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You don't need Kant

21 Post author: Andrew 01 April 2009 06:09PM

Related to: Comments on Degrees of Radical Honesty, OB: Belief in Belief, Cached Thoughts.

"Nothing worse could happen to these labours than that anyone should make the unexpected discovery that there neither is, nor can be, any a priori knowledge at all.... This would be the same thing as if one sought to prove by reason that there is no reason" (Critique of Practical Reason, Introduction).

You don't need Kant to demonstrate the value of honesty. In fact, summoning his revenant can be a dangerous thing to do. You end up in the somewhat undesirable situation of having almost the right conclusion, but having it for the wrong reasons. Reasons you weren't even aware of, because they were all collapsed into the belief, "I believe in person X".

One of the annoying things about philosophy is that the dead simply don't die. Once a philosopher or philosophical doctrine gains some celebrity in the community, it's very difficult to convince anyone afterward that said philosopher or doctrine was flawed. In other words, the philosophical community tends to have problems with relinquishment. Therefore, there are still many philosophers that spend their careers studying, for example, Plato, apparently not with the intent to determine what parts of what Plato wrote are correct or still applicable, but rather with the intent to defend Plato from criticism. To prove Plato was right.

Since the community doesn't value relinquishment, the cost of writing a flawed criticism is very low. Therefore, journals are glutted with so-called "negative results": "Kant was wrong", "Hegel was wrong", etc. No one seriously believes otherwise, but writing positive philosophical results is hard, and not writing at all isn't a viable career option for a professional philosopher.

To its credit, MBlume refrains from bringing up Kant in his article on radical honesty, where he cites other, more feasible variants of radical honesty. However, in the comments, Kant rears his ugly head.

Demosthenes writes:

"Kant disagrees and seems to warn that the principle of truth telling is universal; you can't go around deciding who has a right to truth and who does not. Furthermore, he suggests that your lie could have terrible unforeseen consequences.

...

I am more utilitarian than Kant, but it is not hard to ignore "proximity" and come up with a cost/benefit calculation that agrees with him."

mdcaton writes:

"Is this question really so hard? Remind me never to hide from Nazis at your house!

First off, Kant's philosophy was criticized on exactly these grounds, i.e. that by his system, when the authorities come to your door to look for a friend you're harboring, you should turn him in. I briefly scanned for clever Kant references (e.g. "introduce the brownshirts to your strangely-named cat, Egorial Imperative") but found none. Kant clarified that he did not think it immoral to lie to authorities looking to execute your friend."

The problem with bringing up Kant here is that he simply doesn't belong. "Don’t [lie] to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires, because they’re Nazis or whatever," is very different from Kant saying (paraphrasing), "Never lie, ever, or else you're a bad person." An argument against the former by conflating it with the latter doesn't accomplish anything. Further, there's no mention of all the stuff Kant has to assume in order to argue for the Categorical Imperative and, finally, the value of radical honesty.

Luckily, we only need the first couple pages of the Critique of Practical Reason to get to the Categorical Imperative. I want to flag down three very large assumptions that Kant needs, which I believe few rationalists would want to espouse. First, let me fill in the latter part of the inferential chain: given the existence of freedom, God, the immortality of the soul, and a supernatural consciousness, Kant will argue that any mind with a "morally determined willpower" will conclude that it should act in accordance with subjective principles that in principle could be universally applicable (i.e., the Categorical Imperative). I don't want to get in to what that actually means for Kant, as it's not really relevant, but suffice it to say that the Categorical Imperative implies that lying is always, anywhere, and for anyone ethically wrong.

Freedom, God, and the Immortality of the Soul

Skip this section if you don't care about Kant.

Freedom here means completely acausal, metaphysical freedom from a Mind Projection Fallacy that treats our mind as somehow different from the body. Kant uses the concept of metaphysical freedom (and not, for example, merely our everyday experience of determining our course of action) to argue that there are such things as moral laws.

"Inasmuch as the reality of the concept of freedom is proved by an apodeictic law of practical reason, it is the keystone of the whole system of pure reason, even the speculative, and all other concepts (those of God and immortality) which, as being mere ideas, remain in it unsupported, now attach themselves to this concept, and by it obtain consistence and objective reality; that is to say, their possibility is proved by the fact that
freedom actually exists, for this idea is revealed by the moral law." (CoPrR, Introduction)

I think in a perverse way Kant knew he was becoming Escher-headed by believing in metaphysical freedom.

