"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Non-Expert Explanation

SSC’s review of postmodernism got very mixed reviews. Some of them made a good point: why should I be trying this at all? I’m not a postmodernist, I’m not a philosophy professor, surely someone much more qualified has already written a blog-post-length explanation of postmodernism.

This is all true. My only excuse is that trying to figure out complicated concepts requires a different approach than trying to teach simple ones.

Some knowledge is easy to transfer. “What is the thyroid?” Some expert should write an explanation, anyone interested can read it, and nobody else should ever worry about it again.

Other knowledge is near-impossible to transfer. What about social skills? There are books on social skills. But you can’t just read one and instantly become as charismatic as the author. At best they can hint at areas worth exploring.

There are lots of books about social skills, and there should be lots of them – I don’t know which social skills book is the best, but it doesn’t obsolete all the others. Maybe it’s because you need a kind of triangulation – one person’s views on social skills give you one perspective, another person’s views on social skills give you another perspective, and after reading enough different books you can sort of make out the shape of the territory in question. Maybe it’s about different people having different problems and deficiencies, but our language is imprecise enough that they all get called “Social Skills” and it won’t help unless you stumble across the one solving your specific issue. Or maybe it’s about different people’s minds working in different ways, so that you can only make sense of a book by someone who thinks like you – whose mind groups things into the same concepts as yours, so that you can import them over directly. There are some Social Skills For Autistic People books out there, and the autistic people I know say they’re much more helpful than the generic-brand. Autism is a well-circumscribed thing; how many less-well-circumscribed groups are out there with similar needs?

Complicated ideas are like this too. I remember reading a mathematician talking about how there were two different-but-equivalent formulations of some high-level mathematical concept – let’s say an algebraic one vs. a geometric one. He’d always learned it as the algebraic one and had only the slipperiest grasp on it. Then one day he read a textbook presenting the equivalent geometric version, and it made perfect sense; he really understood it, could mentally manipulate it, could think creatively with it and make progress. He wondered why everybody didn’t teach the geometric version first. Another mathematician responded that he had the same story – except that for him, he’d learned the geometric version first, hated it, and only really been able to make progress once he learned the algebraic version. Then a third mathematician chimed in, said that both the geometric and algebraic version had confused her, but that in some obscure textbook she was able to find a third equivalent formulation she thought was better than either.

My own version of this experience was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s A Human’s Guide To Words, which caused a bunch of high-level philosophical ideas to slip neatly into place for me. Last week David Chapman wrote about what was clearly the same thing, even centering around the same key example of whether Pluto is a planet. A Gender Studies major I know claims (I can’t confirm) that the same thing is a major part of queer theory too. But Chapman’s version and queer theory don’t make a lot of sense to me; I was able to understand the former only because I already knew what he was talking about, and I have to take any statements about the latter on pure faith. On the other hand, nobody else seems to have found Guide To Words as important as I did; I don’t see paeans to it all over, nobody’s offering Eliezer any Nobel Prizes. It was a perfect fit for where my mind was at that moment – but there are probably a hundred other versions equally objectively good, some of which don’t even realize they’re versions of the same thing.

To carry on the analogy to social skills: even after reading the best, most perfect-fit social skills book in the world, it’s still not going to be enough. People need to ask questions. Both in my psychiatrist role and my community-member role, I have to answer (and sometimes ask) a lot of “Hey, is this socially acceptable? What’s the best way to behave here?” type questions.

And questioning requires mental fit at least as much as straight information-transfer does. Speaking of having poor social skills, I remember what I used to be like in college. A professor would say something that didn’t make any sense to me. I at least had the social skills to avoid saying “that doesn’t make any sense”, so I would raise my hand and ask the professor “Excuse me, I don’t understand what Aristotle meant when he said everything had a telos. Do snails have telos? Do air molecules? Does a random rock?” The professor would mumble something kind of meaningless that didn’t answer the question, and again being too polite to say so, I would say “I’m not quite sure what you meant by that ‘only specific things have a telos’. Which specific things are you talking about? How would we figure out which ones?” And then so on, until I became more and more exasperated with the professor seemingly giving irrelevant responses or completely misunderstanding my questions, and the professor started thinking I was some sort of hostile troll trying to embarrass him. I quickly learned that there were some professors, tutors, and fellow students who would immediately understand what I was asking and answer as best they could, and others who would go through the motions of answering while leaving me even more confused than before.

And continuing on the social skills analogy even further: at some point you have to go to a party, try out what you know, and totally humiliate yourself. The intellectual version is something like steelmanning – you try to construct the position you’re trying to understand as best you can, then see if it sounds right to people who know about it.

One of the great things about the old Less Wrong was that it was a community built for this kind of thing. A bunch of people with a certain worldview and way-of-thinking explained some curated hard-to-understand knowledge to other people who also shared their worldview and way-of-thinking. Then they discussed it among themselves, questioned it back and forth, agreed or disagreed with it, and absorbed it in a social way. This is also what I’m trying to do with SSC. The knowledge itself may or may not be original – I think at a certain level of complexity “originality” becomes hard to monitor (what percent of the 10,000 psychology books that have been published are truly “original”?). But it’s packaged slightly differently than what’s come before, and it’s well-targeted at a community of people who have the right mental fit to absorb it and then refine it among themselves.

Some of the academics I know say similar things about their own field. It’s not just that you have to read lots of books, although you do. It’s the experience of working with an advisor and other grad students, of coming up with theories and having them be shot down. Two stories I’ve heard from multiple grad student friends: “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor she came up with a simple proof it could never work” and “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor, she said ‘Oh yeah, that’s Smith’s Lemma, very exciting when it was published forty years ago.'” But eventually you come out of it not just with book learning, but with the thought-patterns and methods of a field baked into your brain, a strong sense of what is or isn’t interesting, can or can’t be done.

The spiritual traditions seem to endorse some similar process. They have some complicated thing you’re supposed to ‘get’ – enlightenment, gnosis, whatever. They make a big deal of how it’s useless to communicate in words. But they also make a big deal of reading the scriptures, of having teachers, of the importance of back-and-forth conversations with teachers beyond just reading books and listening to lectures. So you read lots of sutras, and you do lots of meditation, and you talk to your guru a lot, and then suddenly (at least in some traditions), it makes sense. You see a falling leaf, or you hear a raindrop, or someone hits you with their stick, or something else that’s never the same for two different people, and you get it. I know the suddenness aspect is exaggerated, I know there are some traditions that say it’s not like this at all, but they all share this view of a knowledge which can’t be mass produced through traditional educational methods.

Maybe this is on my mind because of the recent post on Kolmogorov complicity. Some people asked – why can’t people just figure out what’s taboo, either believe it quietly or reject it openly, and then shut up about it? And part of the answer has to be that the process of coming to understand a field at all has to involve this pattern of back-and-forth questioning, approaching from multiple sides, devil-advocating, etc. Lots of the process will look the same whether you end out ultimately rejecting or accepting a truth; you’ve got to go through the same steps just to understand what you’re considering.

The Internet seems like an increasingly hostile place for this sort of thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read an essay I really liked and appreciated only to see somebody mocking it for “reinventing the wheel”. Oddly enough, none of these people ever point out who said the thing first, or what its standard name is. Maybe they think it’s too obvious to mention? Or, if someone screws up, or asks a stupid question, it gets screenshotted and goes viral all over Twitter as “Look what this stupid person said now!” I will admit being complicit in this – I get really nervous whenever someone posts something unsophisticated in the comments here or on the subreddit, because I’m worried it will go viral as an example of “what those people at Slate Star Codex believe”. I’m not even talking about offensive things here! Just stupid ones!

There’s an awkward tension between blogs and comments as “something some random person has typed into a box on the Internet” vs. “strong claim to authority and of being worthy to educate everyone else”. Offline it’s easier to distinguish these sorts of things – tone of voice, what kind of situation you’re in, whether you preface it awkwardly with “This is stupid, but…”, whether you’re just talking to your equally-stoned friend. On the Internet, having a blog gives this aura of “Hey, I’m going to educate you about things using my superior knowledge”. I try to fight that with epistemic status tags explaining when things are tentative or just me looking for feedback, but I guess maybe these are sometimes hard to believe. Sometimes they just earn more anonymous hate: “If you’re admitting you’re too stupid to have an opinion on this, you must be really stupid to give it anyway!”

This is a shame. The authoritative-lecture format works for facts, but isn’t enough when you’ve got any subject more complicated than thyroid anatomy. Collaborative truth-seeking where people are throwing out ideas, trying to reconstruct arguments themselves, asking questions, and arguing – these are more promising, but they leave you open to accusations of reinventing the wheel, arrogantly dabbling in fields you don’t understand, or being too insular. When some of the topics involved are taboo, add the sins of “just asking questions” or “thinking it’s my job to educate you”. But unless you’re such a good lecturer that everybody will understand you on the first try, this is a necessary part of communicating hard things.

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194 Responses to Non-Expert Explanation

  1. Said Achmiz says:

    On the other hand, nobody else seems to have found Guide To Words as important as I did; I don’t see paeans to it all over, nobody’s offering Eliezer any Nobel Prizes.

    What?!

    I’ve always thought, and said, that “A Human’s Guide to Words” is brilliant and incredibly valuable. I’ve even cited it as such in comments on this very blog! (And I know several other people who feel this way!)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I guess “people on SSC like the LW Sequences” is not the sort of world-spanning praise I would expect if it were really as good as I thought.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        Why not?

        People who really like it, come to SSC.

        (I mean, I also say this elsewhere…)

        What were you expecting, exactly?

        • poignardazur says:

          I think he meant “If it were that universally good, it would appeal to everyone, not just the kind of person who reads SSC”.

        • Nick says:

          His point is that if Guide to Words is truly earthshattering, then prima facie it should have a much larger audience. Sure, SSC is not a small blog anymore, but that’s attributed more to Scott’s writing than to Eliezer’s. It sounds to me like you’re just assuming his conclusion—why isn’t “people who really like it” virtually everyone, all the millions who haven’t read the primary literature, who ought therefore to benefit from an excellent layman’s introduction to these topics? And Scott’s answer is that even an excellent layman’s introduction to these is only going to work for some people, for precisely the reasons he suggested in this post: a kind of mental fit, a need for shared background, etc.

        • Machine Interface says:

          To be fair, I came to SSC first and then went to read the sequences, expected SSC but over 9000 power level; instead I found a disorderly jumble of confused eassays, none of which seemed to actually talk about anything or make a point at all. I quickly retreated to SSC.

          • FeepingCreature says:

            Right, and I came to LessWrong via a silly crackfic of a sci-fi story which completely upended my model of the world, and from there on everything Eliezer said just seemed to slot into this expanding grid of “this just makes plain sense and fits perfectly with what came before.”

            So I really think that once again, the mental state of the reader is still generally being massively underestimated in judging a work.

          • Eponymous says:

            Huh. My experience was just the opposite. I found the sequences the most brilliant thing I had ever read, and then unfairly judged LW \ Eliezer (including Scott) by comparison, leading me to ignore them for a long time.

          • PedroS says:

            @FeepingCreature Would you mind sharing the name/URL of the “crackfic of a sci-fi story which completely upended my model of the world,” ?

          • Evan says:

            For years my friends in the rationality community told me to read the LW Sequences, and I could never get through the morass they were on LessWrong. I read the occasional post on LW, but I mostly absorbed the social epistemology of LessWrong through meetups in person. That I had good friends bring me into the rationality community and that we shared a common communication/thinking style helped me get into the rationality community in a way it seems lots of people who found it by wandering around the internet never have.

            FWIW, I think the six-volume reorganization of the LessWrong Sequences into traditional book-style Rationality: From AI to Zombies successfully transforms much into something much more digestible than the disorderly jumble of confused essays that it was before. Eliezer has lots of thoughts of transhumanism, meta-ethics, and other obscurer topics that are reserved for the last books of R:AZ. For me, I got through the first 1,000 pages of the 1,800-page R:AZ in six months, when I read only a few dozen posts on LW by Eliezer for the several years prior to that. I don’t understand why other rationality community members don’t promote R:AZ more than the Sequences. Heck, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is popular and fun enough writing it can get people into the rationality community better than the Sequences can.

          • Nick says:

            Evan, people have wildly different reactions to each of those. Some people like the Sequences as, uh, sequenced. Others hate it. Some people like R:AZ; others have no interest in reading it that way either. Some people think HPMoR is great and totally use it to evangelize; others think it’s unreadably bad. In keeping with the topic of this post, there’s just no silver bullet.

      • I’m pretty sure the difference between Yudkowsky and Chapman is that Yudkowsky thinks that if he analyzes carefully enough, by looking at the nodes, finding their nodes etc. etc., he can come to opinions without any remaining vagueness (e.g. opinions about the fundamental laws of the universe and fundamental particles and so on.) Chapman on the other hand knows this is false.

        • FeepingCreature says:

          In a comment about Eliezer trying to attain surety and Chapman believing it unreachable, it is amusing to me that Eliezer “thinks” but Chapman “knows”. 🙂

          • fictional robotic dogs says:

            probably the thing that’s stuck with me the most from LW is this post, this bit in particular:

            …neutrality is a definite judgment. It is not staying above anything. It is putting forth the definite and particular position that the balance of evidence in a particular case licenses only one summation, which happens to be neutral…

            (although i do think that eliezer has a tendency to swing too far in the other direction)

    • Bugmaster says:

      FWIW, my own impression of A Human’s Guide to Words is that it’s an easily accessible, well worded, and even entertaining digest of an “Intro to Philosophy” class. Nothing in it is original or even particularly earth-shattering, but the way it’s presented still makes it useful.

      • Desertopa says:

        I’d agree that the content isn’t particularly original, but I’d already taken an Intro to Philosophy class before I read it, and on top of that I’ve tutored students in several different Intro to Philosophy classes from different schools since then, and I definitely wouldn’t say that any of the ones I’ve encountered encapsulate the same knowledge.

        Whether or not it’s earth-shattering depends a lot on your ideas and thought patterns before reading it though, I think.

    • I thought it was one of his better efforts , and I don’t like a lot of his stuff.

  2. ahartntkn says:

    Yudkowsky’s “A Human’s Guide To Words” initially had a heavy influence on my understanding of words and reality-grounded intuitions. Eventually, I started investigating neural networks, found this blog post, and was fascinated by the idea that the semantics of words can be described usefully as vectors in a vector space. It took a bit longer for me to figure out that this was the same thing as what Yudkowsky was getting at in “Neural Categories”.

