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Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant

61 Post author: lukeprog 06 December 2012 12:42AM

Part of the sequence: Rationality and Philosophy

Hitherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong, so that few people with exact minds have taken up the subject.

Bertrand Russell

 

I've complained before that philosophy is a diseased discipline which spends far too much of its time debating definitions, ignoring relevant scientific results, and endlessly re-interpreting old dead guys who didn't know the slightest bit of 20th century science. Is that still the case?

You bet. There's some good philosophy out there, but much of it is bad enough to make CMU philosopher Clark Glymour suggest that on tight university budgets, philosophy departments could be defunded unless their work is useful to (cited by) scientists and engineers — just as his own work on causal Bayes nets is now widely used in artificial intelligence and other fields.

How did philosophy get this way? Russell's hypothesis is not too shabby. Check the syllabi of the undergraduate "intro to philosophy" classes at the world's top 5 U.S. philosophy departmentsNYU, Rutgers, Princeton, Michigan Ann Arbor, and Harvard — and you'll find that they spend a lot of time with (1) old dead guys who were wrong about almost everything because they knew nothing of modern logic, probability theory, or science, and with (2) 20th century philosophers who were way too enamored with cogsci-ignorant armchair philosophy. (I say more about the reasons for philosophy's degenerate state here.)

As the CEO of a philosophy/math/compsci research institute, I think many philosophical problems are important. But the field of philosophy doesn't seem to be very good at answering them. What can we do?

Why, come up with better philosophical methods, of course!

Scientific methods have improved over time, and so can philosophical methods. Here is the first of my recommendations...

 

More Pearl and Kahneman, less Plato and Kant

Philosophical training should begin with the latest and greatest formal methods ("Pearl" for the probabilistic graphical models made famous in Pearl 1988), and the latest and greatest science ("Kahneman" for the science of human reasoning reviewed in Kahneman 2011). Beginning with Plato and Kant (and company), as most universities do today, both (1) filters for inexact thinkers, as Russell suggested, and (2) teaches people to have too much respect for failed philosophical methods that are out of touch with 20th century breakthroughs in math and science.

So, I recommend we teach young philosophy students:

more Bayesian rationality, heuristics and biases, & debiasing, less informal "critical thinking skills";
more mathematical logic & theory of computation, less term logic;
more probability theory & Bayesian scientific method, less pre-1980 philosophy of science;
more psychology of concepts & machine learning, less conceptual analysis;
more formal epistemology & computational epistemology, less pre-1980 epistemology;
more physics & cosmology, less pre-1980 metaphysics;
more psychology of choice, less philosophy of free will;
more moral psychology, decision theory, and game theory, less intuitionist moral philosophy;
more cognitive psychology & cognitive neuroscience, less pre-1980 philosophy of mind;
more linguistics & psycholinguistics, less pre-1980 philosophy of language;
more neuroaesthetics, less aesthetics;
more causal models & psychology of causal perception, less pre-1980 theories of causation.

 

(In other words: train philosophy students like they do at CMU, but even "more so.")

So, my own "intro to philosophy" mega-course might be guided by the following core readings:

  1. Stanovich, Rationality and the Reflective Mind (2010)
  2. Hinman, Fundamentals of Mathematical Logic (2005)
  3. Russell & Norvig, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd edition, 2009) — contains chapters which briefly introduce probability theory, probabilistic graphical models, computational decision theory and game theory, knowledge representation, machine learning, computational epistemology, and other useful subjects
  4. Sipser, Introduction to the Theory of Computation (3rd edition, 2012) — relevant to lots of philosophical problems, as discussed in Aaronson (2011)
  5. Howson & Urbach, Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach (3rd edition, 2005)
  6. Holyoak & Morrison (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (2012) — contains chapters which briefly introduce the psychology of knowledge representation, concepts, categories, causal learning, explanation, argument, decision making, judgment heuristics, moral judgment, behavioral game theory, problem solving, creativity, and other useful subjects
  7. Dolan & Sharot (eds.), Neuroscience of Preference and Choice (2011)
  8. Krane, Modern Physics (3rd edition, 2012) — includes a brief introduction to cosmology

(There are many prerequisites to these, of course. I think philosophy should be a Highly Advanced subject of study that requires lots of prior training in maths and the sciences, like string theory but hopefully more productive.)

Once students are equipped with some of the latest math and science, then let them tackle The Big Questions. I bet they'd get farther than those raised on Plato and Kant instead.

You might also let them read 20th century analytic philosophy at that point — hopefully their training will have inoculated them from picking up bad thinking habits.

 

Previous post: Philosophy Needs to Trust Your Rationality Even Though It Shouldn't

 

 

Comments (510)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 04 December 2012 07:39:00PM 37 points [-]

Luke, do you have any ideas how to reform philosophy education and professional practice without antagonizing a lot of current professional philosophers and their students and having the debate degenerate into a blue-vs-green tribal fight? Or more generally see much chance of success for such an attempt? If not, maybe you should reframe your posts (or at least future ones) as being aimed at amateur philosophers, autodidacts, CS and math majors interested in doing FAI research, and the like?

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:05:13AM 11 points [-]

maybe you should reframe your posts (or at least future ones) as being aimed at amateur philosophers, autodidacts, CS and math majors interested in doing FAI research, and the like?

Yes, this is my intention. I don't think I can reform how philosophy is taught at universities quickly enough to make a difference. My purpose, then, is to help "amateur philosophers, autodidacts, CS and math majors interested in doing FAI research" so that they can become better philosophical thinkers outside the university system, and avoid being mind-poisoned by a standard philosophical education.

Comment author: Bugmaster 06 December 2012 03:29:43AM 6 points [-]

What is your strategy for doing this, other than posting articles on Less Wrong ?

Comment author: lukeprog 28 December 2012 03:44:36AM 5 points [-]

Hundreds of hours of personal conversation with promising people. Also, Louie is putting together a list of classes to take at various universities.

Comment author: Bugmaster 28 December 2012 01:11:17PM 2 points [-]

Hundreds of hours of personal conversation with promising people.

I don't think this approach scales very well. Though I may be overestimating the number of people who are interested in philosophy as well as capable of doing FAI research.

Also, Louie is putting together a list of classes to take at various universities.

This approach will scale a lot better, but it is riskier. Presumably, these specific classes will help the student to "avoid being mind-poisoned by a standard philosophical education"; but what if the students enjoy the course, and end up diving head-first into the standard philosophical education, after all ?

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 December 2012 12:52:02PM 10 points [-]

I don't think I can reform how philosophy is taught at universities quickly enough to make a difference.

Quickly enough? You think you can do it all??

Comment author: thomblake 06 December 2012 08:06:15PM 2 points [-]

Quickly enough? You think you can do it all??

Of course. Do you think it's impossible, or that there's a task Luke isn't up to? The first seems intuitively more plausible to me than the second.

Comment author: Peterdjones 07 December 2012 11:05:16AM 0 points [-]

I think it's a task Luke isn't up to. To single-handedly reform teaching like that you would have to be a renowned philosopher or educationalist, a Dewey or Erasmus, not a twenty-something blogger. His understanding of philosophy is barely up to undergraduate level. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

Comment author: thomblake 07 December 2012 03:17:59PM 3 points [-]

To single-handedly reform teaching like that you would have to be a renowned philosopher or educationalist

You pointed out that Luke has not started trying to do X, as evidence that he wouldn't be up to the task of doing X. You don't seem to understand how to do things.

When you want to accomplish a major goal, you need to do a lot of other things first. You need to get clear on what your goal is. You need to do research and accumulate the prerequisite knowledge. You need to accumulate any necessary resources. You probably need to put together a team. You may need to invent some new technologies.

I have absolutely no doubt that if he wanted to, Luke could do all the prerequisite steps and then reform Philosophy. If your hypothesis is correct, he'd in the process become a renowned philosopher of education like Dewey.

Though I would not bet against him being able to pull it off as a twenty-something blogger.

Comment author: Kindly 07 December 2012 04:03:01PM *  5 points [-]

Most people could not single-handedly reform philosophy. There has to be some evidence that Luke is more capable of doing it than most people, or else we are quite sure he is not up to the task by default.

Comment author: thomblake 07 December 2012 04:29:35PM 2 points [-]

There has to be some evidence that Luke is more capable of doing it than most people

This is Luke Muehlhauser we're talking about.

Comment author: Kindly 07 December 2012 04:34:12PM *  5 points [-]

Okay, and that's an argument; one which has... uh... interesting validity. I'm not sure how to condition on Alicorn's dinner parties as evidence, though, so let's set that aside for now. Would you say, at least, that the fact I am not a renowned philosopher is sufficient to conclude, pending further evidence, that I'm incapable of reforming philosophy?

Edit: in the interests of maintaining my anonymity, let's assume for the sake of argument that I am not, in fact, a renowned philosopher; this should not be taken as indicative of my actual status in the philosophy world one way or the other.

Comment author: alfredmacdonald 15 December 2012 03:48:28PM 1 point [-]

His understanding of philosophy is barely up to undergraduate level. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

I feel like the phrasing "barely up to undergraduate level" is like saying something is "basic" or "textbook" not when it's actually basic or textbook but because it insinuates there is an ocean of knowledge that your opponent has yet to cross. If luke is "barely undergraduate" then I know a lot of philosophy undergrads who might as well not call themselves that.

While I agree that reform is far more likely to be done by a Dewey or Erasmus, your reasoning gives me a very "you must be accepted into our system if you want to criticize it" vibe.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 December 2012 08:10:37PM 1 point [-]

The former is definitely possible, given that it's almost continuously actual. Philosophical education is reformed all the time. The latter will be difficult for Luke to do directly, just because accomplishing the reform comes down to convincing philosophers to do things differently, and philosophers are unlikely to be exposed to Luke's work. And, has been mentioned, Luke's writings on the subject are not presently set up to convince philosophers.

Comment author: thomblake 06 December 2012 08:29:09PM 2 points [-]

I think the counterfactual under consideration was where Luke actually tries. That his writings are not presently set up for that is just arguing with the setup of the thought experiment.

Comment author: Peterdjones 07 December 2012 11:06:00AM 1 point [-]

philosophers are unlikely to be exposed to Luke's work.

Do you think they would find it convincing if they were?

Comment author: undermind 06 December 2012 03:07:27AM 1 point [-]

I still don't see this as sufficiently different from a blue-green tribal fight - there's a lot of "quantitative/Bayesian approaches are the way to go, and everyone else sucks". By targeting everyone who is not an established philosopher, you're just demonstrating that you're smart enough to make this divide along generational lines (which is, as Kuhn tells us, how new paradigms succeed).

Comment author: id10t 08 December 2012 05:20:45PM 1 point [-]

I appreciate your sentiment; I'm one of those people who actually got an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. Ivory tower thinking has been detrimental to philosophy but the changes your purposing would destroy philosophy education as its been practiced for well over 2000 years.

Maybe you think that's a good thing, having been through the education I do not. Philosophy, or rather the study of old dead philosophers, is not for the sake of their ideas but for the developing of a thought paradigm. The course you would be creating is not philosophy, instead it is something more akin to, "How does science explain reality?"

Moreover, most disciplines were birthed in philosophy, eventually becoming its own discipline and there there's the whole philosopher-mathematician love affair because two have been linked pretty closely for awhile . There's a reason why you get a PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy).

So in essence, you went and cherry-picked stupid abstracts to prove your point. Yes, there are many ivory-tower philosophers who are adding nothing to our knowledge base. But no, the answer is not to sink the ship.

Go spend three months with Hegel's Phenomonolgy of Spirit; it won't change how you view the world but it'll sharpen your mind; same goes for Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Comment author: ChristianKl 06 December 2012 10:12:52PM 2 points [-]

Georgetown University is a prestigious university. They "reformed" medicine education by introducing a new 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine(CAM)'-program in 2003.

Most mainstream medicine professors don't like alternative medicine. They still didn't succeed in blocking the CAM program. The CAM people didn't get their program by avoiding to antagonize mainstream medicine.

LessWrong is filled with a bunch very smart people and highly skilled people in their mid twenties. In one or two decades there a good chance that a fair number of those people are in positions of power. Maybe not enough power to get every university to teach all philosophy courses this way, but enough power to get a few university to make courses to teach philosophy that way.

In a decade Singularity University might be a bigger institution that opens a philosophy bachlor program that teaches philosophy according to the way Luke proposes.

Just because there no way to get such a philosophy program in the next five years, doesn't mean that it's an impossible long-term goal. Trying to avoid to antagonize the establishment is a bad strategy when you to create bigger changes in society.

Comment author: Vaniver 06 December 2012 10:36:37PM 4 points [-]

Trying to avoid to antagonize the establishment is a bad strategy when you to create bigger changes in society.

A better way to put this is "listen to your supporters, not your enemies." When you want big changes, the establishment will often be your enemy, but it is rarely sensible to assume that they will be.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 December 2012 12:36:09AM *  1 point [-]

A better way to put this is "listen to your supporters, not your enemies."

I don't think so. In this case it's more: "Say what you consider to be right, regardles of what other people say." Don't tone down your message because it might annoy the establishment. Don't focus on saying what's popular.

I don't think lukeprog wrote the post because being anti-academic philosophy is hip on LessWrong. I don't think that should be his main consideration when he decides how he writes his posts.

If you focus on saying stuff that might give you a tactical advantage in the moment instead of focusing on having a meaningful message, you are unlikely to say stuff with meaningful long-term impact.

Comment author: Vaniver 07 December 2012 01:27:54AM 3 points [-]

I don't think so. In this case it's more: "Say what you consider to be right, regardles of what other people say." Don't tone down your message because it might annoy the establishment. Don't focus on saying what's popular.

By "a better way to put this" I was referring to the insight of the underlying strategic consideration; good advice rarely takes the form of "don't take tactics into account, do what feels good." If your supporters are the type to be fired up by anti-establishment talk, then fire up your supporters; if you would do better with supporters in the establishment, then don't scare them away because you were harsher than you needed to be.

Compare "philosophers don't have their act together, this is what it would look like if they did" with "we're partnering with some professors to launch a MOOC on how to do philosophy from the LW perspective, starting with Pearl and Kahneman and focusing on how to dissolve questions."

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 05 December 2012 08:13:57AM *  3 points [-]

The most polite way would be to call it a new subset of philosophy, let's say "Scientific Philosophy" (or something else if this name is already taken), and then open Scientific Philosophy courses. Nobody would get offended by this.

On the other hand, it would give people easy opportunity to ignore it. They could just teach Philosophy as they did before... and perhaps include one useless short lecture on Scientific Philosophy just to show that: yeah, they heard about it.

Comment author: Strange7 06 December 2012 10:34:53PM 7 points [-]

Nobody would get offended by this.

Isn't that one of those things like "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance" which people traditionally say right before being horribly surprised?

Comment author: RobbBB 05 December 2012 08:54:08AM *  1 point [-]

'Most polite'? Suggesting that all other philosophical approaches are 'unscientific' is not very diplomatic. There's no need for new jargon; just call it what it is, a course in Critical Thinking. This solves the problem of 'philosophy' being a terribly ill-defined word to begin with, rather than compounding the problem with poorly-defined terms like 'experimental' or 'scientific.'

