Friday, May 16, 2008

Reading Philosophy etc

A series of fairly aggressive posts from Richard Chappell regarding bloggers he has disagreed with and how he thinks we should debate on the internet have been quite interesting and have inspired a look at how Richard writes.

Those who know Richard probably know his approach is one of confidence in the fact that he (and his intuitions) is correct and that disagreement with him is probably due to an error on the other side. a number of people have recently found themselves in heated arguments with Richard as a result. For those interested in debating I thought highlighting these in what Richard Brown terms

a must read for anyone who has had the “pleasure” of encountering RC’s “arguments”.

I'll look at these in the following sections


“Here's hoping I do a better job of avoiding online interactions with idiots in future.”

the confidence issue comes in three parts the first is confidence in those beliefs that you have chosen to believe. Richard explains here that he has a philosophy of bold beliefs weakly held (13). This appears to result in Richard boldly proclaiming that others positions are obviously wrong when even he doesn’t really believe it. In such a situation others often feel they are engaging with either a dishonest or a foolish person.

Besides the impressions of others, there are definitely the Situations where from a pragmatic perspective one would obviously want to Suspend Judgment. His inability to see these highlights how he tends to conflate idealized situations with reality via failing to value issues related to the baysianism and psychology of non idealized humans as well as not fully considering theProbability of truth of his position.

The second position that he holds strongly is confidence in the progress of philosophy and in fact that philosophical truth is just what an ideal philosopher would believe. And that such a truth exists in, most if not all areas.

Many people will reject that armchair philosophy always results in the right answer. It is known that the average person is not very rational on key issues, that the way the brain works can lead to acceptance of false information and that even academics are often very poor at detecting rubbish. Where the chain of logic is obscured by it's armchair (12) nature where we face dangers of Post hoc rationalization.

this seems at it's weakest in the ethical area. Richard writes

If they're false at all, it must be because of some deep incoherence. The true moral theory is true a priori, and so its verdicts will follow from any 'state description' that includes a full specification of the non-moral facts.

The suggestion being that Kantism and all other ethical positions bar one - are somehow inheritly incoherent. Somehow that seems terribly optimistic. Particularly when in the zombie debate he suggested that a person could simply deny his assumptions and that he would then have no recourse.

Eric Schwitzgebel represents the opposite position with

When you tilt back in your armchair and reflect, there's only one kind of thing you can discover, it seems to me: Facts about your own psychology.

This however is not an error in itself. The key issue in this area arises from how Richard makes claims about the status of philosophy and the definition of words as will be covered later.

The third is outright arrogance regarding ones superiority to others by presenting as a teacher and loosing composure and being agressive when that is challenged. He explicitly defends this (6) possibly an example of self justification since when pushed he admitted that this was not a admirable practice.

An example of arrogance is his challenge to Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric writes

I suspect that if, indeed, ethicists don't tend to consider voting a duty that may be post-hoc rationalization rather than genuine moral insight.

As I note here and here he made the error of assuming the question of psychology below, is a philosophy question. (ie the question of it IS a duty). This results in him saying

you would think the reasonable prior assumption would be to favour the experts over folk opinion
... Surely if anyone has reasons worth considering on a controversial moral question, it's going to be moral philosophers!

i.e. Richard? But while it is vaguely related to the moral question, the point at issue here obviously ISN'T. Instead it is an empirically researchable question for psychologists or possibly philosophers of mind like, for example Eric (10).

However as usual Richard C takes the fighting perspective wherein argue his premises premises are not open to debate.

Whether a stubborn opponent might reject one of my premises, on the other hand, is not something I see any reason to care about.”

I suggest this strategy is flawed from both an individual (e.g. individual truth seeking) and a collective (e.g. utilitarian) basis.

To learn you should try to elicit from those you encounter the best arguments. Surely from an individual perspective, truth seeking is best achieved by listening rather than forcing your opinion on another. After all - you already KNOW your own position. Optimal strategy would be to help the other side to develop the best possible argument against your position and if you consider yourself a rational agent with agency you can choose rationally whether retaining your beliefs is the best strategy.

