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Doug_S. comments on Original Seeing - Less Wrong

44 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 October 2007 04:38AM

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Comment author: Doug_S. 14 October 2007 05:11:58AM 32 points [-]

::applauds::

I'm not quite sure what that meant, but it sounded great! ;)

Comment author: MarsColony_in10years 29 March 2015 01:52:00PM 3 points [-]

It looks like a lot of people are of a similar mind. Judging by the comments, most people seem to be taking this merely as a way around writer's block, or a praise of depth first analysis as a way to narrow down to "a topic about which others haven't already said everything". The most insightful comment (at least to my sense of quality) proclaims this:

If Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were a math textbook, the rule would be clear: "if you examine something, you will have something to say about it."

There is of course The Virtue of Narrowness, but what I think what Phaedrus is getting at is that people in general, not just in their writing, tend not to put much effort into thinking new thoughts and thinking for themselves. One tool he has apparently employed successfully on his students is to have them narrow the scopes of their essays, forcing them to think for themselves rather than echo back what other people had already said. But reading just this segment of the story out of context might be a little like reading one of Yudkowsky's later sequences without reading earlier ones. Allow me to supply some of that context.

The book is about Phaedrus's ongoing obsession with finding his own specific version of the nebulous "ultimate good" or "objective morality" that so many philosophers have sought after. He calls his form "quality", which is a mixture of the mechanical/analytic structure of science/rationality with the organic/emotional creativity of art/spirituality. The character is unique in the world with this particular brand of philosophy, and so does a lot of original thinking, placing little value on traditional Aristotelian thought. There are 2 types of people in the world: Aristotelians and Platonists, and he is neither.

Given this, I would suggest that Phaedrus is trying hard to think new thoughts himself, and places little value in small adaptations of existing philosophy. The character would suggest that humanity made a wrong turn in Plato's time, with the divide between passion and logic. Fixing this requires an extraordinary amount of out-of-the-box thinking. Science needs to take seriously the quest to learn where hypotheses come from, and how best to nurture passion, creativity, insight, etc and make them a real part of the scientific process. On the other hand, our culture needs to learn to appreciate beautiful engineering alongside beautiful art, and to find Joy in the Merely Real instead of mystery. These efforts call for new paradigms, new ideas, new modes of thought, and an entire upheaval of societal norms, not unlike during the enlightenment and scientific revolution.

The single concept he sees as uniting those two worlds is "Quality". Quality implies both sound engineering, and elegant, desirable form. It's at once beautiful and offers utility. It can't be defined, because to define it you would have to define every whim of an entire human mind. Even so, we all know intuitively what quality is, because we can all agree that one essay is well written or poorly written, even if we squabble about the precise letter grade it deserves. Quality isn't just what people like. The word "just" has no place in that sentence. Quality IS what people like; everything that we can appreciate, for it's design, it's elegance, it's beauty, it's ingenuity... everything.

If any of this piques your interest, I recommend reading the book itself. What I've done is rather like trying to summarize all of The Sequences in one small post. But the point is, we are not talking about a technique to get over writer's block; the author and Yudkowsky are definitely hinting at insights into the human mind. Our minds are predominately an echo chambers of everything we learn from others, but we must try and add an original thought to the mix every now and then, if we want to improve this world we live in.