you how you should be thinking about what you should do. In particular, you should seek opportunities for applying them to their own operation, so that they start working better.

Of course, you'll need tools for making normative decisions about the appropriate methods of improvement for a person's reasoning, and here we hit a wall (on the way to a more rigorous method), because we typically only have our own intuitions to go on. Also, the way you'd like to improve other person's reasoning can be different from the way that person would like their reasoning improved, which makes the ideas of "Alex-right" or "human-right" even more difficult to designate than just "right" (and perhaps much less useful).

Comment author: Nisan 16 May 2011 05:35:38PM 1 point [-]

the way you'd like to improve other person's reasoning can be different from the way that person would like their reasoning improved

I appreciate that this is a theoretical problem. Have you seen any evidence that this or is not a problem in our particular world?

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 03:42:39PM 2 points [-]

People tend to prefer "just being told the answer", where forcing them to work through problem sets teaches them better.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

People dislike articulating answers to rhetorical questions regarding what seems obvious, as this would force them to admit to being surprised by an eventual conclusion, which is a state that can be emotionally uncomfortable, yet the discomfort is linked with embedding it in their memory and it also forces them to face the reality that neighboring beliefs need updating in light of the surprising conclusion because the conclusion was a surprise to them.

The above sentence is steeped in my theory behind a phenomenon that you may have better competing theories for, that people dislike rhetorical questions. Note that other theories are obvious but not entirely competitive with mine.

META: I have divided my posts with tildes because what seemed in my own mind a minute ago to be two roughly equivalent answers to Nisan's question has unraveled into different qualities of response on my part, this is surprising to me and if there is anything to learn from it I only found it out by trying my fingertips at typing an answer to the question. The tildes also represent that I empathize with anyone downvoting this comment because everything below the tildes is too wordy and low quality; my first response (above the tildes) I think is really insightful.

META-META:I've been bemused by my inability to predict how others perceive my comments, but I've recently noticed a pattern: meta comments like this one are likely to get uniform positive or negative response (I'm still typing it out and sticking out my neck [in the safety of pseudonymity] as they are often well received), and I'd appreciate advice on how I could or should have written this post differently for it to be better if it is flawed as I suspect it is. One thing I am trying out for the first time are the META and META-META tags. Is there a better (or more standardized) way to do this?

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 18 May 2011 08:00:00PM 0 points [-]

The first sentence seems banal, the second interesting. I suspect this is like the take five minutes technique, you thought better because you thought longer. The second paragraph after the tildes seems unnecessary to me.

Comment author: lessdazed 19 May 2011 12:00:18AM 0 points [-]

Thanks.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 16 May 2011 07:02:10AM 16 points [-]

It almost annoys me, but I feel compelled to vote this up. (I know groundbreaking philosophy is not yet your intended purpose but) I didn't learn anything, I remain worried that the sequence is going to get way too ambitious, and I remain confused about where it's ultimately headed. But the presentation is so good -- clear language, straightforward application of LW wisdom, excellent use of hyperlinks, high skimmability, linked references, flattery of my peer group -- that I feel I have to support the algorithm that generated it.

Comment author: lukeprog 26 May 2011 09:39:23PM *  6 points [-]

This comment is for anyone who is confused about where the 'no-nonsense metaethics' sequence is going.

First, I had to write a bunch of prerequisites. More prerequisites are upcoming:
Intuitions and Philosophy
The Neuroscience of Desire
The Neuroscience of Pleasure
Inferring Our Desires
Heading Toward: No-Nonsense Metaethics
What is Metaethics?

Stage One of the sequence intends to solve or dissolve many of the central problems of mainstream metaethics. Stage one includes this post and a few others to come later. This is my solution to "much of metaethics" promised earlier. The "much of" refers to mainstream metaethics, not to Yudkowskian metaethics.

Stage Two of the sequence intends to catch everybody up with the progress on Yudkowskian metaethics that has been made by a few particular brains (mostly at SI) in the last few years but hasn't been written down anywhere yet.

Stage Three of the sequence intends to state the open problems of Yudkowskian metaethics as clearly as possible so that rationalists can make incremental progress on them, ala Gowers' Polymath Project or Hilbert's problems. (Unfortunately, problems in metaethics are not as clearly defined as problems in math.)

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 01:48:26PM *  10 points [-]

Most of your comment looks as though it could apply just as well to the most upvoted post on LW ever (edit: second-most-upvoted), and that's good enough for me. :)

There are indeed many LW regulars, and especially SI folk, who won't learn anything from several posts in this series. On the other hand, I think that these points haven't been made clear (about morality) anywhere else. I hope that when people (including LWers) start talking about morality with the usual conceptual-analysis assumptions, you can just link them here and dissolve the problem.

Also, it sounds like you agree with everything in this fairly long post. If so, yours is faint criticism indeed. :)

Comment author: FAWS 16 May 2011 03:10:12PM 1 point [-]

Most of your comment looks as though it could apply just as well to the most-upvoted post on LW ever,

*Second most upvoted post. I was a bit sad that Generalizing From One Example apparently wasn't the top post anymore because I really liked it, and while I also liked Diseased Thinking I just didn't like it quite as much. Nope, not the case, Generalizing From One Example is still at the top. Though I do hope it will eventually be replaced by a post that fully deserves to.

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 03:13:56PM 0 points [-]

Oops, thanks for the correction. I had to pull from memory because the 'Top' link doesn't work in my browser (Chrome on Mac). It just lists an apparently random selection of posts.

Comment author: matt 18 May 2011 03:59:58AM *  3 points [-]

Look for the date range ("Links from") in the sidebar - you want "All Time".
Yes, we're fixing the placement of this control in the redesign.

Comment author: lukeprog 18 May 2011 04:35:59AM 1 point [-]

Hey, lookie there!

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 16 May 2011 11:02:22AM *  8 points [-]

An interesting phenomenon I've noticed recently is that sometimes words do have short exact definitions that exactly coincide with common usage and intuition. For example, after Gettier scenarios ruined the definition of knowledge as "Justified true belief", philosophers found a new definition:

"A belief in X is knowledge if one would always have that belief whenever X, and never have it whenever not-X".

(where "always" and "never" are defined to be some appropriate significance level)

Now it seems to me that this definition completely nails it. There's not one scenario I can find where this definition doesn't return the correct answer. (EDIT: Wrong! See great-grandchild by Tyrrell McAllister) I now feel very silly for saying things like "'Knowledge' is a fuzzy concept, hard to carve out of thingspace, there's is always going to be some scenario that breaks your definition." It turns out that it had a nice definition all along.

It seems like there is a reason why words tend to have short definitions: the brain can only run short algorithms to determine whether an instance falls into the category or not. All you've got to do to write the definition is to find this algorithm.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 May 2011 11:13:19AM *  10 points [-]

Yep. Another case in point of the danger of replying, "Tell me how you define X, and I'll tell you the answer" is Parfit in Reason and Persons concluding that whether or not an atom-by-atom duplicate constructed from you is "you" depends on how you define "you". Actually it turns out that there is a definite answer and the answer is knowably yes, because everything Parfit reasoned about "indexical identity" is sheer physical nonsense in a world built on configurations and amplitudes instead of Newtonian billiard balls.

PS: Very Tarskian and Bayesian of them, but are you sure they didn't say, "A belief in X is knowledge if one would never have it whenever not-X"?

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 16 May 2011 11:56:23AM *  4 points [-]

PS: Very Tarskian and Bayesian of them, but are you sure they didn't say, "A belief in X is knowledge if one would never have it whenever not-X"?

I'm thinking of Robert Nozick's definition. He states his definition thus:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P
  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

(I failed to remember condition 1, since 2 & 3 => 1 anyway)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 01:18:16PM *  19 points [-]

I'm thinking of Robert Nozick's definition. He states his definition thus:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P
  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

There is a reason why the Gettier rabbit-hole is so dangerous. You can always cook up an improbable counterexample to any definition.

For example, here is a counterexample to Nozick's definition as you present it. Suppose that I have irrationally decided to believe everything written in a certain book B and to believe nothing not written in B. Unfortunately for me, the book's author, a Mr. X, is a congenital liar. He invented almost every claim in the book out of whole cloth, with no regard for the truth of the matter. There was only one exception. There is one matter on which Mr. X is constitutionally compelled to write and to write truthfully: the color of his mother's socks on the day of his birth. At one point in B, Mr. X writes that his mother was wearing blue socks when she gave birth to him. This claim was scrupulously researched and is true. However, there is nothing in the text of B to indicate that Mr. X treated this claim any differently from all the invented claims in the book.

In this story, I am S, and P is "Mr. X's mother was wearing blue socks when she gave birth to him." Then:

  1. P is true. (Mr. X's mother really was wearing blue socks.)

  2. S believes that P. (Mr. X claimed P in B, and I believe everything in B.)

  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P. (Mr. X only claimed P in B because that was what his scrupulous research revealed. Had P not been true, Mr. X's research would not have led him to believe it. And, since he is incapable of lying about this matter, he would not have put P in B. Therefore, since I don't believe anything not in B, I would not have come to believe P.)

  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P. (Mr. X was constitutionally compelled to write truthfully about what the color of his mother's socks were when he was born. In all possible worlds in which his mother wore blue socks, Mr. X's scrupulous research would have discovered it, and Mr. X would have reported it in B, where I would have read it, and so believed it.)

And yet, the intuitions on which Gettier problems play would say that I don't know P. I just believe P because it was in a certain book, but I have no rational reason to trust anything in that book.


ETA: And here's a counterexample from the other direction — that is, an example of knowledge that fails to meet Nozick's criteria.

Suppose that you sit before an upside-down cup, under which there is a ping-pong ball that has been painted some color. Your job is to learn the color of the ping-pong ball.

You employ the following strategy: You flip a coin. If the coin comes up heads, you lift up the cup and look at the ping-pong ball, noting its color. If the coin comes up tails, you just give up and go with the ignorance prior.

Suppose that, when you flip the coin, it comes up heads. Accordingly, you look at the ping-pong ball and see that it is red. Intuitively, we would say that you know that the ping-pong ball is red.

Nonetheless, we fail to meet Nozick's criterion 4. Had the coin come up tails, you would not have lifted the cup, so you would not have come to believe that the ball is red, even if this were still true.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 16 May 2011 02:16:51PM *  6 points [-]

Wham! Okay, I'm reverted to my old position. "Knowledge" is a fuzzy word.

ETA: Or at least a position of uncertainty. I need to research how counterfactuals work.

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 01:51:10PM 3 points [-]

Yes. An excellent illustration of 'the Gettier rabbit-hole.'

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 17 May 2011 01:25:53PM *  2 points [-]

There is an entire chapter in Pearl's Causality book devoted to the rabbit-hole of defining what 'actual cause' means. (Note: the definition given there doesn't work, and there is a substantial literature discussing why and proposing fixes).

The counterargument to your post is that some seemingly fuzzy concepts actually have perfect intuitive consensus (e.g. almost everyone will classify any example as either concept X or not concept X the same way). This seems to be the case with 'actual cause.' As long as intuitive consensus continues to hold, the argument goes, there is hope of a concise logical description of it.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 17 May 2011 11:21:51PM 2 points [-]

As long as intuitive consensus continues to hold, the argument goes, there is hope of a concise logical description of it.

Maybe the concept of "infinity" is a sort of success story. People said all sorts of confused and incompatible things about infinity for millennia. Then finally Cantor found a way to work with it sensibly. His approach proved to be robust enough to survive essentially unchanged even after the abandonment of naive set theory.

But even that isn't an example of philosophers solving a problem with conceptual analysis in the sense of the OP.

Comment author: lukeprog 17 May 2011 01:29:37PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the Causality heads-up.

some seemingly fuzzy concepts actually have perfect intuitive consensus (e.g. almost everyone will classify any example as either concept X or not concept X the same way)

Can you name an example or two?

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 17 May 2011 05:32:12PM *  2 points [-]

Well, as I said, 'actual cause' appears to be one example. The literature is full of little causal stories where most people agree that something is an actual cause of something else in the story -- or not. Concepts which have already been formalized include concepts which are both used colloquially in "everyday conversation" and precisely in physics (e.g. weight/mass).

One could argue that 'actual cause' is in some sense not a natural concept, but it's still useful in the sense that formalizing the algorithm humans use to decide 'actual cause' problems can be useful for automating certain kinds of legal reasoning.

The Cyc project is a (probably doomed) example of a rabbit-hole project to construct an ontology of common sense. Lenat has been in that rabbit-hole for 27 years now.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 02:10:13PM 2 points [-]

Now, if only someone would give me a hand out of this rabbit-hole before I spend all morning in here ;).

Comment author: komponisto 16 May 2011 03:11:30PM 8 points [-]

Well, of course Bayesianism is your friend here. Probability theory elegantly supersedes the qualitative concepts of "knowledge", "belief" and "justification" and, together with an understanding of heuristics and biases, nicely dissolves Gettier problems, so that we can safely call "knowledge" any assignment of high probability to a proposition that turns out to be true.

For example, take the original Gettier scenario. Since Jones has 10 coins in his pocket, P(man with 10 coins gets job) is bounded from below by P(Jones gets job). Hence any information that raises P(Jones gets job) necessarily raises P(man with 10 coins gets job) to something even higher, regardless of whether (Jones gets job) turns out to be true.

The psychological difficulty here is the counterintuitiveness of the rule P(A or B) >= P(A), and is in a sense "dual" to the conjunction fallacy. Just as one has to remember to subtract probability as burdensome details are introduced, one also has to remember to add probability as the reference class is broadened. When Smith learns the information suggesting Jones is the favored candidate, it may not feel like he is learning information about the set of all people with 10 coins in their pocket, but he is.

In your example of the book by Mr. X, we can observe that, because Mr. X was constitutionally compelled to write truthfully about his mother's socks, your belief about that is legitimately entangled with reality, even if your other beliefs aren't.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 16 May 2011 04:06:32PM *  2 points [-]

I think that while what you define carves out a nice lump of thingspace, it fails to capture the intuitive meaning of the word probability. If I guess randomly that it will rain tomorrow and turn out to be right, then it doesn't fit intuition at all to say I knew that it would rain. This is why the traditional definition is "justified true belief" and that is what Gettier subverts.

