How to Not Lose an Argument

post by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-19T01:07:52.097Z · score: 113 (121 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 415 comments

Contents

  Footnotes
None
415 comments

Related to: Leave a Line of Retreat

Followup to: Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale, The Skeptic's Trilemma

"I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me."

        --Dave Barry

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

But I do want to talk about a very closely related skill: not losing arguments.

Rationalists probably find themselves in more arguments than the average person. And if we're doing it right, the truth is hopefully on our side and the argument is ours to lose. And far too often, we do lose arguments, even when we're right. Sometimes it's because of biases or inferential distances or other things that can't be helped. But all too often it's because we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

How does one avoid shooting one's self in the foot? In rationalist language, the technique is called Leaving a Social Line of Retreat. In normal language, it's called being nice.

First, what does it mean to win or lose an argument? There is an unspoken belief in some quarters that the point of an argument is to gain social status by utterly demolishing your opponent's position, thus proving yourself the better thinker. That can be fun sometimes, and if it's really all you want, go for it.

But the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind. If you want a world without fundamentalist religion, you're never going to get there just by making cutting and incisive critiques of fundamentalism that all your friends agree sound really smart. You've got to deconvert some actual fundamentalists. In the absence of changing someone's mind, you can at least get them to see your point of view. Getting fundamentalists to understand the real reasons people find atheism attractive is a nice consolation prize.

I make the anecdotal observation that a lot of smart people are very good at winning arguments in the first sense, and very bad at winning arguments in the second sense. Does that correspond to your experience?

Back in 2008, Eliezer described how to Leave a Line of Retreat. If you believe morality is impossible without God, you have a strong disincentive to become an atheist. Even after you've realized which way the evidence points, you'll activate every possible defense mechanism for your religious beliefs. If all the defense mechanisms fail, you'll take God on utter faith or just believe in belief, rather than surrender to the unbearable position of an immoral universe.

The correct procedure for dealing with such a person, Eliezer suggests, isn't to show them yet another reason why God doesn't exist. They'll just reject it along with all the others. The correct procedure is to convince them, on a gut level, that morality is possible even in a godless universe. When disbelief in God is no longer so terrifying, people won't fight it quite so hard and may even deconvert themselves.

But there's another line of retreat to worry about, one I experienced firsthand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can't remember exactly why. In the borderlands between waking and sleep, I remember thinking: I feel like a total moron. Here I am, someone who goes to atheist groups and posts on atheist blogs and has told all his friends they should be atheists and so on, and now it turns out God exists. All of my religious friends whom I won all those arguments against are going to be secretly looking at me, trying as hard as they can to be nice and understanding, but secretly laughing about how I got my comeuppance. I can never show my face in public again. Wouldn't you feel the same?

And then I woke up, and shook it off. I am an aspiring rationalist: if God existed, I would desire to believe that God existed. But I realized at that point the importance of the social line of retreat. The psychological resistance I felt to admitting God's existence, even after having seen Him descend to Earth, was immense. And, I realized, it was exactly the amount of resistance that every vocally religious person must experience towards God's non-existence.

There's not much we can do about this sort of high-grade long-term resistance. Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn't. But there is a less ingrained, more immediate form of social resistance generated with every heated discussion.

Let's say you approach a theist (let's call him Theo) and say "How can you, a grown man, still believe in something stupid like talking snakes and magic sky kings? Don't you know you people are responsible for the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War and the Spanish Inquisition? You should be ashamed of yourself!"

This suggests the following dichotomy in Theo's mind: EITHER God exists, OR I am an idiot who believes in stupid childish  things and am in some way partly responsible for millions of deaths and I should have lower status and this arrogant person who's just accosted me and whom I already hate should have higher status at my expense.

Unless Theo has attained a level of rationality far beyond any of us, guess which side of that dichotomy he's going to choose? In fact, guess which side of that dichotomy he's now going to support with renewed vigor, even if he was only a lukewarm theist before? His social line of retreat has been completely closed off, and it's your fault.

Here the two definitions of "winning an argument" I suggested before come into conflict. If your goal is to absolutely demolish the other person's position, to make him feel awful and worthless - then you are also very unlikely to change his mind or win his understanding. And because our culture of debates and mock trials and real trials and flaming people on Usenet encourages the first type of "winning an argument", there's precious little genuine mind-changing going on.

Really adjusting to the second type of argument, where you try to convince people, takes a lot more than just not insulting people outright1. You've got to completely rethink your entire strategy. For example, anyone used to the Standard Debates may already have a cached pattern of how they work. Activate the whole Standard Debate concept, and you activate a whole bunch of related thoughts like Atheists As The Enemy, Defending The Faith, and even in some cases (I've seen it happen) persecution of Christians by atheists in Communist Russia. To such a person, ceding an inch of ground in a Standard Debate may well be equivalent to saying all the Christians martyred by the Communists died in vain, or something similarly dreadful.

So try to show you're not just starting Standard Debate #4457. I remember once, during the middle of a discussion with a Christian, when I admitted I really didn't like Christopher Hitchens. Richard Dawkins, brilliant. Daniel Dennett, brilliant. But Christopher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain irritating. This one little revelation completely changed the entire tone of the conversation. I was no longer Angry Nonbeliever #116. I was no longer the living incarnation of All Things Atheist. I was just a person who happened to have a whole bunch of atheist ideas, along with a couple of ideas that weren't typical of atheists. I got the same sort of response by admitting I loved religious music. All of a sudden my friend was falling over himself to mention some scientific theory he found especially elegant in order to reciprocate2. I didn't end up deconverting him on the spot, but think he left with a much better appreciation of my position.

All of these techniques fall dangerously close to the Dark Arts, so let me be clear: I'm not suggesting you misrepresent yourself just to win arguments. I don't think misrepresenting yourself would even work; evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars. Don't fake an appreciation for the other person's point of view, actually develop an appreciation for the other person's point of view. Realize that your points probably seem as absurd to others as their points seem to you. Understand that many false beliefs don't come from simple lying or stupidity, but from complex mixtures of truth and falsehood filtered by complex cognitive biases. Don't stop believing that you are right and they are wrong, unless the evidence points that way. But leave it at them being wrong, not them being wrong and stupid and evil.

I think most people intuitively understand this. But considering how many smart people I see shooting their own foot off when they're trying to convince someone3, some of them clearly need a reminder.

 

Footnotes

1: An excellent collection of the deeper and most subtle forms of this practice of this sort can be found in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the only self-help books I've read that was truly useful and not a regurgitation of cliches and applause lights. Carnegie's thesis is basically that being nice is the most powerful of the Dark Arts, and that a master of the Art of Niceness can use it to take over the world. It works better than you'd think.

2: The following technique is definitely one of the Dark Arts, but I mention it because it reveals a lot about the way we think: when engaged in a really heated, angry debate, one where the insults are flying, suddenly stop and admit the other person is one hundred percent right and you're sorry for not realizing it earlier. Do it properly, and the other person will be flabbergasted, and feel deeply guilty at all the names and bad feelings they piled on top of you. Not only will you ruin their whole day, but for the rest of time, this person will secretly feel indebted to you, and you will be able to play with their mind in all sorts of little ways.

3: Libertarians, you have a particular problem with this. If I wanted to know why I'm a Stalin-worshipper who has betrayed the Founding Fathers for personal gain and is controlled by his base emotions and wants to dominate others by force to hide his own worthlessness et cetera, I'd ask Ann Coulter. You're better than that. Come on. And then you wonder why people never vote for you.

415 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T01:54:16.231Z · score: 38 (42 votes) · LW · GW

The first rule of persuading a negatively disposed audience - rationally or otherwise - is not to say the things they expect you to say. The expected just gets filtered out, or treated as confirmation of pre-existing beliefs regardless of its content.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-03-19T02:44:21.176Z · score: 25 (25 votes) · LW · GW

Sadly, the unexpected frequently gets translated into the expected, even to the point of explicit denials of a position being ignored repeatedly in a single conversation.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T03:44:17.498Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Then say something more unexpected. There's an art to it.

How hard is it to fit a simple denial into a frame? Not hard at all.

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-03-19T03:29:03.982Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This situation is especially troublesome if you've already been market as standard opponent #445, such as when you change your own mind you a new, more subtle position that is similar to your old position.

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-03-19T06:09:32.488Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

When I adjust my position in subtle ways like that, I go to pains to point it out, which is rhetorically advantageous and shows that there's a real dialectic going on.

comment by jacoblyles · 2009-03-20T08:24:11.864Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Also, by following their arguments, trying to clarify it and understanding the pieces. Your sincere and genuine attempt to understand them in the best possible light will make them open to your point of view.

The smart Christians are some of the most logical people I've ever met. There worldview fits together like a kind of Geometry. They know that you get a completely different form of it if you substitute one axiom for another (existence of God for non-existence of God), much like Euclid's world dissolves without the parallel postulate.

Once we got to that point in our conversation, I realized that they we agreed on everything about the world except that postulate, which they were also aware of. I realized that they were neither stupid nor evil, as I had assumed before (a remarkably common, and uncivil, view that atheists have of believers). I still disagree with them. However, I was fine with leaving the conversation with both of our positions unchanged, but understanding each other better.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-19T02:30:49.790Z · score: 28 (28 votes) · LW · GW

You've overlooked another way to "win" an argument: To persuade otherwise uninvolved third parties.

Typically, two people arguing are already thoroughly fortified in their opinions. Few people find argument for its own sake enjoyable and thus are unlikely to be lured into a debate they have no emotional stake in; as well, upon rising to the occasion to defend their side, their resistance to acknowledging their opponent's valid arguments will be stronger than ever.

Less-involved bystanders, however, can view the argument with a more impartial eye, and are much more likely to be persuaded. Of course, this is typically the justification made for the style of debating you argue against in this post--especially on the internet, where bystanders are plentiful and social dynamics are strongly subject to John Gabriel's G.I.F. Theory--but it's not at all clear that such an approach is actually effective for this purpose, any more than it is for persuading the opposing party.

As an aside, I can think of at least two other reasons to engage in debate; but neither derives value from actually winning the argument, and thus are irrelevant in this context.

comment by dclayh · 2009-03-25T20:45:22.053Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Bystanders may well identify themselves emotionally with one debater or the other, so being "nice" to one's opponent would reduce the defensiveness of the audience as well.

comment by TaylorSwift · 2016-03-13T22:48:24.309Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

More importantly it helps also the bystanders, be they on your side or the other, come closer to understanding each other. Rather than just converting the undecided among them, which there may not be that many of on some issues.

comment by kurige · 2009-03-19T08:35:38.030Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

This post goes hand in hand with Crisis of Faith. Eliezer's post is all about creating an internal crisis and your post is all about applying that to a real world debate. Like peanut-butter and jelly.

If you want to correct and not just refute then you cannot bring to the table evidence that can only be seen as evidence from your perspective. Ie. you cannot directly use evolution as evidence when the opposing party has no working knowledge of evolution. Likewise, a christian cannot convince an atheist of the existence of God by talking about the wonders of His creation. If you picture you and your opponent's belief systems as vin-diagrams then the discussion must start where they overlap, no matter how small that sliver of common knowledge might be. Hopefully, if you and your opponent employ crisis-of-faith properly, those two circles will slowly converge.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T14:08:13.631Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

For our European readers, I would like to note that what kurige meant by 'Like peanut-butter and jelly' was something like 'they go really well together, and in fact one would probably not put one on a sandwich without the other'.

Just try not to picture it; you'll be fine.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T22:53:19.548Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Probably most people know this, but if you find yourself needing to mention this again it's vital to add that "jelly" here refers to what we call "jam", because to us, "jelly" is what you call "Jell-O". You can imagine why we're not thrilled by the thought of a peanut-butter and "Jell-O" sandwich!

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-01T18:20:55.786Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

[insert discussion about the difference between jam and marmalade here]

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-19T14:43:47.293Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is a critical point.

One of the reasons arguments seem to exist at all - from what I can understand - is that when people look at the same things in different ways, effectively seeing two different things. A christian might look at the world and see the wonder of God's creation, but a physicist might see nothing but billions and billions of tiny particles interacting. Someone pro-life might see an abortion as a murder, while someone pro-choice might see it as part of a woman's right to her own body.

You need to frame the argument so both parties are looking at the same thing for any progress to be made. Otherwise, people just become more and more entrenched in their position, while getting more and more frustrated that the other person doesn't see it their way.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T14:53:03.156Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus, this was basically his only point. If you clearly define your terms, thereby unambiguously fixing the referents for your propositions, then all disagreement will disappear.

In later works, he realized that there are a lot of things we do with language other than relating propositions, that you use language before you get definitions, and that things are generally a bit more complicated than he used to think.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T22:50:20.534Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, in practice this process of definition is more like iterative refining than fixing for all time, but the result is the same: the point is to ensure that your discussion is actually about the world. This is what making beliefs pay rent and tabooing words are all about.

(Hmm, we're developing a vocabulary drawn from EY posts - are there more standard terms for these things we could be using?)

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-21T15:27:17.083Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

that you use language before you get definitions

Ah, but that's simply untrue. We use language before we get explicit definitions. The implicit definitions are a necessary precursor for language use.

comment by Jack · 2009-09-19T01:21:18.164Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe. But the point is that implicit definitions are never clearly defined. Indeed, they are hardly definitions- more like an incomplete sense of in what circumstances the use of the word is appropriate.

comment by Gray · 2011-04-05T01:59:51.773Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

Huh? This can't be the consensus view here. Is it?

Because my opinion has developed over the years to conclude the exact opposite. Rhetoric has always been "the study of how to use language well." What has happened? Wikipedia defines it as "the art and study of the use of language with persuasive effect". Ah, that happened to it. Anyone interested I invite to compare the definitions provided by various dictionaries. Some dictionaries will offer both kinds of definitions, because lexicographers aren't supposed to decide which definition is best.

But I implore others, especially those with a rational bent, to not give up the decent meaning of the term rhetoric. It isn't just "flowery language" that some allege can only be used to obscure thought. It's a whole study, what was once a whole discipline(1). It's the art of how to use language well.

I used to think otherwise, until I've been in too many rather strange discussions with people online who are, otherwise, intelligent people. What happens in many cases is that people misunderstand each other, but this misunderstanding isn't due to the semantics of the language used. In many cases, for instance, my meaning is exactly contrary to what others apprehend; yet, the words are all there, how did they misunderstand?

What I didn't understand but realize now is that we need to take some responsibility not just for the semantics of language, but for the pragmatics. That is, some thought and skill needs to go into not just the meaning of what we say, but the effect we have on others by saying it. Even between rationalists.

One of the most common things I've seen, not just in my own discussions, but in observing the discussions here and elsewhere on the web, is misleading emphasis. For instance, obviously, it should be the very point you're making that you should be emphasizing in your language. But if this emphasis is done poorly, readers may not realize that you're making a point at all, and might ask "get to the point". In other cases, the wrong point is being emphasized, and the writer or speaker is dumbfounded when he realized that his point was missed altogether.

I'm not someone who has studied much rhetoric. I'm just realizing it's something I should have already been studying, and now I'm engaging with it. I don't think studying rhetoric will cause you to become a better writer or speaker; most of us become better writers by reading good writers. But I think it is useful, for a rationalist community such as this one, to have a set of terms for various rhetorical tropes. This could begin the process of rationalists engaging each other in rhetorical critique, as well as logical and grammatical critique(2), which I think would be a net benefit.

(1) Case in point: This sentence is what rhetoricians call mesodiplosis.

(2) My philosophical dictionary alludes to a notable contradistinction between grammar and rhetoric: grammar is about using language correctly, rhetoric is about using language well.

comment by conchis · 2009-03-19T12:09:31.736Z · score: 11 (27 votes) · LW · GW

Yvain, I enjoy your posts, and generally find them useful, informative, and well written.

I also recognize that this view is controversial in some circles, but one thing that would make me enjoy them rather more is if you managed to ferret out the implicit assumption that crops up every now and then that your rationalist protagonists are necessarily male. (Or at least predominantly so, I haven't been back to do an exhaustive stock-take of your gender specific pronoun usage, but I do recall being struck by this at least once before, so I figured it was worth a comment this time.)

Just to clarify, I don't mean Theo here. If you want to use a specifically male example, that's fine. But phrases like "the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind" and "[e]ither a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn't" strike me as problematic.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that you're being consciously sexist here. In fitting with the theme of this post, I spent a fair while rejecting others' calls for gender neutral language under the mistaken (largely emotional) impression that agreeing with them would have be an admission of some deep moral flaw in me, rather than merely a small and relatively painless step towards inclusiveness - and ultimately better communication.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-19T13:57:34.450Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

I'm glad you brought that up.

I've thought about this a few times, and I agree with you that it promotes sexism and is bad, but I just really hate using the phrases "he or she" every time I have to use a pronoun. A sentence like "A rationalist should ensure he or she justifies his or her opinion to himself or herself" is just too awkward to understand. And I am too much of a grammar purist to use "them" as a singular.

I used to use the gender-neutral pronoun "ze", but people told me they didn't understand it or didn't like it or thought it sounded stupid. And I tried using "she" as the default for a while, but people kept getting confused because they weren't expecting it, and trying to figure out where I'd mentioned a female.

I'm willing to accept whatever the common consensus is here. Maybe Less Wrong-ers are open-minded enough to accept "ze" where the average reader isn't.

(I've heard some people here use "ve" a few times, but from the context I gathered it was more of a way to refer to aliens/AIs/transhumans than a normal gender-neutral pronoun. Is this true?)

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T19:23:49.719Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I think I remember reading that the plural used to be conventional grammar and was then deliberately suppressed in favor of "he".

I use the plural. It grows on you surprisingly quickly and isn't at all obtrusive. Anyone who doesn't already have the info stored "Oh, Eliezer uses the plural" after reading my writings for months is a case in point thereof.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-20T02:02:18.652Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Use of the plural form also has the advantage of being the stylistic direction the language is trending to. English is a mass hallucination anyways, why stand in futile defiance of its whims?

The grammatical value of "they" used as a singular has been discussed frequently at the inestimable Language Log, including citations of the form used by such disreputable, notorious abusers of the noble English tongue as William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill. A good post on the subject, though by no means the only one, can be found here.

Maybe next time, we can all argue over splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, or other happy chestnuts of wholly-unfounded prescriptive grammar pedant absurdity.

comment by Liron · 2009-03-20T00:41:19.181Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed! I pay attention both to gender pronouns and to Eliezer's writing patterns, and I never noticed this. (Eliezer_2000 used "ve" a lot though.)

I had previously decided on "he" in order to optimize for flow, but I am happy to accept this well-made point and switch to "they'.

comment by Johnicholas · 2009-03-19T14:29:30.212Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Hofstadter has made an excellent argument on this topic called "A Person Paper on Purity in Language".

Iain Banks, in "Player of Games", also expressed this sentiment pretty well:

"Marain, the Culture's quintessentially wonderful language (so the Culture will tell you), has, as any schoolkid knows, one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person's sex in Marain, but they're not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it's brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over."

My preferred sex-neutral pronoun is "they".

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T17:19:57.956Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I also prefer "they".

comment by sketerpot · 2009-03-22T21:41:49.147Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It's unobtrusive and it has a decent chance of actually catching on, unlike any alternative I've ever heard of. There's something to be said for practicality.

comment by conchis · 2009-03-19T19:03:36.774Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I do appreciate that this inevitably opens up a can of worms, and that no solution is really ideal.

I agree that "he or she" awkward in many, if not most situations. For whatever it's worth, my preferred solution is to use the plural (they/them/their) in any situation where it's unambiguous enough to function effectively, and to otherwise use she/her. If people are confused by feminine pronouns... well, that kind of just illustrates the problem, and making them think about that at least serves some sort of purpose.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-03-19T14:46:20.509Z · score: 6 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Landsburg:

I am therefore confident that no attentive reader will mistake my repeated use of the generic pronouns "he," "him," and "his" for the exclusively masculine pronouns with the same spellings and pronunciations.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T14:49:34.100Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I'm using this disclaimer from now on. Nearly as hilarious as it is awesome.

comment by moshez · 2011-04-05T00:53:17.921Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Instead of gender neutrality, try to go for gender balance? I use alternate "he" or "she", and occasionally, semi-intentionally contradict myself [for example, in a talk about Bayes, I explained what I meant by "overconfidence" with an example -- the specific numeric example used a name, Sally, and the general definition used "he". For underconfidence, I used "Barry" and "she" respectively". I believe Eliezer used to physically flip a coin for he vs. she.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-04-05T04:34:11.223Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer still does.

comment by moshez · 2011-04-05T04:46:18.177Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I guess that's fairer than switching (there might be an unfair on/off pattern), but would take me out of my writing flow, which is why the strict-alternation compromise is what I adopted.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2011-04-05T18:20:09.824Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Idea: every once in a while just flip a coin or otherwise generate a bunch of random bits. Save them and load up the file or get out the piece of paper you wrote the results down on or such when you're ready to start writing. Then simply start peeling the bits off each time you need a new randomly assigned gender.

comment by moshez · 2011-04-05T18:22:23.973Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That doesn't fix the "flow" issue. When I'm writing, the last thing I want to do is to be flipping through my files, looking for the bit file, etc. etc...

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-04-05T18:30:24.209Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Could you use whether the minute on your clock is odd or even?

comment by moshez · 2011-04-05T18:32:55.907Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It still means I need to break my typing to look at an external stimulus. Honestly, so far I've not seen many instances where strict alternation worked badly, so I'm not motivated to solve this non-problem.

comment by jslocum · 2011-04-16T02:34:06.120Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It would be better to flip a coin at the beginning of a document to determine which pronoun to use when the gender is unspecified. That way there is no potential for the reader to be confused by two different pronouns referring to the same abstract entity.

comment by Nominull · 2011-04-16T02:47:08.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Or we could flip a coin once for all of the English-speaking world, so that we aren't confused when we go from one document to another. Or we could just standardize on the male pronoun, which has backward-compatibility advantages.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-16T02:58:33.699Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

so that we aren't confused when we go from one document to another

Why, on your view, would going from using "he" to refer to a hypothetical person in one document, to using "she" to refer to a different hypothetical person in a different document, be confusing?

(Not, mind you, that I intend to do this. I've been using the gender-neutral third-person plural pronoun consistently in these situations for years and see no reason to stop. )

comment by Nominull · 2011-04-16T03:01:01.177Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hypothetical people, or people of unknown gender, have no gender in reality I can refer to. If I have to treat them as gendered anyway, surely it is easier to have a default gender to fall back on, rather than having to keep track of the particular nonce gender of this particular hypothetical person/person of unknown gender.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-16T03:24:49.743Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting.

For my part, if I'm being told a story about an actual person, whom I don't know, who is referred to as "him" or "her," I don't find it especially confusing to subsequently keep track of their gender.

Nor do I find it significantly more confusing if they are hypothetical instead of actual.

I hadn't previously realized there were people who differed from me in that regard. That's useful to know: thanks for clarifying.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-16T02:59:23.156Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Or we could just standardize on the male pronoun, which has backward-compatibility advantages.

I'd be very curious to see a study seeing if this did actually impact what gender people think of examples by default. Note that there have been studies showing that kids are more likely to think of a "fireman" as male than a "firefighter" and for similar roles, but I'm not aware of any such study for pronouns. I suspect you'd have the same result.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-16T03:40:47.585Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not a statistically significant study, but given "The agent's husband stood up from the table," I would expect pretty much everyone to assume without much effort that the agent was female, but given "The agent led his husband onto the dance floor," I'd expect most people to become confused, and some to assume a gay male agent, and very few to assume a female agent.

That suggests that the "his" gets treated as evidence of the referent's masculinity strong enough to override a strong prior in the other direction.

comment by pertinaciousfox · 2015-03-16T12:11:01.799Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My predisposition to assume that an agent is male is stronger than my predisposition to assume heteronormative relationships. My immediate reaction to the sentence, "The agent's husband stood up from the table" was to suppose a male agent with a male spouse. But I'm probably unusual in this regard.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-16T03:45:05.014Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with your analysis but I'd like to see some form of formal study confirm it.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2011-04-05T18:27:12.762Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I mean, if you go "I am about to write, so I'll load up the random male/female file right now" (though I admit, I haven't tried this and it may very well also be disruptive to quickly tab to that file, check the next random gender and then delete it).

Oh well, if that doesn't work, then... next idea then. (I don't have the "next idea", though, so you or someone else will have to come up with it. :))

comment by pertinaciousfox · 2015-03-16T12:15:42.017Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Couldn't you just default to "he" when writing, then when finished, flip a coin (or refer to whatever randomized gender generator you prefer), and go back and change the gender if need be? It wouldn't interrupt the work flow; it would just be a little work after to revise.

comment by Z_M_Davis · 2009-03-19T17:46:25.307Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

For myself, I use the generic feminine wherever possible in writing, but that's just me. In natural speech, I use they, like everyone else.

comment by RobinZ · 2009-07-09T15:35:29.628Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes I flip a coin for each hypothetical person I invoke.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T14:45:36.075Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Regarding being a grammar purist, it should be noted that being offended at using 'them' as a singular indefinite is a relatively recent trend.

'ze' and 've' are aesthetically unpleasing, but using them more is likely the only way they would become less so. You won't find me doing it anytime soon though.

It should be noted that until recently, 'man' was gender-neutral in English. John Stuart Mill found himself just on the cusp of that, and tried to argue for women's suffrage in England on the basis that the law referred to 'man' and so included women. (he lost). Common archaic equivalents to todays' 'man' and 'woman' are 'were' and 'wif', where 'man' meant the whole species (though commonly that only considered males).

'She' isn't that confusing, and radical feminism isn't the pernicious beast it was in the 90's, so it seems like 'she' is the best bet for a gender-neutral personal pronoun.

Personally, I prefer to invent a subject for such a thought experiment and then use the appropriate pronoun for the person's gender - which is what you did here with Theo.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T20:02:39.837Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I prefer to invent a subject for such a thought experiment and then use the appropriate pronoun for the person's gender - which is what you did here with Theo.

The problem with inventing a subject is that people may notice a (unintentional or even nonexistent) trend to always cast one gender as the brave, smart, rational protagonist and the other gender as the cowardly, stupid, silly antagonist.

Personally, I don't care what technique is used (fictional subject, always "he", always "she", "he or she", "they", invented pronouns, etc.)

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T22:59:15.572Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Flip a coin?

comment by komponisto · 2009-03-19T15:28:14.505Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

A lot of people object to "he or she" on grounds of euphony; but clarity of meaning should always take priority in our considerations over sound. The fact is that "he or she" is what we actually mean.

Granted, like any phrase, it is inelegant in certain contexts, and can become tiresome if repeated. So one has to use workarounds. Luckily, "they" (always perfectly acceptable in spoken conversation) is also available for judicious written use.

"the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his or her mind" sounds just fine. ("Their" could also be substituted.)

"Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he or she doesn't" is bad, mainly because of the "or" preceding "he or she". "He/she doesn't" is better, but "they don't" is probably the best (certainly in a comment; maybe a post should be more formal?).

Invented pronouns are just too strange and should be avoided.

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-20T02:30:07.219Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

but clarity of meaning should always take priority in our considerations over sound.

Agreed. Sound is deeply important though. Most of us on a forum like this spend our days navigating seas of words. To give no consideration to the sound of those words is exceptionally bad fun theory.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-06-22T15:39:59.591Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"he or she" is what we actually mean

Still sexist, for the reason "whe or ble" is still racist.

Also, down with the gender binary. Do we actually mean that we should argue with men and women to change their minds, but not with genderqueers?

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-22T15:26:42.238Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

And I tried using "she" as the default for a while, but people kept getting confused because they weren't expecting it, and trying to figure out where I'd mentioned a female.

Yes - and this is the problem. People shouldn't think that a female pronoun is weird... just because it's female. ...and you shouldn't be afraid of using it just because people might think it unusual and get confused for all of two seconds.

If you, and the other more post-prolific and respected members of the community used female pronouns more frequently (ie on average: as often as male ones) then eventually it would become commonplace and people would eventually figure it out.... that it's just a pronoun. Just like the other one... only female.

Alternatively, a lot of people these days are just fine with "they"/"them".

Yes we have twisted English into a way it never was used before and it sounds weird to those of us "brought up better"... but this is what happens with languages.

Especially English.

I'm sure I could go through your last post and pick out half a dozen things that, in their time, were considered weird and "not correct English"... until everyone that used to hate them died off and it became just part of common language.

AFAICT, it's currently the most widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. You can fight the tide... or not. :)

comment by MathieuRoy · 2017-09-19T21:24:04.873Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

FYI: I use this Chrome extension to gender-neutralize what I read: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/the-ungender/blfboedipjpaphkkdoddffpnfjknfeda?hl=en

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-03-19T14:02:07.322Z · score: -3 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Please stick with "he".
I agree that it's imperfect, but inelegance matters.

comment by conchis · 2009-03-19T19:05:37.245Z · score: 11 (17 votes) · LW · GW

If inelegance is your primary concern, then "she" seems at least as good, and probably a lesser evil for other reasons.

comment by DragonGod · 2017-09-18T19:29:42.427Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I find using she exclusively offensive.

comment by kluge · 2009-03-19T17:29:43.170Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I find it very hard to consider that anything but nitpicking. Although that's probably because my native language is Finnish and it doesn't have separate third person pronouns for different genders. I don't think that distinction is worth making.

Then again, since English does have he and she, perhaps one can't avoid it.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T17:47:46.807Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. And after studying Japanese, I started to find it silly that English (like most Western languages) makes the distinction between 'singular' and 'plural'. Like whether we're talking about exactly 1 thing or any number other than 1 is information important enough to encode with every noun, but it's usually not worth mentioning what the particular number is.

ETA: exactly what Nebu said below.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-09-19T01:01:58.742Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I feel like mentioning that English seems to be quite tolerant of not making the singular/plural distinction. When borrowing from languages that don't make this distinction (in my experience, Japanese and Lojban), it seems that people simply use the existing form for both singular and plural: "This gismu is different from all other gismu in that instead of taking just one sumti or finitely many sumti, it can take infinitely many sumti."

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-22T15:36:54.717Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Doesn't even have to be non-english words:

"this sheep is different from other sheep in that it thinks that it is a fish unlike these fish that think they are sheep"

/contrived_example

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-19T19:46:24.604Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In everyday life, the difference between one and several often is important enough to mention, but it would be too complex to create special grammatical categories for individual numbers.

I'm amazed that ancient people put enough emphasis on past/present/future to justify having irregular verbs. They must have had a very strange conception of time.

But then I'm also amazed that Russian doesn't have a definite article...