"Lest any one should imagine that he finds an inconsistency here when I call freedom the condition of the moral law, and hereafter maintain in the treatise itself that the moral law is the condition under which we can first become conscious of freedom, I will merely remark that freedom is the ratio essendi of the moral law, while the moral law is the ratio cognoscendi of freedom." (CoPrR, Introduction)

If one doesn't assume completely acausal, metaphysical freedom and tries to follow Kant's argument, the whole thing falls apart. There's no longer (for Kant) any reason to believe in moral laws, and therefore in the Categorical Imperative, and therefore in radical honesty.

God here is, strangely enough, not necessarily the Christian God, though presumably Kant meant as such. Both it and an eternal soul are necessary to realize the goodness of the Categorical Imperative described above. Without either of these, there's no reason to obey the Categorical Imperative, as being "Good" would then simply be impossible.

"The realization of the summum bonum [the Greatest Good] in the world is the necessary object of a will determinable by the moral law. But in this will the perfect accordance of the mind with the moral law is the supreme condition of the summum bonum. This then must be possible, as well as its object, since it is contained in the command to promote the latter. Now, the perfect accordance of the will with the moral law is holiness, a perfection of which no rational being of the sensible world is capable at any moment of his existence. Since, nevertheless, it is required as practically necessary, it can only be found in a progress in infinitum towards that perfect accordance, and on the principles of pure practical reason it is necessary to assume such a practical progress as the real object of our will." (CoPrR, Chapter Two, Part IV)

Moral of the Story

What we have then is a very powerful theme that has woven its way into our list of cached thoughts. Whenever someone mentions the value of being honest, some proportion of the population is primed to think of Kant and his variant of radical honesty to the exclusion of other variants. Some proportion of that proportion is then primed with various anti-philosophy memes which immediately attack Kantian radical honesty to the conflation of it with other things. What is lost is the realization that Kantian radical honesty is in this era a straw man; everyone already knows it (and attempts to fix it while still being authentic to Kant, i.e., Kantian Studies) is inherently flawed, because it is based on a set of irrational assumptions.

My suggested strategy to avoid this in the future is this: whenever you find yourself citing the beliefs of another person, try to avoid referring to them as "the beliefs of X" unless you are actually talking about their beliefs (or the beliefs recorded in their writings, etc.). Be aware of creating straw men by comparing your interlocutor's beliefs with the beliefs of a famous philosopher, and certainly don't knock your straw man down by citing the beliefs of one of that philosopher's critics.

EDIT: Made it more obvious that MBlume proposed more than one variant of radical honesty.

Comments (56)

Comment author: HughRistik 01 April 2009 08:14:52PM *  11 points [-]

I'm actually a big fan of the Categorical Imperative. In the least, I find it morally illuminating, if not definitive, because it gets people to think about the moral principles behind their actions and avoid contradiction in their moral views, particularly hypocritical or self-serving contradiction. I suspect that any rational ethics (whatever that is) would have Categorical Imperative-like thinking involved.

I don't think that the Categorical Imperative, at least the way I understand it, requires radical honesty.

If I lie to the Nazis, I "make it my maxim" that it is justified to lie to authorities to save an innocent person from death (when I can provide a reasonable argument that the person is in fact innocent and the authorities are wrong to try to kill them). Can I, at the "same time", "will" that this maxim "become a universal law" without engaging in "contradiction"? Yes, I can.

My maxim is not that I think I have the right to decide, in general, who deserves to know the truth and who doesn't. Rather, my maxim that is that potential murderers of innocent people don't deserve to know the truth, when I can provide reasonable argument that they are truly innocent and that giving them up would lead to unjust harm to them.

Now, say that WWII is over, and Hitler himself is hiding out in Germany with his sympathizers, when Allied soldiers come knocking. Would the family hiding him be justified in lying, according to my maxim above? If they were justified according to my maxim, while I maintain that they would be unjustified in protecting Hitler, then I would engage in contradiction if I acted according to that maxim. Yet I hold that Hitler's benefactors are not justified by my maxim, because they cannot provide any reasonable argument showing that Hitler is innocent and that he does not deserve to be captured.

The problem isn't Kant's Categorical Imperative, the problem is that he was sometimes incorrect about what it implies.

P.S. I agree with your main point of avoiding straw men in discussions simply because they were advanced by famous, but discredited, philosophical arguments, unless the author thinks that there is something particularly illuminating about doing so.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 02 April 2009 03:41:53AM *  4 points [-]

The problem isn't Kant's Categorical Imperative, the problem is that he was sometimes incorrect about what it implies.