You presumably already know all this. The point is that Tyrrell McAllister is trying (to avoid trying) to give a concise summary of the common usage of the word knowledge, rather than to give a definition that is actually useful for doing probability or solving problems.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 04:08:19PM *  1 point [-]

Well, of course Bayesianism is your friend here. Probability theory elegantly supersedes the qualitative concepts of "knowledge", "belief" and "justification" and, together with an understanding of heuristics and biases, nicely dissolves Gettier problems, so that we can safely call "knowledge" any assignment of high probability to a proposition that turns out to be true.

I agree that, with regard to my own knowledge, I should just determine the probability that I assign to a proposition P. Once I conclude that P has a high probability of being true, why should I care whether, in addition, I "know" P in some sense?

Nonetheless, if I had to develop a coherent concept of "knowledge", I don't think that I'd go with "'knowledge' [is] any assignment of high probability to a proposition that turns out to be true." The crucial question is, who is assigning the probability? If it's my assignment, then, as I said, I agree that, for me, the question about knowledge dissolves. (More generally, the question dissolves if the assignment was made according to my prior and my cognitive strategies.)

But Getteir problems are usually about some third person's knowledge. When do you say that they know something? Suppose that, by your lights, they have a hopelessly screwed-up prior — say, an anti-Laplacian prior. So, they assign high probability to all sorts of stupid things for no good reason. Nonetheless, they have enough beliefs so that there are some things to which they assign high probability that turn out to be true. Would you really want to say that they "know" those things that just happen to be true?

That is essentially what was going on in my example with Mr. X's book. There, I'm the third person. I have the stupid prior that says that everything in B is true and everything not in B is false. Now, you know that Mr. X is constitutionally compelled to write truthfully about his mother's socks. So you know that reading B will legitimately entangle my beliefs with reality on that one solitary subject. But I don't know that fact about Mr. X. I just believe everything in B. You know that my cognitive strategy will give me reliable knowledge on this one subject. But, intuitively, my epistemic state seems so screw-up that you shouldn't say that I know anything, even though I got this one thing right.


ETA: Gah. This is what I meant by "down the rabbit-hole". These kinds of conversations are just too fun :). I look forward to your reply, but it will be at least a day before I reply in turn.


ETA: Okay, just one more thing. I just wanted to say that I agree with your approach to the original Gettier problem with the coins.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 16 May 2011 05:45:26PM 1 point [-]

I have the stupid prior that says that everything in B is true and everything not in B is false. Now, you know that Mr. X is constitutionally compelled to write truthfully about his mother's socks. So you know that reading B will legitimately entangle my beliefs with reality on that one solitary subject. But I don't know that fact about Mr. X. I just believe everything in B. You know that my cognitive strategy will give me reliable knowledge on this one subject.

If you want to set your standard for knowledge this high, I would argue that you're claiming nothing counts as knowledge since no one has any way to tell how good their priors are independently of their priors.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 06:12:48PM *  0 points [-]

If you want to set your standard for knowledge this high ...

I'm not sure what you mean by a "standard for knowledge". What standard for knowledge do you think that I have proposed?

I would argue that you're claiming nothing counts as knowledge since no one has any way to tell how good their priors are independently of their priors.

You're talking about someone trying to determine whether their own beliefs count as knowledge. I already said that the question of "knowledge" dissolves in that case. All that they should care about are the probabilities that they assign to propositions. (I'm not sure whether you agree with me there or not.)

But you certainly can evaluate someone else's prior. I was trying to explain why "knowledge" becomes problematic in that situation. Do you disagree?

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 02:17:37PM *  4 points [-]

Here, let me introduce you to my friend Taboo...

;)

Comment author: AnlamK 17 May 2011 09:19:52PM *  2 points [-]

There is a reason why the Gettier rabbit-hole is so dangerous. You can always cook up an improbable counterexample to any definition.

That's a very interesting thought. I wonder what leads you to it.

With the caveat that I have not read all of this thread:

*Are you basing this on the fact that so far, all attempts at analysis have proven futile? (If so, maybe we need to come up with more robust conditions.)

*Do you think that the concept of 'knowledge' is inherently vague similar (but not identical) to the way terms like 'tall' and 'bald' are?

*Do you suspect that there may be no fact of the matter about what 'knowledge' is, just like there is no fact of the matter about the baldness of the present King of France? (If so, then how do the competent speakers apply the verb 'to know' so well?)

If we could say with confidence that conceptual analysis of knowledge is a futile effort, I think that would be progress. And of course the interesting question would be why.

It may just be simply that non-technical, common terms like 'vehicle' and 'knowledge' (and of course others like 'table') can't be conceptually analyzed.

Also, experimental philosophy could be relevant to this discussion.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 17 May 2011 09:55:07PM *  3 points [-]

There is a reason why the Gettier rabbit-hole is so dangerous. You can always cook up an improbable counterexample to any definition.

That's a very interesting thought. I wonder what leads you to it.

Let me expand on my comment a little: Thinking about the Gettier problem is dangerous in the same sense in which looking for a direct proof of the Goldbach conjecture is dangerous. These two activities share the following features:

  • When the problem was first posed, it was definitely worth looking for solutions. One could reasonably hope for success. (It would have been pretty nice if someone had found a solution to the Gettier problem within a year of its being posed.)

  • Now that the problem has been worked on for a long time by very smart people, you should assign very low probability to your own efforts succeeding.

  • Working on the problem can be addictive to certain kinds of people, in the sense that they will feel a strong urge to sink far more work into the problem than their probability of success can justify.

  • Despite the low probability of success for any given seeker, it's still good that there are a few people out there pursuing a solution.

  • But the rest of us should spend on our time on other things, aside from the occasional recreational jab at the problem, perhaps.

  • Besides, any resolution of the problem will probably result from powerful techniques arising in some unforeseen quarter. A direct frontal assault will probably not solve the problem.

So, when I called the Gettier problem "dangerous", I just meant that, for most people, it doesn't make sense to spend much time on it, because they will almost certainly fail, but some of us (including me) might find it too strong a temptation to resist.

*Are you basing this on the fact that so far, all attempts at analysis have proven futile? (If so, maybe we need to come up with more robust conditions.)

*Do you think that the concept of 'knowledge' is inherently vague similar (but not identical) to the way terms like 'tall' and 'bald' are?

*Do you suspect that there may be no fact of the matter about what 'knowledge' is, just like there is no fact of the matter about the baldness of the present King of France? (If so, then how do the competent speakers apply the verb 'to know' so well?)

Contemporary English-speakers must be implementing some finite algorithm when they decide whether their intuitions are happy with a claim of the form "Agent X knows Y". If someone wrote down that algorithm, I suppose that you could call it a solution to the Gettier problem. But I expect that the algorithm, as written, would look to us like a description of some inscrutably complex neurological process. It would not look like a piece of 20th century analytic philosophy.

On the other hand, I'm fairly confident that some piece of philosophy text could dissolve the problem. In short, we may be persuaded to abandon the intuitions that lie at the root of the Gettier problem. We may decide to stop trying to use those intuitions to guide what we say about epistemic agents.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2011 05:36:39PM 1 point [-]

Both of your Gettier scenarios appear to confirm Nozick's criteria 3 and 4 when the criteria are understood as criteria for a belief-creation strategy to be considered a knowledge-creation strategy applicable to a context outside of the contrived scenario. Taking your scenarios one by one.

Suppose that I have irrationally decided to believe everything written in a certain book B and to believe nothing not written in B. Unfortunately for me, the book's author, a Mr. X, is a congenital liar.

You have described the strategy of believing everything written in a certain book B. This strategy fails to conform to Nozick's criteria 3 and 4 when considered outside of the contrived scenario in which the author is compelled to tell the truth about the socks, and therefore (if we apply the criteria) is not a knowledge creation strategy.

You employ the following strategy: You flip a coin. If the coin comes up heads, you lift up the cup and look at the ping-pong ball, noting its color. If the coin comes up tails, you just give up and go with the ignorance prior.

There are actually two strategies described here, and one of them is followed conditional on events occurring in the implementation of the other. The outer strategy is to flip the coin to decide whether to look at the ball. The inner strategy is to look at the ball. The inner strategy conforms to Nozick's criteria 3 and 4, and therefore (if we apply the criteria) is a knowledge creation strategy.

In both cases, the intuitive results you describe appear to conform to Nozick's criteria 3 and 4 understood as described in the first paragraph. Nozick's criteria 3 and 4 (understood as above) appear moreover to play a key role in making sense of our intuitive judgment in both the scenarios. That is, it strikes me as intuitive that the reason we don't count the belief about the socks as knowledge is that it is the fruit of a strategy which, as a general strategy, appears to us to violate criteria 3 and 4 wildly, and only happens to satisfy them in a particular highly contrived context. And similarly, it strikes me as intuitive that we accept the belief about the color as knowledge because we are confident that the method of looking at the ball is a method which strongly satisfies criteria 3 and 4.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 06:24:57PM *  0 points [-]

This strategy fails to conform to Nozick's criteria 3 and 4 when considered outside of the contrived scenario in which the author is compelled to tell the truth about the socks, and therefore (if we apply the criteria) is not a knowledge creation strategy.

The problem with conversations about definitions is that we want our definitions to work perfectly even in the least convenient possible world.

So imagine that, as a third-person observer, you know enough to see that the scenario is not highly contrived — that it is in fact a logical consequence of some relatively simple assumptions about the nature of reality. Suppose that, for you, the whole scenario is in fact highly probable.

On second thought, don't imagine that. For that is exactly the train of thought that leads to wasting time on thinking about the Getteir problem ;).

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2011 07:08:58PM *  0 points [-]

So imagine that, as a third-person observer, you know enough to see that the scenario is not highly contrived — that it is in fact a logical consequence of some relatively simple assumptions about the nature of reality. Suppose that, for you, the whole scenario is in fact highly probable.

A large part of what was highly contrived was your selection of a particular true, honest, well-researched sentence in a book otherwise filled with lies, precisely because it is so unusual. In order to make it not contrived, we must suppose something like, the book has no lies, the book is all truth. Or we might even need to suppose that every sentence in every book is the truth. In such a world, then the contrivedness of the selection of a true sentence is minimized.

So let us imagine ourselves into a world in which every sentence in every book is true. And now we imagine someone who selects a book and believes everything in it. In this world, this strategy, generalized (to pick a random book and believe everything in it) becomes a reliable way to generate true belief. In such a world, I think it would be arguable to call such a strategy a genuine knowledge-creation strategy. In any case, it would depart so radically from your scenario (since in your scenario everything in the book other than that one fact is a lie) that it's not at all clear how it would relate to your scenario.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 07:25:01PM *  0 points [-]

I'm not sure that I'm seeing your point. Are you saying that

  • One shouldn't waste time on trying to concoct exceptionless definitions — "exceptionless" in the sense that they fit our intuitions in every single conceivable scenario. In particular, we shouldn't worry about "contrived" scenarios. If a definition works in the non-contrived cases, that's good enough.

... or are you saying that

  • Nozick's definition really is exceptionless. In every conceivable scenario, and for every single proposition P, every instance of someone "knowing" that P would conform to every one of Nozick's criteria (and conversely).

... or are you saying something else?

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2011 07:38:25PM 1 point [-]

Nozick apparently intended his definition to apply to single beliefs. I applied it to belief-creating strategies (or procedures, methods, mechanisms) rather than to individual beliefs. These strategies are to be evaluated in terms of their overall results if applied widely. Then I noticed that your two Gettier scenarios involved strategies which, respectively, violated and conformed to the definition as I applied it.

That's all. I am not drawing conclusions (yet).

Comment author: Jiro 14 March 2014 06:13:30PM 1 point [-]

I'm reminded of the Golden Rule. Since I would like if everyone would execute "if (I am Jiro) then rob", I should execute that as well.

It's actually pretty hard to define what it means for a strategy to be exceptionless, and it may be subject to a grue/bleen paradox.

Comment author: CuSithBell 16 May 2011 07:22:40PM 0 points [-]

I thought it sounded contrived at first, but then remembered there are tons of people who pick a book and believe everything they read in it, reaching many false conclusions and a few true ones.

Comment author: nshepperd 16 May 2011 05:15:57PM 0 points [-]

I always thought the "if it were the case" thing was just a way of sweeping the knowledge problem under the rug by restricting counterexamples to "plausible" things that "would happen". It gives the appearance of a definition of knowledge, while simply moving the problem into the "plausibility" box (which you need to use your knowledge to evaluate).

I'm not sure it's useful to try to define a binary account of knowledge anyway though. People just don't work like that.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 16 May 2011 04:11:54PM 4 points [-]

A different objection, following Eliezer's PS, is that:

Between me and a red box, there is a wall with a hole. I see the red box through the hole, and therefore know that the box is red. I reason, however, that I might have instead chosen to sit somewhere else, and I would not have been able to see the red box through the hole, and would not believe that the box is red.

Or more formally: If I know P, then I know (P or Q) for all Q, but:

P => Believes (P)

does not imply

(P v Q) => Believes (P v Q)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 04:35:54PM *  0 points [-]

Between me and a red box, there is a wall with a hole. I see the red box through the hole, and therefore know that the box is red. I reason, however, that I might have instead chosen to sit somewhere else, and I would not have been able to see the red box through the hole, and would not believe that the box is red.

This is a more realistic, and hence better, version of the counterexample that I gave in my ETA to this comment.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 May 2011 09:57:35PM *  2 points [-]

(3) If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P

(4) If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

I'm genuinely surprised. Condition 4 seems blatantly unnecessary and I had thought analytic philosophers (and Nozick in particular) more competent than that. Am I missing something?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 17 May 2011 12:07:58AM *  0 points [-]

Your hunch is right. Starting on page 179 of Nozick's Philosophical explanations, he address counterexamples like the one that Will Sawin proposed. In response, he gives a modified version of his criteria. As near as I can tell, my first counterexample still breaks it, though.

