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Comment author: iarwain1 25 December 2014 12:59:20AM *  2 points [-]

I recently asked a question that I think is similar to what you're discussing. To recap, my question was on the philosophical debate about what "knowledge" really means. I asked why anyone cares - why not just define Knowledge Type A, Knowledge Type B, etc. and be done with it? If you would taboo the word knowledge would there be anything left to discuss?

Am I correct that that's basically what you're referring to? Do you have any thoughts specifically regarding my question?

Comment author: Nikario 26 December 2014 03:57:08PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, that is an example of what I am referring to.

Sadly, I'm afraid I can't give you any other thoughts that what I have said for the general case, since I know little epistemology.

Comment author: gedymin 25 December 2014 01:01:23PM 6 points [-]

Scott Aaronson has formulated it in a similar way (quoted from here):

whenever it’s been possible to make definite progress on ancient philosophical problems, such progress has almost always involved a [kind of] “bait-and-switch.” In other words: one replaces an unanswerable philosophical riddle Q by a “merely” scientific or mathematical question Q′, which captures part of what people have wanted to know when they’ve asked Q. Then, with luck, one solves Q′.

Of course, even if Q′ is solved, centuries later philosophers might still be debating the exact relation between Q and Q′! And further exploration might lead to other scientific or mathematical questions — Q′′, Q′′′, and so on — which capture aspects of Q that Q′ left untouched. But from my perspective, this process of “breaking off” answerable parts of unanswerable riddles, then trying to answer those parts, is the closest thing to philosophical progress that there is.

…A good replacement question Q′ should satisfy two properties: (a) Q′ should capture some aspect of the original question Q — so that an answer to Q′ would be hard to ignore in any subsequent discussion of Q, [and] (b) Q′ should be precise enough that one can see what it would mean to make progress on Q′: what experiments one would need to do, what theorems one would need to prove, etc.

Comment author: Nikario 26 December 2014 03:48:56PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for the reference. I am not sure if Aaronson and I would agree. After all, depending on the situation, a philosopher of the kind I am talking about could claim that whatever progress has been made by answering the quesion Q' also allows us to know the answer to the question Q (maybe because they are really the same question), or at least to get closer to it, instead of simply saying that Q does not have an answer.

I think Protagoras' example of the question about whales being fish or not would make a good example of the former case.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 December 2014 11:16:18PM 9 points [-]

It might be useful to look at what happens in mathematics. What, for example, is a "number"? In antiquity, there were the whole numbers and fractions of everyday experience. You can count apples, and cut an apple in half. (BTW, I recently discovered that among the ancient Greeks, there was some dispute about whether 1 was a number. No, some said, 1 was the unit with which other things were measured. 2, 3, 4, and so on were numbers, but not 1.)

Then irrationals were discovered, and negative numbers, and the real line, and complex numbers, and octonions, and Cayley numbers, and p-adic numbers, and perhaps there are even more things that mathematicians call numbers. And there are other ways that the ways that "numbers" behave have been generalised to define such things as fields, vector spaces, rings, and many more, the elements of which are generally not called numbers. But unlike philosophers, mathematicians do not dispute which of these is the "right" concept of "number". All of the concepts have their uses, and many of them are called "numbers", but "number" has never been given a formal definition, and does not need one.

For another example, consider "integration". The idea of dividing an arbitrary shape into pieces of known area and summing their areas goes back at least to Archimedes' "method of exhaustion". When real numbers and functions became better understood it was formalised as Riemann integration. That was later generalised to Lebesgue integration, and then to Haar measure. Stochastic processes brought in Itô integration and several other forms.

Again, no-one as far as I know has ever troubled with the question, "but what is integration, really?" There is a general, intuitive idea of "measuring the size of things", which has been given various precise formulations in various contexts. In some of those contexts it may make sense to speak of the "right" concept of integration, when there is one that subsumes all of the others and appears to be the most general possible (e.g. Lebesgue integration on Euclidean spaces), but in other contexts there may be multiple incomparable concepts, each with its own uses (e.g. Itô and Stratonovich integration for stochastic processes).

But in philosophy, there are no theorems by which to judge the usefulness of a precisely defined concept.

Comment author: Nikario 26 December 2014 12:58:55PM *  0 points [-]

I think this is a very good contrast, indeed. I agree with your view of the matter, and I think I will use "number" as a particular example next time I recount the thoughts which brought me to write the post. Thank you.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 December 2014 10:36:14AM *  1 point [-]


Maybe we can invent a new label for people like you and me who aren't sure if they identify as "rationalists" but nonetheless find themselves agreeing with lots of what's written on Less Wrong anyway :P Quasirationalist or semirationalist, perhaps?

Comment author: Nikario 26 December 2014 12:40:44PM *  0 points [-]


Actually, even though I said it is unimportant, I would like to explore further this particular question at some point. I would like to know: 1) How does my thought differ, if it does, from the major current of thought in LW. 2) Does this difference, if there is any, amount to the fact that I am not as rational as the average LWer is? Or is it due to factors that are neutral from the point of view of rationality (if there are such things)?