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T21:30:33.815Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In everyday life, the difference between one and several often is important enough to mention, but it would be too complex to create special grammatical categories for individual numbers.

I think what Thomblake would like (and which is how I understand Japanese to work) is to be to use a noun without specifying whether or not it is plural, and have extra (not necessarily "grammatical categories") contructs for adding the extra information of whether it is plural or not.

E.g.

  • "What did you do yesterday?"
  • "Oh, I hung out with {friend}."
  • "Really? Were there a lot of people?"
  • "Nope, just one {friend}." / "Yes, many {friend}." / "Well, it was three {friend}."

So it's not new grammatical categories (as long as you don't consider just prefixing the word "three" to be a new grammatical category).

The way English works, there's no way to use a noun while leaving the "1 vs not 1" information ambiguous. If you leave off the "s", you must be referring to exactly one instance. If you put the "s", you must be referring to a non-1 instance (possibly zero instances).

comment by jacoblyles · 2009-03-20T08:14:58.396Z · score: 9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I am curious about the large emphasis that rationalists place on the religious belief. Religion is an old institution, ingrained in culture and valuable for aesthetic and social reasons. To convince a believer to leave his religion, you need not only convince him, but convince him so thoroughly as to drive him to take a substantial drop in personal utility to come to your side (to be more exact, he must weigh the utility gained from believing the truth to outweigh the material, social, and psychic benefits that he gets from religion).

For rationalists' attention, there are myriad more important and relevant issues where human irrationality has an effect on the world. In addition, these issues are normally easier to change people's beliefs about.

People have been believing in God for 500,000 years. People have been believing unsupported things about Global Warming for 30. I would rather teach people how to be skeptical and cautious about modern policy debates than have Yet Another God Conversation.

I was scarred by religion growing up. I understand the impulse to despise it and oppose it. But there came a time in my life when I realized that it was going to be around for as long as humanity, though its fortunes may wax and wane. It's time to move on.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T20:39:12.304Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Most of the comments in this discussion focused on topics that are emotionally significant for your "opponent." But here's something that happened to me twice.

I was trying to explain to two intelligent people (separately) that mathematical induction should start with the second step, not the first. In my particular case, a homework assignment had us do induction on the rows of a lower triangular matrix as it was being multiplied by various vectors; the first row only had multiplication, the second row both multiplication and addition. I figured it was safer to start with a more representative row.

When a classmate disagreed with me, I found this example on Wikipedia. His counter-arguement was that this wasn't the case of induction failing at n=2. He argued that the hypothesis was worded incorrectly, akin to the proof that a cat has nine tails. I voiced my agreement with him, that “one horse of one color” is only semantically similar to “two horses of one color,” but are in fact as different as “No cat (1)” and “no cat (2).” I tried to get him to come to this conclusion on his own. Midway through, he caught me and said that I was misinterpreting what he was saying.

The second person is not a mathematician, but he understands the principles of mathematical induction (as I'd made sure before telling him about horses). And this led to one of the most frustrating arguments I'd ever had in my life. Here's the our approximate abridged dialogue (sans the colorful language):

Me: One horse is of one color. Suppose every n horses are of one color. Add the n+1st horse, and take n out of those horses. They’re all of one color by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must be of one color. Therefore, all horses are of one color.

Him: This proof can't be right because its result is wrong.

Me: But then, suppose we do the same proof, but starting with on n=2 horses. This proof would be correct.

Him: No, it won’t be, because the result is still wrong. Horses have different colors.

Me: Fine, then. Suppose this is happening in a different world. For all you know, all horses there can be of one color.

Him: There’re no horses in a different world. This is pointless. (by this time, he was starting to get angry).

Me: Okay! It’s on someone’s ranch! In this world! If you go look at this person’s horses, every two you can possibly pick are of the same color. Therefore, all of his horses are of the same color.

Him: I don’t know anyone whose horses are of the same color. So they’re not all of one color, and your proof is wrong.

Me: It’s a hypothetical person. Do you agree, for this hypothetical person—

Him: No, I don’t agree because this is a hypothetical person, etc, etc. What kind of stupid problems do you do in math, anyway?

Me: (having difficulties inserting words).

Him: Since the result is wrong, the proof is wrong. Period. Stop wasting my time with this pointless stuff. This is stupid and pointless, etc, etc. Whoever teaches you this stuff should be fired.

Me: (still having difficulties inserting words) … Wikipe—…

Him: And Wikipedia is wrong all the time, and it’s created by regular idiots who have too much time on their hands and don’t actually know jack, etc, etc. Besides, one horse can have more than one color. Therefore, all math is stupid. QED.

THE END.

To the best of my knowledge, neither of these two people were emotionally involved with mathematical induction. Both of them were positively disposed at the beginning of the argument. Both of them are intelligent and curious. What on Earth went wrong here?

^One of the reasons why I shouldn’t start arguments about theism, if I can’t even convince people of this mathematical technicality.

comment by Douglas_Reay · 2014-03-28T21:31:48.710Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What on Earth went wrong here?

You might find enlightening the part of the TED talk given by James Flynn (of the Flynn effect), where he talks about concrete thinking.

comment by gwern · 2014-03-29T01:53:31.945Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hah! I thought of the exact same thing before I saw your comment: the interviews by Luria with Russian peasants where the peasants refuse to abstract in any way. Shalizi provides an example http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/484.html :

Consider the following dialogue (p. 112) with an illiterate peasant named Nazir-Said:

The following syllogism is presented: 'There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?'
Subject repeats syllogism exactly.
So, are there camels in Germany?
"I don't know, I've never seen German villages."
Refusal to infer.
The syllogism is repeated.
"Probably there are camels there."
Repeat what I said.
"There are no camels in Germany, are there camels in B. or not? So probably there are. If it's a large city, there should be camels there."
Syllogism breaks down, inference drawn apart from its conditions.
But what do my words suggest?
"Probably there are. Since there are large cities, there should be camels."
Again a conclusion apart from the syllogism.
But if there aren't any in all of Germany?
"If it's a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there."
But I'm saying that there are no camels in Germany, and this city is in Germany.
"If this village is in a large city, there is probably no room for camels."

comment by arundelo · 2014-03-29T03:47:42.307Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not to deny that this is an example of someone who does not think abstractly -- I agree that it is -- but there's also a Gricean interpretation: From the subject's point of view, if the experimenter already knows that there is literally not even one camel in all of Germany including all of its cities and villages, then the experimenter would not ask whether there are camels in a specific city in Germany, therefore the experimenter must mean, "There are no camels in Germany not counting the cities", or "There are extremely few camels in Germany".

comment by gwern · 2014-03-29T04:01:02.659Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That doesn't wash given the dialogue, rather than a single question. A single question might reasonably elicit a Gricean answer to a different question, but repeated questioning on the same point?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-02-23T21:31:16.357Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Him: Since the result is wrong, the proof is wrong. Period. Stop wasting my time with this pointless stuff. This is stupid and pointless, etc, etc. Whoever teaches you this stuff should be fired.

...

What on Earth went wrong here?

The problem was that your ultimate conclusion was wrong. It is not in fact the case that "mathematical induction should start with the second step, not the first." It's just that, like all proofs, you have to draw valid inferences at each step. As JGWeissman points out, the horse proof fails at the n=2 step. But one could contrive examples in which the induction proof fails at the kth step for arbitrary k.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T21:39:39.370Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I ever got to my "ultimate" conclusion (that all of the operations that appear in step n must appear in the basis step).

I was trying to use this example where the proof failed at n=2 to show that it's possible in principle for a (specific other) proof to fail at n=2. Higher-order basis steps would be necessary only if there were even more operations.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-23T20:58:26.128Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Mathematical induction using the first step as the base case is valid. The problem with the horses of one color problem is that you are using sloppy verbal reasoning that hides an unjustified assumption that n > 1. If you had tried to make a rigorous argument that the set of n+1 elements is the union of two of its subsets with n elements each, with those subsets having a non-empty intersection, this would be clear.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T21:35:28.492Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Induction based on n=1 works sometimes, but not always. That was my point.

The problem with the horses of one color problem is that you are using sloppy verbal reasoning that hides an unjustified assumption that n > 1.

I'm not sure what you mean. I thought I stated it each time I was assuming n=1 and n=2.

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-13T06:22:26.361Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The problem with the horses of one color problem is that you are using sloppy verbal reasoning that hides an unjustified assumption that n > 1.

I'm not sure what you mean. I thought I stated it each time I was assuming n=1 and n=2.

In the induction step, we reason "The first horse is the same colour as the horses in the middle, and the horses in the middle have the same colour as the last horse. Therefore, all n+1 horses must be of the same colour". This reasoning only works if n > 1, because if n = 1, then there are no "horses in the middle", and so "the first horse is the same colour as the horses in the middle" is not true.

comment by Pfft · 2014-03-29T13:35:09.866Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky writes about "Intellectual Trauma":

One of Freud's conceptions was that the growth of many individuals is shaped by unsuspected fears that lurk in our unconscious minds. These powerful anxieties include the dread of punishment or injury or helplessness or, worst of all, the loss of the esteem of those to whom we are attached. Whether this is true or not, most psychologists who hold this view apply it only the the social realm, assuming that the world of intellect is too straightforward and impersonal to be involved with such feelings. But intellectual development can depend equally upon attachments to other persons and can be similarly involved with buried fear and dreads. [--] By itself, the failure to achieve a goal can cause anxiety. For example, surely every child must once have thought along this line:

Hmmmm. Ten is nearly eleven. And eleven is nearly twelve. So ten is nearly twelve. And so on. If I keep on reasoning this way, then ten must be nearly a hundred!

To an adult, this is just a stupid joke. But earlier in life, such an incident could have produced a crisis of self-confidence and helplessness. To put it in more grown-up terms, the child might think, "I can't see anything wrong with my reasoning--and yet it led to bad results. I merely used the obvious fact that if A is near B, and B is near C, then A must be near C. I see no way that could be wrong---so there must be something wrong with my mind." Whether or not we can recollect it, we must once have felt some distress at being made to sketch the nonexistent boundaries between the oceans and the seas; What was it like to first consider "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" What came before the start of time; what lies beyond the edge of space? And what of sentences like "This statement is false," which can throw the mind into a spin? I don't know anyone who recalls such incidents and frightening. But then, as Freud might say, this very fact could be a hint that the area is subject to censorship

If people bear the scars of scary thoughts, why don't these lead, as our emotion-traumas are supposed to do, to phobias, compulsions, and the like? I suspect they do---but disguised in forms we don't perceive as pathological. [---]

This seems to fit the anecdote very well--your interlocutor could not find a fault in the reasoning, noticed it led to an absurdity, and decided that this intellectual area is dangerous, scary, and should be evacuated as soon as possible.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-02-23T21:41:48.091Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose every n horses are of one color. Add the n+1st horse, and take n out of those horses. They’re all of one color by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must be of one color. Therefore, all horses are of one color.

You didn't actually prove that n+1 horses have one color with this, you know, even given the assumption. You just said twice that n horses have one color, without proving that their combined set still has one color.

For example consider the following "Suppose every n horses can fit in my living room. Add the n+1 horse, and take n out of those horses. They can fit in my living room by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must again fit in my living room. Therefore, all horses fit in my living room."

That's not proper induction. It doesn't matter if you begin with a n of 1, 2, 5, or 100 horses, such an attempt at induction would still be wrong, because it never shows that the proposition actually applies for the set of n+1.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T21:52:33.085Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

.... The first n horses and the second n horses have an overlap of n-1 horses that are all the same color. So first and the last horse have to be the same color. Sorry, I thought that was obvious.

I see your point, though. This time, I was trying to reduce the word count because the audience is clearly intelligent enough to make that leap of logic. I can say the same for both of my "opponents" described above, because both of them are well above average intellectually. I honestly don't remember if I took that extra step in real life. If I haven't, do you think that was the issue both people had with my proof?

I have a feeling that the second person's problem with it was not from nitpicking on the details, though. I feel like something else made him angry.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-23T22:03:12.880Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The first n horses and the second n horses have an overlap of n-1 horses that are all the same color. So first and the last horse have to be the same color.

You need to make this more explicit, to expose the hidden assumption:

Take a horse from the overlap, which is the same color as the first horse and the same color as the last horse, so by transitivity, the first and last horse are the same color.

But why can you take a horse from the overlap? You can if the overlap is non-empty. Is the overlap non-empty? It has n-1 horses, so it is non-empty if n-1 > 0. Is n-1 > 0? It is if n > 1. Is n > 1? No, we want the proof to cover the case where n=1.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T22:19:28.452Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But why can you take a horse from the overlap? You can if the overlap is non-empty. Is the overlap non-empty? It has n-1 horses, so it is non-empty if n-1 > 0. Is n-1 > 0? It is if n > 1. Is n > 1? No, we want the proof to cover the case where n=1.

That's exactly what I was trying to get them to understand.

Do you think that they couldn't, and that's why they started arguing with me on irrelevant grounds?

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-23T22:34:56.374Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

And the point that I am trying to get you to understand, is that you do not need special rule to always check P(2) when making a proof by induction, in this case where the induction fails at P(1) -> P(2), carefully trying to prove the induction step will cause you to realize this. More generally you cannot rigorously prove that for all integers n > 0, P(n) -> P(n+1) if it is not true, and in particular if P(1) does not imply P(2).

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-25T18:08:30.030Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

More generally you cannot rigorously prove that for all integers n > 0, P(n) -> P(n+1) if it is not true, and in particular if P(1) does not imply P(2).

Sorry, I can't figure out what you mean here. Of course you can't rigorously prove something that's not true.

I have a feeling that our conversation boils down to the following:

Me: There exists a case where induction fails at n=2.

You: For all cases, if induction doesn’t fail at n=2, doesn’t mean induction doesn’t fail. Conversely, if induction fails, it doesn’t mean it fails at n=2. You have to carefully look at why and where it fails instead of defaulting to “it works at n=2, therefore it works.”

Is that correct, or am I misinterpreting?

Anyways, let's suppose you're making a valid point. Do you think that my interlocutors were arguing this very point? Or do you think they were arguing to put me back in my place, like TheOtherDave suggests, or that there was a similar human issue that had nothing to do with the actual argument?

comment by Sniffnoy · 2011-02-25T22:07:48.776Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

To butt in, I doubt your interlocutors were attempting to argue this point; they seem like they were having more fundamental issues. But your original argument does seem to be a bit confused.

Induction fails here because the inductive step fails at n=2. The inductive step happens to be true for n>2, but it is not true in general, hence the induction is invalid. The point is, rather than "you have to check n=2" or something similar, all that's going on here is that you have to check that your inductive step is actually valid. Which here means checking that you didn't sneak in any assumptions about n being sufficiently large. What's missing is not additional parts to the induction beyond base case and inductive step, what's missing is part of the proof of the inductive step.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-25T18:52:26.121Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Of course you can't rigorously prove something that's not true.

Your hindsight is accurate, but more than just recognizing the claim as true when presented to you, I am trying to get you to take it seriously and actively make use of it, by trying to rigorously prove things rather than produce sloppy verbal arguments that feel like a proof, which is possible to do for things that aren't true.

For all cases, if induction doesn’t fail at n=2, doesn’t mean induction doesn’t fail. Conversely, if induction fails, it doesn’t mean it fails at n=2. You have to carefully look at why and where it fails instead of defaulting to “it works at n=2, therefore it works.”

This is accurate, and related, but not the entire point. Distinguish between a proof by mathematical induction and the process of attempting to produce a proof by mathematical induction. One possible result of attempting to produce a proof is a proof. Another possible result is the identification of some difficulty in the proof that is the basis of an insight that induction isn't the right approach or, as in the colored horses examples, that the thing you are trying to prove is not actually true.

The point is that if you are properly attempting to produce a proof, which includes noticing difficulties that imply that the claim you are trying to prove is not actually true, you will either produce a valid proof or identify why your approach fails to provide a proof.

Do you think that my interlocutors were arguing this very point? Or do you think they were arguing to put me back in my place, like TheOtherDave suggests, or that there was a similar human issue that had nothing to do with the actual argument?

No, your interlocutors were not arguing this point. Their performance, as reported by you, was horribly irrational. But you should apply as much scrutiny to your own beliefs and arguments as to your interlocutors.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-02-23T23:03:38.797Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The case of two horses is special here because the sets 1..n and 2..n+1 don't overlap if n+1 = 2, and not because of some fundamental property of every induction hypothesis, but that -- along with some arbitrary large n, and maybe the next case if I'm using any parity tricks -- is one of the first cases I'd check when verifying a proof by induction.

comment by Dan_Moore · 2011-02-23T23:20:57.980Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The case of P(n) -> P(n+1) (i.e., the second part of the induction argument) that fails is n=1. (In other words n+1 = 2).

The second part of the induction argument must begin (i.e., include n >= n0) at the value n0 that you have proven in the first part to be true from 1 to n0. In this case n0 = 1, so you must begin the induction at n = 1.

comment by JGWeissman · 2011-02-23T23:38:54.107Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The case of P(n) -> P(n+1) (i.e., the second part of the induction argument) that fails is n=1. (In other words n+1 = 2).

I have edited my comment to avoid this confusion.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-02-23T23:26:34.138Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right, of course. I was trying to describe the flaw in the set-overlap assumption without actually going through an inductive step, on the assumption that that would be clearer, but in retrospect my phrasing muddled that.

I'll see if I can fix that.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-02-23T20:59:08.125Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why didn't you drop the "horses" example when it tripped him up and go with, I dunno, emeralds or ceramic pie weights or spruckels, stipulated to in fact have uniform color?

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T21:42:44.599Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that I lost the second person way before horses even became an issue. When he started picking on my words, "horses" and "different world" and "hypothetical person" didn't really matter anymore. He was just angry. What he was saying didn't make sense from that point on. For whatever reason, he stopped responding to logic.

But I don't know what I said to make him this angry in the first place.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-02-23T22:21:17.249Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Leaving aside the actual argument, I can tell you that there exist people (my husband is one of them, and come to think of it so is my ex-girlfriend, which makes me suspect that I bear some responsibility here, but I digress) whose immediate emotional reaction to "here, let me walk you through this illustrative hypothetical case" is strongly negative.

The reasons given vary, and may well be confabulatory.

I've heard the position summarized as "I don't believe in hypothetical questions," which I mostly unpack to mean that they understand that hypothetical scenarios are often used to introduce assumptions which support conclusions that the speaker then tries to apply by analogy to the real world, and that a clever rhetoritician can use this technique to sneak illegitimate assumptions into real-world scenarios, and don't trust me not to sneak in assumptions that make them look stupid or manipulate them into acting against their own interests.

I don't know if that's a factor in your case or not, but I have found that once I trigger that reaction, there's not much more I can do... they are no longer cooperating in the communication, they are just looking for some way to get out. If I press the point, I merely elicit anger and defensiveness and a variety of distractors.

The best way around this I've found so far, and it's only hit-or-miss, is to avoid the stance of "here let me show you something" altogether.

I am a lot more successful if I adopt the stance of "I am thinking about a problem that interests me," and if they express interest, explaining the problem as something I am presenting to myself, rather than to them. Or, if they don't, talking about something else.

At the risk of sounding like Robin, the fact that this is successful leads me to believe that at least sometimes, what's really going on is that I've stepped on some status-signaling landmine, and the reaction I'm getting actually translates to "I refuse to cede you the role of instructor by letting you define the hypothetical."

And suggesting that this might be what's going on works about as poorly as you'd expect it to were it what's going on. Of course, that's precisely what makes status-signaling a fully generalizable counterargument, so I take it with a grain of salt.

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-23T22:27:18.458Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"I refuse to cede you the role of instructor by letting you define the hypothetical."

You know, come think of it, that's actually a very good description of the second person... who is, by the way, my dad.

I am a lot more successful if I adopt the stance of "I am thinking about a problem that interests me," and if they express interest, explaining the problem as something I am presenting to myself, rather than to them. Or, if they don't, talking about something else.

This hasn't ever occurred to me, but I'll try it the next time a similar situation arises.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-02-23T22:08:40.277Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"No. Just an example. Lies propagate, that's what I'm saying. You've got to tell more lies to cover them up, lie about every fact that's connected to the first lie. And if you kept on lying, and you kept on trying to cover it up, sooner or later you'd even have to start lying about the general laws of thought. Like, someone is selling you some kind of alternative medicine that doesn't work, and any double-blind experimental study will confirm that it doesn't work. So if someone wants to go on defending the lie, they've got to get you to disbelieve in the experimental method. Like, the experimental method is just for merely scientific kinds of medicine, not amazing alternative medicine like theirs. Or a good and virtuous person should believe as strongly as they can, no matter what the evidence says. Or truth doesn't exist and there's no such thing as objective reality. A lot of common wisdom like that isn't just mistaken, it's anti-epistemology, it's systematically wrong. Every rule of rationality that tells you how to find the truth, there's someone out there who needs you to believe the opposite. If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy; and there's a lot of people out there telling lies."

comment by komponisto · 2009-03-19T07:17:53.143Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Sometimes the harsh approach has surprisingly good results. Example.

But Christopher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain irritating

Tangential, I know, but this surprises me. Hitchens, with his literary background, strikes me as a very nuanced thinker, attuned to the various shades of gray. (For example, he's by no means unmoved by religion's contributions to art and culture.) Maybe you're thinking of his talent for devastating rhetorical flourish, as in his infamous comments on Jerry Falwell?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-19T10:50:00.884Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I accept your correction. I've only seen Hitchens on TV a few times and never read his book. My introduction to him was in fact his Jerry Falwell comments. If you say he's more nuanced in his writings, I believe you.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T22:57:39.363Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've read God is not Great and seen footage of him in debate, and while I admire him in many ways, in other ways think he's a total arse and an embarrassment, and I don't think Yvain's picture of him is all that unfair. There isn't anyone prominent who thinks that the Sistine Chapel is bad because it's religious.

(I should add that there's almost nothing he has to say about religion that I actually disagree with, I just wouldn't use his turns of phrase to my religious friends)

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-19T23:49:03.697Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I should add that there's almost nothing he has to say about religion that I actually disagree with, I just wouldn't use his turns of phrase to my religious friends

You use different rhetoric to energize the base than to sway the undecideds. Hitchens often acts as a cheerleader. All of the big four do from time to time -- well, maybe not Dennett.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-20T08:01:49.031Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hitch has the strongest line in work-the-base rhetoric and so provides a good example of the sort of rhetoric you shouldn't use when trying to sway the undecideds, which was Yvain's point.

comment by MKani · 2011-12-10T21:45:32.566Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This post was actually pretty enlightening. I've had the typical religious debate with a theist before, and I use to go ahead with the 'kill them with arguments' method, and I did notice that it left people more convinced of their beliefs than they were before, even if I 'won' the argument.

comment by Demosthenes · 2009-03-20T03:54:56.326Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

American Rhetoric is an incredible site and there are some real gems that aspire to rational persuasion with some flair.

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/top100speechesall.html

Malcolm X's "Ballot or the Bullet" navigates the fact that he is black, widely regarded as dangerous and Muslim all at once while urging people to put these things aside and think about his plans and their outcomes. He does a first rate job of tailoring his rhetoric to increase your emotional desire to think and not react.

Milton Friedman is another person to watch live. He gets a bad rap from people who don't watch him, but if you have ever heard him speak, he excels at softly thinking through positions with the listener while still taking bold positions.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfdRpyfEmBE&feature=player_embedded

They said it best in Howard Stern Private Parts:

"I want to hear what he'll say next."

Gladwell is probably the best for presenting fact and figures in speeches. You might not like his numbers or rigor, but his presentatoon methods are top notch, often focused on challenging his listeners beliefs with academic research:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6204900041349106153&ei=YRTDSerTM4qIqwLbn9yuCw&q=Gladwell&hl=en

comment by Johnicholas · 2009-03-19T14:44:29.779Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In Rhetoric, they call this technique "Concession".

comment by Br000se · 2009-03-19T08:16:02.647Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My goal going into arguments is not to crush them or convince them that I am right. I try to keep a more open mind and understand their arguments. If you start out with a goal of crushing them you won't be in a state of mind to admit if their arguments are stronger.

comment by Woofenstein · 2009-03-19T06:32:37.287Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My sense is that the most rational argument is the one that gets you closest to your true goal. The theme of my most persuasive arguments is usually something like, "Once we sort things out I bet we'll see that we're really in substantial agreement." Dale Carnagiesque or not, to me rhetoric doesn't have to be a "dark art," full of manipulation and cant. Instead, I try to give respect and keep in mind what I really need to take away from the transaction. I also conceptualize what my erstwhile opponent needs and why. This way, minds may yet meet and all parties have a line of social retreat.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-12-01T18:17:37.208Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind.

It feels so quaint to see the generic "he" in an Yvain post. (I think he later used novelty gender-neutral pronouns for a while and now uses the singular "they".)

comment by Vaniver · 2013-12-01T19:21:04.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This might have been the last Yvain post to do so, because of this comment further down the page. Looking at the next ~5 of them in chronological order, I couldn't find any generic pronouns, so I couldn't easily test it.

comment by Roko · 2009-03-19T02:06:11.246Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't end up deconverting him on the spot, but think he left with a much better appreciation of my position.

Indeed. I've had similar thoughts to you, and take care to leave a social line of retreat. In the case of religious people, it doesn't work. In other cases, it works great, though I can't think of any off the top of my head. I just have a general recipie in my head "to convince someone, make it so that they'll look and feel good if they agree with you"

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-03-19T02:50:12.132Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've had similar thoughts as well. One problem, it seems, is the amount of effort it requires to argue in this way. If you don't know your opponent's position backwards and forwards, it can be very difficult to come up with a line of retreat for them to follow. If you don't actually grok your opponent's position, pretending to do so is unlikely to be effective. Ultimately, it probably pays to specialize a bit in a couple of areas so you know everyone's argument well enough to find those lines of retreat and to help them intuitively understand your argument.

comment by Alastair Jamieson-Lane (alastair-JL) · 2019-08-11T17:30:04.696Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cool Article, a nice and useful reminder.


Possibly just a quick question.... I remember some years back there being some sort of post on "Why does it seem like all the rationalists here are male?" and.... all the hypothetical people in your post are guys. In particular "Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn't."

Would it be useful to use more gender neutral pronouns? Especially when trying to give examples of persons who expresses rationalist vitures, assuming them to be Male seems.... like it might inadvertently act to exclude people.

comment by CBorys · 2012-05-31T07:07:20.710Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I thought it to be a nice illustration: Dawkins vs. Tyson This is a 2-minute-excerpt of "Beyond Belief", where Tyson accuses Dawkins of "the first type of winning an argument". (But his answer is no more than "You're right. But some people are worse".)

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-08T18:06:39.785Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But there's another line of retreat to worry about, one I experienced firsthand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can't remember exactly why. In the borderlands between waking and sleep, I remember thinking: I feel like a total moron. Here I am, someone who goes to atheist groups and posts on atheist blogs and has told all his friends they should be atheists and so on, and now it turns out God exists. All of my religious friends whom I won all those arguments against are going to be secretly looking at me, trying as hard as they can to be nice and understanding, but secretly laughing about how I got my comeuppance. I can never show my face in public again. Wouldn't you feel the same?

I think everyone has trouble dealing with situations like this, but I find that if you want to salvage status, it helps to make a display of your impressive ability to gracefully change your mind.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-03-19T02:45:08.271Z · score: 1 (12 votes) · LW · GW

The inventors of the original form of rationalist virtue AND rhetoric sure didn't think that the latter was a dark art. Rationalists should WIN!

comment by AndySimpson · 2009-03-19T06:23:05.814Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Rationalists should shouldn't deny themselves the utility of rhetoric. Any rational rationalist can see that rhetoric is the path to winning, a kind of social theatre that lubricates decision-making with irrational or intermittently rational groups. If a group needs to be convinced of a position within a finite amount of time, bare reasoning isn't always the best option.

Maybe that is too Machiavellian to be "really" rational, but it is the winning path.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-19T15:42:44.903Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I think I am using "rhetoric" in a different way than Aristotle. For Aristotle, it was the art of speaking clearly and eloquently to communicate a position. I am using it more in the way people use when they say "empty rhetoric" or "political rhetoric". "Unless you give up your rights, the terrorists have already won" is my idea of an archetypal rhetorical technique. That may not be fair to the field of rhetoric, but I need some word to describe it and I can't think of a better one, so "rhetoric" it is.

Rhetoric is a technique that may be useful to rationalists, but it's not a rationalist technique. Compare the use of force. I may, as a rationalist, decide the best way towards my goal is murdering all who oppose me, in which case I'll want to know techniques like how to use an assault weapon. But there's still something fundamentally shady about the technique of killing people; it may just barely be justified on utilitarian grounds for a sufficiently important goal, but it's one of those things that you use only as a last resort and even then only after agonizing soul-searching. I feel confident saying that the technique of murdering people effectively as a Dark Art.

I feel the same way about rhetoric (by my pessimistic definition). Tricking people into believing things they have no legitimate evidence for can certainly be helpful, but the more people do it the worse the world gets. Not only do people end up with less than maximally accurate beliefs, but every rhetorician needs to promote Dark Side Epistemology in order to keep zir job. And if I use rhetoric, you need to start using rhetoric just to keep up, and sooner or later everyone's beliefs are completely skewed and inaccurate. It's not quite as Dark an Art as force is, and it's much easier to justify, but it's in the same category.

Be careful about using the "rationalists should win" slogan too literally. Martial artists should win too, but that doesn't mean they should take an AK-47 to their next sparring match and blowing their opponent's face off. Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

comment by Emile · 2009-03-20T16:44:55.414Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Be careful about using the "rationalists should win" slogan too literally. Martial artists should win too, but that doesn't mean they should take an AK-47 to their next sparring match and blowing their opponent's face off. Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

I disagree. The problem with using dishonest rethoric to win in a debate isn't that it's winning dishonorably; it's that it's winning at the wrong game - on a game that you wouldn't consider the most important if you looked at it closely.

To continue with the martial arts analogy, imagine say a Chinese kung fu master in World War 2 Nanjing that knows that Japanese soldiers are coming over to kill off all of his family. Should he try to win the fight honorably? Or just try to win using every dirty trick in the book (including running away)? If he focuses on winning honorably, he's lost sight of his main goal (save his family) in favor of a secondary one (win honorably).

Similarly, if you foxus on "winning the debate", and as a result push people into a corner that will make them dislike you and become more attached to their identity as a believer in whatever - you focused on the wrong subgoal, and lost at the one which was important to you.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-20T19:08:23.026Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a precedent utilitarian. I try to maximize utility, except when doing so would set a bad precedent that would lower utility later.

