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Comment by yelsgib on Detached Lever Fallacy · 2008-08-01T06:01:42.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To what extent do you think:

1.) Culture itself evolves and follows the same principles of evolution as humans and honeybees?

2.) Culture defines worldview and horizon of knowledge/decision/ideation?

3.) Culture's means of communicating information to infants (e.g. "My First Big Book of A B C's") are evolving/changing to encode "more correct" ideas of the human organism (i.e. teach better)?

You seem to be avoiding theorizing on how society/culture -does- affect our maturation?. Can we bound this? Can we say anything effective about it?

Comment by yelsgib on Reductive Reference · 2008-04-04T06:18:54.000Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"If I do not disregard it then I must consider it on equal grounds with all "accounts" of creation and concede the utter impossibility of making a decision."

"stupid postmodernists" would suggest a separate solution. Namely - the bible presents an account of creation which is "true" w/r/t certain cultural contexts.

Now, all "truth" in this sense is "equivalent" in that it is merely statements within a cultural or philosophical context. However, this is not the standard by which you, I, or anyone (since we are all necessarily IN a cultural/philosophical context) judge truth.

So you are free to say "I disregard the bible as an accurate account of creation because I belong to a cultural context in which it is incoherent, but I accept that it presents 'truth' in various contexts in which it (or its interpretation) does not contain inconsistencies."

See, the issue is that "truth" to you can never be "truth" to me. You can merely send signals. Like your blog post, for instance. Since we probably largely share contexts you have high probability of transmitting truth. Good job! Of course, your usual mode of communication won't work to convince people with different standards.

Now it comes down to whether you want to call your "truth" the REAL Truth. You can do it if you want. It might even make you feel better. Just know that everyone else (even people who disagree with you) is doing it too.

Oh well, another bit of nothing sent into the void.

Comment by yelsgib on Reductive Reference · 2008-04-03T03:13:25.000Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Can we make statements of the form "X is Y" without the statement "X exists" being true? Because Eliezer does about reality - therefore I assume there is some sense in which he believes it to "exist." Note that my questions were directed towards his definition, not the claim itself (since I still obviously don't understand the way that Eliezer uses words).


To answer your questions:

"Where is the universe?"

Right here.

"What color is half-past three?"

For certain definitions of color in certain logical frameworks involving the entities "color" and "half-past three," half-past three is colorless.

"How many zeros does it take to make a baker's dozen?"

Thirteen (duh).

Comment by yelsgib on Reductive Reference · 2008-04-03T02:04:37.000Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think it's possible that the word "exist" is overloaded?

In what sense does snow "existA" but love does not "existA?"

In what sense does "reality exist?" Is this tautology? If so, state it.

"This is the point missed by the postmodernist folks screaming, "But how do you know your beliefs are true?""

Does setting up straw men serve some sort of emotional purpose? Why do you keep doing it? You haven't performed an analysis of the "postmodernist position" - you just keep pointing fingers and saying "they're dumb."

The (non-moron) post-modernist folks are screaming "How do we even know that 'reality exists?' Obviously we do not -know- so it must be definition embedded in cultural/computational context. Therefore when we make statements like "snow is white" what we really -mean- is the set of cultural/computational primitives that that statement can be reduced to. There is no other sense in which the word "mean" makes sense."


What about self-referent phenomena? Are you actually claiming that no beliefs are disjoint from so-called "logical definitions?"

Comment by yelsgib on Brain Breakthrough! It's Made of Neurons! · 2008-04-02T09:47:49.000Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with Robin that there needs to be meta-analysis of what's been going on in Eliezer's recent posts and replies to those posts.

As a concrete example, Eliezer continually sets up the "silly post-modernist professor" archtype, but I haven't seen anything even vaguely resembling a critique of more serious post-modern thought (like Foucault, for instance). In any case, post-modernism makes sense under some interpretations - e.g. if it is taken to mean that "truth" is dependent on context (since statements cannot have meaning without relation to a set of semantic primitives).

As a direct reformulation - Eliezer has not addressed how I personally think about consciousness/why I personally think it is a hard question (not that I have necessarily expressed it explicitly). I agree with Scott's frustration that he seems to continually hark on morons. Maybe I'm a moron, too, but I'd sure like to know in what way!

