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August 27, 2008

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It's true that contemporary philosophy is still very much obsessed with language despite attempts by practioners to move on. Observation is talked about in terms of observation sentences. Science is taken to be a set of statements. Realism is taken to be the doctrine that there are objects to which our statements refer. Reductionism is the ability to translate a sentence in one field into a sentence in another. The philosophy of mind concerns itself with finding a way to reconcile the lack of sentence-like structures in our brain with a perverse desire for sentence-like structures. But cognitive science is itself a development of this odd way of thinking about the world; sentences become algorithms and everything carries on the same. I don't think you're really too far removed from this tradition.

@ EY: I feel a bit awful about saying this, because it feels like I'm telling philosophers that their life's work has been a waste of time

Well, your buddy Robin Hanson has proved mathematically that my life has been a waste of time in his Doctors kill series of posts. I accept the numbers. Screw the philosophers; now it's their turn. It's all chemical neurotransmitters. Next: the lawyers.

You write that "Philosophy doesn't resolve things, it compiles positions and arguments". I think that philosophy should be granted as providing something somewhat more positive than this: It provides common vocabularies for arguments. This is no mean feat, as I think you would grant, but it is far short of resolving arguments which is what you need.

As you've observed, modal logics amount to arranging a bunch of black boxes in very precisely stipulated configurations, while giving no indication as to the actual contents of the black boxes. However, if you mean to accuse the philosophers of seeing no need to fill the black boxes, then I think you go too far. Rather, it is just an anthropological fact that the philosophers cannot agree on how to fill the black boxes, or even on what constitutes filling a box. The result is that they are unable to generate a consensus at the level of precision that you need. Nonetheless, they at least generate a consensus vocabulary for discussing various candidate refinements down to some level, even if none of them reach as deep a level as you need.

I don't mean to contradict your assertion that (even) analytic philosophy doesn't provide what you need. I mean rather to emphasize what the problem is: It isn't exactly that people fail to see the need for reductionistic explanations. Rather the problem is that no one seems capable of convincing anyone else that his or her candidate reduction should be accepted to the exclusion of all others. It may be that the only way for someone to win this kind of argument is to build an actual functioning AI. In fact, I'm inclined to think that this is the case. If so, then, in my irrelevant judgement, you are working with just about the right amount of disregard for whatever consensus results might exist with the analytic philosophical tradition.

Alright, I am going to bite on this.

E writes: "The proliferation of modal logics in philosophy is a good illustration of one major reason: Modern philosophy doesn't enforce reductionism, or even strive for it."

The usual justification for skepticism about reductionism as a methodology had to do with the status of the bridge laws: those analytic devices which reduced A to B, whether A was a set of sentences, observations, etc. Like climbing the ladders in the Tractatus, they seemed to have no purpose, once used.

They weren't part of the reductive language, yet the they were necessary for the reductive project.

Carnap was probably the last philosopher to try for a systemic reduction, and his attempts floundered on well known problems, circa 1940.

E writes: "Consider the popular philosophical notion of "possible worlds". Have you ever seen a possible world? Is an electron either "possible" or "necessary"?"

Kripke's essay on possible worlds makes it clear that there is nothing mysterious about possible worlds, they are simply states of information. Nothing hard.

E writes: " If there was a repository of philosophical work along those lines - not concerned with defending basic ideas like anti-zombieism, but with accepting those basic ideas and moving on to challenge more difficult quests of naturalism and cognitive reductionism - then that, I might well be interested in reading."

Professional philosophers are not scientists, but rather keep alive unfashionable arguments that scientists and technicians wrongly believe have been "solved", as opposed to ignored.

You are not suited for philosophical abstraction because you primarily want to build something. Get on with it, then and stop talking about foundations -which may not exist. Just do it.

Well of course one standard response to such complaints is: "If you think you can do better, show us." Not just better in a one-off way, but a better tradition that could continue itself. If you think you have done better and are being unfairly ignored, well then that is a different conversation.