And from a collective perspective it also seems flawed. This would be "naive utilitarianism" (Richard’s word for bad act utilitarianism), because this communication game has universibility issues. Simply, academia will descend into bad politics as debates would become full of invincible arguments, unproductive correcting of the record/reputation and disputes about what the dispute is about between strident opponents with limited respect. Advancing the dialect requires global rationality. Ask yourself - how easy is it to know you have really advanced the dialect? On a day to day basis do you achieve it by obeying rules that have been worked out over many centuries such as ‘don’t engage in question begging’?

We should realize that we can be wrong and that others also think they are correct and disagree - so we should give them the chance to make their point and even in a desire to address the strongest positions - devil’s advocate. So no cheap shots or cheap tactics or recklessly using tools at ones disposal.

Where did all the epistemic peers go?

When asked why he uses such a strategy given his objectives, Richard's move here is often to insist that there is nothing for him to learn since he is not in a debate with epistemic / intellectual peers and that they don’t even conceivably have any input of value. So why is Richard often frustrated by the perceived lack of ‘peers’?

For there to be a meeting of minds (and thus the productive debate that signifies meeting an epistemic peer) both sides need to understand the other side’s argument. Richard in a number of cases has found himself arguing belligerently that the other person meant what he thought they meant, even though they disagree as in this thread and this one. This creates a vicious cycle that disguises his after the fact rationalization.

To show this is not just a matter of my opinion I’ll give an example.

In the thread involving Richard Brown, his position is that the zombie debate is one of reduction not one regarding qualia being non physical (i.e. an argument against ‘physicalism’ per se). Unfortunately as with the other post his position is incoherent - in almost every debate he starts with the classic argument for zombieism (i.e. describing a world with zombies and one with non physical qualia) or for dualism the latter is as follows

1. (P & ~Q) is ideally conceivable [can't be ruled out a priori]
2. If (P & ~Q) is ideally conceivable then (P & ~Q) is possible.
3. If (P & ~Q) is possible then physicalism is false.
Therefore, physicalism is false.

It is the last line that is the central conclusion and which is taken to be the topic by most people. So it is unreasonable to complain if people defend physicalism (the claim being attacked) as opposed to attacking Richard's belief (non reductionism). It would seem there is a ‘bait and switch’ going on here.

Worse yet this contrasts with Richard's often stated opinion that we should attack only the strongest positions, because when the leader in the pro-zombie debate, David Chalmers, turned up he stated

It seems to me that although you present your arguments as arguments against the thesis (Z) that zombies are logically possible, they're really arguments against the thesis (E) that consciousness plays no causal role. Of course thesis E, epiphenomenalism, is a much easier target. This would be a legitimate strategy if thesis Z entails thesis E, as you appear to assume, but this is incorrect. I endorse Z, but I don't endorse E: see my discussion in "Consciousness and its Place in Nature", especially the discussion of interactionism (type-D dualism) and Russellian monism (type-F monism). I think that the correct conclusion of zombie-style arguments is the disjunction of the type-D, type-E, and type-F views, and I certainly don't favor the type-E view (epiphenomenalism) over the others.

It is reasonable to assume (in giving David Chalmers more credibility than RC) that attacking Richards position is actually attacking a weaker position even though he seems to suggest that an error is being made in addressing any other position.(5)

So how credible is Richard's confidence from a third person perspective? Richard Chappell has some knowledge of philosophy, particularly in the area of ethics he also has a blog. The blog forms a considerable library of his thoughts (allowing most of his references to be to his own thoughts). But in academia the gold standard is publications (and prestige of those publications) - but he does not appear to have any, unlike most of the other people mentioned (we are a fairly well published group it would seem). So as Richard Brown writes

If I hear ‘epistemic peer’ one more time I might…well, I don’t know what I might do…"

and the uncharitable Adam Rawlings writes

[due to his educational attainment] maybe it's not totally fair to pick on the flaws in his argument.

Burden of Proof

Richard Take argues that the burden of proof regarding whether something is possible should fall upon the person who is proposing it is necessarily impossible (or undefined in this case). This causes confusion for many science oriented people because normal scientific practice seems to be to assume that they don't exist until they are proven as long as they are relevant and complicate the model (c.f. Eliezer on Ockhams razor and for that matter Richard on openmindedness and Ockhams razor). In fact it is hard to see how one could have a coherent world view if one took the opposite position of believing in every thing that has not been disproven.

