Writing Tips

I wrote some incomplete tips on writing well and making the writing more suitable for receiving criticism.

  1. Clarity – people need to understand what your idea is to criticize it. And avoid hedges and try to boldly stick your neck out. People often make their ideas fuzzier with a bunch of maybes which makes it less clear and harder to criticize.

  2. Permalinks – if people can’t find your writing, or can’t link to it on their own site, that really discourages responses.

  3. Organizing the writing – use named sections, bullet points, summaries, bold and italics, and links and footnotes to more details. And make different sections more self-contained and independent (like loose coupling in programming. so that e.g. someone can skim ahead, and still understand that section. Lots of writing assumes you read everything and read it in order, and most of the stuff that breaks if you don’t follow that reading pattern is unnecessary.

  4. Easy to read – simple sentence and paragraph structure, less punctuation, simple words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Avoid back-references (including limiting pronoun use. and out-of-order content. The easier to skim or read at high speeds with speed reading software or techniques, the better for all readers. Don’t use a thesaurus. Do keep repeating the same word over and over every time you want to refer to the same concept.

  5. Most blog comments and forums are moderated. I would provide a lot more feedback and criticism outside my own forums if it would actually show up. Lots of sites simply don’t approve critical comments, or don’t approve comments on old posts, or stop getting new content and don’t bother to approve any comments. Lots of sites also disable comments on old posts. Sites which are different need to clearly communicate this. But you can read the comment policy pages on tons of sites and find stuff like this which I ran into a couple days ago:


Among other problems, if you write the phrase “fake news” or “gamergate” your comment is automatically deleted. And GregQ got banned for debating gender bias in the tech industry (no reason for the ban was stated, but that was what he did).

So many sites just silently prevent posting that I often don’t even try.

  1. Be responsive to questions. Critics often need to ask for some clarifications and sources before they can explain their criticism to you. If you don’t respond to the initial phases of discussion before the critic provides significant value, that often prevents getting to the later phases where they could provide more value.

  2. Be clear about when you change your mind/position. State it and say why. And be clear about what you did and didn’t change your mind about. People often partially change their mind in discussions, without giving credit or thanks, and without being clear about what they are and aren’t changing about their position. If you decide you made a mistake, directly acknowledge it instead of trying to divert attention elsewhere.

  3. Explain stuff and talk about arguments and reasoning, rather than asserting stuff or appealing to authority.

  4. Try to write material that is reusable in the future. E.g. make it more canonical, more high quality so that it’s worth remembering and re-using, more focused on key issues instead of the quirks of a particular discussion, etc

  5. Put your ideas in writing. If you have a video or audio recording instead, and you think it’s important and serious and you want criticism, then provide a transcript. Writing has many advantages including being better for critics to quote.

  6. write and think in an objective, neutral way, not a biased-for-your-conclusion way.

  7. say things you would accept as a refutation of your idea, current unsolved problems, sources of potential error, etc

  8. write impersonally about ideas instead of people, especially people you're in a discussion with. talk about "the idea that..." instead of "your idea" or "John's idea". avoid "you".

a good thing to keep in mind for lots of writing is to clearly say:

  1. what problem you’re addressing

  2. for longer pieces, discuss previous attempts to solve the problem and what’s wrong with them

  3. what your idea is and specifically how it solves the problem

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

patio11 Criticizes Cryptocurrency Initial Coin Offerings as Investment Scams

Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) wrote all of the following on Twitter:

There's an interesting thread here analyzing ICOs as if they were startups. I'll give the counterpoint: they're investment scams.

Investment scams are big business! $5 billion+ a year in the US. But they receive substantial adversarial attention from regulators.

Scammer problems: you have to recruit marks, successfully transfer their money to a scam vehicle, exfiltrate, and avoid arrest.

Recruitment in traditional scams happens over phone calls (boiler rooms), letters, and every other channel people talk to each other on.

The fundamental innovation of crytocurrency is that it has distributed, self-organizing recruitment through incentive structure for adoptees

Now how do you get money into the scam vehicle? Material amounts of money start in the traditional financial system. This is tricky for you.

As a scammer, you can't just tell Milli Smith to take out a reverse mortgage and wire $800k to an account in the Caymans. Her bank says No.

So your options are e.g. suborning a listed company and wearing it like a skin suit, then having marks purchase shares of that company.

This is dreadfully inconvenient, because marks might not have brokerage accounts, and scaling the scam gets it shut down quickly.

Enter the cryptocurrency ecosystem, which needs one node with plausible deniability and a bank uplink. Controls of other nodes irrelevant.

The cryptocurrency ecosystem has what strikes participants as a surprising difficulty in maintaining one node with a foot in real finance.

This is not surprising because that node's economic justification for existing looks a whole lot like money laundering at scale.

Now for whatever reason this shell game is really successful, and after value is in cryptocurrency ecosystem, it flows from scam to scam.

Exfiltration! How do you justify to the grownup financial system where your $20 million came from? You can't say "Defrauding Milly."

So instead you say "Speculation.", which is just enough for the see-no-evil gatekeepers.

Now how do you avoid going to jail for it? The plan appears to be "Exploit regulatory ambiguity and move as fast as possible."

With varying level of "Make some sort of plausible excuse that there does exist an actual enterprise and it is not just scams all way down."

Economic substance is not a novel innovation for scams. Sometimes e.g. the boiler rooms did pump stocks for companies which had products.

Small company which makes pool cleaners: a possibly high risk investment. Same company implying 1000X returns: scam scam scammity scam.

Here again we see the fundamental innovation of cryptocurrency, where the central actors can mostly truthfully claim to have never said it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)


I wrote these comments for the Fallible Ideas discussion group:

Plateauing while learning is an important issue. How do people manage that initial burst of progress? Why does it stop? How can they get going again?

This comes up in other contexts too, e.g. professional gamers talk about it. World class players in e.g. Super Smash Bros. Melee talk about how you have to get through several plateaus to get to the top, and have offered thoughts on how to do that. While they’ve apparently successfully done it themselves, their advice to others is usually not very effective for getting others past plateaus.