I read this blog for Hanson's posts, but unfortunately you are one of his co-bloggers. I wouldn't be surprised if you delete this or fail to post it, but whatever. Anyways, I occasionally read something you write, and I am struck by how dismissive you are of contemporary philosophy, usually treating it as a strawman or cartoon.

Can you please put your money where your mouth is and publish a philosophical paper in a good journal (such as Philosophical Review, Nous, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, Mind, or Phil Studies?) Lots of philosophers would love your approach. (I think you will fail to publish anything, not because the discipline is biased against you, but because you are at best a seventh rate thinker self-deceived into thinking he's a second rate thinker. I'm not saying that to be abusive, but, really, to be frank.)

Once you do this, I will begin taking you seriously. Until then, I consider you a very smart crank.

P.S., since you frequently write on topics other than your specialty (the singularity), such as moral realism, reductionism, etc., please make your publication one of these topics.

Are your feelings only confined to philosophy, modern or otherwise? I feel the same sense of 'modal logic' everywhere – art, politics, even technology – conversations, arguments, and discussions seem endlessly disconnected, related languages speaking past one another.

I think Tyrrell nails it – philosophy mainly provides common vocabularies. And I must agree with him – it is no mean feat.

I highly recommend the various works of Daniel Dennett – having read him before reading you, I feel prepared for exactly your favored type of argument – dissolving confusion by rejecting false dichotomies and rigorously separating layers.

The universe is endlessly amazing, and I feel blessed by being so curious. I think it's miraculous that philosopher's are as good as they are!

I confess that I'm confused. Why does the "proliferation" of modal logics imply that philosophers do not strive for reductionism? Why think that having several modal logics is a bad thing? These logics were developed originally as purely formal syntactic systems with different sets of axioms. In a sense, decrying the proliferation of modal logics is akin to decrying the proliferation of non-Euclidean geometries. There were modal logics long before philosophers ever spoke of possible worlds, which, unless you're one of the few convinced by David Lewis, philosophers take simply to be a useful heuristic when speaking of possibility and necessity. How can one talk about a purely causal model with some notion of necessity? That would be a purely causal model without any notion of causality. It strikes me that even the AI theorist would like to discuss causation, consistency of models, logical implication, maybe even moral obligation. These are all modal notions, but unfortunately, they're not logically equivalent. We shouldn't fall into a trap of being reductionists purely for the sake of the reduction.

I agree on Pearl's accomplishment.

I have read Dennet, and he does a good job of explaining what Consciousness is and how it could arise out of non-conscious parts. William Calvin was trying to do the same thing with how wetware (in the form that he knew it at the time) could do something like thinking. Jeff Hawkins had more details of how the components of the brain work and interact, and did a more thorough job of explaining how the pieces must work together and how thought could emerge from the interplay. There is definitely material in "On Intelligence" that could help you think about how thought could arise out of purely physical interactions.

I'll have to look into Drescher.

Philosophy is just not oriented to the outlook of someone who needs to resolve the issue, implement the corresponding solution, and then find out - possibly fatally - whether they got it right or wrong. Philosophy doesn't resolve things, it compiles positions and arguments. And if the debate about zombies is still considered open, then I'm sorry, but as Jeffreyssai says: Too slow!

Still, I hope your Friendliness structure can cope with the case where zombies are possible. Well, I guess that one wouldn't make any difference - so I should say I hope you're also trying to minimize the number of philosophical problems you have to be right about.

If you think you're so much better than philosophers, why don't you program an AI to write publishable philosophy papers, hmm?

I think you're an ass Eliezer. But you are fun. I'm an ass too. most philosopher's are. You should consider that the analytic tradition is mostly an evolutionarily extinct avenue of philosophy. I do think that you are basically right however. Cognitive science and AI is certainly one of the most important aspects of metaphysics. But ultimately atomically modeling the entire cosmological evolution is the real goal of metaphysics. Everything else is just nerds entertaining themselves.