    The reason I’m writing this is that, as it turns out, what Yudkowsky was talking about originated back in the 70s, and exists now as something called “distributional semantics”. So, in a way, he was reinventing a decades-old wheel, but I don’t think anyone noticed, as the term has never been mentioned on Less Wrong, to my knowledge. At this point, it’s a rather sophisticated and well-developed field. I’d recommend looking at the paper “Mathematical foundations for a compositional distributional model of meaning” for a recent influential take on the subject. In the long run, it was these more sophisticated, developed theories that impacted my thinking, but I don’t think I would have cared as much without Eliezer’s initial essays. Even in their undeveloped state, they’re grasping at something important. All the better if I can recognize that, and go on to read more developed commentaries.

    • quaelegit says:

      I think this is post is a good example of how “re-inventing the wheel” can be a compliment (or at least isn’t necessarily an insult). And when people find something unorginal, instead of being smug it can be more useful to point out the previous work in good faith, “hey, have you seen [earlier thing] and the work other people have developed from it?”

      (incidentally, this reminds me of a complaint I’ve heard a few time that people in [newer field A] have all of these new discoveries that are actually exactly the same as what [field B] was working on 30 years ago. This is certaintly a good reason for people in fields A and B to talk — maybe field B is correct and field A can get a lot of benefit from their work, or maybe it’s not as similar as field B thinks and they can learn something.)

      • ahartntkn says:

        Agreed. I think it’s also important to point out the difference in priorities. The people developing distributional semantics have specific pragmatic goals, such as machine translation and NLP. Yudkowski developed his idea with every-day usage as a tool to clarify thinking in mind. This is a perspective that doesn’t really get any air-time among the mathematicians and linguists working in the field, but it gives philosophical weight to the theory that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

        Everybody has a reason why they care about a specific subject. If two people make the same thing for totally different reasons, that can hugely impact how we assess the importance and utility of that thing.

        • TyphonBaalHammon says:

          This is a perspective that doesn’t really get any air-time among the mathematicians and linguists working in the field

          Because they both consider labels arbitrary for different reasons.

          Mathematicians never have to worry about whether their perfect concepts are any realistic. They reason on objects that exists only through a good definition (and even when they don’t at first, eventually they create a good definition through a better axiom system).

          Linguists are constantly confronted both with the arbitrariness of words both at the object level but also at the meta-level (there’s plenty of termological controversy all the time in linguistics).

          And so I could easily be one of those people who heap scorn on Yudkowsky’s guide to words, I’m reading it right now and I don’t find anything he says particularly new or insightful, yet I could never say where else to find it, because I’ve learned most of it organically while studying linguistics.

          • ahartntkn says:

            > Mathematicians never have to worry about whether their perfect concepts are any realistic.

            I don’t think this is true, especially as it applies to the mathematics of linguistics. The most obvious thing to point to is computability. If a particular semantic or epistemic theory relies on computing the value of a non-computable entity, then that theory is wrong. This is the fundamental problem with Solomonoff Induction, for instance.

            Furthermore, and relatedly, categorical approaches typically try to use categories with a computational interpretation (i.e. categories who’s internal language is constructive by default, such as in the Curry-Howard-Lambek correspondence). And many mathematicians do actually devote quite a bit of effort into the philosophical justification for such things. See this, for example.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            I think you’re mixing some things up here. Solmonoff Induction isn’t wrong, it just isn’t actually performable. It still does all the things it’s supposed to do. If someone makes a claim of the form “This thing in the real world works by Solomonoff Induction” that’s certainly wrong but Solomonoff Induction isn’t some bad concept to be discarded or something.

          • ahartntkn says:

            @Sniffnoy

            Well, it’s wrong in the sense that “Solomonoff Induction is a method for making inferences” is an incorrect sentence. You can’t actually use it to do that. That being said, that doesn’t mean the idea should be thrown away. There are algorithms inspired by SI that approximate SI in a computable way and those can be useful. But SI itself is no more real than a halting oracle. That doesn’t mean that halting oracles can’t be used for reasoning, but they don’t exist, and any epistemology that’s committed to their existence is untenable. It’s wrong, in other words. Any epistemology that assumes inference can be performed using SI is wrong for the same reason. It’s wrong in the sense that using a hammer to unscrew a screw is the wrong tool to use, except even more so since hammers at least exist.

            This is important for linguistics where whatever reasoning or computations that are performed have to be done by a real, actual person. SI may do “all the things it’s supposed to do” in a fantasy land, but it doesn’t do anything where people actually live, in places where AI’s that would be able to use something like SI are actually built.

        • Desertopa says:

          This is completely aside from any substantive point of the comment, but why do you spell his name as “Yudkowski?” I’ve seen a lot of people do that, but he doesn’t spell his own name that way, and the spelling he actually uses is featured in numerous comments before this, so I can’t imagine it’s a matter of not knowing how other people spell his name.

          • Rick Hull says:

            I believe there is no logical difference between the two spellings. It’s like the Intake guy at Ellis Island flipped a coin as to whether the ski is a sky. And I imagine many posters’ brains do the equivalent coin flip without thinking about it.

          • PDV says:

            No, Rick, there is a systematic difference. -ski is Polish, -sky is non-Polish Slavic, with high probability.

          • Sillence says:

            Interesting observation, I never realized this! But -ski is also a universal surname ending in Macedonian.

          • TyphonBaalHammon says:

            In most methods of translitteration from Russian, “y” denotes cyrillic “ы” and “i” denotes “и”. And in Russian, “ы” can never follow “к”.

            It’s probably tempting for some people to generalize this to all slavic names ending in /ski/ in spite of the fact that many of them are not actually Russian and follow different orthographic conventions.

          • ahartntkn says:

            I actually did spell it correctly in a previous comment. That one time I just wasn’t thinking.

          • 27chaos says:

            Tyron, what about Trotsky? Is he an exception? Or do I misunderstand you?

          • A1987dM says:

            @TyphonBaalHammon: In the Cyrillic-to-Latin transliteration scheme usually used in English, y is also used for ий e.g. “Dostoyevsky”.

          • A1987dM says:

            @PDV: in non-Polish Slavic it should be -vsk- with a v not a w.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Can we just focus on the fact that his name means “Russian rabbi”, thus weakening the case for nomitive determinism?

          • Tetrikitty says:

            But in a sense, are we not all Russian rabbis?

          • TyphonBaalHammon says:

            @A1987dM : I didn’t think it was a convention ! I had quickly checked english-language wikipedia which confirmed what I already knew but doesn’t mention specific rules for digraphs (except in a short mention about passports) : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Russian

          • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

            > In most methods of translitteration from Russian, “y” denotes cyrillic “ы”

            Not at the end of the word though. It is pretty common to write last names ending in “ский” as “sky” or “skiy”. The former even more common – google “Dostoyevsky”, note how Wikipedia spells it.

            > and “i” denotes “и”. And in Russian, “ы” can never follow “к”.

            I can think of one word where ы follows к in Russian: “кыш!” (shoo!). Any other instances seem to be transliteration from other languages (such as Кыргызстан – Kyrgyzstan, акын (also borrowed from Kyrgyz and such languages), etc.).

  3. Sniffnoy says:

    A Human’s Guide to Words is definitely great. Obviously not original, as Eliezer himself admits, but a great summary of the matter.

    Last week David Chapman wrote about what was clearly the same thing, even centering around the same key example of whether Pluto is a planet. A Gender Studies major I know claims (I can’t confirm) that the same thing is a major part of queer theory too.

    So, here’s one of the things that really bugs me about all this postmodern/critical whatever/etc style stuff. This stuff to me all looks like it was written by people who at some point learned the lesson that the map is not the territory, but for some reason decided that therefore they need to confuse the two even harder. Seriously, you look at it, and you can see these bits where they clearly recognize that the map is not the territory, but then in the bulk of it they go getting them mixed up even more than people normally do. It’s maddening.

    • slate blar says:

      This stuff to me all looks like it was written by people who at some point learned the lesson that the map is not the territory, but for some reason decided that therefore they need to confuse the two even harder.

      Disclaimer: not a pomo/crit theory expert of any sort.

      My attempt at a critical theory response:

      People tend to accept that the map is not the territory, however everyone is trying to convince everyone else that their map IS the territory, or at least the best representation thereof.

      Even in hard sciences like physics human understanding of physical reality(let’s just assume materialism) is a matter of numerous scientists assembling an incredibly detailed map out of innumerable experiments, shaped by theory and filling in the blanks with extrapolation. You can walk the contours of a country and map them with your eyes and hands. You’ll never have more than a series of ever improving maps when it comes to properties at the quantum level.

      At least with the hard sciences it’s reasonable to assume the existence of a fixed territory(assuming non-locality, measured constants are constant over time, etc). We’re blind people running their hands over a gigantic diamond and describing it to each other.

      In the social sciences we’re blind people running our hands over each other and describing what we feel to each other, with all the biases and politics inherent to that process!

      There are few people with a specific material interest in one theory of physics winning out over another and ultimately they live or die by experimental evidence. There are also no self-fulfilling theories in the hard sciences, because the statistical correlations and behaviors they are studying are not modified by past experiments(not universally modified, at least).

      If you screw up a double slit experiment today, that doesn’t make it harder for your colleague next door to get it right on his own equipment, tomorrow. You’re working with your photons, they’re working with theirs.

      If you screw up poverty alleviation programs today, that does make it harder for the next administration to get those right. Social science/government actions modify their whole underlying “universe”.

      The territory studied by social sciences is directly altered by the theories and practice of social science. It’s partly why the uncertainty principle has so much metaphoric power in the social sciences. The maps that people use to think about society actually modify the underlying territory of society, thereby obsoleting themselves. Human beings are strange loops, GEB, recursivity, bla bla and so on.

      • A1987dM says:

        If you screw up a double slit experiment today, that doesn’t make it harder for your colleague next door to get it right on his own equipment, tomorrow.

        Well…

      • Peter says:

        All of these phenomena are really interesting. One of my main frustrations with postmodernism is that it occupies a space that might otherwise be dedicated to a sensible exploration of these phenomena in a way that actually tries to get some clarity about them.

        Conceiving of “the” map and the territory as being completely separate may lead you to believe that drawing on “the” map (even an ideal map, the best possible representation) with a Sharpie has no effect. If you conflate “the” map and the territory, then only on thing can happen when you take a Sharpie to “the” map – you can only get what you drew on. If you say “maps are a part of the territory, and interact with each other and the rest of the territory (via people)”, then all sorts of different things could happen when you get your Sharpie out; self-fulfilling, self-defeating, partially self-fulfilling, ineffectual and other prophecies are all possible.

        (I hear that in international diplomacy when there’s haggling over borders, it’s not a Sharpie, but often a grease pencil (aka a chinagraph pencil), but whatever).

      • Watchman says:

        I think you are correct in the main here, but have missed the fact that most academics, especially in what might be called applicable social sciences (that is the areas that have policy implications) tend to produce work conflating the issues of identifying the problem and offering the solution. Identifying the problem is establishing that the map is not the territory, and finding out why not. It is a worthwhile end in itself, in that the more we understand about why a map might be thought to represent a territory, the more we know about the two artifacts involved and the non-artificat that links them (the relationship if you want).

        Solutions are simply putting another map on the territory. This is fine, but there is no logical fit that requires a solution to be forthcoing from identitying the problem in the first place (indeed, that seems to me to be a modernistic assumption – that we must complete the thought process). It might often be better for the development of knowledge generally to simply expound the problem, rather than the link the problem with a particular solution. That way it is possible to agree with the problem without agreeing with the solution in a much easier fashion. It does however require a certain suspension of ego, which might not be best suited for establishing a career in a modern social sciences department at a university.

      • Standing in the Shadows says:

        In the social sciences we’re blind people running our hands over each other and describing what we feel to each other

        I’ve been invited to a few for those parties. I always declined.

        Seeing the wreckage the people who instigated and who regularly attended those events have made of their lives and their families from their activities of those times and afterwards, I am confident I made the wise choice.

    • enkiv2 says:

      Isn’t the whole domain of poststructuralist criticism the analysis of maps-of-maps? I don’t see where territory comes in at all. Object-level physical reality is off-topic for this kind of analysis, except as a side note to demonstrate that somebody’s map is not as accurate as they think it is (in cases where some of the readership will be prone to believing otherwise).

      I can see how someone unfamiliar with the field might read something and not realize that the baseline subject matter is maps-about-maps and then think that the author is confusing map with territory. I can also imagine that sloppier thinkers in the field might confuse two abutting orders of mapping. But, both of these are flaws in individual works and readers, rightfully criticized, and not representative of the goals or general quality of the field.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Seeing as the entire point of maps is to refer to the territory, no, the territory should never be considered off-topic in a discussion of maps of such.

        And yes it’s possible that these people are not confused but rather have the worst notation ever that makes it impossible to talk about anything sensibly. I don’t think this is the case, because they exhibit too many other signs of being confused, and they never do things like explaining (or apologizing for) their terrible notation or really do anything to indicate that yes we really are being careful and making the distinction. It really does look like they really are conflating everything.

        • Vamair says:

          We can talk about which maps are more aesthetically pleasing or easier to use than others. Most times, though, we do talk about what they’re useful for and how accurate they are.

  4. cactus head says:

    For what it’s worth, reading about pomo on SSC (and that .pdf of the slides) did make me a little more inclined to take it seriously and value it.

  5. BeatriceBernardo says:

    When some of the topics involved are taboo, add the sins of “just asking questions” or “thinking it’s my job to educate you”.

    Why are those two things a sin?

    • beleester says:

      “I’m just asking questions” is a statement that’s innocuous on its face, but tends to be used by people who are actually pushing a particular agenda, not innocently searching for the truth. For instance, if someone says “I’m just asking questions about what really happened on 9/11. I’m not pushing a conspiracy theory, I just think there are some odd things about the official story.” Odds are, they are pushing a conspiracy, and the questions they’re “just asking” are aimed at pushing you towards that theory. It’s a common enough occurence that it’s even been given a nickname – “JAQing off.”