This isn't meant to be harsh - really I do enjoy Eliezer's posts a lot and think that they are really insightful. I just haven't been satisfied with the level of sensitivity towards other people's opinions which has been displayed here. Eliezer says that we can turn questions understandable by asking why we think them. Well then why do I think I am conscious and that this is "special?!?" I have no clue! I can't even imagine what an answer to that question would look like!

Comment by yelsgib on Angry Atoms · 2008-03-31T04:03:44.000Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"But an Artificial Intelligence programmer who knows how to create a chess-playing program out of base matter, has taken a genuine step toward crossing the gap. If you understand concepts like consequentialism, backward chaining, utility functions, and search trees, you can make merely causal/mechanical systems compute plans."

The space of algorithms to play chess "well" is large. That space is not equivalent to the space of "intelligence."

Your conjecture seems to be that the Problem of Chess requires intelligence.

I also don't see how you can claim that understanding utility functions helps you understand the brain. Do you think that such functions are explicitly represented in the brain? Do you have ANY reason to believe this?

I guess it seems to me that you're claiming that you have reason to believe you understand something about what intelligence is - but then you go on to talk about some crappy models we have for it.

Comment by yelsgib on Joy in Discovery · 2008-03-21T09:47:21.000Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Are you seriously even thinking about condemning/censuring emotional reaction? I don't understand what the -content- of any of the above is, at all. Things are the way they are - including people. They act the way they do. I'm not being reductionist - I'm saying that (in my world) it is only the power of dropping the context which gives your statements a semblance of meaningfulness.

If you do not give your statements basis will lose people (e.g. me) from different philosophical/intellectual backgrounds.

Comment by yelsgib on Savanna Poets · 2008-03-19T02:35:28.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Now here's something to sink the teeth into - a sort of challenge - can we do better?

I guess my reaction to this post is a sort of microcosm of my reaction to most of the content of this blog - I think that our biases are -necessary-, in fact, I think they are the way that we think. They are easily exposed and routed out in our interactions with very basic things, but can you tell me how to get rid of my biases in thinking about Category Theory? How do I get rid of my biases when reading the works of Foucault?

Our biases are a consequence of our computational contexts. We cannot get outside of our computational contexts.

Thus, I am beginning to think that the "right work" of the intellectual is to -expose- and -inspire- rather than to -criticize- and -condemn-.

This post speaks to that. We cannot get out of our computational contexts, but let's evolve them together so that we have the foundation required to inspire, yo! Thanks for this post - it's certainly inspired a lot of thought in me.

Comment by yelsgib on Fake Reductionism · 2008-03-18T13:09:42.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Let me suggest a mechanism which explains Keat's (and my own - and every adult's [?]) "loss of wonder."

Part of what we do in using language is pointing to things and making noises so that other people who are experiencing the same thing (presumably) associate the noise to the thing. Now we have a nice way to refer to the "same thing."

The word "rainbow" then corresponds to more than just the visual input - it is all things associated with the rainbow. It is many things not explicitly associated with. It is a -loose- association. It feels free. It allows room for imagination. It is not serious. The point is that the word "rainbow" is like an arrow pointing straight into our emotional centers at THAT THING which is important (whatever it is) and that we love.

"Reducing" the rainbow to knowledge of light interacting with water droplets has a lot of effects:

1.) Some part of you always thinks of the science, the actuality, the existent when you think "rainbow" from now on. You can't help it. You can't just shut it off.

2.) Everything that you -didn't- know (the wonder, etc.) dissipates since you have reduced the phenomenon to an explanation with a bumper sticker (the qualia associated with the explanation).

3.) Your focus shifts from the experience of the colors, the relation of the colors, etc. to the words associated with the colors.

Words are boring. Experience is great. Get these words Off my plate!

Comment by yelsgib on Fake Reductionism · 2008-03-18T04:50:25.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I actually don't understand your point at all.

Before Keats found out about what rainbows "really are" he experienced wonder while looking at them. After, he didn't.