Comment author: diegocaleiro 06 December 2012 03:05:21AM -1 points [-]

No one wants to graduate a Critical Thinker.

Comment author: RobbBB 06 December 2012 04:33:48AM *  1 point [-]

Then that needs to change. I'm fine with coining new words for utilitarian purposes, but 'critical thought' is such a semantically transparent umbrella terms for all the things we want to promote — certainly its scope and significance is more immediately obvious than that of 'rationality,' 'philosophy,' 'science,' etc. — that it concerns me how hard rationalists sometimes work to avoid promoting that term. It's cheesier and less edgy in connotation than some of the other terms, but that mainstream valence works to our advantage in some contexts.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 06 December 2012 07:10:55AM *  1 point [-]

Critical thinking is like intrinsic motivation, a thing everyone wants but no one can effectively systematize.

(yet)

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 05 December 2012 08:37:58AM *  1 point [-]

It is already taken (see Reichenbach's The Rise of Scientific Philosophy), but it arguably means something very similar to what Luke seems to be advocating anyway (that is to say, it seems to be in the same direction that Carnap, Reichenbach, and some of the other logical empiricists were moving in after the mid-20th century), so I don't think it would be much of a problem.

Comment author: CarlShulman 04 December 2012 11:49:15PM *  1 point [-]

.

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 December 2012 04:47:34PM 2 points [-]

At first I interpreted this as some kind of meta-post-modernist-abstract-(insert buzzword) comment.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 05 December 2012 02:05:32AM 1 point [-]

This seems like an unavoidable problem with professional psychoanalysts. But philosophers are, up to certain age at least, willing to change their minds. It could be targeted at the first few years of undergrad. I've seen people change from "the dead old guys" to good stuff. Just give them a chance! And a figure of high status (Bostrom and Russell come to mind) to be inspired by.

Comment author: JonathanLivengood 07 December 2012 05:29:22AM *  28 points [-]

Provocative article. I agree that philosophers should be reading Pearl and Kahneman. I even agree that philosophers should spend more time with Pearl and Kahneman (and lots of other contemporary thinkers) than they do with Plato and Kant. But then, that pretty much describes my own graduate training in philosophy. And it describes the graduate training (at a very different school) received by many of the students in the department where I now teach. I recognize that my experience may be unusual, but I wonder if philosophy and philosophical training really are the way you think they are.

Bearing in mind that my own experiences may be quite unusual, I present some musings on the article nonetheless:

(1) You seem to think that philosophical training involves a lot of Aristotelian ideas (see your entries for "pre-1980 theories of causation" and "term logic"). In my philosophical education, including as an undergraduate, I took two courses that were explicitly concerned with Aristotle. Both of them were explicitly labeled as "history of philosophy" courses. Students are sometimes taught bits of Aristotelian (and Medieval) syllogistic, but those ideas are never, so far as I know, the main things taught in logic (as opposed to history) courses. In the freshman-level logic course that I teach, we build a natural deduction system up through first-order logic (with identity), plus a bit of simplified axiomatic set theory (extensionality, an axiom for the empty set instead of the axiom of comprehension, pairing, union, and power set), and a bit of probability theory for finite sample spaces (since I'm not allowed to assume that freshmen have had calculus). We cover Aristotle's logic in less than one lecture, as a note on categorical sentences when we get to first-order logic. And really, we only do that because it is useful to see that "Some Ss are Ps" is the negation of "No Ss are Ps," before thinking about how to solve probability problems like finding the probability of at least one six in three tosses of a fair die. Critical thinking courses are almost always service courses directed at non-philosophers.

(2) You seem to think that philosophers do a lot of conceptual analysis, rather than empirical work. In my own philosophy education, I was told that conceptual analysis does not work and that with perhaps the exception of Tarski's analysis of logical consequence, there have been no successful conceptual analyses of philosophically interesting concepts. Moreover, I had several classes -- classes where the concern was with how people think (either in general or about specific things) -- where we paid attention to contemporary psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. In fact, restricting attention to material assigned in philosophy classes I have taken, you would find more Kahneman and Tversky than you would Plato or Kant. And you would also find a lot of other psychologists and cognitive scientists, including Gopnik, Cheng, Penn, Povinelli, Sloman, Wolff, Marr, Gibson, Damasio, and so on and so forth. Graduate students in my department are generally distrustful of their own intuitions and look for empirical ways to get at concepts (when they even care about concepts). For example, one excellent student in my department, Zach Horne, has been thinking a bit about the analysis of knowledge (which is by no means the central problem in contemporary epistemology), but he's attacking the problem via experiments involving semantic integration. And I've done my own experimental work on the analysis of knowledge, though the experiments were not as clever.

(3) You seem to think that philosophy before 1980 (why that date??) is not sufficiently connected to actual science to be worth reading, and that this is mostly what philosophers read. Both are, I think, incorrect claims.

With respect to the first claim, there is lots of philosophical work before 1980 that is both closely engaged with contemporaneous science and amazingly useful to read. Take a look at Carnap's article on "Testability and Meaning," or his book on The Logical Foundations of Probability. Read through Reichenbach's book on The Direction of Time. These books definitely repay close reading. All of Russell's work was written before 1980 -- since he died in 1970! Wittgenstein's later work is enormously useful for preventing unnecessary disputes about words, but it was written before 1980. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, lots of scientific, mathematical, and statistical work from before 1980 is well worth reading today. Lots of the heuristics and biases literature from the '70s is still great to read. Savage's Foundations of Statistics is definitely worth reading today. As is lots of material from de Finetti, Good, Turing, Wright, Neyman, Simon, and many others. Feynman's The Character of Physical Law was a lecture series delivered in 1960. Is it past its expiration date? It's not the place to go for cutting edge physics, but I would highly recommend it as reading for an undergraduate. I might assign a chunk of it in my undergraduate philosophy of science course next semester. (Unless you convince me it's a really, really bad idea.) Why think that philosophical work ages worse than scientific work?

With respect to the second claim, you might be right with respect to undergraduate education. On the other hand, undergraduate physics education isn't a whole lot better (if any), is it? But with respect to graduate training, it seems to me that if one is interested in contemporary problems, rather than caring about the history of ideas, one reads primarily contemporary philosophers. In a typical philosophy course on causation, I would guess you read more of David Lewis than anyone. But that's not so bad, since Lewis' ideas are very closely connected to Pearl on the one hand and the dominant approaches to causal inference in statistics on the other. The syllabus and reading lists for the graduate seminar on causation that I am just wrapping up teaching are here, in case you want to see the way I approach teaching the topic. I'll just note that in my smallish seminar (about eight people -- six enrolled for credit) two people are writing on decision theory, two are writing on how to use causal Bayes nets to do counterfactual reasoning, and one is writing on the contextual unanimity requirement in probabilistic accounts of causation. Only one person is doing what might be considered an historical project.

Rather than giving a very artificial cut-off date, it seems to me we ought to be reading good philosophy from whenever it comes. Sometimes, that will mean reading old-but-good work from Bacon or Boole or (yes) Kant or Peirce or Carnap. And that is okay.

(4) You seem to endorse Glymour's recommendation that philosophy departments be judged based on the external funding they pull in. On the other hand, you say there should be less philosophical work (or training at least) on free will. As I pointed out the first time you mentioned Glymour's manifesto, there is more than a little tension here, since work on free will (which you and I and probably Glymour don't care about) does get external funding. (In any event, this is more than a little odd, since it typically isn't the way funding of university departments works in the humanities, anyway, where most funding is tied to teaching rather than to research and where most salaries are pathetically small in comparison with STEM counterparts.) Where I really agree with Glymour is in thinking that philosophy departments ought to be shelter for iconoclasts. But in that case, philosophy should be understood to be the discipline that houses the weirdos. We should then keep a look-out for good ideas coming from philosophy, since those rare gems are often worth quite a lot, but we also shouldn't panic when the discipline looks like it's run by a bunch of weirdos. In fact, I think this is pretty close to being exactly what contemporary philosophy actually is as a discipline.

I'm sure I could say a lot more, but this comment is already excessively long. Perhaps the take-away should be this. Set aside the question of how philosophy is taught now. I am receptive to teaching philosophy in a better way. I want the best minds to be studying and doing philosophy. (And if I can't get that, then I would at least like the best minds to see that there is value in doing philosophy even if they decide to spend their effort elsewhere.) If I can pull in the best people by learning and teaching more artificial intelligence or statistics or whatever, I'm game. I teach a lot of that now, but even if I didn't, I hope I would be more interested in inspiring people to learn and think and push civilization forward than in business as usual.

EDIT: I guess markdown language didn't like my numbering scheme. (I really wish we had a preview window for comments.)

Comment author: lukeprog 08 December 2012 11:38:19PM *  6 points [-]

But then, that pretty much describes my own graduate training in philosophy.

You did indeed have an unusual philosophical training. In fact, the head of your dissertation committee was a co-author with Glymour on the work that Pearl built on with Causality.

You seem to think that philosophical training involves a lot of Aristotelian ideas

Not really. Term logic is my only mention of Aristotle, and I know that philosophy departments focus on first-order logic and not term logic these days. Your training was not unusual in this matter. First-order logic training is good, which is why I said there should be more of it (as part of mathematical logic).

In my own philosophy education, I was told that conceptual analysis does not work and that with perhaps the exception of Tarski's analysis of logical consequence, there have been no successful conceptual analyses of philosophically interesting concepts.

Good, but this is not the norm. Machery was also on your dissertation committee; the author of Doing Without Concepts, a book I've previously endorsed to some degree.

1980 that is both closely engaged with contemporaneous science and amazingly useful to read

Of course. There are a few shining exemplars of scientific, formal philosophy prioer to 1980. That's what I recommended philosophers be trained with "less" pre-1980s stuff, not "no" pre-1980s stuff.

Comment author: JonathanLivengood 09 December 2012 12:52:28AM 9 points [-]

The head of your dissertation committee was a co-author with Glymour on the work that Pearl built on with Causality.

I was, in fact, aware of that. ;)

In the grand scheme of things, I may have had an odd education. However, it's not like I'm the only student that Glymour, Spirtes, Machery, and many of my other teachers have had. Basically every student who went through Pitt HPS or CMU's Philosophy Department had the same or deeper exposure to psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, causal Bayes nets, confirmation theory, etc. Either that, or they got an enormous helping of algebraic quantum field theory, gauge theory, and other philosophy of physics stuff.

You might argue that these are very unusual departments, and I am inclined to agree with you. But only weakly. If you look at Michigan or Rutgers, you find lots of people doing excellent work in decision theory, confirmation theory, philosophy of physics, philosophy of cognitive science, experimental philosophy, etc. A cluster of schools in the New York area -- all pretty highly ranked -- do the same things. So do schools in California, like Stanford, UC Irvine, and UCSD. My rough estimate is that 20-25% of all philosophical education at schools in Leiter's Top 25 is pretty similar to mine. Not a majority, but not a small chunk, either, given how much of philosophy is devoted to ethics. That is, of course, just an educated guess. I don't have a data-driven analysis of what philosophical training looks like, but then neither do you. Hence, I think we should be cautious about making sweeping claims about what philosophical training looks like. It might not look the way you think it looks, and from the inside, it doesn't seem to look the way you say it looks. Data are needed if we want to say anything with any kind of confidence.

Term logic is my only mention of Aristotle.

Your pre-1980s causation link goes to a subsection of the wiki on causality, which subsection is on Aristotle's theory of causation. The rest of the article is so ill-organized that I couldn't tell which things you meant to be pointing to. So, I defaulted to "Whatever the link first takes me to," which was Aristotle. Maybe you thought it went somewhere else or meant to be pointing to something else?

Anyway, I know I have a tendency only to criticize, where I should also be flagging agreement. I agree with a lot of what you're saying here and elsewhere. Don't forget that you have allies in establishment philosophy.

Comment author: lukeprog 09 December 2012 07:26:30AM 1 point [-]

I was, in fact, aware of that. ;)

Of course. I said it for the benefit of others. But I guess I should have said "As I'm sure you know..."

It might not look the way you think it looks, and from the inside, it doesn't seem to look the way you say it looks.

I think you might be reading too much into what I've claimed in my article. I said things like:

  • "Not all philosophy is this bad, but much of it is bad enough..." (not, e.g. "most philosophy is this bad")
  • "you'll find that [these classes] spend a lot of time with..." (not, e.g., "spend most of their time with...")
  • "More X... less Y..." (not, e.g., "X, not Y")

Your pre-1980s causation link goes to a subsection of the wiki on causality, which subsection is on Aristotle's theory of causation

No, the link goes to the "Western Philosophy" section (see the URL), the first subsection of which happens to be Aristotle.

Comment author: JonathanLivengood 09 December 2012 04:39:50PM 8 points [-]

You might be right that I'm reading too much into what you've written. However, I suspect (especially given the other comments in this thread and the comments on the reddit thread) that the reading "Philosophy is overwhelmingly bad and should be killed with fire," is the one that readers are most likely to actually give to what you've written. I don't know whether there is a good way to both (a) make the points you want to make about improving philosophy education and (b) make the stronger reading unlikely.

I'm curious: if you couldn't have your whole mega-course (which seems more like the basis for a degree program than the basis for a single course, really), what one or two concrete course offerings would you want to see in every philosophy program? I ask because while I may not be able to change my whole department, I do have some freedom in which courses I teach and how I teach them. If you are planning to cover this in more detail in upcoming posts, feel free to ignore the question here.

Also, I did understand what you were up to with the Spirtes reference, I just thought it was funny. I tried to imagine what the world would have had to be like for me to have been surprised by finding out that Spirtes was the lead author on Causation, Prediction, and Search, and that made me smile.

Comment author: lukeprog 10 December 2012 03:51:19PM *  4 points [-]

I don't know whether there is a good way to both (a) make the points you want to make about improving philosophy education and (b) make the stronger reading unlikely.

Yes; hopefully I can do better in my next post.

if you couldn't have your whole mega-course, ...what one or two concrete course offerings would you want to see in every philosophy program?

One course I'd want in every philosophy curriculum would be something like "The Science of Changing Your Mind," based on the more epistemically-focused stuff that CFAR is learning how to teach to people. This course offering doesn't exist yet, but if it did then it would be a course which has people drill the particular skills involved in Not Fooling Oneself. You know, teachable rationality skills: be specific, avoid motivated cognition, get curious, etc. — but after we've figured out how to teach these things effectively, and aren't just guessing at which exercises might be effective. (Why this? Because Philosophy Needs to Trust Your Rationality Even Though It Shouldn't.)

Though it doesn't yet exist, if such a course sounds as helpful to you as it does to me, then you could of course try to work with CFAR and other interested parties to try to develop such a course. CFAR is already working with Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter at Berkeley to develop some kind of course on rationality, though I don't have the details. I know CFAR president Julia Galef is particularly passionate about the relevance of trainable rationality skills to successful philosophical practice.