The problem with the Categorical Imperative is that it is sufficiently vague that it implies anything you want it to. You can (almost?) always make the "maxim" of your action specific enough to make your action permissible, for example:

I want to kill my professor for giving me a bad grade, so here's my maxim: If you were born on November 1, 1985, are white, have short brown hair, are wearing a black Tool t-shirt and Simpson's pajama pants, and got a D in your world lit class due to attendance despite acing the tests, papers, and finals, you can kill your professor.

Can this be willed as a universal law without contradiction? I certainly can't find a contradiction.

I remember in my advanced logic class, taught by the philosophy department, a latter section of the book formalized the golden rule into a logical system, i.e., do unto others as you would have them do unto you in the same situation. In other words, be consistent. I never worked through that chapter, but I read through the setup and the whole system suffered from a vagueness similar to Kant's: when does a situation count as "the same?" As far as I could tell, everything was moral because no two real life situations could be the same - surely something in the universe moved somewhere. Maybe just an atom.

Btw, yes I really did get a D in world lit because of attendance, and no, I'm not really that upset about it. It was a couple of years ago, after all.

Comment author: Larks 16 August 2009 02:40:57PM *  5 points [-]

I want to kill my professor for giving me a bad grade, so here's my maxim: If you were born on November 1, 1985 ... you can kill your professor.

The answer I heard somewhere was that this line of reasoning was an application of the meta-maxim 'I will invent highly specific maxims to allow me to do whatever I want', which itself cannot be willed as a universal law without contradiction.

Edit: alternatively, the CI was intended to be a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. (disclaimer: I haven't read much Kant in the origional)

Comment author: Demosthenes 02 April 2009 04:52:21PM 5 points [-]

In the Robin Hanson tradition, whenever I think that I have figured out a flaw in Kant's reasoning, I halt, recognize that he lived until he was 79 and spent everyday of his life thinking about these sorts of things and taking long walks. It is good to question him, but also to be humble and research any extant rebuttals to one's own argument.

There is a good overview of Kant here: http://www.trinity.edu/cbrown/intro/Kant_ethics.html

and more at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Kant had a peculiar obsession with what rational and reasoning actors would choose to do and what would happen if all people say rationality and reason as definitive tools. Why there is so much resistance to delving into Kant in the Less Wrong community is beyond me.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 02 April 2009 06:21:59PM 2 points [-]

Why there is so much resistance to delving into Kant in the Less Wrong community is beyond me.

For one, Kant wasn't relevant to the original topic of discussion - no one was arguing from Kant's position. Also, I think most people on here agree that Kant was wrong. In more ways than one. Thus debating Kant is pretty much a dead end.

Comment author: Demosthenes 02 April 2009 08:35:58PM 5 points [-]

There's a proverb I failed to Google, which runs something like, "Once someone is known to be a liar, you might as well listen to the whistling of the wind." You wouldn't want others to expect you to lie, if you have something important to say to them; and this issue cannot be wholly decoupled from the issue of whether you actually tell the truth. If you'll lie when the fate of the world is at stake, and others can guess that fact about you, then, at the moment when the fate of the world is at stake, that's the moment when your words become the whistling of the wind.

-from Eliezer's quoted article Here

I don't know if you read the entire body of my comment bringing up Kant, but it rests on asking if there was a similarity in Eliezer's argument and Kants with a question mark at the end.

Both Eliezer and Kant seem to think that this abstract thing called "trust" suffers when individuals choose to lie for their own purposes. Both of them suggest that individuals who believe this would benefit from adopting a maxim that they should not lie.

Eliezer states in the comments that you can lie to people who aren't part of your community of rational or potentially rational individuals.

Kant says that you can't lie to people, even if they aren't part of your club.

You don't need the CI to reach either of these conclusions; the comment points out that you could do this on Utilitarian grounds. Utilitarian reasoning might even support Kants "don't like to anyone ever" over Eliezer's conceptions.

As for arguing Kant leading to a dead end, there is plenty of contemporary philosophy that still uses a lot of Kant and even NPOV Wikipedia has a section detailing Kant in contemporary philosophy.

Also, I think most people on here agree that Kant was wrong. In more ways than one. Thus debating Kant is pretty much a dead end.