One good point I’ve heard skilled gamers say is that plateauing is partly just natural due to learning things with more visible results sometimes, and learning more subtle skills other times. So even if you learn at a constant rate, your game results will appear to have some plateauing anyway. Part of the solution is to be patient and don’t get disheartened and keep trying. Persistence is one of the tools for beating plateaus (and persistence is especially effective when part of the plateau is just learning some stuff with less visible benefits – though if you’re stuck on some key point then mere persistence won’t fix that problem).

When gamers talking about “leveling up” their play, or taking their play “to another level” it implicitly refers to plateaus. If skill increases were just a straight 45 degree line then there’d be no levels, it’d all just blend together. But with plateaus, there are distinguishable different levels you can reach.

It can be really hard to tell how much people plateau because they’re satisfied and don’t care about making further progress vs. they got stuck and rationalize it that way. That applies both to gamers and also to philosophy learners . [A poster] in various ways acted like he was done learning instead of trying to get past his plateau – but was that the cause of him being stuck, or was it a reaction to being stuck?

A while after people plateau, they commonly go downhill. They don’t just stay stable, they fall apart. Elements of this have been seen with many posters. (Often it’s ambiguous because people do things like quit philosophy without explaining why. So one can presume they fell apart in some way, some kind of stress got to them, but who knows, maybe they got hit by a car or got recruited by the CIA.)

In general, stagnation is unstable. This is something BoI talks about. It’s rapid progress or else things fall apart. Why? Problems are inevitable. Either you solve them (progress) or things start falling apart (unsolved problems have harmful consequences).

New problems will come up. If your problem solving abilities are failing, you’re screwed. If your problem solving abilities are working, you’ll make progress. You don’t just get to stand still and nothing happens. There are constantly issues coming up threatening to make things worse, and the only solution is problem solving which actually takes you forward.

So anyway people come to philosophy, make progress, get stuck, then fall apart.

A big part of why this happens is they find some stuff intuitively easy, fun, etc, and they get that far, then get stuck at the part where it requires more “work”, organization, studying books, or whatever else they find hard. People have the same issue in school sometimes – they are smart and coast along and find classes easy, then they eventually run into a class where they find the material hard and it can be a rough transition to deal with that or they can just abruptly fail.

Also people get excited and happy and stuff. Kinda like being infatuated with a new person they are dating. People do that with hobbies too. And that usually only happens once per person per hobby. Usually once their initial burst of energy slows down (even if they didn’t actually get stuck and merely were busy for a month) then they don’t know how to get it back and be super interested again.

After people get stuck, for whatever reason, they have a situation with some unsolved problems. What then happens typically is they try to solve those problems. And fail. Repeatedly. They try to get unstuck a bunch and it doesn’t work (or it does work, and then quite possibly no one even notices what happened or regards it as a plateau or being stuck). Usually if people are going to succeed at solving a problem they do it fast. If you can’t solve a problem within a week, will a month or year help? Often not. If you knew how to solve it, you’d solve it now. So if you’re stuck or plateauing it means all your regular methods of solving problems didn’t work. You had enough time to try everything you know how to do and that still didn’t work. Some significant new idea, new creativity, new method, etc, is needed. And people don’t know how to persistently and consistently pursue that in an organized effective way – they can just wait and hope for a Eureka that usually never comes, or go on with their life and hope somehow, someway, something ends up helping with the problem or they find other stuff to do in life instead.

People will try a bunch of times to solve a problem. They aren’t stuck quietly, passively, inactively. They don’t like the problem(s) they’re stuck on. They try to do something about it. This repeated failure takes a toll on their morale. They start questioning their mental capacity, their prospects for a great life, etc. They get demoralized and pessimistic. Some people last much longer than others, but you can see why this would often happen eventually.

And people who are living with this problem they don’t like, and this recurring failure, often turn to evasion and rationalization. They lie to themselves about it. They say it’s a minor problem, or it’s solved. They find some way not to think about it or not to mind it. But this harms their own integrity, it’s a deviation from reason and it opens the door to many more deviations from reason. This often leads to them falling apart in a big way and getting much worse than they were previously.

And people often want to go do something else where their pre-existing methods of thinking/learning/etc work, so they can have success instead of failure. So they avoid the stuff they are stuck on (after some number of prior failures which varies heavily from just a couple to tons). This is a bad idea when they are stuck on something important to their life and end up avoiding the issue by spending their time on less important stuff.

So there’s a common pattern:

  1. Progress. They use their existing methods of making progress and make some progress.

  2. Stuck. They run into some problems which can't be solved with their pre-existing methods of thinking, learning, problem solving, etc.

  3. Staying stuck. They try to get unstuck a bunch and fail over and over.

  4. Dishonesty. They don’t like chronic unsolved problems, being stuck, failing so much, etc. So they find some other way to think about it, other activities to do, etc. And they don’t like the implications (e.g. that they’ve given up on reason and BoI-style progress) so they are dishonest about that too.

  5. Falling apart. The dishonesty affects lots of stuff and they get worse than when they started in various ways.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Learn To Deal With Challenges

Children (and everyone) need problem-solving skill (strength, power, competence, wisdom) not to be (over) protected (problem-avoidance).

This relates to the idea that problems are inevitable, and problems are soluble from The Beginning of Infinity.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Be Careful With Assumptions About Complex Internal Structures

People claim genes influence personality. The meaning of this isn't explained very clearly. Do Walmarts influence people to drive to one location instead of another? Sort of, but that doesn't mean Walmarts are limiting our free will or controlling us, and we can certainly choose not to drive to Walmart ever again.

But I'm going to focus on something else: Why do they think personality even exists at a hardware level or low level of software? I've never seen any genes-influence-personality advocates answer or even discuss this question.

