All of James_Bach's Comments + Replies

For me, the purpose of doubt is to motivate inquiry. When any particular doubt no longer serves inquiry, I retire it.

If the purpose of doubt were to eliminate doubt, it would be far more efficient simply never to doubt.

Therefore, I doubt your philosophy of doubt. Let the inquiry continue.

When you wrote "But neither does it seem like the same shade of uncertainty" I suppose you mean that it doesn't seem that way, to you. Nor does it to me. But before, as a thinking person, I suggest that the difference is meaningful, I need a context or a reason. You haven't provided one, and that's why your argument has the flavor of religion, to my palette.

I'd love to see your answer to the actual skeptical argument, rather than the straw man you offer, here. Here you are doing the equivalent of announcing "I'm thinking of a number!..... 5!... (read more)

I love math. It's the only reason I sometimes wish I'd stayed in school. When I get rich, I want to hire a mathematician to live in my basement and tutor me. I bet they can be had for cheap.

Pure math is potentially a perfect idea. Applied math; not so much. When you see that line of 2's, how do you know it continues forever? You don't. You're making an induction; a beautiful guess. It's only because you peeked at the real answer-- an answer you yourself created-- that you can confidently say that you "predicted" the sequence with your method.

I'm ... (read more)

Thanks, Eliezer. Helpful post.

I have personally witnessed a room of people nod their heads in agreement with a definition of a particular term in software testing. Then when we discussed examples of that term in action, we discovered that many of us having agreed with the words in the definition, had a very different interpretation of those words. To my great discouragement, I learned that agreeing on a sign is not the same as agreeing on the interpretant or the object. (sign, object, and interpretant are the three parts of Peirce's semiotic triangle)

In th... (read more)

I wonder what your life must be like. The way you write, it sounds as if you spend a lot of your time trying to convince crazy people (by which I mean most of humanity, of course) to be less crazy and more rational, like us. Why not just ignore them?

Then I looked at your Wikipedia entry and noticed how young you are. Ah! When I was your age, I was also trying to convert everybody. My endless arguments about software development methods, circa 1994, are still in Google's Usenet archive. So, who am I to talk?

(Note: Mostly I write comments that complain about... (read more)

But let's really look at the statement "The future will be like the past because in the past the future was like the past." If by "like the past," do we mean obey the same physical laws? If we do, then I think what we're trying to estimate is the chance, over a specified time frame, that the physical laws will change. The problem then reduces to the problem of drawing red and blue marbles out of a hat. We can look at all the available time frames that we have "drawn" up to this point and get a confidence estimate on how likely it is that the physical laws will change over the next "draw" of the time frame

Induction is a behavior that seems to help us stay alive.

Well, it has helped us to stay alive in the past, though there's no reason to expect that to continue...

I don't understand why you invoke probability theory in a situation where it has no rhetorical value. Your conversation was a rhetorical situation, not a math problem, so you have to evaluate it and calibrate your speech acts accordingly-- or else you get nowhere, which is exactly what happened.

Your argument to your friend was exactly like someone justifying something about their own religion by citing their bible. It works great for people in your own community who already accept your premises. To anyone outside your community, you might as well be singin... (read more)

Why use probability even in conversations with people who don't understand probability? Because probability is TRUE. And if people keep hearing about it, maybe they'll actually try to start learning about it. You're right of course that this needs to be balanced with rhetorical efficiency---we may need to practice some Dark Arts to persuade people for the wrong reasons just to get them to the point where the right reasons can work at all. The rest of your comment dissolves into irrationality pretty quickly. We do in fact know to very high certainty that "spiritual intuition" is not good evidence, and if you really doubt that we can deluge you with gigabytes of evidence to that effect. Pyrrhonism is sometimes equated with skepticism, in which case it's stupid and self-defeating; and sometimes it's equated with fallibilism, in which case it's true and in some cases even interesting (many people who cite the Bible's infallibility do not seem to understand that relying on their assessment would be asserting their infallibility), but usually is implicit in the entire scientific method. I don't know which is historically closer to what Pyrrho thought, but nor do I particularly care.

I think the advocates of Naturalistic Inquiry (see Lincoln and Guba) would say that you aren't talking about all of science, but of just the "positivistic paradigm" of science, whereas there is another paradigm called "naturalistic" or "constructivist" that does science differently.