I am always of the mind that saying that someone's assumptions are wrong doesn't lead to their argument having no value ever for any future discussion. In this particular case we got to use a Kantian thought experiment to talk about what looks like a variation on Kantian logic. I'm sorry I used the K word.

The idea of everyone on LW believing that Kant was almost totally wrong and that we should completely discard him is a little unsettling to me. There is a much larger community out there that accepts elements of Kant's arguments and methods and still applies them; I would again push a Robin Hanson line by suggesting that most rationalists are elsewhere and we should work harder to find them.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 03 April 2009 04:20:50AM 0 points [-]

With regard to whether Kant was relevant, I quote the article we are commenting on:

The problem with bringing up Kant here is that he simply doesn't belong. "Don’t [lie] to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires, because they’re Nazis or whatever," is very different from Kant saying (paraphrasing), "Never lie, ever, or else you're a bad person." An argument against the former by conflating it with the latter doesn't accomplish anything. Further, there's no mention of all the stuff Kant has to assume in order to argue for the Categorical Imperative and, finally, the value of radical honesty.

In other words, I agree with Andrew's criticism of you (among others) for bring up Kant in the first place. He simply didn't belong.

...there is plenty of contemporary philosophy that still uses a lot of Kant and even NPOV Wikipedia has a section detailing Kant in contemporary philosophy.

First, I should be clear, I was only talking about Kant's ethics. My fault for not making that more clear to begin with. However, I don't think this counts much in Kant's favor because there is plenty of contemporary philosophy still using ideas from Plato or Aquinas, even when they are pretty clearly wrong (metaphysical realism, anyone? How about agent causation?).

There may be something worthwhile in Kant, but I'm rather skeptical. Given what Kant I've already read, I think my efforts are better spent elsewhere. If you think there is something worthwhile in Kant, then by all means, tell us about it. It may make a good post here.

Comment author: ciphergoth 02 April 2009 10:51:15PM 0 points [-]

It's not Kant everyone's chucking out - it's deontological ethics, in favour of consequentialism. If I could only get the world to pick up one rationalist lesson, I would like them to shut up and multiply.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 24 March 2012 07:28:46AM 0 points [-]

In matters of morality (as opposed to law, In matters of morality (as opposed to law), the important thing is to follow correct principles, not to find technicalities. As soon as someone writes on the bottom line "X is a moral act", where X is what he/she happens to want to do at the moment, any further "moral reasoning" is just self-deception. Any reasonable person can tell that such an incredibly specific situation is useless for forming a categorical imperative. The fact that the idea of a categorical imperative breaks down when it is so vaguely specified is strong evidence against that particular implementation of it, but only weak evidence against the concept as a whole. It would require more work to define a standard of reasonableness for what situations can and can't be generalized before one can say whether the categorical imperative does or doesn't make sense.

That said, I suspect that if one starts with a naive categorical imperative like Matt expresses above and iteratively finds and patches flaws, one will eventually converge towards consequentialism. I could be proven wrong about this, though.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 02 April 2009 12:08:16AM 1 point [-]

The problem is that Kant lies about his approach's implications and that no-one else can agree on anyone else as to what they are in any useful manner.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 April 2009 03:17:26AM 2 points [-]

"Cooperate in the Prisoner's Dilemma" is probably one of them, although it's hard to apply it directly to anything other than game theory problems.

See also: Superrationality

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2012 08:35:12AM *  -1 points [-]

Kant's Categorical Imperative, the classical Golden Rule, and Hofstadter's superrationality all seem to me to be reflections of the same observation: Ethics rests on an algebraic symmetry among agents.

(I don't have the philosophical or mathematical skill to formalize this. I recognize that this may make me sound like — or be — a crank on the subject. Sorry about that.)

The concept of morality doesn't make sense without multiple agents. If your model of the world doesn't include other entities of the same kind as you — but who are not you ­— then moral reasoning leads quite logically to sociopathy. If you are the only real agent, or for that matter if the universe is a dialogue between your unique soul and Almighty God, then reasoning about morality is nonsense. It is only because there are multiple agents who each are capable of influencing the others' outcomes that morality makes any sense at all to talk about.

Possibly the most dramatic example of this symmetry I've seen is Eliezer's True Prisoners' Dilemma which shows that the symmetry can exist even between agents that do not share any object-level values. If you believe the paperclip-maximizer in the True Prisoners' Dilemma is a rational agent that models the world as containing other rational agents symmetric to itself (but with different values), then you cooperate, because you're not deciding between four possible outcomes; the symmetry means you're deciding between (C,C) and (D,D).

