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

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

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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.