Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muehlhauser on Modern Rationalism (Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot)

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I'm generally skeptical when someone proclaims that "rationality" itself should get us to throw out 90%+ of philosophy. So I was a bit puzzled when someone on our Facebook group pointed at some articles by Luke Muehlhauser (specifically "Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline" and "Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant"), host of the excellent Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast, that took this hardcore stance:

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... 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. ...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...

This might appear to be garden-variety scientism, but it's not a rejection of philosophy. Like Pat Churchland, Luke acknowledges that many fundamental problems are philosophical, and that scientific studies do not in themselves settle conceptual issues, and that without good philosophical analysis, science can waste a lot of time investigating ill-formed questions. But still, the 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.

This blanket dismissal seemed strange to me given Luke's spending so much time talking to so many different, religiously inclined folks on his podcast, but the answer became clear when listening to one of his final episodes (it mostly stopped production with this episode in Feb 2011, with only a couple after that later in 2011): his interview with Eliezer Yudkowsky. Eliezer is responsible for lesswrong.com, the site where Luke posted the above essays. He's an AI researcher, and his big cause is promoting "friendly artificial intelligence," which he sees as the pressing need of our age. If AI becomes a reality soon (which, contra Dreyfus, Eliezer thinks it surely will), then unless measures are taken to ensure that these are designed so as not to alter themselves to have values at variance with human needs regarding our environment, then we're in big trouble.

So here's one alleged reason for hostility for any kind of philosophy that isn't obviously "useful:" there are pressing needs that intellectuals are needed for, and the rest of us are slacking on our responsibilities. Of course, the same accusation could be and has been made about reducing human poverty, solving environmental crises, and many other goals that are not so speculative as this concern of Eliezer's (which I'm not in a position to judge here). There's some discussion of this on our forthcoming Plato episode: that philosophy, even if "useless" in terms of technological application and not obviously even helpful into making us morally better people (there are plenty of jerky philosophers), is worthwhile in itself, just like appreciation of art or many other joys of life. Of course, as philosophy types, we don't rest comfortably in this answers, and always feel a little weird about spending time on this (or anything else)... we may well be wrong.

As was made clear on our 2011 episodes about proofs for the existence of God and the new atheists, even when we consider a particular philosophic issue, reason itself doesn't tend to necessitate a definitive solution: evaluation of these arguments is not a purely subjective matter where everyone's equally right, but neither is it so cut and dry that we can dismiss all theists or atheists as unreasonable, confused, or stupid (even if many in both camps undoubtedly are).

Much less does reason itself necessitate a certain whole world view, a way of determining what's truly important and worth spending time on and what isn't. Many Chinese folks who mix Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in their personal philosophies understand this. Though these views all have different practical upshots (e.g. re. do you respect state authority and tradition or not?), they all contain insights that have worked well in various contexts, and they are (in some portion of the cultural traditions relevant to this example, anyway) based more on different, non-empirically-verifiable attitudes towards life, rather than (as in some Western creeds) on some alleged matters of fact (which makes it much harder for someone to be a Christian-Jewish-Muslim hybrid, though it can be done).

So being a scientist, even one highly tuned into the latest development in cognitive science, statistics, and the like, does not actually dictate a single overall attitude toward life, a mission, a set of core beliefs. And yet, this is what we see in Eliezer's attitude as exemplified in this podcast and on Less Wrong, which contains numerous articles on mistakes in reasoning that come from an ignorance of such advances as Bayes's theorem. Now, the site is interesting, and the points about reasoning are well taken: we often, for instance, misrepresent probabilities in making intuitive judgments about how we think the world is. If your version of "doing philosophy," then, is making a lot of bullshit generalizations about things, then, yes, the Less Wrong approach will be useful for you. But to then throw out the mass of the philosophical tradition because it has been ignorant of these tidbits is to fundamentally miss the boat, to badly oversimplify perennial problems, in short, to "cheat" at philosophy in exactly the same kind of way that's been attempted time and again by, e.g. logical posititivism, pragmatism, and others from Hume to the present.

