A reply to Mark Linsenmayer about philosophy

Mark Linsen­mayer, one of the hosts of a top philos­o­phy pod­cast called The Par­tially Ex­am­ined Life, has writ­ten a cri­tique of the view that Eliezer and I seem to take of philos­o­phy. Below, I re­spond to a few of Mark’s com­ments. Nat­u­rally, I speak only for my­self, not for Eliezer.

I’m gen­er­ally skep­ti­cal when some­one pro­claims that “ra­tio­nal­ity” it­self should get us to throw out 90%+ of philos­o­phy...

Stur­geon’s Law de­clares that “90% of ev­ery­thing is crap.” I think some­thing like that is true, though per­haps it’s 88% crap in physics, 99% crap in philos­o­phy, and 99.99% crap on 4chan.

But let me be more pre­cise. I do claim that al­most all philos­o­phy is use­less for figur­ing out what is true, for rea­sons ex­plained in sev­eral of my posts:

Mark replies that the kinds of un­scien­tific philos­o­phy I dis­miss can be “use­ful at least in the sense of en­ter­tain­ing,” which of course isn’t some­thing I’d deny. I’m just try­ing to say that Hei­deg­ger is pretty darn use­less for figur­ing out what’s true. There are thou­sands of read­ings that will more effi­ciently make your model of the world more ac­cu­rate.

If you want to read Hei­deg­ger as po­etry or en­ter­tain­ment, that’s fine. I watch Game of Thrones, but not be­cause it’s a use­ful in­quiry into truth.

Also, I’m not sure what it would mean to say we should throw out 90% of philos­o­phy be­cause of ra­tio­nal­ity, but I prob­a­bly don’t agree with the “be­cause” clause, there.

[Luke’s] ac­cu­sa­tion is that most philoso­phiz­ing is use­less un­less ex­plic­itly based on sci­en­tific knowl­edge on how the brain works, and in par­tic­u­lar where in­tu­itions come from… [But] to then throw out the mass of the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion be­cause it has been ig­no­rant of [cog­ni­tive bi­ases] is [a mis­take].

I don’t, in fact, think that “most philoso­phiz­ing is use­less un­less ex­plic­itly based on sci­en­tific knowl­edge [about] how the brain works,” nor do I “throw out the mass of the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion be­cause it has been ig­no­rant of [cog­ni­tive bi­ases].” Some­times, peo­ple do pretty good philos­o­phy with­out know­ing much of mod­ern psy­chol­ogy. Look at all the progress Hume and Frege made.

What I do claim is that many spe­cific philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions and meth­ods are un­der­mined by sci­en­tific knowl­edge about how brains and other sys­tems work. For ex­am­ple, I’ve ar­gued that a par­tic­u­lar kind of philo­soph­i­cal anal­y­sis, which as­sumes con­cepts are defined by nec­es­sary and suffi­cient con­di­tions, is un­der­mined by psy­cholog­i­cal re­sults show­ing that brains don’t store con­cepts that way.

If some poor philoso­pher doesn’t know this, be­cause she thinks it’s okay to spend all day us­ing her brain to philoso­phize with­out know­ing much about how brains work, she might spend sev­eral years of her ca­reer pointlessly try­ing to find a nec­es­sary-and-suffi­cient-con­di­tions anal­y­sis of knowl­edge that is im­mune to Get­tier-style coun­terex­am­ples.

That’s one rea­son to study psy­chol­ogy be­fore do­ing much philos­o­phy. Do­ing so can save you lots of time.

Another rea­son to study psy­chol­ogy is that psy­chol­ogy is a sig­nifi­cant com­po­nent of ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing (yes, with daily study and ex­er­cise, like pi­ano train­ing). Ra­tion­al­ity train­ing is im­por­tant for do­ing philos­o­phy be­cause philos­o­phy needs to trust your ra­tio­nal­ity even though it shouldn’t.

...Look­ing over Eliezer’s site and Less Wrong… my over­all im­pres­sion is again that… none of this adds up to the blan­ket cri­tique/​world-view that comes through very clearly

Less Wrong is a group blog, so it doesn’t quite have its own philos­o­phy or wor­ld­view.

Eliezer, how­ever, most cer­tainly does. His ap­proach to episte­mol­ogy is pretty thor­oughly doc­u­mented in the on­go­ing, book-length se­quence Highly Ad­vanced Episte­mol­ogy 101 for Begin­ners. Ad­di­tional parts of his “wor­ld­view” comes to light in his many posts on philos­o­phy of lan­guage, free will, meta­physics, metaethics, nor­ma­tive ethics, ax­iol­ogy, and philos­o­phy of mind.

I’ve writ­ten less about my own philo­soph­i­cal views, but you can get some of them in two (on­go­ing) se­quences: Ra­tion­al­ity and Philos­o­phy and No-Non­sense Me­taethics.

I think it’s in­struc­tive to con­trast Eliezer with David Chalmers… who is very much on top of the sci­ence in his field… and yet he is not on board with any of this “com­mit X% of past philos­o­phy to the flames” non­sense, doesn’t think meta­phys­i­cal ar­gu­ments are mean­ingless or that difficult philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems need to be defined away in some way, and, most provoca­tively, sees in con­scious­ness a challenge to a phys­i­cal­ist world-view… I re­spect­fully sug­gest that while read­ing more in con­tem­po­rary sci­ence is surely a good idea… the ap­proach to philos­o­phy that is ac­tu­ally schooled in philos­o­phy a la Chalmers is more wor­thy of em­u­la­tion than Eliezer’s dis­mis­sive anti-philos­o­phy take.

Chalmers is a smart dude, a good writer, and fun to hang with. But Mark doesn’t ex­plain here why it’s “non­sense” to pro­pose that truth-seek­ers (qua truth-seek­ers) should ig­nore 99% of all philos­o­phy, why many meta­phys­i­cal ar­gu­ments aren’t mean­ingless, why some philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems can’t sim­ply be dis­solved, nor why Chalmers’ ap­proach to philos­o­phy is su­pe­rior to Eliezer’s.

And that’s fine. As Mark wrote, “I in­tended this post to be a high-level overview of po­si­tions.” I’d just like to flag that ar­gu­ments weren’t pro­vided in Mark’s post.

Mean­while, I’ve linked above to many posts Eliezer and I have writ­ten about why most philos­o­phy is use­less for truth-seek­ing, why some meta­phys­i­cal ar­gu­ments are mean­ingless, and why some philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems can be dis­solved. (We’d have to be more spe­cific about the Chalmers vs. Eliezer ques­tion be­fore I could weigh in. For ex­am­ple, I find Chalmers’ writ­ing to be clearer, but Eliezer’s choice of top­ics for in­ves­ti­ga­tion more im­por­tant for the hu­man species.)

Fi­nally, I’ll note that Nick Bostrom takes roughly the same ap­proach to philos­o­phy as Eliezer and I do, but Nick has a po­si­tion at Oxford Univer­sity, pub­lishes in lead­ing philos­o­phy jour­nals, and so on. On philo­soph­i­cal method, I recom­mend Nick’s first pro­fes­sional pa­per, Pre­dic­tions from Philos­o­phy (1997). It sums up the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind much of what Nick and Eliezer have done since then.