(It's not a matter of judging whether you implement the same algorithm as the other guy. It's a matter of judging whether you're in the same situation as the other guy, and that you correctly appraise this, and recognize that the other guy correctly appraises it, and so on recursively.)

Kant's approach seems to be partly based on the idea of an equilibrium: acting on a rule that treats others as mere means is self-undermining; treating others as ends is the only winning choice if those others are also rational. It also seems to me that reflexive decision theories aim at a more axiomatic reflection of this same principle, by explicitly incorporating the notion that agents model other agents' behavior.

Evolution has encoded into humankind an instinct for recognizing agentiness. This instinct is buggy as hell; it is much more sensitive than specific. It sees agentiness in non-agenty crap like the weather — "Hey you! Rain agent! Here, have a chicken ... now, come rain on my crops, please!" — and if you draw two dots and a horizontal line beneath them, it sees the face of an agent. However, it is by dint of recognizing that the world contains other agents like ourselves, who also in turn recognize this fact, that humans are able to cooperate for mutual benefit in a way which other apes and mammals are not.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 01 April 2009 09:02:21PM 23 points [-]

This is what annoys me about most philosophy teaching. They don't actually teach philosophy: they teach the history of philosophy, with a person-centric focus.

Imagine if math teaching, say, was the same, with as much time spent memorizing who came up with each theorem as the theorems and their application themselves.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 02 April 2009 08:09:11AM 5 points [-]

Actually, the part about math class I disliked the most was how devoid of history and theory it was. Most of my math classes in college covered only techniques for solving certain kind of problems. Nowhere did they explain why something is done a certain way or how someone discovered it could be done that way. Instead, it was definition, application, proof, etc...

Comment author: MichaelVassar 02 April 2009 12:05:49AM 9 points [-]

I actually think that math teaching might work better if people spent time learning who though what as a result of asking what questions and how they first conceptualized their insights by building on what else.

Memorizing anything anywhere ever except as practice for understanding how memory works is always an indication that something has gone wrong however.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 02 April 2009 04:05:56AM 9 points [-]

Do you mean "being made to explicitly work at memorizing is always bad, because you should pick up the important parts in the course of doing natural work"?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 April 2009 03:33:52PM 6 points [-]

Memorizing anything anywhere ever except as practice for understanding how memory works is always an indication that something has gone wrong however.

I agree. I can't recall the last time I had to work on directly memorizing something, after the poetry assignments in high school. In all the other instances, the memorization occurs in the course of understanding the material, thinking or reading in terms of new concepts. This applies even to language learning, where the new words are learned in course of reading with a dictionary (if you are not in a hurry). The concepts learned this way can always be tabooed without hurting the knowledge.

Comment author: Cyan 02 April 2009 03:00:13AM *  5 points [-]

I take it you've never studied biochemistry at the senior undergrad level. Evolution doesn't produce easily systematizable components down at the level of proteins and other macromolecules of like size. I can't think of a workable alternative to giving things more-or-less arbitrary names and requiring people to memorize them so as to have a common language.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 02 April 2009 03:44:37AM 4 points [-]

Can you imagine a successful computer programmer who was constantly looking up the syntax of the language they were programming in? Memorization is damn near essential.

Comment author: JGWeissman 02 April 2009 06:46:49PM 7 points [-]

I expect a good computer programmer to be effective in a language he has not seen before by looking up the syntax as he needs it, and to increase his effectiveness over time by learning the syntax through use, without any specific effort of memorization. At least, provided the novel language is good.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 02 April 2009 09:21:03PM 2 points [-]

Good point. Now that you frame things in terms of how knowledge is acquired, the only thing I'm glad to have memorized is math facts in elementary school. But they have been pretty helpful!

Comment author: pjeby 02 April 2009 03:30:59AM 4 points [-]

Memorizing anything anywhere ever except as practice for understanding how memory works is always an indication that something has gone wrong however.

So, how else do you suggest people learn to speak, read and write?

Comment author: Cyan 02 April 2009 03:47:47AM 4 points [-]

I'll give you reading and writing, but learning to speak isn't memorizing any more than subitizing is counting.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 02 April 2009 02:43:39AM 4 points [-]

Memorizing is always bad? That seems obviously wrong to me.

Comment author: Annoyance 02 April 2009 05:49:11PM 1 point [-]

Most science classes aren't about practicing science, but memorizing science that's already done. Most math classes are the same way.