Precedent utilitarians are usually good about restraining from force. Yes, killing a rich miser and distributing her money to the poor might increase utility. But it sets the precedent that anyone can kill someone if they think of a good enough reason, and most people won't be smart enough to limit themselves to genuinely good reasons. Therefore, precedent utilitarians generally respect the rule of not killing others. But in certain cases this rule breaks down. In the WWII example you mention, it doesn't seem particularly dangerous to set the precedent that you can use force against invaders coming to kill your family.

I try to use the same thought process when evaluating when to use rhetoric. If anyone can use rhetoric any time it furthers a goal that they consider genuinely good, then there's little incentive to use rational argument except on the rare hard-core rationalists who are mostly resistant to rhetorical tricks. I want to be able to condemn a demagogue who uses rhetoric without being a hypocrite. If I needed to use rhetoric in a situation where I couldn't blame anyone else for using rhetoric, like trying to save my family, I'd do it.

(the problem with precedent utilitarianism is that the calculations are impossible to do with real math, and mostly just involve handwaving. But I hope it at least gives a sketch of my thought processes)

comment by AllanCrossman · 2009-03-20T19:17:34.954Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Yvain: "I'm a precedent utilitarian. I try to maximize utility, except when doing so would set a bad precedent that would lower utility later."

I think this is an odd thing to say. Any utilitarian ought to be declining short-term gains that result in long-term losses. So why the need for this specific disclaimer?

comment by topynate · 2009-03-21T17:36:37.925Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yvain seems to be using the term to mean a utilitarian (in the pure sense) who scrupulously considers the force of his example. The implication is that many don't - we're not talking about perfectly rational beings here, just people who agree with the principle of utility maximization.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T19:55:43.684Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

Except, of course, for all those aspects of martial arts which we shouldn't emulate.

comment by pjeby · 2009-03-19T22:39:56.314Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Um, isn't it kind of rhetorical to compare rhetoric to force and murder?

Also, all your articles here that I recall -- likewise those of Eliezer on Overcoming Bias -- are masterful applications of rhetoric. So I'm kind of confused here. Is this one of those "do as I say, not as I do" things?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-20T18:59:20.395Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If you mean the articles here are clear or well argued, thank you. I have no objection to clarity or good argument; see the first paragraph of the comment above. If you mean that I'm using dirty tricks like the "terrorists win" example, then I'd like to know exactly what you mean so I can avoid doing it in the future.

When I compare rhetoric (meaning "empty rhetoric", as mentioned) to force and murder, I'm not saying they're equally bad, or doing one leads to the other or anything like that. Just that they're bad for the same reason. Both are potentially "useful" techniques. But both prevent rational argument and if used too frequently lead to a world in which rational argument is impossible.

comment by pjeby · 2009-03-21T16:46:03.854Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

But that is precisely the sort of "dirty trick" you claim to be against. By using murder as an example, you're setting off a "boo light" (opposite of applause light) and linking it to the thing you want people to dislike. That's rhetoric, and emotional manipulation.

And it's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, in itself. Used to strengthen a valid argument, it's fine. Arguing that it's bad in and of itself is a misunderstanding... and another "boo light" (e.g. "empty rhetoric", "dirty tricks").

Emotional manipulation is unavoidable, by the way. Boring presenters and neutral presentations are just manipulating people's emotions either towards boredom and not caring, or to "respect", "status", and "seriousness", depending on the audience. It's best to deliberately choose what emotions you want to create, in whom, rather than leaving the matter to chance.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-21T15:54:09.151Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If you mean the articles here are clear or well argued, thank you. I have no objection to clarity or good argument; see the first paragraph of the comment above. If you mean that I'm using dirty tricks like the "terrorists win" example, then I'd like to know exactly what you mean so I can avoid doing it in the future.

I think the point is that you do a little of both; loosely speaking you are guilty of being fairly eloquent--presenting your ideas persuasively and engagingly, in a style that is inherently likely to increase acceptance.

It is an unavoidable facet of human communication that the same idea can be more or less persuasive depending on how it is presented. Over on OB, Robin uses a far more neutral (or at times even anti-persuasive) style, and if memory serves me he and Eliezer have argued a bit about such use of style.

comment by Nominull · 2009-03-19T15:28:30.134Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

We're running up against the equivocation at the core of this community, between rationalists as people who make optimal plays versus rationalists as people who love truth and hate lies.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-21T15:29:39.247Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

rationalists as people who make optimal plays versus rationalists as people who love truth and hate lies

It's only possible for us to systematically make optimal plays IF we have a sufficient grasp of truth. There's only an equivocation in the minds of people who don't understand that one goal is a necessary precursor for the other.

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-13T07:20:47.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

rationalists as people who make optimal plays versus rationalists as people who love truth and hate lies

It's only possible for us to systematically make optimal plays IF we have a sufficient grasp of truth. There's only an equivocation in the minds of people who don't understand that one goal is a necessary precursor for the other.

No, I think there is an equivocation here, though that's probably because of the term "people who love truth and hate lies" instead of "epistemic rationalist".

An epistemic rationalist wants to know truth and to eliminate lies from their mind. An instrumental rationalist wants to win, and one precursor to winning is to know truth and to eliminate lies from one's own mind.

However, someone who "loves truth and hates lies" doesn't merely want their own mind to filled with truth. They want for all minds in the universe to be filled with truth and for lies to be eliminated from all minds. This can be an impediment to "winning" if there are competing minds.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-21T15:28:36.207Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Rationalists should WIN!

Rationalists have better definitions of "winning". They don't necessarily include triumphing in social wrestling matches.

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-13T07:24:00.937Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, I think "Rationalists should WIN" regardless of what their goals are, even if that includes social wrestling matches.

The "should" here is not intended to be moral prescriptivism. I'm not saying in an morally/ethically ideal world, rationalists would win. Instead, I'm using "should" to help define what the word "Rationalist" means. If some person is a rationalist, then given equal opportunity, resources, difficult-of-goal, etc., they will on average, probabilistically win more often than someone who was not a rationalist. And if they happen to be an evil rationalist, well that sucks for the rest of the universe, but that's still what "rationalist" means.

I believe this definitional-sense of "should" is also what the originator of the "Rationalists should WIN" quote intended.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-13T23:18:01.797Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm using "should" to help define what the word "Rationalist" means.

There is a bit of a problem here in that the list of the greatest rationalists ever will be headed by people like Genghis Khan and Prophet Muhammad.

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-14T05:41:16.571Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

People who win are not necessarily rationalists. A person who is a rationalist is more likely to win than a person who is not.

Consider someone who just happens to win the lottery vs someone who figures out what actions have the highest expected net profit.

Edit: That said, careful not to succumb to http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Argument_from_consequences maybe Genghis Khan really was one of the greatest rationalists ever. I've never met the guy nor read any of his writings, so I wouldn't know.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-14T15:42:38.252Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Even ignoring the issue that "rationalist" is not a binary variable, I don't know how in practice will you be able to tell whether someone is a rationalist or not. Your definition depends on counterfactuals and without them you can't disentangle rationalism and luck.

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-16T08:19:37.346Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I assume that you accept the claim that it is possible to define what a fair coin is, and thus what an unfair coin is.

If we observe some coin, at first, it may be difficult to tell if it's a fair coin or not. Perhaps the coin comes from a very trustworthy friend who assures you that it's fair. Maybe it's specifically being sold in a novelty store and labelled as an "unfair coin" and you've made many purchases from this store in the past and have never been disappointed. In other words, you have some "prior" probability belief that the coin is fair (or not fair).

As you see the coin flip, you can keep track of its outcomes, and adjust your belief. You can ask yourself "Given the outcomes I've seen, is it more likely that the coin is fair? or unfair?" and update accordingly.

I think the same applies for rationalist here. I meet someone new. Eliezer vouches for her as being very rational. I observe her sometimes winning, sometimes not winning. I expend mental effort and try to judge how easy/difficult her situation was and how much effort/skill/rationality/luck/whatever it would have taken her to win in that situation. I try to analyze how it came about that she won when she won, or lost when she lost. I try to dismiss evidence where luck was a big factor. She bought a lottery ticket, and she won. Should I update towards her being a rationalist or not? She switched doors in Monty Hall, but she ended up with a goat. Should I update towards her being a rationalist or not? Etc.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-16T15:55:35.629Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hm, OK. So you are saying that the degree of rationalism is an unobservable (hidden) variable and what we can observe (winning or losing) is contaminated by noise (luck). That's a fair way of framing it.

The interesting question then becomes what kind of accuracy can you achieve in the real world given that the noise level are high, information available to you is limited, and your perception is imperfect (e.g. it's not uncommon to interpret non-obvious high skill as luck).

comment by Nebu · 2015-12-18T06:10:51.404Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Right, I suspect just having heard about someone's accomplishments would be an extremely noisy indicator. You'd want to know what they were thinking, for example by reading their blog posts.

Eliezer seems pretty rational, given his writings. But if he repeatedly lost in situations where other people tend to win, I'd update accordingly.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-18T11:27:14.159Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But what about the other case? People who don't seem rational given their writings but who repeatedly win?

comment by CCC · 2015-12-18T14:16:23.345Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly he's just extremely lucky. There are seven billion people in the world - one of these people is almost certain to be luckier than all of the rest.

Possibly he is being looked after by a far more competent person behind the scenes; a spouse or a parent, perhaps, who dislikes being visible but works to help that person succeed.

Possibly that person really is more rational than you are, but his methods of success are so alien to you that your first instinct is to reject them out-of-hand.

Possibly his "writings" are actually being ghost-written by someone else.

Possibly he doesn't much care about what he writes, going for low-effort writing in order to concentrate on winning.

Possibly he's found one exploit that really works but won't work if everyone does it; thus, he keeps quiet about it.

Possibly he's deliberately writing to obscure or hide his own methods of success.

Possibly he's found a winning strategy, but he doesn't understand why it works, and thus invents a completely implausible "explanation" for it.

...have I missed anything?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-18T15:02:15.498Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly that person really is more rational than you are, but his methods of success are so alien to you that your first instinct is to reject them out-of-hand.

If I understand the Peter Thiel doctrine of the secret correlectly that should be the case in many instances.

comment by username2 · 2015-12-18T12:48:36.726Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Some people are rich and can afford valuable things even if they don't spend their money wisely. Some people might win because they have a lot of resources or connections to throw at problems.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-18T16:04:07.031Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

seems pretty rational, given his writings

If you define rationality as winning, why does it matter what his writings seem like?

comment by Nebu · 2016-01-24T22:47:50.343Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can't directly observe Eliezer winning or losing, but I can make (perhaps very weak) inferences about how often he wins/loses given his writing.

As an analogy, I might not have the opportunity to play a given videogame ABC against a given blogger XYZ that I've never met and will never meet. But if I read his blog posts on ABC strategies, and try to apply them when I play ABC, and find that my win-rate vastly improves, I can infer that XYZ also probably wins often (and probably wins more often than I do).

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-16T03:20:28.274Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if what you want to accomplish is motivating large groups of people into supporting you and using them to conquer a large empire, you should study what they did and how they did it.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-16T05:33:44.632Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Now that you mention it, I actually don't.

comment by AnthonyC · 2013-03-15T17:34:27.010Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

TOMIN And you think I'm crazy for believing in the Ori? VALA Not crazy, Tomin. Just...wrong...

TOMIN There are still so many things about it that mean a great deal to me. VALA I don't doubt that there's morality and wisdom in it. That's what made it such a powerful lure for so many people. I think in principle, the idea of bettering ourselves...is what it's all really about

comment by Hzle · 2012-05-28T10:20:34.131Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well watching people argue, ways to "win an argument" - to give everyone the impression that your points are better - include

a) not listening to the other person b) intimidating them by claiming or implying they are stupid for not agreeing c) making better points and counterarguments

c) usually gets lost in the messy nature of arguments. But you can make the better points, and because of the limits of human knowledge, they still tend to be 'the best guess we have is that X is true', so could still be wrong

In debating technique, I spotted a while ago that it was clever to sidestep the confrontational style of argument sometimes, and turn the conversation to things you can both - apparently harmlessly - agree on. That way when you deliver your logic - even if it, in reality, contradicts what your opponent is saying, their stubbornness hasn't been tweaked in the same way. If they disagree they may well do it more sensibly

Doesn't always work that way. Some people - even if they are very capable of dispassionate analysis - are politically passionate by nature, and prefer to have a cause, and a whopping great shouting-match :)

comment by wedrifid · 2012-05-28T13:58:49.704Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

d) Make it look like the other person is saying something the nearest available stupid or objectionable thing to what they actually said. (Alternately, make it seem like they are saying the worst available stupid or objectionable thing within the constraints of what your knowledge of the social context suggests you will be able to get away with.)

The above tactic seems to be the go to strategy of practical argument. People - particularly those who consider themselves higher status - do it without thinking about it or trying.

comment by Incorrect · 2011-12-11T22:27:26.974Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Libertarians, you have a particular problem with this.

You killed our minds. I'm dead now.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2011-06-22T16:16:44.770Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars

Does it? I genuinely don't know, since I haven't really studied the subject yet, but it strikes me that if lying didn't work, we wouldn't have developed this whole arms race of deception and social games. You might as well say that the Dark Arts in general don't really work, that humans are notoriously bad at them. Yet my own impression is that if you find something to say that's nice or what the other person wants to hear, regardless of whether you mean it, a lot of people will lap it up if you aren't too crude about it. As has been said elsewhere on lesswrong, it takes effort to detect falsehood, whereas acceptance is natural.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-12-15T16:27:22.810Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars

Does it?

Hard to answer. Compared to what exactly? We do know that we have all sorts of microexpressions that reveal our emotional state and that most people give off indications that they are being deceptive. And this isn't just failing to hide dishonestly - there is a whole part of the brain in there actively making muscles move to give indications to others that include telling them we're lying. So whether or not we are good liars I don't know but we are certainly worse liars than we could be if we weren't actively shooting ourselves in the foot!

comment by jmmcd · 2011-12-11T15:53:07.756Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Bear in mind that the most effective lies are the ones you yourself. So people are very good at convincing themselves of positions which will turn out to be useful if others also believe them. I think it's fair to say that few people are good at conscious lying.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-06-22T17:10:42.444Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it strikes me that if lying didn't work, we wouldn't have developed this whole arms race of deception and social games.

Or we keep plugging away futiley at it because the rewards are so high: cf gambling.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-19T19:43:12.589Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Bad, bad idea. There's no way to avoid losing an argument, because most of the time arguments are social wrestling contests / displays of influence and status.

The only thing you can do is to always make sure you're supporting the right side. That doesn't guarantee that you don't lose, if losing is defined as not coming out as the social victor and failing to convince your opponent or your listeners.

You can't control the responses of others. You can force them to be rational. All you can do is be correct.

As a rationalist, that's all you should really care about anyway. But precious few of us are rationalists.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T19:47:16.951Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

As a rationalist, that's all you should really care about anyway.

Surely you don't mean that simpliciter. There are other things that one should care about, perhaps even while wearing a 'rationalist' hat. It seems that being able to argue in a way that supports the truth without alienating one's friends seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-19T19:54:35.392Z · score: -5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

No person who chooses his friends over speaking the truth is a rationalist.

Everybody has their priorities. Rationalists can have only a limited subset of the possibilities.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T19:59:13.580Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No person who chooses his friends over speaking the truth is a rationalist.

Then rationalists are terribly vicious people.

Honesty is a virtue. Too much concern for truth-telling is a vice (one might call such person a 'stickler').

This post does not ask you to pursue friendship at the expense of learning the truth. It instead suggests a way of helping other people come to the truth, in a way that can advance friendship.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T21:40:02.992Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

No person who chooses his friends over speaking the truth is a rationalist.

Then rationalists are terribly vicious people.

Once again, we are running into the problem of the term "rational" referring to at least two different concepts.

  1. Epistemic rationality: The map should reflect the terroritory. Truth above all else.
  2. Instrumental rationality: You should win. My values are such that making my friends happy is a form of winning.
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-19T23:10:07.884Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

A commitment to epistemic rationality means taking maximum care that one's own beliefs are correct. It doesn't say anything about what one should say to others.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-21T15:12:17.004Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Once again, we are running into the problem of the term "rational" referring to at least two different concepts.

1. Epistemic rationality: The map should reflect the terroritory. Truth above all else. 2. Instrumental rationality: You should win. My values are such that making my friends happy is a form of winning.

You can't expect to achieve your goals unless you can match options with outcomes. How we define 'winning' is itself something that's determined by our goals, and reality determines which goals are self-compatible.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T22:00:17.755Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

& 3. Honesty: Always speak the whole truth as you know it to everyone.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-20T01:31:42.186Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer, that's not what honesty means. Honesty is a term of virtue. It represents the appropriate amount of concern for truth-telling. Here's a thought experiment:

Let's consider two hypothetical people, Harry and Stan. Harry and Stan are both very honest people - they do their best to never lie or otherwise deceive people.

Suppose that Anne Frank is hiding in the attic, and the Nazis come asking if she's there. Harry doesn't want to tell them, but Stan insists he mustn't deceive the Nazis, regardless of his commitment to save Anne's life.

Now, is Stan therefore more honest than Harry?

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-20T20:27:33.992Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on what Harry says.

If Harry says "I don't know where Anne is", then he's lying, and thus less honest than Stan.

If Harry says "I don't want to tell you where Anne is" then he's not stating a falsehood, nor "deceiving" (in any sense that I can think of) the Nazis, so would probably be "comparably" if not "equally" honest as Stan.

If this seems to conflict with your intuitions of ethics, it may be because you associate "ethical goodness" with "honesty", whereas I consider "honesty" to be merely "usually ethically good" in most cases, but in the fully general case a "ethically neutral" concept.

edit: Fixed typo where I forgot to add the word "not".

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2009-04-01T20:50:30.325Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But if Harry says "I don't want to tell you where Anne is", he will arouse the suspicion of the Nazis, who will search his house and find Anne.

In this thought experiment, the price Stan pays to maintain his code of honesty is one human life. What benefits accrue from his code that make such sacrifices worthwhile?

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-04-01T20:54:54.064Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Stan isn't a consequentialist; he considers himself to have done the right thing even though there are alternatives that would overall have better consequences, and so he won't look for benefits to justify his decision.

I think the world needs more Harrys and fewer Stans; or at least, I think that would have better consequences, and that's what I value.

comment by Annoyance · 2009-03-20T14:37:29.518Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It is an empirical truth that people tend to become more like what they pretend to be.

You can't pretend to agree with a counter-rational position, or believe in counter-rational arguments, without degrading your own rationality. Whether it's theoretically possible for minds to exist such that this does not occur doesn't matter. Our minds are structured so that it does.

Furthermore, I am highly skeptical of the position that despite valuing rationality enough to stick to it even in the face of inconvenience and countermotivations, rationalists could plausibly value the inaccuracy of people they supposedly care about.

comment by teageegeepea · 2009-03-19T02:44:31.697Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

If you believe morality is impossible without God, you have a strong disincentive to become an atheist

That idea is distinct from whether or not God exists. In arguments about evolution I have made the point that it is compatible with both the existence and non-existence of God. I did not say that to "leave a line of retreat" for the Christian anti-Darwinist I was talking to, but because I believed he held an incorrect notion of what Darwinian evolution is. The notion of leaving a line of retreat for others seems less rationalist, for it implies valuing certain beliefs themselves rather than the truth per se. The reason to leave a line of retreat for yourself is because it is always possible you are wrong about something and so it is wise to be prepared.

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-03-19T03:25:31.746Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

P(evolution|God) is much lower than P(creationism|God), so even if you are leading them to the right conclusion about evolution, they still aren't really reasoning properly if they still hold their belief in God. In fact, one might argue that they are doing worse.

The notion of leaving a line of retreat for others seems less rationalist, for it implies valuing certain beliefs themselves rather than the truth per se.

That depends on your motivations. The line of retreat is also useful for improving their reasoning capabilities. Changing one's mind in the face of emotional resistance is hard and takes practice to master.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T20:22:51.770Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

P(evolution|God) is much lower than P(creationism|God)

I'd write that as P(evolution|Creationist God) < P(creationism|Creationist God). One can easily conceive of many variants of God which are not only compatible with evolution, but for which evolution is the most sensible explanation for what we observe around us. E.g. a God which sets the initial conditions of the universe, starts the big bang, and then does not interfere from there on.

The other benefit of writing it that way is that it more clearly highlights the tautological nature of the argument for creationism given the existence of (a creationist) God.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2009-03-20T01:04:43.178Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

however P(evolution | moral God) would be rather low.

ie, think about all the nasty stuff that had to happen to, well, give rise to all the currently existent beings. Evolution is a nasty process. A god that is sufficiently intelligent and powerful that it COULD have engineered the species it wanted right from the start, rather than just setting stuff in motion and waiting for something interesting to evolve, allowing all that suffering to happen in the process, well... that would seem to exclude such a being from having anything resembling human morality, right? So when taking into account the often associated "god is good" claim, well, the whole thing completely implodes, no?

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T20:25:33.159Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure you need that. If you're willing to grant an omnipotent being, it seems like spontaneous creation of whatever he wants would be more likely than anything else.

If miracles are possible, they're always the simplest explanation for everything. Which might itself provide a methodological reason for denying them.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T21:37:21.682Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, now we're getting into a discussion about the nature of God.

An omnipotent, but non-omniscient God might be compatible with evolution, especially if the universe is large (as it seems to be), because perhaps God, while capable of spontaneously creating stuff, just isn't paying attention to anything going on in our particular neighborhood of the universe.

An omnipotent and omniscient, but disinterested God would also be compatible with evolution, as he could, if he wanted to, create new species, but just doesn't bother, as he has other things to worry about.

Etc.

If miracles are possible, they're always the simplest explanation for everything.

What about if miracles are possible, but extremely improbable? Which I think exactly describes the universe we are currently in, assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-20T01:35:01.278Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

Nope. by 'Miracle' I mean God goes *poof* and things happen. If you've got an omnipotent, omniscient being with his grubby little paws in everything, then he provides the simplest explanation for any phenomenon.

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-20T01:40:13.712Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Not true -- you would still model God as some sort of cognitive entity. Miracles which are parsimonious given the temperament revealed by his previous miracles would be simpler.

For example, given a Judeo-Christian God, if you discovered that gay men were living longer happier lives than straight men, this would not be easily explained as a miracle.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-20T19:49:08.498Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

by 'Miracle' I mean God goes poof and things happen.

Hmm... I think we are talking about the same territory. It's just that in your map, you've labelled the territory as "God" and in my map, I've labelled the territory as "random quantum effects".

comment by Marshall · 2009-03-19T09:52:05.253Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind."

I don't think I ever try to change anyones mind. If I am involved in a discussion I am only trying to clarify my own thoughts. What other people think is up to them. How can I know, what the other person should think?

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-19T09:57:26.151Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The most important reason to argue with someone is that someone should change their mind.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-19T20:19:34.151Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure why Marshall is being voted down here; I agree with him completely. The main reason I "argue" with someone is to seek truth. Perfectly rational agents with the same information should never disagree. So if I disagree with someone, either one (or more) of us is not rational, or one (or more) of us has information that the other one doesn't.

If I argue with someone, I am doing them a favor by expending effort to provide them with more information or helping them see their irrationalities. If someone argues with me, they are doing me a favor by expending effort to provide me with more information or helping me to see my irrationalities.

When I argue with people who are relatively rational (e.g. most of my friends), this works well. Usually one of us learns something new.

When I argue with people who are less rational (e.g. most people in general), this does not work very well, and I run into the problems described by Yvain here.

comment by Lawless · 2012-08-15T18:27:11.888Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The psychological resistance I felt to admitting God's existence, even after having seen Him descend to Earth, was immense. And, I realized, it was exactly the amount of resistance that every vocally religious person must experience towards God's non-existence.

I'm amazed. I totally can't understand this kind of thinking (which you believe to be human nature).

Me, I don't believe that God exists. In fact, I hold the belief in God for little less than a mental disease. That is because there is virtually no evidence to support the existence of God, and a lot of evidence that seems to suggest that God doesn't exist. I don't need to read any of Richard Dawkins's books, because everything he says about religion is so self-evident to me that I find it astonishing that there are people in the world to whom it isn't.

However, should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever. I would simply discard the hypothesis "God doesn't exist" because it has been proven wrong, and base my future actions on the discovery "God does exist". And I wouldn't feel silly in front of all the religious people – because they were still fools to believe in God without any proof. That they happened to guess right on this occasion doesn't mean that their method of forming one's opinions (randomly believing in things regardless of evidence) was superior to mine (believing what is supported by evidence). This one time they were right and I was wrong, but in the long run, I will still be right more often than them.

To sum up, the reason why I don't believe in God, is because the information available to me at this moment strongly supports that. Nevertheless, I am not married to the hypothesis that God doesn't exist. Should He really exist, I absolutely want to know about it as soon as possible. My primary interest is to learn, not to uphold any of my current beliefs.

The people like you, however, don't seem to be interested in finding out the truth. Rather it somehow seems to be important to you that the God do not exist. That's what would make you react with resistance when provided with evidence that He exists. In other words, you believe to be a rationalist, but the thought that the truth might be different from what you believe now horrifies you.

Why would that be so?

comment by gwern · 2012-08-15T23:49:41.968Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I'm amazed. I totally can't understand this kind of thinking (which you believe to be human nature)....everything he says about religion is so self-evident to me that I find it astonishing that there are people in the world to whom it isn't....In fact, I hold the belief in God for little less than a mental disease. That is because there is virtually no evidence to support the existence of God, and a lot of evidence that seems to suggest that God doesn't exist....However, should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever.

If you really believe that then you can test this with hallucinogens; in a non-trivial fraction of users (in good settings), they induce mystical or religious experiences and so there's a good shot they would do so for you. Have such an experience and still maintain your atheism, and maybe I will credit your claims to be atheistic based on purely rational grounds. Otherwise, you just look to me like, say, SF author John Wright: a strident atheist until he had some hallucinations after surgery and immediately flipped his views to become a strident theist.

Seriously. Standard hallucinogens like psilocybin or LSD are easily obtained, cheap, and safe for at least a few doses.

What's stopping you? Don't you believe your beliefs why you don't believe?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-08-16T00:12:59.511Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever.

If you really believe that then you can test this with hallucinogens;

Wait... are you suggesting that psilocybin-induced hallucinations are proof that God exists?

comment by gwern · 2012-08-16T00:18:25.748Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm saying that if you have a psilocybin-induced hallucination of God and then become a theist, that's a darn good piece of evidence that stuff like the argument from evil or argument from silence weren't why you were an atheist. (And so if you were claiming previously that they were, you were either lying or badly mistaken.)

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-08-16T01:50:40.446Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah. Yes, agreed with this.

comment by Lawless · 2012-08-17T10:19:29.063Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a darn good piece of evidence that stuff like the argument from evil or argument from silence weren't why you were an atheist.

I don't think my being an atheist has anything to do with the argument from evil or the argument from silence. (I can explain more if anyone's interested.) I am an atheist because, based on my current knowledge, the hypothesis that God does not exist seems far more likely to be true than the hypothesis that God exists. That's all there is to it.

you can test this with hallucinogens

I assume that hallucinogens cause hallucinations, that is, distort my perception of reality. Why should I want to do that?

they induce mystical or religious experiences and so there's a good shot they would do so for you. Have such an experience and still maintain your atheism, and maybe I will credit your claims to be atheistic based on purely rational grounds

If I were hallucinating and perceived something that convinces me that God exists, I would start believing that God exists. However, I assume that the effects of the drug would wear off sooner or later. When that occurs, I would recall the experience I had and give the "proof" I saw a serious thought. It is likely that I would realise that the perception was not real, I was merely hallucinating. So I would change my mind back to the belief that God doesn't exist.

I am not atheist in the sense that I so badly want the God not to exist that should I see any evidence that He exists, I would reject it. I am an atheist in the sense that I consider it reasonable to base my actions on the assumption that God doesn't exist, and I refuse to start believing in God without sufficient evidence that He exists.

The author of the article, though, seems to have some psychological problem with the possibility that God exists. That's what my comment was about.

comment by gwern · 2012-08-19T02:13:43.750Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If I were hallucinating and perceived something that convinces me that God exists, I would start believing that God exists. However, I assume that the effects of the drug would wear off sooner or later. When that occurs, I would recall the experience I had and give the "proof" I saw a serious thought. It is likely that I would realise that the perception was not real, I was merely hallucinating. So I would change my mind back to the belief that God doesn't exist.

That's pretty much the question. Wright could have reasoned the exact same way... and he didn't. Would you - really?

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-08-19T08:36:07.014Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Wright's pre-conversion writing gave me the impression of someone who really wants to base their life on unyielding and absolute moral axioms, so he's not working that well for me as an ”it could happen to anyone” case. More as an example that the sort of people who like engineering and for some reason become dogmatic hardcore libertarians, communists or religious literalists can dramatically change allegiance after suitable neurological insult.

comment by gwern · 2012-08-19T18:13:51.175Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Mm, I'm not sure that group doesn't embrace LWers as well. We may claim to be open-minded and uncertain, but are we? We have plenty of libertarians here, after all.

(I think that would be testable, though; IIRC, there are a number of psychological questionnaires measuring dogmatism or need for certainty/closure (from the old research into authoritarianism). Administer along with some sort of religious questionnaire before psychedelic use, see whether the high scorers on one become higher on religion afterwards as compared to the low scorers, and especially the high scorers who report a specifically religious psychedelic experience. Too bad the drugs are so controlled and there will probably never be any real studies on this...)

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-08-20T05:25:18.100Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've been wondering whether an unusual number of smart people these days are ones that were libertarians in their early twenties and have become less so later on. Possibly similarly as in an earlier generation an unusual number of smart people were communists in their early twenties and became less so later on.

There's definitely a lot of background assumptions sympathetic to libertarianism on LW, but I haven't seen much of the sort of absolutist first-principles stances I associate with the group of people I'm thinking of in grandparent comment. It's the difference between thinking that free markets are a good starting metaphor for thinking about arranging human affairs and insisting that a strict adherence to a few easily listed axioms like absolute property rights can be pretty much the only thing you need to successfully run a human civilization.

comment by gwern · 2012-09-05T22:44:55.980Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting datapoint: MacLean et al 2011 did a RCT of psilocybin. Those reporting a mystical experience saw a rise in their Openness, while those reporting no mystical experience show, if anything, a fall. See the graph on pg6. (It's almost like they're updating on their experience.)