What about courses that could e.g. be run from existing textbooks? It is difficult to suggest entry-level courses that would be useful. Aaronson's course Philosophy and Theoretical Computer Science could be good, but it seems to require significant background in computability and complexity theory.

One candidate might be a course in probability theory and its implications for philosophy of science — the kind of material covered in the early chapters of Koller & Friedman (2009) and then Howson & Urbach (2005) (or, more briefly, Yudwkosky 2005).

Another candidate would be a course on experimental philosophy, perhaps expanding on Alexander (2012).

Comment author: JonathanLivengood 11 December 2012 04:50:30AM 4 points [-]

Though it doesn't yet exist, if such a course sounds as helpful to you as it does to me, then you could of course try to work with CFAR and other interested parties to try to develop such a course.

I am interested. Should I contact Julia directly or is there something else I should do in order to get involved?

Also, since you mention Alexander's book, let me make a shameless plug here: Justin Sytsma and I just finished a draft of our own introduction to experimental philosophy, which is under contract with Broadview and should be in print in the next year or so.

Comment author: lukeprog 11 December 2012 05:21:00AM 1 point [-]

I look forward to your book with Sytsma! Yes, contact Julia directly.

Comment author: army1987 07 December 2012 11:25:47AM 3 points [-]

(I really wish we had a preview window for comments.)

I second that.

Comment author: Peterdjones 07 December 2012 11:49:15AM *  0 points [-]

Excellent post overall.

But in that case, philosophy should be understood to be the discipline that houses the weirdos. We should then keep a look-out for good ideas coming from philosophy, since those rare gems are often worth quite a lot, but we also shouldn't panic when the discipline looks like it's run by a bunch of weirdos. In fact, I think this is pretty close to being exactly what contemporary philosophy actually is as a discipline.

I particularly agree with this part. The project of regimenting philosophy to conform to someone's ideas of correctness or meaningfullness or worth isn't just objectionably illiberal, although it is, it is counterporductive, because you need some disciple that houses the weirdos. If none of them do, then those leftfield ideas are going to slip through the cracks.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 December 2012 12:26:49PM *  20 points [-]

Hinman, Fundamentals of Mathematical Logic

It's a graduate level text; to benefit from it adequately, one should have at least a pure math undergraduate major worth of training, including the first courses in naive set theory and formal logic. A text that's too advanced for one's level risks confusing the reader, introducing intuitive misconceptions and giving the illusion of understanding, so it's better to read up on something much more basic. This book might be a long term goal that contributes to shaping the curriculum, but then it should be understood that there are at least 20 books before it on the reading list.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:14:46AM 7 points [-]

Right; many of my selections presume prior training. I do think philosophy should be a Highly Advanced subject of study that requires lots of prior training in maths and the sciences, like string theory but hopefully more productive.

Comment author: Benito 05 December 2012 07:26:22PM *  5 points [-]

Do you think you could offer a list of bottom-up books, that don't rely in much more than what you'd expect of a person before they start uni (and a basic programming ability)?

I know I was thinking of buying the afore mentioned book, but I'm roughly at the academic level I just described, and reviews seem to indicate that it (and the AI - Modern Approach) might need a bit more.

Edit: Or even, could you please indicate the sort of prior level required for your actual 'Intro to Philosophy Mega-Course'. I found that some books (I forget if they're from that list or the above bigger one) had very few helpful reviews on amazon or elsewhere, and I'm apprehensive in buying an expensive book I might not be able to use. Thanks.

Comment author: TsviBT 05 December 2012 07:39:28PM 2 points [-]

I've only read the first ~ten chapters, but AIMA is relatively accessible. It requires you to go at your own proper pace, and notice when you haven't fully comprehended something, but it doesn't assume too much background. If you aren't shy about googling/wikipedia-ing, you should be fine.

Comment author: thomblake 04 December 2012 04:52:24PM *  9 points [-]

Playing Devil's Advocate...

As Eliezer has argued, it would be greatly beneficial if science were kept secret. It would be wonderful if students had the opportunity to make scientific discoveries on their own, and being trained to think that way would greatly advance the rate of scientific progress. Making a scientific breakthrough would be something a practicing scientist would be used to, rather than something that happens once a generation, and so it would happen more reliably. Rather than having science textbooks, students could start with old (wrong) science textbooks or just looking at the world, and they'd have to make all their own mistakes along the way to see what making a breakthrough really involves.

This is how Philosophy is already taught! While many philosophers have opinions on what Philosophical questions have already been settled, they do not put forth their opinions straightforwardly to undergrads. Rather, students are expected to read the original works and figure out for themselves what's wrong with them.

For example, students might learn about the debate between Realism and Nominalism, and then be expected to write a paper about which one they think is correct (or neither). Sure, we could just tell them the entire debate was confused, but then we won't be training future philosophers in the same way we would like to train future scientists. The students should be able to work out for themselves what the problems were, so that they will be able to make philosophical breakthroughs in the future.

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 07:04:17PM 12 points [-]

It would be wonderful if students had the opportunity to make scientific discoveries on their own, and being trained to think that way would greatly advance the rate of scientific progress.

While a nice idea, it's hardly workable. There are roughly two types of science consumers: researchers and users. The users do not care what's under the hood, they just need working tools. Engineering is an example. Making them discover the Newton's laws instead of teaching how to apply them to design stable bridges is a waste of time. Researchers build new tools and so have to understand how and why the existing tools work. This is a time-consuming process as it is (20+ years if you count all education levels including grad studies). Making people stumble through all the standard dead ends, while instructive, will likely make it so much longer. The current compromise is teaching some history of science while teaching science proper.

This is how Philosophy is already taught!

Indeed. And look where it led. The whole discipline appears largely useless to the outsiders, who hardly care what misinformed opinion some genius held 1000 years ago.

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 08:14:48PM *  6 points [-]

The current compromise isn't working. A smidgen of history is taught, but usually in the mode of fact-memorization, not in the mode of exploration and discovery. The game method, whatever its value in philosophy, is certainly useful for scientists -- it not only creates better (more dynamic, audacious, rigorous) thinkers in general, but also gives people a better sense of what science is and of why it is not ugly or dehumanizing. Teaching people arithmetic is of much greater value when successfully accompanied by a taught appreciation for and joy in arithmetic.

My recommendation: Ditch the 'philosophy/science/history' breakdown of courses, at least at the lower levels. If you're trying to teach skills and good practices, you want to be able to draw on philosophical, scientific, and historical lessons and exercises as needed, rather than respecting the rather arbitrary academic divisions. Given low levels of long-term high school science class fact retention, there's simply no excuse to not be incorporating 'philosophical' tricks (like those taught in the Sequences) and game-immersion at least as a mainstay of high school, whether or not we want to maintain that method at the higher levels.

And I don't think this is only necessary for researchers. In some cases it's even more important for users to be good scientists than for researchers to be, since our economic and political landscapes are shaped by the micro-decisions of the 'users'.

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 09:09:12PM 3 points [-]

Let me try to separate two different issues here, teaching science and teaching rational thought. The latter should indeed be taught better and to most people. The standard "critical thinking" curriculum is probably inadequate and largely out of date with the current leading edge, which is hardly surprising. Game immersion can be one of the tools used to teach this stuff. A successful student should then be able to apply their new rationality skills to their chosen vocation (and indeed to making a good choice of vocation), be it research or engineering, commerce or politics.

Teaching people arithmetic is of much greater value when successfully accompanied by a taught appreciation for and joy in arithmetic.

This is largely a typical mind fallacy. Plenty of people can find no joy in arithmetics, just like plenty of people find no joy in poetry, no matter how hard you make them.

And I don't think this is only necessary for researchers. In some cases it's even more important for users to be good scientists than for researchers to be, since our economic and political landscapes are shaped by the micro-decisions of the 'users'.

Right, this is the new critical thinking curriculum part, unrelated to any particular science.

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 10:20:32PM *  3 points [-]

Let me try to separate two different issues here, teaching science and teaching rational thought. The latter should indeed be taught better and to most people. The standard "critical thinking" curriculum is probably inadequate and largely out of date with the current leading edge, which is hardly surprising.

And here's why I try not to separate those two issues: (1) Teaching science and teaching rational thought are largely interdependent. You can't do one wholly without the other. (2) 'Rational thought' and 'critical thinking' don't generally get their own curricula in schools. So we need to sneak them into science classrooms, math classrooms, philosophy classrooms, history classrooms -- wherever we can. Reminding ourselves of the real-world intersectionality, fuzziness, and interdependence of these fields helps us feel better about this pragmatic decision by intellectually justifying it; but what matters most is the pragmatics. Our field divisions are tools.

This is largely a typical mind fallacy. Plenty of people can find no joy in arithmetics, just like plenty of people find no joy in poetry, no matter how hard you make them.

The worry of typical-mind errors looms large on any generalized account, including a pessimistic one. To help combat that, I'll make my background explicit. I largely had no interest in mathematical reasoning in primary and secondary schools; hence when I acquired that interest as a result of more engaging, imaginative, and 'adventurey' approaches to teaching and thinking, I concluded that there were probably lots of other students for whom mathematics could have been taught in a much more useful, personally involving way.

Perhaps those 'lots of others' are still a minority; no data exists specifically on how many people would acquire a love of arithmetic from a Perfectly Optimized Arithmetic course. But I'm inclined to think that underestimating people's potential to become better lay-scientists, lay-mathematicians, and lay-philosophers at this stage has greater potential costs than overestimating it.

Comment author: DSimon 04 December 2012 07:18:51PM *  2 points [-]

It would be wonderful if students had the opportunity to make scientific discoveries on their own.

Yes, absolutely. As shminux points out below, it isn't practical to expect students to (re-)make real scientific discoveries during their training, but that doesn't mean that we can't game-ify scientific training using a simpler universe wherein novel discoveries are a lot closer at hand.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 05 December 2012 03:45:53PM *  1 point [-]

Well the simplest version of this is to do something like play Zendo, but that has a variety of problems, such as the fact that rule sets often connect more to human psychology than anything else.

Comment author: JMiller 05 December 2012 02:18:11AM 8 points [-]

As a philosophy student with a great interest in math and computing, I can definitely attest to the lack of scientific understanding in my department. Worse, it often seems like some professors actively encourage an anti-scientific ideology. I'm wondering if anybody has any practical ideas on how to converse with students and professors [who are not supportive or knowledgeable of the rationalist and Bayesian world-view] in a positive and engaging way.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 05 December 2012 09:21:31AM 1 point [-]

You could introduce some of your friends into LessWrong topics by labeling them as "philosophy". (Start with the articles that don't explicitly criticize the current state of philosophy, obviously.)

The label seems credible -- some of my friends, when I sent them a link to LW, replied that it seems to be a website about philosophy. And when a person already has "studying philosophy" as part of their self-concept, they may be more likely to agree to look at something labeled as "philosophical".

Perhaps you could just taboo "science" and describe scientists as a weird branch of philosophers -- philosophers who try to test their ideas experimentally, because this is what their weird philosophy tells them to do. Now learning about such weird philosophy would be interesting, wouldn't it?

Comment author: Suryc11 04 December 2012 04:06:49PM *  8 points [-]

This post has a number of useful insights, but I'm not so sure about this:

Beginning with Plato and Kant (and company), as most universities do today, . . . teaches people to revere failed philosophical methods that are out of touch with 20th century breakthroughs in math and science.

As someone who is currently studying philosophy at the undergraduate level--and thus has first-hand knowledge of what it is like to start with Plato and Kant--I don't quite see where you're getting the claim that starting with ancient philosophers either (1) in fact teaches students to revere them/their methods, or (2) is at least meant to teach students to revere them/their methods. My own experience, what I've heard from fellow students, and the academic papers that we are actually assigned to read all run counter to your claim.

First, one of the primary, if not the main, purposes in starting with ancient philosophers is precisely to discuss how and where they went wrong. The professor does not just tell us whether a certain philosopher is right/wrong, but has the students critically evaluate that philosopher's claims both in papers and in discussions. Second, there are numerous academic articles written on their claims (just by virtue of the fact that they are ancient philosophers), which in turn means that those articles--and their arguments--combined with the students' own analyses provide a substantial foundation for 'critical thinking.' Third, regardless of the ancient philosophers' specific claims, the manner in which they argue for their conclusions and critically think themselves is tremendously helpful--both as a model to emulate and to not emulate--for students just starting to learn what constitutes a good argument. A charitable reading, which in particular recognizes the historical context, will show that many of the ancient philosophers do make good arguments, and value precision and rigor in so arguing; of course, many specific empirical claims are wrong, but insofar as those depend on context and not on poor argumentation they are irrelevant.

I do think that there is much wrong with philosophy, but that specific claim you made is a little shaky (and underspecified).

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 06:36:32PM 5 points [-]

First, one of the primary, if not the main, purposes in starting with ancient philosophers is precisely to discuss how and where they went wrong

Isn't it history of philosophy, rather than philosophy? Learning why Aristotle's ideas on physics are wrong (e.g. "all bodies move toward their natural place") belong mostly in a History of Science course, not in a Physics course. Shouldn't it work the same for philosophy?

Comment author: Suryc11 04 December 2012 09:42:56PM *  2 points [-]

Hmm, this is a good question. After spending some time thinking about this, I think the problem I have in trying to separate "history of philosophy" from "philosophy" is that such an enterprise almost appears antithetical to the goal(s) of philosophy.* Philosophy seems meant not to be useful or practical, but intended to ask the right sorts of questions, think about things one abstraction deeper/more meta, and question things others don't question. As such, studying the history of philosophy is philosophy--and vice versa--insofar as the goal of philosophy is not to positively answer the right questions but to think philosophically and ask those questions in the first place. So, learning why Aristotle's ideas on physics are wrong is simply not the sort of thing with which philosophy would concern itself--for better or for worse.

*Thinking about it some more, I just realized that I may be conceiving of the goal(s) of philosophy as something different than what most of the posters here do. I get the sense that lukeprog (and others here) wants philosophy to provide answers to the deep questions, or at least attempt to do so. The problem is philosophy is not about that; maybe it should be, but then I'd argue that such a field is precisely what science is, with philosophy as almost a check/balance (making sure that the right questions are still being asked, assumptions questioned, etc.).

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 10:25:40PM *  3 points [-]

Philosophy seems meant not to be useful or practical, but intended to ask the right sorts of questions, think about things one abstraction deeper/more meta, and question things others don't question.

How is asking "the right sorts of questions" not "useful or practical"? To "question things others don't question" is what scientists do. Examples: Why do things fall down when let go? (physics) Why do children tend to look like their parents? (genetics) Why does a candle burn? (chemistry)

What are the questions "others take for granted" that philosophy asks? Wikipedia:

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.

Most of these are logic, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science and linguistics, and most recently AI research (esp. knowledge acquisition and reasoning). What's left is "reality" and "existence". Have I missed anything?