Humans are complicated. They have a lot of mental stuff. A generic word for mental stuff is "ideas". Personality isn't generic, it's a category of mental stuff (category of ideas).

We create categories for our discussions and thinking which help us make sense of people. Instead of just saying "a person is a bunch of ideas" we come up with some organization and structure to help us make sense of it. We want chunks we can deal with, like personality, rather than a hugely complex chaos that we can't work with.

That's fine. Categorizing a personality idea differently than an idea about how to do arithmetic is a reasonably functional distinction. It offers us some way to mentally organize a person into parts and start dealing with them.

But we should keep in mind it's a category we made up to try to make sense of humans. It's a structure we imposed on people, and just because it's useful doesn't mean it's accurate. There are other possible ways to mentally categorize a human intelligence into different parts that don't rely on the concept of personality. Not all reasonable ways of categorizing complex stuff are the way the complex stuff is actually internally organized. They can't be, since there's a bunch of categorization options and only one actual internal structure.

How are human minds actually structured internally? The claims of some "scientists" notwithstanding, we don't really know a lot about that. Most of what we know is that it has to be a structure which is compatible with stuff humans do, such as use math and language, do science and chess, play football and soccer, enjoy art and music, write poems and prose. That rules out minds being a totally disorganized chaos. And it indicates humans can create new knowledge, which means evolution of ideas is taking place.

The approach people use is like looking at web browser software and assuming its written in object oriented programming with webpages, links, paragraphs, words, letters and buttons as objects. It could be. That's a possible way to organize a browser. But it doesn't have to be. The code for a browser could also be structured with a different hierarchy of objects, or with a different style of programming entirely that doesn't even use objects.

You can't easily tell how complex software is programmed by looking at what it does. You can mentally categorize a browser into parts like the menus, the URL bar, the status bar, and the webpage which has sub-parts like paragraphs, links, buttons, etc. That's fine as a way to think about it. But it doesn't mean that's how the software is organized internally. This applies to any sort of complex stuff with unseen internal structure, whether it's software or not. It's really hard to look at functionality and think you know internal structure because there's many structures which achieve the same or similar functional results.

For another example, suppose you have a machine which does multiplication (I previously discussed this example, and knowledge structure). Do you know what's going on internally? No. There's many different ways multiplication can be done, such as with a lookup table, a loop with repeated addition, recursion with repeated addition, or sending a text message to an employee in India and relaying his answer. It's great that you have a mental model of how to multiply. And your model will be useful for thinking about this machine. But that doesn't mean the machine's internal structure actually has anything to do with your mental model of one way that multiplication can be done.

So to recap, we don't know much of the details of how minds are structured internally. "Personality" is an organizational concept we find reasonably useful for thinking about minds. But that doesn't mean minds are actually organized that way – personality could just be an emergent property, an implication of some sort, or an approximate fudge which is similar to some other thing that actually exists. Or personality could be part of minds, but only at high levels of abstraction, not at the hardware level and the low-abstraction software level where genes could potentially influence or control things. It's unsafe to assume the actual structure of minds matches the mental categories we've created to help us deal with people.

People think it's uncontroversial and basically settled that genes influence personality. But we don't know that, and they might not, and personality might not even be part of the actual structure of human minds at all.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

They Can't Raise IQ Because They Can't Teach

IQ is static because teachers literally can't teach anything. Their inability to raise IQ is because their teaching methods are awful, not because IQ is genetically determined. When students learn stuff, it's primarily because they manage to figure it out themselves.

Broadly, teaching methods are authoritarian and non-Popperian, among other critical flaws.

Concretely, math teachers don't know how to explain division and don't really even know how to teach counting. Lots of kids just figure out counting on their own. Like consider a group of 20 marbles. How do you count them? You need an organized method such as lining them up then counting along the line while keeping your place with your finger, or moving them into a second pile as you count them. Teachers routinely can't and don't even teach that much. You can read textbooks, curriculums, lessons, etc, and it's so bad in every field (not just math).

I already knew teachers sucked and stuff about IQ was wrong. Today I put those together. The failure of teachers to raise IQs is evidence that they are bad teachers. (It's not, as people normally claim, evidence that IQ is super hard to increase. Of course teachers who can't teach basic reading/writing/math also can't increase IQs with their teaching.)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brains Are Computers

Adding 5+5 is an example of a computation. Why? By definition. "Computation" is a word which refers to calculating stuff like sums, matrix multiplication, binary logic operations, derivatives, etc.

Are all computations math? Sorta. Consider this computation:

(concatenate "cat" "dog")

Which outputs: "catdog"

The format I used is: (function data-1 data-2). That's the best format programmers have invented so far. There can be any number of pieces of data including zero. Quotes indicate a string. And for data you can also put a function which returns data. That's nesting, e.g:

(concatenate "meow" (concatenate "cat" "dog"))

Which outputs: "meowcatdog"

Is that math? It can be done by math. E.g. you can assign each letter a number and manipulate lists of numbers, which is what a Mac or PC would do to deal with this. If you're interested in this topic, you might like reading Godel, Escher, Bach which discusses numeric representations.

But a human might calculate string concatenation in a different way, e.g. by writing each string on a piece of paper and then computing concatenations by taping pieces of paper together.

Humans have a lot of ways to do sums too. E.g. you can compute 5+5 using groups of marbles. If you want to know more about this, you should read David Deutsch's discussion of roman numerals in The Beginning of Infinity, as well as the rest of his books.

Moving on, computation is sorta like math but not exactly. You can think of computation as math or stuff that could be done with math.

A computer is a physical objection which can do computations.

We can see that human intelligence involves computation because I can ask you "what is 5+5?" and you can tell me without even using a tool like a calculator. You can do it mentally. So either brains are computers or brains contain computers plus something else. There has to be a computer there somewhere because anything that can add 5+5 is a computer.

But we don't really care about an object which can add 5+5 but which can't compute anything else.

We're interested in computers which can do many different computations. Add lots of different numbers, multiply any matrices, find primes, and even do whatever math or math-equivalent it takes to write and send emails!