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 01:55:44PM *  2 points [-]

Yes. In the next post, I'll be naming some definitions for moral terms that should be thrown out, for example those which rest on false assumptions about reality (e.g. "God exists.")

Comment author: CuSithBell 16 May 2011 09:27:36PM 1 point [-]

It seems like there is a reason why words tend to have short definitions: the brain can only run short algorithms to determine whether an instance falls into the category or not.

I don't think the brain usually makes this determination by looking at things that are much like definitions.

Comment author: Goobahman 18 May 2011 03:57:30AM *  7 points [-]

Hey Luke,

Thanks again for your work. You are by far the greatest online teacher I've ever come across (though I've never seen you teach face-to-face). you are concise, clear, direct, empathetic, extremely thorough, tactful and accessible. I am in awe of your abilities. You take the fruit that is at the top of the tree and gently place it into my straining arms! Sorry for the exuberant worship but I really want to express my gratitude for your efforts. They definitely aren't wasted on me.

Comment author: Amanojack 17 May 2011 07:17:09AM 3 points [-]

Upvoted for lucidity, but Empathetic Metaethics sounds more like the whole rest of LessWrong than metaethics specifically.

If there are supposed to be any additional connotations to Empathetic Metaethics it would make me very wary. I am wary of the connotation that I need someone to help me decide whether my feelings align with the Truth. I always assumed this site is called LessWrong because it generally tries to avoid driving readers to any particular conclusion, but simply away from misguided ones, so they can make their own decisions unencumbered by bias and confusion.

Austere-san may come off as a little callous, but Empathetic-san comes off as a meddler. I'd still rather just be a friendly Mr. Austere supplemented with other LW concepts, especially from the Human's Guide to Words sequence. After all, if it is just confusion and bias getting in the way, all there is to do is to sweep those errors away. Any additional offer of "help" in deciding what it is "right" for me to feel would tingle my Spidey sense pretty hard.

Comment author: lukeprog 17 May 2011 01:20:11PM *  2 points [-]

We are trying to be 'less wrong' because human brains are so far from ideal at epistemology and at instrumental rationality ('agency'). But it's a standard LW perspective to assert that there is a territory, and some maps of (parts of) it are right and others are wrong. And since we are humans, it helps to retrain our emotions: "Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts."

Comment author: Amanojack 18 May 2011 06:56:53AM 3 points [-]

And since we are humans, it helps to retrain our emotions: "Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts."

I'd rather call this "self-help" than "meta-ethics." Why self-help? Because...

But it's a standard LW perspective to assert that there is a territory, and some maps of (parts of) it are right and others are wrong.

...even if my emotions are "wrong," why should I care? In this case, the answer can only be that it will help me derive more satisfaction out of life if I get it "right", which seems to fall squarely under the purview of self-help.

Of course we can draw the lines between meta-ethics and self-help in various ways, but there is so much baggage in the label "ethics" that I'd prefer to get away from it as soon as possible.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 May 2011 12:54:15AM *  1 point [-]

I always assumed this site [...] tries to avoid driving readers to any particular conclusion, but simply away from misguided ones[.]

As a larger point, separate from the context of lukeprog's particular post:

What you assumed above will not always be possible. If models M0...Mn are all misguided, and M(n+1) isn't, driving readers away from misguided models necessarily drives them to one particular conclusion, M(n+1).

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 03:23:16PM 0 points [-]

I am wary of the connotation that I need someone to help me decide whether my feelings align with the Truth.

I'm not sure what this means. Could you elaborate?

What I imagine you to mean seems similar to the sentiment expressed in the first comment to this blog post. That comment seems to me to be so horrifically misguided that I had a strong physiological response to reading it. Basically the commenter thought that since he doesn't experience himself as following rules of formulating thoughts and sentences, he doesn't follow them. This is a confusion of the map and territory that stuck in my memory for some reason, and your comment reminded me of it because you seem to be expressing a very strong faith in the accuracy of how things seem to you.

Feel free to just explain yourself without feeling obligated to read a random blog post or telling me how I am misreading you, which would be a side issue.

Comment author: Amanojack 18 May 2011 07:18:56AM *  0 points [-]

I think my response to lukeprog above answers this in a way, but it's more just a question of what we mean by "help me decide." I'm not against people helping me be less wrong about the actual content of the territory. I'm just against people helping me decide how to emotionally respond to it, provided we are both already not wrong about the territory itself.

If I am happy because I have plenty of food (in the map), but I actually don't (in the territory), I'd certainly like to be informed of that. It's just that I can handle the transition from happy to "oh shit!" all by myself, thank you very much.

In other words, my suspicion of anyone calling themselves an Empathetic Metaethicist is that they're going to try to slide in their own approved brand of ethics through the back door. This is also a worry I have about CEV. Hopefully future posts will alleviate this concern.

Comment author: lessdazed 19 May 2011 02:49:25AM 0 points [-]

If you mean that in service of my goal of satisfying my actual desires, there is more of a danger of being misled when getting input from others as to whether my emotions are a good match for reality than when getting input as to whether reality matches my perception of it, I tentatively agree.

If you mean that getting input from others as to whether my emotions are a good match for reality has a greater cost than benefit, I disagree assuming basic advice filters similar to those used when getting input as to whether reality matches my perception of it. As per above, there will all else equal be a lower expected payoff for me getting advice in this area, even though the advantages are similar.

If you mean that there is a fundamental difference in kind between matching perception to reality and emotions to perceptions that makes getting input an act that is beneficial in the former case and corrosive in the latter, I disagree.

I have low confidence regarding what emotions are most appropriate for various crises and non-crises, and suspect what I think of as ideal are at best local peaks with little chance of being optimal. In addition, what I think of as optimal emotional responses are likely to be too resistant to exceptions. E.g., if one is trapped in a mine shaft the emotional response suitable for typical cases of being trapped is likely to consume too much oxygen.

I'm generally open to ideas regarding what my emotions should be in different situations, and how I can act to change my emotions.

Comment author: nhamann 16 May 2011 08:24:24AM *  11 points [-]

Looking back at your posts in this sequence so far, it seems like it's taken you four posts to say "Philosophers are confused about meta-ethics, often because they spend a lot of time disputing defintions." I guess they've been well-sourced, which is worth something. But it seems like we're still waiting on substantial new insights about metaethics, sadly.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 May 2011 09:25:45AM 12 points [-]

it seems like it's taken you four posts to say "Philosophers are confused about meta-ethics, often because they spend a lot of time disputing defintions."

No, he said quite a lot more. E.g. why philosophers do that, why it is a bad thing, and what to do about it if we don't want to fall into the same trap. This is all neccessary ground work for his final argument.

If the state of metaethics were such that most people would already agree on these fundamentals then you would have a point, but lukeprog's premise is that it's not.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 16 May 2011 10:03:04AM 17 points [-]

I admit it's not very fun for LW regulars, but a few relatively short and simple posts is probably the bare minimum you can get away with while still potentially appealing to bright philosopher or academic types, who will be way more hesitant than your typical contrarian to dismiss an entire field of philosophy as not even wrong. I think Luke's doing a decent job of making his posts just barely accessible/interesting to a very wide audience.

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 02:14:48PM 7 points [-]

Seeing as lots of people seemed to benefit even from the 'What is Metaethics' post, I'm not too worried that LW regulars won't learn much from a few of the posts in this series. If you already grok 'Austere Metaethics', then you'll have to wait a few posts for things to get interesting. :)

Comment author: BobTheBob 22 May 2011 06:09:06PM 5 points [-]

Some thoughts on this and related LW discussions. They come a bit late - apols to you and commentators if they've already been addressed or made in the commentary:

1) Definitions (this is a biggie).

There is a fair bit of confusion on LW, it seems to me, about just what definitions are and what their relevance is to philosophical and other discussion. Here's my understanding - please say if you think I've gone wrong.

If in the course of philosophical discussion, I explicitly define a familiar term, my aim in doing so is to remove the term from debate - I fix the value of a variable to restrict the problem. It'd be good to find a real example here, but I'm not convinced defining terms happens very often in philosophical or other debate. By way of a contrived example, one might want to consider, in evaluating some theory, the moral implications of actions made under duress (a gun held to the head) but not physically initiated by an external agent (a jostle to the arm). One might say, "Define 'coerced action' to mean any action not physically initiated but made under duress" (or more precise words to the effect). This done, it wouldn't make sense simply to object that my conclusion regarding coerced actions doesn't apply to someone physically pushed from behind - I have stuipulated for the sake of argument I'm not talking about such cases. (in this post, you distinguish stipulation and definition - do you have in mind a distinction I'm glossing over?)

Contrast this to the usual case for conceptual analyses, where it's assumed there's a shared concept ('good', 'right', 'possible', 'knows', etc), and what is produced is meant to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions meant to capture the concept. Such an analysis is not a definition. Regarding such analyses, typically one can point to a particular thing and say, eg, "Our shared concept includes this specimen, it lacks a necessary condition, therefore your analysis is mistaken" - or, maybe "Intuitively, this specimen falls under our concept, it lacks...". Such a response works only if there is broad agreement that the specimen falls under the concept. Usually this works out to be the case.

I haven't read the Jackson book, so please do correct me if you think I've misunderstood, but I take it something like this is his point in the paragraphs you quote. Tom and Jack can define 'right action' to mean whatever they want it to. In so doing, however, we cease to have any reason to think they mean by the term what we intuitively do. Rather, Jackson is observing, what Tom and Jack should be doing is saying that rightness is that thing (whatever exactly it is) which our folk concepts roughly converge on, and taking up the task of refining our understanding from there - no defining involved.

You say,

... Jackson supposes that we can pick out which platitudes of moral discourse matter, and how much they matter, for determining the meaning of moral terms

Well, not quite. The point I take it is rather that there simply are 'folk' platitudes which pick-out the meanings of moral terms - this is the starting point. 'Killing people for fun is wrong', 'Helping elderly ladies across the street is right' etc, etc. These are the data (moral intuitions, as usually understood). If this isn't the case, there isn't even a subject to discuss. Either way, it has nothing to do with definitions.

Confusion about definitions is evident in the quote from the post you link to. To re-quote:

...the first person is speaking as if 'sound' means acoustic vibrations in the air; the second person is speaking as if 'sound' means an auditory experience in a brain. If you ask "Are there acoustic vibrations?" or "Are there auditory experiences?", the answer is at once obvious. And so the argument is really about the definition of the word 'sound'.

Possibly the problem is that 'sound' has two meanings, and the disputants each are failing to see that the other means something different. Definitions are not relevant here, meanings are. (Gratuitous digression: what is "an auditory experience in a brain"? If this means something entirely characterizable in terms of neural events, end of story, then plausibly one of the disputants would say this does not capture what he means by 'sound' - what he means is subjective and ineffable, something neural events aren't. He might go on to wonder whether that subjective, ineffable thing, given that it is apparently created by the supposedly mind-independent event of the falling of a tree, has any existence apart from his self (not to be confused with his brain!). I'm not defending this view, just saying that what's offered is not a response but rather a simple begging of the question against it. End of digression.)

2) In your opening section you produce an example meant to show conceptual analysis is silly. Looks to me more like a silly attempt at an example of conceptual analysis. If you really want to make your case, why not take a real example of a philosophical argument -preferably one widely held in high regard at least by philosophers? There's lots of 'em around.

3) In your section The trouble with conceptual analysis, you finally explain,

The trouble is that philosophers often take this "what we mean by" question so seriously that thousands of pages of debate concern which definition to use... .

As explained above, philosophical discussion is not about "which definition to use" -it's about (roughly, and among other things) clarifying our concepts. The task is difficult but worthwhile because the concepts in question are important but subtle.

Within 20 seconds of arguing about the definition of 'desire', someone will say, "Screw it. Taboo 'desire' so we can argue about facts and anticipations, not definitions."

If you don't have the patience to do philosophy, or you don't think it's of any value, by all means do something else -argue about facts and anticipations, whatever precisely that may involve. Just don't think that in doing this latter thing you'll address the question philosophy is interested in, or that you've said anything at all so far to show philosophy isn't worth doing. In this connection, one of the real benefits of doing philosophy is that it encourages precision and attention to detail in thinking. You say Eliezer Yudkowsky "...advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will 'teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work.'" The original quote continues, "...assume naturalism! Move on! NEXT!" Unfortunately Eliezer has a bad habit of making unclear and undefended or question-begging assertions, and this is one of them. What are the bad habits, and how does philosophy encourage them? And what precisely is meant by 'naturalism'? To make the latter assertion and simultaneously to eschew the responsibility of articulating what this commits you to is to presume you can both have your cake and eat it too. This may work in blog posts -it wouldn't pass in serious discussion.

(Unlike some on this blog, I have not slavishly pored through Eliezer's every post. If there is somewhere a serious discussion of the meaning of 'naturalism' which shows how the usual problems with normative concepts like 'rational' can successfully be navigated, I will withdraw this remark).

Comment author: Amanojack 22 May 2011 06:24:07PM 3 points [-]

Within 20 seconds of arguing about the definition of 'desire', someone will say, "Screw it. Taboo 'desire' so we can argue about facts and anticipations, not definitions."

If you don't have the patience to do philosophy, or you don't think it's of any value, by all means do something else -argue about facts and anticipations, whatever precisely that may involve. Just don't think that in doing this latter thing you'll address the question philosophy is interested in, or that you've said anything at all so far to show philosophy isn't worth doing.

You're tacitly defining philosophy as an endeavor that "doesn't involve facts or anticipations," that is, as something not worth doing in the most literal sense. Such "philosophy" would be a field defined to be useless for guiding one's actions. Anything that is useless for guiding my actions is, well, useless.

Comment author: Peterdjones 22 May 2011 06:36:17PM *  0 points [-]

The question of what is worth doing is of course profoundly philosophical. You have just assumed an answer.: that what is worth doing is achieving your aims efficiently and what is not worth doing is thinking about whether you have good aims, or which different aims you should have. (And anything that influences your goals will most certainly influence your expected experiences).