If you're not going to be extending math theory, is remaining ignorant of the process really a detriment?

Comment author: JGWeissman 02 April 2009 07:14:16PM 2 points [-]

Understanding the process of extending math theory is essential if you want to be able to tell the difference between being led down a good path and being led down a bad path.

If all you do is memorize theorems without understanding their proofs, you can memorize false theorems and not know the difference until, maybe, a contradiction hits you over the head and demands attention.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 24 March 2012 07:55:13AM 0 points [-]

Checking a solution is often a lot easier than generating an original solution. If you are not going to be generating original solutions, I would guess that there are better uses of your time than learning how to. In my schooling in general (at middle school and higher level), I was generally annoyed that most subjects were taught with the assumption that you were going to become a practitioner of that subject, rather than simply a user. Naturally, every teacher thinks their subject is the most important in the world (why else would they have chosen it?), but most of their students do not see it that way. I would have been far better off learning how to communicate effectively rather than psychoanalyzing literature, just as those bound for non-quantitative careers would have been better off learning the math they need to keep their finances in order than constructing geometric proofs.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 April 2009 06:14:35PM 1 point [-]

Even high school geometry requires you to construct your own proofs.

Comment author: Larks 16 August 2009 02:35:40PM 2 points [-]

It may be different abroad, but in the UK state system, we were never taught the idea of a proof untill sixth form (age 16-18).

Comment author: Annoyance 02 April 2009 06:25:41PM -1 points [-]

Most people hate geometry and not only promptly forget it once they're out of the class but develop an aversion to it.

Also, there's barely any historical discussion of how the geometrical results were first found, with a few colorful anecdotes as exceptions.

Knowing how to construct a proof has nothing to do with knowing how the ancient Greeks viewed geometry. Knowing how to solve a math problem has nothing to do with knowing how the method was originally worked out.

Comment author: CCC 23 October 2012 05:58:06PM 1 point [-]

When I was in school, we were given proofs of certain geometry theorems, and we were told that we might have to prove the same theorems in the exam. Most of my classmates simply memorised the proof as given; since I'm better at on-the-spot analysis than at memorisation, I used to re-prove the theorems from basic principles instead. The result of this was that my proof, while (usually) correct, would look nothing like everyone else's proofs. Because of this, the maths teachers would have to actually evaluate my proofs step by step, instead of simply ticking off the well-recognised general proof. Apparently this makes marking slower.

This implies that there may be some pressure from the teachers for memory-learning, as it leads to easier marking.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 02 April 2009 10:00:04PM 0 points [-]

Memorization is necessary, though it is certainly overemphasized in certain academic contexts. For example, good math teachers know that memorizing multiplication tables and working to improve the speed of recall frees working memory to deal with higher level concepts. Of course it is also important that kids are simultaneously being taught what multiplication represents. I've seen teachers err on both sides of the memorization vs. exploration/conceptual development fence. - Wow, its rare to catch Vassar in an over-generalization!

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 April 2009 10:34:23PM *  7 points [-]

What bugs me about philosophy teaching is that it teaches that philosophy is useless. Every philosophy curriculum starts with a lecture on "Why study philosophy?" No one suggests in these lectures that the answers found in philosophy should affect the way you act (or the way you vote). No; they are to be fun, or satisfy your curiousity about "the big questions", or teach you how to think and critically analyze claims (even though they often involve no critical analysis!)

Comment author: Jack 01 April 2009 10:26:15PM 3 points [-]

I must have had some of the better philosophy teachers then.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 02 April 2009 03:47:48AM 2 points [-]

I think part of the reason philosophy is taught this way is that very little is settled in the field. So in order to teach philosophy at all you have to go back to someone's views. Makes for a great field for status mongers, all else equal (is philosophy actually worse than the rest of academia in this regard? How about just in comparison to, say, physics or economics?) .

Comment author: JulianMorrison 01 April 2009 09:31:24PM 2 points [-]

Crazily enough, physics teaching does seem to be a bit like this.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 April 2009 10:20:01PM 14 points [-]

We like our physicists to be heroic figures, and our mathematicians to shut up and multiply.

20th-century physics is taught as a series of historical events, taking you through intermediate steps; because if you taught someone relativity and quantum mechanics without explaining the experimental data and the different ways that were tried of reconciling them that failed, they wouldn't believe you.