While Eliezer's version of the rational life is less silly than Ayn Rand's (at least it doesn't seem to be so explicit in endorsing, say, a particular and most unempirical political agenda), and I don't think suffers from the comparable mistakes of self-proclaimed champions of Reason throughout history (e.g. Kant's view that morality comes from Reason, or Locke's view that Natural Law is determinable through Reason itself), I think it's instructive to contrast Eliezer with David Chalmers as he appeared on our interview with him. Chalmers is a guy who is very much on top of the science in his field (including the AI business about singularity), 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, even as his own theory of consciousness allows for rigorous investigations of mind-body correlations and buys into functionalism (i.e. it doesn't dismiss probably anything that Eliezer and his AI mates are cooking up). I respectfully suggest that while reading more in contemporary science is surely a good idea (and I'm sure we'll have some more episodes on physics, philosophy of mind, evolution, etc.), 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. By all means, though, listen to his side of this, and take a look at his site and at Less Wrong (he's also made lots of appearances on YouTube), and let us know what you think.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Leland Gregory says

    Partially examined life and Less Wrong are two of the best intellectual resources on the internet. I visit each daily, and spend at least one entire evening per week on each. Both philosophy and rationality (science) help enrich my life by contemplation of questions, with rigorous discussion on curious phenomena.

    I agree with the core of the sentiment from Less Wrong, in that certain writings are meaningless: “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.” To me that kind of philosophy gets me curious. I would never listen to Alan Watts to find the truth of a thing, but I do listen to him to wonder more.

    I think you would agree that we should exclude these kinds of philosophers from the canon of “what we know.” And that is what the Less Wrong guys aim to do. They aim for truth. They aim to know. Throwing out a swath of philosophy might be going too far, but I understand where they’re coming from.

    I don’t think you should take the attack on “philosophy” so personally. Even you are known to rail against mainstream academic philosophy, and that is all that Eliezer and Luke are reacting to.

    And I agree with you on this point: “Much less does reason itself necessitate a certain whole world view, a way of determining what’s truly important and worth spending time on and what isn’t.” For a personal life, I completely agree with you. Although I think it’s reasonable to believe AI is an existential threat to humanity, I don’t think reason necessitates that you as an individual work directly on that problem. I do think that reason necessitates that more effort is spent on friendly AI than on AI in general, but it doesn’t necessitate that all effort should be placed on friendly AI, certainly there is room for other things. I feel like the Less Wrong “rationality mandate” to work on AI is somewhat sanctimonious, similar to Dawkins mandate against religion.

    I would love for the 5 of you thinkers to get together in a podcast (or a webcast), Mark, Seth, Wes, Eliezer, and Luke. A close second would be a partially examined life podcast centered around AI. For that I would suggest a paper by Yudkowsky that provides a good overview and advocates that rigorous moral philosophy is one of the most important problems facing humanity today: http://singularity.org/files/ComplexValues.pdf.

    Keep on being awesome!

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Leland, great to hear from someone immersed in both worlds. I’m of course all for online thinkin’ clubs, though suspicious of ones with any kind of formal group creed. I’ve spoken to Luke in the past about appearing, but it’s not on our near-term schedule. I’m sure also that we’ll get into more AI-related conversations at some point, but don’t currently find this singularity issue to be among the most interesting topics in this area.

      I think Eliezer’s characterization of philosophy is something like what’s pictured in this film: http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2012/11/15/film-review-the-nature-of-existence-meaning-through-sound-bite/, i.e. a bunch of groundless and contradictory spouting off. It’s a caricature, and while perhaps not an actual straw man (I’m sure he has particular targets in mind who so flagrantly violate his rationality tenets), is not as I see it a serious challenge to mainstream philosophy. His take in the Pale Blue Dot video on what some kind of dualist (like Chalmers, and presumably the critique would extend to Dreyfus) is doing doesn’t betray any understanding of a philosophically respectable version of the position he’s arguing against. (And I’m not at this point claiming to be able to lay out such a view myself, but I can recognize just from my reading of Chalmers’s book that Eliezer’s characterization does not display knowledge of Chalmers’s distinction between reductionism, which requires logical supervenience, and natural supervenience… perhaps Eliezer’s response would be a curt dismissal of this distinction on pragmatic grounds, i.e. that Chalmers really is a physicalist to the extent that it matters for doing the science, and his insistence to the contrary is based on a concern with conceptual issues that are of no use to science.)

      • Leland Gregory says

        I’m curious why you don’t find AI to be “among the most interesting topics in this area.” Humans are coming to the point where we will be able to create new consciousnesses from the ground up. Previously we could only create new intelligences through baby making, where we don’t get much say in the outcome. We have an opportunity to create a being from scratch, and that idea is extremely thought provoking to me. We self modify continuously, but what if the potential modifications were more fundamental, more complete and radical? We will need a good deal of philosophy to help us design ourselves and new beings, especially if the boundary between the physical world and experiential consciousness remains as opaque as it is today.