Sometimes I enjoy these postings, sometimes I am puzzled. They often are so self-referential (links are mostly to older postings of the same author) and ranting that I wonder whether I am being had. I don't doubt anyone's good intentions. I am just documenting my belief that Eliezer's state is binary: either the next Wittgenstein or a world-class delusional crank.

I've made similar dismissals of philosophy's fruits at this blog and elsewhere. That was supposed to make me a nihilist, philistine psychopath. As I recall, Eliezer did not agree with my analogy to theology and astrology.

What do you think of the philosophy faculty of MIT and Cal-Tech?
I ask because I suspect the faculty there selects for philosophers that would be most usual to hard scientists and engineers (and for hard science and engineering students).

http://www.mit.edu/~philos/faculty.html

http://www.hss.caltech.edu/humanities/faculty

1. I'm curious to hear Nick Bostrom's response to this.

2. Something like modal logic is needed to automate solutions to things like this:
Blue-eyed Monks
Though you might be right about the proliferation of modal logics.

3. You made some similar points here:
Where Philosophy Meets Science
And Robin Hanson followed up here:
On Philosophers

4. Both times it was pointed out that Paul Graham has some similar complaints about philosophy here:
How to Do Philosophy

Daniel Dennett is smart and usually right - but I find his writing style pretty yawn-inducing. I'm not very impressed by his detour into religion, either. Rather like Dawkins, it seems like he's been dragged down into the gutter by the creationists.

Philosophy is just not oriented to the outlook of someone who needs to resolve the issue, implement the corresponding solution, and then find out - possibly fatally - whether they got it right or wrong. Philosophy doesn't resolve things, it compiles positions and arguments.

This would be why I never finished that philosophy degree. Academic philosophy does not seem particularly interested in solving the world's problems. Tyrrell McAllister has a good point on the value of providing a way of discussing things, but if there is not even in principle a way of deciding what would constitute filling the black box, the discipline will keep juggling the boxes.

There must be some merit in games of language and logic, but they remain that: games. Sudoku and World of Warcraft are similarly structured games, and you could argue seriously about whether an issue of Games Magazine improves the world more or less than any scholarly journal J. mentioned.

That said, starting with Sturgeon's Law, we already knew the majority was waste paper. What is your probability that the good 10% is not worth the search cost to find it?


As a meta-Overcoming Bias comment, I think this post is necessary for Eliezer. When he discusses philosophical issues, there are a half-dozen of us who cite a hundred-year history of work on, for example, meta-ethics. I must interpret this post as a case for rational ignorance, "I am not going to read all that because it is obviously waste paper," as opposed to "I am familiar with that but I have rejected it" (or the latter with very small values of "familiar"). So this is one of those one-link responses.

We can meditate on whether it resolves the issue rather than giving a feeling of resolution. With respect to philosophy, I often find surprisingly little progress since Hume (on questions of interest to me). When an OB post arrives at a standard argument, maybe via a different door, I expect it to be able to engage standard critiques. "All standard critiques are meaningless black box juggling exercises until proven otherwise" is perhaps a viable heuristic, but it feels convenient.

This also feels a bit like the "outside view" Eliezer criticizes Robin for using to make predictions.

You're right that he should be able to engage standard critiques, Zubon, but if my (negligible) experience with the philosophy of free will is any indication, many "standard critiques" are merely exercises in wooly thinking. It's reasonable for him to step back and say, "I don't have time to deal with this sort of thing."

Zubon: This also feels a bit like the "outside view" Eliezer criticizes Robin for using to make predictions.

Problem is not in using outside view, but in using outside view that doesn't really apply to what it's being applied to, in trying to infer properties from surface similarities that don't indicate that objects have similar causal structure. If you are studying a single object, statistics of arbitrarily surface level provides valid ground for predictions, if this single object doesn't change its causal structure while under study.