Comment author: Suryc11 05 December 2012 12:44:59AM 1 point [-]

Upvoted. I do largely agree with you, and the things that I don't quite agree with you about are things about which I don't think I can form a persuasive argument.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 04 December 2012 09:53:23PM 1 point [-]

If I recall correctly, introductory college physics (as I took it almost 20 years ago!) didn't teach how to discover physical truths, so much as which ones have been discovered. One might do a few experiments to verify that thrown objects approximate a parabolic path, but one will spend much more time and effort doing word problems applying known formulae from Newton, Boyle, Kirchhoff, etc.

Comment author: dbaupp 08 December 2012 04:40:07PM 7 points [-]

There is some interesting discussion at Hacker News about this article.

Comment author: lukeprog 10 December 2012 04:03:17PM 6 points [-]

Below this line is the part I cut from the original article.


Below are some quotes from the abstracts of recent papers appearing in the top 5 philosophy journals, along with my reactions.

Abstract #1:

Theoretical and practical deliberation are voluntary activities, and like all voluntary activities, they are performed for reasons. To hold that all voluntary activities are performed for reasons in virtue of their relations to past, present, or even merely possible acts of deliberation thus leads to infinite regresses and related problems. As a consequence, there must be processes that are nondeliberative and nonvoluntary but that nonetheless allow us to think and act for reasons, and these processes must be the ones that generate the voluntary activities making up ordinary deliberation... (Deliberation and Acting for Reasons)

What are you doing? We have experimental psychology now.

Abstract #2:

This article examines Aristotle's model of deliberation as inquiry (zêtêsis), arguing that Aristotle does not treat the presumption of open alternatives as a precondition for rational deliberation... (Deliberation as Inquiry)

Please move to the history department. Philosophy is supposed to be an inquiry into how reality works, not a collection of musings about the possible meaning of ancient, ignorant writings.

Abstract #3:

According to ‘orthodox’ epistemology, it has recently been said, whether or not a true belief amounts to knowledge depends exclusively on truth-related factors: for example, on whether the true belief was formed in a reliable way, or was supported by good evidence, and so on... In the first part of this paper I try to clarify the intellectualist thesis and to distinguish what I take to be its two main strains... (On Intellectualism in Epistemology)

Another paper arguing about the definition of "knowledge"? No thanks.

Abstract #4:

...many who do not believe in God nevertheless regard certain pieces of religious music, such as Bach’s B minor Mass, as among the greatest works of art. The worry is that there must be something compromised or incomplete in the atheist’s experience of such works. Taken together, these thoughts would seem to point to the sceptical conclusion that the high regard in which many atheists hold works such as the B minor Mass must itself be compromised... (Religious Music for Godless Ears)

Okay, now you're just trolling.

Comment author: vallinder 04 December 2012 12:08:44PM 6 points [-]

I am curious about the qualifier "pre-1980." Do you think later work in these disciplines is noticeably better?

Comment author: selylindi 04 December 2012 03:14:48PM 15 points [-]

"pre-1980" = "pre-lukeprog", and thus, the ancient days

(kidding)

Comment author: army1987 04 December 2012 04:32:50PM 3 points [-]

If I correctly identified him from his karma score in the survey results (and everything else I saw was consistent with what I already knew about him), he's younger than that.

Comment author: Strange7 07 December 2012 01:36:11AM 1 point [-]

How much of the difference is rounding?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 04 December 2012 09:09:06AM 6 points [-]

I was going to say something about the ease of which I can come up with obviously confused or unimportant "science" abstracts, but then I realized I was missing the point. Philosophy can be improved (and probably more easily than science) and your proposed introductory sequence is actually pretty good.

Comment author: lukeprog 04 December 2012 09:45:58AM 4 points [-]

Thanks! My post on how to improve science (in a few ways, at least) is How to Fix Science.

Comment author: joshualharris 05 December 2012 07:24:03AM *  1 point [-]

Forgive me if someone else has made this rather obvious remark (too many comments to wade through), but isn't it a weird irony to rely on the big generalization that "[h]itherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong?"

You give the impression of someone who has not begun to understand basic, perennial philosophical problems. To illustrate, consider the following questions that are dealt with explicitly (and incredibly well) by philosophers throughout the tradition, but not derivable at all from any scientific discovery:

  • What is the nature of the ontological difference between being qua being and particular beings? Perhaps you think this is a pseudo-problem, yet we all think we can meaningfully say that different things are in (maybe) the same way and the same respect. In what sense is it legitimate to do this?

  • What is the best metaphor we can use to describe what is going on when we say something is "true"?

  • What is the Good?

The presuppositions that underlie this blog post are questionable for many reasons, but they are especially so because you go out of your way to ridicule the only mode of inquiry that is capable of calling them into question: namely, philosophical inquiry.

Comment author: RobbBB 05 December 2012 08:01:57AM *  3 points [-]

isn't it a weird irony to rely on the big generalization that "[h]itherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong?"

Yes, you caught the irony. Of course, not all ironic statements are false. There are in fact true generalizations about overgeneralization.

There are indeed questions to which philosophers have given insightful answers. But I feel embarrassed on behalf of philosophers to see such pseudo-questions paraded as their proudest accomplishments. Being is univocal because quantification is univocal; we don't mean different things by 'are' or 'two' or 'all' in different contexts. The best metaphor for truth will depend on our goals. 'The Good' and 'Being' are ambiguous terms, so the question as to their intended sense will need to be clarified before it can be fruitfully pursued. See Peter van Inwagen's Being, Existence, and Ontological Commitment.

(Since I'm citing a philosopher, you know I agree with you to some extent. I just don't like treating Philosophy as a tribe to be defended. Especially not Bad Philosophy. If philosophy is anything worth preserving, it's just a toolbox.)

Comment author: lucidian 04 December 2012 01:16:46PM 23 points [-]

I agree that modern science provides valuable insights into philosophical problems. I also agree that Bayesian probability theory and machine learning are powerful models for approaching problems in epistemology. This is why I'm in grad school in machine learning, and not for philosophy. Furthermore, I'm not a big fan of ancient philosophers (especially ones who think categories are absolute), and I'd like to see the computational theory of mind excised from popular thought, in favor of something closer to embodied cognition. I actually really like the idea of incorporating modern theories and empirical discoveries into a philosophical curriculum.

Despite this, I have a strong negative reaction to your post, because it suggests there is One True Way to do philosophy and that everyone who does not follow the Ways of Bayes is doing it wrong. The last thing I want us teaching students is any kind of absolutism. It can only damage students to tell them that our current models are the true models, and all past thinkers were necessarily wrong. It would also damage students to restrict them to one philosophical viewpoint; as much as I like Bayesian reasoning and empiricism, I think it would hurt students to teach them that these methods are the One True Way, because it would prevent them from exploring alternative viewpoints.

I think that students of philosophy should be taught as many theories as possible, both ancient and modern. By coming to understand the diverse range of models that we've applied over the course of human history, students can learn some humility. Just as all of these past models were superceded, our current theories will inevitably be replaced. Just as we can spot the glaring errors in past philosophical models, the people of the future will spot the "obvious" follies in our own ideas.

Also, the more models that students learn, the more "degrees of freedom" they will realize exist. They will come to understand along which dimensions worldviews can vary; they can then explore other options for these dimensions, or discover new dimensions that no one has tried varying yet. I strongly believe that learning more worldviews is a powerful method of keeping one's mind flexible enough to come up with genuinely new ideas.

Lastly, as much as I love mathematical models and rigorous empiricism, I oppose the trend of applying them haphazardly to the social sciences. If we're studying e.g. anthropology, I think it's a mistake to favor statistical data over first-hand accounts or subjective analyses. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with empirical and statistical methods, but because the models we use are too simple. There are so many features, and it's hard to account for all of them, both because we don't know which features to choose, and because inference is computationally intractable in such an enormous model. Fortunately, the typical human brain comes prepackaged with empathy and a theory of mind, a powerful module for modeling the behaviors/preferences/internal experiences of other humans. Certainly, this module is subject to biases and might make systematic errors when reasoning. But when choosing between two imperfect models, I tend to think our built-in circuitry is better suited for the social sciences than tools of machine learning. I assume that our built-in intuitive machinery is useful for some branches of philosophy as well.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 04 December 2012 06:43:17PM 8 points [-]

You are not supposed to teach them it's the One True Way, just that it's The Best Way Anyone Have Found So Far By A Fair Margin.

Comment author: chaosmosis 06 December 2012 08:10:49AM *  3 points [-]

The Best Way Anyone Have Found So Far By A Fair Margin.

This also seems problematic, for the same reasons.

Comment author: adamisom 06 December 2012 09:04:10AM 3 points [-]

And what if it is? I am not claiming this is so. It is rhetorical. What then?

Comment author: chaosmosis 06 December 2012 09:00:56PM 1 point [-]

Teach the best case that there is for each of several popular opinions. Give the students assignments about the interactions of these different opinions, and let/require the students the students to debate which ones are best, but don't give a one-sided approach.

Comment author: moshez 06 December 2012 09:07:15PM 2 points [-]

It grieves me to note that almost all the arguments in your post could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to why we should teach kids intelligent design as well as evolution.

Comment author: Strange7 07 December 2012 12:59:08AM 2 points [-]

In certain contexts, yeah. I think most kids would be able to smell the bullshit if both theories were laid out side-by-side, with historical context available.

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 12:20:28PM *  15 points [-]

I have a feeling I will have a lot to say about this posting, but I will start with one small issue: what is the watershed that occurred in metaphycs circa 1980? I'm pretty sure the Wikipedia article isn't going to tell me, because I wrote the "history and schools" section.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:17:50AM 4 points [-]

I chose 1980 because after 1980 there are at least a few philosophers studying these subjects who are attuned to contemporary science, compsci, and maths to get things basically right. E.g. after 1980 some philosophers of mind decided to just start agreeing with what cognitive scientists were discovering at the time.

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 December 2012 10:52:47AM 2 points [-]

And none before? Kant was immensely influenced by Newton, to take but one example. That was more like 1780

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 05 December 2012 11:20:17AM 5 points [-]

Kant was a scientist, even in the modern sense (and a pretty decent one too). For instance, Kant was one of the first proponents of the nebular hypothesis.

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 06:19:54PM 2 points [-]

It seems a strange date to choose in some cases. If anything, philosophy of mind was a lot more LessWrongy (i.e., zombieless) before 1980.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2012 03:36:23PM *  14 points [-]

So if I had to design an intro to philosophy/first-year philosophy course (and I will), at the moment I would do this:

There are four ideas in philosophy which stand above the others as ideas which have shaped our thinking and our civilization to the point where you've probably heard of these before you came to class: Plato's theory of forms, Aristotle's theory of causes, Descartes' 'Cogito ergo sum', and Kant's categorical imperative. The aim of this course is to understand what philosophy is, and why one should engage in it.

The course will discuss the writings of these four philosophers:

Plato- Selections from Plato's Republic and Phaedo

Aristotle- Physics book I and II, and III.1, and De Anima II.1, 5.

Descartes- The Meditations

Kant- Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

That's my thought. I'm a frequent reader, and sometimes poster on Less Wrong. I'm also going to be teaching undergraduates philosophy in about two years, and right now my idea of how to go about doing this is very different from yours. I very much do not want to do a bad job, or hurt my students, so if I'm wrong, I should be convinced otherwise.

Maybe it wasn't your purpose, but there's no argument in this post. Please, please, please present an argument. You (or whoever wants to try) would be doing me a very great benefit by correcting me on this, if indeed I am wrong.

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 06:30:20PM *  23 points [-]

I think you need to focus in on what your goals are. Lukeprog's idea of an intro to philosophy class sounds like a boot camp for aspiring professional philosopher-kings and intellectual revolutionaries. Yours sounds like a historical overview of the effects of a scattered set of ideological trends upon human culture. There isn't any clear unifying content of your imagined course, as there would be if you focused, say, just on game-changing epistemological texts (like the much more engaging and well-written Berkeley in lieu of Aristotle) or just on game-changing meta-ethical ones.

On the other hand, if your goal is to make students think critically and rigorously about very deep issues, not just to expand their historical horizons, then you may want to choose more accessible secondary literature. John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality is a superb candidate; a short, accessible dialogue packed with arguments much clearer and more human than those you'd find in a Platonic dialogue.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2012 08:19:01PM 5 points [-]

Good, excellent suggestion: much of this disagreement seems to come down to a disagreement over what a) the goals of philosophy are, and b) the goals of philosophical training are. So, if I had to state the goal of my course, I would say: the aim of this course is to understand what kinds of questions philosophy asks, and how we should approach those questions. That could use a lot more filling out, of course. And I don't think those four ideas are scattered, ideological, or trends, but that's not something you could have gotten from my description.

Anyway, what do you think is the right view on these two goals? What does philosophy aim to do, and what should training aim to achieve?

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 08:44:50PM *  11 points [-]

I think the most important thing an introductory philosophy class can do is to taboo philosophy. Ask instead: What can I get away with teaching a bunch of undergraduates under the umbrella term 'philosophy' that will be most useful to human beings (or specifically to the sorts of human beings who are likely to study 'philosophy'), and that they are least likely to acquire by other means? Your goal shouldn't be to make them understand what people tend to classify as 'philosophy' vs. 'non-philosophy;' it should be to maximize their ability to save the world and live fulfilling lives. I don't think reading Berkeley need be unhelpful for saving the world; but it all really comes down to how you read Berkeley.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2012 08:54:05PM 2 points [-]

Okay, could I ask you for just a couple more details? It seems like a big moving part in your description is saving the world, and another is leading a fulfilling life. What do you mean by these things?

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 11:10:34PM *  25 points [-]

That's a very large question, and my answer will depend on where you're coming from and where you want to take this discussion. You probably have your own intuitive conception of where, in some general terms, you'd like the world to go. 'Philosophy' is a largely artificial, arbitrary, and unhelpful schema, and you owe it no fealty. So my main goal was not to persuade you to adopt my own vision of a happier and more rational world. It was to motivate you to reframe what teaching a 'philosophy' class is in a way that makes you more likely to exploit this opportunity to move the world infinitesimally closer to your own vision for the world.

If I were teaching an Intro to Philosophy class, I might break it down as follows:

Part 1: Destroy students' complacence. Spend a few weeks methodically annihilating students' barriers, prejudices, thought-terminating clichés, and safety nets. Don't frame the discussion as 'philosophy.' Frame it as follows:

"OK, we're trying to understand the world, and get what we want out of life. And we can't just rely on authorities, common sense, or usual practice; those predictably fail. So we'll need to reason our way to understanding the world. But our reasoning itself seems infirm. When we debate, we hit walls. Our ignorance corrodes our predictions. We let language and concepts confuse us. We don't entertain enough possibilities, and we don't weight them fairly. Paradox, ambiguity, and arbitrariness seems to threaten our human projects at every turn. Is it really possible for us to patch our buggy brains to any significant extent?"

The answer is Yes. But the best way to reach that conclusion is to test how much our own capacities can improve in practice. And the best test will be for us to take a few of the most fundamental riddles humans have devised, and see whether we can resolve or dissolve them by introducing more rigor and creativity to our thinking.