We want a general purpose computer. And human intelligence has that too. Humans can mentally compute all sorts of stuff like integrals, factoring, finding the area of shapes, or logic operations like AND, NOT, OR, XOR.

When we say "computer" we normally refer to general purpose computers. Specifically, universal classical computers.

A universal computer is a computer than can compute anything that can be computed. "Classical" refers to computers which don't use quantum physics. Quantum physics allows some additional computations if you build a special quantum computer.

A universal computer sounds really amazing and difficult to create. It sounds really special. But there's something really interesting. All general purpose computers are universal. It only takes a tiny bit of basic functionality to reach universality.

Every iPhone, Android phone, Mac, or PC is a universal computer. Even microwaves and dishwashers use universal computers to control them. The computer in a microwave can do any computation that a $100,000 supercomputer can do. (The microwave computer would take longer and you'd have to plug in extra disks periodically for computations that deal with a lot of data.)

All it takes to be a universal computer is being able to compute one single function: NAND. NAND takes two inputs, each of which is a 1 or 0, and it computes one output, a 1 or 0. NAND stands for "not and" and the rule is: return a 1 if not both inputs are 1.

That's it. You can use NAND to do addition, matrix multiplication, and send emails. You just have to build up the complexity step by step.

There are many other ways to achieve universality. For example, a computer which can compute AND and NOT, individually, is also universal. Being able to do NOT and OR also works. (Again these are simple functions which only have 1's and 0's as inputs and outputs.) If you want to see how they work, there are "truth tables" here which show lists of what the outputs are for all possible inputs: Wikipedia Link.

We can see that the computer aspect of humans is universal because humans can mentally compute NAND, AND and NOT. That's more than enough to indicate universal computation.

To make this more concrete, you can ask me what (AND 1 1) is and I can tell you 1. You can ask me (NOT 0) and I can tell you 1. You can ask me (NAND 1 1) and I can tell you 0. I can do that in my head, no problem. You could too (at least if you learned how). You're capable.

So human thinking works by either:

  1. Universal classical computation; or

  2. Universal classical computation as well as something else.

I don't think there's a something else because there's nothing humans do, think, say, etc, which requires something else to explain how it's possible. And because no one has proposed any something else that makes sense. I don't believe in magical souls, and I'm certainly not going to start believing in them in order to say, "Humans have a universal classical computer plus a soul, which lets them do exactly the same things a universal classical computer with no soul can do.". That'd be silly. And I don't think an iPhone has a soul in the silicon.

The brains of dogs, cats, parrots and monkeys are also universal classical computers. Remember, that's a low bar. It's actually really hard to make a computer do much of anything without making it universal. You can read about Universal Cellular Automata and how little it takes to get universality if you're interested. How easy universality is to achieve, and how there's an abrupt jump to it (rather than there being half-universal computers) is also explained in The Beginning of Infinity.

I won't go into arguing that cat brains are universal computers here. What I will say, briefly, is in what way humans are different than cats. It's kinda like how a PC is different than an iPhone. It has a different operating system and different apps. That's the basic difference between a person and a cat: different software. The hardware is different too, but the hardware fundamentally has the same capabilities, just like iPhones and PCs have different hardware with the same fundamental capabilities: they can do exactly the same computations. Humans have intelligence software of some sort – software which does intelligent thinking. Cats don't.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Praise for Yes or No Philosophy

Feedback on my new philosophy education product, Yes or No Philosophy, is positive so far.

Kate Sams in Fallible Ideas discussion:

“yes-or-no philosophy” is great → https://yesornophilosophy.com/

big thanks to Elliot for creating it!

so far i’ve only finished the ~2.5 hour video part, yet have spent over 10 hours thinking and taking notes on the material in the video. there’s a lot of content just in the video itself.

similar to lots of objectivist ideas, yes-or-no philosophy is very applicable to the lives of regular people (i.e. non-professional philosophers) who want to improve at thinking and making choices. so far, it’s just what i hoped it would be.

one thing i’m looking forward to is getting more practice at using the ideas consistently in my daily life. the decision chart idea is terrific. i’ve used it a few times already and it worked great.

i think yes-or-no’s emphasis on clarity and precision (both on the purpose or problem side of things and the candidate ideas side of things) is huge.

it can help you catch when your purpose is flawed, e.g. you are pursuing a bad value.

it can help you catch rationalizations and bias.

it can help you not ignore stray ideas which are hanging around on the periphery of your awareness which you should be considering and which deserve a clear, explicit refutation if you aren’t going to act on them.

it can help you then act with confidence on your judgment. if you are used to acting on fudged approximations, then i think it's easier to just passively drift along. but if you have clear, precise thinking which cuts to the heart of the matter resulting in one clear, nonrefuted idea to act on, then it’s easier to act decisively and confidently on it.

decisively ruling out ideas with clear thinking sets you up to be able to act decisively and direct your life better.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (15)

Is FI Discussion Mean?

People coming to FI need to recognize they are learning about different ideas and dealing with people who don’t share all their assumptions, culture, and expectations. They must therefore be patient and tolerant. They must expect clashes, misunderstandings, conflict, disagreement, and problems. They must have some strength and tolerance to deal with the Other, to challenge themselves, to move past some minor quibbles, to discuss instead of give up when faced with some major conflict, etc.

People who find FI too mean are simply intolerant of people with a different style than them. They are expecting all discussion of bold new ideas to follow their existing ideas about what patterns of discussion are acceptable or unacceptable. But FI proposes that criticism is crucial to learning, and a helpful gift, rather than mean. If people want to deal with something which is grand, special and different, they can’t also expect it to perfectly fit into their existing life with little effort to understand a different world than what they're used to.