For example Richard argues

My fundamental premise is not, "I think the zombie world is coherently conceivable." … my basic premise is that the zombie world is coherently conceivable... you've said is that ignorance might lead one to believe it... But that is no reason to think that it is false.

Eliezer notes

I'm not sure how I'm supposed to react to this paragraph, frankly.

Richard responds

You're supposed to show that my premise is false.

can't we all sympathize with Eliezer here?

and this comment

We can play "maybe’s all day long, but it doesn't seem very helpful unless you can actually show that a mistake has been made.

What Richard seems to be saying is the argument spelled out here which suggests it is impermissible (or at least 'bad') to present a position as disproving another position without assuming in your proof all of the other sides basic assumptions (if you indeed know them). I.e. that Richard is trying to deny the legitimacy of others using his “bold ideas weakly held philosophy.

So why does Richard favor Dualism over physicalism? Well Richard give an answer here

It assumes an indefensible scientism from the start.

Scientism is indefensible?

Many followers of scientism are surprised by that. So on what does he base this bold claim? As is often the case Richard kindly proves a self reference where he elaborates

Many otherwise-intelligent people have an unfortunate tendency to dismiss entire realms of inquiry…

and references his previous post that argues that this is self defeating. Or put more formally here

(Scientism): A claim is coherent only if it has scientific implications.
What are the scientific implications of this principle? [none] It is incoherent by its own lights.

Following the link to the next level we see

This self-referentiality is all very fun, but does it actually amount to much? Does the mere fact that a practice cannot be opposed (without thereby engaging in the practice and so implicitly condoning it) provide any positive justification for the practice?.(3)

What this argument seems to imply is that the fact that others can’t be bothered debating (or even having a coherent word to describe a debate that they consider irrelevant) is proof your position is correct and conversely that if people break their own rules to oppose you then the position they take must be wrong. Surely not? (4) In other words his references and therefore his argument leads nowhere.

Here is the standard political example

One (irrational) country attacks another country, the second country says 'attacking countries is wrong' but they can't stop the other side attacking them unless they counter attack. Does that mean 'war is right'?

Clearly not, apparently not all references contain supporting evidence.

Richard argues we should “conditionalize out” science. This creates two problems first as Chris Hallqest argues

The difficulty with this is we cannot do this. We lack the imaginative capacity to substitute our imaginings of how things might be for information on how they really are. Philosophical thought experiments often involve gross oversimplifications, yet are used to draw conclusions about how things actually are, which is of course what many philosophers actually care about.

The second is that we start answering a different and potentially useless question. For example imagine designing public policy if we assumed all people were completely rational and fully informed.

In direct response to Richard’s argument that philosophy doesn't need science Eliezer countered with a much more substantive argument saying, to paraphrase, where other fields (such as physics) are relevant those with only philosophy backgrounds should take a backseat to those that have a background in both fields. Richard C rejected this out of hand however this is clearly a flawed strategy in regard to Richard’s neglect of many insights from Cognitive science as mentioned in Richard Brown's thesis (7) (follow the footnote), physics in debates with Eliezer or maths which I tackle here and even more obviously (and frequently on Richard’s blog) social sciences, empirical studies and his rejection of possible insights such fields might bring to his conversation threads. In these fields, where some of us are indeed genuine experts, his layman’s arrogance is all the more surprising.

‘New Speak' (8)

There are a number of examples here including for example his odd redefinition of democracy where he argues an oligarchy with low intelligence subjects might actually be a democracy and an attempt to redefine act utilitarianism as the “repugnant” naive utilitarianism where imaginary utilitarians only consider a single decision and it’s immediate consequences. Which he then uses his usual hyperbole to damn.

Naive utilitarianism is just about the most dangerous and repugnant moral theory around(11)

This sort of redefinition gives the person doing it control of the debate since if one ends up in semantic debate they can always be accused of not understanding what the key term is. At it’s worst you get a situation such as the zombie debate where Richard, after the results of his own quiz were highlighted, insisted that no one besides himself understood the debate.