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-16T01:08:36.273Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Psilocybin can also induce suicidal despair in a non-trivial fraction of users. I would highly recommend against its use by anybody who isn't extremely emotionally stable to begin with.

comment by gwern · 2012-08-16T01:40:05.990Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cites or numbers for non-trivial? I looked for info on psilocybin and suicide, and the only review I found cited listed, after I jailbroke a copy, just one suicide and few deaths.

I haven't looked into psilocybin in as much detail as LSD, but I had assumed it was considered very safe since it seemed to be the hallucinogen of choice in recent American research.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-16T11:30:59.271Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Personal experience. Psilocybin trips vary wildly, but everybody who uses it regularly eventually encounters an episode of extreme despair. (It's not as bad as LSD, wherein you can very easily get caught in a mental loop - which if you're thinking negative thoughts will send you into an emotional deathspiral - but it's definitely a tangible risk)

It's not that it induces despair, per se, but it heightens emotional response to stimuli considerably. (Particularly in the very high dosages necessary to induce hallucinations.) It's necessary to strictly control your environment.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-12T15:43:59.868Z · score: -4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't calling rhetoric "the dark arts" using the exact tactic you are advocating against?

I like your idea, but I think it is incomplete. First, I don't like the way you demonize rhetoric. Before labeling rhetoric the "dark arts" I think it needs to be proven that it is truly fact and not rhetoric that convinces people of what is rational. Secondly, I do not think convincing someone that the universe can be moral without God is a a proper line of flight.

In regards to my first critique, I think there is a false dichotomy being draw between reason and value. I do not know how this idea will be received on a radically rationalist blog, but as far as I know no one has yet to prove that reasons can escape values. If you are aware of such an essay/ body of work, please let me know about it, though I do not see how you could ever remove rhetoric from communication. For example, the problem I have in your reasoning about the reassurance of a moral universe is one with your rhetoric.

Basic to the science of rhetoric is the idea that audience determines the nature of the argument. Audience can be interpreted as context. The context of the debate determines what is correct and what is false. You see convincing a theist of the morality of a non-theistic universe as leaving them a line of flight. The assumption that you are making, is that what is at stake for the theist is the issue of morality. The issue of existing in a moral vs. amoral universe is a transcendental one. Likewise, God is a transcendental topic. The problem with your reasoning is that just because God is a transcendental topic does not mean that a theists belief in God is for transcendental reasons. For example, a belief in God not only represents "God", it represents a history, a culture, a family. How can you say that a person’s belief in God is the primarily of transcendental concern as opposed to filial concern (meaning believing in God because of a stronger belief in ones father or mother)?

As of now I cannot claim to have a perfect method of knowing the correct value base of a person's belief, but I am certain that there are people who are theists not for transcendental reasons, but for cultural or personal ones. Let's pretend that it is one of those people that your are trying to correct of their fundamentalist flaws.

If you convince a person that the universe is still moral without God is that going to give them a line of flight? No, it will not. They can either: A.) except that God exists or B.) Except that their parents and loved ones were stupid and wasted their lives believing in something stupid (which would imply that they were raised stupidly). How is this any less damaging to the ego than the alternative you proposed? It isn't.

Please do not misinterpret my meaning. I am strongly in favor of rationalism. I just don't find it rational to deny the irrationality of social existence. Rhetoric and solidarity are more fundamental to human existence that rationality. I am all for increasing rationality, but not in order to eliminate values.

I am not suggesting that we should tolerate everything. There are bad ideas out there, religious fundamentalism is one of them. I like your idea of leaving a line of flight. My suggestion would be that the line of flight must take into account a base level of irrationality. For example, rather than getting rid of God, I think we should redefine God. There are plenty of theologians who are working to do just this. Religion serves a purpose. That purpose is not to define the empirical world or provide a totalitarian mantra of action and thought. Nothing should do these things, not even science. What we need is not to eliminate religion, but to rectify what it means. The same is necessary for science and for logic. A scientific fundamentalist and a mathematical fundamentalist are just as dangerous as a religious fundamentalist.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-12-12T15:47:27.382Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The body of work.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-12T21:45:12.222Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Those seem to be a series of essays on morality, but can you point me to the essay that shows there are absolute moral facts that are not influenced by subjective values?

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-12-12T22:14:46.769Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're asking the wrong question. The conclusions are in The meaning of "right"; recurse as you see fit.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T00:43:05.031Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Don't you think it would be easy to say your point, or the problem that you have with my point than cryptically telling me I am missing something. You ever think it is you who are missing something you are just not being open enough to let me figure out what it is. Same to the other 4 silent people.

In my opinion the Karma system is really stupid if you just criticize someone's idea without stating what it is your criticizing or even who you are.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T02:15:04.530Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't downvote, but it's literally impossible to respond to your wall of text. You've tried to rebut every point of Yvain's article, and it's just too much to engage with. I could write at least three long posts in response to specific points I disagree with, none of which would have any relationship to each other. But if I don't write long posts, it won't be clear what I mean. It would violate the norms of polite debate to put a huge wall of text here, and that would particularly ironic when the original post is about how to debate politely.


But I like debate, so I'll outline my objections to your post. If you think you can change my mind for the better, or that I don't understand your position, a response would be welcome.

  • Rhetoric is orthogonal to truth. I like truth.
  • If the proposition is that there is a "transcendental" god, and all you have is non-transcendental evidence, then the best course of action is to reject the hypothesis. No amount of empirical evidence supports believing a hypothesis that is asserted to be beyond empiricism.
  • It is unpleasant to learn that your beliefs (of any kind) were false. I think it is still worth it to learn the truth. Not everyone here agrees.
comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T03:01:15.038Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I never really thought of my posts as debates. I write them during my break at work as fast as possible. I would call them brainstorms more than anything. I can see how that makes understanding what I am saying complicated. I will try to be more considerate from this point on.

-Rhetoric is orthogonal to truth. I like truth. While rhetorical knowledge is not a valid way to discover truth about the true nature of reality, it does reflect truth about the nature of human psychology. There is truth about the human condition. The idea I am trying to convey is that humans are born with ways to evaluate knowledge. They are taught to evaluate it by the standard of facts, but their are other "logics" that we as human animals run on. You are right that purely deductive reasoning produces no new knowledge. It was for this very reason that philosophers and scientists wanted to delegitimize it. My point is that just because the science of rhetoric does not produce new facts about the external world, does not mean that it does not represent facts about how humans naturally interpret information.

-If the proposition is that there is a "transcendental" god, and all you have is non-transcendental evidence, then the best course of action is to reject the hypothesis. No amount of empirical evidence supports believing a hypothesis that is asserted to be beyond empiricism.

My use of the word transcendental here has nothing to do with a physical God. I do not believe in a literal God. Some philosophers and other scholars use the word transcendental to categorize issues dealing with meaning or abstract principle. The author of this article spoke of the morality of the universe. Regardless of whether you are talking about God or not, this would be categorized as a transcendental issue. My point was that some theists probably are not theists for transcendental reasons, but rather for social ones. Meaning that they do not really think about whether or not the universe is moral. The morality of the universe has nothing to do with their religious faith. They are loyal to a belief system because they are loyal to the social network that supports it. For people like this, convincing them that there is a morality without God is futile, because morality was never the issue. They are theists in the same way you root for your home team at the game regardless of who is better or worse.

-It is unpleasant to learn that your beliefs (of any kind) were false. I think it is still worth it to learn the truth. Not everyone here agrees.

When there is such a plurality of truth being developed how do you assess what truth is Truth. And even if you could how do you know that such truth is not contingent, or that it is more beneficial than detrimental to your life?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T03:13:06.432Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Learning about rhetoric helps you understand human thinking. Using rhetoric is a way to cause another person to believe X, whether or not X is true.

The fact that people act as if they believe (and even actually believe) religion for social reasons is true. But acting as if you believe something is true when you don't makes it harder to achieve your goals. And supporting religion only because it supports your other beliefs is a waste of your resources.

When there is such a plurality of truth being developed how do you assess what truth is Truth. And even if you could how do you know that such truth is not contingent, or that it is more beneficial than detrimental to your life?

I don't think this is responsive to my third point. But maybe I just don't understand.

ETA: If you want to quote, just write a ">" then paste in the quoted text. The "Show Help" button on the right side of the comment box has some more formatting stuff.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T03:37:52.940Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are correct that rhetoric can be misused. It should be complemented by facts. My point is that just because rhetoric can be used to convince people of falsehoods does not prove that truth is not equally dependent on rhetoric to become normative in people's minds.

People are not born judging information by its verisimilitude. Empirical fact as a criteria for knowledge must be taught. I am not saying it is a bad thing to teach people (it is really good), what I am saying is that judging information by fact has to be seen as highly technical knowledge, not a fundamental system of cognition. The majority of the world's population does not judge information by fact. I am not even convinced that all scientists or rationalists truly judge information by fact.

My perception of you is that you see religion as an antiquated method for producing knowledge. I agree with you. I do not think religion should be the criteria of determining facts. Where we do not see eye to eye is that I also believe that religion serves several other functions beyond literal interpretation of the world. One of which is the maintenance and strengthening of social bonds. So I cannot as easily deem non-factual beliefs as a waste of resources (see my comment here http://lesswrong.com/lw/bk/the_trouble_with_good/ for more on this).

When there is such a plurality of truth being developed how do you assess what truth is Truth. And even if you could how do you know that such truth is not contingent, or that it is more beneficial than detrimental to your life?<

I don't think this is responsive to my third point. But maybe I just don't understand.<

My response was meant to question your statement " I think it is still worth it to learn the truth."

At the pinnacle of your values is Truth. Can you explain to my why Truth should be regarded more important than social relationships/ personal health.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-12-13T07:42:39.004Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My perception of you is that you see religion as an antiquated method for producing knowledge.

How is religion a "method for producing knowledge" at all?

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T14:43:05.111Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Religion is the original norm for producing knowledge whether you like it or not. I am not saying it was a good method, but you cannot deny that it is embryologically the basis of knowledge and knowledge production. The first scholars were theologians and aristocrates, the first colleges were religous institutions. I am not saying that it is a correct methodology, but it is our history.

Early doctors healed people in ways we no longer condone, but we cannot deny the fact that they were the forefathers of modern medical knowledge.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-13T18:18:35.585Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Religion is the original norm for producing knowledge whether you like it or not. I am not saying it was a good method, but you cannot deny that it is embryologically the basis of knowledge and knowledge production.

That's just a more emphatic way of stating the premise, isn't it?

Religions are certainly models of the world, or at least of certain parts of it: fertility, cosmology, all those things with mysterious causes. And it's true that the lines between religion and philosophy (including natural philosophy) were awfully blurry in pre-modern thought; I'd actually put the watershed there relatively late, somewhere around Darwin or a little earlier. But calling religions methods of producing knowledge carries certain implications which don't necessarily follow from a conception of religion as a model of the numinous world: "knowledge" is a fairly strong word, much stronger than "thought" or "belief".

I'd say a more productive approach would be to call religions the first totalizing systems of belief: there are other and earlier paths to knowledge (nonhuman animals can learn from experience, but we don't observe worship among them), but before the Classical period all the Western attempts at organizing knowledge and belief into a comprehensive system of the world wound up looking pretty religious. When people start limiting themselves to talking about knowledge, you don't get religion, you get philosophy: often religious philosophy, yes, but that's a proper subset of all religious topics.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T19:27:21.979Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Can their not be a wrong method of doing something? I said in my post "religion is an antiquated method of producing knowledge." Perhaps I should have said outdated? Regardless of what criteria we have for knowledge today, it does not change the fact that for centuries religions monopolized knowledge. Knowledge is just legitimized information. I did not say religions created Truth (with a capital t) because that would imply they were completely correct. No, knowledge is what power determines to be knowledge. Whether that is religious, political or scientific authority depends on the society, but it is still knowledge.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-13T20:02:50.592Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that's a nonstandard definition, and we could have saved some trouble if you'd laid it out at the beginning of this discussion, but I can work with it. At this point I'm starting to wonder what you're trying to demonstrate, though. Yes, systems of belief generate beliefs which are orthodox within those systems. That's trivially true but it doesn't seem very constructive.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T20:32:17.254Z · score: -5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

no it is not. It is nonstandard in the field of study you associate yourself to. Which is exactly my point! I am using terminology and ideas that are common to the sociology of power, Science and Technology Studies, Postmodern sociological theory, postcolonial anthropological theory, and the sociology of knowledge. I am trying to share these ideas with the members of this blog because they are severely lacking here. But obviously my attempts to do this are not welcomed. You do not want to hear about knowledge that is not legitimized by your body of essays, idols, and peers, but that does not make it trivially true. Instead of trying to engage with the ideas you want to criticize what I am saying without asking what I mean, or assuming you know what I mean, which you obviously do not.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T23:13:45.298Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But obviously my attempts to do this are not welcomed. You do not want to hear about knowledge that is not legitimized by your body of essays, idols, and peers, but that does not make it trivially true.

Quit being a martyr. Claiming to be persecuted does not help us understand your ideas, it just adds length to your walls of text.

I am trying to share these ideas with the members of this blog because they are severely lacking here.

You claim to want to help us out on some points. If you still think there is something lacking after having read the sequences with actual curiosity (not just following the link and deciding it doesn't fit your worldview), please help. There is a lot lacking, and we need to get new perspectives on things, but you need to understand our deviations before you can criticize them.

If you had read the sequences, specifically the stuff about words, we would be past this terminology discussion crap and into the actual substance.

sociology of power, Science and Technology Studies, Postmodern sociological theory, postcolonial anthropological theory, and the sociology of knowledge

Do those terms even mean anything? All I hear is you signaling vague academic authority. Clarify your writing and ideas and this will be easier.

EDIT: also, see orwell's "politics and the english language".

comment by lessdazed · 2011-12-14T00:37:15.078Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you still think there is something lacking after having read the sequences

No fair! I can legitimately criticize something without total knowledge of it. Here's 1/12,000th of the Talmud, wall of text style for effect, to give a sense of what reading the sequences might feel like for a person who wants to discuss ideas without such homework. Feel free to criticize Rabbinic Judaism without seeing any more Talmud, the "Jewish Sequence," than that below.

It's somewhat relevant to this topic, specifically, the part in bold at the end is where an experiment was conducted to determine religious law.

I agree that if boyi wants to change people's minds, he should understand their opinions and not use words differently than they, and reading the sequences would help with that. But telling someone to just read the sequences is too much, and a way of assigning them an impossible task as a precondition to taking them seriously. That happens somewhat too often here, but you did much better by pointing to one sequence specifically, probably I would have done the exact same thing.

I agree with you that that for effectiveness, boyi should read the words sequence, but reading the sequences aren't a precondition for having better ideas/ideas missed in the sequences, and it was not terribly wrong for boyi to try communicating before having read them, and before getting the feedback in this thread.

MISHNAH. WHAT BLESSINGS ARE SAID OVER FRUIT? OVER FRUIT OF THE TREE ONE SAYS, WHO CREATEST THE FRUIT OF THE TREE, EXCEPT FOR WINE, OVER WHICH ONE SAYS, WHO CREATEST THE FRUIT OF THE VINE. OVER THAT WHICH GROWS FROM THE GROUND ONE SAYS: WHO CREATEST THE FRUIT OF THE GROUND, EXCEPT OVER BREAD, FOR WHICH ONE SAYS, WHO BRINGEST FORTH BREAD FROM THE EARTH. OVER VEGETABLES ONE SAYS, WHO CREATEST THE FRUIT OF THE GROUND; R. JUDAH, HOWEVER, SAYS: WHO CREATEST DIVERS KINDS OF HERBS.

GEMARA.

...

Over the palm-heart,9 Rab Judah says that the blessing is 'that createst the fruit of the ground', while Samuel says that it is 'by whose word all things exist'. Rab Judah says it is 'that createst the fruit of the ground', regarding it as fruit, whereas Samuel says that it is 'by whose word all things exist', since subsequently it grows hard. Said Samuel to Rab Judah: Shinnena!10 Your opinion is the more probable, since radish eventually hardens and over it we say 'who createst the fruit of the ground'. This, however, is no proof; radishes are planted for the sake of the tuber,11 but palms are not planted for the sake of the heart. But [is it the case that] wherever one thing is not planted for the sake of another [which it later becomes], we do not say the blessing [for that other]?12 What of the caper-bush which is planted for the sake of the caper-blossom, and we have learnt: In regard to the various edible products of the caper-bush, over the leaves and the young shoots, 'that createst the fruit of the ground' is said, and over the berries and buds,13 'that createst the fruit of the tree'! — R. Nahman b. Isaac replied: Caper-bushes are planted for the sake of the shoots, but palms are not planted for the sake of the heart. And although Samuel commended Rab Judah, the halachah is as laid down by Samuel. Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: In the case of an 'uncircumcised'14 caper-bush outside of Palestine,15 one throws away the berries and may eat the buds. This is to say that the berries are fruit but the buds are not fruit — A contradiction was pointed out [between this and the following]: In regard to the various edible articles produced by the caper-bush, over the leaves and the young shoots 'that createst the fruit of the ground' is said; over the buds and the berries 'that createst the fruit of the tree' is said! — [Rab Judah] followed R. Akiba, as we have learnt: R. Eliezer says: From the caper-bush tithe is given from the berries and buds. R. Akiba, however, says that the berries alone are tithed, because they are fruit.16 Let him then say that the halachah is as laid down by R. Akiba? — Had he said that the halachah is as laid down by R. Akiba, I should have thought that this was so even in the Holy Land. He therefore informs us that if there is an authority who is more lenient in regard to [uncircumcised products in] the Holy Land, the halachah follows him in respect of [such products] outside of the Holy Land, but not in the Land itself. But let him then say that the halachah is as laid down by R. Akiba for outside the Holy Land, because if an authority is more lenient with regard to the Land, the halachah follows him in the case of outside the Land? — Had he said so, I should have argued that this applies to tithe of fruit which in the Holy Land itself was ordained only by the Rabbis,17 but that in the case of 'orlah, the law for which is stated in the Torah, we should extend it to outside the Land. Therefore he tells us that we do not do so. Rabina once found Mar b. R. Ashi throwing away [uncircumcised] caper-berries and eating the buds. He said to him: What is your view? Do you agree with R. Akiba who is more lenient?18 Then follow Beth Shammai, who are more lenient still, as we have learnt: With regard to the caper-bush, Beth Shammai say that it constitutes kil'ayim19 in the vineyard, whereas Beth Hillel hold that it does not constitute kil'ayim in the vineyard, while both agree that it is subject to the law of 'orlah. Now this statement itself contains a contradiction. You first say that Beth Shammai hold that a caper-bush constitutes kil'ayim in a vineyard, which shows that it is a kind of vegetable,20 and then you say that both agree that it is subject to the law of 'orlah, which shows that it is a kind of tree!21 — This is no difficulty; Beth Shammai were in doubt [whether it was a fruit or a vegetable], and accepted the stringencies of both. In any case,22 Beth Shammai regard it [the caper-bush] as a doubtful case of 'orlah, and we have learnt: Where there is a doubt if a thing is subject to 'orlah, in the Land of Israel, it is prohibited, but in Syria it is allowed; and outside of Palestine one may go down

and buy it, provided he does not see the man plucking it!1 — When R. Akiba conflicts with R. Eliezer, we follow him, and the opinion of Beth Shammai when it conflicts with that of Beth Hillel is no Mishnah.2 But then let us be guided by the fact that it [the bud] is a protection for the fruit, and the All-Merciful said, Ye shall observe its uncircumcision along with its fruit;3 'with' refers to that which is attached to its fruit, namely, that which protects its fruit?4 — Raba replied: When do we say a thing is a protection for the fruit? When it does so both when [the fruit is] still attached [to the tree] and after it is plucked. In this case it protects while [the fruit is] attached, but not after it is plucked. Abaye raised an objection: The top-piece of the pomegranate is counted in with it,5 but its blossom is not counted in.6 Now since it says that its blossom is not counted in with it, this implies that it is not food: and it was taught in connection with 'orlah: The skin of a pomegranate and its blossom, the shells of nuts and their kernels are subject to the law of 'orlah!7 — We must say, then, said Raba, that we regard something as a protection to the fruit only where it is so at the time when the fruit becomes fully ripe; but this caper-bud falls off when the fruit ripens. But is that so? Has not R. Nahman said in the name of Rabbah b. Abbuha: The calyces surrounding dates in the state of 'orlah are forbidden, since they are the protection to the fruit. Now when do they protect the fruit? In the early stages of its growth [only]. Yet he calls them a protection to the fruit'? — R. Nahman took the same view as R. Jose, as we have learnt: R. Jose says, The grape-bud is forbidden because it is fruit; but the Rabbis differ from him.8 R. Shimi from Nehardea demurred: Do the Rabbis differ from him in respect of other trees?9 Have we not learnt: At what stage must we refrain from cutting trees in the seventh year?10 Beth Shammai say: In the case of all trees, from the time they produce fruit; Beth Hillel say: In the case of carob-trees, from the time when they form chains [of carobs]; in the case of vines, from the time when they form globules; in the case of olive-trees, from the time when they blossom; in the case of all other trees, from the time when they produce fruit; and R. Assi said: Boser and garua'11 and the white bean are all one. ('White bean', do you say?12 — Read instead: the size [of them] is that of the white bean.) Now which authority did you hear declaring that the boser is fruit but the grape-bud is not? It is the Rabbis;13 and it is they who state that we must refrain from cutting down all other trees from the time when they produce fruit!14 — No, said Raba. Where do you say that something is the protection to the fruit? Where if you take it away the fruit dies, Here15 you can take it away and the fruit does not die. In an actual case, they once took away the blossom from a pomegranate and it withered; they took away the flower from a caper and it survived.16 (The law is as [indicated by] Mar b. R. Ashi when he threw away the caper-berries and ate the buds. And since for purposes of 'orlah they [the buds] are not fruit, for the purposes of benedictions also they are not fruit, and we do not say over them, 'who createst the fruit of the tree', but, 'who createst the fruit of the ground'.)17

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T00:49:49.955Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're right; it's a bit unfair. I'll be more specific...

Or give up.

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-12-13T22:01:30.120Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But obviously my attempts to do this are not welcomed. You do not want to hear about knowledge that is not legitimized by your body of essays, idols, and peers, but that does not make it trivially true.

"Trivially true" does not mean 'false', or even 'irrelevant'. See What is a trivial truth?.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T20:50:36.904Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You do not want to hear about knowledge that is not legitimized by your body of essays, idols, and peers, but that does not make it trivially true.

Have you read Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Many of us have and find it very interesting. But even if you apply post-modern methods to the scientific process, you still need to explain why science can predict which planes will fly and which will not.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T21:05:07.261Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes! Thomas Kuhn is a brilliant writer and his theory is powerful. But let me ask you what you think he is saying in that book? I am asking because I feel that we draw different conclusions from it.

Have you read Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Many of us have and find it very interesting. But even if you apply post-modern methods to the scientific process, you still need to explain why science can predict which planes will fly and which will not.<

The post-modern question to science is not about whether or not science can predict reality. The question is whether or not science is produced scientifically. Or to put it another way, can science be separated from power and discourse?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T21:19:19.780Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

can science be separated from power and discourse?

No. Obviously not. (This is not the majority position in this community).

The post-modern question to science is not about whether or not science can predict reality. The question is whether or not science is produced scientifically.

I would hope that a scientist familiar with post-modern thought would agree that producing knowledge scientifically means nothing more and nothing less than getting better at predicting reality.


My take on Kuhn? The incommensurability of scientific theories (e.g. Aristotelian physics vs. Newtonian physics) is a real thing, but it does not imply scientific nihilism because there are phenomena. Thus, science is possible because there is "regularity" (not sure what the technical word is) when observing reality.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T21:28:50.828Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No. Obviously not. (This is not the majority position in this community).

interesting, can you explain your reasoning?

incommensurability of scientific theories

is that the thing where from one theory the other one looks bogus and you can't get from one to the other? Seems to me that it doesn't imply nihilism because using the full power of your current mind, one model looks better than the other. it might be the same as EYs take on the problem of induction here.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T21:42:07.409Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, incommensurability is the problem of translating from one theory into a later theory.

Aristotelian physics, from the point of view of Newtonian physics, is absolutely stupid. It's like Aristotle wasn't looking at the same reality. Overstating slightly to make a point, Newtonian physics, from the point of view of relativistic physics, is manifestly false. It's like Newton wasn't looking at the same reality. How many times must the circle repeat before the Bayesian conclusion is that the different scientists were not looking at the same reality? By the principle of incommensurability, you can't say that the earlier theory can be massaged into a more simplistic version of the later theory.

If different scientists are looking at a different reality, how on earth did we keep making better predictions? Thus the appeal to the regularity of phenomena, which rescues the concept of scientific progress even if we think that our model is likely to be considered utter nonsense a generation or so into the future.


ETA: The social position of science is an expansion of the halo effect point I made.

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-13T21:08:46.779Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The post-modern question to science is not about whether or not science can predict reality.

That's exactly the problem that was noted by grandparent.

If science were just determined by "power and discourse", it would be surprising if you could use it to make planes fly.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T23:57:31.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Look I am not trying to disagree with the scientific method. It is incredibly powerful and beneficial methodology for producing knowledge. What I am saying is

1-that as an institution and a belief-sysetm "science" does not live up to the scientific method. 2- That it is impossible to do so given what we have learned about the human condition.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T01:13:04.052Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1-that as an institution and a belief-sysetm "science" does not live up to the scientific method.

I'm not sure what it would mean for science to "live up" to the scientific method. The scientific method is, well, a method; it's not an ideology.

Sure, scientists are humans with power and discourse and all kinds of cognitive biases, and thus they don't practice the scientific method with absolute perfection. And yes, I bet that there are quite a few traditions and institutions within the scientific community that could be improved. But, even with all its imperfections, science has been devastatingly effective as far as "belief systems" are concerned. As it was said upthread, science actually predict which planes will fly and which will fall; so far, no other methodology has been able to even come close.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T14:13:21.280Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You are measuring success by material transformation of the world. By that standard, sure science is more successful, but how do you justify such a standard?

I have heard several times this example of planes flying. In response I want to ask: Has flight made humans happier and safer? (Note* this question is a case example of the larger question of “does material transformation and dominance to the extent offered by modern science improve the quality of human life?)

Sure there are examples of how flight technologies have made humans wealthier and more powerful. But they have also (along with shipping technologies) been the primary cause of ecological devastation. They have also birthed new forms of warfare that make killing an even more remote and apathetic process. I am by no means trying to say that flight was a bad thing. I am not a Luddite. I am not against technological innovation. My point is to question why the goods of technological advancement are used as justification of further expansion of human capacity to transform the material world, while the damages are ignored. To me that is like promoting all the benefits of cigarettes, while leaving out the damages they do. What I am trying to question in the majority of my posts is the assumption that a greater capacity to dominate material reality equals a greater benefit to humanity when every major innovation produces equal if not greater damages.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T14:37:46.760Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You are measuring success by material transformation of the world.

I would argue that our ability to "materially transform the world" (which is material) is a direct consequence of our ability to acquire progressively more accurate models of the world.

Has flight made humans happier and safer?

Yes. Do you disagree ? I am somewhat surprised by your question, because the answer seems obvious, but I could be wrong. Still, you say,

I am by no means trying to say that flight was a bad thing.

So... it sounds like you agree, maybe ?

What I am trying to question in the majority of my posts is the assumption that a greater capacity to dominate material reality equals a greater benefit to humanity...

This is, at best, an argument against technology, but not against science.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T14:50:04.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

... you conviently do not address some of the examples I provide of the negatives of flight. I am not against either techology or science in moderation, which I do not think exists in the current state of things.

This is, at best, an argument against technology, but not against science.

No, it is an argument against the ideology that endless minipulation/dominance of the material world is purely benefical. Science is as much an attempt to dominate/minpulate reality as technological development.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T18:21:15.675Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

you conviently do not address some of the examples I provide of the negatives of flight.

Oh, I agree that there are negatives, I just think that the positives outweigh them. I can defend my position, but first, let's clear up this next point:

Science is as much an attempt to dominate/minpulate reality as technological development.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "dominate/manipulate". As I see it, science is an attempt to understand reality, and technology is an attempt to manipulate it. Do you have different definitions of "science" and "technology" in mind ? Obviously, a certain amount of technology is required in order for science to progress -- microscopes and telescopes don't pop out of thin air ex nihilo -- but I think the distinction I'm making is still valid.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T18:40:43.521Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Science doesn't motivate itself. The social purpose of learning to make better predictions (science) is to be better at controlling the environment.

The fact that we can control an environment doesn't imply that we should control it that way, and Boyi seems to be conflating those points. But that doesn't change the social purpose of science.

ETA: Understanding reality is what science says it does. But from a functional point of view, it is irrelevant whether the model is "true" because all that matters is whether the model makes accurate predictions.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T19:02:26.195Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with what dlthomas said. In fact, most scientists I know are pursuing science out of intrinsic interest, like he said -- though that's just my personal experience, which may not be representative.

But from a functional point of view, it is irrelevant whether the model is "true" because all that matters is whether the model makes accurate predictions.

What's your definition of "true", then, besides "makes accurate predictions" ?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T19:20:15.379Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What's your definition of "true", then, besides "makes accurate predictions" ?

I did say that I was doing a functional analysis. The social purpose of labeling a scientific statement as true is to differentiate statements that are useful in making accurate predictions from those that are not useful for making predictions. Also, see my response to dlthomas.

If we stop using functional analysis, the question of truth remains. Personally, I have a lot of trouble coming to a satisfying conclusion about the concept, because I think the hypothesis of the incommensurability of scientific theories is strongly supported by the evidence. Notwithstanding that incommensurability, I think that the ability of science to make accurate predictions is based on the regularity of phenomena. I wrote this earlier, which is a slightly more detailed version of the same point.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T21:36:29.103Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The social purpose of labeling a scientific statement as true is to differentiate statements that are useful in making accurate predictions from those that are not useful for making predictions

I may be exposing my ignorance here, but I don't understand what you mean by a "social purpose". The purpose you describe sounds like an entirely pragmatic purpose to me; i.e., it's the one that makes sense if you want to discover more about the world -- but perhaps this is also what you meant ?

I wrote this earlier, which is a slightly more detailed version of the same point

I read that comment, and I disagree with its premise: "It's like Aristotle [and Newton] wasn't looking at the same reality". Both Newton and Aristotle (ok, Aristotle not as much) explain not only their conclusions, but the evidence and reasoning they used to arrive at these conclusions, and it's rather obvious why they made the mistakes they made... it's because they were, in fact, looking at the same reality we now inhabit. You'd make the same mistakes too, today, if you knew nothing of modern science but tried to figure out how the world worked.