People also need to use judgement. FI discussion isn't a guided tour of the key ideas. Not every reply you receive, from every participant, will be great. It's an open place where anyone can join and talk without gatekeepers trying to decide who is worthy. That lets you in the door and it also lets others who aren't all amazing thinkers or even, necessarily, kind people. So what? Judge which responses have value and respond productively to those. Guide your own discussion by having some goals in mind and pursuing them, rather than getting distracted by whatever happens to come up and offended or disappointed that your aimless discussion hasn't achieved a great aim. And if you don't know how to guide your own activities, or what some good goals would be, ask. If you aren't even willing to talk about problems and ask for help, then you should expect to fail.

Making requests is a good strategy. If you want something, ask for it instead of expecting it by default. Do you want replies to you to be written in a particular style you consider "nice", and not to include some types of statements you find "mean"? Tell us what you want instead of expecting us to read your mind. If you can't figure out and write down what you consider nice or mean, you can't very well expect us to accurately guess it. You are used to dealing with people very similar to you in a tiny social circle who have lots of the same poorly-considered assumptions about life that you do. If you want to be exposed to the broader world, you'll have to think about and communicate your ideas more instead of just taking them for granted.

If you think something's mean, instead of getting offended, quote it and say what you think the problem is. You could be right. Perhaps the author could learn from you. Don't assume they are doing it on purpose out of malice. Ignorance and error are common. And misunderstandings are common. Maybe they were trying to say something else that's different than your interpretation. Maybe they'll apologize, admit they were in a bad mood, and try to do better. Maybe they'll point out and challenge some of your philosophical assumptions that you didn't think about. Find out what happens when you discuss a problem instead of thinking your conclusions (e.g. that something is mean and bad) go without saying.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (9)

Book Review: Who Killed Homer?

Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath


this is a good book.

it has some great material about why the Greeks matter and how Western civilization is built on their ideas.

it has a long section about the play Antigone (which is just one detailed example – he says you could do a similar thing with many other works) where it points out how the background assumptions of the play (not the main plot) are full of ideas important to our civilization. it has a bunch of sections with a clear thesis (section heading) statement in italics and then a couple pages explaining the point in detail. it's very good, high quality argument and explanation with good organizational structure.

it has a long section about how the people in the field of Classics have been destroying their own profession that gives tons of quotes that are kinda like reading Real Peer Review on twitter. postmodernist feminist marxists writing academic papers... :( it's great to see them using plenty of highly relevant quotes to make their point. unlike in most books, these authors are good at sharing their knowledge.

the authors aren't great on capitalism. they are no Objectivists. a bit moderate. not 100% super fully pro progress and technology. they concede some stuff to the left that i wouldn't – and then point out how the Greeks anticipated this. but they're decent people. this doesn't ruin the book.

it has good info about how broken our universities are and how the field of classics has been destroyed by people who want to teach fewer classes and get more grants and who write inaccessible impressive PC trendy shit instead of saying why the Greeks matter to people's lives and the world. the field of classics is dying in a major way, with there being fewer teachers, fewer students, etc, and when the book came out (~20 years ago) they say basically it's already too late, the destruction is already too far gone. the only solutions are basically some kinda future rebirth or for some non-academics to take an interest in the classics and do some good work that interests more people in it.

the suggestions for fixing universities are bad. they are authoritarian dictates about How Things Should Be. they are sweeping changes, not "here is the smallest change to fix this, and an easy way to fix that". they are more about restoring how universities worked in the past then moving them into the internet age. lots of the criticisms of problems are good points, but i take issue with the style of the solutions.

this book is important. lots of people know the universities are broken and tons of people are indoctrinated in school and come out of school dumb and ignorant. and that's one of the reasons politics is hard – because you're trying to explain ideas to people who are bad at thinking. this book provides actual details about that for an especially important and old/established/traditional field.

the book offers a middle ground. it's not as broad and abstract as general philosophy principles. it offers concretes. but it's much more deep and important than arguing the latest politics from cable news. it gets at the heart of the problem way more than most discourse.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

More Induction Discussion With Robert Spillane

Robert Spillane thought this was particularly important and requested a direct answer. Here it is:

1. Two simple answers to #1 and #2 will suffice - yes or no.

2. 1+1=2 is a necessary truth; '1 pint of water + 1 pint of alcohol = 2 pints of the mixture' is not. Can you not see the difference between the two?

They have many differences and many similarities.

By "the" difference, I guess you mean: that "1+1=2" is a "necessary truth", while the other statement isn't. I don't agree with that because I don't think anything is a necessary truth.

Regarding induction, I've asked several times about a set of instructions someone could follow to do induction. I've been unable to get answers which address basic issues like telling you which ideas to induce and how much inductive support they have. Here's another failure to address the issue, and my comments. This is extremely typical of inductivists. They don't have answers to these questions and wouldn't be inductivists if they understood the questions.

You asked me for details about Stove's Rationality of Induction. Here is a very brief summary (pp. 3-5, 22) which addresses your concerns:

(1) 'That all the many observed ravens have been black is not a completely conclusive reason to believe that all ravens are black' is true and not contingent, even though it mentions two propositions which are contingent:

(2) 'All the many observed ravens have been black.'


(3) 'All ravens are black.'

But (1) is not contingent since it is enough to entail the truth of (1) that it is logically possible that (2) be true and (3) false, whereas something's being logically possible is not enough to entail the truth of any contingent proposition. Therefore, (1), being true and not contingent, is a necessary truth.

Another way of saying (1) is:

(4) 'The inference from (2) to (3) is fallible' and this is also a necessary truth.

The inference from (2) to (3) is an inductive one. So there is at least one inductive inference of which it is necessarily true that it is fallible.

This doesn't answer my question about how (2) and (3) were selected from the infinity of propositions which do not contradict the observation data under consideration. Why those statements instead of some other statements?

I asked about which statements to induce and for instructions someone could follow to do induction, but this description doesn't provide instructions for how to select or create statements (2) and (3) in the first place.

What are the rules of induction? Could one write any statements at all in place of (2) and (3), or what? (I'm familiar with many proposed rules of induction, but none of them work. You apparently think you know of some rules of induction that do work, so I'm asking what they are.)