Well of course one standard response to such complaints is: "If you think you can do better, show us." Not just better in a one-off way, but a better tradition that could continue itself.
Can do? It's already been done, long ago - we call it 'science'.

Do not confuse technicians and stylists with those that apply the scientific method. Among those that do, some of the greatest of them made greater 'philosophical' progress while working and writing on matters only tangentially related to their nominal fields than countless generations of so-called philosophers who supposedly dedicated themselves to the issues.

Even an amateur scientist can quickly develop working resolutions to questions that philosophy has held up as eternal.

By this point, even an extraordinarily-unobservant thinker should have realized that philosophy isn't about finding the answer to questions - it's about posturing as profound while mouthing questions, then talking with others to mutually demonstrate the intellectual importance of the topic and thus those that discuss it. It's a form of status-masturbation.

Caledonian, aside from the continental school, could you please give some examples of people trying to posture to be profound? In philosophy graduate programs today, you are explicitly told not to posture.

Also, could you give an example of a philosophical problem that science has solved. E.g., What makes right actions right? What makes a society just? What makes mathematical claims true?

Your polemic is embarrassing. Your post was a form of masturbation.

J.: Zeno's Paradox was solved by mathematicians (honorable members of the scientific community even if you think mathematics is not part of science).

"it feels like I'm telling philosophers that their life's work has been a waste of time."

If my immediate interest is to trigger a subject's saliva reflex, it would be a much better use of my time to vividly describe to the subject the sensations of biting into a lemon than it would to inquire after the algorithms that give rise to lemony sensations.

I am reductionist, but I can't quite imagine an intellectual life that abstracted away all conscious interest in phenomenological structure in favor of monomaniacal attention to the base structure. Then again, there's no accounting for taste. (Or is there?)

There are a number of reasons why I feel that modern philosophy, even analytic philosophy, has gone astray - so far astray that I simply can't make use of their years and years of dedicated work.

Yes, much modern philosophy has gone astray. But some hasn't. I would cite, for example, the thinking of critical rationalists such as Karl Popper, William Warren Bartley, David Deutsch, and David Miller.

Moreover I maintain that critical rationalism ought to be of use to you. First, it contains cogent criticism of inductivism and crypto-inductivism and one who understands these criticisms should see why Bayescraft is sterile. This knowledge is not only useful, it can't be ignored. Second, critical rationalism, and not Bayescraft, is our best current theory of knowledge and how we come to know things. Best theories are useful not only in themselves but also for the problems they contain.

There is a tradition of philosophy with value.

Many famous and modern philosophers are distractions from this. The same was true in the past. Each generation, most philosophers did not carry on the important, mainstream (in hindsight) tradition.

If you can't tell which is which, to me that suggests you could learn something by studying philosophy. Once you do understand what's what, then you can read exclusively good philosophy. For example, you'd know to ignore Wittgenstein, as the future will do. But the worthlessness of some philosophers does not stop people like William Godwin or Xenophanes from having valuable things to say (and the more recent philosophers who are carrying on *their* tradition).

Re: It contains cogent criticism of inductivism and crypto-inductivism and one who understands these criticisms should see why Bayescraft is sterile.

Uh, surely that's not the correct moral. It's like arguing that physics is sterile because of solipsism.

Tim, you wrote here that:

A perfectly rational agent who denies the validity of induction would be totally unimpressed by Bayesian arguments.

Have you changed your mind? Do you now deny that Bayescraft relies on induction?

Kripke's essay on possible worlds makes it clear that there is nothing mysterious about possible worlds, they are simply states of information. Nothing hard.

Good for Kripke, then. I've often found that the major people in a field really do deserve their reputations, and I haven't asserted that good philosophy is impossible, just that the field has failed to systematize it enough to make it worthwhile reading.

However, you do not solve an AI problem by calling something a "state of information". Given that there's only one real world, how are these "possible worlds" formulated as cognitive representations? I can't write an AI until I know this.