Comment author: nshepperd 23 May 2011 02:56:38AM 0 points [-]

"Changing your aims" is an action, presumably available for guiding with philosophy.

Comment author: Amanojack 22 May 2011 08:34:38PM 0 points [-]

We've been over this: either "good aims" and "aims you should have" imply some kind of objective value judgment, which is incoherent, or they merely imply ways to achieve my final aims more efficiently, and we are back to my claim above as that is included under the umbrella of "guiding my actions."

Comment author: BobTheBob 22 May 2011 09:23:56PM 1 point [-]

I think Peterdjones's answer hits it on the head. I understand you've thrashed-out related issues elsewhere, but it seems to me your claim that the idea of an objective value judgment is incoherent would again require doing quite a bit of philosophy to justify.

Really I meant to be throwing the ball back to lukeprog to give us an idea of what the 'arguing about facts and anticipations' alternative is, if not just philosophy pretending not to be. I could have been more clear about this. Part of my complaint is the wanting to have it both ways. For example, the thinking in the post anticipations would presumably be taken not to be philosophy, but it sounds a whole lot to me like a quick and dirty advocacy of anti-realism. If LWers are serious about this idea, they really should look into its implications if they want to avoid inadvertent contradictions in the world-views. That means doing some philosophy.

Comment author: Peterdjones 24 May 2011 02:02:31PM 0 points [-]

For example, the thinking in the post anticipations would presumably be taken not to be philosophy, but it sounds a whole lot to me like a quick and dirty advocacy of anti-realism.

Hmm. I sounds to me like a kind of methodological twist on logical positivism...just don't bother with things that don't have empirical consequences.

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 03:34:49PM 0 points [-]

As far as objective value, I simply don't understand what anyone means by the term. And I think lukeprog's point could be summed up as, "Trying to figure out how each discussant is defining their terms is not really 'doing philosophy'; it's just the groundwork necessary for people not to talk past each other."

As far as making beliefs pay rent, a simpler way to put it is: If you say I should believe X but I can't figure out what anticipations X entails, I will just respond, "So what?"

To unite the two themes: The ultimate definition would tell me why to care.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 25 May 2011 11:54:39AM *  2 points [-]

The ultimate definition would tell me why to care.

In the space of all possible meta-ethics, some meta-ethics are cooperative, and other meta-ethics are not so. This means that if you can choose which metaethics to spread to society, you stand a better chance at your own goals, if you spread cooperative metaethics. And cooperative metaethics is what we call "morality", by and large.

It's "Do unto others...", but abstracted a bit, so that we really mean "Use the reasoning to determine what to do unto others, that you would rather they used when deciding how to do unto you."


Omega puts you in a room with a big red button. "Press this button and you get ten dollars but another person will be poisoned to slowly die. If you don't press it I punch you on the nose and you get no money. They have a similar button which they can use to kill you and get 10 dollars. You can't communicate with them. In fact they think they're the only person being given the option of a button, so this problem isn't exactly like Prisoner's dilemma. They don't even know you exist or that their own life is at stake."

"But here's the offer I'm making just to you, not them. I can imprint you both with the decision theory of your choice, Amanojack; ofcourse if you identify yourself in your decision theory, they'll be identifying themself.

"Careful though: This is a one time offer, and then I may put both of you to further different tests. So choose the decision theory that you want both of you to have, and make it abstract enough to help you survive, regardless of specific circumstances."


Given the above scenario, you'll end up wanting people to choose protecting the life of strangers more than than picking 10 dollars.

Comment author: Amanojack 25 May 2011 06:39:03PM 0 points [-]

I would indeed it prefer if other people had certain moral sentiments. I don't think I ever suggested otherwise.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 25 May 2011 07:52:01PM 1 point [-]

Not quite my point. I'm not talking about what your preferences would be. That would be subjective, personal. I'm talking about what everyone's meta-ethical preferences would be, if self-consistent, and abstracted enough.

My argument is essentially that objective morality can be considered the position in meta-ethical-space which if occupied by all agents would lead to the maximization of utility.

That makes it objectively (because it refers to all the agents, not some of them, or one of them) different from other points in meta-ethical-space, and so it can be considered to lead to an objectively better morality.

Comment author: Amanojack 25 May 2011 08:01:05PM 0 points [-]

Then why not just call it "universal morality"?

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 May 2011 01:15:55PM *  0 points [-]

Attempts to reduce real, altrusitic ethics back down to selfish/instrumental ethics tend not to work that well, because the gains from co-operation are remote, and there are many realistic instances where selfish action produces immediate rewards (cd the Prudent Predatory objection Rand's egoistic ethics).

OTOH, since many people are selfish, they are made to care by having legal and social sanctions against excessively selfish behaviour.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 25 May 2011 02:14:44PM *  0 points [-]

Attempts to reduce real, altrusitic ethics back down to selfish/instrumental ethics tend not to work that well,

I wasn't talking about altruistic ethics, which can lead someone to sacrifice their lifes to prevent someone else getting a bruise; and thus would be almost as disastrous as selfishness if widespread. I was talking about cooperative ethics - which overlaps with but doesn't equal altruism, same as it overlaps but doesn't equal selfishness.

The difference between morality and immorality, is that morality can at its most abstract possible level be cooperative, and immorality can't.

This by itself isn't a reason that can force someone to care -- you can't make a rock care about anything, but that's not a problem with your argument. But it's something that leads to different expectations about the world, namely what Amanojack was asking for.

In a world populated by beings whose beliefs approach objective morality, I expect more cooperation and mutual well-being, all other things being equal. In a world whose beliefs don't approach it, i expect more war and other devastation.

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 May 2011 02:35:33PM 0 points [-]

I wasn't talking about altruistic ethics, which can lead someone to sacrifice their lifes to prevent someone else getting a bruise;

Although it usually doesn't.

and thus would be almost as disastrous as selfishness if widespread. I was talking about cooperative ethics - which overlaps with but doesn't equal altruism, same as it overlaps but doesn't equal selfishness.

I think that you version of altruism is a straw man, and that what most people mean by altruism isn't very different from co operation.

The difference between morality and immorality, is that morality can at its most abstract possible level be cooperative, and immorality can't.

Or, as I call it, universalisability.

But it's something that leads to different expectations about the world, namely what Amanojack was asking for.

That argument doesn't have to be made at all. Morality can stand as a refutation of the claim that anticipiation of experience is of ultimate importance. And it can be made differently: if you rejig your values, you can expect to antipate different experiences -- it can be a self-fulffilling prophecy and not merely passive anticipation.

In a world populated by beings whose beliefs approach objective morality, I expect more cooperation and mutual well-being, all other things being equal. In a world whose beliefs don't approach it, i expect more war and other devastation.

There is an argument from self interest, but it is tertiary to the two arguments I mentioned above.

Comment author: BobTheBob 24 May 2011 01:29:07AM 2 points [-]

Wrote a reply off-line and have been lapped several times (as usual). What Peterdjones says in his responses makes a lot of sense to me. I took a slightly different tack, which is maybe moot given your admission to being a solipsist:

I should disclose that I don't find ultimately any kind of objectivism coherent, including "objective reality".

-though the apparent tension in being a solipsist who argues gets to the root of the issue.

For what it may be worth:

I'm assuming you subscribe to what you consider to be a rigorously scientific world-view, and you consider such a world-view makes no place for objective values - you can't fit them in, hence no way to understand them.

From a rigorously scientific point of view, a human being is just a very complex, homeostatic electro-chemical system. It rattles about the surface of the earth governed by the laws of nature just like any other physical system. A thing considered thus (ie from a scientific pt of view) is not 'trying' to do anything, has no beliefs, no preferences (just varying dispositions), no purposes, is neither rational nor irrational, and has no values. Natural science does not see right or wrong, punkt.

Some people think this is all there is, and that there is nothing useful to say about our conception of ourselves as beings with values (eg, Paul Churchland). I disagree. A person cannot make sense of her/himself with just this scientific understanding, important though it is, because s/he has to make decisions -has to figure out whether to vote left or right, be vegetarian or carnivore, to spend time writing blog responses or mow the lawn, etc.. Values can't be made sense of from a scientific point of view, but we recognize and need them, so we have to make sense of them otherwise.

Thought of from this point of view, all values are in some sense objective -ie, independent of you. There has to be a gap between value and actual behaviour, for the value to be made sense of as such (if everything you do is right, there is no right).

Presently you are disagreeing with me about values. To me this says you think there's a right and wrong of the matter, which applies to us both. This is an example of an objective value. It would take some work to spell out a parallel moral example, if this is what you have in mind, but given the right context I submit you would argue with someone about some moral principle (hope so, anyway).

Prima facie, values are objective. Maybe on closer inspection it can be shown in some sense they aren't, but I submit the idea is not incoherent. And showing otherwise would take doing some philosophy.

Comment author: Peterdjones 24 May 2011 02:33:03PM *  1 point [-]

From a rigorously scientific point of view, a human being is just a very complex, homeostatic electro-chemical system. It rattles about the surface of the earth governed by the laws of nature just like any other physical system. A thing considered thus (ie from a scientific pt of view) is not 'trying' to do anything, has no beliefs, no preferences (just varying dispositions), no purposes, is neither rational nor irrational, and has no values. Natural science does not see right or wrong, punkt.

I think that is rather drastic. Science may not accept beliefs and values as fundamental, but it can accept that as higher-level descriptions, cf Dennet's Intentional Stance.

can't be made sense of from a scientific point of view, but we recognize and need them, so we have to make sense of them otherwise.

Again, I find it incredible that natural facts have no relation to morality. Morality would be very different in women laid eggs or men had balls of steel.

Thought of from this point of view, all values are in some sense objective -ie, independent of you. There has to be a gap between value and actual behaviour, for the value to be made sense of as such (if everything you do is right, there is no right).

To say that moral values are both objective and disconnected from physical fact implies that they exist in their own domain, which is where some people,with some justice, tend to balk.

Prima facie, values are objective. Maybe on closer inspection it can be shown in some sense they aren't, but I submit the idea is not incoherent.

For some value of "incoherent". Personally, I find it useful to strike out the word and replace it with something more precise, such a "semantically meaningless", "contradictory", "self-underminng" etc.

Comment author: BobTheBob 25 May 2011 01:26:48AM 1 point [-]

I think that is rather drastic. Science may not accept beliefs and values as fundamental, but it can accept that as higher-level descriptions, cf Dennet's Intentional Stance.

I acknowledge this is a subject of lively debate. Still, I stick to the proposition that you can't derive an ought from an is, and that this is what's at stake here. Since you can't make sense of a person as rational if it's not the case there's anything she ought or ought not to do (and I admit you may think this needs defending), natural science lacks the means to ascribe rationality. Now, if we're talking about the social sciences, that's another matter. There is a discontinuity between these and the purely natural sciences. I read Dennett many years ago, and thought something like this divide is what his different stances are about, but I'd be open to hear a different view.

Again, I find it incredible that natural facts have no relation to morality.

I didn't say this - just that from a purely scientific point of view, morality is invisible. From an engaged, subjective point of view, where morality is visible, natural facts are relevant.

To say that moral values are both objective and disconnected from physical fact implies that they exist in their own domain, which is where some people,with some justice, tend to balk.

Here's another stab at it: natural science can in principle tell us everything there is to know about a person's inner workings and dispositions, right down to what sounds she is likely to utter in what circumstances. It might tell someone she will make the sounds, eg, 'I ought to go to class' in given circs.. But no amount of knowledge of this kind will give her a reason to go to class (would you agree?). To get reasons -not to mention linguistic meaning and any intentional states- you need a subjective -ie, non-scientific- point of view. The two views are incommensurable, but neither is dispensable -people need reasons.

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 May 2011 12:43:29PM *  0 points [-]

I acknowledge this is a subject of lively debate. Still, I stick to the proposition that you can't derive an ought from an is, and that this is what's at stake here.

Since you can't make sense of a person as rational if it's not the case there's anything she ought or ought not to do (and I admit you may think this needs defending), natural science lacks the means to ascribe rationality.

But much of the material on LW is concerned with rational oughts: a rational agent ought to maximise its utility function (its arbitary set of goals) as efficiently as possible. Rational agents should win, in short. That seems to be an analytical truth arrived at by unpacking "rational". Generally speaking, where you have rules, your have coulds and shoulds and couldn;t and shouldn'ts. I have been trying to press that unpacking morality leads to the similar analytical truth: " a moral agent ought to adopt universalisable goals."

I didn't say this - just that from a purely scientific point of view, morality is invisible.

"Oughts" in general appear wherever you have rules, which are often abstractly defined so that they apply to physal systems as well as anything else.

Here's another stab at it: natural science can in principle tell us everything there is to know about a person's inner workings and dispositions, right down to what sounds she is likely to utter in what circumstances. It might tell someone she will make the sounds, eg, 'I ought to go to class' in given circs.. But no amount of knowledge of this kind will give her a reason to go to class (would you agree?).

I think LWers would say there are facts about her utility function from which conclusions can be drawn about how she should maximise it (and how she would if the were rational).

To get reasons -not to mention linguistic meaning and any intentional states- you need a subjective -ie, non-scientific- point of view.

I don't see why. If a person or other system has goals and is acting to achieve those goals in an effective way, then their goals can be inferred from their actions.

Comment author: nshepperd 24 May 2011 03:30:49PM 1 point [-]

Again, I find it incredible that natural facts have no relation to morality. Morality would be very different in women laid eggs or men had balls of steel.

I take the position that while we may well have evolved with different values, they wouldn't be morality. "Morality" is subjunctively objective. Nothing to do with natural facts, except insofar as they give us clues about what values we in fact did evolve with.

Comment author: Peterdjones 24 May 2011 04:25:02PM 1 point [-]

I take the position that while we may well have evolved with different values, they wouldn't be morality.