Part 2: Incrementally build students' confidence back up. Spend about 3/5 of the course focusing very closely on one or two simple, readable, accessible, counter-intuitive analytic philosophy texts in epistemology/metaphysics (like Perry's or Berkeley's dialogues), teaching students that making progress in understanding and critically assessing good arguments requires rigor and patience, and, just as importantly, that they are capable of exercising the rigor and patience needed to make important progress on deep issues.

In other words, this part of the course is about trying very hard to impress students regarding the utility and value of carefully reasoning about very general questions — these issues are hard — without intimidating them into thinking they as individuals are 'non-philosophers' or 'non-intellectuals,' and without motivating them to despairingly or triumphantly regress to an 'oh it's all so mysterious' relativism. It's a precarious lesson to teach — making them skeptical enough, but not too skeptical! — but an indispensable one. And the best way to teach it is by concretely empowering them to think better, and letting them see the results for themselves. Acquaint students with a variety of tricks and techniques for analyzing and evaluating arguments, including deductive logic, Bayesian empiricism, semantics, and pragmatics.

Part 3: Make students put it all into practice. Coming up for air from these deep metaphysical and epistemological waters, spend the last 3-4 weeks talking about how to use these philosophical doctrines and techniques in daily life. I'm imagining something in between a CFAR course and a whirlwind tour of existentialism. This will engage and inspire students who are a bit more continental than analytic in temperament, while reiterating that the same very careful techniques of reasoning can be applied (a) to everyday life-decisions, and (b) to even more abstract and difficult riddles than might initially have seemed possible. Ideally, the pragmatism and humanism of this part of the course should also help finish disenchanting any remaining relativists, positivists, and hyper-skeptics in the class. (Or is it re-enchanting?)

How's that sound to you?

Comment author: BerryPick6 04 December 2012 11:21:07PM 10 points [-]

How's that sound to you?

2 questions:

How do I sign up?

Who do I give my money to?

Comment author: paper-machine 05 December 2012 04:17:39PM 3 points [-]

It sounds like an abridged Eightfold Path.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 December 2012 04:15:12PM 2 points [-]

First of all, thanks for putting so much time and thought into your reply. Your class plan is well thought out and interesting, but I think you and I are standing on opposite sides of a substantial inferential revine. So far as I could tell, you answer to my two questions were the following:

1) What would it mean to save the world? To bring about, however incrementally, my vision for the world.

2) What does it mean to live a fulfilling life? To get what one wants.

These two answers seems to place very great confidence in my (or my students) vision for the world, and my (or my students) desires. I take it, however, that one of the more serious philosophical questions we should be discussing is what our vision for the world should be, and what we should want. So by saying you don't want to persuade me to adopt your own vision for the world, etc. it seems to me you skipped the most important part of the question. That's exactly what I'd need to know in order to structure a course well.

Otherwise, if I teach my students to be more effective at getting what they want and bringing about their vision, while what they want is harmful and their vision is terrible, then I'll be doing them and everyone else a great deal of harm.

Comment author: RobbBB 05 December 2012 04:46:20PM *  3 points [-]

1) What would it mean to save the world? To bring about, however incrementally, my vision for the world.

That's not the meaning of 'save the world.' I just took it for granted that the preservation of human-like things would probably be part of your vision.

2) What does it mean to live a fulfilling life? To get what one wants.

Better: To get what one would most want, given perfect knowledge, computational capacities, and reasoning skills. (At least, this would be closer to the optimally fulfilling life.)

These two answers seems to place very great confidence in my (or my students) vision for the world, and my (or my students) desires.

We're humans. We don't have anyone to appeal to but ourselves and each other.

So by saying you don't want to persuade me to adopt your own vision for the world, etc. it seems to me you skipped the most important part of the question.

Sure. Though you can read a fair amount of that out of what I did tell you about course layout.

if I teach my students to be more effective at getting what they want and bringing about their vision, while what they want is harmful and their vision is terrible

There are two questions here. First, are people's most profound and reflective goals in the end perverse and destructive? If so, then humanity may do better if kept in ignorance than if enlightened.

Second, can we teach people to re-evaluate and improve their values? Their current vision may be 'terrible,' but part of teaching people to understand how to attain their values is teaching people how to recognize, assess, and revise their values. This is an essential component of Part 3 of the course structure.

Acting may be very dangerous. But doing nothing is far more dangerous.

Comment author: asparisi 05 December 2012 12:48:41AM 5 points [-]

Working in philosophy, I see some move toward this, but it is slow and scattered. The problem is probably partially historical: philosophy PhDs trained in older methods train their students, who become philosophy PhDs trained in their professor's methods+anything that they could weasel into the system which they thought important. (which may not always be good modifications, of course)

It probably doesn't help that your average philosophy grad student starts off by TAing a bunch of courses with a professor who sets up the lecture and the material and the grading standards. Or that a young professor needs to clear classes in an academic structure. It definitely doesn't help that philosophy has a huge bias toward historical works, as you point out.

None of these are excuses, of course. Just factors that slow down innovation in teaching philosophy. (which, of course, slows down the production of better philosophical works)

(2) 20th century philosophers who were way too enamored with cogsci-ignorant armchair philosophy.

This made me chuckle. Truth is often funny.

Comment author: Plasmon 04 December 2012 12:13:20PM 5 points [-]

Is this problem limited to philosophy?

Good work in virtually every discipline requires a semi-decent grounding in math (with the possible exception of menial work)

Indeed, the universities teaching such subjects would do well to realize this and make math an integral part of the curriculum in most subjects, as opposed to the tackled-on (or non-existent) math courses they have now.

Comment author: glaucon 04 December 2012 12:48:57PM 7 points [-]

I agree that there is good work to be done with math in all of those fields. But there's plenty of good work in most of them that can be done without math too.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 December 2012 04:59:32PM 6 points [-]

there's plenty of good work in most of them that can be done without math too

Yes. Two caveats:

1) The person doing the good work without math should remember to consult someone with the math skills before publishing their results, if they are trying to say something math-like.

For example, to invent a hypothesis, design an experiment and collect data, the math may be unnecessary. But it becomes necessary at the last step when the experimenter says: "So I did these experiments 10 times: 8 times the results seemed to support my hypothesis, 2 times they did not; therefore... what exactly?"

2) There should be enough people in the given field knowing the math, so when the person from the first example wants to find a colleague with domain knowledge and math skills, they actually find one.

Comment author: magfrump 06 December 2012 06:48:44PM 1 point [-]

I recently went to a linguistics colloquium because the talk was about extending a model of grammatical choice to decision theory on polynomial rings. Even if it wasn't very accessible to linguists, one of the speakers was clearly a mathematician and there are people making these connections.

Comment author: Desrtopa 04 December 2012 02:26:32PM 13 points [-]

Philosophical training should begin with the latest and greatest formal methods....and the latest and greatest science

We certainly don't start science students off with the latest and greatest science, because there's a boatload of other science they have to study before it'll do them any good. In practice,almost everything we teach undergrads in hard science fields is pre-1980, because of the amount of time it takes to get a student up to speed with where the frontier of the field had progressed to by 1980.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 04 December 2012 08:07:26PM *  12 points [-]

Point, but:

1) The science that lukeprog is concerned with comes from subfields that are substantially younger than most major fields in the hard sciences, e.g. the heuristics and biases program is much younger than Newtonian mechanics.

2) Old hard science at least has the benefit of working within a certain domain, e.g. Newtonian mechanics is valuable because it is still applicable to macroscopic objects moving slowly, and any future theory of physics is constrained by having to reduce to Newtonian mechanics in certain limits. The older results in the science that lukeprog is concerned with are misleading at best and dangerously wrong at worst.

In other words, I think what lukeprog is advocating is less analogous to teaching undergraduates about string theory before Newtonian mechanics now and more analogous to teaching undergraduates about thermodynamics before phlogiston theory in the 1800s (edit: and I see JoshuaZ made this point already).

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:11:48AM 4 points [-]

I think what lukeprog is advocating is less analogous to teaching undergraduates about string theory before Newtonian mechanics now and more analogous to teaching undergraduates about thermodynamics before phlogiston theory in the 1800s

Correct.

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 December 2012 12:49:10PM 4 points [-]

Could I have some examples of things being taught on philoosphy courses which are definitely known to be wrong.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 06 December 2012 03:41:23AM *  0 points [-]

Knowledge is justified true belief. /

There is something inside your mind, called a "Propositional Attitude" which has a truth value regardless of the world around you. The truth value sits on your mind. /

Now for the primitive ones (these are extremely relaxed, and angry, descriptions/summaries): Man is naturally good, but rich people made a contract which started a bad nature. Rousseau /

Man is naturally mean, but an abstract entity made itself as of the creation of a social contract (implicit or explicit) and that is what prevents evil from spreading. Hobbes. /

Angels are separated by 72 Kilometers each in the heavens. Aquinas. /

Brace yourselves for this one: That of which nothing greater can be thought is smaller than not that of which nothing greater can be thought, thus the latter can't exist (don't ask for what sense of smaller), because it can't exist, there is one thing that is that of which nothing grater can be thought, and since its negation can't be thought, all its properties must be positive, and it is God, because it is great and undeniable. Anselm. (ok, I grant that I forgot the bulk of his original since last reading it in 2007... but it is along these lines)

EDIT: Just to clarify before people read Robb below, I'll put in my disclaimer about his response: RoBB Your philosophers descend from the anglophone tradition of philosophy, and were trained in analytic. The ones I mention descend from french tradition, are fond of structural readings, and do in fact state all those as fact.

Comment author: RobbBB 06 December 2012 10:18:04AM *  2 points [-]

Knowledge is justified true belief. /

Ever since Gettier's 1963 paper, this has not been taught except as a useful extremely close approximation of the correct definition. Since philosophers (and some linguists) are the ones who have been criticizing this heuristic, and since their criticisms concern very special cases of 'epistemic luck,' this is a doubly misleading charge. The standards philosophers are adopting when they doubt that knowledge is justified true belief are actually, in most contexts and for most everyday purposes, unreasonably high; dictionaries and classrooms almost invariably define terms in more approximate, inexact, and exception-allowing ways than do philosophers. (Indeed, this is why philosophers are often criticized for being too precise and 'nitpicky' in their terminological distinctions.)

propositions

I agree philosophers take the reality of propositions too seriously. However, mathematicians do precisely the same thing. In both cases it's not that the doctrine is "definitely known to be wrong;" it's that there's no good reason to affirm causally inert abstracta.

Man is naturally good, but rich people made a contract which started a bad nature. Rousseau

This is not Rousseau's view, and is not generally taught as fact by philosophers.

Man is naturally mean, but an abstract entity made itself as of the creation of a social contract (implicit or explicit) and that is what prevents evil from spreading. Hobbes. /

This is not Hobbes' view, and is not generally taught as fact by philosophers.

Angels are separated by 72 Kilometers each in the heavens. Aquinas. /

This is theology, not philosophy. And even if you deem it philosophy, it's not generally taught as fact by philosophers. (Including Christian philosophers.)

That of which nothing greater can be thought is smaller ...

That is not Anselm's argument, and Anselm's actual argument is not considered by philosophers (even Christian philosophers) to be sound, as originally formulated.

Comment author: William_Quixote 04 December 2012 08:00:11PM 17 points [-]

Without any comment on if the post is correct or not, I want to note that if the sequences have done their job LWers will not be pursuaded by this post. It looks at a large number of abstracts, picks a non representive (and small) sample and then quotes them to make them salient in the reader's mind.

It could have been made more convincing by using a less biased sampling such as generating 3 random numbers for each journal, than multiplying by the number of total articles in the journal and then posting the abstract for those articles.

Comment author: jimrandomh 04 December 2012 09:42:43PM 9 points [-]

Without any comment on if the post is correct or not, I want to note that if the sequences have done their job LWers will not be pursuaded by this post.

Hang on. Did you mean to say that the conclusion of this post is wrong? If the sequences did their job, then LWers should steelman the arguments, and be persuaded if-f the conclusion is correct, regardless of the arguments presented.

Comment author: Kindly 06 December 2012 11:57:23PM 7 points [-]

It's hard to steelman, for example, an incorrect proof of Fermat's Theorem in the way you describe.

Filling in the gaps in this post requires doing some research into the current state of philosophy. Some of the commenters are in fact trying to do just that. But it's much harder to lay an egg than to tell if one is rotten.

Comment author: falenas108 04 December 2012 11:46:38PM 5 points [-]

I was about to write a post saying how even though we are aware this is a biased sample, the fact that 4 papers with questionable thinking appeared in top journals recently is still a lot of evidence. Then, I looked at how recent "recently" is. Two papers are from 2012, one is from 2011, and one is from 2010.

The fact that Luke went back as far as 2 years suggests that the field either isn't that bad, or Luke did look chronologically. If it's the first, then I would update away from it being a diseased field, because even in top journals I would expect a few bad papers a year. If it's the latter, then Luke should let us know.

Comment author: Bugmaster 04 December 2012 11:42:59AM 17 points [-]

When you say things like "More machine learning, more physics, more game theory, more math", what I hear is, "more of anything that's not philosophy".

For example, Machine Learning alone is a topic whose understanding requires a semi-decent grounding in math, computer science, and practical programming. That's at least a year of study for someone with an IQ over 150, and probably something like three or four years for the rest of us. And that's just one topic; you list others as well. It sounds like you want us to just stop doing philosophy altogether, and stick to the more useful stuff.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 December 2012 12:49:45PM *  25 points [-]

Imagine people who are trying to write books, without knowing the alphabet. They keep trying for ages, but produce nothing that other person could unambiguously read.

So someone comes and says: "You should learn alphabet first."

And they respond: "We are interested in writing books, not learning alphabet. The more time we spend learning alphabet, the less time we will have for actually writing books. We desire to become writers, not linguists." (Famous writers are high status, linguistics is considered boring by most.)

Similarly it seems to me that many philosophers are too busy discussing deep topics about the world, so they don't have time to actually study the world. To be fair, they do study a lot -- but mostly the opinions of people who used the same strategy, decades and centuries ago. Knowing Plato's opinions on X is higher status than knowing X.

This would be acceptable in situations where science does not know anything about X, so the expert's opinion is the best we can have. But in many topics this simply isn't true. Learning what we already know about X is the cost of ability to say something new and correct about X. The costs are higher than 2000 years ago, because the simple stuff is already known.

Mathematicians also cannot become famous today for discovering that a^2+b^2=c^2 in a right-angled triangle. They also have to study the simple stuff for years, before they are able to contribute something new. Computer programmers also cannot make billions by writing a new MS DOS, even if it were better than original. Neither do they get paid for quoting Dijkstra correctly. Philosophers need to work harder than centuries ago, too.

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 12:59:19PM -2 points [-]

discussing deep topics about the world,

Are truth, meaning, beauty and goodness about the world? They are just not susceptible to straightforward empirical enquiry. People study Plato on the Good, because there aren't good-ometers.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 December 2012 01:03:25PM 10 points [-]

People study Plato on the Good, because there aren't good-ometers.