Furthermore, Newton wasn't even all that terribly wrong (again, Aristotle was a ways off). If I want to predict the orbit of our Moon with a reasonable degree of certainty, or if I simply want to lob a rock across the top of an enemy fortress's walls with my trebuchet, I don't need relativity.

If different scientists are looking at a different reality, how on earth did we keep making better predictions? Thus the appeal to the regularity of phenomena, which rescues the concept of scientific progress...

You make it sound as though the "regularity of phenomena" is some kind of a trick that people invented so they could keep getting tenure, or something. I, on the other hand, would claim that it's simply the most parsimonious assumption, given our observations.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T01:50:42.948Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand what you mean by a "social purpose"

It's not a big deal. I was trying to be precise to avoid the appearance of a naive claim like "purpose is an objective property of things," which is clearly false. Purpose is only meaningful as a reference to something, and I'm referencing society.

I read that comment, and I disagree with its premise.

The Aristotle / Newton comparison is meant to be evidence for the hypothesis of incommensurability of scientific theories. If it doesn't convince you, then I regret that I'm not a good enough historian of science to present additional evidence. (For example, the issues about phlogiston do not seem like compelling evidence for the theory to me, although experts in Philosophy of Science apparently disagree). The only other point in favor of incommensurability of scientific theories is something like "It's awfully lucky that scientific theories are commensurable, because theories of everything that are not scientific (i.e. moral theories) are definitely incommensurable."

Anyway, disbelieving the scientific incommensurability hypothesis (SIH) means that the point about phenomena is not all that interesting or insightful. But if you believe SIH, then the scientific nihilism (i.e. there is no objective reality at all) is very tempting. But scientific nihilism must be rejected because science keeps making accurate predictions. Not only that, the predictions keep getting better <i.e. once we didn't know how to build computers. Now, we do>
So even if we reject the idea of accurate scientific models based on the SIH, we still are committed to some sort of regularity, because otherwise accurate prediction is extremely unlikely. That's phenomena. Sort of the middle ground between scientific nihilism and a belief in the accuracy of scientific models.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-15T03:00:48.960Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was trying to be precise to avoid the appearance of a naive claim like "purpose is an objective property of things," which is clearly false.

Ah, yes, agreed.

The Aristotle / Newton comparison is meant to be evidence for the hypothesis of incommensurability of scientific theories.

I think I might be misunderstanding what the word "incommensurability" means. I thought that it meant, "the performance of theory A cannot be compared with the performance of theory B", but in case of Aristotle/Newton/Einstein, we can definitely rank the performance (in the order I listed, in fact). Aristotle's Laws of Motion are more or less (ok, closer to the "less" side perhaps, but still) useful, as long as you're dealing with solid objects on Earth. Their predictive power isn't great, but it's not zero. Newton's Laws are much more powerful, and relativity is so powerful that it's overkill in many cases (f.ex. if you're trying to accurately lob a rock with a trebuchet). Each set of laws was devised to explain the best evidence that was available at the time; I see nothing incommesurate about that. But, again, it's possible that I'm using the word incorrectly.

because theories of everything that are not scientific (i.e. moral theories) are definitely incommensurable.

I am not convinced that they are. In fact -- again, assuming I'm using the word correctly -- how can theories be incommesurable and yet falsifiable ? And if a theory is not falsifiable, it's not very useful, IMO (nor is it a theory, technically).

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T03:30:20.267Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I use incommensurability, I mean that the basic concepts in one theory cannot be made to correspond with the basic concepts of another theory.

At bottom, Aristotelian physics says that what needs to be explained is motion. In contrast, Newtonian physics says that what needs to be explained is acceleration. I assert that there is no way to import principles for explaining motion into a theory that exists to explain acceleration. In other words, Aristotelian physics is not a simpler and more naive form of Newtonian physics. You can produce a post-hoc explanation of the differences like your invocation of the limits of observable evidence (but see this discussion). I find post-hoc explanation unsatisfying because scientists talk as if they can ex ante predict (1) what sorts of new evidence science needs to improve and (2) what the "revolutionary" new theories will look like. And yet that doesn't seem to be true historically.

And if a theory is not falsifiable, it's not very useful, IMO (nor is it a theory, technically).

There is some unfortunate equivocation in the the word theory ("Theory of Gravity" vs. "Utilitarianism: A Moral theory"). But something like Freudian thought is unified(-ish) and coherent(-ish). What is wrong with referencing "Freudian theory"? That doesn't reject Popper's assertion that Freudian thought isn't a scientific theory (because Freudian thought isn't falsifiable). On falsifiability more generally, I'm not sure what it means to ask whether utilitarianism (or any moral theory) is falsifiable.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-15T04:25:25.930Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

At bottom, Aristotelian physics says that what needs to be explained is motion. In contrast, Newtonian physics says that what needs to be explained is acceleration. I assert that there is no way to import principles for explaining motion into a theory that exists to explain acceleration.

What about "V = a * t" ? That said, AFAIK "at bottom" Newton didn't really want to explain acceleration, or motion, or any abstract concept like that; he wanted to know why the planets appear at certain places in the sky at certain times, and not others -- but he could pinpoint the position of a planet much better than Aristotle could.

And I think we can, in fact, correspond Newtonian concepts to Aristotelian ones, if only by pointing out which parts Aristotle missed -- which would allow us to map one theory to the other. For example, we (or Archimedes, even) could talk about density and displacement, and use it to explain the parts that Aristotle got right (most rocks sink in water) as well as the parts he got wrong (actually some porous rocks can float).

What is wrong with referencing "Freudian theory"?

Nothing really, it's just that most people around here, AFAIK, mean something like "a scientific, falsifiable, well-tested theory" when they use the word.

That doesn't reject Popper's assertion that Freudian thought isn't a scientific theory (because it isn't falsifiable).

If it's unfalsifiable, what good is it ? Isn't that the same as saying, "it has no explanatory power" and "it lacks any application to anything" ?

On falsifiability more generally, I'm not sure what it means to ask whether utilitarianism (or any moral theory) is falsifiable.

I see utilitarianism as more of a recipe (or an algorithm) than a theory, so it doesn't need to be falsifiable per se.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T16:43:12.234Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For theories to be commensurate, you need to be able to move all the interesting insights of each theory into the other and still have the same insight. Sure, Aristotle and Newton seemed to agree on the definition of velocity and acceleration. But there's no way to state "An object in motion will tend to stay in motion" as a conclusion of Aristotelian physics because the caveats Aristotle would want to insert would totally change the meaning.
(As an aside, I'm making a point about the theories, not the scientists. Boyi might find Newton's motivation interesting, but I'm trying to limit the focus to the theories themselves).


The point about moral "theory" is sufficiently distinct that I hope you'll forgive my desire to move it elsewhere just to make this conversation easier to follow.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-15T19:19:45.733Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For theories to be commensurate, you need to be able to move all the interesting insights of each theory into the other and still have the same insight.

In this case, I don't think I fully understand what you mean by "insights" being "the same". Any two scientific theories will make different models of reality, by definition; if they didn't, they'd be the same theory. So, if you go the extreme route, you could say that all theories are incommensurate by definition, but this interpretation would be trivial, since it'd be the same as saying, "different theories are different".

I agree that there's "no way to state 'An object in motion will tend to stay in motion' as a conclusion of Aristotelian physics", but that's because Aristotelian physics is less correct than Newtonian mechanics. But there is a way to partially map Newtonian mechanics to Aristotelian physics, by restricting our observations to a very specific set of circumstances (relatively heavy objects, an atmosphere, the surface of Greece, etc.). Similarly, we can map relativity to Newtonian mechanics (relatively heavy objects, slow speeds, etc.). It seems odd to say that these theories are totally incommensurate, while still being able to perform this kind of mapping.

In fact, we perform this kind of reduction every day, even in practical settings. When I want to drive from point A to point B, Google Maps tells me that the Earth is flat, and I implicitly believe that the Earth is flat. But if I want to fly to China, I have to discard this assumption and go with the round-Earth model. I see nothing philosophically troubling about that -- why use an expensive scalpel when a cheap mallet works just as well ?

Boyi might find Newton's motivation interesting, but I'm trying to limit the focus to the theories themselves

I was trying to make a point that scientific theories are not just about moving abstract concepts around; their whole purpose is to make predictions about our observations. This is what differentiates them from pure philosophy, and this is also what makes it possible to compare one theory to another and rank them according to correctness and predictive power -- because we have an external standard by which to judge them.

The point about moral "theory" is sufficiently distinct that I hope you'll forgive my desire to move it elsewhere just to make this conversation easier to follow.

Yeah, that's a good move, no objections here.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-15T19:25:12.775Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Similarly, we can map relativity to Newtonian mechanics (relatively heavy objects, slow speeds, etc.).

But not too heavy...

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-15T19:58:34.475Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Haha, yes, very important detail, that :-)

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T20:27:28.065Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I can't write it better than Feyerabend. My argument about Aristotelian and Newtonian physics is a paraphrase of section 5 of his argument, starting at pg. 94, and ending at about 101.

ETA: And I looked at it again and it's missing 95-96, where some of the definitions are. If there's interest, I'll type it up, because I think it addresses the criticisms fairly well.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-15T22:39:31.340Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, I have to admit that I haven't read the entire book, but only skimmed the section your mentioned -- because my time is limited, but also because, in its infinite wisdom, Google decided to exclude some of the pages.

Still, I can see that Feyerabend is talking about the same things you're talking about; but I can't see why those things matter. Yes, Aristotle had a very different model of the physical world than Newton; and yes, you can't somehow "plug in" Aristotelian physics into Newtonian mechanics and expect it to work. I agree with Feyerabend there. But you could still go the other way: you can use Newtonian mechanics, as well as what we know of Aristotle's environment, to explain why Aristotle got the results he did, and thus derive a very limited subset of the world in which Aristotle's physics sort of works. This does not entail rewriting the entirety of Newtonian mechanics in terms of Aristotelian physics or vice versa, because Aristotle was flat out wrong about some things (a lot of things, actually). Feyerabend seems to believe that this makes the two theories incommensurate, but, as I said above, by that standard the word "incommensurate" becomes synonymous with "different", which is not informative. I think that Feyerabend's standards are simply too high.

I was also rather puzzled by something that Feyerabend says on page 98, toward the bottom. He says that "impoetus" and "momentum" would give you the same value mathematically, and yet we can't treat them as equivalent, because they rest on different assumptions. They give you the same answer, though ! Isn't this what science is all about, answers ?

Let me illustrate my point in a more flowery way. Let's say that Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein all went to a country fair together, and entered the same block-pushing contest. The contestant randomly picks a stone block out of a huge pile of blocks of different sizes, and then a tireless slave will push the block down a lane (the slave is well-trained and always pushes the block with the same force). The contestant's job is to predict how far the block will slide before coming to rest. The contestant will win some amount of money based on how close his prediction was to the actual distance that the block traveled.

As far as I understand, Feyerabend is either saying that either a). Aristotle would win less money than Newton who would win less than Einstein, but we have no idea why, or that b). We can't know ahead of time who will win more money. Both options look disingenuous to me, but it's quite likely that I am misinterpreting Feyerabend's position. What do you think ?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-16T01:31:00.867Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was also rather puzzled by something that Feyerabend says on page 98, toward the bottom. He says that "impoetus" and "momentum" would give you the same value mathematically, and yet we can't treat them as equivalent, because they rest on different assumptions. They give you the same answer, though ! Isn't this what science is all about, answers ?

If we imagine a test given by an Aristotelian physicist, defining impetus with the Newtonian definition of momentum would get no points (and vice versa). Feyerabend says

. . . the impetus is supposed to be something that pushes the body along, the momentum is the result rather than the cause of [the body's] motion

In other words, impetus is meant to explain, while momentum is something to be explained. The point is that it's very odd that two theories on the same subject disagree about what explains and what needs to be explained. (Imagine if one scientist proposed that cold caused ice, and the next generation of scientist proposed that ice caused cold, while making more accurate predictions). In the same way that impetus is a primary explanation for Aristotle, force is a primary explanation for Newton. And impetus and force are nothing alike. The assertion is that this type of difference is more than saying that Newton had better data than Aristotle.

In your hypothetical, I think that Feyerabend says something like (a). Perhaps "Aristotle would win less money than Newton who would win less than Einstein, but the naive scientific method cannot explain why." For some perspective, Feyerabend is opposing Ernest Nagel and logical positivism, which asserts that empirical statements are true by virtue of their correspondence with reality. If you believe Newtonian physics, the causal explanation "Impetus" doesn't correspond with any real thing (because momentum does not explain, but is to be explained). You could bit the bullet and accept that impetus is a false concept. But if you do that, then a theory based on lots of false concepts makes predictions in the block-push contest that do substantially better than chance. How can a false theory do that?

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-16T04:01:18.845Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In other words, impetus is meant to explain, while momentum is something to be explained.

If that's what Feyerabend is saying, then he's confusing the map for the territory:

The point is that it's very odd that two theories on the same subject disagree about what explains and what needs to be explained.

That would indeed be odd, but as I understand it, both theories are trying to explain why objects (such as stone blocks or planets) behave the way they do. Both "impetus" and "momentum" are features of the explanatory model that the scientist is putting together. Aristotle believed (according to my understanding of Feyerabend) that "impetus" was a real entity that we could reach out and touch, somehow; Newton simply used "momentum" as a shorthand for a bunch of math, and made no claim about its physical or spiritual existence. As it turns out, "impetus" (probably) does not have an independent existence, so Aristotle was wrong, but he could still make decent predictions, because the impetus's existence or lack thereof actually had no bearing on his calculations -- as long as he stuck to calculating the motion of planets or rocks. In the end, it's all about the rocks.

Perhaps "Aristotle would win less money than Newton who would win less than Einstein, but the naive scientific method cannot explain why."

What is the "naive scientific method", in this case ? How is it different from the regular kind ?

If you believe Newtonian physics, the causal explanation "Impetus" doesn't correspond with any real thing (because momentum does not explain, but is to be explained). You could bit the bullet and accept that impetus is a false concept.

No, you can't, since the existence of impetus as an independent entity is unfalsifiable (if I understand it correctly). The best you can do is say, "this impetus thing might exist or it might not, but we have no evidence that it does, so I'm going to pretend that it doesn't until some evidence shows up, which it never will, since the concept is unfalsifiable". Aristotle probably would not have said that, so that's another thing he got wrong.

Imagine if one scientist proposed that cold caused ice, and the next generation of scientist proposed that ice caused cold, while making more accurate predictions

The statements "ice causes cold" or "cold causes ice" are both falsifiable, I think, in which case the "ice causes cold" theory would make less accurate predictions. It might fail to account for different freezing temperatures of different materials, or for the fact that the temperature of a liquid will not decrease beyound a certain point until the entire volume of the liquid had frozen, etc.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-17T03:49:54.225Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that Feyerabend is mostly talking about maps, not territory. I shouldn't have said naive scientific method, because naive is unnecessarily snarky and I'm talking about a different basic philosophy of scientists than the scientific method. The basic "truth theory" of science is that we make models and by adding additional data, we can make more accurate models. But in some sense, the basic theory says that all models are "true."

That leaves the obvious question of how to define truth. "Makes accurate predictions" is one definition, but I think most scientists think that their models "describe" reality. The logical positivists tried to formalize this by saying that models (and statements in general) were true if they "corresponded" with reality. Note that this is different from falsifiability, which is basically a formal way of saying "stick your neck out." (i.e. the insight that if your theory can explain any occurrence, then it really can't explain anything) The Earth suddenly reversing the direction of its orbit would falsify impetus, momentum, relativity, and just about everything else human science knows or has ever thought it knew, but that doesn't tell us what is true.

For the logical positivist, when one says that "impetus does not have an independent existence" that means "impetus is false." There is some weirdness in a "false" theory making accurate predictions. To push on the map/territory metaphor slightly, if Columbus, Magellan, and Drake all came back with different maps of the world but all clearly got to the same places, we would be justified in thinking that there was something weird going on. Yet if you adopt the logical positivist definition of truth, that seems to be exactly what is happening. At the very least, the lesson is that we should be skeptical of the basic theory's explanation of what models are.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-17T05:04:44.258Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But in some sense, the basic theory says that all models are "true."

I really don't think so. Let's pretend that my theory says that lighter objects always fall slower than heavier ones, whereas your theory says that all objects always fall at the same rate. Logically speaking, only one of those theories could be true, seeing as they state exactly opposite things.

In addition, if I believe that the Moon is made out of green cheese, and so does everyone else; and then we get to the Moon and find a bunch of rocks but no cheese -- then my theory was false. I could make my green cheese theory as internally consistent as I wanted, but it'd still be false, because the actual external Moon is made of rocks, whereas the theory says it's made of cheese.

That leaves the obvious question of how to define truth.

I prefer my truth to be simple...

"Makes accurate predictions" is one definition, but I think most scientists think that their models "describe" reality.

What's the difference ?

The Earth suddenly reversing the direction of its orbit would falsify impetus, momentum, relativity, and just about everything else human science knows or has ever thought it knew, but that doesn't tell us what is true.

Well, no, but it would tell us that lots are things we thought are true are probably false. In order to figure out what's likely to be true, we'd have to construct a bunch of new models, and test them. I don't see this as a problem; and in fact, this happens all the time -- see the orbit of Mercury, for example.

For the logical positivist, when one says that "impetus does not have an independent existence" that means "impetus is false." There is some weirdness in a "false" theory making accurate predictions.

I wouldn't say that "impetus is false" (at least, not in the way that you mean), because it's actually worse than false -- it's irrelevant. There's no experiment you can run, in principle, that will tell you whether "m*v" is caused by impetus or invisible gnomes. And if you can't ever tell the difference, then why bother believing in impetus (as an actual, non-metaphorical entity) or gnomes (ditto) ? Aristotle may not have been aware of anything like Ockham Razor (I don't know whether he was or not), but that's ok. Aristotle was wrong. Scientists are allowed to be wrong, that's what science is all about (though Aristotle wasn't technically a scientist, and that's ok too).

if Columbus, Magellan, and Drake all came back with different maps of the world but all clearly got to the same places, we would be justified in thinking that there was something weird going on... At the very least, the lesson is that we should be skeptical of the basic theory's explanation of what models are.

I don't see why you'd make the logical leap from "These three explorers had different maps but got to the same place", directly to, "we must abandon the very idea of representing territory schematically on a piece of vellum", especially when you know that explorers who rely on maps tend to get lost a lot less often than explorers who just wing it. Instead of abandoning all maps altogether, maybe you should figure out what piece of information the explorers were missing, so that you could make better maps in the future.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-19T19:04:49.895Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's no experiment you can run, in principle, that will tell you whether "m*v" is caused by impetus.

Is it really your position that no experiment can tell whether something is a cause or an effect? That sounds like an assertion that the statement "gravity is a cause of motion, not an effect" is not meaningful.

I'd like truth to be simple. For practical purposes, it is simple. But "simple" truth doesn't stand up to rigorous examination, in much the same way that a "simple" definition of infinity doesn't work.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-19T21:07:17.860Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is it really your position that no experiment can tell whether something is a cause or an effect?

Sorry, no, that wasn't what I meant. As far as I understand -- and my understanding might be incorrect -- Aristotle believed that moving objects are imbued with this substance called "impetus", which, according to Aristotle, is what imparts motion to these objects. He could calculate the magnitude of impetus as "m*v", but he also proposed that impetus (which, according to Aristotle, does exist) is undetectable by any material means, other than the motion of the objects.

In a way, we can imagine two possible universes:

  • Universe 1: Impetus imparts motion to objects but is otherwise undetectable; we can estimate its effects as "m*v".
  • Universe 2: There's no such thing as "impetus", though m*v is a useful feature of our model.

Is there any way to tell, in principle, whether you are currently living in Universe 1 or Universe 2 ? If the answer is "no", then it doesn't matter whether impetus is a cause or an effect, because it is utterly irrelevant.

Contrast this with your "ice causes cold vs cold causes ice" scenario. In this case, ice and cold are both physically measurable, and we can devise a series of experiments to discover which causes which (or whether some other model is closer to the truth).

But "simple" truth doesn't stand up to rigorous examination,

I would argue that if your rigorous examination cannot explain your simple, useful, and demonstrably effective notion of truth, then the problem is with your examination, not your notion of truth.

in much the same way that a "simple" definition of infinity doesn't work.

What is a "simple" definition of infinity, and how does it differ from the regular kind ? As far as I understand, infinity is a useful mathematical concept that does not directly translate into any scientific model, but, as usual, I could be wrong.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-20T04:23:35.256Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Impetus imparts motion to objects but is otherwise undetectable

I don't think an Aristotelian physicist would say that impetus is "otherwise undetectable" any more than a modern physicist would say "gravity causes objects to move, but is otherwise undetectable."

I would argue that if your rigorous examination cannot explain your simple, useful, and demonstrably effective notion of truth, then the problem is with your examination, not your notion of truth.

There are lots of statements that we desire to assign a truth value to that a much more complicated than the number of sheep in the meadow. Kant described a metaphysical model that was not susceptible to empirical verification (that's a feature of metaphysical models generally). When we say the model is true (or false), what do we mean? If you want to abandon metaphysics, then what does it mean to say something like "qualia have property X" is true?

As far as I understand, infinity is a useful mathematical concept that does not directly translate into any scientific model, but, as usual, I could be wrong.

Is it your position that all truths are "scientific" truths? Does that mean that non-empirical assertions can't be labelled true (or false)?

I mentioned infinities an an example of an unintuitive truth, in order to argue by analogy that the intuitiveness of EY's "definition" of truth does not show that the definition is complete. Folk mathematics would assert something like "All infinities are the same size" and that's just not true.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-20T06:07:34.331Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think an Aristotelian physicist would say that impetus is "otherwise undetectable" any more than a modern physicist would say "gravity causes objects to move, but is otherwise undetectable."

Fair enough, but then, how would an Aristotelian physicist propose to detect impetus, if not by observing the motion of objects ? I'm pretty sure I'm missing the answer to this part, so I genuinely want to know.

The modern physicist doesn't have to answer this question, because he treats gravity as a useful abstraction in his model. The Aristotelian physicist, on the other hand, believes that impetus is a real thing that actually exists and is causing objects to move. And if the answer is, "you can only detect impetus by observing the motion of objects and using the formula m*v", then it becomes trivially easy to answer your original question, "how can you explain the fact that Aristotelian physics and Newtonian mechanics make the same predictions despite being so different". The answer then becomes, "because both of them describe the motion of objects in the same way, one of them just as this extra bit that doesn't really change much". As I said though, I may be missing a piece of the puzzle.

If you want to abandon metaphysics, then what does it mean to say something like "qualia have property X" is true?

I personally think that qualia, along with free will, are philosophical red herrings, so I'm not terribly interested in their properties. That sounds like a topic for a separate argument, though...

Kant described a metaphysical model that was not susceptible to empirical verification (that's a feature of metaphysical models generally). When we say the model is true (or false), what do we mean? ... Is it your position that all truths are "scientific" truths?

I would say that statements such as "2+2=4" and "if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal" are either true by definition, or derive logically from statements that are true by definition. There's nothing wrong with that, obviously, but scientific truth is a bit different, since in science, you are not free to pick any axioms you want -- instead, the physical universe does that for you.

That said, I'm not sure how your question relates to our main topic: the incommensurability of scientific truths, specifically.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-22T14:42:13.284Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The modern physicist doesn't have to answer this question, because he treats gravity as a useful abstraction in his model.

A while ago, I said to Boyi that the best of post-modern thought gets co-opted into more mainstream thought. If you think gravity is only a useful abstraction, not "a real thing that actually exists and is causing objects to move," then you are already much, much closer to Feyerabend than to the logical positivists. As a sociological fact, I assert that most scientists (especially in the "hard" sciences) take a position closer to "gravity is a real thing" than "gravity is a useful abstraction" (if not for gravity in particular, than for whatever fundamental explanatory objects they assert).

The incommensurability of scientific models (I shouldn't have said truths) is the assertion that an earlier scientific model is not necessarily a simpler version of a later scientific model. I've made the best case that I can about Aristotle vs. Newton. The lesson is to be suspicious of the "truth" of scientific models. Because I think most scientists want to say something stronger about the model than "makes more accurate predictions."

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-23T17:00:45.788Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you think gravity is only a useful abstraction, not "a real thing that actually exists and is causing objects to move," then you are already much, much closer to Feyerabend than to the logical positivists. As a sociological fact, I assert that most scientists (especially in the "hard" sciences) take a position closer to "gravity is a real thing" than "gravity is a useful abstraction

Isn't that the whole point of (for example) the search for the Higgs Boson ? Gravity is an abstraction, and we're trying to refine the abstraction by discovering what is causing the real phenomenon that we observe. Of course, that discovery will not represent the world as it really, truly is, either; but at least it'll be a bit closer than just "GMm / r^2". I think there's a big difference between the scientific concept of an abstraction, which refers to a simplified and incomplete model of reality; and the post-modern concept, which treats every abstraction as just another narrative that is socially constructed and does not relate to any external phenomena.

The incommensurability of scientific models (I shouldn't have said truths) is the assertion that an earlier scientific model is not necessarily a simpler version of a later scientific model

If this is all you're saying, then I can fully endorse this statement -- but then, as I said before, it basically boils down to saying, "some earlier scientific models were pretty much wrong". This statement is true, but not very interesting.

Because I think most scientists want to say something stronger about the model than "makes more accurate predictions."

Like what ? Isn't that the entire point of the model, to make predictions ?

Let me use another analogy. At one point, people believed that all swans were white; in fact, the very term "black swan" is an idiom meaning "something that is completely unexpected, contradicts most of what we know, and is likely disastrous". Of course, today we know that black swans do exist.

So, let's say that I, having never seen a black swan, believe that all swans are white. You believe that some swans are black. Our two models of the world are incommensurate; logically, only one of them can be true. And yet, if I have seen plenty of white swans, but never a black one, I'd be perfectly justified in believing that my model is (probably) true (until you show me some evidence to the contrary). Do you think this means that we should be "suspicious" of the entire notion of predicting the color of the next swan one might come across ?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-27T14:51:33.105Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Let me use another analogy. At one point, people believed that all swans were white; in fact, the very term "black swan" is an idiom meaning "something that is completely unexpected, contradicts most of what we know, and is likely disastrous". Of course, today we know that black swans do exist.

So, let's say that I, having never seen a black swan, believe that all swans are white. You believe that some swans are black. Our two models of the world are incommensurate; logically, only one of them can be true. And yet, if I have seen plenty of white swans, but never a black one, I'd be perfectly justified in believing that my model is (probably) true (until you show me some evidence to the contrary). Do you think this means that we should be "suspicious" of the entire notion of predicting the color of the next swan one might come across ?

You are conflating theory conflict with theory commensurability. The fact that theories make different predictions does not prove that the theories are incommensurable. For example, the white-swan theory predicted that there were no black swans, while the black-swan predicted that some black swans existed. But both theories mean the SAME thing by swan, so they are commensurable theories.

In addition, making similar predictions does not mean that theories are commensurable. I think there was a time when epicycle theory and heliocentric theory made similar predictions of planetary motion. Notwithstanding this agreement, there is no way to translate the concepts of Ptolemaic astronomy into heliocentric astronomy, which is what I mean when I say incommensurable.


In reading this discussion of Feyerabend, it seems like I'm defending a position that Feyerabend did not actually endorse. As you say:

I think there's a big difference between the scientific concept of an abstraction, which refers to a simplified and incomplete model of reality; and the post-modern concept, which treats every abstraction as just another narrative that is socially constructed and does not relate to any external phenomena.

According to that discussion, Feyerabend is fully post-modern as you describe it. (This was the position Boyi was articulating, and I think we agree that it has trouble explaining the success of science). I'm trying to defend a philosophy of science that "treats every abstraction as a narrative that is socially constructed, but does (somehow) relate to external phenomena."

Isn't that the entire point of the model, to make predictions ?

Eliezer's essay that you linked implies that one purpose of science is to know true facts about the world. Gravity isn't an abstraction of the (hypothetical) Higgs bosom. It's a property of the particle (or whatever it is-I'm not up on the physics). I'm articulating a position in which we don't know certain kinds of facts (i.e. models do not "correspond" to reality), but are nonetheless able to make accurate predictions.

comment by Bugmaster · 2012-01-04T00:35:21.104Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You are conflating theory conflict with theory commensurability. The fact that theories make different predictions does not prove that the theories are incommensurable.

Technically, you're right; my swan example wasn't fully analogous. I could still argue that one theory meant "swan" to be "a bird that is exclusively white", whereas the other theory allows swans to be white or black, and thus the two theories do mean different things by the word "swan"... but I don't know if you or Feyerabend would agree; nor do I think that it's terribly important.

What's more important is that I disagree with you (and possibly Feyerabend) regarding what theories are. As far as I understand, you believe that scientific models utilize "concepts" in order to make predictions; these concepts are the primary feature of the model, with predictions being a side-effect (though a very important and useful one, speaking both practically and philosophically). I, on the other hand, would say that it is the concepts that are secondary, and that a scientific model's main feature is the predictions it makes.

If this is true, then as long as your model makes accurate predictions, you are justified in believing that its concepts are also true. Thus, if your epicycle model allows you to predict the motion of planets with reasonable accuracy, you're justified in believing that planets move in epicycles. But as soon as some better measurements come along, your predictions will start failing, and you'd be forced to get yourself some new concepts.

In other words, the concepts are not a statement about how the world really, truly works; but only about how it works to the best of your knowledge. Once you get better knowledge, you are forced to get better concepts; and once you do that, you can go back, look at your old concepts, and say, "ok, I can see why I came up with those, because I'd need to know X in order to see that they're wrong, and we'd just built the X-supercollider last year".

Thus, I see no philosophical problem with having two scientific models that use different concepts, yet arrive at similar predictions. They are simply two local maxima in our utility function that describes our understanding of the world; and, since we're not omniscient, neither of them are 100% true. When the maxima are sufficiently close, you can even use a simpler model (f.ex., "the world is flat") in place of the other (f.ex., "the world is round"), if you're willing to deal with the marginally increased errors in your predictions (f.ex., lobbing that giant boulder 1cm to the side of its intended target).

Gravity isn't an abstraction of the (hypothetical) Higgs bosom. It's a property of the particle (or whatever it is-I'm not up on the physics).