However, can you give me an immediate and agreed-upon answer to the question, "Is there a possible world where zombies exist?" Considering the questions that follow from that, will make you realize how little of the structure of the "possible worlds" concept follows just from saying, "it is a state of information".

Did Kripke mark his work as unfinished for failing to answer such questions? Or did he actually try to answer them? Now that would earn serious respect from me, and I might go out and start looking through Kripke's stuff.

Robin: Well of course one standard response to such complaints is: "If you think you can do better, show us." Not just better in a one-off way, but a better tradition that could continue itself. If you think you have done better and are being unfairly ignored, well then that is a different conversation.

Robin, my response here is mainly to philosophers who say, "We did all this work on metaethics, why are you ignoring us?" and my answer is: "The work you did is incommensurable with even the kind of philosophy that an AI researcher needs, which is cognitive philosophy and the reduction of mentalistic thinking to the non-mental; go read Gary Drescher for an example of the kind of mental labor I'm talking about. Some of you may have done such work, but that's no help to me if I have to wade through all of philosophy to find it. Even your compilations of arguments are little help to me in actually solving AI problems, though when I need to explain something I will often check the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see what the standard arguments are. And I finally observe that if you, as a philosopher, have not gone out and studied cognitive science and AI, then you really have no right to complain about people 'ignoring relevant research', and more importantly, you have no idea what I'm looking for." This is my response to the philosophers who feel slighted by my travels through what they feel should be their territory, without much acknowledgment.

However, with all that said - if I was trying to build a tradition that would continue itself, these posts on Overcoming Bias would form a large part of how I did it, though I would be much more interested in making them sound more impressive (which includes formalizing/declarifying their contents and publishing them in journals) and I would assign a higher priority to e.g. writing up my timeless decision theory.

Also, could you give an example of a philosophical problem that science has solved.

Considering that science developed out of a style of philosophical thought called 'natural philosophy', every question science has addressed has been a philosophical one.

The real problem is that when actual progress is made on a 'philosophical' question, we associate it with the branch of science that made the progress. Turing and Godel were mathematicians, Schroedinger was a physicist (and one of his most impressive insights was in the intersection of biology and information theory), Fermi a physicist, etc.

The only things that remain in the category of philosophy are those that are utterly useless and fail to expand our understanding of any aspect of the world. It's a simple selection effect - the gold is sifted out while the dross remains.

Turing alone resolved more questions that were traditionally considered to be within with bounds of 'philosophy' as you refer to it than anyone I can think of offhand.

Re: Bayesianism and induction.

Bayesianism is a formalisation of induction. The philosophical problems with the foundations of inductive reasoning are equally problems with the foundations of Bayesianism. These problems are essentially unchanged since Hume's era:

Rather than unproductive radical skepticism about everything, Hume said that he was actually advocating a practical skepticism based on common sense, wherein the inevitability of induction is accepted. Someone who insists on reason for certainty might, for instance, starve to death, as they would not infer the benefits of food based on previous observations of nutrition. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction

J said: I read this blog for Hanson's posts, but unfortunately you are one of his co-bloggers

AND

but because you are at best a seventh rate thinker self-deceived into thinking he's a second rate thinker.


don't you think that Robin must think EY is at least a second rate thinker, or else he wouldn't let himself be associated with such a lowly seventh rate thinker...

i completely understand if you don't think EY is a worthwhile guy to read, no prob there...but then why read Hanson also? if they are colleagues and co-bloggers there must be something about EY that Robin thinks is first rate, no?

Tim,

Re: Bayesianism and induction.

Given your concession that Bayesianism is a formalisation of induction, I don't understand your original criticism that me saying inductivism renders Bayesian sterile is like saying solipsism renders physics sterile.

Here's a definition from David Deutsch's "The Fabric of Reality:

Crypto-Inductivist: Someone who believes that the invalidity of inductive reasoning raises a serious philosophical problem, namely the problem of how to justify relying on scientific theories.

Crypto-inductivists have an "induction shaped" gap in their scheme of things.

