Reading Yudkowsky, part 52

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 9, 2011 in Eliezer Yudkowsky,Resources,Reviews

AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky is something of an expert at human rationality, and at teaching it to others. His hundreds of posts at Less Wrong are a treasure trove for those who want to improve their own rationality. As such, I’m reading all of them, chronologically.

I suspect some of my readers want to “level up” their rationality, too. So I’m keeping a diary of my Yudkowsky reading. Feel free to follow along.

His 462nd post is Against Modal Logics, which reveals his thoughts on contemporary philosophy:

There are a number of reasons why I feel that modern philosophy, even analytic philosophy, has gone astray – so far astray that I simply can’t make use of their years and years of dedicated work, even when they would seem to be asking questions closely akin to mine.

The proliferation of modal logics in philosophy is a good illustration of one major reason:  Modern philosophy doesn’t enforce reductionism, or even strive for it.

Most philosophers, as one would expect from Sturgeon’s Law, are not very good.  Which means that they’re not even close to the level of competence it takes to analyze mentalistic black boxes into cognitive algorithms.  Reductionism is, in modern times, an unusual talent.  Insights on the order of Pearl et. al.’s reduction of causality or Julian Barbour’s reduction of time are rare.

In the Wittgensteinian era, philosophy has been about language – about trying to give precise meaning to terms.

The kind of work that I try to do is not about language.  It is about reducing mentalistic models to purely causal models, about opening up black boxes to find complicated algorithms inside, about dissolving mysteries – in a word, about cognitive science.

That’s what I think post-Wittgensteinian philosophy should be about – cognitive science.

…Just to make it clear that I’m not claiming a magical and unique ability, I would name Gary Drescher’s Good and Real as an example of a philosophical work that is commensurate with the kind of thinking I have to try to do.  Gary Drescher is an AI researcher turned philosopher, which may explain why he understands the art of asking, notWhat does this term mean?, but What cognitive algorithm, as seen from the inside, would generate this apparent mystery?

This quote caught my attention in particular:

Philosophers keep telling me that I should look at philosophy.  I have, every now and then.  But the main reason I look at philosophy is when I find it desirable to explain things to philosophers.  The work that has been done – the products of these decades of modern debate – is, by and large, just not commensurate with the kind of analysis AI needs.  I feel a bit awful about saying this, because it feels like I’m telling philosophers that their life’s work has been a waste of time – not that professional philosophers would be likely to regard me as an authority on whose life has been a waste of time.  But if there’s any centralized repository of reductionist-grade naturalistic cognitive philosophy, I’ve never heard mention of it.

What??? Here you go, Yudkowsky: John BicklePat & Paul Churchland, Paul ThagardTim SchroederWilliam Calvin, Georg Northoff, Thomas Metzinger. And that’s just off the top of my head, without googling. (I googled after writing the list so I could add the links.) There’s an entire wing of the massive field called cognitive science that is populated by hardcore reductionist neuro-philosophers.

It also seems to Yudkowsky would appreciate the whole branch of philosophy called formal epistemology – in fact, that work would probably be useful in his AI research.

But I must say, I agree with much of Yudkowsky’s critique of philosophy. Also worth reading is Robin Hanson and Paul Graham.

So why do I care so much about philosophy? Because I think it’s possible to do better. It’s worth remembering Paul Graham’s words:

Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover.

I have a fantasy of smashing in to philosophy and dissolving traditional philosophical problems with some careful applications of linguistics, Bayesian probability theory, quantum mechanics, and cognitive science, but the truth is… the people I listed above (and many others) are already doing exactly that. It’s just that most philosophers haven’t taken notice. But that’s their loss. There are still philosophers defending theism, too, for God’s sake!

Update: I wrote this post months ago. For more recent thoughts on Yudkowsky and philosophy, see Less Wrong Rationality and Mainstream Philosophy and Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MarkD July 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Notable is that many of the cognitive scientists who touch on philosophy have other training: Pinker, Bill Calvin, Edelman, DS Wilson. But then that is what cognitive science was always about: a merger. EY is complaining about a lack of effective procedures but much work in analytical philosophy is a critical analysis of the assumptions needed for those procedures. Take Block, Fodor, Putnam, Quine trying to tease out meaning. We know from that work that there are significant problems with any reductionist account of meaning that doesn’t consider the pragmatic/social extents of what we loosely have hitherto considered “meaning.” Ditto folk psychology, naive physics, metaphors, etc.


Mike Young July 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

“It is about reducing mentalistic models to purely causal models, ”
To which every philosopher responds:


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