Meanwhile on the other front, the meaning of words became an explicit part of the conversation. Eliezer takes a one possible definition of the meaning of a word - "words refer to whatever generally causes us to utter them". Richard argues that this semantic position is obviously demonstrably false and Eliezer disagrees. However this is the sort of theory that Plato, St. Augustine, Wittgenstein and many others have put forward, so one could argue it is ‘demonstrably defendable’. Yet again Strong Position "weakly held" seems to result in a person making demonstrably untrue statement.

In another example - the Pascal’s wager debate - Richard finds himself the one attacking as opposed to defending a hypothetical. He proposes

Pascal's Wager has got to be one of the worst philosophical arguments

But it soon becomes clear that what he is doing is attacking a particular (weak) form of Pascal’s wager – which he seems to have invented himself. He then showed a bewildering lack of concern regarding his straw man which was neither what Pascal meant, the strongest argument nor the commonly understood argument. If the purpose of the debate was truth seeking or development of understanding as stated, then his approach would seem counterproductive.

Richard defends against the accusations of question begging that arise form the above methodology, naturally enough, by using a question begging definition of question begging (a fallacy) that can be summarized as follows

[To not be question begging] merely calls for arguments that are dialectically effective.

I.e. if they convince they are valid even if they don't logically follow or if they are misleading? (1) Maybe question begging is only something people who are wrong can do? Imagine how confused a non-concequentialist would be with such a definition!

Ironically this seems to be different to the standard he uses in regard to others

Richard argues

Reductionists make [an] error because they assume that all that stands in need of explanation is the third-personal data of science… But this is clearly question-begging, or worse.

Richard Brown responds

According to you every argument that rationally persuades someone, even by degrees, is a good argument. So, the ontological argument, by your own lights is a good argument. Recall Russell’s famous anecdote that he was walking home one day and threw his pipe in the air and exclaimed ‘the ontological argument is sound!’ Even though he was an avowed agnostic (like myself) he adjusted his belief by a degree. But you have yourself denounced that argument on several occasions…

I’m not sure Richard C himself is convinced after-all if dialectic effectiveness is the aim of debate then surely if no one understands him, that would me something he would care more about.


Richard appears to rely quite heavily on intuitions as the majority of commeters seem to agree in this thread.

One of Richard’s favorite tools seems to be the intuition pump, for example the ‘zombie argument’ which he defends as being dialect enhancing even if not logically forceful (to drive a person on pain of irrationality to come to the desired conclusion).

In practice the intuition approach would appear likely to produce inconsistent results, particularly when you are tempted to switch to intuition in isolation of other beliefs and arrogantly resist more robust arguments and that you can gerrymander intuitions pumps to argue both sides or just to present a wrong position and that intuitions vary in relation to philosophically irrelevant factors (Nichols, Stich, Weinberg, 2001; Luper, 2003; etc). In general reliance on intuitions is suspect. And it is particularly suspect when used to answer questions with obvious empirically researchable answers, which may be a sign your no longer talking about philosophy!

The impression that is given is that, like many other people, he forms beliefs via intuition and ties them together via philosophy i.e. as follows

beliefs? I generally try to connect them on indirect consequentialist grounds

A more considered response would seem to be actually weighing up the likelyhood of the intuition being reliable given the various relevant factors, including cognitive factors raised by Eliezer (eg with epiphenomenalism) as opposed to refusing to consider such logic.

Richard himself provides support for this view of intuition pumps in a previous post:

If our intuitions are reliable at all, perhaps it's because they've been honed by our experiences, producing a kind of philosophical "know how". But while this might yield reliable judgments for familiar scenarios, it's (even) less clear whether we are competent at making correct intuitive judgments in unfamiliar - and sometimes downright bizarre - circumstances.

Is a zombie world a bizarre circumstance? Surely it is? Regardless, he continues

if other epistemically responsible agents call this into question, you ought to put aside your mere intuition and see whether there is any actual reason that can ground it.

