Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Comment author: olalonde 25 April 2012 04:50:58PM *  4 points [-]

One way to get around the argument on semantics would be to replace "sound" by its definition.


Albert: "Hah! Definition 2c in Merriam-Webster: 'Sound: Mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (as air).'"

Barry: "Hah! Definition 2b in Merriam-Webster: 'Sound: The sensation perceived by the sense of hearing.'"

Albert: "Since we cannot agree on the definition of sound and a third party might be confused if he listened to us, can you reformulate your question, replacing the word sound by its definition."

Barry: "OK. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it cause anyone to have the sensation perceived by the sense of hearing?"

Albert: "No."

Comment author: ToddStark 17 December 2012 05:51:29AM 1 point [-]

"... replace "sound" by its definition."

Yes, that's exactly what happens in a reasonable dialog, at the point where people realze they are thinking of the same thing in different ways. The trick is recognizing what that difference is so you can expand on it and compare. It happens fairly quickly and easily in most cases when both people are mostly focused on inquiry. If they are arguing their own position, they are unlikely to be looking for the difference, they are probably looking for ways to deconstruct the other person's terms and find fallacies in their logic or problems with their evidence. They will resort to arguing for their own definitions.

When you end up in a game of duelling definitions, one valuable strategy is to ask the purpose of the definition. It serves a rhetorical purpose to use one definition vs. another in an explanation or question. If emphasizes different things. This is an important pragmatist principle coming from the slant that words are tools for thinking.


Q: Why bring the perceiver into the picture when talking about sound? What purpose does that serve?

A: The reason I define sound as something perceived is to distinguish the dark, silent physical world of wavelengths and vibrations and strings from the one constructed in human experience to operate on the world. I care about the human experience, not what is going on with atoms.

This exposes a great deal of the relevant conceptual background and current focus of each person so you know what they are arguing about and might be able to either collaborate more effectively, learn something from each other, or else identify that you aren't talking about the same thing at all. Rather than just fighting over which definition is better.

Comment author: lukeprog 25 March 2011 05:05:51PM 19 points [-]

With this comment, I think our disagreement is resolved, at least to my satisfaction.

We agree that philosophy can be useful, and that sometimes it's desirable to speak the common language. I agree that sometimes it is easier to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes it's not.

As for whether Less Wrong is a branch of mainstream philosophy, I'm not much interested to argue about that. There are many basic assumptions shared by Quinean philosophy and Yudkowskian philosophy in opposition to most philosophers, even down to some very specific ideas like naturalized epistemology that to my knowledge had not been articulated very well until Quine. And both Yudkowskian philosophy and Quinean naturalism spend an awful lot of time dissolving philosophical debates into cognitive algorithms and challenging intuitionist thinking - so far, those have been the main foci of experimental philosophy, which is very Quinean, and was mostly founded by one of Quine's students, Stephen Stich. Those are the reasons I presented Yudkowskian philosophy as part of the broadly Quinean movement in philosophy.

On the other hand, I'm happy to take your word for it that you came up with most of this stuff on your own, and only later figured out what the philosophers have been calling it, so in another way Yudkowskian philosophy is thoroughly divorced from mainstream philosophy - maybe even more than, say, Nassim Taleb's philosophical work.

And once we've said all that, I don't think any question remains about whether Less Wrong is really part of a larger movement in philosophy.

Anyway, thanks for this further clarification. I've learned a lot from our discussion. And I'm enjoying your interview with Baez. Cheers.

Comment author: ToddStark 17 December 2012 04:40:41AM 1 point [-]

On the general issue of the origin of various philosophical ideas, I had a thought. Perhaps we take a lot of our tacit knowledge for granted in our thinking about attributions. I suspect that abstract ideas become part of wider culture and then serve as part of the reasoning of other people without them explicitly realizing the role of those abstracts. For example, Karl Popper had a concept of "World 3" which was essentially the world of artifacts that are inherited from generation to generation and become a kind of background for the thinking of each successive generation who inherits that culure. That concept of "unconscious ideas" was also found in a number of other places (and has been of course for as far back as we can remember) and has been incorporated into many theories and explanations of varying usefulness. Some of Freud's ideas have a similar rough feel to them and his albeit unscientific ideas became highly influential in popular culture and influenced all sorts of things, including some productive psychology programs that emphasize influences outside of explcit awareness. Our thinking is given shape in part by a background that we aren't explicitly aware of and as a result we can'[t always make accurate attributions of intellectual history except in terms of what has been written down. Some of the influence happens outside of our awareness via various mechanisms of implicit or tacit learning. We know a lot more than we realize we know, we "stand on the shoulders of others" in a somewhat obscure sense as well as the more obvious one.

An important implication of this might be that our reasoning starts from assumptions and conceptual schemes that we don't really think about because it is "intuitive" and appears to each of us as "commonsense." However it may be that "commonsense" and "intuition" are forms of ubiquitous expertise that differ somewhat between people. If that is the case, then people reason from different starting points and perhaps can reason to different conclusions even when rigorously logical, and this would seemingly support a perspectivist view where logic is not by itself adequate to reconcile differences in opinion.

If that is the case, then it helps explain why we can't seem to get rid of some fundamental problems just by clarifying concepts and reasoning from evidence. Those operations are themselves shaped by a background. One of the important roles of philosophy may be to give a voice to some of that background, a voice which may not always be scientific (that is, empirical, testable, effectively communicated through mathematics). So it may not be the philosophers who actually make the ideas available ot us, but the philosophers who make them explicit outside of science.

I'm not saying that contradicts the possibly unique value of naturalistic and reductionistic approaches, systematization, etc., just that if we think of philosophy purely in utilitarian terms as a provider of new theories that feed science, we may miss the point of its role in culture and our tracking and understanding of the genesis of ideas.