      “It’s not my job to educate you” is one I’m less sympathetic towards (this is the Internet, you can almost never assume that people know the same things you do), but you could think of it as similar to “Read the effing sequences.” It’s saying “We’re sick of answering questions by outsiders about [privilege/gender theory/anarcho-syndicalist communes], come back when you’ve read a book on the subject.”

      Anyway, both of these exist because people on the Internet are terrible, but they kind of get in the way if you actually are just asking questions and don’t know what transgression you just committed.

      • toastengineer says:

        It’s probably a good idea to replace the “IT’S NOT MY JOB TO EDUCATE YOU SCUM” meme with “here is a link to readthesequences.com \ Machinery of Freedom & the Anti-Anti-Libertarian FAQ \ etc…, please try to figure out what our ideas actually are before you try to take them down” in your community, though.

      • lvlln says:

        “I’m just asking questions” is a statement that’s innocuous on its face, but tends to be used by people who are actually pushing a particular agenda, not innocently searching for the truth.

        I’ve always found this type of explanation unsatisfying. Sure, from a Bayesian perspective, if you KNOW for a fact that 99% of the cases where JAQ is used is done in bad faith, hearing JAQ from someone should lead you heavily to the conclusion that the person who’s JAQing off is interested in pushing a particular agenda.

        But it seems implausible to me that anyone could possibly know this. At best, people make inferences based on their own personal experience which is based off of faulty memory, filtered through confirmation bias among many other biases, and can’t be generalized to the population at large. That last point might not matter much because one could see the relevant population as being “people I tend to interact with” rather than “population at large,” though.

        And it also seems like, in most cases of JAQ, the person being asked has far better information about the person who’s JAQing off to determine that person’s level of good faith than merely the fact that he’s JAQing off. Sure, sometimes people get hit by random queries from random strangers, but other times JAQing off is part of an on-going conversation between people who have some non-trivial knowledge of each other. No exceptions seem to be granted for such cases, and JAQ always seems presented a verboten phrase, an automatic LOSE button.

        Which seems to me to be more optimized for closing off routes of genuine skeptical inquiry or winning language games than for actually reflecting on or discussing the veracity/meaning/whatever of one’s beliefs.

      • Jiro says:

        but you could think of it as similar to “Read the effing sequences.”

        People are wary of being told “read X first” because of cocnerns like these: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/03/06/against-interminable-arguments/#comment-334677

        • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

          RTFM however only works if there’s actual FM that is actually an authoritative source that answers the particular question being discussed. For most technical issues – such as how to code simple task X in language Y or what is the meaning of a field F in protocol P – it is true. It is not true for many other things, and people telling “go read the internet, it proves my point” are terrible. Responsible person should say RTFM only if they are 100% sure they are able to point out the FM and prove beyond reasonable doubt that FM answers the question. Otherwise it’s poisoning the well.

          In speaking about politics, only a very small set of facts actually has such authoritative sources with unquestionable answers. Even things that provide frameworks for political actions – such as laws – are open to interpretation, and can be interpreted to mean virtually anything if one wishes. Philosophical arguments are even worse in this regard. Statistics and empirical analysis is more grounded but there is so much bad or murky ones that merely pointing out it exists is useless – one needs to trace it back, check (or find somebody who checked) the sources, the methodology, etc. and only then it can be considered. I don’t see much place for the definitiveness of RTFM here.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Even things that provide frameworks for political actions – such as laws – are open to interpretation, and can be interpreted to mean virtually anything if one wishes.

            Eh, not really. There’s much less wiggle room in a lot of laws than people want to think. And most of the time when there is wiggle room, courts have made choices that further reduce it. Yes, there’s a large body of law and case history which can sometimes make it difficult to figure out, but that doesn’t really imply that it can be turned into meaning anything.

          • There are two different sorts of questions that RTFM might be a response to. One is a question about what is true–“how do we know that anarcho-capitalism works?” Another is a question about some set of ideas–“How do anarcho-capitalists propose to provide law and law enforcement?”

            There is no FM for the first question, because nobody has a proof that A-C works. But there are FM’s for the second, one of which is mine.

            So RTFM could be either the claim “my beliefs are right, go check that fact for yourself” or the more modest claim “this set of ideas has been thought out at some length, if you want to argue about them first look at what has already been said so we don’t have to rewrite the first hundred pages for you to read before the argument gets interesting.”

          • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

            There’s much less wiggle room in a lot of laws than people want to think.

            Reading SCOTUS arguments about “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution, and hearing arguments from diametrically opposed positions of what phrase like “Congress shall make no law abridging X” or “right to Y shall not be infringed” means, it is kinda hard to believe there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. And that’s one relatively small document purposely written in a relatively plain language. What happens when you get to legal texts that have thousands of pages and written in heavy jargon that is itself subject to interpretation and other definitions which can be changed?

            And most of the time when there is wiggle room, courts have made choices that further reduce it

            Courts make choices, other courts can unmake them. That’s part of political action too, not something that is objective beyond interpretation.

            but that doesn’t really imply that it can be turned into meaning anything.

            Well, not literally anything, probably – it’d be hard to read the First Amendment to the Constitution and get from it that we must institute 80% tariff on importation of bison hides (though I wonder if there’s not a lawyer somewhere that would agree to argue that 😉 but the wiggle room is pretty wide IMHO, especially when one wants some result very much.

          • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

            There is no FM for the first question, because nobody has a proof that A-C works. But there are FM’s for the second, one of which is mine.

            This is a very good point which kinda summarizes the argument about the limits of humility that ESR has recently written about. If one has a really obvious objection to something, it is reasonable to assume this objection would be addressed somehow (and in this case, pointing to specific FM or set of FMs addressing it would be appropriate). But nothing guarantees – especially in politics – that these FMs are actually addressing the question adequately – maybe they are wrong or mistaken by themselves. In this case I’d argue it’s not really what original RTFM meant – not reference to some set of facts, but a reference to the body of knowledge already accumulated by previously discussing the subject, which does not provide any definite solution, but only allows to not constantly re-discuss obvious things that already has been covered.

          • Andrew Cady says:

            DavidFriedman: “RTFM” should only be said when there is literally a manual page, accessible on any properly-configured system through the man(1) command, which answers the specific question asked. “RTFM” is an accusation that the person has committed the specific crime of asking about something that is both well-documented and available in the standard well-known location for manuals on the local system.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        “It’s not my job to educate you” is one I’m less sympathetic towards (this is the Internet, you can almost never assume that people know the same things you do), but you could think of it as similar to “Read the effing sequences.”

        Well, the big difference is that this approach gives a specific way to self-educate, and also usually revolves around subcultures and intruders into them, at least in your examples. A big example of the “Educate yourself” meme that I recall was done on HuffPo Live (in the specific example the user was abusing the meme as well, so you can call that non-representative, but I’m counting it). It’s more like if you went out doing activism in the street and onto news programs and whenever someone challenged you you said “GOD read the sequences”.

      • BeatriceBernardo says:

        Anyway, both of these exist because people on the Internet are terrible, but they kind of get in the way if you actually are just asking questions and don’t know what transgression you just committed.

        Oh that sucks, at least we have SSC where people who actually have questions can get answers.

    • harland0 says:

      Because there are settled answers on them and they don’t need to be discussed any longer. Anyone who wants to question is someone who doesn’t like the answer. It’s a form of tribalism – if you haven’t read the correct books and agreed with the conclusions, you’re not on the same page, and you may be freely ostracized as The Other. After you’ve been otherized nobody needs to take you seriously or treat you fairly as tribe members are treated. Plus, it’s an excuse to be mean to The Other, which has a long tradition of being socially acceptable in human societies of every kind.

      • John Schilling says:

        Because there are settled answers on them and they don’t need to be discussed any longer. Anyone who wants to question is someone who doesn’t like the answer.

        Or they are one of the ten thousand. How you plan to win a public debate when you cede ten thousand supporters to the other side every day is beyond me.

  6. Markus Ramikin says:

    SSC may be my favourite rss bookmark, but your postmodernism post has to be roughly my least favourite article here. I have trouble pointing out why that is exactly.

    Part of it is not your fault – I’m really not fond of postmodernism, and to this day I have trouble believing that it’s less BS as a philosophy than, say, parapsychology as a science. (EDIT: I just realized I actually prefer parapsychology, as it seems more of a clean, honest mistake, instead of an attempt to muddy the epistemic waters and fake intellectual importance with obscurantist jargon).

    But I think a major part of it is the epistemic uncertainty the article left me in. At not point did I feel confidence that you know what you are talking about, that you know the subject matter enough that I can trust your explanations. Perhaps it’s the lack of examples of actual postmodernist stuff, and how your explanation relates to it? (The slideshow you linked to was at least referencing some actual postmodernist works/authors!) There’s a lot different stuff under the word “postmodernism”. Does your explanation fit a large or small part of it? Or any part of it at all? How would I know?

    [I’d like to stress that this was unusual. Most of the time I can clearly tell that you know what you’re talking about, including your level of certainly in what you’re talking about, whether it’s established science or speculative stuff. There are a lot of skilled writers on the Internet, but most of them would just hijack my brain if I let their skill with words seduce me; I don’t know any other whom I trust to look for alternative explanations to what he or she prefers to believe as much as you. I guess what I’m saying is, I expect reading this blog to leave me epistemically better off, and that’s rare on the Internet.]

    This probably isn’t a very useful comment compared to how many words it contains. I’d blame having woken up too early today, but it’s probably just me. I’m sorry.

    • Alethenous says:

      I do feel similarly. I don’t mind Scott’s explanation because at this point anything he touches gets +2 sanity points, but it feels explicitly like a steelman of the very strongest and most obvious parts of postmodernism – it’s like defending the study of Fairyology by proving that some small things do have wings.

      I’m always hesitant to say this about a whole huge academic field, but, well, whole huge fields of nonsense have existed before, and at this rate pomo has a way to go to distinguish itself from witchcraft. Actually, I like witchcraft more. At least it’s fun and doesn’t produce “art” that makes me want to beat the creator with a brick.

      • Watchman says:

        As a practioner of postmodernist tjpigjt, I like that witchcraft analogy. Postmodernism is like witchcraft in that it is a way to think about things – it has no inherent value or self-defined boundaries of its own, no ideological goals, and its practice can be presented as positive or negative as required (ironically the presentaiton of postmodernism is a postmodern artifact). I tend to agree with you about postmodern art mind you (maybe challenging the assumptions around art is a bit of a bad idea, since they have evolved organically in response to people’s likes and demands).

        I think an attempt to view postmodernism on the same lines as epicureanism, anarchism or Yellow-Hat Buddhism as a philosophy which can be defined is doomed to fail. It’s category is more akin to philosophy of correct living, revolutionary politics or relgious interpretation in that it is a way to think about issues within a certain sphere of thought (here roughly the intereaction between fact and motivation) rather than having any specific aims and creeds.

        As a proviso, there is a tendency to see postmodernism as a left-wing ideology, probably because it attacks received truths and therefore undermines conservatism, and therefore attach to it left-wing aspirations – I suspect the vast majority of open advocates of postmodernism are politically left wing as well. I actually find it a useful tool in constructing free-market liberal arguments however, simply because it is a tool not an ideological straitjacket which people have to fit into.

        • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

          I feel a whiff of motte-and-bailey here. From one side, pomo is a tool to analyze certain aspects of map-making from certain set of premises and there’s nothing wrong with a tool – you use it when it’s appropriate and leave it alone when not, who could argue with that? And sometimes it’d give nice useful results. And challenging assumptions can be very healthy practice too.

          From the other side, pomo is commonly used as a tool of left-wing politics to achieve left-wing goals, advocated by predominantly left-wing people and surprisingly often arrives at the same conclusions these left-wing people wanted to arrive and exposes non-left-wing people as self-serving hypocrites that one should not listen to. And the assumptions that end up being challenged somehow always those that opponents of the left-wing people base their arguments on.

          So one has to wonder, which of the two pomos we are talking about here?

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      This summarizes my feelings. A contributing factor: the only places where I’ve seen “postmodernism” discussed like a single, politically relevant ideology-level entity and not just a very wide and general catch-all term for certain ideas in European thought-sphere post-WW1… are where people are making a stand against it.

  7. mikemosz says:

    I really appreciated your post on postmodernism; I live in Berlin, which is a hotbed of the worst sorts of postmodernist academic thinking, and it helped me remember which parts of the movement are valuable. While I think your post was very charitable to postmodernism as actually practiced, it’s worth remembering that its core insights, which are essentially about motivated reasoning on the level of societies, are worthwhile, even if 95% of what its adherents say is useless.

  8. I liked this post a lot. I think of what I do similarly: explaining ideas commonly-understood in certain fields to a particular, different sort of person. For that, it’s important that blogs are interactive, and that the author is understood to be not necessarily expert.

    My explanation of ontological remodeling probably didn’t make sense to you because it is *not at all* about the same thing as “A Human’s Guide to Words.” If you took it as being about language, it would naturally seem like a weird explanation, because it’s about something else!

    As it said: “The problem the IAU faced was not one of linguistic ambiguity. It was not a problem with words and definitions. “It’s just a word!” was not a solution. It was a problem of ontology: how do we divide up the world? Once a boundary is chosen and agreed on, sorting out words is usually easy.”

    We discussed this further in the comment stream on that post, and more directly in the stream at https://meaningness.com/fluidity-preview/comments#comment-1738

    The book (from which the page is extracted) will address the confusion directly.

    • AnthonyC says:

      I think the section on pomo in this post may is also directly relevant as to both why pomo seems frustrating, and why there’s a real there there that is hard to point to: https://meaningness.com/metablog/stem-fluidity-bridge

      • Bugmaster says:

        Is there a TL;DR of that post somewhere ? He talks a lot about bridges and stages, but I’m one of those hopeless STEM people who is stuck in Stage 4, and thus passages like this read like content-free noise to me:

        Here systems are relativized. They move from subject to object, and are subordinated to, and organized by, the process of meaning-making itself. You are no longer defined as a system of principles, projects, and commitments. You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them.

        Can you put this in terms that a STEM person might understand ? Or, if not, can you provide a practical example ? Is there some specific problem that rationalism cannot solve, but meta-rationalism can ? It’s fine to say “I respect all the values of my multiple selves”, but if I am trying to solve a specific problem, such as “how much lumber will I need to fence my front yard”, some values are much better than others.