        I bet you’re exactly right on Eliezer’s response, but that is why you need to have him on the podcast! Personally I think metaphysics is beyond interesting, but not especially useful. Admittedly I don’t know the entire argument he made against philosophy, so I will listen to the podcast with Eliezer and Luke, and the PEL with Chalmers, and then I’ll get back with some more well constructed thoughts. :)

      • Leland Gregory says

        Yes, after hearing the pale blue dot podcast, I will admit that Eliezer appears like he doesn’t grasp the specialness of consciousness. He relates it to the fact that we can move our body around, which people also used to think was magical, (or as we would say, emergent.) That’s a poor comparison to make, because experience itself is a difference in kind from using experience to manipulate the physical world.

        Personally I think there’s a good chance we will understand the physical processes through which consciousness arises (with a sort of caveat that we can be certain about another consciousness), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that consciousness is just the physical world. Science can tell us how the property emerges, but there is still emergence of something non-physical.

        From Eliezer’s scientific viewpoint though, the emergence of the phenomenon of consciousness is moot. It’s not epistemologically verifiable, and so it falls into the category of beliefs that have no predictions, which he doesn’t particularly care about. I think he should care a little more about it, because creating consciousness is a huge responsibility.

        Can you point me to some reading material for the “philosophically respectable version of the position [Eliezer’s] arguing against”?


      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says

        Er, I don’t think you can reasonably expect a podcast to compare with Chalmers’s “The Conscious Mind” as a complete statement of my position.

        Key LW posts would be:


        and from the more recent sequence on Highly Advanced Epistemology 101 for Beginners


    • Glen says

      The whole issue from a philosopher’s perspective would be what you mean by “truth” or what a “fact” what the substantive import of the statement “they aim for truth” is.

      The philosopher, in the spirit of Socrates, comes along and asks you to explain those presuppositions (usually unstated) that lead to you to your conclusions, reveals them to be bunk or at least that they are unfounded or hopelessly vague, showing the whole “theory” to be irrational, and gets vilified for it.

      Scientists in my experience don’t like to hear about undetermination, or the Duhem-Quine thesis because (for example) they do like to have the pretension of being able to cut nature at its joints. Well, people like Quine (who was an arch-analytic philosopher with ultimate respect for the sciences) and Duhem (who was a physicist) brought extraordinary doubt about the real “objectivity” of science. And yet, arguably, it did nothing to change what scientists do. And that’s okay. The point is that there is a lot of good, useless philosophy out there.

      Another example would be how you apparently equate “rationality” with “science.” Correct me if I am wrong. In any case, David Hume would tell you that in a very deep science, or any inductive generalization for that matter, is completely irrational. It’s irrational, but it works. There seems to be a bit of a dilemma here because we like to conflate the two. How do we solve that if solving if is even possible? I doubt doing neuroscience will help because as Hume would point out you would be relying on the methods of science to prove the methods of science are rational. That’s a classic type of problem that philosophers like to work on, despite the fact that it probably will have no practical upshot.

      Don’t know where I am going with this.

  2. Ryan says

    It would seem to me that for Kant, reason comes from morality, and for Locke, reason is determinable through the natural law, and that it is in this way how reason should also dictate a certain natural attitude toward life. Or rather, a certain natural attitude about life is what it is that constitutes reason, as it is certainly at least not some kind of externality point around which the rest of the entire world may freely revolve (except I suppose for Berkeley). It’s funny though that I find myself agreeing with Yudkowsky’s claim about the pathetic distraction that makes up much philosophy, but neither with his nor your own positive prescriptions for what should be taking place otherwise – and so does philosophy always only work to perform this first skeptical/critical step? What is the next small step that it can take beyond those barren grounds without immediately losing its footing?

  3. Daniel C. says

    Sounds like garden variety scientism to me. I find this instrumental way of looking at the world abhorrent, but if people want to go down that road then by all means let them start using numbers as words, praying to their computers and breeding their children from test tubes. What I don’t really get is the edict that the other ways of looking at the world and other conceptions of what is useful knowledge need to be thrown out to make more room for their AI projects. Could we brand this “Evangelical Scientism”? Can’t they just let us play in the corner quietly until we all have to fight the robots together?