I don't buy the whole Naturalistic program, but they raise some useful points. One of them is that the experiments you suggest require you to impose upon the object of your study an ontology along with the value system associated with it. When study... (read more)

Forget voting. Here's how to make a big difference in society: at least once a month, do something amazingly kind for a perfect stranger. My preference is leaving $100 tips for waitresses or hotel maids, because I'm basically lazy.

Also, raise your kids with kindness.

Practice showing courage in challenging situations.

Don't instigate a lawsuit unless it's reaaaaaally important.

What's great about America is not democracy, but the sense we have that we can travel almost anywhere here and other people will smile with us, do business with us, and not hate us. Th... (read more)

Upvoted because this really deserves more than one upvote, even if it's four years too late. And for the sake of amusement I'm going to generalize from fictional evidence -- Good Omens -- and note the potential magnified effects of minor nuisances or elimination thereof, as when creating a traffic jam or sterilizing a telemarketer office.

Since I don't accept being part of a majority that dominates a minority, I only consent to vote in a situation where my vote is for the minority, and therefore cannot possibly influence the outcome. This is mathematically identical to staying home, except staying home is more pleasant. So, I'd rather stay home.

For those who believe in majority rule, I still don't understand why you vote, since your vote cannot make any difference. There is no such thing as a deciding vote in a large election, since the error present in the system even for a fair election i... (read more)

I'm guessing you two-box and think getting $1000 instead of $1000000 is a feature, not a bug.

You're such a lion against religion, I admire that. So, I'm surprised you would say that living with doubt is not a virtue. You know about incommensurability right? You know about perspectivism? There is no "view from nowhere" that can make perfect objectivity possible.

Therefore: doubt. To live with doubt makes room for learning. Lose doubt and you also lose inquiry. Some doubts are annihilated by inquiry, but as Richard Feynman said, "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts". He said we need a well developed theory of ignoran... (read more)

You're using different definitions for doubt here, and that is the issue. EY uses "doubt" in the sense of a suspicion that not enough knowledge is currently had to evaluate a specific claim, while you are using it as the opposite of "certainty" (though not consistently, somehow). In saying that doubt should not be lived with he was referencing his previously posted explanation of how these specific suspicions by nature are meant to annihilate themselves. Either you find the evidence you thought was missing or you conclude after some searching that finding it would be a waste of energy and make your judgment based on the evidence you already have, and either way, that doubt is gone. If you still harbor doubts, in his sense, that Christianity may be true, you should search for that missing evidence immediately or conclude that the effort to find it isn't worth it and assign the likelihood the ridiculously small probability it deserves. Notice that I did not say that you should claim with certainty that christianilty is false; predicting anything with true 100% certainty is, for a bayesian, truly stupid, because on the absurdly small chance that you're wrong, you lose the game, having just conceded that you assigned your life a likelyhood of 0%.

Eliezer, never mind black, the true iconoclasts don't go to school. I quit in 10th grade and became an emancipated minor. In the three years prior, I refused to do homework, citing the 13th Amendment. My motivation echoes yours: I could not abide fakers, and public school abounds with them. Fake lessons. Fake arguments. Fake sentiments. Public school is a thinly disguised day care center.

Fortunately, education is not the same as schooling, and there are plenty of ways to become better educated in private life. Then I discovered as an adult that being unconventionally educated could be a competitive advantage.

As opposed to what? The business world is relentlessly honest?

I don't see this exercise as being so much about rationality as it is about our relationship with dissonance. People in my community (context-driven software testers) are expected to treat confusion or controversy as itself evidence of a potentially serious problem. For the responsible tester, such evidence must be investigated and probably raised as an issue to the client.

In short, in the situation given in the exercise, I would not answer the question, but rather raise some questions.

I drive telephone surveyors nuts in this way. They just don't know what... (read more)

It seems to me that most of rationality is about our relationship with dissonance. Though in most cases that dissonance is implicit while here it is obvious.

Thank you for this post. I'm in the process of writing about my system of self-education, which has two interesting elements I haven't heard anywhere else: A) it requires no self-discipline whatsoever, B) it is centered on the feelings of learning, rather than artifacts and techniques of learning (those latter two things are interesting, but they orbit the first).

One of the things I try to explain is how to embrace certain mental behaviors that seem bad, such as procrastination. I procrastinate extensively. I am procrastinating right now (I'm "suppose... (read more)

Great essay!

