Eric Drexler on Learning About Everything

post by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-05-27T12:57:21.590Z · score: 31 (36 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 14 comments

Related to: The Simple Math of Everything, Your Strength as a Rationalist, Teaching the Unteachable.

Eric Drexler wrote a couple of articles on the importance and methods of obtaining interdisciplinary knowledge:

Note that the title above isn't "how to learn everything", but "how to learn about everything". The distinction I have in mind is between knowing the inside of a topic in deep detail — many facts and problem-solving skills — and knowing the structure and context of a topic: essential facts, what problems can be solved by the skilled, and how the topic fits with others.

This knowledge isn't superficial in a survey-course sense: It is about both deep structure and practical applications. Knowing about, in this sense, is crucial to understanding a new problem and what must be learned in more depth in order to solve it.

This topic was discussed intermittently on Overcoming Bias. Basic understanding of many fields allows to recognize how well-understood by science a problem is and to see its place in the structure of scientific knowledge; to develop better intuitive grasp on what's possible and what's not; and to adequately perceive the natural world.

The advice he gives for obtaining general knowledge feels right, even for studying the topics that you intend to eventually understand in depth:

Don't drop a subject because you know you'd fail a test — instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to accumulate vocabulary, perspective, and context.

14 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2009-05-27T17:30:02.534Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

speaking of the Simple Math of Everything, that sounds like a great Less Wrong community project, no? I have no idea what the money from sales would be used for - maybe donations to SIAI or something.

comment by XFrequentist · 2009-05-31T16:39:03.792Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed, fully!

This should be discussed in a top level post. Such a document would be a valuable contribution to the intellectual world.

A wikibook might be a good medium for this kind of community project. The LaTeX book gives an example of how well these can turn out.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-27T13:27:46.571Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Good stuff, upvoted. Related point: since learning can be far more efficient if you're intrinsically curious about the subject matter, you should collect as many "angles" as possible to interest you in new bodies of knowledge, and cherish any connection you can find between things you care about on a gut level and fields you might benefit from understanding for extrinsic reasons.

comment by tony_powers · 2009-05-27T17:18:34.615Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. This is very good stuff. Interdisciplinary knowledge is becoming more important as the man made world gets more complex.

My fear is that some people just aren't wired for it. I personally get a healthy dopamine jolt when I cross connect ideas. I suspect I'm in the minority though. It seems depressingly unrelated to education level as well. I work with people that currently have many more years of schooling than me, but are intellectually stagnant and don't care. I know a post doc in astrophysics that believes in reiki and essential oils. She has a narrow knowledge band and no BS filter

Most people probably require different incentives. Like health problems leading you to study medical topics etc...But what if the medical topics you study lead you to reiki?

Is a robust BS filter a prerequisite to interdisciplinary learning? Or will the process of learning improve your BS filter. I suspect it's both. Though, the more people I know, the more I push toward genetic determinism. I'm hovering around 25/75% right now. The i's currently favoring determinism.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-05-27T17:42:22.204Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

While it is sometimes useful to say something like genetic variation explains 50% of the variance in trait X, this may often be misleading because of how genes interact with the environment and with each other.

A trait may be immutable at age ten or twenty which was very much undetermined at age two.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2009-05-28T16:32:33.264Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not to mention that heredity is always defined relative to a specific population being measured.

(For instance, giving everybody in a certain area access to high-quality education will reduce environmental variation and thus increase the role that genetic variation plays, pushing up the measured heredity of educational achievement.)

comment by steven0461 · 2009-05-27T17:25:38.763Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

ITYM "reiki"

comment by Ttochpej · 2009-05-28T14:39:20.555Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am completely new to the lesswrong site but have read a few of the blogs and think that I could learn a lot from this site. I think it is a good thing to have a basic knowledge of many fields, but I also think that it is important to have a in depth knowledge in the basic principles of science first. For example a person who has a broad knowledge in witch craft and taro cards could be very smart with what they know, but all they really know is fiction and without first having an in depth knowledge of scientific principle to test what they learn against, other wise people can be lead to believe anything.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-28T01:27:56.951Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's all too typical in geek culture for someone to consider just one topic worthy enough of his or her intellect. I run into this sort of person a lot... any given programming convention for example, but it's certainly not everybody. Still, a lot of people scoff;

"Philosophy? It's all total bs, who knows the answers to that stuff anyway?" "Literature is for english majors. Don't make me gag." "Economics is guesswork, at least programming follows defined rules for sure" "Physics and chemistry is for newbs, biology is where it's at."

