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April 08, 2007


I dearly hope that the length limit and fast feedback here at Overcoming Bias will finally teach me to be modular.

Have you been arguing with the LaRouchists on campus again, Robin?

Robin, I'm skeptical that this is the only approach to academia.

It actually seems to me that much of the Continental/Analytical divide in philosophy can be understood in terms of a preference for holistic understanding vs. reductionistic modeling/description. The latter sounds very similar to modular description.

As someone who is generally sympathetic to the Analytic side in general, it seems to me, at first, that this argument makes a lot of sense. Since libertarian inclining social thinkers tend towards the analytical and reductionistic in style, it even explains my early libertarian tendencies and those of most people I get along well with. However, it seems to me that a broader historical view would tell us that the modular/holistic divide is also present in the distinction between science and math. In this case, the observational side of the experimental method is the relatively non-modular analytical style, and it seems to me that math and natural philosophy inspired by math existed for millennia before the addition of careful observation brought it’s efficacy to a new level.

My general conclusion is that relatively analytical arguments do work better in those cases where the problem chosen is one where they work at all, but often they only take you so far. The best thinkers usually pursue a variety of analytical pursuits when they are young and their high fluid g allows them to develop expertise, and then, when they are older use the expertise so gained to enable broader more synthetic insights.

I’m also not convinced that typical people are more convinced by the sort of argument you are saying a good arguer makes than by the sort of argument a bad arguer makes. They are certainly much less likely to claim to be convinced and then demonstrate when challenged that they don’t understand your position, but my observations suggest that they are also less likely to claim to be convinced period. How many people have been convinced by analytical economic arguments from comparative advantage? How many by holistic 'economic' arguments about exploitation or alienation?

Michael, most academic experiments and the papers that describe them are very modular. I agree many "bad" arguments convince many people, but they don't do so for good reasons.

Even in programming one comes across hard "knots" of problems that are harder to decompose into problems. If one doesn't want to avoid these problems, one must pay the much higher price of a less modular approach.

I have two points. First, these considerations apply even if your goal in offering an argument is to receive criticism rather than to persuade your listeners. In either case, presenting the argument in terms they can understand is a prerequisite.

Second, one issue I find in arguments here is that many of them refer to specialized knowledge that not everyone may be familiar with. We often reference results from evolutionary psychology, philosophy, or economics that may be rather esoteric and technical. This presents a burden to wider understanding and appreciation of the issues.

Hal, the larger your organized library of previous modules, the easier it is to write any given new system, by reusing that library. So we with specialized knowledge face a choice when posting, whether to make use of that library. We face a tradeoff between the size of our audience, and how easily we can talk.

Something like that happens with software libraries too. Sometimes I'll download some interesting-sounding software, only to find that it depends on a library I don't have; I go to get that library, and discover that it depends on yet another library I have to find. There's even a name for this: dependency hell. There is often a tradeoff between ease of software development and the size of the audience that will be able to download and use the software.

Holism just plain rubs me the wrong way and has for as long as I can remember. I don't know if that's a bias or not, but I always just get the impression from holistic arguments that they aren't terribly concerned about the underlying details (and hence, in my view, reality) and prefer their intuition. I don't know if that has anything to do with my libertarianism, but I think holistic libertarian arguments can certainly be made, primarily of the Hayek/Burke type that we shouldn't fiddle with some aspect of society because we don't know how it works, although I think one could also make the same point with a less holistic approach.

Robin: That's why I talked about the observational sciences. Also, standards differ. Compared to analytic philosophy or math, the sciences are VERY holistic. All sorts of unexamined assumptions and vague implicit knowledge. Very expertise driven.

Hal, it would be very interesting to explore the analogy between dependency hell in software and who talks to who about what in ideas.

This thread wouldn't be complete without a reference to argument mapping: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_map

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