(If Plato is not at least a little bit a good-ometer, there is no point in studying Plato for that purpose either.)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 December 2012 01:55:29PM *  18 points [-]

Beauty is about the world. More precisely, about humans. What makes humans perceive X as beautiful?

Required knowledge about the world: What happens in our brains? (Neuroscience, psychology, biology.) Do our beauty judgements change across cultures or centuries? (Sociology, anthropology, art history.) Do monkeys feel something similar? (Biology, ethology.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 December 2012 02:12:17PM *  3 points [-]

It might prove helpful to look at humans etc. to understand the things that trigger the topic of beauty, in the sense that you might learn interesting related ideas in greater detail by studying these things. But the detailed conditions of triggering the topic are not necessarily among them, so "What makes humans perceive X as beautiful?" may be a less useful question than "What are some representative examples of things that are perceived by humans as beautiful?". The world gives you detailed data for investigation, but you don't necessarily care about the data, the ideas it suggests might make the original data irrelevant at some point.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 December 2012 12:32:55PM 21 points [-]

The world is complicated.

Comment author: adamisom 06 December 2012 09:10:01AM *  1 point [-]

The only time I've ever read a vague four-word sentence that deserves an upvote. Such things tickle me.

Comment author: Nominull 04 December 2012 07:03:46PM 8 points [-]

Yeah, it sucks that you can't do good philosophy without knowing a ton of other stuff, but that's life. We don't listen to electrical engineers when they complain about needing to know nitty-gritty calculus, and that's a year of study for someone with an IQ over 150. Sometimes fields have prerequisites.

Comment author: Bugmaster 04 December 2012 07:40:40PM 4 points [-]

You could do good programming without knowing too much physics. You could probably do good physics without knowing too much machine learning, assuming you have someone in your department who does know machine learning. You could do good biology with chemistry alone, though that requires minimal physics, as well.

But lukeprog's curriculum / reading list suggests that you can't do good philosophy without knowing math, machine learning, physics, psychology, and a bunch of other subjects. If that is true, then virtually no one can do good philosophy at all, because absorbing all the prerequisites will take a large portion of most people's lifetimes.

Comment author: thomblake 04 December 2012 08:09:44PM 10 points [-]

If that is true, then virtually no one can do good philosophy at all, because absorbing all the prerequisites will take a large portion of most people's lifetimes.

It doesn't really take that long to learn things. But good philosophy already looks like this - my favorite political philosophy professor threw out references to computing, physics, history, etc. assuming students would get the references or look them up. Much like pride is the crown of the virtues, philosophy should be the crown of the sciences.

Comment author: Nominull 05 December 2012 05:26:01AM *  14 points [-]

And we independently observe that almost no one can do good philosophy at all, so the theory checks out.

Nothing better than a hypothesis that makes correct empirical predictions!

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 06:16:43PM *  3 points [-]

Propositional and predicate calculus is routinely taught in undergraduate philosophy programs. Does taking the time to acquire such skills make people 'less philosophical'? Bugmaster, it sounds like you're buying into the meme that true philosophy must avoid being too rigorous; if a paper consists mostly of equations or formalized proofs, it's somehow less philosophical even if contentwise it's nothing but an exegesis of Kant. This deep error is responsible not only for a lot of the philosophical laziness lukeprog takes issue with, but also for our conception of philosophical fields like metaphysics as being clearly distinguishable from theoretical physics, or of philosophy of mind as being clearly distinguishable from theoretical neuroscience. Define your academic fields however you otherwise want, but don't define them in terms of how careful they're allowed to become!

Comment author: johnsonmx 06 December 2012 11:35:50PM *  4 points [-]

Another view of Philosophy, which I believe Russell also subscribed to (but I can't seem to find a reference for presently) is that philosophy was the 'mother discipline'. It was generative. You developed your branch of Philosophy until you got your ontology and methodology sorted out, and then you stopped calling what you were doing philosophy. (This has the amusing side-effect of making anything philosophers say wrong by definition-- sometimes useful, but always wrong.)

The Natural Sciences, Psychology, Logic, Mathematics, Linguistics-- they all got their start this way.

That's how Philosophy used to work. Nowadays, I think the people who can do that type of "mucking around with complex questions of ontology and methodology" thinking have largely moved on to other disciplines. If we define Philosophy as this messily complex discipline-generating process, it no longer happens in the discipline we call "Philosophy".[1]

That said--- while I would personally enjoy the "intro to philosophy" syllabus Luke proposes, I think it's a stretch to label the course a philosophy course, much less [The One And True] Intro To Philosophy. It's cool and a great idea, but the continuity with many models (be they aspirational or descriptive) of Philosophy is fairly tenuous, and without a lot of continuity I think it'd be hard to push into established departments.[2]

If we're speaking more modestly, that philosophers should be steeped in modern science and logic and that when they're not, what they do is often worse than useless, I can certainly agree with that.

[1] E.g., Axiology.

[2] Why not call it "introduction to scientific epistemology"?

Comment author: thomblake 04 December 2012 03:29:17PM 4 points [-]

Speaking as someone who has read a lot of philosophy...

If I had a boatload of money, I would currently be throwing it at you to make this thing happen.

Comment author: TraderJoe 04 December 2012 09:10:05AM 4 points [-]

I like this post. Can you think of any pre-20th century philosophers whose works you still hold to be valid/useful today? [or from that list, any pre-21st century...]

Comment author: lukeprog 04 December 2012 09:57:34AM *  22 points [-]

Hume turns out to have been right about an awful lot, but still... why read Hume when you can read contemporary works of science and philosophy there are clearer, more precise, and more correct? (If you're reading Hume for his lovely prose, I suppose that's a different matter.)

Speaking of Hume, the Nov. 30th episode of Philosophy Bites was kind of amusing. A bunch of philosophers, including famous ones, gave their answers to "Who's your favorite philosopher?" IIRC, when giving their reasons for liking their favorite philosopher, almost nobody said "because this philosopher turned out to be correct about so much" — except for all the people who picked Hume.

Bostrom simply said: "I'm not sure I have one favorite philosopher. Contemporary philosophy, at least the way I'm doing it, is more like science in that there are many people who have made significant contributions and you're not so much following in the footsteps of one great individual. [Instead] you're drawing on the heritage accumulated by many people working for a long time."

Comment author: Benquo 04 December 2012 07:18:00PM 12 points [-]

Because Hume drew correct conclusions from very little information (relative to what it took for Science to catch up), and I want to learn how to do that.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:23:16AM 8 points [-]

Good answer.

Qiaochu_Yuan has a point, but Hume was conspicuously right about so many things that almost everyone around him was wrong about, I think there might indeed be some "Humeness" having an effect going on there. Maybe: unusual good rationality. Or maybe he was a plant from our simulators.

Comment author: army1987 05 December 2012 04:25:11PM 3 points [-]

Or maybe he was a plant from our simulators.

What about Epicurus.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 04 December 2012 11:17:02PM *  5 points [-]

It's not clear that Hume having drawn correct conclusions from very little information comes from any essential Humeness that you should be trying to emulate. If the set of reasonable-sounding answers to the kinds of questions philosophers like Hume were thinking about is small enough, you'd expect that out of a sufficiently large pool of philosophers some of them would get it mostly right by sheer luck (e.g. Democritus and atoms). You'd need evidence that Hume was doing very well even after adjusting for this before he becomes worth studying.

(I say this knowing almost nothing about Hume - I last took a philosophy course over 8 years ago - and so if it's obvious that Hume was doing very well even after adjusting for the above then sure, study Hume.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 05 December 2012 10:57:46AM 6 points [-]

if it's obvious that Hume was doing very well even after adjusting for the above

This seems to be the case.

Comment author: BerryPick6 04 December 2012 02:05:19PM 2 points [-]

As I was reading your post, I kept thinking to myself: "Yeah, well this applies to almost everybody except for Hume (some of the time)" so I find myself nodding along to everything you said in this comment.

Comment author: katydee 04 December 2012 12:28:17PM 5 points [-]

I'm not Luke, and I'm not even sure this is what he would count as philosophy, but the Stoics were right about an awful lot of practical things to help you live a better life, and research now seems to be indicating that their techniques do in fact work.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 04 December 2012 01:15:42PM 9 points [-]

Minor nitpick:

Those aren't the world's top 5 philosophy departments, those are the top 5 for the United States. In the rankings for the English-speaking world, Oxford is #2 after NYU (after that the rankings are the same until you get down to ANU and Toronto, which are tied with a bunch of other schools for #15).

Furthermore, the Philosophical Gourmet Report doesn't try to compare English-speaking and non-English-speaking universities.

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:12:55AM 2 points [-]

Fixed.

Comment author: asayers 11 December 2012 02:34:49AM 3 points [-]

In fact, you might be interested to know that Oxford offers its undergraduate philosophy largely in the form of Physics/Philosophy, Maths/Philosophy, and CS/Philosophy joint-honours degrees. These provide the mathematical/scientific prerequisites you mentioned while introducing the philosophical issues associated with them.

Comment author: bryjnar 05 December 2012 09:45:48AM *  8 points [-]

So I have a couple of problems with this post.

Firstly, I think that luke simply has a very different idea of what philosophy ought to be doing compared to most philosophers. For example, most philosophers think that doing a fair amount of what is (more or less explicitly) History of Philosophy is a) of independent interest b) useful for training new philosophers and c) potentially fruitful.

I'm not terribly convinced by a), I have some sympathy with b) (many classic philosophers are surprisingly convincing and it's worth taking the time to figure out why they're wrong), and I strongly disagree with c) (if they had good insights, there should be better presentations of them by now!). I think the disagreement about a) is the most important, however, as it indicates a simple difference in what people are trying to do with philosophy.

On that ground it just seems childish of luke to criticise Article #2 on the grounds that it's really history: of course it is, that's part of what philosophy departments do. So luke wants to change the way philosophy tends to be done, fine, but it's churlish to assume that that's the way things already are and that the current practitioners are just bad at it.

Secondly, I think I disagree with luke about what a lot of philosophy is trying to do. Luke finds a lot of so-called "linguistic" philosophy frustrating because he doesn't feel it solves problems that are "out there". I'd say that it's not trying to. The clearest way I can think of to put it is like this: philosophy is often trying to solve the problems that ordinary people come up against when they use words. In that situation it's highly relevant to find out, say, what they mean by the word "knowledge", as otherwise your answers will have no relevance to the epistemic concepts they actually use.

Philosophers aren't trying to build an AI, so they're not usually so interested in the ideal epistemology. They're interested in what humans are doing. And that involves a lot of probing the language that humans use. In particular, the much-maligned thought-experiments and "intuitions" are actually perfectly respectable data about what the author, as a competent language-user thinks about the words in question (which is what the author in article #3 is presumably trying to do in a specialised way). I think it's a confusion to think that thought-experiments are meant to tell us about the deep structure of the world! (admittedly, this is a mistake that is made by some philosophers!)

Basically, luke wants to do something completely different to most philosophers, and so is confused that they don't seem to be doing what he wants them to do.

Couple of other things:

  • For the record, I think that plenty of philosophers write lots of bullshit, but then so does everyone else. Philosophy is hard, people go astray.
  • Article #4... it's discussing some of the potential implications of atheism with regards to people's responses to various artworks. What's so problematic?
Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 December 2012 01:05:34AM 1 point [-]

What would an ideal epistemology be? I'm not asking for the ideal epistemology itself, but just how could you tell whether you'd developed one? Or if you were at least getting closer to it?

Comment author: lavalamp 06 December 2012 09:52:24PM 7 points [-]
Comment author: Mass_Driver 06 December 2012 11:33:22PM 4 points [-]

I honestly have no idea which, if any, of the reddit philosphers are trolling. It's highly entertaining reading, though.

Comment author: chaosmosis 07 December 2012 01:40:38AM 1 point [-]

I hate that sub. I was subbed for like a week before I realized that it was always awful like that.

Comment author: Peterdjones 10 December 2012 09:17:11PM 3 points [-]

And here's a philosopher correcting a scientist

"The interconnection of neuroscience and free will has many researchers trying to make bold claims about their findings. In my last post I called Sam Harris’ conclusion that “free will is an illusion” into question. Specifically, I suggested that there were competing interpretations that could be made from the data that neuroscientist Benjamin Libet was using to debunk free will (I mentioned Al Mele’s interpretation as a counterexample to Libet’s). Finally, some neuroscientists seem to have considered Mele’s suggestion (though interestingly I read no reference to Mele) and did some science to test his alternative interpretation. It turns out that Mele was right,and in turn, that Libet was a bit hasty with his conclusion, as was Sam Harris. Click here for the New Scientist article detailing the study. So it seems that the criticisms I levied against Harris might have more sticking power as a result. Seems that Libet has been debunked and not free will. Below you’ll find some central points directly taken from the New Scientist article."

Comment author: Stabilizer 06 December 2012 02:03:14AM *  3 points [-]

You seem to want philosophers to start being generalists who understand the cutting edge that science and math have to offer. But what kind of contributions do you expect them to make: some examples where a philosopher added critical insight because of his/her generalist background would be nice. Clark Glymour was a good one, but his work seems to have been just math and CS (I maybe wrong). Do you think his background as a generalist made it more likely for him to achieve his insights, compared to say someone with just a math or CS background?

Also, do you expect that the kind of philosophers you are proposing could someday be hired by the private sector?

Comment author: beoShaffer 05 December 2012 12:14:53AM *  3 points [-]

I'm not sure if this really applies to philosophers in general or just a few that have been commenting here, but I think I've found one source of friction. It seems that SI/Luke care about problems/questions that are different enough from what philosophers think their field is about for even good(by its own standards) philosophy to be largely worthless for SI's purposes, while still being similar enough on the surface for a lot of destructive interference to happen. By destructive interference I mean things like LWers thinking that phil should have relevant answers because it addresses similar sounding questions, third parties thinking that SI type work belongs in phil journals/departments/grant slots even when its not really appropriate to that venue, having irrelevant phil papers pop up due to overloaded keywords ect.

Comment author: tetsuo55 04 December 2012 10:43:02AM 3 points [-]

Would you consider turning this knowledge into an actual curriculum that includes practice problems and exams?

I'm thinking of something in the lines of MIT's free curriculum and Khan Academy's Math section. I have no problem with still linking to these text books as long as the freely available curriculum made by you or your team fills the gaps and there are plenty of ways to test understanding. I name khan's math section specifically because it uses that infinite practice problems and 10 in a row signals proficiency and has built in SRS.

Unlike khan however i would want to see mastery of whatever is the current status of the field instead of the low target of a certain school's exam requirements.

Comment author: glaucon 04 December 2012 12:34:58PM 15 points [-]

The things on your curriculum don't seem like philosophy at all in the contemporary sense of the word. They are certainly very valuable at figuring out the answers to concrete questions within their particular domains. But they are less useful for understanding broader questions about the domains themselves or the appropriateness of the questions. Learning formal logic, for example, isn't that much help in understanding what logic is. Likewise, knowing how people make moral decisions is not at all the same as knowing what the moral thing to do would be. I gather your point is that it's only certain concrete questions that have any real meaning.

