Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline


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Part of the sequence: Rationality and Philosophy

Eliezer's anti-philosophy post Against Modal Logics was pretty controversial, while my recent pro-philosophy (by LW standards) post and my list of useful mainstream philosophy contributions were massively up-voted. This suggests a significant appreciation for mainstream philosophy on Less Wrong - not surprising, since Less Wrong covers so many philosophical topics.

If you followed the recent very long debate between Eliezer and I over the value of mainstream philosophy, you may have gotten the impression that Eliezer and I strongly diverge on the subject. But I suspect I agree more with Eliezer on the value of mainstream philosophy than I do with many Less Wrong readers - perhaps most.

That might sound odd coming from someone who writes a philosophy blog and spends most of his spare time doing philosophy, so let me explain myself. (Warning: broad generalizations ahead! There are exceptions.)

Failed methods

Large swaths of philosophy (e.g. continental and postmodern philosophy) often don't even try to be clear, rigorous, or scientifically respectable. This is philosophy of the "Uncle Joe's musings on the meaning of life" sort, except that it's dressed up in big words and long footnotes. You will occasionally stumble upon an argument, but it falls prey to magical categories and language confusions and non-natural hypotheses. You may also stumble upon science or math, but they are used to 'prove' things irrelevant to the actual scientific data or the equations used.

Analytic philosophy is clearer, more rigorous, and better with math and science, but only does a slightly better job of avoiding magical categories, language confusions, and non-natural hypotheses. Moreover, its central tool is intuition, and this displays a near-total ignorance of how brains work. As Michael Vassar observes, philosophers are "spectacularly bad" at understanding that their intuitions are generated by cognitive algorithms.

A diseased discipline

What about Quinean naturalists? Many of them at least understand the basics: that things are made of atoms, that many questions don't need to be answered but instead dissolved, that the brain is not an a priori truth factory, that intuitions come from cognitive algorithms, that humans are loaded with bias, that language is full of tricks, and that justification rests in the lens that can see its flaws. Some of them are even Bayesians.

Like I said, a few naturalistic philosophers are doing some useful work. But the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower even in naturalistic philosophy than it is in, say, behavioral economics or cognitive neuroscience or artificial intelligence or statistics. Why? Here are some hypotheses, based on my thousands of hours in the literature:

  1. Many philosophers have been infected (often by later Wittgenstein) with the idea that philosophy is supposed to be useless. If it's useful, then it's science or math or something else, but not philosophy. Michael Bishop says a common complaint from his colleagues about his 2004 book is that it is too useful.
  2. Most philosophers don't understand the basics, so naturalists spend much of their time coming up with new ways to argue that people are made of atoms and intuitions don't trump science. They fight beside the poor atheistic philosophers who keep coming up with new ways to argue that the universe was not created by someone's invisible magical friend.
  3. Philosophy has grown into an abnormally backward-looking discipline. Scientists like to put their work in the context of what old dead guys said, too, but philosophers have a real fetish for it. Even naturalists spend a fair amount of time re-interpreting Hume and Dewey yet again.
  4. Because they were trained in traditional philosophical ideas, arguments, and frames of mind, naturalists will anchor and adjust from traditional philosophy when they make progress, rather than scrapping the whole mess and starting from scratch with a correct understanding of language, physics, and cognitive science. Sometimes, philosophical work is useful to build from: Judea Pearl's triumphant work on causality built on earlier counterfactual accounts of causality from philosophy. Other times, it's best to ignore the past confusions. Eliezer made most of his philosophical progress on his own, in order to solve problems in AI, and only later looked around in philosophy to see which standard position his own theory was most similar to.
  5. Many naturalists aren't trained in cognitive science or AI. Cognitive science is essential because the tool we use to philosophize is the brain, and if you don't know how your tool works then you'll use it poorly. AI is useful because it keeps you honest: you can't write confused concepts or non-natural hypotheses in a programming language.
  6. Mainstream philosophy publishing favors the established positions and arguments. You're more likely to get published if you can write about how intuitions are useless in solving Gettier problems (which is a confused set of non-problems anyway) than if you write about how to make a superintelligent machine preserve its utility function across millions of self-modifications.
  7. Even much of the useful work naturalistic philosophers do is not at the cutting-edge. Chalmers' update for I.J. Good's 'intelligence explosion' argument is the best one-stop summary available, but it doesn't get as far as the Hanson-Yudkowsky AI-Foom debate in 2008 did. Talbot (2009) and Bishop & Trout (2004) provide handy summaries of much of the heuristics and biases literature, just like Eliezer has so usefully done on Less Wrong, but of course this isn't cutting edge. You could always just read it in the primary literature by Kahneman and Tversky and others.

Of course, there is mainstream philosophy that is both good and cutting-edge: the work of Nick Bostrom and Daniel Dennett stands out. And of course there is a role for those who keep arguing for atheism and reductionism and so on. I was a fundamentalist Christian until I read some contemporary atheistic philosophy, so that kind of work definitely does some good.

