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Disputing Definitions

48 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 February 2008 12:15AM

Followup toHow An Algorithm Feels From Inside

I have watched more than one conversation—even conversations supposedly about cognitive science—go the route of disputing over definitions.  Taking the classic example to be "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?", the dispute often follows a course like this:

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Albert:  "Of course it does.  What kind of silly question is that?  Every time I've listened to a tree fall, it made a sound, so I'll guess that other trees falling also make sounds.  I don't believe the world changes around when I'm not looking."

Barry:  "Wait a minute.  If no one hears it, how can it be a sound?"

In this example, Barry is arguing with Albert because of a genuinely different intuition about what constitutes a sound.  But there's more than one way the Standard Dispute can start.  Barry could have a motive for rejecting Albert's conclusion.  Or Barry could be a skeptic who, upon hearing Albert's argument, reflexively scrutinized it for possible logical flaws; and then, on finding a counterargument, automatically accepted it without applying a second layer of search for a counter-counterargument; thereby arguing himself into the opposite position.  This doesn't require that Barry's prior intuition—the intuition Barry would have had, if we'd asked him before Albert spoke—have differed from Albert's.

Well, if Barry didn't have a differing intuition before, he sure has one now.

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