This naive logical positivism is dismaying in a blog about rationality. I certainly agree that there is plenty of garbage philosophy, and that most of Aristotle's scientific claims were wrong. But the problem with logical positivism is that its claim about what's meaningful and what isn't fails to be a meaningful claim under its own criteria.

Your dismissal of certain types of philosophy inevitably rests on particular implicit answers to the kinds of philosophical questions you dismiss as worthless (like what makes a philosophical idea wrong?). Dismissing those questions—failing to think through the assumptions on which your viewpoint rests—only guarantees that your answers to those questions will be pretty bad. And that's something that you could learn from a careful reading of Plato.

Comment author: RobbBB 04 December 2012 06:42:59PM *  7 points [-]

Learning formal logic, for example, isn't that much help in understanding what logic is.

It certainly doesn't hurt! Learning formal logic gives you data with which to test meta-logical theories. Moreover, learning formal logic helps in understanding everything; and logic is one of the things, so, there ya go. Instantiate at will.

Likewise, knowing how people make moral decisions is not at all the same as knowing what the moral thing to do would be.

Sure. But for practical purposes (and yes, there are practical philosophical purposes), you can't be successful in either goal without some measure of success in both.

I gather your point is that it's only certain concrete questions that have any real meaning.

Where does lukeprog say that? And by 'meaning' do you mean importance, or do you mean semantic content?

But the problem with logical positivism is that its claim about what's meaningful and what isn't fails to be a meaningful claim under its own criteria.

Lukeprog and Eliezer are not logical positivists in the relevant sense. And although logical positivism is silly, it's not silly for obvious reasons like 'it's self-refuting;' it isn't self-refuting. The methodology of logical positivism is asserted by positivists as an imperative, not as a truth-apt description of anything.

Dismissing those questions—failing to think through the assumptions on which your viewpoint rests—only guarantees that your answers to those questions will be pretty bad.

In some cases, yes. But why do you think lukeprog is dismissing those questions? He wrote, "I think many philosophical problems are important. But the field of philosophy doesn't seem to be very good at answering them. What can we do? Why, come up with better philosophical methods, of course!" Lukeprog's objection is to how people answer philosophical questions, more so than to the choice of questions themselves. (Though I'm sure there will be some disagreement on the latter point as well. Not all grammatical questions are well-formed.)

Comment author: glaucon 04 December 2012 10:43:15PM 1 point [-]

I think that logical positivism generally is self-refuting. It typically makes claims about what is meaningful that would be meaningless under its own standards. It generally also depends on an ideas about what counts as observable or analytically true that also are not defensible—again, under its own standards. It doesn't change things to say formulate it as a methodological imperative. If the methodology of logical positivism is imperative, then on what grounds? Because other stuff seems silly?

I am obviously reading something into lukeprog's post that may not be there. But the materials on his curriculum don't seem very useful in answering a broad class of questions in what is normally considered philosophy. And when he's mocking philosophy abstracts, he dismisses the value of thinking about what counts as knowledge. But if that's not worthwhile, then, um, how does he know?

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 01:03:52PM *  7 points [-]

The things on your curriculum don't seem like philosophy at all in the contemporary sense of the word.

Reforming phil. and leaving it alone are not the only options. There is also the option of setting up a new cross-disciplinary subject parallel to Cognitive Science

Comment author: orthonormal 06 December 2012 04:41:04AM 4 points [-]

Have you taken a math class in formal logic? (The one with models, proofs, soundness and completeness, Gödel's Theorem, etc, not the ersatz philosophy-department one that thinks syllogisms are complicated.) I'd be surprised if you had, and still considered it irrelevant to doing philosophy well.

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 01:09:12PM *  3 points [-]

Likewise, knowing how people make moral decisions is not at all the same as knowing what the moral thing to do would be.

Quite. It is a perfectly coherent possibility that the moral instincts given to us by evolution are broken in some way, so that studying morlaity form the evolutionary perspective does't resolve the "what is the right thing to do" question at all. The interesting thing here is that a lot of material on LW is dedicated to an exactly parallel with argument about ratioanlity: our rationality is broken and needs to be fixed. How can EY be so open to the one possibility and so oblivious to the other?

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 December 2012 02:19:29PM 4 points [-]

It is a perfectly coherent possibility that the moral instincts given to us by evolution are broken in some way

What do you mean by "broken", here?

Comment author: BerryPick6 04 December 2012 02:10:24PM 3 points [-]

Quite. It is a perfectly coherent possibility that the moral instincts given to us by evolution are broken in some way, so that studying morlaity form the evolutionary perspective does't resolve the "what is the right thing to do" question at all[...] How can EY be so open to the one possibility and so oblivious to the other?

He has attempted to address this issue in the Meta-Ethics sequence, although I find his points on this specific matter very confusing and I was very disappointing with it compared to the other sequences.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 04 December 2012 11:27:39AM 14 points [-]

Your examples of bad philosophy ... your reasons why they are bad ... aargh! Apparently it's bad to (1) reason about psychology (2) use the ideas of ancient philosophers (3) argue about definitions (4) mention religion at all. (I'm just guessing that this is the problem with the last item in the list.)

So far as I can see, the only problem you should have with papers 1 and 3 is that they're not sexy enough to hold your interest. They're not bursting at the seams with citations of experimental psychology or computational epistemology. Really, you shouldn't dismiss paper 2 as you do either, but I concede that seeing value in the psychological reflections of antiquity would require unusual broadmindedness. (Paper 4 is just oddball and I won't try to defend it as a representative of an important and unjustly maligned class of philosophical research.)

Concerning your curriculum for philosophy students, well, such zeal as yours is the basis for the renewal of a subject, but in the end I still think something like Plato and Kant would be a better foundation than Pearl and Kahneman. Causal diagrams and behavioral economics do not touch the why of causation or the how of conscious knowledge. If they were not complemented by something that promoted an awareness of the issues that these formalisms inherently do not answer, then philosophically they would define just another dogma parading itself as truth.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 December 2012 12:57:47PM 10 points [-]

something like Plato and Kant would be a better foundation than Pearl and Kahneman. Causal diagrams and behavioral economics do not touch the why of causation or the how of conscious knowledge.

Please help me compare: what useful things does Plato say about the why of causation, and why should I believe him? How can I use Plato's knowledge about causality to achieve things in the real world (except for impressing people by quoting him)?

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 05 December 2012 01:42:54AM 1 point [-]

How can I use Plato's knowledge about causality to achieve things in the real world

Aristotle is a more straightforward example. If you made an effort to understand Aristotle's four types of causes and ten categories of being - if you critically tried out that worldview for a while, tried to understand your own knowledge and experience in those terms, identified where it works and where it doesn't, the logic of the part that works and the problem with the part that doesn't - it would undoubtedly be instructive. Aristotle is such a systematic thinker, you might even fall in love with his system and become a neo-Aristotelian, bringing it up to date and evangelizing its relevance for today's world.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 05 December 2012 01:53:18AM *  11 points [-]

This seems to be more indicative that if one thinks hard enough about any world view it will seem to be useful and make sense. This is essentially as much of an argument to take Aristotle seriously as C. S. Lewis's claim that "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." is an argument to take Christianity seriously.

This doesn't answer the question or even the type of question as phrased by Viliam. The claim isn't that you can use a systematic approach to make your own thoughts ordered in some fashion, but how to make the claims pay rent.

Comment author: Strange7 07 December 2012 02:19:02AM 3 points [-]

Beating moistened clay against cold iron has a similar effect. On what basis do you claim Aristotle's memeload is preferable, beyond it's ability to make impressions?

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 08 December 2012 12:14:06AM 2 points [-]

Aristotle's categories and causes are all very familiar concepts, so familiar that people don't reflect on them. These "memes" are already there, they're just not organised and criticised. It's like physics. You can go through life without ever sorting out your ideas about force, energy, momentum... or you can take a few steps on the road which leads, if you continue along it, to arcana like the mass of the Higgs boson. Similarly, you can go through life without wondering what it means to "have a property" or to "be a cause", or, you can take up metaphysics. Aristotle is to metaphysics what Newton is to physics, one of the early landmark thinkers whose subsequent imprint is ubiquitous.

Comment author: paper-machine 04 December 2012 12:23:40PM *  3 points [-]

I myself am willing to go out on a limb and say paper 4 is possibly worth thinking about and not blatant trolling. I presume lukeprog wouldn't have a problem with a paper proposing an fMRI comparison study of atheist/theist Bach listeners. But one would first have to justify such an expense, no? Or at least formulate an hypothesis:

So what is the (appreciative) Christian experience of (great) religious music like? It is plausible to think that the following features are at least characteristic of it: (i) the sung text is taken to convey maximally deep and important truths about existence and the world — including, for example, truths about God, Christ, and the possibility of human salvation — and to convey them in a peculiarly powerful way; (ii) this power is registered, often or usually, in the emotional involvement that such works invite, so that listeners are stirred to feelings of, for example, wonder at the glory of God, gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice, or hope at the prospect of redemption; (iii) ‘emotional and spiritual succour’ is taken in the apprehension of these truths and the stirring of their attendant feelings; and (iv) this succour underwrites a very high valuation of the works which offer it.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 December 2012 01:07:58PM 3 points [-]

I presume lukeprog wouldn't have a problem with a paper proposing an fMRI comparison study of atheist/theist Bach listeners.

I hope lukeprog would not give a paper credence just because it did sciencey stuff and maths. There is, after all, the famous dead fish study which, as it happens, used fMRI. We have already learned that there is a lot of junk science in medicine and in nutrition. So also in neuroscience.

Luke, how does the Dolan & Sharot book measure up by the standards of science as it should be done?

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 12:47:44PM *  1 point [-]

Aaagh!

Seconded.

Plato and Kant would be a better foundation than Pearl and Kahneman.

They're a necessary foundation, because you can't understand Kripke without understanding Kant (etc). That has nothing to do with reverence.

Comment author: sbenthall 23 December 2012 03:57:26AM 5 points [-]

Luke, this is my first comment on LessWrong so forgive me if I'm missing some of the zeitgeist. But I was wondering if you could elaborate on a couple points:

You recommend replacing ethics with moral psychology and decision theory. Hearing that, I'm concerned that replacing ethics with moral psychology would be falling for a naive is/ought fallacy: just because most people's psychological makeup makes them consider morality in a certain way does not make those moral intuitions correct. And replacing ethics with decision theory would be sidestepping the metaethical question about the legitimacy of consequentialism.

You've also left out any political theory from your syllabus. That is disappointing, since one of the roles that philosophy plays when performing at its best is uniting epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy. Plato and Kant, for example, were attempting to do that. How do you see your curriculum weighing in on questions like "What is justice?"

As for my background, I studied cognitive science as an undergraduate with a focus on complexity theory and artificial intelligence, but have also spent a lot of time reading and discussing other philosophy. While I think I understand the thrust of your argument (it's one I would have made myself when I was an undergrad), I've been since convinced of the value of other schools of thought.

I'd argue that, say, continental philosophers are not as sloppy as computer scientists or analytically trained philosophers accuse them of. Rather they have a specialized vocabulary (just like other specialists) for some very difficult but powerful concepts. Often these concepts pertain to social and political life. These concepts aren't easily reducible to a naturalized cognitivist wordview because they deal with transpersonal phenomena. That doesn't mean they lack utility though.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 23 December 2012 04:10:33AM *  5 points [-]

I'm concerned that replacing ethics with moral psychology would be falling for a naive is/ought fallacy: just because most people's psychological makeup makes them consider morality in a certain way does not make those moral intuitions correct.

I don't think Luke would disagree with this statement. The point of learning moral psychology, as I understand it, is not to adopt moral psychology as moral philosophy; it's to understand where moral intuitions come from. Luke doesn't want philosophers studying intuitionist moral philosophy, as I understand it, because it doesn't provide an accurate account of how people actually make moral decisions in practice.

You've also left out any political theory from your syllabus.

My understanding is that there is a standing agreement on LW not to discuss politics; see the Politics is the Mind-Killer sequence.

These concepts aren't easily reducible to a naturalized cognitivist wordview because they deal with transpersonal phenomena.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by this? (I am not sure exactly what you mean by "a naturalized cognitivist worldview" or by "transpersonal phenomena.")

Comment author: Wei_Dai 05 February 2014 06:54:33AM 2 points [-]

Someone asked me via PM, in reference to this post, "Do you have any specific recommendations on the most useful fields, ideas, or techniques thus far [for solving FAI-related philosophical problems]?" I figure I'd answer here publicly in case anyone else finds my answer helpful. This is a list of topics that I studied over the years that I think contributed most to what philosophical progress I managed to make. (The order given here is not very significant. It's just roughly the order in which I encountered and started studying these topics.)

  • evolutionary biology and psychology
  • computer science (theory of computation, algorithms, data structures, OS, compiler, languages)
  • math (number theory, probability, statistics)
  • cryptography
  • game theory
  • anthropic reasoning / indexical uncertainty
  • Tegmark's Ultimate Ensemble
  • algorithmic information theory, AIXI
  • logic, recusion theory
  • decision theory
  • philosophy of science, philosophy of math, ethics
Comment author: byrdman 04 December 2012 03:54:06PM *  2 points [-]

I see you're point. Many philosophers still like reading and writing about dead people rather than looking to science for entertainment and answers. However, it is a hasty generalization to infer from this fact that "philosophy is a diseased discipline which spends much of its time debating definitions, ignoring relevant scientific results, and endlessly re-interpreting old dead guys who didn't know the slightest bit of 20th century science." And it is a bit myopic to think that your suggestion has not already been addressed by numerous institutions.

Plenty of philosophers study contemporary science and statistics about as much as philosophy. I myself am very interested in understanding philosophical cognition, and I am by no means alone in that interest.

The reason most departments do not teach what you want them to teach is because almost no one in a philosophy department specializes in what you are after, otherwise they would not be (solely) in the philosophy department. So to do what you want, universities would have to offer philosophy degrees that are interdisciplinary...and they already do. CU Boulder, UCSD, and GSU all offer PhDs in philosophy and neuroscience, for example.

This post has me wondering if we should make basic philosophy (and by basic I do not mean "ancient") compulsory for computer science, engineering, and science majors. Perhaps that would obviate the need for unwarranted commentary like this post.

Comment author: fortyeridania 04 December 2012 04:27:39PM 9 points [-]

Downvoted for sloganeering and applause-lighting.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 December 2012 05:25:46PM 13 points [-]

That's quite an applause-lighting slogan you have there.

Comment author: rocurley 04 December 2012 07:31:48PM 11 points [-]

<Insert infinite descent>

Comment author: Nisan 05 December 2012 06:54:21AM 5 points [-]

ω+1

Comment author: lukeprog 05 December 2012 07:06:27AM 2 points [-]

Could you be more specific?

Comment author: fortyeridania 06 December 2012 02:47:54PM *  18 points [-]

Yes, good idea.

  1. The "reactions" to the abstracts of philosophical papers are a clear example of what I mean. To me, these alternating sections of carefully worded academic abstracts, followed by a few words of sarcastic barb, feel too much like a solid dig at the other side instead of a thoughtful argument.