        • A STEM-friendly introduction is https://meaningness.com/metablog/bongard-meta-rationality . It has a series of specific problems that can (probably) only be solved meta-rationally.

          (If you read it, I’d love to hear whether it’s helpful, and anything you can say about how/why it is or isn’t.)

          > if I am trying to solve a specific problem… some values are much better than others.

          That’s why it’s “meta-rationalism” not “anti-rationalism” or “mystical woo.” It’s about selecting the right tool for the job.

          • Bugmaster says:

            The author lost me right away on Bongard problems, I’m afraid, because they are an advanced form of the 2-4-6 problem. Speaking even more generally, figuring out rules that match arbitrary data is pretty much what machine learning is all about. As it turns out, it’s not only possible, but also extremely profitable to approach such problems rationally. The author recognizes this, and says that

            I’m pretty sure deep learning would get nowhere with Bongard problems.

            But, I am not sure what he’s basing this assertion on. Saying stuff like this is how you get crushed by AlphaGo. Even if he is correct, deep learning is not the be all/end all of AI, it’s just one family of algorithms. And we might discover even better ones in the future; I don’t see why this has to be somehow a priori impossible.

            I guess one issue I have is that I still don’t understand what problem meta-rationality is trying to solve. The author hints that it could be something like, “where, in a mixture, does jam stop and yogurt begin ?”, but to me that doesn’t sound like an interesting question at all. There are no such things as jam or yogurt, really, these are just convenient mental categories we apply to make sense of brute reality — so, the answer is, “pick a model that’s easiest to compute”.

          • Re “pick a model that’s easiest to compute”:

            The question is, pick from what set of possible models? Where do you get those from? If your set is very large (“all Turing machines,” as in Solomonoff induction), it’s useless. In practice, you can’t evaluate more than a handful.

            Another question is, what makes a model better? “Easier to compute with” is one criterion, but “fits known data” is another, as are simplicity, predictive power, extensibility to neighboring domains, …

          • Bugmaster says:

            The answer to “which model is better” is, “whichever one gives you the accuracy you need at the smallest cost”. For example, if I’m planning a local trip on Google Maps, I might as well use a model where the Earth is flat, because I don’t care about the extra 1e-9 (or whatever) seconds that I’d be saving by adopting a more complex one.

            The answer to “where do models come from” is “there are computer scientists and mathematicians working on this as we speak”, but the answers probably won’t be forthcoming for a long time. Today, we can automatically generate models in some limited domains, like machine vision or speech recognition or gene prediction; but we don’t have a fully-general AI yet.

            Again, though, I’m not sure how meta-rationality is supposed to help in this regard. It does not appear to answer the question, or to even hint at the solution; at best, it illuminates the problem. This is still pretty helpful, but hardly earth-shattering; and, at the end of the day, we need actionable solutions (such as “this box with a camera can read handwriting better than any human ever could”), not just a general feeling of accomplishment (such as “handwriting recognition is a deeply intuitive process”).

          • Common Tater says:

            I’m out of my territory here but, in the spirit of the post, let me give a try.

            One (limited) way to view the distinction between meta-rationality and rationality is as the difference between asking questions and finding answers, respectively.

            Once you have a question phrased in terms of some theoretical framework – maybe, “do I believe proposition P is true, given my prior beliefs and this new evidence” or “what’s the optimal value of this function in this space” or “which of my many suitors will make me happy the longest” it’s often straightforward to apply the tools of rationality to produce an answer. But how do you pick the propositions to consider; how did you form your priors? In applications, how do you choose the function and the space to optimize over? Why do you choose to entertain suitors or burden them with any responsibility for your happiness?

            Another take can be found in the discussion of the Orientation stage of Sam Boyd’s OODA loop in this Ribbonfarm post. (Just ctrl-f OODA)

            It’s also worth saying that “there are computer scientists and mathematicians working on this as we speak” is a bad answer to “where do models come from”. (Especially to this audience.. David’s a computer scientist; I’m a mathematician). Where do the computer scientists and mathematicians get their models from, in turn?

            A mathematical story, related to the line between yogurt and jam: Alexander Grothendieck is considered by some to have been the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. Maybe his greatest contribution was the formulation of a set of definitions that were used to express results in algebraic geometry. This is a sort of glorified version of delineating between yogurt and jam.

          • 27chaos says:

            First, you haven’t convinced me that solving Bongard problems is a non-systematic mental process. In general, I’m inclined to think that systematic processes yield correct answers while non-systematic processes yield incorrect answers. This is because systematic processes can provably have a lot of lovely qualities that non-systematic processes can’t be proved to have because non-systematic processes are opaque. Even in the situations where we can’t prove that systematic processes have certain qualities, that in itself often gives us valuable information about the structure of a problem.

            Second, knowing that solutions to Bongard problems are systematic helps us even if we don’t know the specific way in which they’re systematic. Why? Because this helps us rule out unproductive lines of thought before we pursue them too far, and it helps us to look in the right direction. Black boxing is good.

            If I suspect that a process is systematic, then I am on the lookout for various features that when combined can potentially explain problems. I might notice that Argument A has weak but very far reaching implications, and Argument B is powerful, and then wonder if I can exploit some subtle interaction between them to come up with powerful and farreaching principles.

            But if I suspect a process is not systematic, trying to find powerful and farreaching principles will seem like a mistake, and I’ll be forced to emphasize the incompatibility of different parts of my thinking.

            Basically, modularity is extremely important and extremely common in systems, so knowing that something is a system lets us work on subproblems without feeling like it will be a ungeneralizable waste of effort.

            Seeing a partially explicable system should encourage us to systematize in the same way that seeing the ruins of an ancient sewer system lets us infer that there were probably once roads in the area.

            Third, I think Bongard problems are at least partially explicable.

            My understanding of how I go about Bongard problems is not entirely opaque to me because there are features of the images like symmetry and size and interactions between shapes that stand out to my eyes. Furthermore, I observe the pattern that the harder the problem is to solve, the less obvious the relevant features are, and the more false patterns appear that work for a few images in the problem but not all of them. As we move from obvious to nonobvious features, the number of solutions I have to check increases dramatically because nonobvious features are so much more common. Finally, I notice that when working on the hard problems I attempt to generate accurate descriptions of the picture that are highly informative in the sense that they like wouldn’t apply to other similar pictures that had been slightly randomly perturbed, but highly sophisticated in the sense that they capture structural features of the data that would allow me to create substantially different pictures, in the sense that I delineate the maximal bounds of what an acceptable equivalent version of the problem would be (rather than reproducing the image pixel by pixel).

            If solving Bongard problems required non-systematic thought processes, I don’t think they would have so many nice hooks on them for highly general thoughts, when we can observe that similar hooks elsewhere have been very important in allowing people to come up with useful and powerful systems. Concepts like robustness of inference, degrees of freedom, extrema, symmetry, or even rules should not be appearing in domains not amenable to systematizing.

          • MostlyCredibleHulk says:

            The thing that always bothered me with Bongard-like problems is that it’s a trick – the rule can be anything (like, “the name of each object depicted on the left begins with a vowel in Old Church Slavonic, but with a consonant for the objects on the right”) and without some pre-shared knowledge about the problem (such as “it has to do with shapes and colors”) one can never even be sure if the rule one found is the right one and not an accident. Thus the task is “guess one of the infinite possible number of rules without being able to distinguish between them, good luck!”. Fortunately, the designers of the problems usually kind people with background shared with their audience, so they have an idea what the initial guesses would be a place the real rule somewhere in that vicinity. But the structure of the problem does not mandate it.

            What I have, however, completely failed at is understanding what the article linked is supposed to teach me – except showing me some Bongard problems (yes I read it). It is probably because I do not understand the context.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I don’t have a stellar IQ, so my approach to the harder Bongard problems involves theory of mind. That is, I think to myself: “Ok, these problems were devised by tricksy humanses in order to trick me. If I was a tricksy human, how would I trick people ?” This approach works sometimes, though obviously not all the time.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Common Tater:

            But how do you pick the propositions to consider; how did you form your priors? In applications, how do you choose the function and the space to optimize over?

            These are interesting and important questions, but I don’t understand why the process of gaining answers cannot a priori be rational. I will grant you that lots of our priors (such as “gravity points down”) and utility functions (such as “seek pleasure, avoid pain”) are pre-determined genetically, but that’s not the same thing as “meta-rationality” (assuming I understand it correctly, which I likely do not).

            Where do the computer scientists and mathematicians get their models from, in turn?

            I was alluding to machine learning, which is a field of study devoted to building machines that can generate models on their own.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      It was a problem of ontology: how do we divide up the world? Once a boundary is chosen and agreed on, sorting out words is usually easy.”

      Compare http://lesswrong.com/lw/o0/where_to_draw_the_boundary/

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Have you read all of Human’s Guide To Words? It uses “words” as a jumping-off point to investigate exactly the ontological questions you’re interested in. One of its slogans is “cleave reality at the joints”. See eg http://lesswrong.com/lw/o0/where_to_draw_the_boundary/>, Similarity Clusters, The Cluster Structure Of Thingspace, Neural Categories, Words As Hidden Inferences, Categorizing Has Consequences, etc.

      If you’ve read all of that, and all the other stuff, and you’re still sure you’re saying something completely different, then I guess I’ll have to believe you and await further installments in your series.

      • Thanks, yes, I have read all of those. I do think I’m saying something completely different.

        The “Ontological Remodeling” page you linked (thanks!) is taken from the middle of a book-length explanation, and it’s my fault that it’s confusing, because there’s 50 pages of conceptual build-up before it, which isn’t posted.

        My read is that EY’s posts mainly are about words, pointing out that language is slippery. His most interesting bits do get into ontology, but he never makes a clear distinction between the two domains (afaict), which may be a pedagogical problem, because their issues are quite different.

        Ontologically, I don’t find him saying anything beyond “categories are vague, but they work better when they carve reality at the joints.” That excellent phrase is due to Plato (Phaedrus, 265e). This point is important, but should be obvious to anyone reading SSC or Meaningness (I hope!).

        The Eggplant book is about what to do when you find your categories aren’t working well. How do you come up with better ones? (My post “A first lesson in meta-rationality” sets this question up, if you want a STEM-friendly taster.)

        I take “how do you go about finding a better ontology?” to be a “meta-rational” question. Formally rational methods don’t seem to apply.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          “I take “how do you go about finding a better ontology?” to be a ‘meta-rational’ question. Formally rational methods don’t seem to apply.”

          I think one of our big differences is that I don’t think Eliezer is using the term “rationality” the same way you do. He doesn’t think it necessarily implies formal systems or explicit methods – see eg “Beyond these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless”. Nothing in his sequence on categories says there should be an easy explicit system for making them.

          I think what Eliezer calls “rationality” is in many ways similar to what you call “meta-rationality”, and your terminological difference keeps making you think he’s disagreeing with you and pushing an opposite vision.

          (The other possibility is I have no understanding, not even a hint of an understanding, of what meta-rationality is, and so can’t tell that it’s something as different from everything I do as a star is from a firefly)

          • Seppo says:

            Another possibility is that AHGTW-as-filtered-and-extrapolated-by-Scott-Alexander’s-mind-at-that-moment could still be about Chapmanian metarationality even if AHGTW-as-originally-written wasn’t.

  9. Bugmaster says:

    This might be a crazy idea, but still: could you write an article titled “Rationalism for Postmodernists” ?

    The reason I ask is that, even after reading your previous post, I still find it difficult to believe that anyone could truly believe in postmodernism (in the epistemological sense, not the aesthetic sense e.g. melting clocks and such). This mindset comes off as completely solipsistic to me, and thus I keep coming back to the notion that people who profess to believe it are either lying, or hopelessly confused. However, another possible explanation could be that I don’t have a good enough theory of mind to comprehend postmodernists; and an article that tries to explain something I already understand, but from their perspective, might help bridge that gap.

  10. tumteetum says:

    well the postmodernism post isnt my favourite post of yours, but it (the post and the comments) made me consider it from angles i hadnt before so fwiw i was fine with it.

    for the record “Collaborative truth-seeking” is what i get from this place, you do a fine job, please dont stop.

  11. Peter says:

    I think the “Postmodernism for Rationalists” might have been a lot better with a different title and first paragraph. In particular, with a different title you wouldn’t have had to have spent valuable first-paragraph space apologising for it.

  12. futilemoons says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m a recent literature graduate, so I’ve obviously had a lot of engagement with postmodernist/critical theory stuff, and become pretty disillusioned with much of it – and I thought the postmodernism post was a very good and fair analysis. A steelmanning of the position, not representative of how it’s usually used, but that didn’t seem like the point.

    Don’t let yourself be shouted down so easily, I guess.

  13. andrewducker says:

    Different people have different backgrounds, different intuitions, different approaches, and different mental models. Of _course_ different explanations will help them.

    To some people, a given explanation will seem facile, to others it’s groundbreaking because they’ve never encountered it before (or they’ve never encountered it in a way which speaks to their current state of knowledge, at a time when they are receptive to it). Which is why we need many explanations, aimed at different audiences.

  14. tentor says:

    I did not know what Postmodernism is before I read your article and now I think I have a feeling for what it is about. So unless I now have a wrong impression of Postmodernism, I’d say the article was quite good.

  15. poignardazur says:

    I like everything you write, but every once in a while you put you a truly extraordinary piece, and I feel this is one of those. One of the posts where you talk about something that I already knew about, had already noticed, had already noticed that I was noticing it, but never put it into words.

    I don’t know if this qualifies as a top post by your criteria, but it does in my heart <3

  16. Peter says:

    Wild guess: any attempt to explain postmodernism to outsiders might suffer from a particular difficulty; that this might be a hostile act that postmodernists have semi-deliberately engineered their practises to resist.

    “But what good is postmodernism if no-one can understand it?” Well, I didn’t say “explain postmodernism”, I said “explain postmodernism to outsiders“. Maybe the idea is to acculturate people enough to postmodernist norms to get them to cease to be outsiders, and only then are things meant to be comprehensible.

    If you construe postmodernism as a project of the revolutionary left, there’s an old tension between revolutionaries and reformists. The revolutionaries go and agitate, the reformists go “the people are upset, here’s some ways to ameliorate that”, the big bad system says, “yes, thankyou, we’ll take some of that on board”, some of the revolutionary fervour gets dissipated, and the revolution looks further away than ever. So the revolutionary thinks, “what we need is a critique that can’t be appropriated”.