But if you're looking to solve cutting-edge problems, mainstream philosophy is one of the last places you should look. Try to find the answer in the cognitive science or AI literature first, or try to solve the problem by applying rationalist thinking: like this.

Swimming the murky waters of mainstream philosophy is perhaps a job best left for those who already spent several years studying it - that is, people like me. I already know what things are called and where to look, and I have an efficient filter for skipping past the 95% of philosophy that isn't useful to me. And hopefully my rationalist training will protect me from picking up bad habits of thought.

Philosophy: the way forward

Unfortunately, many important problems are fundamentally philosophical problems. Philosophy itself is unavoidable. How can we proceed?

First, we must remain vigilant with our rationality training. It is not easy to overcome millions of years of brain evolution, and as long as you are human there is no final victory. You will always wake up the next morning as homo sapiens.

Second, if you want to contribute to cutting-edge problems, even ones that seem philosophical, it's far more productive to study math and science than it is to study philosophy. You'll learn more in math and science, and your learning will be of a higher quality. Ask a fellow rationalist who is knowledgeable about philosophy what the standard positions and arguments in philosophy are on your topic. If any of them seem really useful, grab those particular works and read them. But again: you're probably better off trying to solve the problem by thinking like a cognitive scientist or an AI programmer than by ingesting mainstream philosophy.

However, I must say that I wish so much of Eliezer's cutting-edge work wasn't spread out across hundreds of Less Wrong blog posts and long SIAI articles written in with an idiosyncratic style and vocabulary. I would rather these ideas were written in standard academic form, even if they transcended the standard game of mainstream philosophy.

But it's one thing to complain; another to offer solutions. So let me tell you what I think cutting-edge philosophy should be. As you might expect, my vision is to combine what's good in LW-style philosophy with what's good in mainstream philosophy, and toss out the rest:

  1. Write short articles. One or two major ideas or arguments per article, maximum. Try to keep each article under 20 pages. It's hard to follow a hundred-page argument.
  2. Open each article by explaining the context and goals of the article (even if you cover mostly the same ground in the opening of 5 other articles). What topic are you discussing? Which problem do you want to solve? What have other people said about the problem? What will you accomplish in the paper? Introduce key terms, cite standard sources and positions on the problem you'll be discussing, even if you disagree with them.
  3. If possible, use the standard terms in the field. If the standard terms are flawed, explain why they are flawed and then introduce your new terms in that context so everybody knows what you're talking about. This requires that you research your topic so you know what the standard terms and positions are. If you're talking about a problem in cognitive science, you'll need to read cognitive science literature. If you're talking about a problem in social science, you'll need to read social science literature. If you're talking about a problem in epistemology or morality, you'll need to read philosophy.
  4. Write as clearly and simply as possible. Organize the paper with lots of heading and subheadings. Put in lots of 'hand-holding' sentences to help your reader along: explain the point of the previous section, then explain why the next section is necessary, etc. Patiently guide your reader through every step of the argument, especially if it is long and complicated.
  5. Always cite the relevant literature. If you can't find much work relevant to your topic, you almost certainly haven't looked hard enough. Citing the relevant literature not only lends weight to your argument, but also enables the reader to track down and examine the ideas or claims you are discussing. Being lazy with your citations is a sure way to frustrate precisely those readers who care enough to read your paper closely.
  6. Think like a cognitive scientist and AI programmer. Watch out for biases. Avoid magical categories and language confusions and non-natural hypotheses. Look at your intuitions from the outside, as cognitive algorithms. Update your beliefs in response to evidence. [This one is central. This is LW-style philosophy.]
  7. Use your rationality training, but avoid language that is unique to Less Wrong. Nearly all these terms and ideas have standard names outside of Less Wrong (though in many cases Less Wrong already uses the standard language).
  8. Don't dwell too long on what old dead guys said, nor on semantic debates. Dissolve semantic problems and move on.
  9. Conclude with a summary of your paper, and suggest directions for future research.
  10. Ask fellow rationalists to read drafts of your article, then re-write. Then rewrite again, adding more citations and hand-holding sentences.
  11. Format the article attractively. A well-chosen font makes for an easier read. Then publish (in a journal or elsewhere).

Note that this is not just my vision of how to get published in journals. It's my vision of how to do philosophy.

Meeting journals standards is not the most important reason to follow the suggestions above. Write short articles because they're easier to follow. Open with the context and goals of your article because that makes it easier to understand, and lets people decide right away whether your article fits their interests. Use standard terms so that people already familiar with the topic aren't annoyed at having to learn a whole new vocabulary just to read your paper. Cite the relevant positions and arguments so that people have a sense of the context of what you're doing, and can look up what other people have said on the topic. Write clearly and simply and with much organization so that your paper is not wearying to read. Write lots of hand-holding sentences because we always communicate less effectively then we thought we did. Cite the relevant literature as much as possible to assist your most careful readers in getting the information they want to know. Use your rationality training to remain sharp at all times. And so on.

That is what cutting-edge philosophy could look like, I think.

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