What else is the man supposed to do? He's got to try to investigate his experience, right? Where did he go wrong?

You are reducing his cognitive processes to those of a bumbling fool. They're complex, you just don't understand them. It doesn't seem like you're making enough of an effort.

Comment by yelsgib on Mind Projection Fallacy · 2008-03-11T02:38:28.000Z · score: 0 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I ask you again - what is the other option? How can we deal with the world other than via "mind-projection?" I claim that you do it too, you just do it in a more sophisticated way. Do you have an alternative in mind?

Comment by yelsgib on Righting a Wrong Question · 2008-03-10T05:58:59.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Why do I believe I am conscious?" = "Why am I conscious?"

Comment by yelsgib on Variable Question Fallacies · 2008-03-05T06:52:02.000Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

"This often confuses undergraduates (and postmodernist professors) who discover a sentence with more than one interpretation; they think they have discovered an unstable portion of reality."

I don't really know how to read this sentence. Are you claiming that there is a fixed, stable reality? Are you claiming that the postmodernist professor is implicitly claiming the existence of a fixed reality?

I think the more articulate postmodernist professor would claim "we cannot make reference to a fixed interpretation of phenomena outside of an assumed cultural reference." -You're- the one talking about "reality."

You are using terms like "proposition," "question," etc. very loosely. Could you please clarify what the pertinent "question" that the huntergatherer and the astronomer are trying to "answer" is? What "propositions" do they assert?

I would make two claims. First, I claim that everyday people going about their everyday business are not trying to answer claims/make propositions. Second, I think that "truth" as a linguistic concept exists only in very specific contexts.

Comment by yelsgib on Words as Mental Paintbrush Handles · 2008-03-03T10:11:05.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Word as "pointer" implies the requirement for infinite storage - unless you say that "the word duck" is not a symbol referring to the symbol "duck" - or unless you claim that we can generate static memory spontaneously - or unless you believe that there is some special class or symbolized objects (like, you're -really- storing "duck" (content) somewhere but you are not storing "duck" (symbol) or "symbl duck" (symbol) somewhere).

Words, content, pointers, blah - it's all just computation until you can prove otherwise.

Do not presume structure.

Comment by yelsgib on Perpetual Motion Beliefs · 2008-02-28T05:40:50.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you think the relation between the mental category of "certainty" and probability is?

For the primitive it is not true that "the sun will rise with 100% certainty" - it is simply "certain that the sun will rise." What's more, I think these statements are -not equivalent-.

For the "educated westerner" it is true that "the sun will rise with certainty very close to 100%, given some assumptions about the nature of the universe in earth's neighborhood." Certainty is not a necessity any longer.

My claim would be that, for most, heuristic descriptions of possibility/probability and an understanding of the mathematical laws or probability are absolutely disjoint. The reason that you can even think about low probability events is not mere knowledge - you must actually switch the context in which you are framing the problem - you must "step back" and examine the lottery in the context of theory in which you (rightly) believe.

What I'm saying here is that arguing against -heuristic descriptions- with -actual probabilities- (even if just approximations) is like arguing against a shaman's perception of the weather with modern supercomputer-driven approximations. You have to consider that people have an investment in their heuristic descriptions - to leave them would be like to leave a nice warm place which makes you happy (most of the time) but might have some nagging problems (e.g. playing the lottery).

Ya dig?

Comment by yelsgib on Where to Draw the Boundary? · 2008-02-22T07:19:54.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree with you (kind of). The fact that the word art exists does, in fact, imply that it has a meaning...for each individual who uses it.

There are no absolute classifiers. Even if there were, we could not know them. Our knowledge is necessarily defined in terms of our own experience and the computations we have performed on this experience.

It is useful to think of the "meaning" of a term as the way in which that term relates to more primitive terms. This is not necessarily a list (e.g. Post-modernism cannot be defined in terms of a list). This might be a deduction - a history of deduction - whatever. For instance, what is a good definition for "Post-Modernism?" Perhaps we must appeal to a large body of knowledge - the point is that the result, the "meaning," must be at minimum useful to perform computations (computations above and beyond classification, btw - a reason that meaning can include non-necessary information).