But, how can a set of ideas be a closed system? It's ridiculous. If someone were to tell me that Objectivism is closed, I would say, Ha! I just reopened it. Ha! Try and stop me from calling myself an Objectivist if I feel like it! Oh, they can trademark it, I supposed, but if they do, I could rename my system as Reasonablism and explain it as an improved form of what-Ayn-Rand-was-talking-about.

A community of people can close itself off, but ideas are helpless to resist whatever buccaneering minds may prey upon them. This harkens to Buckminster Fuller's cry that "true wealth only increases", because true wealth is knowledge and knowledge is infinitely replicable and shareable.

A set of people can be closed to updates on their ideas.

When you speak of "guardians of truth" I hear "guardians of social order." I don't think the Inquisition thought of truth in epistemic terms, the way we do. They thought of "truth" as the order of the world that was under constant assault by dark forces.

Truth guardianship in science might be understood as defending Kuhnian "normal science" from assault by people outside of the dominant paradigm; or perhaps the process of indoctrinating new scientists in the accepted norms of that paradigm.

Kary Mullis talks about this, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

You said: "So it seems there's an asymmetry between argument and authority. If we know authority we are still interested in hearing the arguments; but if we know the arguments fully, we have very little left to learn from authority."

I like your conclusion, but I can't find anything in your argument to support it! By rearranging some words in your text I could construct an equally plausible (to a hypothetical neutral observer) argument that authority screens off evidence. You seem to believe that evidence screens off authority simply because you ... (read more)

"I used to wonder how anyone could take the obviously wrong physics of Aristotle seriously, until I learned enough about history that it dawned on me that for the Scholastic thinkers of the middle ages, how physics really worked was far less important than maintaining social order. If maintaining social order is the problem that trumps all others in your life and in your society, then evidence must necessarily carry little weight compared to authority. You will give up a lot of science, of course, but you will give it up gladly. Obviously, we aren't in that situation. But I worry when I see, for instance, rational arguments for the existence of God that assume the very thing they purport to prove. And your argument (hopefully I've misunderstood it) seems a lot like those." Well, reading Sam Harris' account of speaking to prominent atheists backing a moralistic relativism "on behalf of" the world's religions would led me to suspect that we are just as, maybe more influenced by the idea of maintaining social order. I think that the tyrrany of choice (50 kinds of ketchup anyone?) makes it seem like we've got more 'apparent choices' many of which aren't fundamentally different from each other as far as what social cliques to participate in. If you look closely, each of these apparently different groups has a uniform and a rallying cry, but on the whole say much the same thing, even where the 'authority' in each case seems quite different.
If we observe experts changing their beliefs based on evidence often, but evidence changing based on the beliefs of experts never, then it seems reasonable that the chain of causality goes reality->evidence->beliefs of experts->beliefs of non-experts, with the possible shortcut reality->evidence->beliefs of non-experts, when the evidence is particularly abundant or clear.

Much of what is obviously wrong about Aristotle or likely to be wrong was discussed. Orseme for example wrote in the 1300s and discussed a lot of problems with Aristotle (or at least his logic). He proposed concepts of momentum and gravity that were more or less correct but lacked any quantization. And people from a much earlier time understood that Aristotle's explanation of movement of thrown objects was deeply wrong. Attempts to repair this occurred well before the Scholastics even were around. Scholastics were more than willing to discuss alternate the... (read more)

As a high school dropout and aspiring philosopher of self-education, I salute you.

My son is homeschooled, and the homeschooling consists of... nothing. He studies spontaneously to solve problems that are authentic to him, just as I do. Mostly these involve video games and online fantasy role-playing games. It's like A.S. Neill's Summerhill school except he's all alone. There are disadvantages to this sort of education, but inauthenticity is not among them.

I am writing a book along these lines. It's about how we can creates ourselves as individual thinkers.... (read more)

I'm nervous about the word happiness because I suspect it's a label for a basket of slippery ideas and sub-idea feelings. Still, something I don't understand about your argument is that when you demonstrate that for you happiness is not a terminal value you seem to arbitrarily stop the chain of reasoning. Terminating your inquiry is not the same as having a terminal value.