One field that gets disregarded repeatedly is feminism or women's studies. Lots of geeks want to look at it like a solved problem, but anybody who has worked in the industry knows the ridiculous sexism that continues to pop up without the geeks-in-charge even noticing it. Understanding why these issues are important helps increase your total understanding and helps you tackle more difficult problems.

Interdisciplinary understanding at least some basic points in many different fields gives you more than just a hammer in your toolbox to handle problems that aren't nails. I'd agree that it's essential to solving the Big Problems. The payoff of specialization in things like agriculture and industry is obvious. With difficult problems requiring many different fields of knowledge, the clarity and bandwidth of your thoughts you can convey from one specialist in one side of the problem to another specialist in another side of the problem drops to nil without some basic understanding on all sides.

comment by HughRistik · 2009-05-29T05:11:26.024Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

One field that gets disregarded repeatedly is feminism or women's studies. Lots of geeks want to look at it like a solved problem, but anybody who has worked in the industry knows the ridiculous sexism that continues to pop up without the geeks-in-charge even noticing it.

It's true that feminists make some correct empirical and moral claims that are prematurely discarded. Yet this mistake doesn't mean that Women's Studies isn't rightly looked down on as a real academic field.

I've taken Women's Studies classes at a top university. Here's a quote from my Feminism 101 syllabus:

This course embarks from a few key feminist assumptions: women’s and men’s lives are thoroughly gendered, gendered dynamics of power and inequality are reproduced in and through other forms of difference (class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion, disability and so on), and such social inequality is unjust.

Whoa there! Instead of explaining and justifying the foundations of a discipline, this course simply "assumed" them, and "embarked" from there. And admits it! (not that there weren't many other assumptions in the course that weren't admitted) This sentence has at least 4 loaded terms: gender, power, inequality, and unjust. Feminists are constantly throwing around terms like this, and I was taking this course to try to figure out what they mean (along with "patriarchy," "oppression," etc...). Unfortunately, I was disappointed: no real analysis occurred for the latter three. "Gender," was discussed, but from a muddled anti-scientific social constructionist perspective based on the work of Judith Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling (who dubiously believes that sex, i.e. classification of people as male and female, is also socially constructed).

The epistemic standards of feminist theory are horribly bad. This doesn't make feminism completely wrong; I actually agree with the sentence I quote from the syllabus (based on my own conceptualization of those terms, no thanks to Feminism 101) with the stipulation that "inequality" often disfavors men, not just women as assumed in the course. Many of the moral claims of feminism are correct, even when they are based on shoddy reasoning.

Some of the claims of feminism are so lacking in rigor that they aren't even wrong: for example, the typical view of academic feminists that women are "oppressed" and men are not (and if it is granted that men can be oppressed, women are still oppressed "more"). You can't evaluate the truth of this claim any more than you can say whether an oak tree is "bigger" than a pine tree: it depends on what you mean by "bigger" (height? width? mass? surface area?).

Not only does feminism contain a high concentration of thought gone wrong, but an example of its bad epistemic standards is its lack of quality control. Relatively rational feminists are notoriously bad at criticizing the thought-gone-wrong of other feminists. Mary Daly wouldn't mind if men were wiped off the face of the earth(I'm not kidding; read the entire interview and see if you can figure out what is wrong with that thought process).

You would think that other feminists would condemn Daly for giving feminism a bad name and try avoid being associated with her. Yet despite attracting some incidental criticism, Daly is popular enough that she has been invited to speak at about 12% of North American Universities over the past few decades.

There are many problems with feminist thought, in and out of academia. For a more comprehensive treatment, see Daphne Patai's Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies and Nathanson and Young's Spreading Misandry and Legalizing Misandry. While my personal experience in Women's Studies was not as bad as some of the horror stories Patai describes, it did show me that feminists don't have rigorous reasoning (or often, any reasoning) behind feminist theory, and that it is a morass of articles of faith, self-serving arguments, circular reasoning, and already-falsified hypotheses. These problems make it questionable as an academic discipline, despite getting some moral and empirical arguments right.

comment by JoeShipley · 2009-05-29T07:19:49.273Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I almost totally agree here. The implementations are often provocative rather than rational. It's an emotionally charged subject and yeah, the formalization and thorough understanding of the problems it addresses leaves a lot to be desired. Yet some of the ideas are right, and just discarding the commentary makes the problem seem worse to anyone introduces to those ideas encountering your average 'bunch of intellectual-seeming guys' style forum. I wouldn't say just feminists have generally "no reasoning" about the problems involved -- that strikes me as a little wide of a generalization. Thanks a lot for the well-referenced post.

comment by HughRistik · 2009-05-30T08:53:34.222Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The implementations are often provocative rather than rational.