So can we justifiably ask the question "what is the meaning of art?"

Sure, but my claim is that this is a massively sugared/somewhat poorly expressed question rather than an assertion of the absolute existence of the term "art" and the absolute existence of its definition. The questions we might really be asking (perhaps in parallel) are:

What is the use of a definition of art? What is a useful definition for art? Can a single definition exist (which satisfied all of our classifications)? Are our classifications wrong or strange? What is my personal definition of art? What is the context in which we are trying to define art?

The attempt to answer the question "what is the definition of X?" is often really the attempt to examine a deeper, more difficult to explain question. For instance, in the context of the example of "if no one hears a tree fall, does it make a sound" the question "what is the definition of sound?" can really be multiple questions (one or more of the questions above).

My claim is that people are not good enough at de-sugaring their own questions to actually attack them/think about them flexibly/precisely. Let me propose a simple mechanism which I think produces this phenomenon:

You have a conflict of definition (e.g. you and a friend disagree on whether Modern Art is in fact Art). On a computational level you might realize what the problem is. Perhaps you do not have a well-established context (since the definition of the term depends on context). Perhaps you have had significantly different experiences of things which "are modern art" in the sense of being culturally accepted as such. But in either case you are probably too inarticulate to explain exactly what the conflict is. Thus, you use the only tool available to you. You flail around and try to concoct a lingusitic expression of your conflict. You ask "well, what's your definition of ART then!?!"

I think that we perform this sort of operation a lot:

Well articulated intuition -> linguistic expression (loses resolution) -> poorly articulated intuition.

(another simple example of this phenomenon is an exasperated inarticulate man yelling "god, i hate women" - probably he does hate all women or claim anything general about women . He just doesn't have sufficient articulation to say "i am frustrated by my lack of success with women and do not understand them and therefore my frustration grows with each failed attempt at mating one - in addition, i experience a feeling of lack of self-worth which adds to my frustration and further confuses me." After he says "I hate women" he might actually believe he hates women since he re-translates his linguistic statement into feelings/belief.)

What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? I'd really like to know.

Do you think that a significant portion of the population harbors implicit or explicit delusions that words exist as absolutes and have definitions which also exist as absolutes? Or do you think something more complicated is going on? What, precisely, is the nature of the bias?

Comment by yelsgib on Fallacies of Compression · 2008-02-18T13:42:47.000Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I started reading this blog a few days ago and am particularly interested in your posts since you seem to be a modeler. This sort of thing appeals to me.

Comments/criticisms:

I agree that it is not a good idea to cram too much into one point/label. However, what are your thoughts regarding the necessity of doing this? This is a point which I have not seen you address.

What I would claim is that our own personal "definitions" for words correspond strongly to the computational structures related to those words (as I expect you would agree) - however it may be, and we should expect that it is, difficult to operate outside of our current computational structures. To bifurcate a definition (e.g. to split "phenomonological sound" into "systematic sound" and "experiential sound") might be extremely mentally taxing, it might bring the conversation to a halt. How easy is it to change the map, in your opinion?

I am also somewhat wary of the recent trends in your thinking. In particular, all of your examples refer to very specific phenomena, very simple phenomena. Can you give an example of how you think that we apply/should apply (is there a should in here somewhere?) decoupling in order to disambiguate in very high-order contexts? E.g. let's say we're talking about a difficult-to-pin-down-but-easy-to-use term like "post-modernism?" Is there any way to talk about such a thing without developing a definition with someone? The dictionary definition would obviously be worthless, but so would pretty much any definition that we can come up with.

What about words that "can't be defined"? (e.g. "art")

I have many more questions for you, but I'll end here.

You seem like you might actually think somewhat clearly about the world, which is rare indeed. I really do appreciate the clarity and thoughtfulness of your posts, I'm merely trying to bring up points pertinent to my current and past interests and (hopefully) open up your eyes to potential gaps in your thinking.

Hope all is well.

Comment by yelsgib on Feel the Meaning · 2008-02-15T07:29:23.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If labels associate to concepts, what does the label "word" associate to?