If you say you value something and I know that not everyone values that thing, I naturally wonder why you value it. You say it's a terminal value, but when I ask myself why you value it i... (read more)

I actually think that happiness is reducible to a clear and defined definition. Happiness is a positive, gradual feedback mechanism that is context dependent. The context is the belief that your desires (most and strongest) are being fulfilled. Misery is the inverse negative feedback for thwarted desires). If you give an AI these mechanisms, then it experiences happiness and misery, regardless of what you call them or how they manifest.

Quantitative thinking is just so much mystical numerology unless it is grounded in qualitative thinking. Unless you don't need your mathematics to mean anything with respect to the world, you must relate it to the world by using a system of assertions called a model. Of course, you know this, I'd just like you to bring this fact out from behind the curtain where you normally keep it.

Example: when I hear a scientist talk about how winning the lottery (or some other rare event) is less likely than getting hit by lightning, I have to wonder what the odds are ... (read more)

Until you pick one interim best guess, the discomfort will consume your attention, distract you from the search, tempt you to confuse the issue whenever your analysis seems to trend in a particular direction.

Oh no. Eliezer, I have disagreed with you at times, but you have not actually disappointed me until this moment. As an avid reader of yours, I beseech you, please think through this again.

You simply have not presented a moral dilemma. You've presented a pantomine; shadows on a wall; an illusion of a dilemma. If there's any dilemma here at all, it was w... (read more)

Regarding your example of income disparity: I might rather be born into a system with very unequal incomes, if, as in America (in my personal and biased opinion), there is a reasonable chance of upping my income through persistence and pluck. I mean hey, that guy with all that money has to spend it somewhere-- perhaps he'll shop at my superstore!

But wait, what does wealth mean? In the case where everyone has the same income, where are they spending their money? Are they all buying the same things? Is this a totalitarian state? An economy without disparity ... (read more)

Yes the answer is obvious. The answer is that this question obviously does not yet have meaning. It's like an ink blot. Any meaning a person might think it has is completely inside his own mind. Is the inkblot a bunny? Is the inkblot a Grateful Dead concert? The right answer is not merely unknown, because there is no possible right answer.

A serious person-- one who take moral dilemmas seriously, anyway-- must learn more before proceeding.

The question is an inkblot because too many crucial variables have been left unspecified. For instance, in order for thi... (read more)

Your point would be so much stronger, Eliezer, if you were allowed to ignore the role of models in rationality. But in all cases an infinity of alternative models may also account for what you think you have proven rationally. In your terms, no one can revoke the law that any belief in "accurate beliefs" rests on a priori assertions about what can exist and what constitutes evidence. It rests on a priori structures in your brain, designed to notice some things and not others.

Rationality is heuristic. In the case of waiting for water to spontaneou... (read more)

I like the spirit of what you're saying, but I'm not convinced that you've made a rational argument for it. Also, I'm concerned that you might have started with the conclusion that a rational argument must flow forward and constructed an account to justify it. If so, in your terms, though not in mine, that would make your conclusion irrational.

I think it can be perfectly rational to think backwards from any conclusion you want to any explanation that fits. Rationality is among other things about being bound by the requirement of consistency in reasoning. I... (read more)

What you need to remember is that all of this applies to probabilistic arguments with probabilistic results - of course deductive reasoning can be done backward. However, when evidence is presented as contribution to a belief, omitting some (as you will, inevitably, when reasoning backward) disentangles the ultimate belief from the object thereof. If some evidence doesn't contribute, the (probabilistic) belief can't reflect reality. You seem to conceptualize arguments as requiring the outcome if they're valid and their premises are true, which doesn't describe the vast majority.
You only need to have better information than average voter for your vote to improve result of election. Though then again, effect of 1 vote is usually so small that the rational choice would be to vote for whatever gives you more social status.
The argument could turn out valid, by coincidence; but the process of making it isn't valid, so given the vast space of all possible arguments... it's probably not valid. Indeed, as nearly all advertising, propaganda, political campaigns, etc. are not.

Um, guys, there are an infinite number of possible hypotheses. Any evidence that corroborates one theory also corroborates (or fails to refute) an infinite number of alternative specifiable accounts of the world.

