This is an entry in an ongoing series of posts, which will work through the ideas advocated by Eliezer Yudkowsky and other amateur philosophers from the LessWrong community, and attempt to understand the extent to which their ideas are novel as opposed to reinventions of the wheel. Link to introductory post for context and motivation.
I’d like to better understand, anthropologically, the extent and kind of the hostility between the two tribes under discussion—rationalists and professional philosophers. This series was kicked off as an inquiry into resolving what I called the tribes’ “mutual dismissal” of each other’s intellectual production. Certainly we can find members from (or individuals claiming to represent) each group who are aggressive and overreaching in their criticisms of the opposite tribe. But are these cases really representative of broader sentiments?
First things first: This post will limit itself to discussing what I’ll call the “canonical” rationalist community—those who engaged discursively on LessWrong.com from 2009 to 2013, after which the forum was “abandoned by the founding community members” (i.e., by those who wrote and peer-reviewed its founding texts). The rationalist diaspora today is huge and ideologically diverse, with no membership criteria other than self-elected fandom. Just as it would be mis-representative to characterize the Vienna School by its contemporary advocates, I believe it is misleading to mistake canonical LessWrong rationalism for its 2020 diaspora.
Since there is very little awareness of LessWrong rationalism among professional or academic philosophers—with the notable exception of Dave Chalmers—we can be brief in treating this side of the relationship. (If you are aware of remarks by other mainstream philosophers re: LW rationality, Bostrom not included, please leave a comment or email me at suspendedreason[at]gmail[dot]com.)
Chalmers, for his part, has been publicly supportive of the site. In a Reddit AMA, as has already been pointed out on LW, Chalmers writes: “having subcommunities of [the LW] sort that make their own distinctive assumptions is an important mechanism of philosophical progress.” Later, on the LessWrong forum itself, he’s even more complimentary, even while writing under semi-anonymity (the initials “djc”):
One way that philosophy makes progress is when people work in relative isolation, figuring out the consequences of assumptions rather than arguing about them. The isolation usually leads to mistakes and reinventions, but it also leads to new ideas. Premature engagement can minimize all three.
As a professional philosopher who’s interested in some of the issues discussed in this forum, I think it’s perfectly healthy for people here to mostly ignore professional philosophy, for reasons given here. But I’m interested in the reverse direction: if good ideas are being had here, I’d like professional philosophy to benefit from them. […] (The two main contributions that I’m aware of are ideas about friendly AI and timeless/updateless decision theory. I’m sure there are more, though. Incidentally I’ve tried to get very smart colleagues in decision theory to take the TDT/UDT material seriously, but the lack of a really clear statement of these ideas seems to get in the way.)
Many non-philosophers, arguing on behalf of mainstream philosophy, have been brutal in their criticism of LW’s ideas and insularity. However, the one mainstream contemporary philosopher who has, to my knowledge, engaged with its ideas believes that both the community’s larger project, and also multiple of its specific individual contributions, are valuable to the field. (Chalmers also writes that it’s “perfectly healthy” for LessWrong folks to “mostly ignore professional philosophy,” and that this isolation can be productive—which, if he’ll let them off the hook, maybe we should too.) Is Chalmers just being polite? We’ll never know, unless he decides to show up here and weigh in.
Now—How hostile toward mainstream philosophy was the canonical LessWrong community, broadly?
Luke Muehlhauser, in his 2011 sequence on rationality and philosophy, writes:
Eliezer’s anti-philosophy post Against Modal Logics was pretty controversial, while my recent pro-philosophy (by LW standards) post and my list of useful mainstream philosophy contributions were massively up-voted. This suggests a significant appreciation for mainstream philosophy on Less Wrong.
The case is far from airtight, but it’s a start. Let’s survey reader responses from “Against Modal Logics,” a post by Yudkowsky which advances serious criticisms against philosophy as a discipline (including accusations of uselessness). As a semi-random sample, I’ll just pick the 5 earliest (“oldest”) community comments which weigh in on mainstream philosophy. Author names and the comments’ cumulative upvote/downvote scores (a heuristic for community agreement) are included parenthetically after each entry.
