comment by Ishaan ·
2013-09-01T23:18:08.563Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Here's my response. I had a LW-geared TL:DR which assumed shorter inferential distance and used brevity-aiding LW jargon, but then I removed it because I want to see if this makes sense to LW without any of that.
This debate boils down to a semantic confusion.
Lets consider the word "heat(1)". Some humans chose the word "heat" to mean "A specific subset of environmental conditions that lead to the observation of feeling hot, of seeing water evaporate..." and many other things too numerous to mention.
Once "heat" was defined, science could begin to quantify how much of it there was using "temperature". We can use our behavior to increase or decrease the heat, and some behaviors are objectively more heat-inducing than others.
But who defined heat in the first place? We did. We set the definition. It was an arbitrary decision. If our linguistic history had gone differently, "heat" could have meant any number of things.
If we were lucky, a neighboring culture would use "heat(2)" to mean "the colors red and yellow" and everyone would recognize that these were two separate words that meant different things but happened to be homonyms with a common root - since most warm things are red or yellow, it's easy to see how definitions diverge. No one would be so silly as to argue about heat(1) and heat(2).
If we were unlucky, a neighboring culture might decide to use "heat(3)" to mean "subjective feelings resulting from temperature-receptor activation", and we'd have endless philosophical debates about what heat really is. All this useless debate because one culture decided to use "heat(3)" to refer to the subjective feeling of being hot, while another culture decided to use "heat(1)" to refer to a complex phenomenon which causes a bunch of observable effects, one of which is usually but not always the subjective experience of feeling hot.
One day, a group of humans which included one named Sam Harris decided to define "Good(1) and Best(1)" as "Well-Being among all Conscious Beings". (Aside - In an effort to address the central theme and avoid tangents, let's just assume that "Conscious Beings" here means "regular humans" and not create hypothetical situations containing eldritch beings with alien goals. Since we haven't rigorously defined "Well-Being" and "Conscious-Being", we won't go into the question of whether "Well-Being" is a coherent construct for all "Conscious Beings" . We can deal with that problem later - that's not the central issue. For now, we will simply go by our common intuitions of what those words mean.)
Can you measure "well-being" in humans? Sure you can! You can use questionnaires to measure satisfaction, you can measure health and vibrancy and do all sorts of things. And you can arrange your actions to maximize these measurements, creating the Best(1) Possible Universe. And some hypothesis about what actions you aught to take to reach the Best(1) Possible Universe are incorrect, while others are correct.
One day, a group of humans which did not include one named Sam Harris decided to define "Good(2)" as "The sum of all my goals". Can science measure that? Actually, yes! - I can measure my emotional response to various hypothetical situations, and try to scientifically pinpoint what my goals are. I can attempt to describe my goals, and sometimes I will be incorrect about my own goals, and sometimes I will be correct - we've almost all been in situations where we thought we wanted something, and then realized we didn't. Likewise, there is a certain set of actions that I can take to maximize the fulfillment of my goals, to reach my Best(2) Possible Universe. And I can use observation and logic to measure your goals as well, and calculate your Best(2) Possible Universe.
But can my goals themselves be incorrect? No - my goals are imbedded in my brain, in my software. My goals are physically a part of the universe. You can't point to a feature of the universe and call it "incorrect". You can only say that my goals are incompatible with yours, that our Best(2) Possible Universes are different. Mine is Better(2) for me, yours is Better(2) for you.
Our culture is unlucky, because Good(1) and Good(2) are homonyms whose definitions are far too close together. It doesn't make sense to ask which definition is "correct" and which is "wrong", any more than it makes sense to ask whether "Ma" means Mother (English) or Horse (Chinese). The entire argument stems from the two sides using the same word to mean entirely different things. It's a stupid argument, and there are no new insights gained from going back and forth on the matter of which arbitrary definition is better. If only Good(1) and Good(2) didn't sound so similar, there would be no confusion.
(Note: Of course, I've ridiculously oversimplified both Good(1) and Good(2), and I haven't gone into Good 1.1, Good 1.2, Good 2.1, Good 2.2, etc. But I think it's safe to say that most definitions of Good currently fall into either camp 1 or camp 2, and this argument is a misunderstanding between the definitional camps)
Replies from: printing-spoon, RobbBB, ChristianKl, None
↑ comment by printing-spoon ·
2013-09-02T02:39:09.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
ask whether "Ma" means Mother (English) or Horse (Chinese).
"Ma" also means mother, depending on the tone. Actually, this example backfires since the word "mama" or some variation of it (ma, umma) means "mother" in almost every language in the world.
I haven't read the book but this sounds pretty good to me. Since Harris himself is the judge calling his argument "stupid" might not be the best idea.
Replies from: Ishaan
↑ comment by Ishaan ·
2013-09-02T07:35:37.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
oops. I guess it could be interpreted that way.
I meant that the argument between good(1) and good(2) is stupid. Harris is just one side of the debate - i'm saying the entire debate is misguided in the first place, much like it would be stupid to argue the meaning of Ma.
Using good(1) isn't stupid, and neither is using good(2). It's just stupid to argue which one good really means.
↑ comment by Rob Bensinger (RobbBB) ·
2013-09-05T19:00:51.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Could someone provide a quote or two showing that Sam disagrees with any of the above? Steel-manning only a little, I believe Harris' goal isn't to find the One True Definition of morality, but to get rid of some useless folk concepts in favor of a more useful concept for scientific investigation and political collaboration. He antecedently thinks improving everyone's mental health is a worthy goal, so he pins the word 'morality' to that goal to make morality-talk humanly useful. Quoting him (emphasis added):
[T]he fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time. [...]
Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).
I think this view is more sophisticated than is usually recognized. Though it's definitely true he doesn't do a lot to make that clear, if so.
Replies from: Ishaan
↑ comment by Ishaan ·
2013-09-05T23:10:56.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't think he would disagree if he read it, which is why I thought it was worth submitting. i'm not attempting to change his opinion so much as attempting to dissolve the debate which he is attempting to take sides on. Sam Harris's argument is right if we accept the premise that good=good(1), but wrong if we accept the premise that good=good(2).
My purpose is merely to point out that the choice of whether to use good(1) or good(2) is arbitrary. My aim is to make it explicit. The debate as framed by Sam Harris implicitly assigns good the value of good(1). You can't just do that implicitly when the crux of the debate is about the definition of good.
↑ comment by ChristianKl ·
2013-09-02T13:04:55.362Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
As far as heat goes, "hot" is a quite interesting word in the english language. Capsaicin that activates temperature receptors in the mouth gets described as hot even when it doesn't have a high temperature.
Replies from: DanArmak
↑ comment by DanArmak ·
2013-09-02T21:23:55.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Also, beautiful people are described as hot, even though they don't have a high temperature. (These people are often cool at the same time.) People also have hot tempers, hot merchandise (which needs to be fenced), and a huge amount of other hotness.
Replies from: gwern
↑ comment by gwern ·
2013-09-02T22:55:34.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Also, beautiful people are described as hot, even though they don't have a high temperature.
How about the response they can provoke in viewers? An increase in blood flow may well be hot, given the temperature of one's core vs one's skin.
Replies from: DanArmak
↑ comment by [deleted] ·
2013-09-02T07:54:35.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
group of humans which did not include one named Sam Harris
Given how common a first name “Sam” is and how common a last name “Harris” is, I wouldn't be very sure of that. :-)