How do you know that the values we have evolved with are moral? (The claim that natural facts are relevant to moral reasoning is different to the claim that natually-evolved behavioural instincts are ipso facto moral)

Comment author: Amanojack 25 May 2011 08:00:21AM 0 points [-]

I took a slightly different tack, which is maybe moot given your admission to being a solipsist

Solipsism is an ontological stance: in short, "there is nothing out there but my own mind." I am saying something slightly different: "To speak of there being something/nothing out there is meaningless to me unless I can see why to care." Then again, I'd say this is tautological/obvious in that "meaning" just is "why it matters to me."

My "position" (really a meta-position about philosophical positions) is just that language obscures what is going on. It may take a while to make this clear, but if we continue I'm sure it will be.

I'm assuming you subscribe to what you consider to be a rigorously scientific world-view

I'm not a naturalist. I'm not skeptical of "objective" because of such reasons; I am skeptical of it merely because I don't know what the word refers to (unless it means something like "in accordance with consensus"). In the end, I engage in intellectual discourse in order to win, be happier, get what I want, get pleasure, maximize my utility, or whatever you'll call it (I mean them all synonymously).

If after engaging in such discourse I am not able to do that, I will eventually want to ask, "So what? What difference does it make to my anticipations? How does this help me get what I want and/or avoid what I don't want?"

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 May 2011 02:01:20PM *  0 points [-]

Solipsism is an ontological stance: in short, "there is nothing out there but my own mind." I am saying something slightly different: "To speak of there being something/nothing out there is meaningless to me unless I can see why to care." Then again, I'd say this is tautological/obvious in that "meaning" just is "why it matters to me."

Do you cross the road with your eyes shut? If not, you are assuming, like everyone else, that there are things out there which are terminally disutiilitous.

My "position" (really a meta-position about philosophical positions) is just that language obscures what is going on.

Whose language ? What language? If you think all language is a problem, what do you intend to replace it with?

I'm not a naturalist. I'm not skeptical of "objective" because of such reasons; I am skeptical of it merely because I don't know what the word refers to

It refers to the stuff that doesn't go away when you stop believing in it.

Comment author: Peterdjones 24 May 2011 01:35:44PM *  0 points [-]

As far as objective value, I simply don't understand what anyone means by the term.

Objective truth is what you should believe even if you don't. Objective values are the values you should have even if you have different values.

And I think lukeprog's point could be summed up as, "Trying to figure out how each discussant is defining their terms is not really 'doing philosophy'; it's just the groundwork necessary for people not to talk past each other."

Where the groundwork is about 90% of the job...

As far as making beliefs pay rent, a simpler way to put it is: If you say I should believe X but I can't figure out what anticipations X entails, I will just respond, "So what?"

That has been answered several times. You are assuming that instrumental value is ultimate value, and it isn't.

To unite the two themes: The ultimate definition would tell me why to care.

Imagine you are arguing with someone who doesn't "get" rationality. If they believe in instrumental values, you can persuade they they should care about rationality because it will enable them to achieve their aims. If they don't, you can't. Even good arguments will fail to work on some people.

You should care about morality because it is morality. Morality defines (the ultimate kind of) "should".

"What I should do" =def "what is moral".

Nor everyone does get that , which is why "don't care" is "made to care" by various sanctions.

Comment author: Amanojack 25 May 2011 08:35:28AM *  0 points [-]

As far as objective value, I simply don't understand what anyone means by the term.

Objective truth is what you should believe even if you don't.

"Should" for what purpose?

Where the groundwork is about 90% of the job...

I certainly agree there. The question is whether it is more useful to assign the label "philosophy" to groundwork+theory or just the theory. A third possibility is that doing enough groundwork will make it clear to all discussants that there are no (or almost no) actually theories in what is now called "philosophy," only groundwork, meaning we would all be in agreement and there is nothing to argue except definitions.

Imagine you are arguing with someone who doesn't "get" rationality. If they believe in instrumental values, you can persuade they they should care about rationality because it will enable them to achieve their aims. If they don't, you can't.

I may not be able to convince them, but at least I would be trying to convince them on the grounds of helping them achieve their aims. It seems you're saying that, in the present argument, you are not trying to help me achieve my aims (correct me if I'm wrong). This is what makes me curious about why you think I would care. The reasons I do participate, by the way, are that I hold out the chance that you have a reason why I would care (which maybe you are not articulating in a way that makes sense to me yet), that you or others will come to see my view that it's all semantic confusion, and because I don't want to sound dismissive or obstinate in continuing to say, "So what?"

Comment author: Peterdjones 25 May 2011 01:49:39PM 0 points [-]

Objective truth is what you should believe even if you don't.

"Should" for what purpose?

Believing in truth is what rational people do.

Imagine you are arguing with someone who doesn't "get" rationality. If they believe in instrumental values, you can persuade they they should care about rationality because it will enable them to achieve their aims. If they don't, you can't.

I may not be able to convince them, but at least I would be trying to convince them on the grounds of helping them achieve their aims.

Which is good because...?

It seems you're saying that, in the present argument, you are not trying to help me achieve my aims (correct me if I'm wrong).

Correct.

This is what makes me curious about why you think I would care.

I can argue that your personal aims are not the ultimate value, and I can suppose you might care about that just because it is true. That is how arguments work: one rational agent tries topersuade another that something is true. If one of the participants doesn't care about truth at all, the process probably isn't going to work.

The reasons I do participate, by the way, are that I hold out the chance that you have a reason why I would care (which maybe you are not articulating in a way that makes sense to me yet), that you or others will come to see my view that it's all semantic confusion, and because I don't want to sound dismissive or obstinate in continuing to say, "So what?"

I think that horse has bolted. Inasmuch as you don't care about truth per se. you have advertised yourself as being irrational.

Comment author: Amanojack 25 May 2011 07:19:43PM 0 points [-]

"Should" for what purpose?

Believing in truth is what rational people do.

Winning is what rational people do. We can go back and forth like this.

Which is good because...?

It benefits me, because I enjoy helping people. See, I can say, "So what?" in response to "You're wrong." Then you say, "You're still wrong." And I walk away feeling none the worse. Usually when someone claims I am wrong I take it seriously, but only because I know how it could ever, possibly, potentially ever affect me negatively. In this case you are saying it is different, and I can safely walk away with no terror ever to befall me for "being wrong."

I can argue that your personal aims are not the ultimate value, and I can suppose you might care about that just because it is true. That is how arguments work: one rational agent tries topersuade another that something is true. If one of the participants doesn't care about truth at all, the process probably isn't going to work.

Sure, people usually argue whether something is "true or false" because such status makes a difference (at least potentially) to their pain or pleasure, happiness, utility, etc. As this is almost always the case, it is customarily unusual for someone to say they don't care about something being true or false. But in a situation where, ex hypothesi, the thing being discussed - very unusually - is claimed to not have any effect on such things, "true" and "false" become pointless labels. I only ever use such labels because they can help me enjoy life more. When they can't, I will happily discard them.

Comment author: Peterdjones 23 May 2011 03:46:16PM 0 points [-]

What they generally mean is "not subjective". You might object that non-subjective value is contradictory, but that is not the same as objecting that it is incomprehensible, since one has to understand the meanings of individual terms to see a contradiction.

As for anticipations: believing morality is objective entails that some of your beliefs may be wrong by objective standards, and believing it is subjective does not entail that. So the belief in moral objectivity could lead to a revision of your aims and goals, which will in turn lead to different experiences.

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 04:26:32PM 0 points [-]

I'm not saying non-subjective value is contradictory, just that I don't know what it could mean. To me "value" is a verb, and the noun form is just a nominalization of the verb, like the noun "taste" is a nominalization of the verb "taste." Ayn Rand tried to say there was such a thing as objectively good taste, even of foods, music, etc. I didn't understand what she meant either.

As for anticipations: believing morality is objective entails that some of your beliefs may be wrong by objective standards, and believing it is subjective does not entail that. So the belief in moral objectivity could lead to a revision of your aims and goals, which will in turn lead to different experiences.

But before I would even want to revise my aims and goals, I'd have to anticipate something different than I do now. What does "some of your beliefs may be wrong by objective standards" make me anticipate that would motivate me to change my goals? (This is the same as the question in the other comment: What penalty do I suffer by having the "wrong" moral sentiments?)

Comment author: Peterdjones 23 May 2011 04:42:31PM *  0 points [-]

value" is a verb, and the noun form is just a nominalization of the verb,

I don't see the force to that argument. "Believe" is a verb and "belief" is a nominalisation. But beliefs can be objectively right or wrong -- if they belong to the appropriate subject area.

Ayn Rand tried to say there was such a thing as objectively good taste, even of foods, music,

It is possible for aesthetics(and various other things) to be un-objectifiable whilst morality (and various other things) are objectifiable.

But before I would even want to revise my aims and goals, I'd have to anticipate something different than I do now.

Why?

What does "some of your beliefs may be wrong by objective standards" make me anticipate that would motivate me to change my goals?

You should be motivated by a desire to get things right in general. The anticipation thing is just a part of that. It's not an ultimate. But morality is an ultimate because there is no more important value than a moral value.

(This is the same as the question in the other comment: What penalty do I suffer by having the "wrong" moral sentiments?)

If there is no personal gain from morality, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be moral. You should be moral by the definition of "moral"and "should". It's an analytical truth. It is for selfishness to justify itself in the face of morality, not vice versa.

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 06:06:04PM 0 points [-]

First of all, I should disclose that I don't find ultimately any kind of objectivism coherent, including "objective reality." It is useful to talk about objective reality and objectively right or wrong beliefs most of the time, but when you really drill down there are only beliefs that predict my experience more reliably or less reliably. In the end, nothing else matters to me (nor, I expect, anyone else - if they understand what I'm getting at here).

You should be motivated by a desire to get things right in general. The anticipation thing is just a part of that. It's not an ultimate

So you disagree with EY about making beliefs pay rent? Like, maybe some beliefs don't pay rent but are still important? I just don't see how that makes sense.

You should be moral by the definition of "moral"and "should".

This seems circular.

If there is no personal gain from morality, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be moral.

What if I say, "So what?"

Comment author: Peterdjones 22 May 2011 10:08:15PM 0 points [-]

You say that objective values are incoherent, but you offer no argument for it. Presenting philosophical claims without justification isn't something different to philosophy, or something better. It isn't good rationality either. Rationality is as rationality does.

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 03:19:53PM 0 points [-]

By incoherent I simply mean "I don't know how to interpret the words." So far no one seems to want to help me do that, so I can only await a coherent definition of objective ethics and related terms. Then possibly an argument could start. (But this is all like deja vu from the recent metaethics threads.)

Comment author: Peterdjones 23 May 2011 03:34:41PM *  0 points [-]

Can you interpret the word "morality is subjective"? How about the the words "morality is not subjective"?

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 03:42:43PM 0 points [-]

"Morality is subjective": Each person has their own moral sentiments.

"Morality is not subjective": Each person does not have their own moral sentiments. Or there is something more than each person's moral sentiments that is worth calling "moral." <--- But I ask, what is that "something more"?

Comment author: Peterdjones 23 May 2011 03:56:16PM 0 points [-]

OK. That is not what "subjective" means. What it means is that if something is subjective, an opinion is guaranteed to be correct or the last word on the matter just because it is the person's opinion. And "objective" therefore means that it is possible for someone to be wrong in their opinion.

Comment author: Amanojack 23 May 2011 04:12:33PM 0 points [-]

I don't claim moral sentiments are correct, but simply that a person's moral sentiment is their moral sentiment. They feel some emotions, and that's all I know. You are seeming to say there is some way those emotions can be correct or incorrect, but in what sense? Or probably a clearer way to ask the question is, "What disadvantage can I anticipate if my emotions are incorrect?"

Comment author: lukeprog 24 May 2011 04:58:31AM *  2 points [-]

Upvoted for thoughtfulness and thoroughness.

(in this post, you distinguish stipulation and definition - do you have in mind a distinction I'm glossing over?)

I'm using 'definition' in the common sense: "the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc." A stipulative definition is a kind of definition "in which a new or currently-existing term is given a specific meaning for the purposes of argument or discussion in a given context."

A conceptual analysis of a term using necessary and sufficient conditions is another type of definition, in the common sense of 'definition' given above. Normally, a conceptual analysis seeks to arrive at a "formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc." in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Jackson is observing, what Tom and Jack should be doing is saying that rightness is that thing (whatever exactly it is) which our folk concepts roughly converge on, and taking up the task of refining our understanding from there - no defining involved.

Using my dictionary usage of the term 'define', I would speak (in my language) of conceptual analysis as a particular way of defining a term, since the end result of a conceptual analysis is meant to be a "formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word, phrase, etc."

In your opening section you produce an example meant to show conceptual analysis is silly. Looks to me more like a silly attempt at an example of conceptual analysis.

I opened with a debate that everybody knew was silly, and tried to show that it was analagous to popular forms of conceptual analysis. I didn't want to start with a popular example of conceptual analysis because philosophy-familiar people will have been trained not to find those examples silly. I gave at least three examples of actual philosophical analysis in my post (Schroeder on desire, Gettier on knowledge, Jackson on morality).

And I do think my opening offers an accurate example of conceptual analysis. Albert and Barry's arguments about the computer microphone and hypothetical aliens are meant to argue about their intuitive concepts of 'sound', and what set of necessary and sufficient conditions they might converge upon. That's standard conceptual analysis method.

The reason this process looks silly to us (when using a non-standard example like 'sound') is that it is so unproductive. Why think Albert and Barry have the same concept in mind? Words mean slightly different things in different cultures, subcultures, and small communities. We develop different intuitions about their meaning based on divergent life experiences. Our intuitions differ from each other's due to the specifics of unconscious associative learning and attribution substitution heuristics. What is the point of bashing our intuitions about the meaning of terms against each other for thousands of pages, in the hopes that we'll converge on a precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Even if we can get Albert and Barry to agree, what happens when Susan wants to use the same term, but has slightly differing intuitions about its meaning? And, let's say we arrive at a messy set of 6 necessary and sufficient conditions for the intuitive meaning of the term. Is that going to be as useful for communication as one we consciously chose because it carved-up thingspace well? I doubt it. The IAU's definition of 'planet' is more useful than the messy 'folk' definition of 'planet'. Folk intuitions about 'planet' evolved over thousands of years and different people have different intuitions which may not always converge. In 2006, the IAU used modern astronomical knowledge to carve up thingspace in a more useful and informed way than our intuitions do.