Comment author: MBlume 01 April 2009 10:57:20PM 8 points [-]

because if you taught someone relativity and quantum mechanics without explaining the experimental data and the different ways that were tried of reconciling them that failed, they wouldn't believe you.

I like this, I'd never thought of it that way. Griffiths also justifies taking a somewhat historical approach by claiming it as a hack for the student's brain -- that our minds are built to process stories, to process narratives, and so by introducing each particle one at a time, through the events that led to its discovery, he can better fix the identity of that particle in the student's mind.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 02 April 2009 03:46:57AM 3 points [-]

Yep. If you can make learning into a story, question, or game, it becomes easier and more fun.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 24 March 2012 07:43:18AM 0 points [-]

The story hack seems very hit-or-miss. For some students, the progression from the plum pudding model to the Bohr model to quantum mechanics is an engaging story that helps them understand the fundamentals of chemistry. Personally, these stories just made me tune out and wonder when they would get around to teaching me something useful.

That said, in scientific fields that are less well-developed, I think the historical experiments approach really adds to learning. It would be a lot harder to grok the psychology of authority without learning about the Milgram obedience study.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 02 April 2009 12:07:21AM 6 points [-]

At Drexler my wife had the misfortune to get a physics teacher who just taught physics results, no experiments, narrative, history etc. Useless and worse than useless. He did real damage.

Comment author: komponisto 02 April 2009 12:38:27AM 9 points [-]

On the other hand, the usual, historical approach to teaching quantum mechanics is far from optimal.

Comment author: Andrew 02 April 2009 01:20:20AM -1 points [-]

"We like our physicists to be heroic figures, and our mathematicians to shut up and multiply."

Ahahahaha! I'll have to remember that one.

Comment author: MBlume 01 April 2009 09:50:15PM 1 point [-]

I must've had some of the better physics teachers then.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 23 October 2012 05:46:00PM 0 points [-]

This may vary with country. I know philosophy teaching in the UK isn't like this, but have heard it as a criticism of the way it is taught in America (A friend doing a semester abroad at a US institution once despaired that the final exam included the question "when was Descartes meditations published").

Comment author: Jack 01 April 2009 10:25:41PM 10 points [-]

"One of the annoying things about philosophy is that the dead simply don't die. Once a philosopher or philosophical doctrine gains some celebrity in the community, it's very difficult to convince anyone afterward that said philosopher or doctrine was flawed. In other words, the philosophical community tends to have problems with relinquishment. Therefore, there are still many philosophers that spend their careers studying, for example, Plato, apparently not with the intent to determine what parts of what Plato wrote are correct or still applicable, but rather with the intent to defend Plato from criticism. To prove Plato was right."

I don't know what kind of background you have in philosophy but in my experience this is just wrong. There is not a single philosopher in my department that fits this description and I have never met anyone who does. I'm not even sure where you get this perception. Its true that past philosophers are routinely referenced but this is just because its sometimes easier to use the concepts of ones predecessors rather than reinvent the wheel. But read any metaphysics written in the last fifty years and and you'll find dead philosophers are only used to refer to common positions or as less wrong theories that make decent jumping off points for better theories.

Comment author: MBlume 02 April 2009 12:51:39AM 6 points [-]

This is interesting, because the "dead simply don't die" problem definitely exists in the popular perception. If you ask a man on the street to name a philosopher, you're much more likely to get Plato or Socrates than Kant, or Nietzsche, or Dennett. This is in stark contrast to physics, where (I imagine) "name a physicist" would get you Einstein, Hawking, or maybe Newton.

Comment author: thomblake 03 April 2009 05:16:08PM 2 points [-]

But one might argue that there wasn't anything properly called 'physics' before Newton - Bringing up Newton for Physics is isomorphic to bringing up Socrates for philosophy. Someone calling Aristotle a 'physicist' would be off-base, despite his having written a book called 'physics'.

Comment author: Andrew 02 April 2009 01:09:46AM 1 point [-]

I used Plato as an example of this because the first example that came to mind was classical philosophy, or at least the parts of it that aren't more properly philology.

I'm generalizing over my experiences at philosophy conferences, mainly in the Midwestern United States, and my reading of various philosophical journals. I'm basing my claim on, among other things, what seems to be the common practice of classifying some philosophers as for example "Kant scholars", "Continentals", etc. It's possible I'm wrong. I'm not a professional philosopher. I still think many philosophers think this way. That's where I get this perception.