    There’s some remarks by Judith Butler on accusations of obscurantism; I forget where or what they were, but I distinctly remember “appropriation” as being something she was worried about.

    There’s numerous other reasons for this sort of thing, even if you’re not of the revolutionary left; for example, an academic sociologist may just want to preserve the autonomy of their discipline.

    So for someone like me, trying to deal with postmodernist stuff feels like an exercise in deciphering, like Alan Turing trying to read encrypted German messages. To a certain extent this can be done, you can extract some meaning while resisting being acculturated, but neither the extraction nor the resistance is done perfectly. I’m reminded of J. S. Mill’s remarks on a book in private correspondence – Hegel’s not a postmodernist but he shares a lot with them:

    Besides these I have been toiling through Stirling’s Secret of Hegel. It is right to learn what Hegel is & one learns it only too well from Stirling’s book. I say “too well” because I found by actual experience of Hegel that conversancy with him tends to deprave one’s intellect. The attempt to unwind an apparently infinite series of self–contradictions, not disguised but openly faced & coined into [illegible word] science by being stamped with a set of big abstract terms, really if persisted in impairs the acquired delicacy of perception of false reasoning & false thinking which has been gained by years of careful mental discipline with terms of real meaning. For some time after I had finished the book all such words as reflexion, development, evolution, &c., gave me a sort of sickening feeling which I have not yet entirely got rid of.

    • 27chaos says:

      This is definitely a major part of it. I think it could be argued that there are (at least) two major modes of thought, interpretation and critical thinking, and inhabiting the interpretation mode more means you’re experiencing the critical thinking mode less.

  17. xyzelement says:

    The Internet seems like an increasingly hostile place for this sort of thing

    I really like your term “collaborative truth seeking” and at some point got over my surprise over how little appetite the average person has for this kind of thing. This comes up for me on the work place – some teams have the culture of getting in the same room to has things out (and come out wiser as a collective) but I was surprised how many don’t – rather they are more comfortable with the more “authoritative” method even if it robs them of their voice in the process (they seem not mind.) Intellectually they probably understand the idea that robust debate improves the quality of decisions but they seem not to feel it. Interestingly you can sort of lead them to it through rituals (eg agile processes) that somehow over time help them actually get it. But never all the way.

    So given this is how people are as a baseline it’s no surprise that the internet is more hostile to it as it becomes more, for lack of better term, democratized. 20+ years ago you were much more likely to be an academic and an intellectual if you had jumped through all the hoops to get on line. You were likely seeing the collaborative truth seeking to begin with. As access became easier, especially the more popular platforms, are of course going today to be filled with more of the average person with a much lower comfort level with ambiguity and “I am just throwing it out there” kinds of discussions.

    Once I recognized this in humanity, my own solution is to just become more, for lack of better word, snobby. If you are a software developer who doesn’t feel it’s valuable to have this kind of discussions, I can lead you to water but if you don’t drink at some point I am comfortable leaving you behind. Maybe it has to do with the age of a soul but (like you) I believe this is a better way and you either can hang with it or not. Let’s speak again a few rebirth cycles later.

    Broader, it comes to building the right community around you. My software team should be such that we can talk about stuff in the way that’s optimal for the process. I hang out with yoga people because this sort of evolution is very much in the spirit of the practice – we don’t exactly know where it goes but we trust that the process is positive. Frankly I ended a relationship because the woman was in love with the “concrete here and now” at the expense of “abstract but possibly better in the future.” Again, see ya next lifetime.

    As long as you/we like our own process and know it to be right, we should be able to accept that this is a somewhat elite position and not be discouraged that not everyone does. Seeking out like-minded souls helps.

    • blacktrance says:

      The average person is right to be wary of “robust debate”, because they’re most likely to be engaging in it with other average people, which is often neither productive nor pleasant.

    • On the subject of “collaborative truth seeking” …

      There are two models for an academic workshop where someone presents a paper. In the standard model the author spends most of the time in effect reading the paper, in a summarized version, to the audience, there may be occasional questions and some discussion at the end.

      In the Chicago model, everyone in the audience is supposed to have read the paper in advance. The author gets twenty minutes or so to say whatever he wants about the paper, after which it is open season. It’s the closest thing I have observed to multiple minds combined in thinking.

    • Null42 says:

      Intellectual curiosity is much less useful for the average person than figuring out what everyone around you believes and saying that, and there are strong evolutionary reasons for that. There’s a reason science only evolved relatively recently.

      I decided I was going to develop my political beliefs by reading everything, but in particular views that were opposed as much as possible–I would read National Review and the Atlantic (which replaced the New Republic when it turned into clickbait), The American Conservative and Jacobin, the New York Times and Steve Sailer (and that’s not a personal attack). (For fun I read Everyday Feminism and Return of Kings back-to-back.)

      I learned a lot, and it instilled in me a certain empathy with every part of the political spectrum. Thing is, if you take each proposition on its merits, you wind up in a position where *nobody agrees with you*. As a result I wind up basically afraid to talk about politics in person (which is probably a good thing on balance to be honest), because I might let slip to a liberal that I’m skeptical of mass immigration, or to a conservative that I think the market has gotten too free.

      So it’s not surprising that the Internet turns into overlapping echo chambers. It’s what we’re meant to do as a species. (How many kids do rationalists have, on average?) Intellectual curiosity and seeking out debate are minority mutations that only survive by chance, and possibly by some advantage to the larger tribal group.

      • AZpie says:

        I know that feel, and find this particular comment very easy to relate to. I think my reasons for looking up things I know I will or at least people I spend time with disagree with have something to do with insecurities about the reliability of my opinions. I find out someone disagrees with me and suddenly I don’t see much basis for an opinion I have, unless the opinion is one I can verify myself.

        In general I try to avoid discussions requiring expert knowledge unless I’m the expert, seeing as even if I might be able to chant out some rote learned platitudes, it tells little of my own understanding on the subject. I think “Expert A believes this!” is a dumb way to argue for anything unless I really understand their reasoning. But then again, I would never argue against an expert on a matter they’re the expert on, provided I don’t understand their reasoning. So I’m not saying people shouldn’t refer to expert opinions, but that I’m unable to have a debate like that.

        But yes, in general I find that people have remarkably little patience for someone who disagrees with core premises or rules of their ideologies; perhaps that also has something to do with insecurities. Perhaps not.

        One thing I’m quite certain of, however, is that my inability to have a proper discussion with people representing an ideological point of view has much to do with the fact that I’m not well-educated on nearly any subject. Being obsessed with understanding “the big picture” of everything leaves little room for immersing myself in details, which often are what the experts on subjects disagree on. But of course I also think that people looking up information with motivated reasoning are wont to fall victims to confirmation bias, looking for merely weapons to arm themselves with and rote learning arguments for their case without entertaining the thoughts that much.

      • Tracy W says:

        Intellectual curiosity is much less useful for the average person than figuring out what everyone around you believes and saying that,

        Is this really true? Might not there be some evolutionary benefit to finding out something your friends don’t know, e.g. a new food source?
        Or noticing the signs of an impending attack by another tribe?

        People I know who’ve lived with hunter-gatherer tribes have never said that they found them boring.

        There’s certainly a rash of folk stories about a clever person who thinks their way out of trouble, e.g. the clever wife, the clever tailor, Puss in Boots, etc.

  18. analytic_wheelbarrow says:

    I remember reading a mathematician talking about how there were two different-but-equivalent formulations of some high-level mathematical concept – let’s say an algebraic one vs. a geometric one.

    This is really cool, Scott. Do you remember what the topic was?

    • Nick says:

      It reminded me of a discussion about linear algebra earlier this year on nostalgebraist’s tumblr. From a response by jadagul:

      The difficult thing about teaching linear algebra (he says, procrastinating from writing the last week of notes for the linear algebra class he is teaching) is that the entire subject is, like, four actual facts, each of which is repeated twenty times in slightly different language.

      [He lists 8 different understandings of linear algebra]

      And those are all the same thing. I think typically students coming out of a (first) linear algebra class understand and have internalized a couple of those; can cite a couple others; and are completely oblivious to the rest. (Any may not have heard of some, because it’s hard to cover all eight; I know that my discussion of the geometric properties has been somewhat perfunctory.

      But for any given person, some of these perspectives will make much more sense than others; and if your class doesn’t get you to the ones that work for you, you won’t understand nearly as much as if it does.

      This doesn’t fit Scott’s description exactly, though. I don’t know who the third person is, for one. Looking through the notes it could be a lot of people; I have such a hard time navigating tumblr that I’m not looking any further.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The derivative can be thought of as:
      (1) Infinitesimal: the ratio of the infinitesimal change in the value of a function to the infinitesimal change in a function.
      (2) Symbolic: the derivative of xⁿ is nxⁿ⁻¹, the derivative of sin(x) is cos(x), the derivative of f ◦ g is f′ ◦ g ∗ g′, etc.
      (3) Logical: f′(x) = d if and only if for every ε there is a δ such that when 0 < |∆x| < δ,
      |(f(x + ∆x) − f(x))/∆x − d|< δ.
      (4) Geometric: the derivative is the slope of a line tangent to the graph of the function, if the graph has a tangent.
      (5) Rate: the instantaneous speed of f(t), when t is time.
      (6) Approximation: The derivative of a function is the best linear approximation to the function near a point.
      (7) Microscopic: The derivative of a function is the limit of what you get by looking at it under a microscope of higher and higher power.

      (37) The derivative of a real-valued function f in a domain D is the Lagrangian section of the cotangent bundle T*(D) that gives the connection form for the unique flat connection on the trivial R-bundle D×R for which the graph of f is parallel.

      — William P. Thurston, On proof and progress in mathematics

    • lvlln says:

      It could be elliptic curves, which is a fairly well known example in math of something that can be understood both in terms of number theory and in geometry.

  19. Eponymous says:

    why should I be trying this at all? I’m not a postmodernist, I’m not a philosophy professor, surely someone much more qualified has already written a blog-post-length explanation of postmodernism.

    Taken to its logical extreme, this argument implies that nobody should blog except experts, and then only in their particular area of expertise.

    While I do appreciate your posts about medicine and psychiatry, I think we can all agree that the rest of this blog is highly worthwhile. Thus this argument proves too much.

    (And if anyone can appreciate the importance of writing about a concept from different perspectives, surely it should be postmodernists!)

    • vaniver says:

      Taken to its logical extreme, this argument implies that nobody should blog except experts, and then only in their particular area of expertise.

      From the Codeless Code:

      I would call your attention to the Unwritten Hierarchy, in which Master is but a subclass of Student.

      (Less cryptically, an expert in an open subject, such as science, is constantly inhabiting the region of uncertainty, where things are not yet settled. Insisting that proper behavior deals with speaking only when certain suggests that true science be banished from the public sphere, and replaced with preaching.)

  20. Watchman says:

    The underlying point about coming to a theme from multiple directions is a key component of modern pedagogical thinking – not only is the fact people learn differently recognised (and hopefully addressed), but there is a strong emphasis on producing alternative ways to learn.

    Ironically, the internet is not very good at producing these: it is pretty good at hosting them, when they are developed by institutions or individuals, but in terms of the internet as organic communities, learning within them tends to be through presenting text, videos or cartoons (rarely all deployed by the same community in an accessible fashion) with minimal interaction from the recipient other than in comment threads. Reinforcement is rare (Scott’s tendency to link his thinking here being a commendable exception) and generally depends on enforcing groupthink through policing of the comment threads. This is partially a result of the internet forming around communities of interest, so probably favouring self-reinforcing thinking, but could argue reflect a human tendency to tribalism.

    The corollorary of this is that there is a tendency to highlight errors in the thinking of others. This might less be an attempt to pull you down than to act a further bit of education as group reinforcement – it is someone saying to their section of the internet “look, this is wrong – it’s not what we support”. Obviously, since it is very difficult to just say something is wrong, the preferred teaching tool here, still in the text or video form, and still received and not interacted is to pick on an available outlier – a misplaced joke, a stupid comment (sorry – I should stop those (right, that’s those two categories sorted…)) etc. The online development of the social justice warriors would probably provide an excellent case study of this sort, in that it is recent and their boundary-patrolling behaviour is very marked, but all political communities tend to do this.

    This allows a couple of conclusions. Firstly, what you are doing here, presenting things in a way that would help others understand them better, but might not help everyone all the time, is valuable, because a different approach might help. If someone can construct an interactive game illustrating how postmodernism works, that would help different people who might not manage to learn from the (for an explanation of postmodernism) short essay form used here, but that need not be your concern – you are offering a new perspective, not seeking to guarantee education on the subject, and that is ideal. Secondly, ignore those who pick up on the problems, as the behaviour is about enforcing their own community behaviours and not about you; if the cricitism comes from within a community to which you feel you belong, this might be different, but regard it not as an attack as a negotiation on where that community’s boundaries lie.

  21. Majuscule says:

    Everything you wrote about postmodernism reminded me of four other SSC posts. It harkens back to things you’ve said about “interminable arguments”, “superweapons” and the whole “weakmanning” vs. “motte-and-bailey” comparison. Also, I could swear you or someone in the comments wrote about how becoming skilled in making arguments is different from acually becoming persuasive, but I can’t find the reference.

    Postmodernism seems to have unwittingly rolled up all of these things and packaged them as a coherent philosophy. Or at least when you start reading stuff that calls itself “postmodernism”, this usually seems to be what you get. Granted, my experience is limited, but this is why I could never get behind postmodernism; it didn’t seem genuinely interested in addressing problems or even in accurately describing the world. Instead it seemed engineered to punt a topic from perspective to perspective, the discussion becoming more and more contrived with each iteration. If it does, in fact, contain logical or philosophical tools to steer its practitioners away from those pitfalls, they’re not accessed or deployed nearly often enough. I find it hard to embrace any system that generates such a lopsided wanking::usefulness ratio. Or maybe I just didn’t get it? It’s probably that.

    Also, I’d just like to mention that the cautious discussion of postmodernism by non-experts here is why I hang out on SSC. It also makes me wonder if that recent article on futurists in the Boston Review will be similarly retracted as “not a good explanation”?