(5) 'That all the many observed ravens have been black is a reason to believe that all ravens are black' is like (1) in that it is true but not contingent. Like (1) it mentions two contingent propositions, but it does not assert either of them. Its truth, therefore, does not depend on what their truth values happen to be.

Another way of saying (5) is:

(6) 'The inference from (2) to (3) is rational' and this, also, is a necessary truth (pp. 3-5).

Since induction is necessarily fallible, the validity of induction is a subject easily exhausted. 'And as to the truth of the conclusion of an induction, or whether the conclusion of an induction with true premises is true, or whether more of such conclusions are true than are false: well, these of course are all contingent matters, with which philosophers have nothing to do. The success rate among inductions is as little the concern of philosophers as the blackness rate among ravens. Hume, in particular, was as little concerned as the next philosopher with what the long-run success rate of induction might be, and of course he said nothing about this subject; and a fortiori, he said nothing discouraging about it. Yet there are philosophers who do not shrink from the absurdity of implying that in order to 'answer' what Hume said about induction, we would need to establish something encouraging about the long-run success rate of induction. Some people just like to make rope neckties for themselves. But, in general, it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the harm that has been done to the philosophy of induction by philosophers who drift from the success of induction to the rationality of induction, and back again, and all over the place. Squalor rules, OK?' (p. 22).

Now, you will probably reply that this is irrelevant to your concerns since it assumes induction and engages in arguments for and against its rationality. You, on the other hand, insist that induction is a myth. If by 'myth' you mean 'the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another' (Ryle), this means that you accept that there are inductive arguments - from the observed to the unobserved - but believe they are inevitably invalid because the conclusions are not contained within the premises.

But this is not your position. You claim that by 'induction is a myth' you mean that there are NO inductive arguments - that there cannot be (and never have been) arguments from the observed to the unobserved. This is a much stronger claim than 'inductive arguments are invalid'. It is also a claim that is so obviously false that further argument should be unnecessary.

My position that induction is a "myth", in the sense I've described (no one has ever induced anything), is from Popper. Do you know that's Popper's published view and know his reasoning? You are calling Popper's position "so obviously false that further argument should be unnecessary".

I (following Popper again – see e.g. his discussion of manifest truth) don't think that's a reasonable thing to say about anyone's position. The truth isn't obvious, and argument is necessary for dealing with disagreements.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Deutsch Interview Undermines His Philosophy

David Deutsch (DD) did an interview on The Christian Transhumanist Podcast.

What is DD’s audience and what is he trying to say to them?

Typical people will understand very little of what DD says. Way too advanced and based on already understanding FoR/BoI. But for me the interview is pretty basic. It’s not really designed to add on to DD’s books with new info nor to help people learn the books. So who is it for?

I think it’s for impressing people who don’t understand it, not for rational learning. I think that’s a typical kind of guest on interviews on this type. Most of what DD is saying happens to be true, but that won’t stop people from treating it just like the next impressive-sounding set of comments (which are false and people find entertaining).

Is DD super popular? No. Why not? Well, are DD’s interview comments very good for impressing people who don’t understand? They’re OK at that but not great. DD doesn’t focus on offering memorable sound bytes people can quote to impress their friends. Nor does he focus on making what he says repeatable for lots of audience members without much fear of contradiction. DD says some stuff that your friends would argue with instead of be impressed by. DD also has a handicap compared to other interview guests, like he discusses in BoI about static memes: making his comments true gets in the way of socially optimizing them. E.g. if you can say false things, it’s easier to say stuff that sounds deep/impressive and also which fits with common sense well enough for lots of listeners to think they kinda partly understand it immediately – DD by contrast said lots of true stuff that will be more clear to listeners that they don’t understand it.

Undermining BoI’s Meaning

The interview as a whole has a tone like: DD is smart and has some sophisticated ideas which could be valuable to some intellectuals.

The interview does not have the following messages coming across:

  • The world is burning and the fate of the world depends on DD’s ideas getting attention. They aren’t getting this attention and this is an urgent the-sky-is-falling problem.
  • DD’s philosophy would make a massive, practical difference in the lives of lay people. People desperately need to learn it, not leave it to the experts.
  • DD is being largely ignored by “intellectuals”, “academics”, and “experts” and there’s a huge problem to solve there. The audience is not safe in thinking smart people are already doing whatever ought to be done about DD’s smart ideas.
  • DD’s philosophy implies people are treating their children immorally and destroying their children’s minds, that most scientists are wasting their careers, that the standard approach to global warming will kill us all, and a lot more.

DD is undermining the implications of his own philosophy by acting as if they don’t exist. A reasonable person hearing the interview would think I’m being ridiculous when I make these claims. Why? Because if that’s what DD’s message was, why didn’t he say it? He chose to talk about other things that matter way less. And he didn’t even protest the lack of attention he’s getting. As a contrasting example, Aubrey de Grey does protest the lack of funding he gets for SENS and does make public claims that he needs lots of money ASAP and it’s a very important life-or-death issue.

Putting On An Act

What’s the structure of the interview? A guy who doesn’t understand much about DD’s work asks DD questions which aren’t chosen very well but which are intended to help bridge the gap between DD and the audience. The host tries to guide DD to say things the audience will care about. DD could do that better without the host existing. DD knows better than the host what to bring up.

The interview also has a dialog/discussion format, but it’s fake because DD is just saying his own stuff and the host isn’t meaningfully contributing ideas.

What determines how the host treats DD? The social expectations of the host role and his deference to DD as someone much smarter than himself. (Whether the host is actually impressed by DD or not, he has to act the part, or else why did he even bring DD on the show?)

It’s somewhat similar to the situation DD would be in teaching a university class. The social situation prevents him from being challenged and designs the interactions so he’s deferred to.