Critical rationalism really did solve the problem of induction: It has no "induction shaped" gap.

I'm guessing from your Hume quote that you think it did so by resorting to radical skepticism, but if you think this you are mistaken.

Eliezer, I recommend you to read Dennett's "Artificial Intelligence as Psychology and as Philosophy", in his collection of essays Brainstorms. It may be a bit dated, but it makes a very nice case for a division of territory between AI, Psy and Phi, and how each of them can help the others.

Eliezer, I don't think your comments would slight sensible philosophers, since many professional philosophers themselves make comparable or more biting criticisms about the discipline (Rorty, Dennett, Unger, now the experimental philosophy movement, et al., going back to the positivists, and, if you like, the Pyrrhonists and atomists). I'm afraid not only have philosophers already written extensively on meta-ethics, but they've also generated an extensive literature on anti-philosophy. They've been there, done that -- too! I think Tyrell McAllister is quite right to say that since philosophy largely consists of folks who can't agree on the most workable models, your functional interests will tend to be frustrated by philosophy. Like your estimable hero Dick Feynman (who, according to Len Mlodinow, averred that "philosophy is bullshit"), it'd be better for you simply to get on with your tasks at hand, and not expect much help from philosophy -- to find the worthwhile stuff you'd have to become one. Maybe you can do that after the FAI builds you an immortal corporeal form.

Re: Critical rationalism

I do not rate Popper's contributions in this area very highly - e.g. see here.

Science without induction is a complete joke. Popper didn't eliminate induction, he just swept it under a consensual rug.

Tim,

Re: Critical rationalism

Critical rationalism is similar to evolutionary adaptation (though there are some important differences). Do you think evolution depends on induction, or would you admit that there are knowledge-generation processes that do not require induction in any way, shape, or form?

Our knowledge of evolutionary theory depends on induction. Without induction, you can't establish the uniformity of nature. You have no grounds for believing that what happened yesterday is any guide to what may happen tomorrow. Without induction, science is totally screwed. Popper's epistemology was not science without induction:

Wesley C. Salmon critiques Popper's falsifiability by arguing that in using corroborated theories, induction is being used. Salmon stated, "Modus tollens without corroboration is empty; modus tollens with corroboration is induction."

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction

What on Earth is evolution, if not the keeping of DNA sequences that worked last time? It's less efficient than human induction and stupider, because it works only with DNA strings and is incapable of noticing simpler and more fundamental generalizations like physics equations. But of course it's a crude form of inductive optimization. What else would it be? There are no knowledge-generating processes without some equivalent of an inductive prior or an assumption of regularity. The maths establishing this often go under the name of No-Free-Lunch theorems.

"What on Earth is evolution, if not the keeping of DNA sequences that worked last time?

It's also replication and variation.

It's less efficient than human induction and stupider, because it works only with DNA strings and is incapable of noticing simpler and more fundamental generalizations like physics equations. But of course it's a crude form of inductive optimization. What else would it be?

That seems like an argument from "failure of imagination". Quite simply, evolution is trial and error.

There are no knowledge-generating processes without some equivalent of an inductive prior or an assumption of regularity.

This is just question begging, as I think you are aware. How did we come by the knowledge of induction? Did we induce it? Impossible! So, therefore, there must be at least one way to knowledge that doesn't involve induction.

This stuff is all old hat. Philosophers of the 20th century like Popper and Bartley realized that the whole induction quagmire is caused by people looking for justified sources of knowledge. They concluded that justificationism is a mistake and replaced it with critical rationalism. Now there are bad scholars who claim that critical rationalism sneaks induction in through the back door. But that is just bad scholarship.

It's a shame to still be wasting time on induction in the 21st century. Rather than rehashing old problems, shouldn't we be building on what the best of 20th century philosophy gave us?

The maths establishing this often go under the name of No-Free-Lunch theorems.

Were the assumptions of these theorems inductively justified?

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