  22. Mengsk says:

    From the perspective of a writer, I think that this feeling that “This is obvious/explained better elsewhere” is poison. Especially before the piece is written, it can be plausibly said about literally anything, and tempts you to self-censor. And even if the final product does overlook important nuances of the subject at hand, you and your readers will be better for having written or read through something thoughtful.

  23. baconbacon says:

    TLP already wrote this piece for me.

    If your reading it, its for you.

  24. GKChestertron says:

    Guide To Words may be my favorite of the sequences! As much for the different perspective on the material as for the material itself. It’s a perspective that makes better sense to me than others.

    Similarly, I got a few things out of your short postmodernism post that I didn’t from other sources that have tried to explain it, even though by now I am pretty familiar with the specific content you discussed.

    For reasons discussed in posts like this and this, I think it would be useful for people who wouldn’t be considered “postmodernists” to be able to engage with postmodernist critiques 1) on their own terms when engaging with its adherents and 2) on whatever terms are required for successfully convincing potentially undecided and sympathetic third parties; eg in an open university debate.

    If something like “Postmodernism in a Planet-Sized Nutshell” and corresponding field guide for response patterns existed, I think this would be a very good thing. Not sure if that is where you intended to go with this or if the prior post was always going to be a small standalone. But whatever your designs, I wouldn’t discontinue them on account of some mixed reviews.

  25. dynamic says:

    And part of the answer has to be that the process of coming to understand a field at all has to involve this pattern of back-and-forth questioning, approaching from multiple sides, devil-advocating, etc. Lots of the process will look the same whether you end out ultimately rejecting or accepting a truth; you’ve got to go through the same steps just to understand what you’re considering.

    Collaborative truth-seeking where people are throwing out ideas, trying to reconstruct arguments themselves, asking questions, and arguing – these are more promising, but they leave you open to accusations of reinventing the wheel, arrogantly dabbling in fields you don’t understand, or being too insular.

    I don’t know if this was intentional but in my opinion these paragraphs were a better pitch for postmodernism than the original post.

  26. bean says:

    Lots of thoughts on this, not gelling to anything terribly coherent.
    I think originality is overrated, because the distribution of an idea is what matters. In a lot of cases, that means you ‘reinvent the wheel’ because the idea you’re getting towards is locked away somewhere, and expecting you to look at every potential place where the idea occurs in the wild is insane, particularly if they’re cloaked in jargon. In other cases, it means putting together a different take on an idea you got from somewhere else because it reveals some new facet of the problem or reaches other people more effectively.

    • Nick says:

      In other cases, it means putting together a different take on an idea you got from somewhere else because it reveals some new facet of the problem or reaches other people more effectively.

      Writing about ideas, including trying to explain them to others, is a great way of working through them. I sympathize with Scott when he says it’s hard to fight the impression that a guy with a blog is trying to educate people (on the opposite end of this: it’s hard for me to fight the impression that people will be expecting me to educate them if I did have a blog). My first thought is that the obvious solution here is to mark your stuff with epistemic tags, but of course Scott said that’s why he likes to do exactly that and it doesn’t work. My second thought is that we need, therefore, a defense of writing tentative blog things, but of course that’s what this essay is. So, uh, problem solved, right? We’ll see, I guess.

  27. Urstoff says:

    So what is it about the internet that prevents the an open exploration of arguments? And how can you cultivate a community that embraces it? Is it as simple as stating explicitly: “this is an open exploration of arguments”?

    • bean says:

      So what is it about the internet that prevents the an open exploration of arguments?

      It’s not the internet, it’s humans. To the extent that the internet is worse than normal, it’s because it’s public/recorded and it removes a lot of the subtler signals we use to understand people face-to-face. On the other hand, the ability to talk to a more selected group of people who are interested in open exploration is a massive positive. Overall, I expect the internet is a net positive for this kind of thing.

  28. ProntoTheArcherist says:

    I don’t know, I studied postmodern literary theory as an English major in college, and it’s one of those things I would never try to offer an explanation of in public. Or at least if I did so I’d immediately duck, because it just seems like one of those topics where I’m going to run into people with far more expertise and I’m unusually insecure and self conscious about my knowledge of the subject, even more than for other subjects I know less about.

    I guess what I’m wondering is of all of the subjects you cover in this blog that you aren’t an expert in, but offer your perspective on, this seems like the one you’ve approached with the most trepidation and ultimate regret? I enjoyed reading it, and most of the comments I’ve read seem to fell the same.

  29. redxaxder says:

    Related.
    A mathematician is worried about how he can contribute if he isn’t one of the best mathematicians. Bill Thurston, a candidate for that category, says something similar to Scott.

    • Common Tater says:

      Quoting Thurston’s On Proof and Progress in Mathematics for a second time in the comments to this post seems excessive, but there are some great, relevant stories there in the section titled “Some Personal Experiences”. One is about how he killed the study of the theory of foliations by being too productive, the other about how he prevented this problem from recurring when he proved the geometrization conjecture of Haken manifolds by developing the intellectual infrastructure in the relevant parts of the mathematical community.

      The whole paper is worth a read, for anyone with the merest interest in the process by which math is made.

    • jchrieture says:

      Bill Thurston’s “On proof and progress in mathematics” (1994, arXiv:math/9404236v1) — which has been commended thrice in this particular thread, namely in the comments by Douglas Knight, redxaxder, and Common Tater (nice LIW reference by Common Tater!) — has been commended (according to Google) in at least six previous SSC discussions over the past three years.

      One reason for the sustained relevance to perennial SSC concerns of Thurston’s work is that Thurston wrote his essay in as a (PoMo-esque) defense to a (rationalist) critique of Thurston’s work, namely Arthur Jaffe’s and Frank Quinn’s “`Theoretical mathematics’: Toward a cultural synthesis of mathematics and theoretical physics” (1993, arXiv:math/9307227v1).

      Even after all this SSC discourse — this well-mannered & well-structured & well-intentioned SSC discourse — there’s not much point in arguing about “Who’s right? The Thurston-style PoMo-mathematicians? Or the Jaffe/Quinn-style rationalist-mathematicians”. After all, as most SSC commenters appreciate, “who’s right?” arguments change few minds.

      Equally, though — and no matter for better or for worse — it is objectively true that PoMo mathematical culture has evolved to entirely dominate rationalist mathematical culture.

      At the graduate-student level (for example) Science just announced the 2017 winner of the Dance Your PhD Contest: the hilariously PoMo-esque winner is Nancy Scherich’s “Representations of the Braid Groups“. And at a professional level, mathematical luminaries like Vladimir Voevodsky give creatively deconstructive PoMo-positive lectures like “What if current foundations of mathematics are inconsistent?”, while serious works like Michael Harris’ Mathematics Without Apologies provide enjoyably accessible introductions to the key elements of PoMo-mathematics.

      One outcome is reassuringly evident: mathematics has never been so fun & fertile & free, as it is in the present-day PoMo era … and (thankfully) mathematics has not experienced any sort of PoMo Dark Age; any sort of PoMo dystopia; any sort of PoMo Apocalypse. Quite the reverse! 🙂

      Is present-day “PoMo-mathematical culture” a good model for future fun & fertile & free cultures of PoMo-rationality, PoMo-philosophy, PoMo-economics, PoMo-physical science, PoMo-medicine, PoMo psychiatry, PoMo-republican democracy, and even PoMo-religiosity? Certainly the robust health and cultural dominance of PoMo-mathematics provides plenty of reasons for long-term PoMo-optimism! 🙂

  30. jebbyderinger says:

    I love the part about being able to distinguish who is worth listening to and who isn’t over the internet. I’ve been thinking this for a while. Facebook is probably the worst platform for this. Everyone is weighted the same and that just doesn’t happen at all in the “real world”. I’ve always felt my voice has very little weight on the internet, I think this is why some people tend to “yell” by typing in all caps or by using abusive language. It’s definitely hard to be heard with so many people talking at once.

    In the “real world” a lot of people feel they don’t have the right to speak, or they aren’t high enough up the social ladder. I’m not high on the social ladder but I also don’t see people on a pyramid the same way others do. I’d just as likely talk to the Queen as I would the homeless guy despite not being an extrovert.

    This whole Trump Presidency seems to be leading us down the road to de-anonymize the internet and potentially, net-neutrality. The Russia scandal will be used to convince people of this.

  31. jdaviestx says:

    Well, I liked the post of postmodernism; I had never even heard of it (I’d also never heard of “rationalism” until I found this blog a few months ago). I’m curious if the people who said that it was not a good explanation said which parts weren’t good explanations?

    • maxaganar says:

      >Well, I liked the post of postmodernism; I had never even heard of it (I’d also never heard of “rationalism” until I found this blog a few months ago). I’m curious if the people who said that it was not a good explanation said which parts weren’t good explanations?

      I enjoyed it too.

      Of all the topics blogged about here that people pushed back on, it was *postmodernism* that caused enough of a backlash that he put the post behind a click? Is this really a hot button issue? Was this criticism private or on another site?

  32. Milos says:

    I appreciated the original post a lot. I thought the ideas were basically spot-on, in addition to the very careful and qualified wording. In fact, it felt like making a “steelman” of postmodernism, envisioning the best it could be, rather than just criticizing the sad state of what it currently is.

    In general, someone smart, with a background in math, or CS, or psychiatry, or evolution is exactly the kind of person that has seen what a deep and profound argument (or theory) looks like. When someone like that peeks at postmodern scholarship and gets a feeling of “no, this isn’t profound, but let’s see if we can salvage some of it,” they have a good chance of being actually onto something.

  33. Sebastian_H says:

    I was a literature student in the early 90s–the peak of po-mo ascendence. It seems to me that you got it pretty much right. Your biggest error was in not making the difference between art post modernism and philosophical post modernism clearer. They share a kinship, but more like distant cousins than brothers.

    The good side of post modernism should be easily accessible to SSC readers. We talk about the kind of insights it gives when we talk about ‘cognitive bias’. When well done, discussing post modern insights or cognitive bias can be used to get past your own biases and then access the truth better. But the bad side of post modern thought seems to never get to that point. It seems to want to always talk about why you think the things you do, and rarely about what you should really be thinking and why. It uses the tools to go straight for C.S. Lewis’s Bulverism–where you argue endlessly about why you are so misguided and wrong without ever establishing that you are in fact wrong.

    The bad versions of post modernism spiral into a completely self abnegation–no one can understand anything because we are too polluted by our biases. It’s interesting because post modernism and cognitive bias analysis (and in politics libertarianism) offer excellent CRITIQUES that can be very useful in analyzing problems. But they suck at overall system building because they are critiques of systems not systems themselves. So like many useful insights they get ruined in moving them from ‘useful’ to ‘the one organizing principle’.

  34. Bellum Gallicum says:

    I’ve always just interpreted post modernism as people arguing free will versus pre destination in a new form.

    Are people a certain way because of race gender class or because of their decisions and agreements? this is the same argument as whether I’m a sinner because of my sins or because I was born a sinnner

    And I would agree having this distract from the problems of physics and chemistry is tedious in the extreme

  35. DrBeat says:

    There’s no such thing as social skills, at least positive ones that can make you liked and charismatic. “Social skills” are an epicycle made up to justify people’s behavior after the fact. Someone who has inherent high status can and will do things that are a “social skills” no-no, like constantly abuse everyone and be a complete fucking dick, and be showered with praise and adulation and respect and deference and utility. People who have inherent low status can and will do every single thing “social skills” say to do, and they will be relentlessly mocked and abused and ostracized.

    “Social skills” are just the lie that is told about those things, we pretend that the inherently popular have a skill and the inherently unpopular lack the skill, to prevent ourselves from noticing it’s just an inherent trait of a person that dictates whether others want to fawn over them or scourge them.

    • Nornagest says:

      I don’t think that actually explains anything. You’re just sweeping the same complexity under the rug of “inherent high status”.

      • Common Tater says:

        He’s not just passing the epistemic buck – there are three real claims there: status explains everything that people claim social skills explain; status is immutable; and using the term ‘social skills’ gives the false impression that people have control over these things.

        I suspect the first two are false, which renders the third moot.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I think “status is immutable” is a bit too strong; rather, we might say, “status is an inborn characteristic that cannot be changed by an effort of will”. By analogy, near-sightedness is the same way: you are born with it (or a genetic predisposition for it); you can’t fix it through discipline or training; however, you can mitigate it with glasses or laser eye surgery.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          I mean, it’s replacing a thing that makes-sense-out-in-the-world with a totally unseen factor. Where is a person’s status stored in this model? How does it actually affect things in the world? It can’t just be out in the ether somewhere and reach into your brain and affect you whenever you talk to this person.

          DrBeat even calls it an “inherent trait”, and, well — pretty much any time you see the word “inherent”, that’s signalling an error. Everything decomposes, nothing inheres! (I mean, until you get down to basic physics, but that’s not what’s under discussion here.) (People frequently use the word “inherently” to mean “necessarily”. I would like to advise against this.) It’s tempting to refer to, say, genetic properties of people as “inherent”, but really it’s still a mistake; things that affect the world do so through some causal pathway, and that causal pathway can be interfered with. Genes aren’t magic. As I said above — everything decomposes, nothing inheres.

          • DrBeat says:

            I mean, it’s replacing a thing that makes-sense-out-in-the-world with a totally unseen factor. Where is a person’s status stored in this model?

            Where are their social skills? They aren’t found in their actual skills, or their behavior.

            Do you remember Henry, the psychiatric patient who could not stop abusing his girlfriends, had no interest in stopping abusing his girlfriends, and had women falling over themselves to be his girlfriend?

            Where were the social skills he had that made him so desirable to women? Where could those invisible skills possibly be hiding, in the person who cannot control his impulses and has no regard for the emotions of others and possesses absolutely no competence in anything that is similar to a “social skill”?

            Nowhere. He has no social skills. He is a violently abusive criminal with absolutely zero prospects for a productive life, who will never be at a loss for girlfriends to beat and leech off of. Because his status is inherent to who he is, rather than anything he can do, any behavior he exhibits, or any skill he can apply.

            You mock inherent status for being a totally unseen factor; “social skills” are also a totally unseen factor. “Social skills” only appear after the fact: you look at someone who is adored and say “the thing this person did must have been good social skills”, and you look at someone who is reviled and say “oh, the thing this person did must have been bad social skills”. They are always utterly invisible to those who use them and those who react to them and nothing about them can possibly be predicted.