Right, but what's a "particle" ? In reality, there (probably) aren't any "particles" at all, there are just waves -- except that the waves aren't exactly real, either, and instead there are "amplitude flows", except those are a model too... and so on. It is still possible that all of these things are just local maxima, and that in reality the world is a giant computer simulation, or something. For now, our models work quite well, but that doesn't mean that they are somehow directly tied to actual particles (or waves, etc.) that actually exist. Photons don't care about what's in our heads.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-04T17:28:48.806Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you ask Alice the Engineer what scientific theories do, I think she would say that scientific theories "describe the world" and "make predictions." Without getting into relative importance, I think she'd say that a theory that couldn't both describe and predict would be a failure of science. If that's not what she would say today, I'm fairly confident that her counterpart from 1901 would say that.

I think Feyerabend has a devastating critique of the ability of scientific theories to describe. And the difference is huge. If you follow Feyerabend, you can't say "Light is both a particle and a wave." The best you can do is say "Our most accurate theory treats light as both a particle and a wave" and forbid the inference that "the world resembles the theory in any rigorous way."

It seems like your response is to remove "descriptiveness" from the definition of science, then say that Feyerabend doesn't have any interesting critique of science as properly defined. But your new definition of science is the one that post-modernism says is best. More importantly, you can't go back to Alice and say "Look, I've driven off the post-modernists with no losses" because she'll respond by asking about science's ability to describe the world and cite The Simple Truth at you.

If you ask actual practicing scientists (researchers, doctors, engineers, etc), I assert that they would agree with Alice, if forced to take a position (ignoring for the moment why we'd ever want to force them to think about this theoretical issue). And regardless of the penetration of post-modern theory of science into modern folk philosophy, the overwhelming majority scientists throughout history have asserted the position I've ascribed to Alice.

comment by Bugmaster · 2012-01-04T19:05:44.294Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like your response is to remove "descriptiveness" from the definition of science, then say that Feyerabend doesn't have any interesting critique of science as properly defined.

My intent wasn't to remove "descriptiveness", but to remove both certainty and absolute precision. Thus, instead of saying, "planets move in epicycles", we can only say, "to the best of our knowledge, planets move in something closely resembling epicycles (but we're not sure of that, and in reality planets don't move in neat little epicycles because they're not perfectly round, etc.)". This may seem like a minor difference, but IMO the difference is huge: instead of treating the features of your model -- the "concepts" -- as primary, they are now entirely dependent on your observations.

This is what I was trying to show with my (admittedly flawed) swan analogy. I see no problem with two theories making similar predictions yet explaining them using different models, because in the end it's the predictions that are important. If you are unable to make measurements that are precise enough to tell one model from another, you might as well go with a simpler model just by using Occam's Razor. This doesn't mean that your simpler model must be 100% accurate; it just means that it's much likely to be much closer to the way the world really works than other models.

Thus, there's no real need to explain why two different theories make similar predictions; the explanation is, "this isn't a question about theories or true reality, it's a question about us and our models", and the answer is, "our model was wrong because we couldn't make precise enough measurements, but it was still closer to reality than all other models at the time; and BTW, our current model isn't perfect either, but we think it's close".

This approach is different, I think, from your approach of treating the features of the model (the "concepts") as primary. If you do that, and if you assume that the world must look exactly like your model in order for its predictions to work, then you do have a problem with explaining how more or less correct predictions can arise from incorrect models. But this is a way to look at science that goes too far into the Platonic realm, IMO.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-10T19:32:43.945Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Since I accept theory incommesurability, I don't believe that closer to reality is a useful thing to say about scientific theories. I'm not even sure what it could mean. Specifically, the statement "precise enough measurements" doesn't explain or cause me to expect the thing you seem to mean by closer to reality, which sounds to me a lot like what Alice means by "descriptiveness."

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-10T19:50:51.601Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Since I accept theory incommesurability, I don't believe that closer to reality is a useful thing to say about scientific theories.

I'm confused. Can't one construct a counterexample?

For consideration, F=ma performs much worse under scrutiny than F=ma*e, where e is the number of elephants in the room plus one, even though the latter is usually accurate.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-10T20:03:34.257Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm asserting that makes better predictions != closer to reality.

F= ma(elephants+1) clearly makes worse predictions. That's a good and sufficient reason to reject it.

A longer explanation of what I think is at stake is here.

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-11T14:31:49.968Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Since I accept theory incommesurability, [sic]

F= ma(elephants+1) clearly makes worse predictions. That's a good and sufficient reason to reject it.

If you can reject it because it makes worse predictions, doesn't that make the theories commensurable, regardless of how they relate to reality?

comment by TimS · 2012-01-11T15:43:49.955Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not at all. What exactly is an epicycle supposed to translate into in a heliocentric theory?

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-11T16:40:47.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What exactly is an epicycle supposed to translate into in a heliocentric theory?

You evaluate both theories in terms of predictive power, and then compare the two.

Ah, I see what you and Feyerabend are doing there: commensurability is supposed to allow some translation between the internal parts of the theories. I don't see why that should be necessary, or why that would be called 'commensurability'. Ordinarily, to say 2 things are commensurable merely requires that they are comparable by some common standard.

comment by Bugmaster · 2012-01-10T20:46:13.510Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ok I am kind of confused now. At first, you say:

Since I accept theory incommesurability, I don't believe that closer to reality is a useful thing to say about scientific theories. I'm not even sure what it could mean. ... I'm asserting that "makes better predictions != closer to reality".

But in your example, Alice the Engineer and her hypothetical scientist friends say that

a theory that couldn't both describe and predict would be a failure of science.

So, it sounds like you disagree with Alice and the scientists, then ? But if so, are you not removing "descriptiveness" from scientific theories, just as you accused me of doing ?

But perhaps, by "makes better predictions != closer to reality", you only meant "makes better predictions probably == closer to reality, but not certainly" ? I could agree with that.

I think I could also agree with you that, if one accepts theory incommesurability, then it probably wouldn't make sense to talk about theories being (probably) closer to reality (assuming it exists). But I don't accept theory incommesurability, so at best we're at an impasse.

If, on the other hand, one assumes that there probably exists an external reality that influences our senses in some way, however indirect (and which we can influence in return with our bodies), then IMO commensurabilty follows more or less naturally.

Since our understanding of this reality is not (and can probably never be) perfect, we can treat the sum total of all of our scientific models as a sort of cost function, which measures the projected difference between our models and things as they truly are (thus, our models still describe things, but imperfectly). By carrying out experiments and updating our theories we are trying to minimize this cost function. It's entirely likely that we'd get stuck in some local minima for a while; hence the theories that make similar predictions but describe reality differently.

I take it you disagree with some of this, so which, if any, of my assumptions do you find objectionable ?

  • Reality probably exists (this seems to be non-controversial)
  • Reality affects our senses (which are part of it, after all) and we can affect it in turn by moving things around (ditto).
  • We can create what we think of as models of reality in our heads, however imperfect or wildly incorrect they might be.
  • Since our models imply predictions, it is possible for us to estimate the difference between our models of reality and the actual thing, by carrying out experiments and comparing the results we get to the expected results.
  • In trying to minimize this difference, we can get stuck in local minima.
  • Some other hidden assumption that I have forgotten to list here.
comment by TimS · 2012-01-20T15:41:16.923Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sorry if I wasn't clear about Alice, who is intended to represent a school of thought in philosophy of science called logical positivism.

I think you were advocating a position similar to her position, especially when you were saying that A Simple Truth was a sufficient theory of what truth is. Further, I agree that the adjustment that Alice should make to her theory is to abandon what I've called descriptiveness. Thus, I still think you are closer to Alice than to Feyerabend as long as you think scientific theories get "closer to reality" in some meaningful way.

As I understand it, theory incommesurability should be understood as an empirical theory, much the same way that academic historical theories are empirical theories.

  • Theories change.

I'm pretty sure Alice agrees.

  • Some theory changes are radical (i.e. involve incommensurability)

I think this is true, as a historical matter. A geocentric theory (epicycles) was replaced by a heliocentric theory. There's no reasonable way to translate rotating circles on top of other rotating circles embedded in the sky (epicycles) into anything in the Copernican/Keplerian planets-elliptically-orbit-the-Sun theory.
I don't think Alice rejects this either. I expect she explains that Science became non-empirical for a extended period of time, probably based on influence/co-option by non-empirical entities like the Catholic Church. But when Science was restored to its proper function by the return of empiricism, the geocentric nonsense was flushed away. There was no reason to expect that geocentrism would translate into heliocentrism because geocentrism was not sufficiently based on observation. (I'm not sure if this story is historically correct, but that's Alice's problem, not mine).

  • All significant theory changes were radical theory changes.
    Alice obviously doesn't agree. If impetus != momentum, this is evidence in support of this proposition. Likewise, if impetus = momentum, this is evidence against the proposition. If the proposition is true, I think you are right when you say:

if one accepts theory incommesurability, then it probably wouldn't make sense to talk about theories being (probably) closer to reality.

But I don't think that requires one to reject the concept of reality.

comment by Bugmaster · 2012-01-20T18:23:21.256Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you were advocating a position similar to her position, especially when you were saying that A Simple Truth was a sufficient theory of what truth is.

I don't think that A Simple Truth advocates a theory per se; I see it as more of call to reject complex and convoluted philosophical truth theories, in favor of actually doing science (and engineering).

theory incommesurability should be understood as an empirical theory

As far as I understand from your arguments so far, the notions of empiricism and incommensurability are incommensurable.

There's no reasonable way to translate rotating circles on top of other rotating circles embedded in the sky (epicycles) into anything in the Copernican/Keplerian planets-elliptically-orbit-the-Sun theory.

No, but you could probably go the other way. Given both theories, you could calculate the minimum magnitude of the experimental error required in order for them to become indistinguishable. If your instruments are less precise than that, then you may as well use epicycles (Occam's Razor aside).

I expect she explains that Science became non-empirical for a extended period of time, probably based on influence/co-option by non-empirical entities like the Catholic Church.

I don't think this is accurate, historically speaking. Yes, the influence of the Catholic Church was quite harmful to science, but they didn't invent geocentrism. In fact, geocentrism is quite empirical. If you're a sage living in ancient Babylon, you can very easily look up and see the Sun moving around the (flat) Earth. Given the available evidence, you'd be fully justified in concluding that geocentrism is true. You'd be wrong, as we now know, but it's ok to be wrong sometimes (see what I said earlier about local minima).

All significant theory changes were radical theory changes.

This sounds like a tautology to me.

If impetus != momentum, this is evidence in support of this proposition. Likewise, if impetus = momentum, ...

Sorry, I must have missed a sentence: what is the "this" you're referring to, when you say "this is evidence" ? As for impetus and momentum, they're quite different concepts, so you can't equate them. Impetus is a sort of elan vital of motion, whereas Newton's momentum (if I understand it correctly) is just an explanation of how objects move. Either impetus exists (in the same way that elan vital was thought to exist), or it doesn't; there aren't any other options. Today, we believe that impetus does not exist, but there's still a small chance that it does; if we ever discover any evidence of it, we'll update our beliefs.

But I don't think that requires one to reject the concept of reality.

As far as I understand from your arguments, you are rejecting the notion that scientific theories describe reality in any way; and, due to your belief in incommensurability, you believe that the fact that some theories allow us to develop what seems to be an understanding of the world (*), to be somewhat of a mystery. Does this accurately describe your position ? If so, I don't see what accepting "a concept of reality" would buy you, since reality is (due to incommensurability) unknowable.

I agree with you that, given that incommensurability is true, your position makes sense. But I still don't see why I should accept that incommensurability is true. From your arguments, it almost sounds like you require scientists to be omniscient: you see any significant mistake in our scientific understanding of the world as an insurmountable barrier to understanding. But I still don't understand why. All people make mistakes all the time, not just scientists.

At one point, I personally thought that driving from my house to work takes about 30 minutes. But then I found a shortcut through a corporate parking lot, which shaved the time down to about 25 minutes. My two maps of the world were certainly incompatible: one contained the shortcut, the other did not; and the routes were very different. Does this mean that the two maps are incommensurate, and that we must therefore reject the very notion of them describing the actual terrain in any way ? Why can't we just say, "Bugmaster was wrong because he didn't have enough data" ?

(*) Seeing as I'm typing these words using a device powered by our understanding of quantum mechanics, etc.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-22T15:01:55.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

IIRC, even Feynman refused to answer to whether electrons, or even the interior of a brick, are real, saying that they are useful concepts in our description of the world and that's all that matters.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-22T15:14:02.394Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That's not quite what he was saying. Full quote (emphasis mine):

When I sat with the philosophers I listened to them discuss very seriously a book called Process and Reality by Whitehead. They were using words in a funny way, and I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying. Now I didn’t want to interrupt them in their own conversation and keep asking them to explain something, and on the few occasions that I did, they’d try to explain it to me, but I still didn’t get it. Finally they invited me to come to their seminar.

They had a seminar that was like a class. It had been meeting once a week to discuss a new chapter out of Process and Reality — some guy would give a report on it and then there would be a discussion. I went to this seminar promising myself to keep my mouth shut, reminding myself that I didn’t know anything about the subject, and I was going there just to watch.

What happened there was typical — so typical that it was unbelievable, but true. First of all, I sat there without saying anything, which is almost unbelievable, but also true. A student gave a report on the chapter to be studied that week. In it Whitehead kept using the words ‘essential object’ in a particular technical way that presumably he had defined, but that I didn’t understand.

After some discussion as to what ‘essential object’ meant, the professor leading the seminar said something meant to clarify things and drew something that looked like lightning bolts on the blackboard. ‘Mr. Feynman,’ he said, ‘would you say an electron is an “essential object?”’

Well, now I was in trouble. I admitted that I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea of what Whitehead meant by the phrase; I had only come to watch. ‘But,’ I said, ‘I’ll try to answer the professor’s question if you will first answer a question from me, so I can have a better idea of what “essential object” means. Is a brick an essential object?

What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical constructs were essential objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy. In the case of the brick, my next question was going to be, ‘What about the inside of the brick?’ — and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see the surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us to understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began by asking, ‘Is a brick an essential object?’

Then the answers came out. One man stood up and said, ‘A brick is an individual, specific brick. That is what Whitehead means by an essential object.’ Another man said, ‘No, it isn’t the individual brick that is an essential object; it’s the general character that all bricks have in common — their ‘brickiness’ — that is the essential object.’

Another guy got up and said, ‘No, it’s not in the bricks themselves. ‘Essential object’ means the idea in the mind that you get when you think of bricks.’

Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I have never heard such ingenious different ways of looking at a brick before. And, just like it should in all stories about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos. In all their previous discussions they hadn’t even asked themselves whether such a simple object as a brick, much less an electron, is an ‘essential object’.

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-15T22:47:28.300Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is similar to my take on this.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T18:55:50.464Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Some people do seem to pursue science out of intrinsic interest, however.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T19:08:14.552Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure many people do intrinsically enjoy science. Nonetheless, the reason society pays for science research is because it leads to being able to make more accurate predictions.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T19:14:37.976Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that's pretty clearly the case, yes.

Edited to add: On reflection, I think this is not at all clear. Surely some science funding is so directly motivated, but a lot seems to be more related to signaling.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T19:11:16.289Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In what sense is understanding something not an act of dominance?

* Sorry I forgot the "not" the first time.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:41:17.648Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are going to have to taboo "dominance". Understanding something is a lot different from the other members of the "dominance" category. Please explain what you mean to say about understanding without using "dominance", "oppression", "force", "might", or "western hegemony".

comment by hairyfigment · 2011-12-14T19:17:37.374Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Usually not at all. If you dominate someone they have to do the work of understanding you.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T21:40:42.758Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with nyan_sandwich: please explain what you mean without using that word, because I'm fairly sure we have different definitions of it.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-12-14T20:32:55.092Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In what sense is understanding something not an act of dominance?

In the sense that this seems almost entirely backward. I usually expect acts of dominance in the form of not understanding.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T19:51:36.473Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GWThat's what I was going to ask you !

Edit: I posted that before you added the crucial "NOT". See my other comment.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T15:29:26.507Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'll concede that the Enlightenment did more to relieve human suffering (or whatever measure you prefer) than the advance of science. <Again, I don't think this a a majority position in this community.>
Will you concede that the Enlightenment's continued viability is reliant on the increase in wealth it caused, including the increase in wealth from scientific progress?

No, it is an argument against the ideology that endless minipulation/dominance of the material world is purely beneficial.

You don't need to believe post-modern thought to be an environmentalist. Nor does being post-modern guarantee that you are an environmentalist. (or any other critique of human application of "scientific" domination of nature).
In short, you are overstating the usefulness of post-modern analysis. Economists (whether or not they think Kuhn was saying something useful) already have language for the types of problems you identify with the social application of scientific prediction.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T19:14:00.564Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But [flight technologies] have also (along with shipping technologies) been the primary cause of ecological devastation.

This might be a bit of a digression, but I'm going to have to ask for a cite on that. My understanding is that power generation and industry are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions; Wikipedia describes transport fuels (road, rail, air and sea inclusive) as representing about 20% of carbon output and 15% of total greenhouse emissions.

Now, you said "ecological devastation", not "carbon", and air and sea transport's more general ecological footprint is of course harder to measure; but given their fuel-intensive nature I'd expect carbon emissions to represent most of it. There's also noise pollution, non-greenhouse emissions, bird and propeller strikes, pollution associated with manufacture and dismantling, and the odd oil spill, but although those photos of Chittagong shipbreakers are certainly striking I'd be surprised if all of that put together approached the ecological impact of transport's CO2 output, never mind representing an additional overhead large enough to dominate humanity's ecological effects.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T19:33:47.869Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry I was again assuming a common basis of knowledge. Carbon emissions would be environmental damage (damaging to the biosphere as a whole). Ecological damages more commonly refers to damages to ecosystems (smaller communities within the biosphere). When people talk about ecological damages they are primarily talking about invasive species. Invasive species are plants, animal, bacteria, and fungi that have been artificially transported from one ecosystem to another and have no natural predator within it. Huge portions of American forest are being eradicated as we speak by Asian beetles, plants, etc.

The primary cause of invasive species is trans-Atlantic/ trans-pacific shipping and flights. We try to regulate what gets on and off ships and boats, but it is really really hard. If you ever take a class in ecology this fact will probably be beaten into you. I work with an ecologist so I hear all the time about the devastation of invasive species and the growing frailty of the worlds ecosystems.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T19:45:54.226Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you; that makes sense.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T14:28:11.859Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's not a debate about science.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T00:30:00.044Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Somewhat agree. Science is broken in systematic ways. See the quantum physics sequence.

  2. That statement is a rather bold one to post on a site dedicated to improving human epistemological methods. It doesn't seem to me that a bit of irrationality should prevent us from doing better; we didn't even know what we were doing up until now.

EDIT: On 1 did you mean that science as we do it does not match the ideal, or the ideal does not work as well as is possible? Both are true.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T00:40:11.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't say 2 is bold at all, really, provided it is taken in a weak form - particularly if we factor out the transhumanist element. Yes, we will never be perfect Bayesian reasoning machines. This doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't do better ever better. I'm not sure what reasonably charitable interpretation would be a really bold claim, here... "We're so far gone we shouldn't bother trying," perhaps, but that doesn't seem to square with this poster's other posts.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T00:54:06.777Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't really have a clear idea of what boyi is even trying to say, so I'm not trying to square it with other posts.

The way I see it, "it's impossible to make science live up to the ideals" is pretty bold. I'll try to see a charitable interpretation.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T00:56:37.627Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The way I see it, "it's impossible to make science live up to the ideals" is pretty bold.

I don't know, there's a general sense in which ideals are almost never reached.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T01:04:31.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

yeah. I interpreted it closer to "impossible to do better" than "impossible to be perfect". Looking back, the former is the more charitable interpretation.

I get this distinct feeling of having fallen for the fallacy of gray (cant be perfect == can't do better).

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T01:11:15.448Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Idiomatically speaking, I think you can usually parse "can't be perfect" as a proxy for "should not aspire to the ideal, even if you accept that it can only be approached asymptotically".

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T00:34:49.470Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

On 1. I meant both.

On 2. I realize that it is a bold statement given the context of this blog. My reason for making it is that I believe taking the paradox of rationality into account would better serve your purposes.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T01:00:44.848Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If what you mean by 2 is that we can never be perfect, then yeah, that is a legitimate concern, and one that has been discussed.

I think the big distinction to make is that just because we aren't and can't be perfect, doesn't mean we should not try to do better. See the stuff on humility and the fallacy of gray.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T01:05:00.590Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What I mean by 2 is that we can never be perfect and that the "rationale man" is the wrong ideal.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T01:08:38.641Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's why we call ourselves "aspiring rationalists" not just "rationalists". "rational" is an ideal we measure ourselves against, the way thermodynamic engines are measured against the ideal Carnot cycle.

Read the stuff I linked for more info.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T01:17:35.396Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I also said I think it is the wrong ideal. Not completely. I think the idea of rationality is a good one, but ironically it is not a rational one. Rationality is paradoxical.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T01:24:45.996Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you say rationality is not the ideal? Around here we use the term rational as a proxy for "learning the truth and winning at your goals". I can't think of much that is more ideal. There are places where you will go off the track if you think that the ideal is to be rational. Maybe that's what you are referring to?

Now is a good time to taboo "rationality"; explain yourself using whatever "rationality" reduces to so that we don't get confused. (Like I did above with explaining about winning).

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T01:38:28.202Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that "learning the truth and winning at your goals" should be the ideal. But I also believe the following

-Humans are symbolic creatures: Meaning that to some extent we exist in self-created realities that do not follow a predictable or always logical order. -Humans are social creatures meaning that not only is human survival is completely dependent on the ability to maintain coexistence with other people, but individual happiness and identity is dependent on social networks.

Before I continue I would like to know what you and anyone else thinks about these two statements.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T03:59:29.610Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect many Less Wrong readers will Agree Denotatively But Object Connotatively to your statements. As Nornagest points out, what you wrote is mostly true with one important caveat (the fact that we are irrational in regular and predictable ways). However, your statements are connotatively troubling because phrases like these are sometimes used to defend and/or signal affiliation with the kind of subjectivism that we strongly dislike.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T02:18:03.154Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'd agree that a lot of our perceptual reality is self-generated -- as a glance through this site or the cog-sci or psychology literature will tell you, our thinking is riddled with biases, shaky interpolations, false memories, and various other deviations from an ideal model of the world. But by the same token there are substantial regularities in those deviations; as a matter of fact, working back from those tendencies to find the underlying cognitive principles behind them is a decent summary of what heuristics-and-biases research is all about. So I'd disagree that our perceptual worlds are unpredictable: people's minds differ, but it's possible to model both individual minds and minds-in-general pretty well.

As to your second clause, most humans do have substantial social needs, but their extent and nature differs quite a bit between individuals, as a function of culture, context, and personality. This too exhibits regularities.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T01:47:09.819Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Humans are symbolic creatures: Meaning that to some extent we exist in self-created realities that do not follow a predictable or always logical order.

I don't understand. Much of our self-identity is symbolic and imaginary. By self-created reality do you mean that our local reality is heavily influenced by us? That our beliefs filter our experiences somewhat? Or that we literally create our own reality? If it's the last one, the standard response is this: There is a process that generates predictions and a process that generates experiences, they don't always match up, so we call the former "beliefs" and the latter "reality". See the map and territory sequence). If that's not what you mean (I hope it is not), make your point.

Humans are social creatures meaning that not only is human survival is completely dependent on the ability to maintain coexistence with other people, but individual happiness and identity is dependent on social networks

yes

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T13:36:08.541Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand. Much of our self-identity is symbolic and imaginary. By self-created reality do you mean that our local reality is heavily influenced by us? That our beliefs filter our experiences somewhat? Or that we literally create our own reality? If it's the last one, the standard response is this: There is a process that generates predictions and a process that generates experiences, they don't always match up, so we call the former "beliefs" and the latter "reality". See the map and territory sequence. If that's not what you mean (I hope it is not), make your point.

You have heard of Niche Construction right? If not, it is the ability of an animal to manipulate their reality to meet their personal adaptations. Most animals display some sort of niche construction. Humans are highly advanced architects of niches. In the same way ants build colonies and bees build hives, humans create a type of social hive that is infinitely more complex. The human hive is not built through wax or honey but through symbols and rituals held together by rules and norms. A person living within a human hive cannot escape the necessity of understanding the dynamics of the symbols that hold it together so that they can most efficiently navigate its chambers. Keeping that in mind, it stands that all animals must respect the nature of their environment in order to survive. What is unique to humans is that the environments we primarily interact with are socially constructed niches. That is what I mean when I say human reality is self-created.

Earlier I talked about the paradox of rationality. What I meant by that is simply

-For humans what is socially beneficial is rationally beneficial because human survival is dependent on social solidarity. -What is socially beneficial is not always actually beneficial to the individual or the group.

Thus the paradox of rationality: What is naturally beneficial/harmful is not aligned with what is socially beneficial/harmful.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T14:03:15.649Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think that this is an actual paradox or a problem for rationality? If so, then you're probably not using the r-word the same way we are. As far as I can tell, your argument is: To obtain social goods (e.g. status) you sometimes have to sacrifice non-social goods (e.g. spending time playing videogames). Nonetheless, you can still perform expected value calculations by deciding how much you value various "social" versus "non-social" goods, so I don't see how this impinges upon rationality.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T14:25:15.303Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My argument is to exist socially is not always alligned with what is nessecary for natural health/survival/happiness, and yet at the same time is nessecary.

We exist in a society where the majority of jobs demand us to remain seated and immobile for the better part of the day. That is incredibly unhealthy. It is also bad for intellectual productivity. It is illogical, and yet for a lot of people it is required.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T14:29:48.682Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this just another way of saying, "the way we do things is poorly optimized"?

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T15:01:09.282Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Yes it is, and I do not think a solely rational agenda will fix the problem because I do not see humans are solely rational creatures.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T15:03:53.804Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Again, that's not how we use the word. Being rational does not mean forgoing social goods--quite the opposite, in fact. No one here believes that human beings are inherently good at truth seeking or achieving our goals, but we want to aspire to become better at those things.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T15:11:24.731Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Ok but then I do not understand how eliminating God or theism serves this purpose. I completely agree that there are destructive aspects of both these concepts, but you all seem unwilling to accept that they also play a pivitol social role. That was my original point in relation to the author of this essay. Rather than convincing people that it is ok that there is no God, accept the fact that "God" is an important social institution and begin to work to rewrite "God" rationally.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-12-14T15:45:39.071Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Can you say more about how you determined that "rewriting God" is a more cost-effective strategy for achieving our goals than convincing people that it is OK that there is no God?

You seem very confident of that, but thus far I've only seen you using debate tactics in an attempt to convince others of it, with no discussion of how you came to believe it yourself, or how you've tested it in the world. The net effect is that you sound more like you're engaging in apologetics than in a communal attempt to discern truth.

For my own part, I have no horse in that particular race; I've seen both strategies work well, and I've seen them both fail. I use them both, depending on who I'm talking to, and both are pretty effective at achieving my goals with the right audience, and they are fairly complementary.

But this discussion thus far has been fairly tediously adversarial, and has tended to get bogged down in semantics and side-issues (a frequent failure mode of apologetics), and I'd like to see less of that. So I encourage shifting the style of discourse.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T17:32:36.084Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I really like the last paragraph here.

Any time you feel the urge to say, "Why can't you see that X?", it's usually not that the other person is being deliberately obtuse - most likely it's that you haven't explained it as clearly as you thought you had. This is especially true when dealing with others in a community you are new to or someone new to your community: their expectations and foundations are probably other than you expect.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T17:35:26.566Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I felt the major point of this article, "How to lose an argument," was that accepting that your beliefs, identity, and personal chocies are wrong is pyschologically damaging, and that most people will opt to deny wrongness to the bitter end rather than accept it. the author suggest that if you truly want to change people's opinions and not just boost yoru own ego, then it is more cost-effective to provide the oppostion with an exit that does not result with the individual having to bear the pyschological trauma of being wrong.

If you except the author's statement that without the tact to provide the opposition a line of flight, then they will emotionally reject your position regarldess of its rational base; then rewriting God is more effective than trying to destroy God for the very same reason.

God is "God" to some people, but to others God is like the American flag is, a symbol of family, of home, of identitiy. The rational allstars of humanity are compenent enough to breakdown these connotation, thus destroying the symbol of God. But I think by defintion allstars are a minority, and that the majority of people are unable to break symbols without suffering the pyschological trumma of wrongness.

is that good enough?

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-14T18:07:54.316Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

rewriting God is more effective than trying to destroy God for the very same reason.

the majority of people are unable to break symbols without suffering the pyschological trumma of wrongness.

Yes, this is a statement of your position. Now the question from grandparent was, how did you arrive at it? Why should anyone believe that it is true, rather than the opposite? Show your work.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T19:23:45.233Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

God is not just a transcendental belief (meaning a belief about the state of the universe or other abstract concepts). God represents a loyalty to a group identity for lots of people as well as their own identity. To attack God is the same as attacking them. So like I stated before, if you agree with Yvain’s argument (that attacking the identity of the opposition is not as effective to argument as providing them with a social line of flight), then you agree with mine (It would be more effective to find a way to dispel the damages done by the symbol of God rather than destroy it, since many people will be adamantly opposed to its destruction for the sake of self-image. I do not see why I have to go further to prove a point that you all readily accepted when it was Yvain who stated it.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T19:57:35.486Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That seems to assume that direct argument is the only way to persuade someone of something. It's in fact a conspicuously poor way of doing so in cases of strong conviction, as Yvain's post goes to some trouble to explain, but that doesn't imply we're obliged to permanently accept any premises that people have integrated into their identities.

You can't directly force a crisis of faith; trying tends to further root people in their convictions. But you can build a lot of the groundwork for one by reducing inferential distance, and you can help normalize dissenting opinions to reduce the social cost of abandoning false beliefs. It's not at all clear to me that this would be a less effective approach than trying to bowdlerize major religions into something less epistemically destructive, and it's certainly a more honest one -- instrumentally important in itself given how well-honed our instincts for political dissembling are -- for people that already lack religious conviction.

Your mileage may vary if you're a strong Deist or something, but most of the people here aren't.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T19:34:48.569Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The two arguments aren't the same at all. Yvain really is in favor of destroying the symbol, whereas you seem to be more interested in (as you put it) "rewriting" it.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T20:07:13.131Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The methodology is the same. If you accept Yvain's methodology than you except mine. You are right that our purposes and methods are different.