And what does DD do? Give the other people roughly what they expect. DD doesn’t rock the boat. He doesn’t have real power. He’s just playing the role of the important person who gets to speak important truths and be listened to, but then actually he's being careful to say innocuous things. So DD is helping with a cultural ritual which pretends that some smart people get the opportunity to say important things, and DD participates in that but pulls his punches. So people can listen to dozens of such interviews and think they are open-minded, truth is being vigorously pursued, etc, and actually, all the while, every interview guest is dishonest (either like DD they try to avoid rocking the boat, or more commonly they’re actually faking being smart and knowledgeable at all).

It’s kinda like our society chooses one smart person per day and says “ok, today you can speak truth to power, we’re listening with open minds and trying to be objective and rational” and then, every day, each smart person says “our society is wonderful” even though they don’t believe it. and so plenty of people eventually hear hundreds or even thousands of times that everything is fine and wonderful and there’s nothing to worry about or fix. and DD participated in that disgraceful ritual and helped lie to the public and keep them complacent.

DD believes, correctly or not, that if he didn’t play along then he wouldn’t be invited back. And he tells himself he’s at least sharing some good ideas and also building up the popularity, reputation and status to enable him to share even more ideas in the future. And he doesn’t reread The Fountainhead and think about Gail Wynand or other ideas from Ayn Rand like this (The Virtue of Selfishness, ch. 7):

The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (2)

Popper vs. Impressive, Incomprehensible Writing

Popper is quoted in Relativism and the Social Sciences, by Ernest Gellner, ch. 1, p. 5.:

Many years ago I used to warn my students against the widespread idea that one goes to university in order to learn how to talk, and to write, impressively and incomprehensibly. At the time many students came to university with this ridiculous aim in mind, especially in Germany ... most of those ... who ... enter into an intellectual climate which accepts this kind of valuation ... are lost.

Thus arose the cult of un-understandability, the cult of impressive and high-sounding language ... I suggest that in some of the more ambitious social sciences and philosophies, especially in Germany, the traditional game, which has largely become the unconscious and unquestioned standard, is to state the utmost trivialities in high-sounding languages.

Some of the famous leaders of German sociology ... are ... simply talking trivialities in high-sounding language ... They teach this to their students ... who do the same ... the genuine and general feeling of dissatisfaction which is manifest in their hostility to the society in which they live is, I think, a reflection of their unconscious dissatisfaction with the sterility of their own activities.

The source is given as:

The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, by T. W. Adorno, Hans Albert, Ralf Dahrendorf, Jürgen Habermas, Harald Pilot and Karl Popper, London, 1976, pp. 294 and 296.

I think it's a misquote or incorrect citation in some way because it skips a page but never has ellipses to skip one or more paragraphs. The only time text is skipped it's within a paragraph. (It could be correct if there's a paragraph that's over a page long, I guess.)

I like the quote and I noticed its similar to Ayn Rand's view.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (4)

David Miller Doesn't Want To Discuss

I contacted Critical Rationalist philosopher David Miller about my improvement on Critical Rationalism. I sent him this material explaining it. His entire reply was:

May invite you to look at §4 of Chapter 5 of my Out of Error?

I replied:

Sure, but I'm unclear on why. I don't see that it replies to me or refutes something I said. And you intentionally omit discussion of the case involving "comparisons of verisimilitude", which is important to this discussion. You also focus on scientific testing and deduction, whereas I deal with thinking in general. And in ch. 4.1, you write:

Indeed, [science] may also allow falsified hypotheses to be retained, provided that there is some weight of negative evidence that would eventually cause them to be banished.

So my criticism does apply to your position, since you think arguments can have an amount of weight. Similarly:

In Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defence you write (ch. 10.1):

A minimal objective theory of truthlikeness does indeed seem to be possible. Whether an objective theory of scientific progress can be built on its back I do not know.

The truthlikeness approach is an example of an amount of goodness approach. This attempt to evaluate an epistemological amount, like the amount of weight of arguments mentioned above, contrasts with my refuted or non-refuted approach. Because criticisms are decisive or false, and there's no medium strength or weight arguments, there's no way to differentiate ideas on a truthlikeness continuum – there's no way to get an idea to any of the middle positions via argument (rather than arbitrarily) because arguments either put ideas to the very bottom (refuted) or don't move them at all.

Scientific progress (and non-scientific progress) is saved, however, by the binary approach I explain in my Yes or No Philosophy. (In case you missed the link at the bottom of the essay with further info: http://fallibleideas.com/essays/yes-no-argument If price is a problem, name your price, including free, and I'll send you a code.)

PS in Out of Error ch. 5.4 you bring up O'Hear on induction. You may be interested in my criticism of his position:


David Miller's full reply was:

Thank you for replying.

So I asked:

Does that mean you aren't interested?

Do you know anyone who would be interested in discussing an improvement to Critical Rationalism?

His entire reply was:

Truth to tell, I am not at present interested in entering into any more discussions. You could join the critical rationalism Facebook group https://en-gb.facebook.com/groups/criticalrationalism/.

So, he initially tried to hide it, but he doesn't want to discuss philosophy and doesn't know anyone who does. (That Facebook group is low quality, as I think he already knows. I've tried discussing there already. Miller didn't have a good recommendation to give, such as the name of even one person who would want a serious discussion of my philosophical breakthrough.)

Miller isn't interested in a way to improve the philosophy his books are about. He's not interested in criticism of his beliefs, even when it comes with an already-developed solution. He's not interested in thinking, learning, progress or truth-seeking. And he doesn't know of anyone who would be interested. Very sad!

I share this as important evidence about what the world is like. People think there are smart, serious intellectuals out there somewhere having great discussions, figuring important stuff out. But I've contacted many of them and consistently find they don't want to think and don't know anyone who does. (Excepting David Deutsch and Thomas Szasz.)

I wrote back to say:

But then, if you're mistaken, how will the error get corrected?

Miller didn't reply.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (73)

10 Robert Spillane Replies

Robert Spillane's latest email didn't directly reply to what I said previously. Here it is with my new comments which attempt to get discussion back on track:

1. '3 am in the morning' is a pleonasm and thus necessarily true.