Vague, intuitively-defined concepts are useful enough for daily conversation in many cases, and wherever they break down due to divergent intuitions and uses, we can just switch to stipulation/tabooing.

If you don't have the patience to do philosophy, or you don't think it's of any value, by all means do something else -argue about facts and anticipations, whatever precisely that may involve. Just don't think that in doing this latter thing you'll address the question philosophy is interested in, or that you've said anything at all so far to show philosophy isn't worth doing.

Yes. I'm going to argue about facts and anticipations. I've tried to show (a bit) in this post and in this comment about why doing (certain kinds of) conceptual analysis aren't worth it. I'm curious to hear your answers to my many-questions paragraph about the use of conceptual analysis, above.

I've skipped responding to many parts of your comment because I wanted to 'get on the same page' about a few things first. Please re-raise any issues you'd like a response on.

Comment author: BobTheBob 26 May 2011 04:22:04AM 1 point [-]

You are surely right that there is no point in arguing over definitions in at least one sense - esp the definition of "definition". Your reply is reasonable and I continue to think that the hallmark of rationality is susceptibility to persuasion, but I am not won over yet. I hope the following engages constructively with your comments.

Suppose

  • we have two people, Albert and Barry
  • we have one thing, a car, X, of determinate interior volume
  • we have one sentence, S: "X is a subcompact".
  • Albert affirms S, Barry denies S.

Scenario (1): Albert and Barry agree on the standard definition of 'subcompact' - a car is a subcompact just in case 2 407 L < car volume < 2 803 L, but they disagree as to the volume of X. Clearly a factual disagreement.

Scenario (2): Albert and Barry agree on the volume of X, but disagree on the standard definition of 'subcompact' (a visit to Wikipedia would resolve the matter). This a disagreement about standard definitions, and isn't anything people should engage in for long, I agree.

Scenario (3) Albert and Barry agree as to the volume of X and the standard definition, but Barry thinks the standard definition is misguided, and that if it were corrected, X wouldn't be classified as subcompact -ie, X isn't really subcompact, notwithstanding the received definition. This doesn't have to be a silly position. It might be that if you graphed numbers of models of car against volume, using various different volume increments, you would find cars really do fall into natural -if vague- groups, and that the natural cutoff for subcompacts is different than the received definition. And this might really matter - a parking-challenged jurisdiction might offer a fee discount for subcompact owners. I would call this a disagreement about the concept of 'subcompact car'. I understand you want to call this a disagreement about definitions, albeit of a different kind than in scenario (2).

Argument in scenarios 1 and 2 is futile - there is an acknowledged objective answer, and a way to get it - the way to resolve the matter is to measure or to look-up. Arguments as in scenario 3, though, can be useful -especially with less arbitrary concepts than in the example. The goal in such cases is to clarify -to rationalize- concepts. Even if you don't arrive at an uncontroversial end point, you often learn a lot about the concepts ('good', knowledge', 'desires', etc) in the process. Your example of the re-definition of 'planet' fits this model, I think.

This said, none of these scenarios represents a typical disagreement over a conceptual analysis. In such a debate, there typically is not a received, widely accepted analysis or strict definition, just as in meaning something by a word, we don't typically have in mind some strict definition. On the contrary, typically, intuitions about what falls under the concept are agreed by almost everyone, one person sticks his neck out with proposed necessary and sufficient conditions meant to capture all and only the agreed instances, and then challengers work to contrive examples which often everyone agrees refute the analysis. This is how I see it, anyway. I'd be interested to know if this seems wrong.

I opened with a debate that everybody knew was silly, and tried to show that it was analagous to popular forms of conceptual analysis. I didn't want to start with a popular example of conceptual analysis because philosophy-familiar people will have been trained not to find those examples silly. I gave at least three examples of actual philosophical analysis in my post (Schroeder on desire, Gettier on knowledge, Jackson on morality).

You may think it's obvious, but I don't see you've shown any of these 3 examples is silly. I don't see that Schroeder's project is silly (I haven't read Schroeder, admittedly). Insofar as rational agents are typically modelled merely in terms of their beliefs and desires, what desires are is important to our understanding of ourselves as rational. Testing a proposed analysis by seeking to contrive counter-examples -even far-fetched- helps illuminate the concept - helps us think about what a desire -and hence in part a rational agent- is.

As for Gettier, his paper, as I know you are aware, listed counter-examples to the analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. He contrived a series of cases in which people justifiedly believe true propositions, and yet -we intuitively agree- do not know them. The key point is that effectively everyone shares the intuition - that's why the paper was so successful, and this is often how these debates go. Part of what's interesting is precisely that although people do share quite subtle intuitions, the task of making them explicit - conceptual analysis - is elusive.

I objected to your example because I didn't see how anyone could have an intuition base on what you said, whereas clear intuitions are key to such arguments. Now, it would definitely be a bad plan to take on the burden of defending all philosophical arguments - not all published arguments are top-drawer stuff (but can Cog Sci, eg, make this boast?). One target of much abuse is John Searle's Chinese Room argument. His argument is multiply flawed, as far as I'm concerned -could get into that another time. But I still think it's interesting, for what it reveals about differences in intuitions. There are quite different reactions from smart people.

Words mean slightly different things in different cultures, subcultures, and small communities. We develop different intuitions about their meaning based on divergent life experiences. Our intuitions differ from each other's due to the specifics of unconscious associative learning and attribution substitution heuristics. What is the point of bashing our intuitions about the meaning of terms against each other for thousands of pages, in the hopes that we'll converge on a precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Even if we can get Albert and Barry to agree, what happens when Susan wants to use the same term, but has slightly differing intuitions about its meaning?

This gets to the crux. We make different judgements, true, but in virtue of speaking the same language we must in an important sense mean the same thing by our words. The logic of communication requires that we take ourselves to be talking about the same thing in using language -whether that thing be goodness, knowledge, planethood or hockey pucks. Your point about the IAU and the definition of 'planet' demonstrates the same kind of process of clarification of a concept, albeit informed by empirical data. The point of the bashing is that is that it really does result in progress - we really do come to a better understand of things.

Comment author: lukeprog 26 May 2011 06:07:00AM 2 points [-]

As I see it, your central point is that conceptual analysis is useful because it results in a particular kind of process: the clarification of our intuitive concepts. Because our intuitive concepts are so muddled and not as clear-cut and useful as a stipulated definition such as the IAU's definition for 'planet', I fail to see why clarifying our intuitive concepts is a good use of all that brain power. Such work might theoretically have some value for the psychology of concepts and for linguistics, and yet I suspect neither science would miss philosophy if philosophy went away. Indeed, scientific psychology is often said to have 'debunked' conceptual analysis because concepts are not processed in our brains in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

But I'm not sure I'm reading you correctly. Why do you think its useful to devote all that brainpower to clarifying our intuitive concepts of things?

Comment author: BobTheBob 27 May 2011 09:19:17PM 3 points [-]

As I see it, your central point is that conceptual analysis is useful because it results in a particular kind of process: the clarification of our intuitive concepts. Because our intuitive concepts are so muddled and not as clear-cut and useful as a stipulated definition such as the IAU's definition for 'planet', I fail to see why clarifying our intuitive concepts is a good use of all that brain power.

I think that where we differ is on 'intuitive concepts' -what I would want to call just 'concepts'. I don't see that stipulative definitions replace them. Scenario (3), and even the IAU's definition, illustrate this. It is coherent for an astronomer to argue that the IAU's definition is mistaken. This implies that she has a more basic concept -which she would strive to make explicit in arguing her case- different than the IAU's. For her to succeed in making her case -which is imaginable- people would have to agree with her, in which case we would have at least partially to share her concept. The IAU's definition tries to make explicit our shared concept -and to some extent legislates, admittedly- but it is a different sort of animal than what we typically use in making judgements.

Philosophy doesn't impact non-philosophical activities often, but when it does the impact is often quite big. Some examples: the influence of Mach on Einstein, of Rousseau and others on the French and American revolutions, Mill on the emancipation of women and freedom of speech, Adam Smith's influence on economic thinking.

I consider though that the clarification is an end in itself. This site proves -what's obvious anyway- that philosophical questions naturally have a grip on thinking people. People usually suppose the answer to any given philosophical question to be self-evident, but equally we typically disagree about what the obvious answer is. Philosophy is about elucidating those disagreements.

Keeping people busy with activities which don't turn the planet into more non-biodegradeable consumer durables is fine by me. More productivity would not necessarily be a good thing (...to end with a sweeping undefended assertion.).

Comment author: Peterdjones 27 May 2011 11:37:44PM 1 point [-]

Because our intuitive concepts are so muddled and not as clear-cut and useful as a stipulated definition such as the IAU's definition for 'planet', I fail to see why clarifying our intuitive concepts is a good use of all that brain power.

OTOH, there is a class of fallacies (the True Scotsman argument, tendentious redefinition, etc),which are based on getting stipulative definitions wrong. Getting them right means formalisation of intution or common usage or something like that.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 May 2011 07:13:33PM *  0 points [-]

To point people to some additional references on conceptual analysis in philosophy. Audi's (1983, p. 90) "rough characterization" of conceptual analysis is, I think, standard: "Let us simply construe it as an attempt to provide an illuminating set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the (correct) application of a concept."

Or, Ramsey's (1992) take on conceptual analysis: "philosophers propose and reject definitions for a given abstract concept by thinking hard about intuitive instances of the concept and trying to determine what their essential properties might be."

Sandin (2006) gives an example:

Enter Freddie, philosopher, who has set out to analyse the concept of knowledge. Freddie sits back in his armchair and thinks hard about knowledge and the ‘‘what-we-would-say-when’’ of the term knowledge. He tentatively proposes and either rejects or accepts necessary and sufficient conditions for (his) correct use of the term knowledge. After a while, he feels he has succeeded, writes down his analysis and publishes it. End of part 1. Part 2: Enter a second philosopher, Eddie. Eddie reads Freddie’s paper about knowledge. Eddie’s room is also furnished with an appropriate armchair, in which he sits back and tries to concoct a counterexample to Freddie’s proposed analysis. He feels he has succeeded, writes down his counterexample and publishes it. End of part 2.

This is precisely what Albert and Barry are doing with regard to 'sound'.


Audi (1983). The Applications of Conceptual Analysis. Metaphilosophy 14: 87-106.

Ramsey (1992). Prototypes and Conceptual Analysis. Topoi, 11: 59-70.

Sandin (2006). Has psychology debunked conceptual analysis? Metaphilosophy, 37: 26-33.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 May 2011 07:07:22PM *  2 points [-]

Eliezer does have a post in which he talks about doing what you call conceptual analysis more-or-less as you describe and why it's worthwhile. Unfortunately, since that's just one somewhat obscure post whereas he talks about tabooing words in many of his posts, when LWrongers encounter conceptual analysis, their cached thought is to say "taboo your words" and dismiss the whole analysis as useless.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 May 2011 07:09:07PM *  2 points [-]

The 'taboo X' reply does seem overused. It is something that is sometimes best to just ignore when you don't think it aids in conveying the point you were making.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 May 2011 07:18:10PM 1 point [-]

It is something that is sometimes best to just ignore when you don't think it aids in conveying the point you were making.

When I try that, I tend to get down-votes and replies complaining that I'm not responding to their arguments.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 May 2011 07:26:20PM 0 points [-]

When I try that, I tend to get down-votes and replies complaining that I'm not responding to their arguments.

I don't know the specific details of the instances in question. One thing I am sure about, however, is that people can't downvote comments that you don't make. Sometimes a thread is just a lost cause. Once things get polarized it often makes no difference at all what you say. Which is not to say I am always wise enough to steer clear of arguments. Merely that I am wise enough to notice when I do make that mistake. ;)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 22 May 2011 08:35:42PM 0 points [-]

I do not think that he is describing conceptual analysis. Starting with a word vs. starting with a set of objects makes all the difference.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 May 2011 09:27:01PM 1 point [-]

In the example he does start with a word, namely 'art', then uses our intuition to get a set of examples. This is more-or-less how conceptual analysis works.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 May 2011 12:04:01AM 0 points [-]

But he's not analyzing "art", he's analyzing the set of examples, and that is all the difference.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 23 May 2011 01:32:57AM *  1 point [-]

But he's not analyzing "art"

I disagree. Suppose after proposing a definition of art based to the listed examples, someone produced another example that clearly satisfied our intuitions of what constituted art but didn't satisfy the definitions. Would Eliezer:

a) say "sorry despite our intuitions that example isn't art by definition", or

b) conclude that the example was art and there was a problem with the definition?

I'm guessing (b).

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 May 2011 08:11:31PM 0 points [-]

He's not trying to define art in accord with on our collective intuitions, he's trying to find the simplest boundary around a list of examples based on an individual's intuitions.

I would argue that the list of examples in the article is abbreviated for simplicity. If there is no single clear simple boundary between the two sets, one can always ask for more examples. But one asks an individual and not all of humanity.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 23 May 2011 09:41:14PM 1 point [-]

He's not trying to define art in accord with on our collective intuitions, he's trying to find the simplest boundary around a list of examples based on an individual's intuitions.

I would argue he's trying to find the simplest coherent extrapolation of our intuitions.

Comment author: bcoburn 23 May 2011 09:59:30PM 0 points [-]

Why do we even care about what specifically Eliezer Yudkowsky was trying to do in that post? Isn't "is it more helpful to try to find the simplest boundary around a list or the simplest coherent explanation of intuitions?" a much better question?

