Over at Slate Star Codex, I learned that Eliezer Yudkowsky is writing a book on, as Scott puts it, “low-hanging fruit vs. the argument from humility”. He’s examining the question of when we are, or can be, justified in believing we have spotted something important that the experts have missed.
I read Eliezer’s first chapter, and I read two responses to it, and I was gobsmacked. Not so much by Eliezer’s take; I think his microeconomic analysis looks pretty promising, though incomplete. But the first response, by one Thrasymachus, felt to me like dangerous nonsense: “This piece defends a strong form of epistemic modesty: that, in most cases, one should pay scarcely any attention to what you find the most persuasive view on an issue, hewing instead to an idealized consensus of experts.”
Motherfucker. If that’s what we think is right conduct, how in hell are we (in the most general sense, our civilization and species) going to unlearn our most sophisticated and dangerous mistakes, the ones that damage us more by the weight of expert consensus?
Somebody has to be “immodest”, and to believe they’re justified in immodesty. It’s necessary. But Eliezer only provides very weak guidance towards that justification; he says, in effect, that you’d better be modest when there are large rewards for someone else to have spotted the obvious before you. He implies that immodesty might be a better stance when incentives are weak.
I believe I have something more positive to contribute. I’m going to tell some stories about when I have spotted the obvious that the experts have missed. Then I’m going to point out a commonality in these occurrences that suggests an exploitable pattern – in effect, a method for successful immodesty.
There comes from Scott Alexander’s blog news of a new unified theory of neural cognition called the “predictive processing model”. Read his review of the book “Surfing Uncertainty” before proceeding further.
This model seems to solve a whole raft of longstanding problems about how the brain does what it does, offer insight into how various neurotransmitters work in cognition, and even into how disorders such as autism can be understood as consequences of very specific processing failures with testable consequences.
Now excuse me while I spike a ball in the end zone and yell “YEEHAA!”. Because, although its framers seem still unaware, the predictive-processing model tends strongly to confirm a set of philosophical positions I’ve been taking (and taking flak for) for many years.
One of the things I most enjoy doing is spotting holes in linguistic maps – places where people habitually circumlocute their way around a word – or, more properly, an important bundle of concepts tagged by a word – that they don’t know they’re missing.
Sometimes, filling one of these holes can shake up everyone’s view of the linguistic map near it in a way that changes their thinking. One of my favorite recent examples is Martin Fowler’s invention of the term “refactoring” in software engineering, and what that did to how software engineers think about their work.
About a year ago I invented a hole-filler that I think is useful for getting to grips with a large class of slippery problems in the philosophy of mind, knowledge, and perception. I’ve meant ever since to develop it further.
So, welcome to three new words: “cryptotheory”, “acrotheory”, and “mesotheory”. Of these, the most important (and the motivator for the other two) is “cryptotheory”.
Once upon a time, back during the Age of Exploration, there was a marvellous practice called the “silent trade”. It was a solution to a serious coordination problem between groups who had no languages in common, or distrusted each other so much that they refused to come within range of each others’ weapons.
What makes it marvellous is that it constituted experimental proof of the existence of universal, objective ethical principles sufficient to build cooperation among hostile parties.
An underappreciated fact about U.S. Constitutional law is that it recognizes sources of authority prior to the U.S. Constitution itself. It is settled law that the Bill of Rights, in particular, does not confer rights, it only recognizes “natural rights” which pre-exist the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and which – this is the key point – cannot be abolished by amending the Constitution.
I’ve gotten questions from a couple of different quarters recently about my relationship to the the rationalist community around Less Wrong and related blogs. The one sentence answer is that I consider myself a fellow-traveler and ally of that culture, but not really part of it nor particularly wishing to be.
The rest of this post is a slightly longer development of that answer.
Some weeks ago I was tremendously amused by a report of an exchange in which a self-righteous vegetarian/vegan was attempting to berate somebody else for enjoying Kentucky Fried Chicken. I shall transcribe the exchange here:
>There is nothing sweet or savory about the rotting
>carcass of a chicken twisted and crushed with cruelty.
>There is nothing delicious about bloodmouth carnist food.
>How does it feel knowing your stomach is a graveyard
I'm sorry, but you just inadvertently wrote the most METAL
description of eating a chicken sandwich in the history of mankind.
MY STOMACH IS A GRAVEYARD
NO LIVING BEING CAN QUENCH MY BLOODTHIRST
I SWALLOW MY ENEMIES WHOLE
ESPECIALLY IF THEY'RE KENTUCKY FRIED
I am no fan of KFC, I find it nasty and overprocessed. However, I found the vegan rant richly deserving of further mockery, especially after I did a little research and discovered that the words “bloodmouth” and “carnist” are verbal tokens for an entire ideology.
The Dark Enlightenment is, as I have previously noted, a large and messy phenomenon. It appears to me in part to be a granfalloon invented by Nick Land and certain others to make their own piece of it (the neoreactionaries) look larger and more influential than it actually is. The most detailed critiques of the DE so far (notably Scott Alexander’s Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell and Anti-Reactionary FAQ nod in the direction of other cliques on the map I reproduced but focus pretty strongly on the neoreactionaries.
Nevertheless, after we peel away clear outliers like the Techno-Commercial Futurists and the Christian Traditionalists, there remains a “core” Dark Enlightenment which shares a discernibly common set of complaints and concerns. In this post I’m going to enumerate these rather than dive deep into any of them. Development of and commentary on individual premises will be deferred to later blog posts.
(I will note the possibility that I may in summarizing the DE premises be inadvertently doing what Scott Alexander marvelously labels “steelmanning” – that is, reverse-strawmanning by representing them as more logical and coherent than they actually are. Readers should be cautious and check primary sources if in doubt.)