  4. says

    Nice critique, Mark, and well-said Daniel C. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve met a lot of Less Wrong(-type) people, including Eliezer himself, and have been to a few of their compound parties. As someone with a graduate degree in philosophy, my impression is that they are very bright (and friendly) and have a lot of knowledge in certain areas, but are too myopically math/computer-focused and under-informed philosophically to have views on philosophy and philosophical issues that are worthy of the time of the PEL guys, who, as we know, have actual grounding in philosophy.

    • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

      Thanks Paul. Myopic really is the word. I should have said thanks to Mark as well for posting and providing the critical perspective. We need more of that on this subject, IMO.

  5. says

    Mark, you raise the question of *usefulness* at one point but never appear to rebut it. At the same time, you suggest that even seemingly impractical philosophy is still useful like art appreciation, etc.

    I would ask, useful for what though, and to whom? If reducing suffering is a moral obligation, then why should I spend so much time staring at Duchamp’s urinal? And if moral goods are only one set of good, to be measured against others…well how do we decide how they get measured?

    Which is just one example of the kind of stuff upon which Luke’s skepticism is based, and which really does present serious issues for someone committed to philosophy.

    While the alternatives presented by Luke et al might be found wanting, I don’t think you’re giving the initial critique enough merit, as demonstrated by the degree to which you merely appear to contradict their claims, rather than forcefully dissect and rebut them.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Ethan, re. your last comment: “as demonstrated by the degree to which you merely appear to contradict their claims, rather than forcefully dissect and rebut them.”

      I intended this post to be a high-level overview of positions. There many individual arguments involved, and of course one of the primary questions when confronting a system condemning one’s entire world-view is how much of your time it’s actually worth to go in and respond to the individual arguments. Looking over the Eliezer’s site and Less Wrong (albeit for not more than an hour or two total, and there’s a heap of stuff there that I’ll take a further look at), my overall impression is again that while many of the specific tidbits about fallacies of thinking are fine stuff, none of this adds up to the blanket critique/world-view that comes through very clearly even just listening to the main podcast linked to above. To actually rebut arguments would mean looking specifically at what they have to say about, e.g. Quine, and having some debate about that. Now, I’m obviously not going to be a full-on advocate of Quine or most of the other figures we cover, and in that sense someone coming from the LW standpoint will be in as good a position as anyone to make a critique, so long as it’s not a sloppy, blanket one. The Luke articles I pointed to are, like my own post, presented at a high level, as the result of years of study. This is one of the technical definitions of “intuition,” i.e. as used in those personality tests which contrast it with “perception.” …Does most of your thinking focus on particulars, or do you pull in from many particulars to get to the big picture. Now, obviously, focusing on the individual element is the only way we really make dialectical progress in a philosophical argument: you and I have to have the same, small point in mind to zoom in and evaluate it together… in that case, people most often agree, or if they don’t, then it’s useful to figure out why. That’s what analytic philosophy is all about, and Luke’s advice about writing philosophically by picking a single point to make clearly and well is all in line with that. However, one’s “philosophy” inevitably involves this synthesis. I think science qua science is very careful about such syntheses and purposefully doesn’t present itself, then, as a philosophy in the way that LW clearly does. It’s this larger philosophy that inspires, that makes one take up the label of rationalism or any other ism, and it’s this that I think is pretty clearly unjustified, i.e. irrational, whether done by the Randian objectivist or by a fervent follower of LW.

      That said, it’s not that hard to rebut the contention that Luke makes that virtually none of, say, continental philosophy is worth reading. The rebuttal is, well, go listen to the Heidegger episode, or the ones on Hegel’s phenomenology, or the Sartre or the Foucault. Those are among our most popular episodes, and hence useful at least in the sense of entertaining, and we came out of all of those with some tangible meat to chew on, in terms of our reflections on the self and freedom. Would more episodes covering the science of what we know about the self scientifically (e.g. George Herbert Mead has been brought up) help to round out this picture? Sure. But were we to just start with that and skip the inspiring historical stuff, we’d be the poorer for it.