What evidence does is allow us to say "Whatever the truth is, it must coexist in the same universe with the true nature of this evidence I have accepted. Theory X and its infinite number of variants seems to be ruled out by this evidence (although I may have misinterpreted the theory or the nature of the evidence), whereas Theory Y and its inf... (read more)

How about we put it this way: In the infinite space of possible theories, most of them are far too complex to ever have enough evidence to locate. (If it takes 3^^^3 bits of information to verify the theory... you're never going to verify the theory.) In realistic circumstances, we have really a quite small list of theories to choose from, because the list of theories that we are capable of comprehending and testing in human lifetimes is itself very small.
There are not an infinite number of possible hypotheses in a great many sensible situations. For example, suppose the question is "who murdered Fred?", because we have already learned that he was murdered. The already known answer: "A human alive at the time he died.", makes the set finite. If we can determine when and where he died, the number of suspects can typically be reduced to dozens or hundreds. Limiting to someone capable of carrying out the means of death may cut 90% of them. To the extent that "bits" of evidence means things that we don't know yet, the number of bits can be much smaller than suggested. To the extent that "bits" of evidence includes everything we know so far, we all have trillions of bits already in our brains and the minimal number is meaningless.

Hi Eliezer,

I like the word entanglement, because it's a messy concept. Reality, whatever else it might be, is messy. That's why statements like the preceding sentence can't ever be completely true. The messiness makes it hard to talk about anything real in any absolutely definitive sort of way.

I can be definitive about artificial constructs in an artificial world, yes. Hence, mathematics. But when you or I try to capture the real world with that comforting clarity, we are doomed. Well, mostly doomed. 85.27% doomed, plus or minus an unknown set of unknowns.... (read more)

"Evolution does not operate on species. It operates on individuals. Genes that are statistically bad for individuals drop out of the gene pool no matter what they do for the species."

Imagine a gene that caused 9/10 of the humans who have it to be twice as fertility and attractiveness as the population that did not have it, while 1/10 of the humans who have it can't reproduce at all. This would be a gene that would serve the species (i.e. the portion of the species that had it), even though it would harm some individuals. Notice that the inability... (read more)

I'm pleased to say that, through a great deal of study and practice, I have learned how to unlearn things that I know. This is called skepticism. A key to it is the ability to imagine plausible alternatives to whatever is believed. Descartes is famous for developing this idea, although he was constrained by his society from completely embracing it. Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus developed this idea, but their community was persecuted and destroyed by the Christians, too.

Skepticism is not opposed to rationality, but neither does it accept that a rationally der... (read more)

Because being rational isn't just something fun to play with. It's aiming to correspond your beliefs and actions with reality, which will eventually catch up. Nothing you've said here indicates that you actually have read this blog.

Curiously Eliezer, I feel like applauding. Good post.

Something seems out of kilter about this, Eliezer.

When I was 13, I thought I had a proof in principle that there must be a minimum possible distance-- because to move is to move a finite distance, but no sum of infitesimal distances can compose a finite distance. I shared my idea with a professional physicist, who dismissed my idea using an appeal to authority. I don't care how fabulous the authority was, nor how ignorant I may have been, it was a terrible thing to for him to do that. It killed my enthusiasm for questioning physics, or math, at the time.

Re... (read more)

Hey Brandon, I hear you. I think you'll find is fascination to see this Google Video Presentation by Thomas Metzinger:

"Being No One: Consciousness, The Phenomenal Self, and First-Person Perspective"

He tries to do exactly what you suggest. He reviews what we know empirically about self-awareness, and constructs a philosophical model of self that accounts for those phenomena. I got a lot out of it.

He even complains about certain Kantians who have taken the bold step of denying certain kinds of mental illness, because their world view can't account for them.

This link is broken. looks like it might be the same video though.

At some point it maybe helpful to define curiosity. My sense of the meaning of curiosity is that it's an urge to learn something that you suspect maybe important to know at some point, even if it may not matter now. A paper I read recently ( defined curiosity more formally, as a special kind of search strategy that focuses on places that your experience shows have a higher than average probability of teaching you something useful. This doesn't seem too far from my definition.

It seems to me... (read more)

I like your list of signs of a curiosity stopper. I don't necessarily think that "elan vital" meets those requirements (as Roy points out), but perhaps it did for many people or at some times.

I like the list because my brain feels a little more limber and a little more powerful, having pondered it. The list is a curiosity ENHANCER, and an anticipation SHARPENER.

-- James

I love this idea. It reminds me of a bit of management advice I once heard: knives in the chest, not in the back. For better results, get debate out in the open.