Every few months, I post a summary of my beliefs to my blog. This has several advantages:
- It helps to clarify where I'm "coming from" in general.
- It clears up reader confusion arising from the fact that my beliefs change.
- It's really fun to look back on past posts and assess how my beliefs have changed, and why.
- It makes my positions easier to criticize, because they are clearly stated and organized into one place.
- It's an opportunity for people to very quickly "get to know me."
To those who are willing: I invite you to post your own web of beliefs. I offer my own, below, as an example (previously posted here). Because my world is philosophy, I frame my web of beliefs in those terms, but others need not do the same:
My Web of Beliefs (Feb. 2011)
Philosophy is not a matter of opinion. As in science, some positions are much better supported by reasons than others are. I do philosophy as a form of inquiry, continuous with science.
But I don’t have patience for the pace of mainstream philosophy. Philosophical questions need answers, and quickly.
Scientists know how to move on when a problem is solved, but philosophers generally don’t. Scientists don’t still debate the fact of evolution or the germ theory of disease just because alternatives are (1) logically possible, (2) appeal to many people’s intuitions, (3) are “supported” by convoluted metaphysical arguments, or (4) fit our use of language better. But philosophers still argue about Cartesian dualism and theism and contra-causal free will as if these weren’t settled questions.
We encounter reality and form beliefs about it by way of our brains. So the study of how our brains do that is central to epistemology. (Quine would be pleased.) In apparent ignorance of cognitive science and experimental psychology, most philosophers make heavy use of intuition. Many others have failed to heed the lessons of history about how badly traditional philosophical methods fare compared to scientific methods. I have little patience for this kind of philosophy, and see myself as practicing a kind of ruthlessly reductionistic naturalistic philosophy.
I do not care whether certain beliefs qualify as “knowledge” or as being “rational” according to varying definitions of those terms. Instead, I try to think quantitatively about beliefs. How strongly should I believe P? How should I adjust my probability for P in the face of new evidence X? There is a single, exactly correct answer to each such question, and it is provided by Bayes’ Theorem. We may never know the correct answer, but we can plug estimated numbers into the equation and update our beliefs accordingly. This may seem too subjective, but remember that you are always giving subjective, uncertain probabilities. Whenever you use words like “likely” and “probable”, you are doing math. So stop pretending you aren’t doing math, and do the math correctly, according to the proven theorem of how probable P given X is – even if we are always burdened by uncertainty.1
Though I was recently sympathetic to the Austin / Searle / Grice / Avramides family of approaches to language, I now see that no simple theory of meaning can capture every use (and hypothetical use) of human languages. Besides, categorizing every way in which humans use speech and writing to have an effect on themselves and others is a job for scientists, not armchair philosophers.
However, it is useful to develop an account of language that captures most of our discourse systematically – specifically for use in formal argument and artificial intelligence. To this end, I think something like the Devitt / Sterelny account may be the most useful.
A huge percentage of Anglophone philosophy is still done in service of conceptual analysis, which I see as a mostly misguided attempt to build a Super Dictionary full of definitions for common terms that are (1) self-consistent, (2) fit the facts if they are meant to, and (3) agree with our use of and intuitions about each term. But I don’t think we should protect our naive use of words too much – rather, we should use our words to carve reality at its joints, because that allows us to communicate more effectively. And effective communication is the point of language, no? If your argument doesn’t help us solve problems when you play Taboo with your key terms and replace them with their substantive meaning, then what is the point of the argument if not to build a Super Dictionary?
A Super Dictionary would be nice, but humanity has more urgent and important problems that require a great many philosophical problems to be solved. Conceptual analysis is something of a lost purpose.
The only source of normativity I know how to justify is the hypothetical imperative: “If you desire that P, then you ought to do Y in order to realize P.” This reduces (roughly) to the prediction: “If you do Y, you are likely to objectively satisfy your desire that P.”2
For me, then, the normativity of epistemology is: “If you want to have more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs, engage in belief-forming practices X, Y, and Z.”
The normativity of logic is: “If you want to be speaking the same language as everyone else, don’t say things like ‘The ball is all green and all blue at the same time in the same way.’”
Ethics, if there is anything worth calling by that name (not that it matters much; see the language section), must also be a system of hypothetical imperatives of some kind. Alonzo Fyfe and I are explaining our version of this here.
Recently, the focus of my research efforts has turned to the normative (not technical) problems of how to design the motivational system of a self-improving superintelligent machine. My work on this will eventually be gathered here. A bibliography on the subject is here.