I'll write about it when I find the time.

Comment author: Nikario 24 December 2014 02:46:34PM *  9 points [-]

As a person with a scientific background who suddenly has come into academic philosophy, I have been puzzled by some of the aspects of its methodology. I have been particularly bothered with the reluctance of some people to give precise definitions of the concepts that they are discussing about. But lately, as a result of several discussions with certain member of the Faculty, I have come to understand why this occurs (if not in the whole of philosophy, at least in this particular trend in academic philosophy).

I have seen that philosophers (I am talking about several of them published in top-ranked, peer-reviewed journals, the kinds of articles I read, study and discuss) who discuss about a concept which tries to capture "x" have, on one hand, an intuitive idea of this concept, imprecise, vague, partial and maybe even self-contradictory. On the other hand, they have several "approaches" to "x", corresponding to several philosophical trends that have a more precise characterisation of "x" in terms of other ideas that are more clear i.e. in terms of the composites "y1", "y2", "y3", ... The major issue at stake in the discussion seems to be whether "x" is really "y1" or "y2" or "y3" or something else (note that sometimes an "yi" is a reduction to other terms, sometimes "yi" is a more accurate characterisation that keeps the words used to speak of "x", that does not matter).

What is puzzling is this: how come all of them agree they are taking about "x" while actually, each is proposing a different approach? Indeed, those who say that "x" is "y1" are actually saying that we should adopt "y1" in our thought, and by "x" they understand "y1". Others understand "y2" in "x". Why don't they realise they are talking past each other, that each of them is proposing a different concept and the problem comes just because they want all to call it like they call "x"? Why don't they make sub-indices for "x", therefore managing to keep the word they so desperately want, but without confusing each of its possible meanings?

The answer I have come up with is this: they all believe that there is a unique, best sense to which they refer when they speak about "x", even if it they don't know which is it. They agree that they have an intuitive grasp of something and that something is "x", but they disagree about how to better refine that ("y1"? "y2"? "y3"?). Instead, I used to focus only on "y1" "y2" and "y3" and assess them according to whether they are self-consistent or not, simple or not, useful or not, etc. "x" had no clear definition, it barely meant anything to me, and therefore I decided I should banish it from my thought.

But I have come to the conclusion that it is useful to keep this loose idea about "x" in mind and believe that there is something to that intuition, because only in the contemplation of this intuition you seem to have access to knowledge that you have not been able to formalise, and hence, the intuition is a source of new knowledge. Therefore, philosophers are quite right in keeping vague, loose and perhaps self-contradictory concepts about "x", because this is an important source from where they draw in order to create and refine approaches "y1" "y2" and "y3", hoping that one of them might get "x" right. ((At this point, one might claim that I am simply saying that it is useful to have the illusion that the concept of "x" really means something, even though it actually means nothing, simply because having the illusion is a source of inspiration. But doesn't precisely the fact that it is a source of inspiration suggest that it is more than a simple illusion? There seems to be a sense in which a bad approach to "x" is still ABOUT "x"))

I would be grateful if I got your thoughts on this.

P.S. A more daring hypothesis is that when philosophers get "x" right in "y", this approach "y" becomes a scientific paradigm. This also suggests that for those "x" where little progress has been made in millennia, the debate is not necessarily misguided, but what happens is that the intuition is pointing towards something very, very complicated, and no one has been able to give a formal accout of the things it refers to.

Comment author: Nikario 24 December 2014 12:46:22PM 6 points [-]

Hello. I am new to this site as well. My background includes physics, mathematics, and philosophy at graduate level, which I am studying now.

I do not identify myself as a "rationalist", but that does not mean that I may not be a rationalist or that I am not trying to follow some of the advice that is given here to be a rationalist. I discovered LW after reading the story "Three Worlds Collide", which I discovered thanks to tvtropes.org. Lately I have been thinking and writing a lot about my own goals, and when I took a look around LW I was surprised to discover that many of the conclusions that I have arrived at independently appear in the sequences and other posts here. Thus I find myself agreeing with many of the things said here, but without having ever considered myself a "rationalist" explicitly. Still now, I'm not sure if "rationalism" is the right label to identify the kind of aspirations that I have and that I have found in this site. But it may be.

Anyway, to me that is unimportant. I think I am likely to find people here with a kind of interests that are very difficult to find in people you meet in person. I hope that I will be able to discuss here some topics that I cannot talk about anywhere else. Thus I have decided to sign up :)

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 May 2012 09:54:11PM 2 points [-]

The key, it seems to me, is to learn when to lump and when to split.

Sometimes generality is exactly what we need; other times precision and specificity are required. How we know which is which is a problem that I think is difficult, but not insoluble.

Comment author: Nikario 23 December 2014 01:59:01PM 0 points [-]

Exactly. Many people seem angry because lumpers lump when they should split. And in those cases I am angry as well. But one could write the complementary article complaining about spliters splitting when they should lump. I am also angry in those cases. Daniel Dennett makes a good point about this in his article "Real Patterns".