2. '3 am in the afternoon' is an oxymoron and thus necessarily false.

We need to conclude our discussion of whether 1+1=2 is a necessary truth before opening a new, similar topic. My answer to the 3am issue is similar to my answer to 1+1=2, which is the easier case to discuss and which I already wrote an explanation of. I await your next reply about that.

If I end up conceding the point about 1+1=2, I expect I'll also concede about the 3am issue without any additional arguments. And if you concede about 1+1=2, then I think your reasoning will be relevant to the 3am case and make it easier.

3. 'Induction exists' cannot be falsified.

Why? My position (which is also Popper's) is that induction has never had any set of followable instructions (steps) with the properties claimed by inductivists. So no one has ever done induction since inductivists have never defined any set of possible steps someone could do that would constitute doing induction. There are also arguments for why no such set of steps could be invented in the future. This is why I've asked questions about how to do induction (what the steps are).

4. 'Inductive logic' can be rejected if one argues that 'inductive logic' is an oxymoron. But since you don't accept oxymora, you have to argue that you reject 'inductive logic' on empirical grounds. How do you do that without distorting the meaning of 'empirical'?

I can use logical arguments. There's nothing wrong with logic. I just said the laws of logic are based on the laws of computation which are based on the laws of physics, and physics is an empirical science.

5. If you can't reject it on empirical grounds, all that is left to you are your feelings - and they are irrelevant since one cannot argue with feelings.

I agree that feelings are irrelevant. I haven't brought them up.

6. It is a truism that inference from experience is not deductive. A proposition may imply another proposition, but an experience cannot imply another experience. But you deny that there can ever be an inference from experience? That is untenable. What do you think 'inference' means?

Inference means "a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning."

Induction refers to some specific ways of learning using experience. CR says those are poorly defined and actually impossible to do, and there are other ways to learn from experience which work instead (conjectures and refutations – evolution).

7. If Popper rejected induction, he has to be a deductivist - what else could a philosopher who calls himself a (critical) rationalist be?

A person who thinks most arguments are neither inductive nor deductive. Both induction and deduction are pretty specific categories which most arguments don't fit into. More on this below. BTW this has been noticed by a lot of people – e.g. it's the issue "abduction" is intended to address.

8. In his Unended Quest (Fontana, 1977, p.79) Popper writes: '...I could apply my results concerning the method of trial and error in such a way as to replace the whole inductive methodology by a deductive one. The falsification or refutation of theories through the falsification or refutation of their deductive consequences was, clearly, a deductive inference (modus tollens)...

That doesn't say Popper could or did replace the whole of thinking or arguing with deduction. Popper is just saying that if you accept basic (observation) statements then you can deduce to reject theories which they contradict.

9. You repeatedly claim that I do not engage with your position. But what exactly is the position of a person who rejects necessary truths and falsehoods, rejects induction and yet claims not to be a deductivist?

Why don't you quote what I write and reply to quotes more? I have asked you direct questions – e.g. the two about induction – and you haven't replied in this email. I also asked, again, for criticism of my position regarding 1+1=2 not being a necessary truth, and you didn't reply to that.

I take specific things you say and reply directly to them. But you mostly don't use that method when you respond to me.

I attempted to explain my position about non-deductive, non-inductive arguments with the price controls and socialism example. You didn't discuss it. I tried again by commenting on your argument about "mental illness" which you claimed was deductive, and you stopped discussing that too. If you will continue discussing one of the issues – especially if you quote what I say and reply directly to it – then I think we could make progress. I don't think it's a good idea to open another, new attempt to discuss the matter instead of continuing one of the discussions we were already having.

10. Where do your conjectures come from, since you deny they come from experience? And how do you refute them if not by deduction?

Brainstorming involves generating random variants of existing ideas. This is like genetic evolution which generates random variants of existing genes.

Many ideas are interpretations of experience. Interpreting experience is different than being guided by experience. Observations are passive data which can't tell us what to think. Instead we think for ourselves and some of our reasoning references observations, e.g. by critically pointing out that an idea contradicts an observation, or more mundanely e.g. by saying "I'm not going to go that way because I saw a cliff over there and I don't want to fall."

Ideas are refuted (in the context of a particular CR-problem) by criticism. A criticism is an explanation of why an idea doesn't solve a CR-problem(s). A "CR-problem" is very broad and refers to any type of achieving a goal or purpose, answering a question, etc – accomplishing anything you'd want an idea to succeed at. (I prefixed the word "problem" because it's Popper's terminology, I don't know a better word, but you objected to it previously so I don't want CR-problems to be mixed up with "problems" in your terminology.)

Explanation is a key part of thinking and arguing which is covered by neither deduction nor induction. Explanations discuss why and how. Statements following a "because" are generally explanations.

If you carefully analyze the arguments from most thinkers, including Szasz and your own books, you'll find many of them don't follow the rules of deduction or induction, and involve explaining why some idea fails to solve a CR-problem(s).

This would involve carefully defining what qualifies as both induction and deduction. I've asked you questions about this regarding induction.

Regarding deduction, it's CR-problematic too. Deutsch discusses that some in FoR ch. 10, the chapter I referred you to previously. In short, people don't actually agree about what the rules of deduction are, and it's a very hard CR-problem to address. You may define "deduction" as only Aristotle's syllogisms, but then you'll find you can't prove much and you won't be able to classify very many arguments as deductive. If you want a broader deductive system, you'll have to specify it and address issues like Godel's incompleteness theorem.

You'll also have to face the CR-problem that you won't be able to rely on deduction to argue for your deductive system against rival deductive systems, or criticisms of why it's a poor system, or that'd be circular. My solution to that issue is that arguments about which deductive system is correct are regular critical arguments, just as people usually use. But since deduction and induction are your only tools, you will have a harder time figuring out how to make arguments regarding deduction itself without circularity.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)