- It’s true that contemporary philosophy is still very much obsessed with language despite attempts by practioners [sic] to move on. (poke, -2)
- Well of course one standard response to such complaints is: “If you think you can do better, show us.” Not just better in a one-off way, but a better tradition that could continue itself. If you think you have done better and are being unfairly ignored, well then that is a different conversation. (RobinHanson, 10)
- Carnap was probably the last philosopher to try for a systemic reduction, and his attempts floundered on well known problems, circa 1940… E writes: “Consider the popular philosophical notion of “possible worlds”. Have you ever seen a possible world? Is an electron either “possible” or “necessary”?” Kripke’s essay on possible worlds makes it clear that there is nothing mysterious about possible worlds, they are simply states of information. Nothing hard. (michael_webster2, 10)
- Are your feelings only confined to philosophy, modern or otherwise? I feel the same sense of ‘modal logic’ everywhere – art, politics, even technology – conversations, arguments, and discussions seem endlessly disconnected, related languages speaking past one another. […] The universe is endlessly amazing, and I feel blessed by being so curious. I think it’s miraculous that philosopher’s are as good as they are! (Kenny, 4)
And on Yudkowsky’s specific assertion that analytic philosophy is of very little use to to the project of building friendly AI:
- You write that “Philosophy doesn’t resolve things, it compiles positions and arguments”. I think that philosophy should be granted as providing something somewhat more positive than this: It provides common vocabularies for arguments. This is no mean feat, as I think you would grant, but it is far short of resolving arguments which is what you need [to build FAI]. […] I don’t mean to contradict your assertion that (even) analytic philosophy doesn’t provide what you need. I mean rather to emphasize what the problem is: It isn’t exactly that people fail to see the need for reductionistic explanations. Rather the problem is that no one seems capable of convincing anyone else that his or her candidate reduction should be accepted to the exclusion of all others. (Tyrrell_McAllister2, 4)
Surveying the rest of the responses, there are more aggressive criticisms of the discipline, but even here it is immediately clear that such views are a minority opinion in the community—that these are attitudes which themselves are treated with some hostility: “I’ve made similar dismissals of philosophy’s fruits at this blog and elsewhere. That was supposed to make me a nihilist, philistine psychopath. As I recall, Eliezer did not agree with my analogy to theology and astrology.” (src) Throughout, the most-upvoted comments are those which defend philosophy or significantly qualify Yudkowsky’s criticism.
We can apply a similar method of sampling the (non-Yudkowsky) responses to Muehlhauser’s 2011 “Less Wrong Rationality and Mainstream Philosophy” post, which actively chides rationalists for not giving due credit to mainstream philosophy, and urges them to further engage:
- Also, how about William James and pragmatism? I read Pragmatism recently, and had been meaning to post about the many bits that sound like they could’ve been cut straight from the sequences — IIRC, there was some actual discussion of making beliefs “pay” — in precisely the same manner as the sequences speak of beliefs paying rent. (pjeby, 8)
- The community definitely needs to work on this whole “virtue of scholarship” thing. (anonymous, 20)
- Hilary Kornblith was my advisor in grad school. He’s a cool dude. (Alicorn, 4)
- One philosopher whose work it would be extremely interesting to see analyzed from a LW-style perspective is Max Stirner. Stirner has, in my opinion, been unfairly neglected in academic philosophy, and to the extent that his philosophy has been given attention, it was mostly in various nonsensical postmodernist and wannabe-avantgardist contexts. However, a straightforward reading of his original work is a very rewarding intellectual exercise, and I’d really like to see a serious no-nonsense discussion of his philosophy. (Vladimir_M, 2)
The responses here are either to further scold their fellow rationalists for ignoring mainstream philosophy (their lack of “scholarship”), to express support for the discipline, or to add further examples of philosophers that LessWrong readers would benefit from engaging with. None of this I would characterize as hostile.
So: even beyond the respective upvote scores of Yudkowsky’s anti-philosophy, & Muehlhauser’s pro-philosophy, posts (scores which could indicate a variety of community preferences/biases) there is non-trivial evidence that the canonical LessWrong community was not only not hostile, but was in fact actively friendly toward, and defensive against criticisms of, mainstream philosophy. Admittedly one of Muehlhauser’s posts is entitled “Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline”—but Muehlhauser both characterizes his reservations about the field as being a minority opinion on the forum, and also re-iterates his broad support for the mainstream philosophical tradition.
Taken together, I believe this ought to meaningfully update my original framing of the nature of the rationalist-philosophy conflict. One might reasonably argue Yudkowsky specifically is broadly dismissive of mainstream philosophy as useful, or else narrowly dismissive of mainstream philosophy’s ability to usefully answer the questions that matter to him (e.g. programming a friendly AI, deciding when to defer to an authority vs. trust his own beliefs). But the burden of proof appears to have shifted onto those who wish to demonstrate anti-philosophy hostility or dismissal was widespread within the canonical rationalist community. I welcome any efforts to better assess this matter, be it systematically (e.g. an affect analysis of LessWrong comments mentioning philosophy between 2009-2013) or else in the form of testimony from old-school forum members who were around during this period and feel they have a sense of the gestalt.