Comment author: MBlume 01 April 2009 07:46:50PM 3 points [-]

This is more or less tangential to the main point of your post, with which I agree completely, but I wasn't so much defending a more reasonable view of honesty ("don't lie, except to nazis") as I was simply trying to contrast two different views ("don't lie, except to nazis" and "don't lie, ever, or you're a bad person") and trying to see where people thought the best line to draw was.

Comment author: Andrew 02 April 2009 01:23:23AM 0 points [-]

Sorry about that. I meant something along the lines of "MBlume quotes people who espouse other variants of radical honesty, and incidentally those variants are more feasible than Kant's." Didn't mean to imply that there was only one.

I'll rephrase when I get the chance.

Comment author: MBlume 02 April 2009 03:47:03AM 0 points [-]

Honestly, no worries =)

It was an awesome article, made a good point -- if I did anything to contribute to that, I'm glad of it.

Comment author: Demosthenes 01 April 2009 11:49:23PM *  2 points [-]

Did anyone say that they believed in Kant?

Actual comment thread (with context intact!): (http://lesswrong.com/lw/6w/degrees_of_radical_honesty/4jn?context=1#4jn)

We were talking about never lying; I copied a quotation from Constant's critique of Kant (they were explicitly discussing a version of the "Tell-the-Murderer" thought experiment) and then summarized Kant's negative response to Constant.

I'm not really sure why one wouldn't bring it up? We had two different conceptions of why you shouldn't lie in the main post. Eliezer's sounded a lot like Kant's, but then he said that you don't have to include everyone in the group of people you would never lie to. Kant specifically addresses this argument.

Next step....

Bring up Kant.

I would probably just add a comment that you disagree with Kant's assumptions to the chain and go on to state that this makes his argument of no use to us in the modern day and age.

I threw in the point that you could reconstruct his arguments as utilitarian critiques in the hope that someone might not just discount Kant and be done with it...c'est la vie.

For interested partires, there's plenty more out there (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/), but Kant is still relevant.

Comment author: Andrew 02 April 2009 02:38:46AM *  2 points [-]

I didn't intend to imply that you yourself believe in Kant. Sorry.

As for why one shouldn't bring him up, it's because it might prime others in the argument to treat the original variants as similar or equivalent to Kant's position. I think this could be a common problem, and I felt others should be more aware of it.

I don't discount Kant completely. The Kant-Laplace hypothesis is probably correct.

Comment author: Demosthenes 02 April 2009 03:10:31AM 3 points [-]

I was just a little put off that you used me as an example of pulling Kant in when he doesn't apply: I took some care to keep Kant within Kant's domain and ask for specifics about how EY's OB position differed.

Most of your post is dedicated to refuting Kant's assumptions... that would have answer part of my questions in the other post ... but does it necessarily follow that he is pulled in to make one's opponents into straw men?

The discussion could have used some Kant and I am really do not agree that he does not apply.

In regard to why one shouldn't bring him up, you seem to suggest that Plato really was right after all:

“Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?” “By no manner of means will we allow it.” “We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship [377c] over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject.”

Who are we protecting at LW? I think everyone here can tell the difference between EY, The Black Belt Bayesian and Kant on most issues, but from time to time I like a little clarification.

Comment deleted 01 April 2009 06:41:57PM [-]
Comment author: AlexU 02 April 2009 05:08:41AM *  0 points [-]

I have trouble seeing why radical honesty should be seen as a virtue by default. It's fairly clear that radical honesty doesn't necessarily promote happiness. From a utilitarian perspective, then, it should be value-neutral.

I personally place a high value on having true beliefs. More than most people. However, I'm not sure I'd value true beliefs over my own happiness. If I were a devout Christian, for example, and derived a great amount of comfort from my faith, I'm not sure I'd want someone to convince me otherwise. Given that most people will value true beliefs even less than I do, I'd find it even harder to justify convincing others of God's non-existence. That's imposing my own value judgments upon others, often to the detriment of their happiness. Studies have shown that depressed people are more likely to have accurate beliefs than happy people. If there's a causal connection between the two, what are we to make of radical honesty?

Similarly, one also finds that practicing radical honesty in the social sphere is unlikely to win one many friends, and will in fact piss a lot of people off. Little white lies are what grease many of our most important social interactions. What's to be gained by a policy of radical honesty in that domain?

Radical honesty is a chief virtue in science and academia, of course; maybe the chief virtue. But to apply that norm to the world at large is to ignore basic facts of human psychology and social interaction.