      Things are different for Eliezer himself (and now I guess Luke, whom it appears he has hired) regarding utility than they are for you and me. If you’re a practicing scientist or wanna-be scientist, then much of what’s out there to be read will of course be irrelevant, i.e. not useful to you in the endeavor of your particular science, and as we discussed with Owen Flanagan, challenges “from intuition” are not going to trump legitimate scientific findings in particular areas such that you need pay much attention to them. I (and I assume you) are not in that position, but are instead listening and reading things seeking enlightenment and insight in whatever forms they may come. So for we mere fans to say that learning some alleged scientific fact is more useful than sitting in on an old style Socratic debate about truth or justice, can only betray that such a fan is impatient and perhaps a little dim. There’s a time and place for both kinds of intellectual activity, but unless you’re actually involved in cutting-edge research, then you’re just being a poser if you think that knowing the scientific details in this area is more useful to you than higher-level consideration of the philosophical issues involved. For instance, knowing the details of what part of the brain is correlated with what kind of event is less important for us plebes than knowing in general how the correlations work and how to talk about the situation philosophically.

  6. dmf says


    “In an SFI Community Lecture on April 9 in Santa Fe, author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein considered intuition as an essential part of our moral and philosophical thinking, described how mathematicians of the last century tried to eliminate all appeals to intuitions, and showed how Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems can be viewed as proof that we can’t get along without them.”

    • K says

      I never understood why one needs to invoke Gödel to make a claim about intuition, or something like it, in mathematics? Is it not enough to make the claim that you cannot formalize mathematics without using axioms that themselves are justified by non mathematical means?

      Heres a snippet from Solomon Fefermans review of Goldsteins book: “The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel”:

      “Even Rebecca Goldstein’s book, whose laudable aim is to provide non-technical expositions of the incompleteness theorems (there are two) for a general audience and place them in their historical and biographical context, makes extravagant claims and distorts their significance. As Goldstein sees it, Gödel’s are ‘the most prolix theorems in the history of mathematics’ and address themselves ‘to the central question of the humanities: what is involved in our being human?’ – since they are concerned with ‘such vast and messy issues as the nature of truth and knowledge and certainty’. Unfortunately, these weighty claims disintegrate under closer examination, while the book is marred by a number of conceptual and historical errors.”

      • says

        I guess some people speak about Gödel for pretty much the same reason other people speak about quantum physics. It is something that most people don’t understand, but everybody knows it is something scientific. Therefore, by linking your opinions to these topics, you automatically get the aura of science without much risk that people will understand why your arguments are wrong.

        (An example: If you disagree with my comment, you are unscientific, because quantum physics proves the reality is not fixed, and Gödel proves you cannot understand the world by logic, therefore you are wrong and I am right. Q.E.D.)

  7. Profile photo of Tammy says

    (If this posts twice, apologies, the Internet disconnected in my initial attempt.)

    I read your summarization this morning, paused, taken back, because these are running threads in a similar ongoing discussion, Mark. The topics can be cerebrally intense, but I think they are important for economic reasons. I like the fact you brought in Eastern philosophical thoughts because I think it’s fundamentally important to pay attention to what is taking place in the broad world—China’s economic growth at an accelerated rate because of technology.

    The Singularity, and what is coined saltwater/freshwater economics, is, I think an important discussion between different specializations. There has been a lot of discussion on ethical (lack of) dimensions and a possible “Big Data” bubble. The take way I have drawn thus far, postponing judgment, is that more philosophy is needed in the discussion with specializations.

    From the Philosophy of Religion field, Non-Realism (Christian atheism) wants to address issues, not so much in terms of rationalism but what I understand as realism. I found this interesting on a few levels, one being that this was a philosophical branch of thinking historically in Europe—rationalism and the quest for authority. That said, I would think we could and should draw meaning from philosophical arguments throughout history. http://philosophybites.com/2008/11/don-cupitt-on-nonrealism-about-god.html

    Again, wonderful summarization and thank you for it.

  8. says

    Considering that as you previously mentioned here http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2011/10/27/does-post-modern-skepticism-support-religious-belief/ Muehlhauser has had very rewarding conversations with continental philosophers such as the excellent J. D. Caputo I’m rather surprised he would hold such a view. On the other hand, considering that he has been so exposed to so many great theist minds yet remains an atheist, perhaps I am not so surprised 😉

    • staircaseghost says

      “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.”

      And with this concession you’ve tipped your scientistic hand and obviated something like 90% of the force of your original complaint — that most philosophy is useless sans phrase, not just useless for your own personal subjective interests. Only by tacitly defining the building of empirical models as the only “useful” pursuit can you make the “diseased” charge stick.