You should be very careful when using terms like "falsely believes that" when referring to the way people are thinking. "False" as a label only has an association in the context of "verifiable fact." This places the onus on you to show that the claim "words have meanings" lies in the context of "verifiable fact." You must show that an entity is claiming implicitly or explicitly that the assertion "words have meanings" is "true" (a.k.a. consistent with the axioms of the context in which it is expressed). My claim would be that the statement "words have meanings" is actually the basis of a context - that the claim is "hollow" in the sense that the axioms of math are "hollow" (neither true nor false) but that it is useful in the very same sense - we can generate a set of deductively consistent (and more "powerful") claims from the claim.

I hope you'll forgive my constant use of quotes - I use them when I fear that my definition of a word might significantly vary from yours. I also hope that you'll forgive my somewhat idiosyncratic use of language - I expect that we are coming at the question of human intelligence from at least slightly different intellectual backgrounds.

Comment by yelsgib on The Argument from Common Usage · 2008-02-15T07:17:07.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A few comments:

A dictionary is vastly more than a "history of past usage." It is a cultural touchstone. This may not be apparent to those without high degree of mobility, but the existence of dictionaries (and especially inter-language dictionaries) is critical to the ability of complete strangers (even in the cultural sense) to interact. I think we universally underestimate the extent to which our culture enables our "meaningful" interaction.


Your last sentence is right on the mark - we can start inventing all sorts of new definitions but we need to be very careful that we don't stray too far into our own language. We might corrode our ability to interact meaningfully with life-giver "society."


I have noted a very large number of multi-meaning words in english - note, interestingly, that Japanese has multiple kanji representations of words with similar, but not equivalent, meanings and same readings - e.g. 見るvs.観る both being read "miru" and the first meaning "to see" (e.g. to see a tree) with the second meaning "to watch" (e.g. to watch a movie).

By this point the intellectual community (and especially the philosophical) is sufficiently diffuse that very very important words (e.g. "context," "content," "concept," "abstraction") have lost their meaning or become tremendously blurred.


Your point that the fight to define a word is really the fight to assert a moral position/worldview/what-have-you is extremely interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way.

It immediately brings to mind the question of "how do we define definition?" which is infinitely interesting. If we define "definition" then we must necessarily be doing so in a context that is removed from the context in which we are defining "definition." This immediately implies that there is no universal sense in which words can be "defined" but that there are infinite senses in which words can be "defined." When two entities conflict on a definition they are both thinking in contexts which are removed from the context in question (e.g. the characters thinking about the tree are arguing about the correct procedure for creating a common-usage definition). But most people do not think in this meta-context often which is why they have woefully underdeveloped vocabularies and theories w/r/t it. Thus, frustration. Thus, anger. But it's just a silly tree!

Comment by yelsgib on Feel the Meaning · 2008-02-15T06:56:22.000Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like you would claim that there is "meaningness" to a word. I would claim that you are essentializing lack of process; namely, just because people do not process a difference between word and content does not mean that that process is not possible, or that the lack of a process itself deserves a title.

This is a subtle point. I would like to clarify. My keyboard has "whiteness" in the sense that when I am looking at it I experience "white." The claim that a word has "meaningness" would state that while using a word we "feel meaning." But perhaps this "feeling of meaning" is just equivalent to the feeling of "using a word."

My main point of (personal) evidence is that I am currently learning Japanese and have had significant experience (and failure) in attempting to directly absorb words. I find that to actually understand the language I must respond in the latter manner of the hypothetical language learner responding to hearing "Blegg" for the first time. There are elements of Japanese that are impossible to understand as having meaning - e.g. "particles" such as "ga," "ha," "wo," etc. What is the definition of the word "the?" As a slightly less simplistic example, certain words like "omiyage" which have no english synonym can only be understood by a cultural outside through precise comprehension of the relation of the word to the greater cultural context. If this is not done self-consciously (by asking "what are the mental/cultural processes which give meaning to this word?") then it takes to long. So I do it consciously. Thus, Japanese words (and, increasingly, English words) do not have "meaningness."

Once you start performing the processing that you have not been, the illusionary "feeling" of word-as-meaning disappears.