Yvain Wants:

  • Destroy the Concept of God
  • To give people a social retreat for a more efficient transition
  • To suggest that the universe can be moral without God to accomplish this.

    I Want:

-To rewrite the concept of God, - To give people a social retreat for a more efficient transition - SAME -To suggest that God can be moral without being a literal conception.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:18:35.266Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The methodology isn't the same--Yvain's methodology is to give people a Brand New Thingy that they can latch onto, yours seems to be reinventing the Old Thingy, preserving some of the terminology and narrative that it had. As discussed in his Parable, these are in fact very different. Leaving a line of retreat doesn't always mean that you have to keep the same concepts from the Old Thingy--in fact, doing so can be very harmful. See also the comments here, especially ata's comment.

And that is why I disagree with this part of your argument:

if you agree with Yvain’s argument...then you agree with mine

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-14T20:14:01.723Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think anyone here has objected to that part of your methodology, merely to your goal of "rewriting God" and to its effectiveness in relation to the implied supergoal of creating a saner world.

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-14T22:19:16.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You are assuming that "the majority of people are unable to break symbols without suffering the psychological trumma (sic) of wrongness" and thus "rewriting God is more effective than trying to destroy God".

Eliezer's argument assumed the uncontroversial premise "Many people think God is the only basis for morality" and encouraged finding a way around that first. Your argument seems to be assuming the premises (1) "The majority of people are unable to part with beliefs that they consider part of their identity" as well as (2) "It is harder and/or worse to get people to part with these beliefs than to adopt a bowdlerized version of them". Yvain may have supported (1), but I didn't see him arguing in favor of (2).

I do not see why I have to go further to prove a point that you all readily accepted when it was Yvain who stated it.

I don't think anyone is seriously questioning the "leave a line of retreat" part of your argument.

You don't have to do anything. But if you want people to believe you, you're going to have to show your work. Ask yourself the fundamental question of rationality.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T00:46:26.580Z · score: -9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer's argument assumed the uncontroversial premise "Many people think God is the only basis for morality" and encouraged finding a way around that first.

How is this an uncontroversial claim! What proof have you made of this claim. It is uncontroversial to you because everyone involved in this conversation (excluding me) has accepted this premise. Ask yourself the fundamental question of rationality.

Your argument seems to be assuming the premises (1) "The majority of people are unable to part with beliefs that they consider part of their identity" as well as. (2) "It is harder and/or worse to get people to part with these beliefs than to adopt a bowdlerized version of them."

My argument is not that people are unable to part with beliefs, but that 1.) it is harder and 2.) they don't want to. People learn their faith from their parents, from their communities. Some people have bad experiences with this, but some do not. To them religion is a part of their childhood and their personal history both of which are sacred to the self. Why would they want to give that up? They do not have the foresight or education to see the damages of their beliefs. All they see is you/people like you calling a part of them "vulgar."

Is that really the rational way to convince someone of something?

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-15T00:58:25.771Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How is this an uncontroversial claim! What proof have you made of this claim.

Well, it took me about five minutes on Wikipedia to find its pages on theonomy and divine command theory, and most of that was because I got sidetracked into moral theology. I don't know what your threshold for "many people" is, but that ought to establish that it's not an obscure opinion within theology or philosophy-of-ethics circles, nor a low-status one within at least the former.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-15T00:56:03.549Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I consider "[m]any people think God is the only basis for morality" to be uncontroversial because I have heard several people express this view, see no reason to believe that they are misrepresenting their thoughts, and see no reason to expect that they are ridiculous outliers. If we substituted "most" for "many" it would be more controversial (and I'm not sure whether or not it would be accurate). If we substituted "all" for many, it would be false.

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-15T03:48:22.262Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How is this an uncontroversial claim!

No one has argued against it.

What proof have you made of this claim.

None.

It is uncontroversial to you because everyone involved in this conversation (excluding me) has accepted this premise.

Yes. By the way, you both asked a question above and asserted its answer. You could have saved yourself some time.

Ask yourself the fundamental question of rationality.

Was this an attempt at a tu quoque? You were advancing a proposition, and I was clarifying the request for you to show your work.

All they see is you/people like you calling a part of them "vulgar."

I don't believe I've done this, and I'm not sure what you mean by "people like you". Was that supposed to be racist / sexist?

My argument is not that people are unable to part with beliefs, but that 1.) it is harder and 2.) they don't want to.

That sounds roughly like my #2 above, which is what I noted Yvain and Eliezer did not advance in the relevant articles.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T12:38:05.626Z · score: -5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

All they see is you/people like you calling a part of them "vulgar." I don't believe I've done this

"It is harder and/or worse to get people to part with these beliefs than to adopt a bowdlerized version of them".

Don't use words if you do not know what they mean.

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-15T14:45:43.181Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Don't use words if you do not know what they mean.

Indeed.

Better yet, don't criticize someone's usage of a word unless you know what it means.

At this point, I no longer give significant credence to the proposition that you are making a good-faith effort at truth-seeking, and you are being very rude. I have no further interest in responding to you.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T15:22:31.247Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Show me a definition oft the word bowdlerize that does not use the word vulgar or a synonym.

If I am being rude it is because I am frustrated by the double standards of the people I am talking with. I use the word force and I get scolded for trying to taint the conversation with connotations. I will agree that "force" has some negative connotations, but it has positive ones too. In any case it is far more neutral than bowdlerize. And quite frankly I am shocked that I get criticized for pointing out that you clearly do not know what that word means while you get praised for criticizing me for pointing out what the word actually means.

It is hypocritical to jump down my throat about smuggling connotations into a conversation when your language is even more aggressive.

It is also hypocritical that if I propose that there are people who have faith in religion not because they fear a world without it the burden of proof is on me; while if it is proposed by the opposition that many people have faith in religion because they fear a world without it no proof is required.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T15:52:50.349Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I once thought the manifest rightness of post-modern thought would convince those naive realists of the truth, if only they were presented with it clearly. It doesn't work that way, for several reasons:

  • Many "post-modern" ideas get co-opted into mainstream thought. Once, Legal Realism was a revolutionary critique of legal formalism. Now it's what every cynical lawyer thinks while driving to work. In this community, it is possible to talk about "norms of the community" both in reference to this community and other communities. At least in part, that's an effect of the co-option of post-modern ideas like "imagined communities."

  • Post-modernism is often intentionally provocative (i.e. broadening the concept of force). Therefore, you shouldn't be surprised when your provocation actually provokes. Further, you are challenging core beliefs of a community, and should expect push-back. Cf. the controversy in Texas about including discussion of the Spot Resolution in textbooks.

  • As Kuhn and Feyerabend said, you can't be a good philosopher of science if you aren't a good historian of science. You haven't demonstrated that you have a good grasp of what science believes about itself, as shown in part by your loose language when asserting claims.


Additionally, you are the one challenging the status quo beliefs, so the burden of proof is placed on you. In some abstract sense, that might not be "fair." Given your use of post-modern analysis, why are you surprised that people respond badly to challenges to the imagined community? This community is engaging with you fairly well, all things considered.


ETA: In case it isn't clear, I consider myself a post-modernist, at least compared to what seems to be the standard position here at LW.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T16:05:57.157Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Really great post! You are completely right on all accounts. Except I really am not a post-modernist, I just agree with some of their ideas, especially conceptions of power as you have pointed out.

I am particularly impressed with Bullet point # 2, because not only does it show an understanding of the basis of my ideas, but it also accurately points out irrationality in my actions given the theories I assert.

I would then ask you if understand this aspect of communities including your own, would you call this rational? It is no excuse, but I think coming here I was under the impression that equality in burden of proof, acccomdation of norms and standards, would be the norm, because I view these things as rational.

Does it seem rational that one side does not hold the burden of proof? To me it is normal for debate because each side is focused solely on winning. But I would call pure debate a part of rhetoric ("the dark arts"). I thought here people would be more concerned with Truth than winning.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T16:20:30.791Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Does it really seem to you that the statement "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary support" is not rational?


Obviously, there's substantial power in deciding what claims are extraordinary.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T16:34:04.819Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Your dodging my question.

As to your qusetion- I do not think I have made any more extraordinary claims than my opposition. To me saying that because "several people have told someone that they need there to be God because without God the universe would be immoral" is not sufficient enough evidence to make that claim. I would also suggest that my claims are not extraordinary, they are contradictory to several core beliefs of this community, which makes them unpleasant, not unthinkable.

comment by Emile · 2011-12-15T17:46:39.365Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If someone X, before asking him to provide some solid evidence that X, you should stick your neck out and say that you yourself believe that non X.

Otherwise, people might expect that after they do all the legwork of coming up with evidence for X, you'll just say "well actually I believe X too I was just checking lol".

You can't expect people to make efforts for you if you show no signs of reciprocity - by either saying things they find insightful, or proving you did your research, or acknowledging their points, or making good faith attempts to identify and resolve disagreements, etc. If all you do is post rambling walls of texts with typos and dismissive comments and bone-headed defensiveness on every single point, then people just won't pay attention to you.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T17:01:34.365Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Respectfully, if you don't think post-modernism is an extraordinary claim, you need to spend more time studying the history of ideas. The length of time it took for post-modern thought to develop (even counting from the Renaissance or the Enlightenment) is strong evidence of how unintuitive it is. Even under a very generous definition of post-modernism and a very restrictive start of the intellectual clock, Nietzsche is almost a century after the French Revolution.

my claims are not extraordinary, they are contradictory to several core beliefs of this community.

If your goal is to help us have a more correct philosophy, then the burden is on you to avoid doing things that make it seem like you have other goals (like yanking our chain). I.e. turn the other cheek, don't nitpick, calm down, take on the "unfair" burden of proof. Consider the relevance of the tone argument.


"several people have told someone that they need there to be God because without God the universe would be immoral" is not sufficient enough evidence to make that claim.

There are many causes of belief in belief. In particular, religious belief has social causes and moral causes. In the pure case, I suspect that David Koresh believed things because he had moral reasons to want to believe them, and the social ostracism might have been seen as a feature, not a bug.

If one decides to deconvert someone else (perhaps to help the other achieve his goals), it seems like it would matter why there was belief in belief. And that's just an empirical question. I've personally met both kinds of people.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T17:11:15.009Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I concede that post-modernism is unintuitive when compared to the history of academic thought, but I would argue that modernism is equally unintuitive to unacademic thought. Do you not agree?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T17:57:14.827Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What do we mean by modernism? I think the logical positivists are quite intuitive. What's a more natural concept from "unacademic" thought than the idea that metaphysics is incoherent? The intuitiveness of the project doesn't make it right, in my view.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-12-15T14:26:20.159Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bowdlerization is normally understood to be the idea of removing offensive content, but this offensiveness doesn't need to have anything to do with "vulgarity".

comment by thomblake · 2011-12-15T15:20:15.776Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

X is offensive. Vulgar is offensive. Therefore X is vulgar. Logic equals very yes?

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T15:11:18.163Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

vul·gar  : indecent; obscene; lewd: a vulgar work; a vulgar gesture.

And just incase....

Indecent: offending against generally accepted standards of propriety or good taste; improper; vulgar:

Or are you going to tell me that "offensive content" is different from something that is offending?

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-12-15T15:49:30.618Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There exist things that are offensive against standards of propriety and taste (the things you call "vulgar"). Then again there exist things which offend against standards of e.g. morality.

You don't seem to understand that there can exist offensiveness which isn't about good manners, but about moral content.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T15:53:19.000Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

??? Um no read sentence # 2.

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2011-12-15T15:58:42.051Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Please respond to these following two question, if you want me to understand the point of disagreement:

  • Do you understand/agree that I'm saying "offensive content" is a superset of "vulgar content"?
  • Therefore do you understand/agree that when I say something contains offensive content, I may be saying that it contains vulgar content, but I may also be saying it contains non-vulgar content that's offensive to particular moral standards?
comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T15:58:37.785Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

First, bowdlerizing has always implied removing content, not adding offensive content. Second, the word has evolved over time to mean any removal of content that changes the "moral/emotional" impact of the work, not simply removal of vulgarity.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T16:20:30.811Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I do not say it means adding content. It means to remove offensive content. Offensive content that is morally base is considered vulgar.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-15T16:23:42.573Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

All they see is you/people like you calling a part of them "vulgar." I don't believe I've done this
It is harder and/or worse to get people to part with these beliefs than to adopt a bowdlerized version of them".

Don't use words if you do not know what they mean.

The two statements you quoted are not inconsistent because a bowdlerized theory is not calling the original theory vulgar, in current usage. Based on the change in meaning that I identified.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T18:15:38.566Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Alice says that she believes in God and a neutral can observe that behaving in accordance with this belief is prevent Alice from achieving her goals. Let's posit that believing in God is not a goal for Alice, it's just something she happens to believe. For example, Alice thinks God exists but is not religiously observant and does not desire to be observant.

What should Bob do to help Alice achieve her goals? Doesn't it depend on whether Alice believes in God or believes that "I believe in God" is/should be one of her beliefs?

More generally, what is wrong (from a post-modern point of view) with saying that all moral beliefs are instances of "belief in belief"?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-12-14T18:08:16.611Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Is that good enough?

Well, it certainly clarifies the kind of discourse you're looking for, which I suppose is all I can ask for. Thanks.

There are pieces of this I agree with, pieces I disagree with, and pieces where a considerable amount of work is necessary just to clarify the claim as something I can agree or disagree with.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T15:34:58.771Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I see truth as a virtue and I am against self-deception. If God does not exist, then I desire to believe that God does not exist, social consequences be damned. For this reason, I am very much against "rewriting" false ideas--I'd much prefer to say oops and move on.

Even if you don't value truth, though, religious beliefs are still far from optimal in terms of being beneficial social institutions. While it's true that such belief systems have been socially instrumental in the past, that's not a reason to continue supporting a suboptimal solution. The full argument for this can be found in Yvain's Parable on Obsolete Ideologies and Spencer Greenberg's Your Beliefs as a Temple.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T17:50:03.155Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I see truth as a virtue and I am against self-deception. If God does not exist, then I desire to believe that God does not exist, social consequences be damned. For this reason, I am very much against "rewriting" false ideas--I'd much prefer to say oops and move on.

When you call truth a virtue do you mean in terms of Aristotle’s virtue ethics? If so I definitely agree, but I do not agree with neglecting the social consequences. Take a drug addict for example. If you cut them cold turkey immediately the shock to their system could kill them. In some sense the current state of religion is an addiction for many people, perhaps even the majority of people, that weakens them and ultimately damages their future. It is not only beneficial to want to change this; it is rational seeing as how we are dependent on the social hive that is infected by this sickness. The questions I feel your response fails to address are: is the disease external to the system, can it truly be removed (my point about irrationality potentially being a part of the human condition)? What is the proper process of intervention for an ideological addict? Will they really just be able to stop using, or will they need a more incremental withdrawal process?

Along the lines with my assertions against the pure benefit of material transformation I would argue that force is not always the correct paradigm for solving a problem. Trying to break the symbol of God regardless of the social consequences is to me using intellectual/rational force ( dominance) to fix something.

The purely rationalist position is a newer adaptation of the might makes right ideology.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T18:41:36.817Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You are right that people sometimes need time to adapt their beliefs. That is why the original article kept mentioning that the point was to construct a line of retreat for them; to make it easier on them to realize the truth.

Along the lines with my assertions against the pure benefit of material transformation I would argue that force is not always the correct paradigm for solving a problem. Trying to break the symbol of God regardless of the social consequences is to me using intellectual/rational force ( dominance) to fix something.

This is strictly true, but your implication that is it somehow related here is wrong. Intellectual force is what is used in rhetoric. Around here, rhetoric is considered one of the Dark Arts. Rationalists are not the people who are recklessly forcing atheism without regard for consequences. See raising the sanity waterline. Religion is a dead canary and we are trying to pump out the gas, not just hide the canary.

The purely rationalist position is a newer adaptation of the might makes right ideology.

This is just a bullshit flame. If you are going to accuse people of violence, show your work.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T19:55:12.311Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are right that people sometimes need time to adapt their beliefs. That is why the original article kept mentioning that the point was to construct a line of retreat for them; to make it easier on them to realize the truth.

I know! That is what I have been saying from the start. I agree with the idea. My dissent is that I do not think the author’s method truly follows this methodology. I do not think that telling people "it is ok there is no God the universe can still be moral" constructs a line of retreat. I think it over simplifies why people have faith in God.

And just to make sure, and you clear of the differences between a method and a methodology?

Around here, rhetoric is considered one of the Dark Arts. Rationalists are not the people who are recklessly forcing atheism without regard for consequences. See raising the sanity waterline. Religion is a dead canary and we are trying to pump out the gas, not just hide the canary.

Rhetoric can be used as force, but to reduce it to "dark arts" is reductionist. Just as to not see the force being used by rationalists is also reductionist. Anyone who wants to destory/remove someting is by definition using force. Anyone who wants to destory/remove someting is by definition using force. Religion is not a dead canary, it is a missued tool.

The purely rationalist position is a newer adaptation of the might makes right ideology.

This is just a bullshit flame. If you are going to accuse people of violence, show your work.

No, I am not flaming, at least not be the defintion of rationalists on this blog. Fact is intellectual force. Rationalists want to use facts to force people to conform to what they believe. Might is right does not nessecairly mean using violence; it just means you beleive the stronger force is correct. You believe yourself intellecutally stronger than people who believe in a diety, and thus right while they are wrong.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:08:50.216Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Rhetoric can be used as force, but to reduce it to "dark arts" is reductionist. Just as to not see the force being used by rationalists is also reductionist.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "reductionist"? You seem to be using it as an epithet, and I honestly don't understand the connection between the way you're using the word in those two sentences.

On LessWrong we generally draw a distinction between honest, white-hat writing/speaking techniques that make one's arguments clearer and dishonest techniques that manipulate the reader/listener ("Dark Arts"). Most rhetoric, especially political or religious rhetoric, contains some of the latter.

Rationalists want to use facts to force people to conform to what they believe

Again, this is just not what we're about. There's a huge difference between giving people rationality skills so that they are better at drawing conclusions based on their observations and telling them to believe what we believe.

Can you taboo "force"? That might help this discussion move to more fertile ground.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T20:17:28.354Z · score: -6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "reductionist"? You seem to be using it as an epithet, and I honestly don't understand the connection between the way you're using the word in those two sentences.

Reductionist generally means you are over-extending an idea beyond its context or that you are omitting too many variables in the discussion of a topic. In this case I mean the latter. To say that rhetoric is simply wrong and that "white-hat writing/speaking" is right is too black and white. It is reductionist. You assume that it is possible to communicate without using what you call "the dark arts." If you want me to believe that show your work.

Again, this is just not what we're about. There's a huge difference between giving people rationality skills so that they are better at drawing conclusions based on their observations and telling them to believe what we believe.

"Giving people skills" they do not ask for is forcing it on them. It is an act of force.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-12-14T20:26:51.540Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Reductionist generally means you are over-extending an idea beyond its context or that you are omitting too many variables in the discussion of a topic.

That isn't what it generally means.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:43:15.242Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if there is actually a contingent of people who have Boyi's "overextending/omitting variables" definition as a connotation for "reductionist," and to what extent this affects how they view reductionist philosophy. It would certainly explain why "reductionist" is sometimes used as a snarl word.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T21:38:58.229Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW, I have heard the word used in exactly this kind of pejorative sense. I don't know which usage is more common, generally.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-15T01:00:27.832Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Ok generally was a bad word. I checked out the wiki and the primary definition there is not one I am familiar with. The definition of theoretical reductionism found on wiki is more related to my use of the term (methodological too). What i call reductionism is trying to create a grand theory (an all encompassing theory). In sociological literature there is pretty strong critique of grand theories. If you would like to check me on this, you could look at t"the sociological imagination" by C Wright Mills. The critiques are basically what I listed above. In trying to create a grand theory it is usually at the cost of over simplifying the system that is under speculation. That is what I call reductionist.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:28:47.234Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To say that rhetoric is simply wrong and that "white-hat writing/speaking" is right is too black and white.

I don't think it's black and white; there is a continuum between clear communication and manipulation. But beware of the fallacy of gray: just because everything has a tinge of darkness, that doesn't make it black--some things are very Dark Artsy, others are not. I do think it is possible to communicate without manipulative writing/speaking. Just to pick a random example, Khan Academy videos. In them, the speaker uses a combination of clear language and visuals to communicate facts. He does not use dishonesty, emotional manipulation, or other techniques associated with dark artsy rhetoric to do this.

Please taboo "force."

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:35:25.790Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Giving people skills" they do not ask for is forcing it on them. It is an act of force.

He asked you to taboo "force" to avoid bringing in its connotations. Please resend that thought without using any of "force" "might" "violence" etc. What are you trying to say?

If that is what you mean by force, you coming here and telling us your ideas is "an act of force" too. In fact, by that definition, nearly all communication is "an act of force". So what? Is there something actually wrong with "giving people ideas or tools they didn't ask for"?

I'm going to assume that you mean it's bad to give people ideas they will dislike after the fact, like sending people pictures of gore or child porn. I don't see how teaching people useful skills to improve their lives is at all on the same level as giving them pictures of gore.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T20:22:15.095Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Rhetoric can be used as force, but to reduce it to "dark arts" is reductionist. Just as to not see the force being used by rationalists is also reductionist.

You seem to be using reductionism in a different way than I am used to. Please reduce "reductionism" and say what you mean.

Anyone who wants to destory/remove someting is by definition using force.
...
Rationalists want to use facts to force people to conform to what they believe. Might is right does not nessecairly mean using violence; it just means you beleive the stronger force is correct. You believe yourself intellecutally stronger than people who believe in a diety, and thus right while they are wrong.

First of all, what I have been trying to say is that, no, rationalists are not interested in "force[ing] people to confrom". We are interested in improving general epistemology.

I also think you are wrong that using "intellectual force" to force your beliefs on someone is not violence. Using rhetoric is very much violence, not physical, but definitely violence.

Yes we believe ourselves to be more correct and more right than theists, but you seem to be trying to argue "by definition" to sneak in connotations. If there is something wrong with being right, please explain directly without trying to use definitions to relate it to violence. Where does the specific example of believing ourselves more right than theists go wrong?

comment by hairyfigment · 2011-12-14T19:07:03.079Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What is the proper process of intervention for an ideological addict? Will they really just be able to stop using, or will they need a more incremental withdrawal process?

Now I haven't followed the discussion closely, but it seems like you haven't explained what you actually advocate. Something like the following seems like the obvious way to offer "incremental withdrawal":

'Think of the way your parents and your preacher told you to treat other people. If that still seems right to you when you imagine a world without God, or if you feel sad or frightened at the thought of acting differently, then you don't have to act differently. Your parents don't automatically become wrong about everything just because they made one mistake. We all do that from time to time.'

As near as I can tell from the comments I've seen, you'd prefer that we promote what I call atheistic Christianity. We could try to redefine the word "God" to mean something that really exists (or nothing at all). This approach may have worked in a lot of countries where non-theism enjoys social respect, and where the dangers of religion seem slightly more obvious. It has failed miserably in the US, to judge by our politics. Indeed, I would expect one large group of US Christians to see atheist theology as a foreign criticism/attack on their community.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T18:48:56.740Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

An honestly rational position might be more appropriately labeled a "right makes might" ideology - though this is somewhat abusing the polysemy of "right" (here meaning "correct", whereas in the original it means "moral").

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T17:25:28.494Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

[T]hey also play a pivitol social role.

They clearly play a social role. Whether it is pivotal depends on what is meant by "pivotal".

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T02:35:12.447Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Humans are symbolic creatures: Meaning that to some extent we exist in self-created realities that do not follow a predictable or always logical order.

While our internal models of reality are not always "logical", I would argue that they are quite predictable (though not perfectly so). Just to make up a random example, I can confidently predict that the number of humans on Earth who believe that the sky is purple with green polka dots is vanishingly small (if not zero).

not only is human survival is completely dependent on the ability to maintain coexistence with other people, but individual happiness and identity is dependent on social networks.

Agreed, but I would argue that there are other factors on which human survival and happiness depend, and that these factors are at least as important as "the ability to maintain coexistence with other people".

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T13:56:02.156Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

While our internal models of reality are not always "logical", I would argue that they are quite predictable (though not perfectly so). Just to make up a random example, I can confidently predict that the number of humans on Earth who believe that the sky is purple with green polka dots is vanishingly small (if not zero).

I am not trying to be rude or aggressive here, but I just wanted to point out that your argument is based upon a fairly deceptive rhetorical tactic. The tactic is to casually introduce an example as though it were a run of the mill example, but in doing so pick an extreme. You are correct that a person with a normally functioning visual cortex and no significant retina damage can be predicted to seeing the sky in a certain way, but that does not change the fact that a large portion of human existence is socially created. Why do we stop at stop lights or stop signs? There is nothing inherent in the color read that means stop, in other cultures different colors or symbols signify the same thing. We have arbitrarily chosen read to mean stop.

Some things can be logically predicted given the biological capacity of humans, but it is within the biological capacity of humans to create symbolic meaning. We know this to be fact, and yet we are unable to as easily predict what it is that people believe, because unlike the color of the sky major issues of the social hive are not as empirically clear. Issues about what constitutes life, what is love, what is happiness, what is family are in some cases just as arbitrarily defined as what means stop and what means go, but these questions are of much graver concern.

Just to clarify, It is not that I do not think there is a way to rationally chose symbolic narrative, but that initiating rational narrative involves understanding the processes by which narratives are constructed. That does not mean abandoning rationality, but abandoning the idea of universal rationality. Instead I believe rationalists should focus more on understanding the irrationality of human interaction to use irrational means to foster better rationality.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T14:32:00.203Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are correct that a person with a normally functioning visual cortex and no significant retina damage can be predicted to seeing the sky in a certain way, but that does not change the fact that a large portion of human existence is socially created. Why do we stop at stop lights or stop signs?

My example wasn't meant to be a strawman, but simply an illustration of my point that human thoughts and behaviors are predictable. You may argue that our decision to pick red for stop signs is arbitrary (I disagree even with this, but that's beside the point), but we can still predict with a high degree of certainty that an overwhelming majority of drivers will stop at a stop signs -- despite the fact that stop signs are a social construct. And if there existed a society somewhere on Earth where the stop signs were yellow and rectangular, we could confidently predict that drivers from that nation would have a higher chance of getting into an accident while visiting the U.S. Thus, I would argue that even seemingly arbitrary social constructs still result in predictable behaviors.

but it is within the biological capacity of humans to create symbolic meaning

I'm not sure what this means.

and yet we are unable to as easily predict what it is that people believe ... Issues about what constitutes life, what is love, what is happiness, what is family are in some cases just as arbitrarily defined as what means stop and what means go

I am fairly certain I personally can predict what an average American believes regarding these topics (and I can do so more accurately by demographic). I'm just a lowly software engineer, though; I'm sure that sociologists and anthropologists could perform much better than me. Again, "arbitrary" is not the same as "unpredictable".

...but these questions are of much graver concern.

I don't know, are they ? I personally think that questions such as "how can we improve crop yields by a factor of 10" can be at least as important as the ones you listed.

Instead I believe rationalists should focus more on understanding the irrationality of human interaction to use irrational means to foster better rationality.

I don't think that you could brainwash or trick someone into being rational (since your means undermine your goal); and besides, such heavy-handed "Dark Arts" are, IMO, borderline unethical. In any case, I don't see how you can get from "you should persuade people to be rational by any means necessary" to your original thesis, which I understood to be "rationality is unattainable".

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T15:55:40.303Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My example wasn't meant to be a strawman, but simply an illustration of my point that human thoughts and behaviors are predictable.

I did not say your example was a strawman, my point was that it was reductionist. Determining the general color of the sky or whether or not things will fall is predicting human thoughts and behaviors many degrees simpler than what I am talking about. That is like if I were to say that multiplication is easy, so math must be easy.

I am fairly certain I personally can predict what an average American believes regarding these topics

Well you are wrong about that. No competent sociologist or anthropologist would make a claim to be able to do what you are suggesting.

I don't know, are they? I personally think that questions such as "how can we improve crop yields by a factor of 10" can be at least as important as the ones you listed.

You can make fun of my diction all you want, but I think it is pretty obvious love; morality, life, and happiness are of the utmost concern (grave concern) to people.

don't know, are they? I personally think that questions such as "how can we improve crop yields by a factor of 10" can be at least as important as the ones you listed.

I what subsume the concern of food stock under the larger concern of life, but I think it is interesting that you bring up crop yield. This is a perfect example of the ideology of progress I have been discussing in other response. There is no question to whether it is dangerous or rational to try to continuously improve crop yield, it is just blindly seen as right (i.e as progress).

However, if we look at both the good and the bad of the green revolution of the 70s-80s, the practices currently being implemented to increase crop yield are board line ecocide. They are incredibly dangerous, yet we continue to attempt to refine them further and further ignoring the risks in light of further potential to transform material reality to our will.

IMO, borderline unethical. In any case, I don't see how you can get from "you should persuade people to be rational by any means necessary" to your original thesis, which I understood to be "rationality is unattainable".

The ethical issues at question are interesting because they are centered around the old debate over collectivist vs. individualist morality. Since the cold war America has been heavily indoctrinated in an ideology of free will (individual autonomy) being a key aspect of morality. I question this idea. As many authors on this site point out, a large portion of human action, thought, and emotion is subconsciously created. Schools, corporations, governments, even parents consciously or unconsciously take advantage of this fact to condition people into ideal types. Is this ethical? If you believe that individual autonomy is essential to morality than no it is not. However, while I am not a total advocate of Foucault and his ideas, I do agree that autonomous causation is a lot less significant than then individualist individually wants to believe.
Rather than judging the morality of an action by the autonomy it proivdes for the agents involved I tend to be more of a pragmatist. If we socially engineer people to develop the habits and cognitions they would if they were more individually rational, then I see this as justified. The problem with this idea is who watches the watchmen. By what standard do you judge the elite that would have to produce mass habit and cognition? Is it even possible to control that and maintain a rational course through it?

This I do not know, which is why I am hesitant to act on this idea. But I do think that there a mass of indoctrinated people that does not think about what it is they belief is a social reality.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-14T18:59:44.146Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I did not say your example was a strawman, my point was that it was reductionist. Determining the general color of the sky or whether or not things will fall is predicting human thoughts and behaviors many degrees simpler than what I am talking about.

Agreed, but you appeared to be saying that human thoughts and actions are entirely unpredictable, not merely poorly predictable. I disagree. For example, you brought up the topic of "what is love, what is happiness, what is family":

Well you are wrong about that. No competent sociologist or anthropologist would make a claim to be able to do what you are suggesting.