  2. Another example of "yay-science"-ing: The post mentions with approval a suggestion to defund all university philosophy programs that don't lead to scientific advances. Of course, if philosophy were only useful for its impact on science and engineering, then that might be a good idea. But that premise is not obviously true. However, the post appears to accept it uncritically.

  3. The opening quotation is flippant and hyperbolic, and is neither qualified nor argued for in the rest of the post.

  4. The proposed curriculum reform is a smorgasbord of LW interests (yay LW!). Yet the post does not argue for the curriculum. Instead, it asserts that curricula need more X and less Y, where X sounds scientific and Y sounds prehistoric. This is what I'd call sloganeering.

  5. Wording: Also in the curriculum bit, the post states that universities teach students to "revere" failed methods. Perhaps true, but unsubstantiated here. Also, I think the word "revere" is a boo-button for rationalists--we know we're no supposed to revere things, especially not old thinkers, so hearing that someone is revered presses a button and we say "Boo to old thinkers! Hooray for scientific progress!" (OK, that one might be just me.)

I think any of these would have been OK had the rest of the post been exceptionally meaty, but this one was not.

Comment author: lukeprog 07 December 2012 04:53:35PM 4 points [-]

these alternating sections of carefully worded academic abstracts, followed by a few words of sarcastic barb, feel too much like a solid dig at the other side instead of a thoughtful argument

The 'thoughtful argument' parts are often hosted in other posts. I generally try not to write 20-page posts, but to break things into pieces. E.g. my reaction to abstract #3 is backed up here and here.

The post mentions with approval...

No, it doesn't.

The opening quotation is flippant and hyperbolic, and is neither qualified nor argued for in the rest of the post.

Right, the purpose of this post isn't to argue that specific point. What's your view, here? That an article should argue for every claim it makes? I doubt that's what you intend, as that would mean that each article actually becomes a book.

Yet the post does not argue for the curriculum...

Hmmm. Maybe I could give a lot more detail about why I made those specific recommendations in a discussion post or something.

I think the word "revere" is a boo-button for rationalists...

Fair enough, I'll edit that.

Comment author: Peterdjones 07 December 2012 05:32:39PM 1 point [-]

The 'thoughtful argument' parts are often hosted in other posts. I generally try not to write 20-page posts, but to break things into pieces. E.g. my reaction to abstract #3 is backed up here and here.

It isn't remotely clear to me from the abstract that the author is "arguing about the definition" of knowledge at all.

Incidentally, I have noticed in that LWers often are not good at distinguishing between saying something novel about what X is, and changing the definition of X.

Comment author: fortyeridania 19 December 2012 01:01:01PM 1 point [-]
  1. There is no need to write a 20-page post, let alone a book. But that doesn't mean your only remaining option is barb. Regarding the responses to those philosophical articles, you could have responded briefly yet earnestly.

  2. As for the Russell quotation: No, I do not think an article should argue for every claim it makes. (It would not be a book; it would be a universe.) But the quotation was a dig at those self-important philosophers. That's why, I thought, it made the post seem applause-lighty.

  3. I guess you're right that the post doesn't really approve of Glymour's suggestion. I mistakenly read your approval into it.

  4. Thanks for keeping the tone of this thread reasonable.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 04 December 2012 06:23:39PM 3 points [-]

There don't seem to be anything that shouldn't be changed, and thus it seems meaningless to keep the label "philosophy". Hence why I object to saying LW is about philosophy as well. The ONLY similarity is that it tries to resolve questions (previously) though to be the domain of philosophy to solve, but that used to be the case with many other things that are now their own sciences. I say just plain scrap all of philosophy, and move all the supposed tasks of it that are worth keeping over to new fields if they aren't resolved by existing ones already.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2012 06:27:30PM *  7 points [-]

I say just plain scrap all of philosophy, and move all the supposed tasks of it that are worth keeping over to new fields if they aren't resolved by existing ones already.

There are a series of statements like this in Luke's post and in the comments. I don't understand them. What would it mean to 'scrap philosophy'? Would someone from like the government have to come along and make it illegal or something? It doesn't seem like there's any way to change philosophy, or eradicate it, except by arguing with philosophers and convincing them to do something else. Is that what 'scrap philosophy' means?

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 07:08:08PM 4 points [-]

Would someone from like the government have to come along and make it illegal or something?

Presumably s/he means de-funding everything that pretends to be philosophy, but is, in fact, history of thought, and so belongs in the history department.

Comment author: DSimon 04 December 2012 06:44:08PM 3 points [-]

I think it would be something more along the lines of spreading a meme that says "Let's just ignore philosophy, it's pretty much a waste of time."

This is happening already to some degree. It would have to be a heck of a lot more infectious of a meme to actually destroy philosophy as a field, though.

Comment author: [deleted] 04 December 2012 06:56:54PM *  5 points [-]

I think it would be something more along the lines of spreading a meme that says "Let's just ignore philosophy, it's pretty much a waste of time."

That's been a meme since 400 BC, and it remains by far the dominant view today among laypeople, scientists, economists, etc. Basically, the only people who think philosophy is worth pursuing are philosophers. If that's all you mean by 'scrapping philosophy' then the job is long since done.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 December 2012 02:34:44PM 2 points [-]

it remains by far the dominant view today among laypeople, scientists, economists,

Meanwhile, back in reality:

"Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) is a popular interdisciplinary undergraduate/graduate degree which combines study from the three disciplines."

Alain de Botton's pop philosphy sells millions, presumably to laypeople.

And philosophers appear with scientists at interdisciplinary conferences

Comment author: DSimon 04 December 2012 07:06:12PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, this is true. Maybe scrapping philosophy means just not funding it anymore?

Comment author: davidpearce 15 December 2012 09:59:42PM 3 points [-]

Much of professional analytic philosophy makes my heart sink too. Reading Kant isn't fun - even if he gains in translation. But I don't think we can just write off Kant's work, let alone the whole of still unscientised modern philosophy. In particular, Kant's exploration of what he calls "The Transcendental Unity of Apperception" (aka the unity of the self) cuts to the heart of the SIAI project - not least the hypothetical and allegedly imminent creation of unitary, software-based digital mind(s) existing at some level of computational abstraction. No one understands how organic brains manage to solve the binding problem (cf. http://lafollejournee02.com/texts/body_and_health/Neurology/Binding.pdf) - let alone how to program a classical digital computer to do likewise. The solution IMO bears on everything from Moravec's Paradox (why is a sesame-seed-brained bumble bee more competent in open-field contexts than DARPA's finest?) to the alleged prospect of mind uploading, to the Hard Problem of consciousness.

Presumably, superintelligence can't be more stunted in its intellectual capacities than biological humans. Therefore, hypothetical nonbiological AGI will need a capacity to e.g. explore multiple state spaces of consciousness; close Levine's Explanatory Gap (cf. http://cognet.mit.edu/posters/TUCSON3/Levine.html) map out the "neural correlates of consciousness"; and investigate qualia that natural selection hasn't recruited for any information-processing purpose at all. Yet classical digital computers are still zombies. No one understands how classical digital computers (or a massively classically parallel connectionist architecture, etc) could be otherwise / or indeed have any insight into their zombiehood. [At this point, some hard-nosed behaviourist normally interjects that biological robots arezombies - and qualia are a figment of the diseased philosophical imagination. Curiously, the behaviourist never opts to forgo anaesthesia before surgery. Why not save money and permit his surgeons to use merely muscle relaxants to induce muscular paralysis instead?]

The philosophy of language?Anyone who believes in the possibility of singleton AGI should at least be aware of Wittgenstein's Anti-Private Language Argument. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein_on_Rules_and_Private_Language) What is the nature of the linguistic competence, i.e. the capacity for meaning and reference, possessed by a notional singleton superintelligence?

Anyone who has studied Peter Singer - or Gary Francione - may wonder if the idea of distinctively Human-Friendly AGI is even intellectually coherent. (cf. "Aryan-Friendly" AGI or "Cannibal-Friendly" AGI?) Why not an impartial Sentience-Friendly AGI?

Hostility to "philosophical" questions has sometimes had intellectually and ethically catastrophic consequences in the natural sciences. Thus the naive positivism of the Copenhagen school retarded progress in pre-Everett quantum mechanics for over half a century. Everett himself, despairing at the reception of his work, went off to work for the Pentagon designing software targeting cities in thermonuclear war. In countless quasi-classical Everett branches, his software was presumably used in nuclear Armageddon.

And so forth...

Note that I'm not arguing that SIAI / lesswrongers don't have illuminating responses to all of the points above (and more!), merely that it might be naive to suggest that all of modern philosophy, Kant, and even Plato (cf. the Allegory of the Cave) are simply irrelevant. The price of ignoring philosophy isn't to transcend it but simply to give bad philosophical assumptions a free pass. History suggests that generation after generation believes they have finally solved all the problems of philosophy; and time and again philosophy buries its gravediggers.

But this time is different? Maybe...

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 04 December 2012 01:17:53PM 3 points [-]

When I saw the title "Religious Music for Godless Ears," I was sure it would be in some second rate journal, maybe Religious Studies at best. But nope! It's in freakin' Mind.

Comment author: scientism 07 December 2012 05:41:32PM 1 point [-]

It's extremely important to realise what Luke is doing here, even if you agree with it. Cognitive science is a sub-discipline of psychology established to reflect a particular philosophical position. Cognitive neuroscience is a sub-discipline of neuroscience established to reflect a particular philosophical position. In both cases the philosophical position, within that sub-discipline, is assumed rather than defended. What Luke is doing is: (1) denying the legitimacy of other parts of behavioural and neural science, thus misrepresenting the diversity of science; (2) using this to then rule in favour of a particular philosophical position within philosophy; but (3) misrepresenting it as making philosophy reflect modern science. So this is trying to establish a philosophical position as the de facto philosophical position without argument.

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2012 06:44:57PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for clearly expressing what is wrong with the current state of philosophy as practiced by professional philosophers. It sums up my own vague reservations pretty well. (Yes, I know, confirming evidence bias.) Catchy title, too. The next time I hear someone quoting Plato or Kant, I'll be tempted to reply "Bzzt! wrong P&K!".

Comment author: JoshuaZ 04 December 2012 01:44:52PM *  1 point [-]

So I've made this sort of argument before in a somewhat more limited form. The analogy I like to give is that we don't spend multiple semesters in chemistry discussing the classical elements and phlogiston (even though phlogiston did actually give testable predictions(contrary to some commonly made claims on LW). We mention them for a few days and go on. But in this context, while I'd favor less emphasis on the old philosophers, they are still worth reading to a limited extent, because they did phrase many of the basic questions (even if imprecisely) that are still relevant, and are necessary to understand the verbiage of contemporary discourse. Some of them even fit in with ideas that are connected to things that people at LW care about. For example, Kant's categorical imperative is very close to a decision-theory or game theory approach if one thinks about it as asking "what would happen if everyone made the choice that I do?" Even Pearl is writing in a context that assumes a fair bit of knowlege about classical notions. What is therefore I think needed is not a complete rejection of older philosophers, but a reduction in emphasis.

Comment author: BerryPick6 04 December 2012 02:16:04PM 6 points [-]

For example, Kant's categorical imperative is very close to a decision-theory or game theory approach if one thinks about it as asking "what would happen if everyone made the choice that I do?"

In my Intro to Moral Philosophy course, Kant's work was preceded by an introduction to basic game-theory and such, which most people understood much better than his actual work, so I don't really think his is a necessary foundation or a proper introduction in those fields

Comment author: chaosmosis 07 December 2012 06:08:11AM 0 points [-]

For example, Kant's categorical imperative is very close to a decision-theory or game theory approach if one thinks about it as asking "what would happen if everyone made the choice that I do?"

This is like the opposite of game theory. Assuming that everyone takes the same action as you instead of assuming that everyone does what is in their own best interest.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 07 December 2012 01:39:41PM 2 points [-]

Yes, at some level one can interpret Kant as saying something like "use decision theory, not game theory."

Comment author: chaosmosis 20 December 2012 08:07:14AM 1 point [-]

Quick Question, a few weeks later: would you be willing to take a guess as to what problems might have caused my comment to be downvoted? I'm stumped.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 December 2012 02:03:06PM 2 points [-]

No idea. I'm perplexed. Your comment seemed to me to be accurate and on point.

Comment author: Strange7 07 December 2012 12:49:50AM 1 point [-]

Reduction in the sense of cooking down to essentials? Hopefully someone has already gone over the classics with an eye toward identifying prerequisites and formulating adequate substitutes, and it would simply be a matter of adapting such work for our own use.

Comment author: alex_zag_al 26 December 2012 11:06:18PM *  1 point [-]

You recommend Howson & Urbach's "Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach." However, ET Jaynes had some fairly harsh things to say about this book in the References section of PT:LoS:

A curiously outdated work, which might have served a useful purpose 60 years earlier. Mostly a rehash of all the false starts of philosophers in the past, while offering no new insight into them and ignoring the modern developments by scientists, engineers, and economists which have made them obsolete. What little positive Bayesian material there is represents a level of understanding that Harold Jeffreys had surpassed 50 years earlier, minus the mathematics needed to apply it. They persist in the pre-Jeffreys notation, which fails to indicate the prior information in a probability symbol, take no note of nuisance parameters, and solve no problems.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of thing that I expect Jaynes to be right about though. He would certainly know what modern developments were missing, but I don't know if he can judge what's needed in a textbook on philosophy of science.

Are his criticisms here correct? Instead of reading Howson & Urbach, should I be looking for a book that contains what Jaynes says it's missing, and does not contain what Jaynes says is obselete?

Comment author: mwaser 17 December 2012 02:56:14PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: gwern 10 December 2012 06:58:58PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: h-H 08 December 2012 05:47:56AM *  1 point [-]

"old dead guys" is mind kill, and it sounds immature/impolite.

On the post itself, it'd be awesome if SIAI starts this in-house, something along the lines of semester long CFAR boot camp.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 06 December 2012 11:36:40PM 1 point [-]

The undergrad majors at Yale University typically follow lukeprog's suggestion -- there will be 20 classes on stuff that is thought to constitute cutting-edge, useful "political science" or "history" or "biology," and then 1 or 2 classes per major on "history of political science" or "history of history" or "history of biology." I think that's a good system. It's very important not to confuse a catalog of previous mistakes with a recipe for future progress, but for the same reasons that general history is interesting and worthwhile for the general public to know something about, the history of a given discipline is interesting and worthwhile for students of that discipline to look into.

Comment author: chaosmosis 06 December 2012 06:31:23AM *  1 point [-]

Hume and Nietzsche are both excellent exceptions to your general rule.

Also, #4 seems completely fine to me.

Comment author: Bruno_Coelho 06 December 2012 01:29:37AM 1 point [-]

Weatherson ask what could be done in other departments. R: all the formal methods(logic, decision and game theory), and empirical like x-phi. Besides, I don't want shut down philosophy departments, but I will be happy if they move to something like CMU + cogsci.