Focus on what matters, work on actually solving problems instead of trying to just win arguments.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 24 May 2011 12:00:56AM 0 points [-]

The answer to your question is "it depends on the situation". There are some situations in which are intuitions contain some useful, hidden information which we can extract with this method. There are some situation in which our intuitions differ and it makes sense to consider a bunch of separate lists.

But, regardless, it is simply the case that when Eliezer says

"Perhaps you come to me with a long list of the things that you call "art" and "not art""

and

"It feels intuitive to me to draw this boundary, but I don't know why - can you find me an intension that matches this extension? Can you give me a simple description of this boundary?"

he is not talking about "our intuitions", but a single list provided by a single person.

(It is also the case that I would rather talk about that than whatever useless thing I would instead be doing with my time.)

Comment author: Amanojack 22 May 2011 08:24:31PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer's point in that post was that there are more and less natural ways to "carve reality at the joints." That however much we might say that a definition is just a matter of preference, there are useful definitions and less useful ones. The conceptual analysis lukeprog is talking about does call for the rationalist taboo, in my opinion, but simply arguing about which definition is more useful as Eliezer does (if we limit conceptual analysis to that) does not.

Comment author: steven0461 16 May 2011 08:22:30PM *  2 points [-]

A lot of the issue with things like conceptual analysis, I think, is that people do them badly, and then others have to step in and waste even more words to correct them. If the worst three quarters of philosophers suddenly stopped philosophizing, the field would probably progress faster.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 03:27:13PM 2 points [-]

Agreed as literally stated, and also agree with your implication: this is especially true for philosophy in addition to other fields in which this is also true.

"other fields in which this is also true" is intentionally ambiguous, half implying that this is basically true for all other fields and half implying it's only true for a small subset, as I'm undecided as to which is the case.

Comment author: MBlume 18 May 2011 08:53:58PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: TheAncientGeek 19 November 2013 12:29:41PM 3 points [-]

Eliezer advises against reading mainstream philosophy because he thinks it will "teach very bad habits of thought that will lead people to be unable to do real work

Alternative hypothesis: it will teach good habits of thought that will allow people to recognise bad amateur philosophy.

Comment author: dxu 17 November 2014 04:56:38AM *  1 point [-]

It is unlikely that you will gain these "good habits of thought" allowing you to recognize "bad amateur philosophy" from reading mainstream philosophy when much of mainstream philosophy consists of what (I assume) you're calling "bad amateur philosophy".

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 18 November 2014 02:01:59AM 0 points [-]

No. I'm calling the Sequences bad amateur philosophy.

Comment author: dxu 18 November 2014 02:12:27AM *  1 point [-]

If that's the case, I'd like to hear your reasoning behind this statement.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 18 November 2014 11:52:53AM *  2 points [-]
  1. A significant number of postings don't argue towards a discernible point.

  2. A significant number of postings don't argue their point cogently.

  3. Lack of awareness of standard counterarguments, and alternative theories.

  4. Lack of appropriate response to objections.

None of this has anything to do with which answers are right or wrong. It is a form of the fallacy of grey to argue that since no philosophy comes up with definite answers, then it's all equally a failure. Philosophy isn't trying to be science, so it isn't broken science.

  1. A quick way of confirming this point might be to attempt to summarize the Less Wrong theory of ethics.

  2. Particularly the ones written as dialogues. I share Massimo Pigliuccis frustration

"I am very sympathetic both to Bayesian analysis (I have used it in my own research) and to its implications for philosophy of science (though there are some interesting objections that can be raised to it as a model of science tout court — see for example the chapter in Bayesianism here). Which is why the title of Yudkowsky’s column surprised the hell out of me! Alas, as I said, he provides no argument in that post for his suggestion that Bayesianism favors a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, or for the further claim that somehow this goes against scientific practice because the currently favored interpretation is the Copenhagen one. But then I noticed that the post was a follow up to two more, one entitled “If many-worlds had come first,” the other “The failures of Eld science.” Oh crap, now I had to go back and read those before figuring out what Yudkowsky was up to. (And before you ask, yes, those posts too linked to previous ones, but by then I had had enough.) Except that that didn’t help either. Both posts are rather bizarre, if somewhat amusing, fictional dialogues, one of which doesn’t even mention the word “Bayes” (the other refers to it tangentially a couple of times), and that certainly constitute no sustained argument at all. (Indeed, “The failures of Eld science” sounds a lot like the sort of narrative you find in Atlas Shrugged, and you know that’s not a compliment coming from me.)"

3 and 4. There's an example here. A poster makes a very pertinent objection tithe main post. No one responds, and the main post is to this day bandied around as establishing the point. Things don't work like that. If someone returns your serve, you're supposed to hit back, not walk off the court and claim the prize.

A knowledge of philosophy doesn't give you a basis of facts to build on,but it does load your brain with a network of argument and counterargument, and can prevent you wasting time by mounting elaborate defences of claims to which there are well known objections.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 November 2014 04:52:40PM *  2 points [-]

A knowledge of philosophy doesn't give you a basis of facts to build on,but it does load your brain with a network of argument and counterargument, and can prevent you wasting time by mounting elaborate defences of claims to which there are well known objections.

It seems to me that there are two views of philosophy that are useful here: one of them I'll term perspective, or a particular way of viewing the world, and the other one is comparative perspectives. That term is deliberately modeled after comparative religion because I think the analogy is useful; typically, one develops the practice of one's own religion and the understanding of other religions.

It seems to me that the Sequences are a useful guide for crystallizing the 'LW perspective' in readers, but are not a useful guide for placing the 'LW perspective' in the history of perspectives. (For that, one's better off turning to lukeprog, who has a formal education in philosophy.) Perhaps there are standard criticisms other perspectives make of this perspective, but whether or not that matters depends on whether you want to argue about this perspective or inhabit this perspective. If the latter, a criticism is not particularly interesting, but a patch is interesting.

That is to say, I think comparative perspectives (i.e. studying philosophy formally) has value, but it's a narrow kind of value and like most things the labor involved should be specialized. I also think that the best guide to philosophy X for laymen and the best guide to philosophy X for philosophers will look different, and Eliezer's choice to optimize for laymen was wise overall.

Comment author: Toggle 18 November 2014 06:44:55PM 8 points [-]

Most of the content in the sequences isn't new as such, but it did draw from many different sources, most of which were largely confined to academia. In synthesis, the product is pretty original. To the best of my knowledge, the LessWrong perspective/community has antecedents but not an obvious historical counterpart.

In that light, I'd expect the catalyzing agent for such a perspective to be the least effective such agent that could successfully accomplish the task. (Or: to be randomly selected from the space of all possible effective agents, which is quite similar in practice.) We are the tool-users not because hominids are optimized for tool use, but because we were the first ones to do so with enough skill to experience a takeoff of civilization. So it's pretty reasonable to expect the sequences to be a little wibbly.

To continue your religious metaphor, Paul wrote in atrocious Greek, had confusingly strong opinions about manbeds, and made it in to scripture because he was instrumental in building the early church communities. Augustine persuasively developed a coherent metaphysic for the religion that reconciled it with the mainstream Neoplatonism of the day, helping to clear the way for a transition from persecuted minority to dominant memeplex, but is considered a 'doctor of the church' rather than an author of scripture because he was operating within and refining a more established culture.

The sequences were demonstrably effective in crystallizing a community, but are probably a lot less effective in communicating outside that community. TAG's objections may be especially relevant if LessWrong is to transition from a 'creche' online environment and engage in dialogue with cultural power brokers- a goal of the MIRI branch at a minimum.

Comment author: Vaniver 18 November 2014 07:12:09PM 0 points [-]

I wish I had more than one upvote to give this comment; entirely agreed.

Comment author: Toggle 18 November 2014 08:38:13PM 1 point [-]

Thank you! The compliment works just as well.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 18 November 2014 06:46:12PM *  0 points [-]

"Crystalising" you team clarifying, or defending.

Communicating the content of a claim is of llimited use, unless you can make it persuasive. That in turn, requires defending it against alternatives. So the function you are trying to separate are actually very interconnected.

(Another disanalogy between philosophy and religion is that philosophy is less holistic, working more at the claim level)

Comment author: Vaniver 18 November 2014 07:10:08PM 2 points [-]

"Crystalising" you team clarifying, or defending.

I mean clarifying. I use that term because some people look at the Sequences and say "but that's all just common sense!". In some ways it is, but in other ways a major contribution of the Sequences is to not just let people recognize that sort of common sense but reproduce it.

I understand that clarification and defense are closely linked, and am trying to separate intentionality more than I am methodology.

Another disanalogy between philosophy and religion is that philosophy is less holistic, working more at the claim level

I consider 'stoicism' to be a 'philosophy,' but I notice that Stoics are not particularly interested in debating the finer points of abstractions, and might even consider doing so dangerous to their serenity relative to other activities. A particularly Stoic activity is negative visualization- the practice of imagining something precious being destroyed, to lessen one's anxiety about its impermanence through deliberate acceptance, and to increase one's appreciation of its continued existence.

One could see this as an unconnected claim put forth by Stoics that can be evaluated on its own merits (we could give a grant to a psychologist to test whether or not negative visualization actually works), but it seems to me that it is obvious that in the universe where negative visualization works, Stoics would notice and either copy the practice from its inventors or invent it themselves, because Stoicism is fundamentally about reducing anxiety and achieving serenity, and this seems amenable to a holistic characterization. (The psychologist might find that negative visualization works differently for Stoics than non-Stoics, and might actually only be a good idea for Stoics.)

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 18 November 2014 08:23:29PM 1 point [-]

Your example of "a philosophy" is pretty much a religion. by current standard. By philosophy I meant the sort of thing typified by current anglophone philosophy.

Comment author: Toggle 18 November 2014 08:36:36PM *  3 points [-]

That may be the disjunction. Current anglophone philosophy is basically the construction of an abstract system of thought, valued for internal rigor and elegance but largely an intellectual exercise. Ancient Greek philosophies were eudaimonic- instrumental constructions designed to promote happiness. Their schools of thought, literal schools where one could go, were social communities oriented around that goal. The sequences are much more similar to the latter ('rationalists win' + meetups), although probably better phrased as utilitarian rather than eudaimonic. Yudkowsky and Sartre are basically not even playing the same game.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 November 2014 03:07:33PM *  1 point [-]

By philosophy I meant the sort of thing typified by current anglophone philosophy.

You may note several posts ago that I noticed the word 'philosophy' was not useful and tried to substitute it with other, less loaded, terms in order to more effectively communicate my meaning. This is a specific useful technique with multiple subcomponents (noticing that it's necessary, deciding how to separate the concepts, deciding how to communicate the separation), that I've gotten better at because of time spent here.

Yes, comparative perspectives is much more about claims and much less about holism than any individual perspective- but for a person, the point of comparing perspectives is to choose one whereas for a professional arguer the point of comparing perspectives is to be able to argue more winningly, and so the approaches and paths they take will look rather different.

Comment author: dxu 18 November 2014 08:17:59PM *  1 point [-]

1 and 2 seem to mostly be objections to the presentation of the material as opposed to the content. Most of these criticisms are ones I agree with, but given the context (the Sequences being "bad amateur philosophy"), they seem largely tangential to the overall point. There are plenty of horrible math books out there; would you use that fact to claim that math itself is flawed?

As for 3 and 4, I note that the link you provided is not an objection per se, but more of an expression of surprise: "What, doesn't everyone know this?" Note also that this comment actually has a reply attached to it, which rather undermines your point that "people on LW don't respond to criticisms". I'm sure you have other examples of objections being ignored, but in my opinion, this one probably wasn't the best example to use if you were trying to make a point.

Comment author: wedrifid 20 November 2014 02:13:36AM 1 point [-]

when much of mainstream philosophy consists of what (I assume) you're calling "bad amateur philosophy".

No, much of it is bad professional philosophy. It's like bad amateur philosophy except that students are forced to pretend it matters.

Comment author: Perplexed 16 May 2011 02:31:09PM 3 points [-]

As one example, consider some commonly used definitions for 'morally good':

  • that which produces the most pleasure for the most people
  • that which is in accord with the divine will
  • ...

Those aren't definitions of 'morally good'. They are theories of the morally good. I seriously doubt that there are any real philosophers that are confused about the distinction.

Comment author: Peterdjones 16 May 2011 07:25:43PM *  0 points [-]

Those aren't definitions of 'morally good'. They are theories of the morally good

exactly what I wanted to say!

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 05:36:47PM 1 point [-]

Right, but part of each of these theories is that using one set of definitions for moral terms is better than using another set of definitions, often for reasons similar to the network-style conceptual analysis proposed by Jackson.

Comment author: Perplexed 17 May 2011 04:54:13AM 2 points [-]

If you are saying that meta-ethical definitions can never be perfectly neutral wrt a choice between ethical theories, then I have to agree. Every ethical theory comes dressed in a flattering meta-ethical evening gown that reveals the nice stuff but craftily hides the ugly bits.

But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't at least strive for neutrality. Personally, I would prefer to have the definition of "morally good" include consequential goods, deontological goods, and virtue goods. If the correct moral theory can explain this trinity in terms of one fundamental kind of good, plus two derived goods, well that is great. But that work is part of normative ethics, not meta-ethics. And it certainly is not accomplished by imposing a definition.

Comment author: lukeprog 24 May 2011 04:59:57AM 0 points [-]

I'm doing a better job of explaining myself over here.

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 May 2011 02:50:57PM 0 points [-]

Personally, I would prefer to have the definition of "morally good" "morally good" include consequential goods, deontological goods, and virtue goods.

All of those already include the pre-theoretic notion of "good".

Comment author: Perplexed 18 May 2011 05:43:19PM 0 points [-]

Correct. Which is why I think it is a mistake if they are not accounted for in the post-theoretic notion.

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 May 2011 03:01:05PM 0 points [-]

Right, but part of each of these theories is that using one set of definitions for moral terms is better than using another set of definitions, often for reasons similar to the network-style conceptual analysis proposed by Jackson.

But then confusion about definitions is actually confusion about theories.