      Good to see that community still tolerates some healthy pushback in the comments for the Pearl/Kahneman post; use ctrl+F to see especially the ones from “Peterdjones” and “JonathanLivengood”.

    • says

      Categorical criticism of philosophy is misguided because both 1) the theory that defines “philosophy” for the purposes of the criticism and 2) the proposed or implied alternative way of thinking clearly counts as philosophy. If it is said that “rationality” and empiricism are not philosophy, fine, but the view that these alone represent the proper approach to knowledge certainly is.

      As to piecemeal criticism of philosophy, to think that the majority of existing philosophical work is pointless does not place one outside of philosophy but gives one kinship with the average philosopher. Believing that most existing philosophical work is pointless might even be the defining attribute of the philosopher.

      I don’t know a lot about the positive content of Less Wrong, but whether or not I would agree with it, I think its great that they’re doing it. Let a thousand flowers bloom. What does bother me about Less Wrong is the attitude I sense sometimes that they are coming from a place outside philosophy and stand as an alternative to philosophy. For reasons suggested by the points above, this attitude is a reflection of incompetence with the word ‘philosophy’. All that Less Wrong needs to do to remedy this is stop blanket criticism of “philosophy” and recognize that at least in some aspects, they are a school of philosophy.

    • says

      Regarding criticism of philosophy, or some philosophy, as useless, if philosophy were devoid of practical value, I think it would still have value in virtue of striving toward something that has intrinsic value (for many at least): understanding. Philosophy as love of wisdom as long been comfortable with plain understanding as its justifying value. Further, it might be argued that deliberately trying to do philosophy that has practical value might have a corrupting effect on philosophy, perhaps in the way that aiming to be commercial can have a corrupting effect on art. Like art, philosophy isn’t the sort of thing that naturally bends toward utilitarians ends. It’s roots are in unqualified wonder and curiosity, and that’s nearly always what it’s been about, so to prod it toward utilitarian ends might be to miss its actual value in favor of imposed values it is not suited to deliver, like setting Pegasus to plow, to invoke Nabokov.

      But I don’t think philosophy is devoid of practical value. I think greater understanding of the world, even when such understanding seems hopelessly arcane in isolation, tends to increase the quality of one’s decisions and opinions, and can have unexpected concrete benefits. While the practical value of philosophy may not be as straightforward as that of tax preparation software, it’s hard to argue that developed philosophical understanding has, or has had, no benefits in practical life. While ethics and political philosophy obviously have had an enormous impact on history, metaphysics might also have played a quiet role by acting as a rational governor on fantastical human tendencies. Also note that Frege’s philosophical speculations played a role in the development of more rigorous math, metamathematics, computer science, and so on. Viewed in isolation, Frege’s preoccupation with, e.g., the timelessness of thoughts, might have seemed impractical. Good thing no one could convince him to do something more “practical.” In sum, the thesis that philosophy, in its 2500+ year history, has had little effect on human practical life is preposterous.

  9. Will G says

    I’ve certainly been reading more philosophical literature these days as opposed to science literature (specifically physics), but perhaps Muehlhauser brings up a fair point in his “Train Philosophers with Pearl and Kahneman” article that studying X philosophy should be swapped for Y science.

    Now Mark, you made a fair point that philosophy has other goals in mind, e.g. ethics, but what about metaphysics for example? Unless I’m mistaken, it seems that in the field of science we are objectifying our world pretty well; we are indeed answering the question of “What the hell is going on around us?” Issues of induction and the like aside, is the current study of physics, the pursuit of figuring out just how our world works, overshadowing metaphysics (aside from some contemporary metaphysics; Lewis, Kripke, the language folks, etc)?

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Hi, Will,

      Yes, I agree. Our “philosophy and physics” episode was largely focused on going through the science, and I’d like to do more episodes like that. However, as you mention, contemporary metaphysics is doing something else. I’ll add that “ontology,” whether in a phenomenology/continental discussion or when having an analytic discussion about, e.g. the status of moral truths or minds, etc., is not exhausted by (or perhaps even touched on by) the science involved (where there is any). To generalize this, all scientific work is to some extent narrow in scope, whereas metaphysics is not. One of Luke’s jibes is that philosophers get stuck arguing about whether things are really made of atoms are not. But whether we’re talking about Berkeley or Fichte or any number of other breeds of idealist, they never deny that things are made of atoms… it’s just a question then of what atoms REALLY are, or what quarks are, etc. Can even highly theoretical physics (string theory and such) actually get to the end of the trail of inquiry? A religious physicist would still say that God is underlying whatever it is that you discover as basic. (I’m not advocating such views, just making the Kantian point about the limits of empirical inquiry.)