The Dark Enlightenment is a group of thinkers and blogs that has aroused a fair amount of controversy in the last several years. Most people who write about them from the outside piously dismiss them as a gang of crypto- and not-so-crypto- fascists, or a sort of grunting neanderthalism dressed up in intellectual clothes. The reality, as usual, is not so simple.
I’ve been meaning to write about them for a while, and the first question I’m going to raise is whether they meaningfully present a single subject at all.
In a response to my previous post, on Acausality and the Scientific Mind, a commenter said: “The computationalist position necessarily entails that subjectivity does not really exist, and what looks like subjectivity is a mere illusion without causal force.”
There are, I’m sure, many vulgar and stupid versions of computationalism that have this as a dogma. But it is not at all difficult to construct a computationalist model in which there are features that map to “subjectivity” and have causal force. Here is a sketch:
There is enough right about David Gelernter’s essay The Closing of the Scientific Mind to make it important to recognize where he has gone wrong. His willingness to call out certain kinds of widely popular modern errors is admirable, but does not preserve him from having made some rather more traditional errors of his own.
One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.
In the 1840s, Hindu priests complained to Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India) about the prohibition of suttee by British authorities. Suttee was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands. According to Napier’s brother William, this is how he replied:
“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.
A regular, TomA, asks: “If you could replace your organic body (in its entirety) with a machine, would you do it?”
This is one of those questions where examining the implied premises is the most interesting thing about answering it…
Community and collectivism are opposites. Community is valuable and powerful; it is individuals freely choosing to cooperate and identify with each other to achieve more than they can individually, as we do in the open-source community.
Collectivism is a fraud. It pretends to be about community, but it is actually about the use of force. Collectivists want us not only to bow to their desire for power over others, but to thank them for coercing us and praise them as our moral superiors.
Compassion is a duty of every individual. Groups of people organizing voluntarily to achieve compassionate ends are deserve admiration and support. Collectivists pervert compassion, speaking the language of caring but committing the actions of criminals.
It is a crime to rob your neighbor. It is a crime to use your neighbor for your own ends without allowing him or her a choice in the matter. It is a crime to deprive your neighbor of his liberty when he or she has committed no aggression against you.
These crimes are no less crimes when a sociopath (or a politician – but, I repeat myself) justifies them by chanting “for the poor” or “for the children” or “for the environment”. They do not cease to be crimes just because a majority has been conned into voting for them. The violence is just as violent, the victims just as injured, the harm done just as grave.
Valid ethical propositions do not contain proper names. What is criminal for an individual to do is criminal for a community to do. Collectivists are not the builders of community, as they pretend, but its deadliest enemies – its corrupters and betrayers. When we fail to understand these simple truths, we board a train to genocide and the gulags.
(This was originally a comment I left on Google+)
I’ve recently become aware of an entertaining controversy in the world of mathematics. It seems a dissident faction of mathematicians is advocating the replacement of the mathematical constant π with the related constant τ = 2π. T he self-described ‘Tauists’ are conducting their campaign with a form of ha-ha-only-serious dry humor that gently mocks the conventions of the mathematical literature, but if we receive it only as satire, we risk missing some serious and interesting issues in play.
Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape continues a pattern I’ve noted in the last two books of his I’ve read, Letter To A Christian Nation and The End Of Faith (my review here). Harris is a very capable thinker and a fearless, lucid, forceful writer; at his best, he’s the most accessible of the group he calls the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens and himself). I generally find myself in strong agreement with the general thrust of his arguments – and yet, I find he sometimes fails to ground them properly or follow them through completely.
So it is again in this book; the flaws are minor, comparatively speaking, but more than the partisans of rationality can afford in putting forward a case both so important and so certain to be met with stubborn denial.
In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.
This realization made me quite uncomfortable. I’m a hard-shell rationalist; what I have in my life that corresponds to religion I carefully chose to not involve me in faith-holding or the other kinds of emotional attachments that religious people form as a matter of course. I regard religion, in the sense the term is normally used, as a dangerous form of collective insanity – and I want above all to be sane.
Because I felt uncomfortable, I decided that I needed to perform the exercise I have elsewhere described as killing the Buddha – in this case, killing the premise that I am not like a religious person by examining and embracing all the ways that my relationship to science makes me like one.
In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, I learned a few minutes ago that I have been quoted, approvingly, in an article published with the imprimatur of the Vatican. This is from a news report that made Slashdot; I have not seen the article itself, which is apparently print-only and is likely in Italian.
OK, yes, I did say, “Hackers build things, crackers break them.” And it’s nice that the author got the distinction right. But as for the rest of the argument…well, since they quoted me to support it, I guess I’m almost obligated to point out that it’s so wrong it’s hilarious.
Earlier today I stumbled over some accusations that atheists are lining up with Islam because their actual enemy is not religion but Christianity.
The actual revelation here is that the fever-swamps of the left are capable of generating unlimited amounts of nonsense and putting it on protest signs. And, that conservatives are still prone to respond with a kind of reflexive bigotry that undermines them even when they have valid points to make.
I’m one of those “militant atheists” Tatler and Publius Forum are ranting about. My position is slightly complicated by the fact that I’m also a neopagan mystic – but the sort of “religion” I practice is nontheistic and fully compatible with philosophical atheism. This is not as unusual as one might think: many neopagans and Buddhists could say the same.
In hopes that some conservatives might actually pay attention, I will now explain how “militant atheists” evaluate different religions and why Islam is actually the least likely of them to attract or seduce atheists. The model I’m about to convey is explicitly shared by one of the major “New Atheist” writers – Sam Harris – and I am in little doubt that the others in that group (notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) would broadly approve of it.