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 May 2011 03:55:33PM *  0 points [-]

The idea that people by default have no idea at all what moral language is hard to credit, whether claimed of people in general, or claimed by individuals of themselves. Everyone, after all, is brought up from an early age with a great deal of moral exhortation, to do Good things and refrain from Naughty things. Perhaps not everybody gets very far along the Kohlberg scale, but no one is starting from scratch. People may not be able to articulate a clear definition, or not the kind of definition one would expect from a theory, but that does not mean one needs a theory of metaethics to give a meaning to "moral".

Comment author: Perplexed 18 May 2011 05:40:19PM 0 points [-]

that does not mean one needs a theory of metaethics to give a meaning to "moral".

No. One only needs a theory of metaethics to prevent philosophers from giving it a disastrously wrong meaning.

Comment author: scientism 16 May 2011 04:30:32PM 1 point [-]

I don't think you're arguing against conceptual analysis, instead you want to treat a particular conceptual analysis (reductive physicalism) as gospel. What is the claim that there are two definitions of sound that we can confuse, the acoustic vibrations in the air and the auditory experience in a brain, if it's not a reductive conceptual analysis of the concept of sound?

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 05:12:26PM 2 points [-]

Like I said at the beginning:

I won't argue that everything that has ever been called 'conceptual analysis' is misguided. Instead, I'll give examples of common kinds of conceptual analysis that corrupt discussions of morality and other subjects.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 16 May 2011 04:15:05PM 0 points [-]

The definition of "right action" is the kind of action you should do.

You don't need to know what "should" means, you just need to do what you should do and not do what you shouldn't do.

One should be able to cash out arguments about the "definition" of "right" as arguments about the actual nature of shouldness.

Comment author: lukeprog 16 May 2011 05:15:35PM 4 points [-]

Defining 'right' in terms of 'should' gets us nowhere; it just punts to another symbol. Thus, I don't yet know what you're trying to say in this comment. Could you taboo 'should' for me?

Comment author: Will_Sawin 17 May 2011 01:36:42AM *  2 points [-]

Only through the use of koans. Consider the dialog in:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Tortoise_Said_to_Achilles

Could you explain what "If A, then B" means, tabooing "if/then","therefore",etc.?

Here is another way:

If a rational agent becomes aware that the statement "I should do X" is true, then it will either proceed to do X or proceed to realize that it cannot do X (at least for now).

ETA: Here is a simple Python function (I think I coded it correctly):

def square (x): y=x*x return y

"return" is not just another symbol. It is not a gensym. It is functional. The act of returning and producing an output is completely separate from and non-reducible-to everything else that a subroutine can do.

Rational agents use "should" the same way this subroutine uses "return". It controls their output.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 May 2011 11:00:12PM *  1 point [-]

You don't need to know what "should" means, you just need to do what you should do and not do what you shouldn't do.

But better understanding of what "should" means helps, although it's true that you should do what you should even if you have no idea what "should" means.

Comment author: Amanojack 17 May 2011 07:28:09AM 4 points [-]

it's true that you should do what you should even if you have no idea what "should" means.

How do I go about interpreting that statement if I have no idea what "should" means?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 17 May 2011 11:48:08AM *  3 points [-]

Use your shouldness-detector, even if it has no user-serviceable parts within. Shouldness-detector is that white sparkly sphere over there.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 03:59:24PM 1 point [-]

I think it means something analogous to "you can staple even if you have no idea what "kramdrukker" means". (I don't speak Afrikaans, but that's what a translator program just said is "stapler" in Africaans.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I think "should" is a special case of where a "can" sentence gets infected by the sentence's object (because the object is "should") to become a "should" sentence.

"You can hammer the nail." But should I? It's unclear. "You can eat the fish." But should I? It's unclear. "You can do what you should do." But should I? Yes - I definitely should, just because I can. So, "You can do what you should do" is equivalent to"You should do what you should do".

In other words, I interpret the statement by Vladmir to be an instance of what we can generally say about "can" statements, of which "should" happens to be a special case in which there is infection from "should" to "can" such that it is more natural in English to not write "can" at all.

This allows us to go from uncontroversial "can" statements to "should" statements, all without learning Africaans!

This feel like novel reasoning by my part (i.e. the whole "can" being infected bit) as to how Vladmir's statement is true, and I'd appreciate comments or a similarly reasoned source I might be partially remembering and repeating.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 May 2011 01:10:27AM 2 points [-]

So, "You can do what you should do" is equivalent to"You should do what you should do".

If these are equivalent, then the truth of the second statement should entail the truth of the first. But "You should do what you should do" is ostensibly a tautology, while "You can do what you should do" is not, and could be false.

One out you might want to take is to declare "S should X" only meaningful when ability and circumstance allow S to do X; when "S can X." But then you just have two clear tautologies, and declaring them equivalent is not suggestive of much at all.

Comment author: lessdazed 18 May 2011 01:49:06AM 0 points [-]

Decisive points.

As you have shown them to not be equivalent, I would have done better to say:

"You can do what you should do" entails "You should do what you should do".

But if the latter statement is truly a tautology, that obviously doesn't help. If I then add your second edit, that by "should" I mean "provided one is able to", I am at least less wrong...but can my argument avoid being wrong only by being vacuous?

I think so.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 17 May 2011 01:41:27AM 0 points [-]

If knowing what "should" means helped something, then knowledge of a definition could lead to real actionable information. This seems, on the face of it, absurd.

I think either:

"XYZ things are things that maximize utility"

or:

"XYZ things are things that you should do"

can count as a definition of XYZ, but not both, just as:

"ABC things are red things"

pr

"ABC things are round things"

can count as a definition of ABC things, but not both. (Since if you knew both, then you would learn that red things are round and round things are red.)

Comment author: Dan_Moore 17 May 2011 12:47:47PM -1 points [-]

I was under the impression that the example of an unobserved tree falling in the woods is taken as a naturalized version of Schrodinger's Cat experiment. So the question of whether it makes a sound is not necessarily about the definition of a sound.

Comment author: lukeprog 17 May 2011 01:21:41PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Dan_Moore 17 May 2011 06:27:25PM 0 points [-]

The Wikipedia article you linked has a See Also: Schrodinger's Cat link.

Comment author: JanetK 16 May 2011 10:11:36AM 1 point [-]

I would like to see some enlargement on the concept of definition. It is usually treated as a simple concept: A means B or C or D; which one depending on Z. But when we try to pin down C for instance, we find that it has a lot of baggage - emotional, framing, stylistic etc. So does B and D. And in no case is the baggage of any of them the same as the baggage of A. None of - defining terms or tabooing words or coining new words - really works all that well in the real world, although they of course help. Do you see a way around this fuzziness?

Another 'morally good' definition for your list is 'that which will not make the doer feel guilty or shameful in future'. It is no better than the others but quite different.

Comment author: casebash 14 March 2014 01:01:58PM 0 points [-]

I'm mixed about this article. I think that some basic conceptual analysis for various concepts is important and helps clarify the discussion. Like "justified true knowledge" sounds very tempting - but conceptual analysis shows that it is much more complicated. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that some concepts are slippery and attempting to define them is an exercise in futility

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 16 May 2011 05:02:33PM 0 points [-]

What happen to philosophers like Hume who tried to avoid "mere disputes of words?" Seriously, as much as many 20th century philosophers liked Hume, especially the first book of the Treatise (e.g., the positivists), why didn't they pick up on that?

(I seem to remember some flippant remark making fun of philosophers for these disputes in the Treatise but google finds me nothing)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 05:57:19PM *  4 points [-]

Getting hung up on the meanings of words is an attractor. Even if your community starts out consciously trying to avoid it, it's very easy to get sucked back in. Here is a likely sequence of steps.

  1. All this talk about words is silly! We care about actually implementing our will in the real world!

  2. Of course, we want to implement our will precisely. We need to know how things are precisely and how we want them to be precisely, so that we can figure out what we should do precisely.

  3. So, we want to formulate all this precise knowledge and to perform precise actions. But we're a community, so we're going to have to communicate all this knowledge and these plans among ourselves. Thus, we're going to need a correspondingly precise language to convey all these precise things to one another.

  4. Okay, so let's get started on that precise language. Take the word A. What, precisely, does it mean? Well, what precisely are the states of affairs such that the word A applies? Wait, what precisely is a "state of affairs"? . . .

And down the rabbit-hole you go.

Comment author: TimFreeman 16 May 2011 03:58:19PM *  -3 points [-]

Empathic Metaethics is hard, but it's what needs to be done to answer Alex's question, and it's what needs to be done to build a Friendly AI.

You're missing a possible path forward here. Perhaps we aren't the ones that need to do it. If we can implement empathy, we can get the Friendly AI to do it.

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 16 May 2011 04:53:27PM 1 point [-]

Downvoter here. Is there a custom of always explaining downvotes? Should there be one?

I down voted because it was a post about AI (yawn), and in particular a stupid one. But looking at it again I see that it may not be as stupid as I thought, downvote revoked.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 16 May 2011 05:43:30PM 4 points [-]

Downvoter here. Is there a custom of always explaining downvotes? Should there be one?

No and no. However, it's usually good when downvoted commenters learn why they got downvoted.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 04:03:18PM 0 points [-]

The most interesting comments are left by downvoters.

"Downvoters leave the most interesting comments", my original formulation, is false in one of its natural interpretations.

Upvoted ;-)

Comment author: CuSithBell 16 May 2011 05:19:41PM 2 points [-]

Oftentimes the reason for a downvote may be nonobvious (for example, if there are multiple potential points of contention in a single comment). If you wish to indicate disapproval of one thing in particular, or draw the commenter's attention to a particular error you expect they will desire to correct, or something along those lines, it can be a good idea to explain your reason for dissent.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 04:13:28PM 1 point [-]

One unique thing I haven't heard others appreciate about the strictly dumb comment system of voting in one of two directions is that it leaves the voted upon with a certain valuable thought just within reach.

That thought is: "there are many reasons people downvote, each has his or her own criteria at different times. Some for substantive disagreement, others for tone, some because they felt their time wasted in reading it, others because they thought others would waste their time reading it, some for failing to meet the usual standard of the author, some for being inferior to a nearby but lesser ranked comment, etc."

People have a hard enough time understanding that as it is. Introduce sophistication into the voting system, and far fewer will take it to heart, as it will be much less obvious.

Comment author: CuSithBell 17 May 2011 06:20:25PM 0 points [-]

Intriguing. Starting from that thought it can be frustrating not to know which of those things is the case (and thus: what, if any, corrective action might be in order). I hadn't really thought about how alternate voting systems might obscure the thought itself. I'd think that votes + optional explanations would highlight the fact that there could be any number of explanations for a downvote...

Do we have any good anecdotes on this?

Comment author: wedrifid 16 May 2011 05:14:54PM *  2 points [-]

Downvoter here. Is there a custom of always explaining downvotes? Should there be one?

No! I don't have enough time to write comments for all the times I downvote. And I'd rather not read pages and pages of "downvoted because something you said in a different thread offended me" every week or two.

Just click and go. If you wish to also verbalize disapproval then by all means put word to the specific nature of your contempt, ire or disinterest.

Comment author: Swimmer963 18 May 2011 01:31:42AM 0 points [-]

downvoted because something you said in a different thread offended me.

I'm somewhat upset and disappointed that adults would do this. It seems like a very kindergartener thing. Would you go around upvoting all of a user's comments because you liked one? I wouldn't, and I have a tendency to upvote more than I downvote. Why downvote a perfectly good, reasonable comment just because another comment by the same user wasn't as appealing to you?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 18 May 2011 02:26:47PM 0 points [-]

Why downvote a perfectly good, reasonable comment just because another comment by the same user wasn't as appealing to you?

I don't think that wedrifid was saying that he does this. (I'm not sure that you were reading him that way.) I think that he just expects that, if explaining downvotes were the norm, then he would read a comment every week or so saying, "downvoted because something you said in a different thread offended me".

Comment author: Swimmer963 19 May 2011 01:42:01AM 1 point [-]

I didn't interpret the comment as meaning that wedrifid would downvote on this policy, or that he advocated. It's probably true that there are people who do. That just makes me sad.

Comment author: wedrifid 19 May 2011 02:01:50AM 0 points [-]

I think that he just expects that, if explaining downvotes were the norm, then he would read a comment every week or so saying, "downvoted because something you said in a different thread offended me".

Yes, although not so much 'a comment every week or so' as 'a page or two every week or so'.

Comment author: lessdazed 17 May 2011 04:07:27PM 1 point [-]

It seems to me that framing the issue of a (possible) social custom in terms of whether there should be a rule that covers all situations is a debate tactic designed to undermine support for a custom similar to the all-encompassing one used in framing.

The answer to whether there should be a custom that always applies is pretty much always going to be no, which doesn't tell us about similar customs (like one of usually or often explaining downvotes) even though it seems like it does.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 18 May 2011 01:46:28AM 0 points [-]

There is a custom of often explaining downvotes, and there should be one of doing so more frequently.

Comment author: steven0461 18 May 2011 07:26:58PM 3 points [-]

Most of the time when I vote something down, I would not try calling the person out if the same comment were made in an ordinary conversation. Explaining a downvote feels like calling someone out, and if I explained my downvotes a lot, I'd feel like I was being aggressive. Now, it's possible that unexplained downvotes feel equally aggressive. But really, all a downvote should mean is that someone did the site a disservice equal in size to the positive contribution represented by a mere one upvote.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 18 May 2011 08:30:54PM 2 points [-]

I mostly find unexplained downvotes aggressive because I find it frustrating in that I made some kind of mistake but no one wants to explain it to me so that I can do better next time.

Comment author: steven0461 21 May 2011 10:25:33PM 5 points [-]

It's not that often that mistakes are unambiguous and uncontroversial once pointed out. A lot of the time, the question isn't "do I want to point out his mistake so he can do better next time", but "do I want to commit to having a probably fruitless debate about this".

Comment author: drethelin 16 May 2011 04:48:18PM 1 point [-]

How can you possibly create an AI that reasons morally the way you want it to unless you can describe how that moral reasoning works?