            Inherent status is invisible, but is able to make predictions: the inherently high-status will be rewarded regardless of their behavior and the inherently low-status will be punished regardless of their behavior. These predictions are borne out by every possible observation.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            Do you remember Henry, the psychiatric patient who could not stop abusing his girlfriends, had no interest in stopping abusing his girlfriends, and had women falling over themselves to be his girlfriend?

            Where were the social skills he had that made him so desirable to women? Where could those invisible skills possibly be hiding, in the person who cannot control his impulses and has no regard for the emotions of others and possesses absolutely no competence in anything that is similar to a “social skill”?

            somehow you improved on the badness of the original post

            if someone is good at knowing the right things to say and do, he doesn’t need to be good at controlling himself, necessarily. Or maybe he just enjoys beating on women enough that he doesn’t feel the need to control himself. Or he hates not doing it, if he’s angry.

          • DrBeat says:

            you are completely sidestepping the question. you sneer at me as if it was obvious, but you’re giving reasons why he would not have self-control, not why his lack of self-control and inability to do any of the things that are called “social skills” lead him to constant romantic success

            what possible conception of “the right thing to say and do” can omit “control yourself from doing violent things”? What possible conception of “the right thing to say and do” to get women’s sexual attention can omit “don’t constantly beat on them?”

            where can his “social skills” be hiding? because they cannot be in his behavior.

          • SpaghettiLee says:

            not why his lack of self-control and inability to do any of the things that are called “social skills” lead him to constant romantic success

            I suspect that the women in this scenario lack a ‘social skill’ of their own, namely ‘don’t date an abuser.’ I wonder if that has anything to do with that post from a while back where Scott talks about how he knows patients who do everything they can to avoid abusive relationships yet somehow wind up in them anyway, like clockwork.

            Put another way, Henry may have high status among groups who lack the skill to filter out Henrys, but is persona non grata outside of those groups; personally, I’d want nothing to do with him, nor would most women I know. From that perspective, ‘social skills’ and ‘high status’ are the same thing, and it’s the social groups that are different.

            This would also fit with DrBeat’s implication that it’s out of an individual’s control; a hopelessly socially-inept person can no more train themselves to be popular than Henry’s girlfriends can train themselves to avoid people like him.

          • AnonYEmous says:

            but you’re giving reasons why he would not have self-control, not why his lack of self-control and inability to do any of the things that are called “social skills” lead him to constant romantic success

            What is your definition of social skills, precisely?

            in the person who cannot control his impulses and has no regard for the emotions of others and possesses absolutely no competence in anything that is similar to a “social skill”?

            This is as close as it gets and even then it’s questionable. Even murderers and psychopaths can act differently to their usual selves to get what they want. You’ve totally failed to prove any lack of social skills here. You’re just asserting it.

    • cactus head says:

      What observations would falsify this?

    • The Nybbler says:

      Be liked, be high status, don’t be low status.

      I agree that it seems to be a good match to reality. That is, that whatever “social skills” are, they are not something which can be observed or copied; behavior which from a low-status person will result in derision will result in adulation when done by a high status person. I suspect this is because the signalling of status is done by difficult to observe microbehaviors which are set by one’s position in the social hierarchy as a child and adolescent.

      On the other hand, TRP seems to have found a way around it in at least one domain.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        I agree that it seems to be a good match to reality. That is, that whatever “social skills” are, they are not something which can be observed or copied; behavior which from a low-status person will result in derision will result in adulation when done by a high status person.

        Here’s a question: do you think someone who is really boring, in whatever sense that can be defined, will have a lot of friends of his same social class?

        Oh, sure, he might have lots of friends of a lower class, who will interpret his boring-ness as great, under your paradigm (probably not in reality but I can’t say for sure). But at the very least, it can’t be all down to that, or all high status people would be best friends with other high status people.

        And this is important, because usually you move in social groups of similar status to yourself. If you want to make friends in that type of environment, I bet social skills help a lot.

      • SpaghettiLee says:

        An unattractive and awkward man may never be able to make himself into a playboy by sheer force of will, but neither is it true that such men never make friends or find romantic partners; I’ve seen both often enough, as far as ‘matches to reality’ go.

        The people who are most pessimistic about their social prospects are also those who put in the least effort, in my experience. And true, maybe they’ve decided that putting forth effort would be pointless given just how low-status they are, but I’ve seen enough ‘low-status’ people pull themselves up that I’m unwilling to accept the singular explanation of predetermination as the only thing at work.

      • bean says:

        I agree that it seems to be a good match to reality. That is, that whatever “social skills” are, they are not something which can be observed or copied; behavior which from a low-status person will result in derision will result in adulation when done by a high status person.

        This may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. The strongest steelman I can construct of the OP is that social skills are one of the ways status is signaled, and that you can’t necessarily signal the same way if you’re low-status as if you’re high-status. I’m reminded of togas from “Right is the New Left”. Someone who’s a celebrity (for instance) doesn’t have to signal that they’re a nice person to be liked. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change your apparent status somewhat by your own actions. Example:
        I go to two different churches on different Sundays. On one Sunday, I wear the appropriate clothes, am polite when I talk to people, listen attentively, and generally do a good job of acting normal. On the other, I wear ratty jeans and a T-shirt, mumble and refuse to look anyone in the eye, go to the gym right beforehand and don’t shower, and move around a lot during the message. I’m the same person, and have the same ‘inherent status’. Does anyone really think that I’m going to get the same response at both churches?
        Teaching people to go from the second behavior to the first is improving their social skills. It won’t turn the nerdiest guy in school into Casanova, but it might bring him to something approaching normal, in the same way that sending a 90-pount weakling to the gym regularly isn’t going to turn him into Mr. Universe or an NFL player, but it’s also not going to be totally ineffective. It’s only if we insist on comparing the bottom of a distribution to the top that it looks like there’s no hope for self-improvement.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Status won’t change by changing the second behavior to the first. Reaction will, but something like this

          Low status, appropriately dressed: Ignored

          High status, appropriately dressed: Invited to participate in whatever social activities various church groups have going on

          Low status, smelly and muttering: Unceremoniously tossed out.

          High status, smelly and muttering: Offered assistance, a shower and clean clothes.

          • bean says:

            Status won’t change by changing the second behavior to the first. Reaction will, but something like this

            So? You’ve just conceded my basic point, which is that things you have control over do play a part in how people respond to you. It doesn’t matter if we call it ‘reaction’ as opposed to ‘status’ or treat it as some form of status signalling, the point is that by taking a shower and being polite, I’ve changed how people react to me, which is what matters in the real world. Social skills exist. It’s only because you insist on comparing low and high status people that you think they don’t.

            (Leaving aside that I’m not sure how the church is supposed to tell a low-status smelly person from a high-status one.)

          • Aapje says:

            Isn’t the common ground here the recognition that people have limited power to change how people respond to them, so it’s valid to hold them accountable for this part, but unfair to claim that they can achieve the exact same results as high status people by their own power.

          • bean says:

            @Aapje
            I don’t think that’s common ground, though. Dr Beat, at least, seems to be claiming that social skills literally don’t exist. To follow the rightful caliph into basketball analogies, I was always going to be the worst basketball player in 8th grade because I was really short, and attempting to improve my skills through practice would have been futile. Obviously, I wasn’t going to make varsity, but I could have been adequate if I’d thought of basketball as something other than an activity that cut into my reading time.

          • Aapje says:

            You were having a debate with The Nybbler, not DrBeat. I don’t think they have the same beliefs.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Dr. Beat said: “There’s no such thing as social skills, at least positive ones that can make you liked and charismatic. ”

            With the caveat, I believe I generally agree with Dr. Beat.

            Not completely, though; the existence of convincing actors indicates that whatever the thing that signals status is, it is expressed through something visible to other people and which some people _can_ fake.

            But it’s not what people usually make it out to be — deportment, hygiene, consideration, etc. Malcom Gladwell contrasts two people, one of whom (Robert Oppenheimer) gets away with attempted murder whereas the other loses a scholarship because of one incidence of lateness. The anecdote itself may not be true, but the situation is.

          • bean says:

            But it’s not what people usually make it out to be — deportment, hygiene, consideration, etc. Malcom Gladwell contrasts two people, one of whom (Robert Oppenheimer) gets away with attempted murder whereas the other loses a scholarship because of one incidence of lateness. The anecdote itself may not be true, but the situation is.

            First, I read a biography of Oppenheimer once, and don’t recall him getting away with attempted murder. The plural of anecdote is not data, particularly when you have one anecdote, and it’s possibly fictional. But I will grant that people get very different treatment based on what other people think of them. We can call this ‘status’ if you like.
            Second, you are still loading the dice in your analogy by splitting status into two categories, ‘high’ and ‘low’, and treating it as a binary value. Status is continuous, and the status-positive action in one place isn’t the same as the status-positive action elsewhere. Being mean to people is required to be high-status in high school for reasons I don’t really understand. But acting like you’re a high-status person when you’re not just means that you’re clueless, and you lose status that way. Again, remember the togas. A lower-class person pretending to be upper-class is obviously an imposter. But a lower-class person could learn to pretend to be middle-class.
            Trying to blindly imitate the highest-status people and assuming that’s how you gain status is rather like trying to improve your grades by copying the study habits of the smartest people in a given high school. Most of them are probably smart enough they don’t need to study much, but that’s terrible advice for the average person.

          • The Nybbler says:

            First, I read a biography of Oppenheimer once, and don’t recall him getting away with attempted murder.

            See, his high status even helps him after he’s gone.

            But acting like you’re a high-status person when you’re not just means that you’re clueless, and you lose status that way.

            Behaving like a high-status person when you’re not doesn’t work. Behaving like a low-status person “works” in that no one assumes you’re clueless, but they still treat you as low status. And it’s true whether status is binary, multivalued, or continuous. The point is that status is _decoupled_ from behavior. Just as better “study skills” won’t make a low-intelligence person smarter, better “social skills” won’t make a low-status person higher status.

          • bean says:

            See, his high status even helps him after he’s gone.

            You yourself admitted it might be fictional, and I couldn’t recall ever hearing of such a thing.

            Behaving like a high-status person when you’re not doesn’t work. Behaving like a low-status person “works” in that no one assumes you’re clueless, but they still treat you as low status.

            You’re still ignoring the bit where you behave like you’re of low+1 status, and people treat you like low+1. I think the problem here may be one of pre-knowledge. If I have you classed as ‘low’, I’m going to be generally reluctant to update you to low+1, even if you’re acting like it. This is very different from how someone with no or little knowledge will react. Your model seems to describe an American High School as portrayed on TV quite well, but that’s not the whole world.

            Just as better “study skills” won’t make a low-intelligence person smarter, better “social skills” won’t make a low-status person higher status.

            Better “study skills” will absolutely make a low-intelligence person get better grades. It may not make them inherently smarter, but what matters is the grade on the piece of paper.

            @Aapje
            Interesting. I’m rather glad he didn’t kill Blackett, who did some very interesting things during the war, aside from physics.

        • Aapje says:

          @bean

          Yeah and a risk is that a person who is badly treated for a trait they cannot change, starts to attribute all bad treatment to how people react to that trait, including the bad treatment that is actually caused by things they can change.

          Aka victim mentality.

    • AnonYEmous says:

      There’s no such thing as social skills, at least positive ones that can make you liked and charismatic. “Social skills” are an epicycle made up to justify people’s behavior after the fact.

      This reads like a parody post of you which you would object to vociferously on the grounds that you only think specific things are ruled by popularity and that those specific things can be quantified and follow some type of system, and that obviously something like social skills, which can be measured and which can show improvement, which can be seen in anonymous forums and other places where “status” is either nonexistent or only a direct function of social status, is obviously not a fair candidate.

      I’m sorry, this is a shitty way to counter someone’s argument, but it’s also true. Please, stop it.

    • carvenvisage says:

      @DrBeat EDIT: this kinda turned into an essay with perhaps limited relevance to your OP (seeing as I don’t understand why you post that thing, why would I be able to address it?), -just warning you in advance and apologies for any disrespect. Posting with good intentions.

      _

      This is mostly true, -we even have expressions that admit it

      “why should I like you if I don’t like yourself”

      “if you can’t beat them, join them”

      _

      -and it’s obviously crappy. (one might even say evil, in a fairly unspectacular way). And obviously crappy that so much effort is put into denying (many) people’s natural sychophancy.

      But why does it concern you how idiots deny or glorify their mental slavery? (or whatever you want to call instinctively siding with whoever seems to have more standing, social or otherwise, *and not even knowing you’re doing it or being able to choose otherwise*)

      Of course some (a lot of) people fall into that pathetic mode of siding with whatever seems to have the most standing, and of course most of those are under the impression it’s something else entirely, or not a thing at all, -seeing as a human is a featherless biped that knows it’s a good person.

      _

      But this point in human history is imo fairly clearly in the leaving the mire of evolution /darkness before the dawn, phase. -maybe a nuclear dawn, or the dawn is really a final fading away, but whatever the eventual outcome this is a point where that kind of suckiness is to be expected. We’re at a relative high point in that phase, yeah, but technological abundance =/= social order, let alone one sufficient to educate and acculturate monkeys to be upstanding independent citizens.

      _

      -It’s not like we reached the endpoint but even there human nature showed itself to be iredeemable, we’re still in the mire. So why lament? We’re monkeys, not devils, we’ll probably either eventually make something good or kill each other off, -and that’s a pretty good EV spread, one or the other is fine. We’re super dumb, not supernaturally resistant to goodness.

      It’s mostly upside.

      _

      I guess one answer to “why lament?” is that with technological advancements, the reduction of material privation, there could be a hope that human nature would finally/already emerge from its coccoon like a butterfly. -But.. we’re still monkeys. Even if we had literal heaven, sufficiently stupid monkeys could still eventually exceed carry capacity (if there was any kind of limit) and carry out the usual activities like genocide and slavery. -Material poverty is a huge bottleneck, but so is societal order, the proper introduction, acculturation and acclimatisation of monkeys to the art and responsibility of “being an entity”. -So that’s not an accurate expectation.

      _

      I guess just on a basic ‘does this suck or not’ level, yeah, it really sucks, but without an intervening god, how else is life supposed to arise, other than by some kind of evolutionary process? -which may not select against such things. (“evolution” is kind of a misnomer in fact, it ‘selects’ for negative qualities as well as positive, most obviously selfishness).