Which is exactly what has happened, and yet

When.. ask[ed] for an argument for the unsupported premise no one gives one and when ask[ed] for a response to said counter argument again no one gives one.

1. For context here he is in the process of changing his mind . If this was a logical decision (as it should be) we would hope to see something of value in here. See how robust you think the argument is.

My intuitions commit me very strongly to the view that it's nomologically impossible for a physical duplicate of myself to lack consciousness. Given the natural laws as they actually are, there can be no zombies. There is no further 'soul', 'spirit', or special substance that needs to be "injected" into a brain and body before it becomes a conscious person. I find such views ludicrous, and want to avoid them like the plague. But if the view is simply that our natural laws are somewhat special, in giving rise to consciousness when different natural laws would fail to do so (given physically identical duplicates), then that seems a far less extravagant claim, and doesn't concern me nearly so much. Whether that means I'm not so committed to physicalism as I'd previously thought, I'm not quite sure.

I have in part as a result reexamined some of how I post. Usually/Previously I posted as I think - this means I write quickly and in a verbose manner almost as fast as I can type. In this methodology I see the internet as a library for my thoughts. This is obviously NOT how I write essays or articles. There is a good argument for raising the standard of blog posts to a point where I would write more concisely and with more references and to remain close to the original topic in as far as I want to take more responsibility for adding value.

3. I accept this could also just be poor use of references to create the appearance of evidence. But that would be an issue in itself.

4. I.e. this is not evidence in itself even though it would seem to be being used as evidence. I don't take a position on the merits of any of the definitions of scientism.

5. Although I note David is here refusing to take a position which is not very helpful - it is the equivalent to responding to a new theory - my theory is 'you are wrong and I'm probably right'. Even if true that’s a very cheap victory.

6. Richard says “People are put off by his abrasive tone and plain-spoken insults, and thereby conclude that he's committing "ad hominems", no matter the substance of his arguments. Of course, one may question whether it's the best way for him to persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with him -- but Leiter has explained that that is not his purpose anyway.)”

7. In the philosophy of mind, for instance, the cognitive turn leads first
to the mind-brain identity theory of Place, Smart and Feigl (and later Armstrong)(Feigl 1967; Armstrong 1968; Smart 1991; Place 2004). These philosophers saw that theoretical work in the brain sciences could be used to solve philosophical problems (Brown 2006).and inspired by the developing field of computer science and artificial intelligence, we saw the rise of the now dominant view in the philosophy of mind known as functionalism (Putnam 1967/1991).
(Johnston 1998) says,
Every moral tradition and every moral theory necessarily presupposes some
specific view of how the mind works and what a person is. The cognitive
sciences constitute our principle source of knowledge about human cognition
and psychology. Consequently, the cognitive sciences are absolutely crucial
to moral philosophy (p 691)

8. The language spoken in the society described in the book '1984'. Words are redefined in order to deny opponents the ability to say what they want to say and the proper words for positions implicitly contain value judgments that the government wants you to have. Leaders for example are called something like 'good people'.

9. For context - Previous to this the non reductionist side had claimed perceptions as evidence, Eliezer takes the facts of the debate elsewhere to be on his side so all he needs to do here is to explain why perceptions could be wrong (because they must before Eliezer to be right, it cant be illegitimate for him to explain).

10. For example an experiment that showed many philosophers maintain similar voting patterns from before they studied ethics that might be evidence Eric is correct without proving that voting is ‘morally right’ (the philosopher’s question).

11. based on the empirical claim that he has never even tried to justify "…attempting to reason in a utilitarian fashion tends to have disastrous consequences, and fails miserably to maximize utility." Completely unfounded armchair philosophy.

12. it's a funny clip including 1) make sure to say it transcends human comprehension 2) make up definitions that encompass exactly what you want to say 3) whatever is unknown proves your thoughts. RC used (2) mostly.

13. I think based on flawed assumptions for a Kantian or a utilitarian. The idea is to invite fierce discussion by making an aggressive statement, and it may be good for influencing people and for debate but only in as far as others don’t do that too. If they did do it then you would no longer have a relative boost in effectiveness and all you would have is a lot of people boldly arguing for dubious positions.


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