Why not ? Here are my predictions:

  • The average American thinks that love is a mysterious yet important feeling -- perhaps the most important feeling in the world, and that this feeling is non-physical in the dualistic sense. Many, thought not all, think that it is a gift from a supernatural deity, as long as it's shared between a man and a woman (though a growing minority challenge this claim).
  • Most Americans believe that happiness is an entity similar to love, and that there's a distinction between short-term happiness that comes from fulfilling your immediate desires, and long-term happiness that comes from fulfilling a plan for your life; most, again, believe that the plan was laid out by a deity.
  • Most Americans would define "my family" as "everyone related to me by blood or marriage", though most would add a caveat something like, "up to N steps of separation", with N being somewhere between 2 and 6.

Ok, so those are pretty vague, and may not be entirely accurate (I'm not an anthropologist, after all), but I think they are generally not too bad. You could argue with some of the details, but note that virtually zero people believe that "family" means "a kind of pickled fruit", or anything of that sort. So, while human thoughts on these topics are not perfectly predictable, they're still predictable.

You can make fun of my diction all you want,

I was not making fun of your diction at all, I apologize if I gave that impression.

but I think it is pretty obvious love; morality, life, and happiness are of the utmost concern (grave concern) to people.

First of all, you just made an attempt at predicting human thoughts -- i.e., what's important to people. When I claimed to be able to do the same, you said I was wrong, so what's up with that ? Secondly, I agree with you that most people would say that these topics are of great concern to them; however, I would argue that, despite what people think, there are other topics which are at least as important (as per my earlier post).

...the practices currently being implemented to increase crop yield are board line ecocide. They are incredibly dangerous, yet we continue to attempt to refine them further and further ignoring the risks...

Again, that's an argument against a particular application of a specific technology, not an argument against science as a discipline, or even against technology as a whole. I agree with you that monocultures and wholesale ecological destruction are terrible things, and that we should be more careful with the environment, but I still believe that feeding people is a good thing. Our top choices are not between technology and nothing, but between poorly-applied technology and well-applied technology.

Since the cold war America has been heavily indoctrinated in an ideology of free will (individual autonomy) being a key aspect of morality. I question this idea.

Ok, first of all, "individual autonomy" is a concept that predates the Cold War by a huge margin. Secondly, I have some disagreements with the rest of your points regarding "collectivist vs. individualist morality"; we can discuss them if you want, but I think they are tangential to our main discussion of science and technology, so let's stick to the topic for now. However, if you do advocate "collectivist morality" and "socially engineer[ing] people", would this not constitute an application of technology (in this case, social technology) on a grand scale ? I thought you were against that sort of thing ? You say you're "hesitant", but why don't you reject this approach outright ?

BTW:

But I do think that there a mass of indoctrinated people that does not think about what it is they belief is a social reality.

This is yet another prediction about people's thoughts that you are making. This would again imply that people's thoughts are somewhat predictable, just like I said.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T14:26:14.196Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You are correct that a person with a normally functioning visual cortex and no significant retina damage can be predicted to seeing the sky in a certain way, but that does not change the fact that a large portion of human existence is socially created.

Some portion of human experiences includes facts "I don't fall through the floor when I stand on it" or "I will die if I go outside in a blizzard without any clothes for any length of time." Some portion of human experience includes facts like "I will be arrested for indecent exposure if I go outside without wearing any clothes for any length of time."

Facts of the first kind are the overwhelmingly more numerous than facts of the second kind. Facts of the second kind are more important to human life. I agree with you that this community underestimates the proportion of facts of the second kind, which are not universalizable the way facts of the first kind are. But you weaken the case for post-modern analysis by asserting that anything close to a majority of facts are socially determined.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T15:24:20.272Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Facts of the first kind are the overwhelmingly more numerous than facts of the second kind. Facts of the second kind are more important to human life. I agree with you that this community underestimates the proportion of facts of the second kind, which are not universalizable the way facts of the first kind are. But you weaken the case for post-modern analysis by asserting that anything close to a majority of facts are socially determined.

I was never trying to argue that the majority of facts are socially determined. I was arguing that the majority of facts important to human happiness and survival are socially determined. I agree that facts of the first kind are more numerous, but as you say facts of the second kind are more important. Is it logical to measure value by size?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T15:36:27.197Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. I respectfully suggest that your language was loose.

For example:

a large portion of human existence is socially created.

Consider the difference between saying that and saying "a large portion of human decisions are socially created, even if they appear to be universalizable. A much larger proportion than people realize."

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T01:21:48.772Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Rationality helps you reach your goals. Terminal goals are not chosen rationally. Is that what you are getting at?

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-14T00:43:28.206Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by "the paradox of rationality"?

(Have you read this?)

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T21:12:12.420Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Or to put it another way, can science be separated from power and discourse?

You mean can bayes structure work without mapping it onto the social domain? Yes.

RETRACTED: If science works, as in predicts reality, why are any other questions even relevant?

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T21:25:53.018Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If science works, as in predicts reality, why are any other questions even relevant?

Because scientists do not naturally limit themselves to that domain. Scientists routinely do things like abusing the halo effect

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T21:31:35.454Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. I knew that point would bite me. I'm going to edit.

comment by Emile · 2011-12-13T20:37:31.822Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't mind learning more about those fields, provided the ideas are explained in rigorously without any handwaving and leaving out posturing and "political" arguments (in the wide sense of academic fields talking trash about each other, etc.).

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T19:41:20.851Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Knowledge is just legitimized information.

That strikes me as an unusual definition. If you believe it is not commonly shared, it would be worth specifying at the outset, to avoid confusion. If you do believe it to be commonly shared, then that's a question of fact that others could weigh in on - if it seems to be causing too much confusion, it may be worth editing an earlier post to clarify the definition you are working with.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T19:48:40.574Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well think about it. How many facts do you believe because you have preformed the experiments yourself, and how many do you believe because scientists or scientific publications have told you to believe them? How many things do you believe because a person you trust tells you? We look down on hearsay, but in reality a huge portion of knowledge is hearsay. It is just hearsay that has been legitimized by power.

Knowledge is legitmized information whether you except it or not. It would be an enormous limit on what peopel could know if they would have to experience everything themselves.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T20:15:39.786Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First off, you are confusing belief and knowledge. Belief is what you were talking about with the religion example; they produce belief. Knowledge is beliefs that match reality.

Knowledge has nothing to do with social power, and your science example has a better explanation. We believe the things published in journals and said by scientists because expert opinion is strongish evidence for truth. Hearsay is usually worthless because most people's beliefs are not formed by a causal entanglement process with reality. Science hearsay is produced by causal entanglement, so we take it as good evidence.

Most of what we know is based on doing the experiments ourselves. I didn't read the layout of my house from a science journal, I didn't read about the color of my socks from a science journal, I didn't learn how to make a good stew from a science journal. The only type of knowledge we get from academic science is general theories about how the processes of reality work, and that is a very small subset of knowledge. We learn about that stuff from academia instead of on our own because it is more efficient for one person to do the experiment and publish than for all of us to build particle accelerators in our backyards.

Your argument stinks of trying to get us to accept some definition of knowledge so you can use it for other purposes that we wouldn't agree with otherwise. Give up; jedi word tricks will not work on us. See 37 ways that words can be wrong.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-12-13T20:31:01.179Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In fairness, the question of what knowledge is is a rather subtle one: the Justified True Belief framework has certain problems. I'm personally inclined to dismiss that whole tangle of epistemological debate as hopelessly confused and just treat the word as referring to concept-clusters associated with strong evidence (and you seem to be doing something similar, if your second paragraph is anything to go by). That being said, though, all the standard senses of the word I'm aware of do seem to approach the idea of a reliable mapping between concepts and predictable reality from some angle.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T20:54:57.557Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That Gettier stuff looks like another place where non-bayesian epistemology goes off the rails.

We can forget about the philosophers' confusion, tho; We know enough about knowledge to say that religious belief is not knowledge because it doesn't match reality (and isn't produced by causal entanglement).

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T19:53:23.639Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I know that my shoes are tied (having just glanced down to verify).

Does this fact have the blessing of the scientific establishment? Is it not a fact? Is it not knowledge?

I would say that I have knowledge that my shoes are tied, and that it has not been legitimized (or, indeed, considered) by "power".

Edited to add: Unless you contend that I constitute "power" - in which case I would like to agree, but please convince the rest of the world.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T20:03:16.561Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Note I said a "huge portion of knowledge." There is sensory knowledge as you have pointed out, but my point was that there are also institutions and individuals that produce knowledge outside of your sensor experience that you readily accept. When you read an academic paper you do not repeat all the experiements contained within it and its review of the literature. It would be inefficent. You accept because it is in an academic journal or because person X tells you it that it is reliable and true.

But to some extent even sensory knowledge is filtered through the institution of langauge.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T20:46:14.416Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When I read an article in a scientific journal, I don't independently verify it. Nor did I independently verify my science textbooks. But some experts in the field have made predictions that I can easily verify.

Take some thermodynamics, some fluid dynamics, and some metallurgy. Voila, steam engines (and railroads).
Add some chemistry. Voila, internal combustion engines (and cars).
Add some aerodynamics. Voila, airplanes.

All of those tools are easy to verify. Your particular usage of "knowledge" makes it seem like answering "Will this plane fly?" is fundamentally similar to "Was Jesus one substance with the Father?" "Belief" seems like a better word for that similarity. Even if "knowledge" encompasses both, the two questions have extremely important differences, so we need a word to describe the category that includes the first question but not the second.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T20:55:06.053Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Phenomenological knowledge- is knowledge that you actively perceive Political knowledge- is knowledge that is accepted due to its relation to some structure of power (parents, church, country, God, etc)

All of those tools are easy to verify.<

They are easy for you to verify because you have the tools to verify them. Whether it is due to economic, motivational, or biological reasons, not everyone has the tools to verify knowledge. You see it as easy because we are talking about a sphere of knowledge you are well-endowed in.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T21:03:06.071Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Some evidence really is universalizable. I assert that anyone in my physical position (without regard for upbringing) would agree that the light turned on, the ball fell, and the car drove.

Just because communities are imagined and the Meiji Ishin was not a restoration of any prior historical circumstances doesn't imply that physics is imagined or that it lacks correspondence with the world.

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T00:10:59.465Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure some information is. But you cannot deny that there is a huge body of information we accept to be truth soley based on the authority that provides it. For example, I could know using my senses that either the sun or the earth moves because I can see a change in the position of the sun as the day goes on. But it is impossible for me, or any other person, to know just from my sensory experience that the earth revolves around the sun (given the practical constraints of my life).

How do I know the earth revolves around the sun? I trust a network of people who tell me it does. How does that network know? They trust the non-humans they work with (machines most likely) that provide consistent results given pre-legitimized mathematical formula.

There is a large body of knowledge that we accept without any sensory information on the subject.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-14T14:05:41.383Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Here's a link to the ways to calculate distances of various objects. Many of the earlier proofs (like heliocentrism) can be proved by experiments that are within your capacity.

Here's a list of various putative phenomena. Many, like astrology, don't work. Some, like quantum electrodynamics, do work, as shown by the fact that computers work.
So, there are practical and verifiable differences in the world based on the truth or falsity of predictive theories.

But you cannot deny that there is a huge body of information we accept to be truth soley based on the authority that provides it.

In practice, almost all information (schooling, etc.). So what? Information that we learn from scientific (i.e. accurate prediction) processes is universalizable, at least to the extent that the scientist complies with the scientific rules. (That rules out Lysenkoism as universalizable). That's the point of the examples that I listed.
Experts say that GPS works because relativity is true, and GPS works. If you start analyzing relativity using power relations, you can question GPS or question the veracity of the experts. But GPS manifestly works. So, suspect the experts. But suspect them of what? Providing technology that works? They don't deny. Using magic? Is that really the best explanation?

pre-legitimized mathematical formula.

What?!? Mathematics is non-empirical. If you are unsure whether 2 + 3 = 5 based on power relations, how do you explain the consistency of reality? Power relations are the method of analyzing moral truths. I accept that the line between moral and scientific truths is sometimes blurry, but there is a difference between those categories.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-14T00:44:56.728Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

there is a huge body of information we accept to be truth soley based on the authority that provides it.

We accept science hearsay because it is based on interacting with reality. It's not really a matter of authority so much as causality. One of the causal nodes just happens to look like authority, and you seem to think this has some significance. It doesn't.

But it is impossible for me, or any other person, to know just from my sensory experience that the earth revolves around the sun (given the practical constraints of my life).

Then it's mighty odd that anyone knows that the earth goes round the sun, seeing as someone had to know it with sensory experience in the first place. And if I don't know it based on sensory experience, then how do I know? Is it a random anomaly that I happen to believe it? No. I believe it because my sensory experiences provide lots of evidence, and yes some of this evidence is expert opinion.

given pre-legitimized mathematical formula.

What is pre-legitimized?

There is a large body of knowledge that we accept without any sensory information on the subject.

So?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-12-13T21:02:57.329Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Have you read the sequences? Political knowledge is bogus because it is based on something other than bayesian causal entanglement. There's no such thing as knowledge not produced by bayes structure.

I don't understand your point about not everyone having the tools. Can you clarify?

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T20:20:45.057Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Note I said a "huge portion of knowledge."

You have been inconsistent about this. You did say,

[I]n reality a huge portion of knowledge is hearsay.

But you also said,

Knowledge is just legitimized information.

which is what I commented on, and which seems to be speaking of "knowledge" generally. You then later doubled down with:

Knowledge is legitmized information whether you except it or not.

Did you mean instead, "knowledge includes any legitimized information"?

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T20:44:13.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. I am sorry I did not clarify that. For me it is assumed that legitimized knowledge includes self-legitmized knowledge because the self is clearly a major authority in a person's life.

I am writing too fast and not taking into account that you all do not have a background in sociology or anthropology.

comment by Emile · 2011-12-13T20:52:12.403Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Knowledge is just legitimized information.

Nope. Or at least, the concept encoded in people's minds when they think about "knowledge" don't usually have anything to do with "legitimation". I can know that there's a hole in my left sock, that my wife's favorite color is blue, or that my neighbour moved in last year without needing any "legitimation", or authority.

Unless by "legitimized" you mean something like "justified", but then it doesn't have anything to do with power and authority, except as connotations you're trying to sneak in.

So it seems that your use of "knowledge" is at odds with the way most people use the word in ordinary conversation.

And even if by "knowledge" you actually mean something like "officially recognized information", you're still wrong - among the earliest written documents we have are accounting, tallying who owns what, who sold what - that's as official as can get, and not particularly religious. Written laws are also very old and, for the Romans and Chinese at least, separate from religion. Even if you stick to the eurocentric context you seem to be implying ("history" means "medieval europe"), there's been plenty of engineering, architecture, litterary knowledge that's independent of religion (and in some cases, like the preservation of ancient texts, opposed by religion).

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-14T00:49:27.609Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You are correct that their are traditional bodies of knowledge that are not religious, but my point was never that religion is the sole creator of knowledge. That said, it was a pretty big one. If you think the written laws of the romans or the Chinese did not represent their religious beliefs you are crazy.

If is funny you call my position Eurocentric. I am trying to use western examples as much as I possibly can to relate to the audience of this blog. But if you want to talk about China, the creation of a Chinese civilization is directly related to their religious beliefs. Laws were laws because emperors instated them. Emperors were emperors because they were "sons of heaven." The Chinese conception of Heaven is very different from the western one. It is existence itself and the principle that all things move on. The oldest forms of chinese writing are on old tortoise shells. They were oracle shells used to divine the weather.

As for my use of the word legitimize, you are correct it is my own concept. I should have clarified. What I mean by legitimate is believed to be right. No one believes something they do not think is right (not in a moral sense here). Sensory experience legitimizes knowledge, but so do social relations and institutions, like religions.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T15:06:40.300Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Most knowledge is entirely orthogonal to religion. If Ugg wanted to know whether there was a fruit tree on the other side of that hill, he didn't pray about it - he looked. I understand that chimpanzees exhibit curiosity. I think it is certainly fair to say that religion was, in part, an early attempt at knowledge generation; it may well be fair to say that it was the original norm for producing cosmogonical knowledge (or, at least, attempting to).

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T16:51:00.591Z · score: -3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

While a large portion of religious knowledge is orthogonal, I would refrain from defining all knowledge produced by religious means that way. Proving the existence of God and divine order was a large motivator for early academics, scientists to. Without the discourse of a knowable, structured universe that was provided by Christianity empirical investigation might not have taken root the way it did in the west.

I actually think it is quite funny when people pit science against religion when the idea of a ordered discoverable universe stems from the Christian discourse.

Furthermore, what do you think has sustained and developed literacy and research during the centuries before science? Or better question why Judeo-Christian religions were so successful?

I will tell you. Judeo-Christian religions have dominated the religious market because it contains qualities beneficial to survival. In the Jewish faith you become a man or woman by proving that you are literate (reading the torah). That may not seem so revolutionary now, but during a time when most religions were based on blood tributes it was a pretty fucking revolutionary idea.

Again, I am not trying to advocate for Christianity or Judaism to replace science or be the norm for knowledge production. All I am saying is that you cannot deny that they got us where we are. They were the norm.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-12-13T17:14:59.492Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Does it follow from this theory that we expect cultures lacking Christianity and Judaism as significant influences to develop literacy and research much more slowly and incompletely than those that possessed it? For example, does this theory predict that China mostly lacked literacy and research prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries?

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T18:57:05.213Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Christianity was an just an example. The theory I am suggesting is that any global religion has existed for this long because it contains attributes beneficial to human survival ( benefits to human survival are not limited to the promotion of literacy; though I would bet that is a key attribute). I used Christianity as an example because that appears to be the majority of this websites background. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism are not inferior to Christianity. Confucianism for example strongly promotes literacy as well, one could argue even more than Christianity.

So no, it would be ridiculous to attribute Chinese literacy to western missionaries. What would be interesting is to question to what extent Chinese religious mindsets limited the develop of science as a formal institution in China. The major Chinese transcendental belief systems (Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism) provide a conception of the universe as singular, dynamic, and consummated; whereas the Judeo-Christian position describes a static, imperfect, and discrete universe. To what extent does a pre-existing belief in a stable order that is waiting to be perfected lead to the primacy of formal science in a society? I think that is a really interesting question.

We take it as self-evident that rationalists would eventually move towards empiricism, but does it makes sense to seek out facts about the world when you axiomatically accept the universe to be a constantly shifting entity? Would there be such a ideology of progress without the Christian mindset of an imperfect world governed by rules waiting for man to discover?

I find it funny that people, on both sides of the argument, put science as opposite to Christianity. The mindsets that set the West up for a scientific revolution are byproducts of Christian thinking.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T18:59:29.091Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The theory I am suggesting is that any global religion has existed for this long because it contains attributes beneficial to human survival ( benefits to human survival are not limited to the promotion of literacy; though I would bet that is a key attribute).

Are you familiar with meme theory? A seemingly stronger hypothesis is that global religion has existed for this long because it contains attributes beneficial to survival of global religion.

Edited to add: It is not clear to me that literacy is beneficial (on net) to human survival in an environment with little written knowledge available; there are certainly benefits to be had, but opportunity cost as well. If it is, in fact, directly beneficial, it is also not clear to me why people wouldn't adopt it in the absence of religion.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-12-14T00:45:10.823Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To what extent does a pre-existing belief in a stable order that is waiting to be perfected lead to the primacy of formal science in a society? I think that is a really interesting question.

This is a good starting point for inquiry. I would change "does" to "did." I would also broaden the question to include cons as well as pros, i.e. "To what extent did a philosophy including a pre-existing belief in a stable order that is waiting to be perfected lead to the primacy of formal science in a society?" If there are anti-scientific effects from any philosophy or historical philosophies believing in a stable order, that's important to keep track of too if one is making a claim about those philosophies and not just their positive aspect.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-12-13T19:11:04.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for clarifying.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T17:43:13.474Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In the absence of theories of other things that might serve the same purpose, it would seem to necessarily follow from this theory, yes.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T17:11:10.345Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I will tell you. Judeo-Christian religions have dominated the religious market because it contains qualities beneficial to survival. In the Jewish faith you become a man or woman by proving that you are literate (reading the torah). That may not seem so revolutionary now, but during a time when most religions were based on blood tributes it was a pretty fucking revolutionary idea.

This claim needs more evidence. Prizing literacy and thinking (i.e. interpreting Torah) might explain why Judaism outlived contemporary religion. But if Judaism was filled with "practical usefulness," why didn't it become the dominant religion of the region? Further, Christianity is not as focused on broad development of intellectual discipline as Judaism (or so I understand). Plus, consider that scientific progress occurred in the absence of Judeo-Christianity. (i.e. Chinese development of gunpowder, etc).

comment by dlthomas · 2011-12-13T17:02:24.550Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I never made any claim about all knowledge.

You wrote:

Religion is the original norm for producing knowledge[.]

I specifically was objecting to "the" and "original". Religion has never been the only norm for producing knowledge - observation has been prevalent for large classes of knowledge where we don't even think of applying religion (or formalized science, for that matter). I would also surmise that observation came first.

comment by TimS · 2011-12-13T16:39:41.870Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At the pinnacle of your values is Truth. Can you explain to my why Truth should be regarded more important than social relationships/ personal health

Truth is an instrumental value, not a terminal value of mine. Believing true things helps me achieve my actual goals.

People are not born judging information by its verisimilitude.

Yes, and a major goal of LessWrong is to help people avoid cognitive bias and therefore do better at achieving their goals.

comment by hairyfigment · 2011-12-13T02:00:40.007Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

From what I can tell, the chief issue lies in your talk of a "moral universe" that is somehow "transcendental". The post you respond to suggests "that morality is possible even in a godless universe", which I think refers to relatively concrete behaviors.

Also, the post goes on to mention the status issues you raise ("parents and loved ones were stupid") and more generally, urges us to consider context and rhetorical feel. So it seems like you may have missed some humor in the introduction ("Dark Arts").

comment by Boyi · 2011-12-13T03:13:13.265Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I probably did mis the humor I am really gullible, but you missed my point about the morality of the universe.

by transcendental I meant a value dealing with issues of the meaning of life. Anytime you talk about what is the purpose of life, what should people do, what is moral, is the universe moral, whether you are talking about a god or a godless universe, it is a transcendental question. There is a misconception on this blog that transcendental means christian or God.

I am not a theist. I am a transatheist.

The author of the article is arguing that a better way to convince theists of the atheist agenda is to not attack them socially, but to find some other critique in their argument. MY POINT, is that this is a good strategy BUT a flaw in the author's example of how to initiate it is an assumption of the theists reasons for their values. The assumption the author makes is that theists believe in God because they need the universe to be moral. Or in other words, that the value of religious belief is dealing with a transcendental issue. I am saying that for some people this is not the case. Some people value their religious beliefs for social reasons (such as loyalty to an in-group). For people like this, the author's tactic is just as cornering as what he is advocating against.

comment by Bugmaster · 2011-12-13T02:40:02.147Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't downvote, but your wall-o-text approach, combined with the spelling errors, does make it tempting -- even though I do agree with some of what you say. Sorry :-(

comment by psycho · 2009-03-19T07:35:23.347Z · score: -14 (20 votes) · LW · GW

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

I recommend looking at some Aristotle rhetoric and rationalist thinking are in no way divorced from one another. In fact part of being an effective rationalist is to make effective use of rhetoric in your arguments. Without going as far as becoming a sophist.

Now as much as I enjoy Yvain's religion bashing its really out of place and unbecoming of an educated person. Regardless of the my personal beliefs and the fact that I am sure this post will be voted down or deleted your anti-religion arguments are essentially straw-men.

Let's say you approach a theist (let's call him Theo) and say "How can you, a grown man, still believe in something stupid like talking snakes and magic sky kings? Don't you know you people are responsible for the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War and the Spanish Inquisition? You should be ashamed of yourself!"

Let us not forget that many of the great rationalists who's shoulders you stand on, and many scientists who's shoulders you stand on are or were Christians. This argument is fundamentally wrong headed you are claiming for atheists some moral high ground which isn't theirs to claim. Ironically enough you share many of the same values as these Christians who's ideas you spurn.

Then as an aside there is this claim of all the evidence that points to the non-existence of God. The problem is that the statement "God exists" is formally unprovable. There is no mathematical proof that God does not exist. You can argue that the evidence points in that direction but straw-men of the opposing position does not do anyone any favors and does not make your case.

If you wonder why atheists like yourself have trouble convincing religious people its because you start the argument assuming your opponent is an idiot and that understanding their world view is irrelevant. Unfortunately this is not the case the most effective way to deal with religious arguments is to debunk them from the inside out. This requires and necessitates you have a clear and accurate understanding of the opposing position. It also means that you don't assume you opponent is an idiot.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-19T10:47:18.199Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Wright and MBlume are right. I used that as an example of a bad argument that people should not be making. The thesis of the first half of my article is the same as the last paragraph of your comment, and I agree with you 100% on it.

The thesis of the second half of my article, in contrast, is that you need to beware, lest opponents interpret your position as an invitation to recite their favorite debating points rather than actually listen to what you are saying.

I congratulate you on your understanding of the first half, but you might want to read the second half over again :)

comment by PaulWright · 2009-03-19T10:31:35.321Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

You've taken Yvain's example of a bad argument to use as if it were his argument, and then called it wrong headed. You're agreeing with Yvain. There is a difference between using an argument and quoting it.

comment by MBlume · 2009-03-19T08:08:10.824Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If you wonder why atheists like yourself have trouble convincing religious people its because you start the argument assuming your opponent is an idiot and that understanding their world view is irrelevant. Unfortunately this is not the case the most effective way to deal with religious arguments is to debunk them from the inside out. This requires and necessitates you have a clear and accurate understanding of the opposing position. It also means that you don't assume you opponent is an idiot.

This was the point of the original post.

comment by rpauli · 2009-03-19T19:08:12.113Z · score: -18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

I would love to debate God and angels - if for no other reason that it is essentially a harmless debate. Maybe a little hell and a few deaths by the hand of religious fanatics, but nothing compared with total extinction of humans. Science says this is inevitable unless we deal with global warming - and scientists are frustrated and pissed that the message is not getting delivered.

This is the ultimate debate between the rational and delusional.

Oh...excuse me, you are a rhetorical "skeptic" ?? feel free to check: http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/denier-vs-skeptic/denier-myths-debunked/

The science is done. and most disturbing is why the news of a looming colossal crisis is not heard. Now scientists are getting disturbed by the human reaction... see "Climate change blues - how scientists cope" http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/articleALeqM5hfDbOOosZBSfIIlTutM5m42eWhCQ

The carbon fuel industry-backed rhetorical and PR tactics have keep this issue from proper discussion.... (similar tactics from the tobacco industry "We are not really sure that tobacco causes cancer") We are beyond discussion - and now trapped in rhetorical inaction. The tactics and the complicity of mass media means we are doomed by the denialism. Pity. This used to be a hell of a great civilization.

Yale University forestry school just posted an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert who played a major role in trying to bring the issue of climate change to the attention of the U.S. public. "Her award-winning series on climate change in The New Yorker in 2005 became the basis for her influential book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, and she has traveled from Greenland to Alaska to the Netherlands reporting on the emerging impacts of global warming. " http://www.e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2130

And the best discussion I have seen on the wrestling with the rhetoriticians :

http://climateprogress.org/2008/09/30/why-scientists-arent-more-persuasive-part-1/ http://climateprogress.org/2008/10/13/why-scientists-aren%E2%80%99t-more-persuasive-part-2-why-deniers-out-debate-smart-talkers/ http://climateprogress.org/2009/02/16/abraham-lincoln-figures-of-speech-shakespeare/

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T19:20:45.420Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This comment on global warming was outright banned for being completely off-topic.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-20T13:28:49.774Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting - to my surprise, the comment was in line with my sympathies, while I'd expected it to run counter to them. I wonder how best to update given this evidence?

Downvoted nonethless.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T19:24:54.282Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Come on... it was already in the negatives - it would just take a little nudge to push it below the threshold of anyone who doesn't want to see bad comments. If it doesn't contain illegal/dangerous material, a comment should not be deleted.

While it was clearly propaganda, the author did seem to believe it was to some extent on-topic.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-19T19:28:16.986Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Crossed the line into spam IMO, but if anyone agrees with thomblake they can vote me down further and I'll unban the comment and you can downvote it.

comment by SoullessAutomaton · 2009-03-20T02:35:15.565Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Irrespective of this particular comment, as a rule of thumb outright removing comments that were probably submitted in good faith is harmful from a community standpoint. Among other things, it discourages judicious self-policing among the users, makes approval/disapproval seem more capricious and arbitrary, and is less scalable.

Assuming the goal is a user community-driven site, removal by administrative fiat should be reserved for blatantly disruptive comments: content-free trolling, flooding, &c. If, in your judgement, this comment crossed that line that's fine; but I encourage you to be cautious about policy here and to err on the side of non-intervention.

comment by thomblake · 2009-03-19T19:32:00.795Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You're right - while I don't think it was spam, by the usual definition (I don't see a copy of that comment on every post, for example), spam is definitely a category of things worth deleting and/or developing a mechanism to block. So it's on your judgement.

comment by rpauli · 2009-03-19T22:57:01.629Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I composed this specifically for LessWrong - so how can this be spam ?

That is really unfair. Perhaps I should have spoken more directly to the use of rhetoric, but in the field of global warming, the big discussion now is rhetoric and the denial of reason.

I will say that my writing is passionate, direct, but not spam. Perhaps you need another category for rejecting an uncomfortable comment.

                       Richard Pauli
comment by thomblake · 2009-03-20T01:44:53.156Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The problem with the comment was not that it was uncomfortable. It was that it was basically a rant and a bunch of links to sites about your particular political affiliation, which was not the topic of this post.

Even a discussion about how the global warming debate has devolved into mere rhetoric would be only tangentially related to this post and likely would have been voted down for being off-topic.

comment by Emile · 2009-03-20T12:23:08.721Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bwahaha : rpauli now has karma 4294967286, which is 2^32 - 10, from which we can conclude that his actual karma score is -10, and that lesswrong encodes karma in unsigned 32-bit integers.

(Yes, I'm one of the theoretical python volunteers, I just haven't got reddit to work right on my machine yet ... but I'm nearly there!)

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-03-20T13:25:53.576Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

s/64/32/g above.

comment by Emile · 2009-03-20T13:36:22.540Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Dammit!

... uh, I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-20T04:26:53.996Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, comment's back. We need two more downvotes to make it disappear for most users, so get minusy.