      Luke acknowledges in one of the comments to his response that philosophy of science is still valuable; we need to put scientific claims in perspective. Per the Quine/Carnap tradition, any abstract scientific claim is in a way a shorthand for a mass of individual observations, which are then combined with predictions re. other potential observations, and the entities themselves like quarks are, “like Homer’s Gods,” posited to make such shorthand cleaner and more understandable. To accept this view but still to claim that scientific claims are the only ones that can be true seems pretty goofy. (I briefly in writing this comment tried to look at Eliezer’s view of truth, which is allegedly simple and naive: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/the-simple-truth, but found myself too impatient and irritated to get through it right now; maybe someone else can tell me if it’s worth my time.)

      • Will G says

        Thanks, Mark. I haven’t looked too much into Eliezer’s thoughts, but at first glance he’s scaring me in the same way that the New Atheist camp does by throwing the word “rationality” around and cramming it down the throats of others. You’re absolutely right; philosophy still has it’s place.

  10. Marjorie Mayne says

    Philosophy really is the only discipline which can dig out the many many unproven and often unprovable assumptions from science or any other field.
    But science uses assumptions only as a starting point and so assuming proceeds scientifically, with its experimental method, to see if so assuming illuminates causality and aids predictivity. If the assumptions
    do so, then the scientist goes with it.
    But assumptions differ even within physics. For instance, relativity does not presume the
    space of Newton whereas quantum physics does; relativity presumes the mind/body split, but quantum physics mixes in mind—both relativity and quantum predict well.
    In other words, predictivity is the measure and that is why a reproducable experimental result is the test
    that validates a scheme generally. Scientific schemes follow the data ultimately and whether the scheme is internally consistent or even coherent or not, is not so important; the real situation, for scientists, is always as expressed in the mathematical description of the phenomena. The scheme just sets up the word problem, so to speak–the interacting entities—but it is the mathematical description of their quantifiable aspects that matter.
    Science excludes the aspects of life that are not quantifiable; science operates within a narrowing of the wider context of life and so is justifiably prey to accusations of irrelevance as regards much of daily life as it is lived. There is nothing in the atom and its behavior, for instance, from which one may predict that there should be something like a poker game.
    And this is one reason many, myself included, hold that the whole world does not reduce to physics; physics cannot and does not account for everything. Science and thought in general are aspects of the wider life—- not the wider life and world aspects of science. Without the wider life, no world and no humans to analyze it; no science.
    There is more than one way to parse what there is, and I venture, there always will be. And science depends upon this, for without this possibility there is no way the schemes of science could alter, so, no progress. From science’s current assumptions and their desirable result, it does not follow that entirely
    different assumptions if adopted would yield even better scientific results.
    Feynman said that science is the task of deciding what is correct to say about the world. Philosophy presumes a much wider view and definition of world than science does.
    Science defines the correct view of the world as that view which only science may produce. Philosophy, rejects this generally and insists that from the usefulness of the scientific view it does not follow that other views may not be useful and true.
    The wide world is Philosophy’s stomping ground. Freedom to tie things together in new ways and to create new views, new things with new interactions; to keep the boundaries, the dogma, from crowding in to stifle—freedom to operate beyond the boundaries of scientific presumption— this, in my view, is the realm for the Philosopher’s happy task. And it is a creative task and a visionary task. It is an art and an art of reason.
    And I believe it to be a vital task that keeps the widest frontiers of thought and life open.
    It is, in its own way, as vital as the march of science.

    And, after all, ultimately, it may be argued, the question why any particular thing should be the case and, indeed, why anything should be at all, is unanswerable; why should there be such a thing as an atom? And why should there be any such thing as a scientist or a Philosopher? We are all speculators.
    And here we all are.

  11. Marjorie Mayne says

    Sorry I meant to write— from science’s current assumptions and their desirable result, it does not follow that some entirely different assumptions, if adopted, would not yield even better scientific results.

  12. Maynard Dixon says

    Read at Less Wrong the claim that the Bayesian approach will always lead to the “best” result. Best according to whom? According to what? This is a philosophical issue of vast proportions and eminently, endlessly arguable. Does the guy not know what Philosophy is?


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