And there's nothing wrong with a good polemic... as long as a rational version can be found somewhere.

Yet some of the ideas are right, and just discarding the commentary makes the problem seem worse to anyone introduces to those ideas encountering your average 'bunch of intellectual-seeming guys' style forum.

I agree that claims shouldn't be blanketly dismissed even if they come from a questionable source.

I wouldn't say just feminists have generally "no reasoning" about the problems involved -- that strikes me as a little wide of a generalization.

I wouldn't either, and I think I put it a bit differently. I said that "feminists don't have rigorous reasoning (or often, any reasoning) behind feminist theory." To put this a bit more rigorously, I wouldn't say either that feminism completely lacks rigorous reasoning. Some feminists, or feminist arguments, engage in rigorous reasoning (I discuss an example here).

Feminists can reason somewhat rigorously inside the world of feminist concepts. Yet those concepts invoked in nearly all feminist writing—such as "oppression," "male privilege", "male dominance", "patriarchy", and even "feminism" are non-rigorous.

Now, just because a concept is non-rigorous doesn't mean that it isn't valuable, or that it doesn't relate to some truth. To make intellectual progress, it is necessary to sometimes discuss concepts without fully defining them, or define them in the process of discussing them (for instance, we have been defining "rationality" on this blog while discussing it). Yet when we select a concept as important during informal and vague discussion, then it becomes necessary to start pinning down what it means in a more rigorous manner, especially when it is of political significance.

The lack of rigor in feminist concepts is a problem, but it isn't a damning problem. The measure of their worth really lies in what happens when we do try to formalize them (and by "formalizing," I am not talking about something extreme, but rather basic rigor like defining what terms mean).

I argue that when we do try to make sense of feminist concepts, they either collapse, they contradict observable evidence or fail to explain past events (for instance, could you predict or explain the "women and children first" phenomena demonstrated on the HMS Birkenhead), where the men sacrificed themselves by giving all the space on the lifeboats to the women, using feminist theories of oppression, male, privilege, and patriarchy?), or they contradict other aspects of feminist theory (for instance, when a feminist sociologist starts defining "oppression" in a rigorous way, she quickly concludes that men are oppressed also, not just women, a view explicitly denied by academic feminists).

Since the vast majority of feminist writing rests of non-rigorous concepts that collapse or subvert feminism under close scrutiny, the vast majority of feminist writing lacks rigorous reasoning, though rigorous reasoning does exist when we step into the circle of feminist concepts. This is still the case even though particular feminist notions might make sense when viewed at first glance. For instance, when hearing feminists say "women are oppressed," I can think up reasonable definitions for "oppression" that make this statement true (e.g. "unjust systemic disadvantage"), yet on closer examination of the feminist discourse surrounding "oppression", I encounter elements that seem non-intuitive and which contradict the reasonable definition of oppression that I projected onto the feminist concept, such as the claim that men are not oppressed also.

When I take a more cynical view, I start to suspect that the lack of rigor of feminist concepts might be more a "feature" than a "bug." If you don't have to pin down when you are saying, then it's harder to challenge you; you can use a more radical conceptualization when riling compatriots, and then back down to a more moderate formulation when challenged. Prospective allies and open-minded people can project their own views onto those concepts, though they might be in a nasty surprise upon further investigation when they find that feminists don't share their initial intuitions and consider your elaborations of their theories heretical (Wow, the notion of "privilege" really opened my eyes to the unjust advantages men have over women, and it also made me see that women have certain privileges over men, too!... Wait, why is there no such thing as female privilege?). Under this view, it would be incorrect to suppose that feminist concepts have a fixed meaning: they mean whatever they need to mean to justify each other, and the political, moral, and emotional stances of feminists.

comment by whpearson · 2009-05-30T11:22:30.394Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Have we fixed the meaning of intelligence, rationality and recursive self-improvement?

I'm not saying that we redefine these words to be whatever we want. But it does make criticizing the beliefs behind SIAI very difficult.

comment by astray · 2009-05-27T17:53:09.789Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

These are good reads; I was going to post these links later today, after I had time to write up a summary, but you have saved me the trouble.

Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic, and note which topics provide keys to many others.

I realized when reading this that I have largely been following this method for computer science. Even without any obvious gears clicking into place, I understand talk about, e.g., binary trees or closures that would have baffled me a year ago.