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entirelyuseless comments on Double Crux — A Strategy for Resolving Disagreement - Less Wrong

58 Post author: Duncan_Sabien 29 November 2016 09:23PM

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Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 November 2016 03:23:43AM 0 points [-]

"In essence: a conviction that for almost any well-defined question, there really truly is a clear-cut answer."

Every question is formulated using words, and words are either defined by other words, or defined by pointing to a number of examples, which means that all words are ultimately defined by pointing to examples. Pointing to examples does not and cannot make anything "well-defined", so no question is well defined, nor does any question have a really truly clear-cut answer.

This comment might look like a joke, but it is not; I think it is pretty much as true as anything can be (since the point is that nothing is ever absolutely precise, the argument can't claim absolute precision itself.)

Comment author: InfernalHazelnut 30 November 2016 08:32:32AM 3 points [-]

Sorry if this is an obvious 101 question (I'm new here), but isn't there a difference between some of those examples?

I would also say that "how many grasshoppers are there?" has an answer that we simply don't know. But I can't think of "orange is superior to green" being true or false. I can think of ways that it could be better for a purpose (like if we're deciding what color the hunting vests should be), but not what the truth conditions of "orange is superior to green" would actually be.

If you're having an argument over school uniforms, presumably you're saying "Having a uniform will help this school fulfill its mission in X way" because you're trying to inform the other person's opinion on a particular policy. Is there a context where an argument over whether orange is superior to green is broader than "better for this specific purpose" but is about something other than subjective aesthetics, and is an attempt to convince one's interlocutor? (Nobody's going to say "You're right, I do find orange things nicer to look at than green things, although I thought it was the other way around until you pointed that out to me", are they?)

(This isn't meant to be an argument from personal incredulity -- I just can't think of a better way to word it. In fact, I'm not really trying to argue for anything, more like seeking clarification.)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 November 2016 02:40:23PM *  1 point [-]

Your comment is a response to Duncan's comment (I guess you haven't worked out how that works yet).

"Nobody's going to say "You're right, I do find orange things nicer to look at than green things, although I thought it was the other way around until you pointed that out to me", are they?"

Once I said, "food tastes better when you just eat without paying attention to the taste, and basically that happens because your body is telling you it is great, while if you pay attention, you figure out it wasn't as great as your body was saying." I was eating with someone and they responded by saying there was no way this could be true. A few minutes later, after noticing his experience while eating, he said, "You know, I think you were right."

Comment author: Duncan_Sabien 30 November 2016 07:20:13PM 0 points [-]

What I was gesturing at with the "orange superior to green?" example is something very large, very subjective, very fuzzy, with a lot of uncertainty in interpretation, but that nevertheless could be boiled down to something concrete.

Things that might make a color superior to another color: more people rate it more highly, it's more prevalent on buildings and clothes and in pictures, it produces greater levels of happiness when registered in the brain, it's cheaper to produce at the same price, it has more effective uses within a given society, people will pay more for an otherwise-identical version of a thing that's in that color, etc. etc. etc.

To get at what someone might "really mean" when they say something like orange is superior to green, I'd propose a whole bunch of these as hypotheses, and then try some form of pseudomath or other concrete weighting of the three or four most relevant categories. Once I had something like "Okay, so it's the subjective ratings of 7 billion people plus the results of brain scans when exposed, and if those come up 50/50 then we'll pull in, as a representative data point, how many different deliberate uses of each color there are in the continent of Europe," I'd feel like yes, there was in fact a true answer to the question (but not one we'd ever be able to find in practice).

Comment author: Duncan_Sabien 30 November 2016 07:12:31AM 2 points [-]

I disagree that no question is well-defined, but I think it's because we have different bars for what constitutes "well."

I'm with you on the fact that we can't reach absolute precision, but I think a question like "how many grasshoppers are alive on Earth right now" is well-defined, and to the extent that it's not, it becomes well-defined once you (e.g.) clarify the boundaries between species and what counts as a grasshopper (and maybe define what you mean by alive in the context of this question).

Similarly, as Peteris points out above, the question form of "middle school students should wear uniforms" isn't well-defined yet, because the should is doing all the work. But something like "Will a policy of requiring middle school students to wear uniforms result in a net increase in happiness?" seems sufficiently well-defined to me that I feel confident saying a definitive answer exists (even if we may not be able to find it).

I second Gram_Stone in that I was surprised that you were predicting people would label your point as disingenuous. You seemed pretty serious and straightforward to me; I just think you're looking for more rigor than discussion and debate actually require in practice.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 November 2016 02:34:53PM 1 point [-]

As I said responding to Gram_Stone, the original formulation sounded somewhat less serious than the final one, so perhaps I shouldn't have predicted that given that I modified the comment.

I wouldn't say that I'm looking for "more rigor" than needed. In fact, I am totally in favor of taking discussion seriously. In fact, to some extent my point is that sometimes people dismiss discussion and argument on the grounds that the terms aren't well defined, and I think it is undesirable to do this -- I am willing to take arguments seriously even with badly defined terms, and basically because "well-defined" is a matter of degree in the first place.

The problem with saying that we can make things "well-defined" by clarifying boundaries follows from my original argument. You cannot get perfect precision in what counts as a grasshopper, for example -- if you had before you the entire evolutionary series that resulted in grasshoppers, you could draw no boundary except by artificial stipulation. Likewise with defining what you mean by alive -- there will always be able to be some grasshoppers on the borderline where it is not clear whether they are alive or not.

I am not saying that you can never answer any question - there are two chairs in my room right now, not three or four. But despite that, none of those terms are absolutely well defined.

I am also objecting to saying "this is well defined and that isn't" based on your personal impression of what has a clear meaning, when other people might have a different impression. So for example, there is no objective reason why your question about the "net increase in happiness" is more well defined than the question about whether middle school students should wear uniforms, because it is not necessarily more clear what happiness is, than what it to means to say someone should do something. It might seem more clear to you; but "should" might seem more clear to someone else.

Comment author: Duncan_Sabien 30 November 2016 07:13:39PM *  2 points [-]

Gotcha. That all makes sense/seems correct. I think I'm still optimistic about being able to move a given open question toward the "chair" situation, in a context where I'm discussing it with another human (in other words, I think that the actual criteria is "both people in the disagreement agree that the question is now sufficiently well-defined for them to enjoy wrestling with it"). I think you're right that lines between grasshoppers and non-grasshoppers (or alive and dead) will always be to some extent arbitrary, and sometimes extremely arbitrary, but that picking them anyway for the sake of the discussion is both possible and productive.

Comment author: Gram_Stone 30 November 2016 05:54:39AM 1 point [-]

Genuine question: why do you anticipate that we'll assume that you're being disingenuous?

Comment author: entirelyuseless 30 November 2016 02:23:31PM 2 points [-]

Because it sounded like a joke when I reread it. (But as it stands above, it is a bit different from what it was then because after reading it I rewrote it to take a bit of that away.)