      _

      -So I think it’s probably an inevitability to have a phase like this, whether we’re for utopia or fireworks or worse. It’s not something that should upset one, if it’s something that was always inevitable (or at least likely) (or at least a plausible path of development things could take).

      _

      I think that’s the key point, -we’re coming up from monkeys. Rising apes, not falling angels, as Terry Pratchett (RIP) said. Maybe the ape breaks its neck falling off the ladder, and that would be sad, but it’s predictable that the ape is an ape. Maybe there is no end of the board for the pawn to reach, but it’s predictable that the pawn is a pawn.

      I suppose “why lament” is the wrong question. It’s sad to be or watch the monkey or the pawn and sorrow isn’t necessarilly so bad, taking things seriously, memorialising them, etc, and I shouldn’t argue against that. -What I was thinking about was more specifically nihilistic extrapolations of ‘humans kinda suck’ (which I think is accurate) that I think are inaccurate.

      _

      Anyway, maybe I’m totally imputing intentions etc to your post that aren’t there, -mainly existential overtones when your concern could be something quite different like how much it just fuckin sucks dude, or venting about running into it in your daily life, or whatever. So I guess it’s just all my take on why it shouldn’t be an existential problem, whether or not that’s relevant in this case I can’t know. Sorry if it’s rude.

      _

      Not finished, so I’ll still continue after that disclaimer and (partially hypothetical) apology:

      Yes it’s bad, -hell, I’ll say evil, but evil is to be expected at this stage in human/monkey history. Don’t let the skyscrapers deceive you, we’re clawing our way out of the mire of evolution here, and may yet, may well, get pulled back in for good, but things are proceeding as expected, as planned, -about as well as they could have, and despite what the joker says that is a cause for some comfort.

      -When it’s the best plan we have, and perhaps a track that was always going to have to be routed through.

      (And no one is responsible for the result as a whole, just for playing their part. I guess that’s another topic of discussion)

      _
      _

      do let me know if this is annoying, unhelpful, etc. I’m not sure and I don’t mind.

      It’s good to have feedback on a post that’s a bit out there like this. (for me at least, who is saying so, maybe not in all cases)

      • cactus head says:

        >It’s good to have feedback on a post that’s a bit out there like this.

        I found it hard to read and follow because of all the random hyphens. You use them as bullets but then they show up in the middle of the paragraphs after other punctuation marks and I have no idea what you’re trying to communicate with that.

    • There may be all sorts of things going besides social skills, but it doesn’t follow that social skills are doing nothing.

      People who have inherent low status can and will do every single thing “social skills” say to do, and they will be relentlessly mocked and abused and ostracized

      Well, it would be supported by every observation if there were a way of detecting inherent status, but if you are inferring it from behaviour, then it is another retrofitted explanation.

    • Sebastian_H says:

      Ugh.

      First we need to understand that at the highest level of money and power, all sorts of general understandings about all sorts of things break apart, so knowing that Harvey Weinstein was able to be an ass toward hundreds of people doesn’t mean that “social skills” isn’t a thing any more than knowing that Donald Trump could threaten the banks he worked with into giving him terms means that you can get out of paying your car loan the same way.

      So we should probably keep the discussion to something like “the middle 80% of status”.

      Second you seem to mapping a very broad sense of “good social skills”. Good social skills is knowing what things are appropriate for someone of your status in your situation. That has three components, ‘appropriate’, ‘your status’, and ‘your situation’. So yelling at your girlfriend in public is generally bad social skills for people of the middle 80% of status. But yelling at her when she is about to get hit by a car is ok because it is appropriate in the situation.

      Yes it is absolutely true that there are certain things that high status/charisma people can do that the rest of the world can’t get away with. It is also true that for the rest of us, there are people who are better at figuring out what looks appropriate for their situation and in different situations than other people. Being able to navigate that is “good social skills”. And it can definitely be learned.

      • Aapje says:

        @Sebastian_H

        Sure, but if you have high status, people are way more likely to assume good faith and thus assume you have a good reason to yell at your girlfriend in public, while a person with low status is way more likely to get an assumption of bad faith.

        A complicating factor is that witnesses may not actually have witnessed the full event and thus are working on partial information. In that case, the difference between an assumption of good and bad faith can result in being applauded or lynched.

      • The Nybbler says:

        And at the bottom of status, good social skills means staying out of the way of your betters, accepting verbal and physical abuse without complaining too much, and never, ever, trying to rise above your station e.g. by daring to talk to a higher-status person (especially of the opposite sex). And yet what is said of people who have internalized and follow these rules when it’s noted they tend to be sad and lonely and have no friends? It’s claimed they have poor social skills.

        • engleberg says:

          If you don’t move your head when you talk, you sound more high-status. If you move your head when you talk, you sound low-status- Who Asks in Fear, is Asking for Refusal. This can be taught. Or just try it.

    • jchrieture says:

      The web-forum Out of the Fog includes a very active sub-forum An Unsent Letter; these “unsent letters” are attempts to explain feelings to partners/family members who lack the requisite social skills to appreciate/reciprocate those feelings.

      Trigger warning: it can be distressing to recognize one’s own personality traits and/or the traits of family members in these “unsent letters”.

      SpaghettiLee observes: “I suspect that the women in this scenario lack a ‘social skill’ of their own, namely ‘don’t date an abuser'”

      As the “unsent letters” forum makes distressingly clear, it is common for people to be raised by abusers/neglectors/abandoners, to marry abusers/neglectors/abandoners, and to raise children who are themselves abusers/neglectors/abandoners … and each of these all-too-common circumstances acts to perpetuate all of the others.

  36. Eponymous says:

    My own version of this experience was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s A Human’s Guide To Words, which caused a bunch of high-level philosophical ideas to slip neatly into place for me.

    I had the same experience. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment it happened. It was towards the end of the discussion of bleggs and rubes, when Eliezer showed a diagram of an idealized neural net showing statistical relationships between different attributes. Then he showed the “human” net with the single node in the middle for the word. (i.e. this.)

    At that exact moment, I went, “Oh, so that’s what my brain is doing when it uses words.”

    My other big “aha” moments:
    – The pebble mound building aliens (understanding metaethics)
    – Free will as how an algorithm selecting over actions leading to different simulated futures feels from the inside
    – The simple truth

    Generalizing over these cases, it seems that I got my big “aha” moments in response to (1) analogies, stories, or parables, and (2) expressing philosophical problems in terms of cognitive algorithms. Or better yet, both.

    Reflecting on my smaller “ah ha” moments (like brains doing cognitive work) I think this generalization holds up well. So probably that’s the novel aspect of the sequences, at least for me, relative to other similar works I’ve read.

    I wonder how this compares to others’ experience with the sequences.

    • The pebble mound building aliens (understanding metaethics)
      Free will as how an algorithm selecting over actions leading to different simulated futures feels from the inside
      The simple truth

      Three of his dicier efforts, in my view.

      The pebble mound building aliens (understanding metaethics)

      So what is his metaethics? No one seems to be able to explain.

      Free will as how an algorithm selecting over actions leading to different simulated futures feels from the inside

      Presented as the only possible answer to the riddle. although it is not. It is logically possible that we have non-illusory free will, and feel that we do, because we do.

      The simple truth

      What is that even trying to say? That the correspondence theory of truth always works? That is sometimes works? That people are too ready to go meta about truth when they are losing an object-level argument?

  37. slofgren says:

    This is spot on for me, specifically with regard to your attempt at making sense of PoMo but also with how I generally experience this blog.

    I felt like I had an experience of seeing the world more clearly after reading your PoMo explainer. And sure, it’s possible that it was an inaccurate explanation of how most people who self-describe as pomo thinkers see the world, so perhaps it should be framed as “this seems to be how pomo thinkers see the world, but I’m not really sure, and some pomo thinkers say this is not an accurate description of their worldview.” But whatever, even if that’s the case, it was a new framework that I hadn’t seen before (maybe just call it Alexander-Post Modernism?) that I found useful and will store away for later when I’m trying to understand some strange phenomenon in the world. For instance, why do people reject well formed scientific explanations? Perhaps it’s because they feel like I am claiming the mantle of science to further my agenda, and feel others have done that too, and that so called Scientific Explanations are not actually good descriptors / predictors of the world but instead are just self-serving authoritarianism in disguise. If I didn’t have a strong scientific training and couldn’t distinguish good scientific explanations from poor ones (which both look the same and start with ‘studies say ‘), then I might adopt this perspective as well. This was a thought I had after reading your post that I hadn’t had before, and I think it’s a useful one.

    More generally, I feel like you take a lot of risks, in the sense that you expose yourself to criticism by making exploratory posts that are not fully refined, don’t always have all of the necessary qualifying statements. And I really like that. Because in your rough, exploratory thinking, I find a lot of signal, even if there is some noise. And I really feel like the blogging commentary community attacks small amounts of noise very viciously, for reasons that are unclear to me (maybe it’s a way to score social capital?). And I think what they are doing is disincentivizing risky posting, which will cause us to lose out on high signal but modest noise posts that are valuable. I hope this doesn’t happen. I hope you will keep taking risks and throwing exploratory ideas out there for us all to engage with.

  38. Midjji says:

    Please keep trying, I may not alway agree with, but I have always enjoyed – your writing.

    Oh and another one for the – that finally made it click. I had never truly understood quaternions, or imaginary numbers for that matter. A neat trick for representing the solutions sets of diff eqns to be sure, but still somehow strange and wrong. A strange alternative to vector and matrix math in some cases. Then I attended a hour long explanation of clifford algebra and how it trivially(when you understand it) leads to maxwell’s equation(singular). Suddenly it all clicked, not just imaginary numbers, but quaternions and all the higher dimensional variants. A few simple relations and any idiot can derive the multiplication rule for quaternions, why there has to be 3 rather than 2 elements etc. Its esoteric and beautiful, an elegant weapon for a more civilized time.

  39. jddt says:

    I liked your article =)

  40. Telminha says:

    Or, if someone screws up, or asks a stupid question, it gets screenshotted and goes viral all over Twitter as “Look what this stupid person said now!

    I wonder how intelligent people like Scott and other writers feel, when, after a certain time, they start reaching and appealing to people who are not the expected audience. Do they feel disappointed? Puzzled?

    I am a Latino woman, “uneducated” with a basic English level. The “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” was the first essay I read here, and it was so illuminating that I had an “Aha!” moment. The fact that there was a section for mistakes and corrections was fascinating to me.

    I do not post very often, and when I do, it’s a sort of shame-attacking exercise. I understand that comments like mine would probably diminish the general quality of the comment section, so I should avoid commenting. I also don’t want to become famous all over Twitter.:)

    • Nornagest says:

      Well, I haven’t actually talked to Scott about this, but I think it’s hilarious watching him being dragged kicking and screaming to his coronation as a Major Public Thinker. I’m glad it’s him, though. There are people in our incestuous little community who’d probably react to the public eye like a public incinerator that’s just been fed a pallet of dynamite — violently, and with great force.

      Your comments are fine.

      • Standing in the Shadows says:

        watching him being dragged kicking and screaming to his coronation as a Major Public Thinker

        Like many important positions, the title of Major Public Thinker should be given only to people who do not want it, and who fight having it forced on them.

        Anyone who actually wants the job for their own benefit should by no means permitted to have it.

        (cough Malcolm Gladwell cough Any professional pundit, talking head, or CNN “expert” cough Anyone who calls themselves a “bioethicist” cough)

    • xXxanonxXx says:

      Aha! Another lurker worried Scott may have been talking about them. I salute you.

    • hlynkacg says:

      @ Telminha

      I encourage you to post anyway. We need more human ambassadors in this den of lizard-people. 🙂

  41. CthulhuChild says:

    Scott, for the record, I really liked your post-modernism essay, especially read alongside the PPT lecture you linked. If someone wants to clearly explain why it’s somehow wrong, I’m happy to listen, but for me it provided a unifying concept to a bunch of things I’ve been told are postmodern but have little obvious in common.

    So I guess I agree with this essay as well?

    Hmm. At what point do I have to start worrying that I’m just easily convinced and addicted to insight porn?

  42. xXxanonxXx says:

    For what it’s worth, I think you do a better job than 99% of people in creating the right balance of teaching what should be uncontroversial and encouraging the mutual exploration of ideas that remain nebulous. The other 1% are people who write at such a high technical level I probably wouldn’t even recognize a shift in balance one way or the other. This might not be as obvious to someone showing up for the first time (I’ve had to point people’s attention toward the epistemic status tags more than once). That’s a problem with them however, and it’s beyond me how to improve the situation without a massive, incredibly-annoying-to-regulars disclaimer in front of every post.

  43. LapisLacrima says:

    What are some good Social Skills for Autistic People books?

  44. Mr Mind says:

    Some people asked – why can’t people just figure out what’s taboo, either believe it quietly or reject it openly, and then shut up about it?

    I’ve found that often this kind of fallacy can be corrected by remembering that everything has a speed. When a government issues a policy, it takes time for said policy to be published, for that publication to be understood, and for that understanding to shape actions. Possibly the gap between implementation and actuation is measured in years. This for example is why it’s absurd to measure the success of a government by looking at the economic data when the said government is in power, a mistake that is nonetheless a common norm.
    This is also why it is absurd to expect for Kolmogorov to learn everything that is taboo and shut up: what is taboo has to be first generated then communicated, and maybe the first queries into the system were made when the full catalogues of taboo weren’t even effective.
    This is a fallacy that I call “the Newtonian fallacy”, for the reason that Newtonian physics is based on the assumption that interaction between systems happens instantaneously. Another form of this fallacy is to model a system as a Markov chain, when instead the system is nonlinear and may have hysteresis.

    • jchrieture says:

      A fundamental precept of dynamical control theory is that optimal control is grounded in optimal estimation, that is, the capacity to accurately predict and optimally control the dynamical future from observations of the dynamical past.

      Human social interactions themselves being situationally dependent and nonlinearly dynamic, and human empathic assessment being unreliably biased and noisy, it takes plenty of practice — and plenty of crashes — to achieve a robust capacity for predictive social control that, at its best, can make the incredibly difficult look incredibly easy.

      Acquiring the social skill of “acting cool” thus resembles rocket science … necessarily including the distressing social “crashes” and fiery emotional “explosions” that real-world social development and real-world rocket science both entail! 🙂

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