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thomblake comments on Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant - Less Wrong

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

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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: Strange7 06 December 2012 11:51:21PM 0 points [-]

Are you using some definition of "working" narrow enough to exclude all the stable bridges, faster microchips, mathematical proofs &c. being produced by people who were taught the current compromise?

Comment author: RobbBB 06 December 2012 11:56:05PM 1 point [-]

Yes, I am. If science education is working, then most students who take a science class should see a subsequent measurable long-term increase in scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, and general understanding. Our current way of teaching history may be having no positive effect even on our bridge-building, microchip-designing capacities. History as it's currently taught is if anything a distraction from those elements that are producing technological progress.

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: asparisi 05 December 2012 12:53:01AM 0 points [-]

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...

This would require a larger proportion of philosophy professors to admit that the debate is confused.

Comment author: Peterdjones 04 December 2012 04:57:25PM -3 points [-]

they do not put forth their opinions straightforwardly to undergrads

Philosophy isn't science and it isn't religion either.

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,

News to me. What's the right answer then?

Comment author: thomblake 04 December 2012 05:13:10PM 6 points [-]

News to me. What's the right answer then?

As is usually the case for a confused question, the answer is dissolving the question. Why do we care whether categories exist? If this is a question about the meanings of words, that's really just an empirical question about their usage. If it's a question of whether "cars" forms a meaningful cluster in conceptspace, we have lots of different ways of addressing that question that entirely sidestep the Realism/Nominalism debate.

Of course, it's hard to even pin down what people mean by Realism and Nominalism, so the above might not even be addressing the right confused question. As JS Mill noted, Nominalism when it was coined referred to the position that there are no universals other than names. But some see the debate as a continuation of the Plato/Aristotle debate about the existence of forms, while others see it as merely an irrelevant blip in the history of Medieval philosophy, preceded by the conflict between Materialism and Idealism and supplanted by more interesting conflicts such as Rationalism vs. Empiricism.

This sort of equivocation does not happen with key terms in a field that has its shit together.

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 December 2012 12:02:06PM 5 points [-]

If this is a question about the meanings of words, that's really just an empirical question about their usage. If it's a question of whether "cars" forms a meaningful cluster in conceptspace, we have lots of different ways of addressing that question that entirely sidestep the Realism/Nominalism debate.

And if it is about how a fundamental aspect of reality -- identity and difference -- works then we don't. The debate about universals is ongoing with people like Roger Penrose and David Armstrong weighing in.

This sort of equivocation does not happen with key terms in a field that has its shit together.

Uh huh. So what exactly are physical laws?

Comment author: Legolan 04 December 2012 05:22:27PM 2 points [-]

I largely agree with this answer. My view is that reductionist materialism implies that names are just a convenient way of discussing similar things, but there isn't something that inherently makes what we label a "car"; it's just an object made up of atoms that pattern matches what we term a "car." I suppose that likely makes me lean toward nominalism, but I find the overall debate generally confused.

I've taken several philosophy courses, and I'm always astonished by the absence of agreement or justification that either side can posit. I think the biggest problem is that many philosophers make some assumption without sufficient justification and then create enormously complex systems based on those assumptions. But since they don't argue for strenuous justification for the underlying premises (e.g. Platonic idealism), then ridiculous amounts of time ends up being wasted learning about all the systems, rather than figuring out how to test them for truth (or even avoiding analytical meaninglessness).

Comment author: RobbBB 05 December 2012 12:10:00PM 1 point [-]

I'm even less clear on what a "meaningful cluster in conceptspace" means than I am on the traditional philosophical formulations of the problem. What would a "meaningless" cluster in conceptspace look like? Is there a single unique conceptspace, and how is it defined?

Good philosophers must beware of equivocation. Universal is an ambiguous term, so taboo it and distinguish several things it's stood for:

  1. predicate - term that can be applied repeatedly. (If 'nominalism' is meant to reduce all universals to predicates, then it's an ill-conceived project, since it seems to be trying to explain commonality in general by reducing it to commonality between words; but if the latter is left unexplained, then commonality itself is left unexplained.)

  2. common nature - something intrinsically possessed by all the entities that share a property. An abiding 'essence,' some kind of 'quarkhood' that inheres in all the quarks. Common natures are a posit to explain similarity. They are worldly, thus completely unlike Platonic Forms.

  3. common cause - a single cause that has multiple effects. A Form acts as a common cause, but not a common nature, since on Plato's view they causally produce the recurrence of nature's patterns 'from the outside.' (In some ways, they're an anthropocentric precursor to Conway's Game of Life.) Like common natures, common causes can be posited with the intent of explaining why our universe exhibits similarity. If the question 'Why do properties recur at all?' or 'Why are some characteristics of the world the same as each other?' is well-formed, then there is nothing mysterious or ill-conceived about these posits, though they may perhaps by theoretically unnecessary, unenlightening, or ad-hoc.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 04 December 2012 08:22:40PM *  1 point [-]

they do not put forth their opinions straightforwardly to undergrads

Philosophy isn't science and it isn't religion either.

True. Why is this relevant?

Comment author: Peterdjones 05 December 2012 11:12:59AM -1 points [-]

If you expect it to work like science, it will look like bad science. That is what most of the "philosophy is bad" criticism boils down to.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 05 December 2012 02:39:55PM 1 point [-]

If you expect it to work like science, it will look like bad science.

I'm confused. The previous exchange was:

they do not put forth their opinions straightforwardly to undergrads

Philosophy isn't science and it isn't religion either.

True. Why is this relevant?

How does arguing that philosophy isn't science or religion help here?