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Dissolving the Question

44 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2008 03:17AM

Followup toHow an Algorithm Feels From the Inside, Feel the Meaning, Replace the Symbol with the Substance

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

I didn't answer that question.  I didn't pick a position, "Yes!" or "No!", and defend it.  Instead I went off and deconstructed the human algorithm for processing words, even going so far as to sketch an illustration of a neural network.  At the end, I hope, there was no question left—not even the feeling of a question.

Many philosophers—particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers—share a dangerous instinct:  If you give them a question, they try to answer it.

Like, say, "Do we have free will?"

The dangerous instinct of philosophy is to marshal the arguments in favor, and marshal the arguments against, and weigh them up, and publish them in a prestigious journal of philosophy, and so finally conclude:  "Yes, we must have free will," or "No, we cannot possibly have free will."

Some philosophers are wise enough to recall the warning that most philosophical disputes are really disputes over the meaning of a word, or confusions generated by using different meanings for the same word in different places.  So they try to define very precisely what they mean by "free will", and then ask again, "Do we have free will?  Yes or no?"

A philosopher wiser yet, may suspect that the confusion about "free will" shows the notion itself is flawed.  So they pursue the Traditional Rationalist course:  They argue that "free will" is inherently self-contradictory, or meaningless because it has no testable consequences.  And then they publish these devastating observations in a prestigious philosophy journal.

But proving that you are confused may not make you feel any less confused.  Proving that a question is meaningless may not help you any more than answering it.

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