Minimum Viable Concept

I got into an argument, and while I don’t think anyone changed their mind, I think I realized something about why our argumentative norms are so incompatible.

The people I was arguing with are academic philosophers. They like extensive, detailed exploration of a concept, tend to be very wordy, and cite heavily.

I am a rationalist, which is justly accused of being a new school of philosophy that includes as one of its tenets “philosophy is dumb”, and we do not have the same norms.

Here’s an example: (EDIT: After feedback that the quoted person did not agree with their paraphrased statement, I have replaced it with direct quotes.)

Me: I’d be interested in the one minute version of how you think the Sequence’s criticism of philosophy is wrong.
My interlocutor:
 There are several criticisms, if you link me to the one you want, I’ll write a thing up for you.
Me:
“Point me to a paper” is one of the frustrating things about trying to argue with [philosophers]. Particularly after [I asked] for the short version.
If you don’t have a response to the aggregate that’s concise, just say so; the response you gave instead comes off as a mix of sophistication signal and credentialist status grab, with a minor side of “This feels like dodging the question.”

Philosophers, on the other hand, seem to have a reaction to rationalist argument styles of “Go read these three books and then you’ll be entitled to an opinion.” More charitably, they don’t think someone is taking discussion of a topic seriously unless they have spent significant effort engaging with primary sources that are discussed frequently in the literature on that topic. Which, by and large, rationalists are loath to do.

The academic mindset, I think, grows out of how they learned the subject. They read a lot of prior work, their own ideas evolved along with the things they’d discussed and written papers about. A lot of work is put into learning to model the thought processes of previous writers, rather than just to learn their ideas. Textbooks are rare, primary sources common. Working in an atmosphere of people who all learned this way would tend to give a baseline assumption that this is how one becomes capable of serious thought on the subject.

(Added note: It seems to be the case that modern analytic philosophy has moved away from that style of learning at most schools. All the effects of this style still seem to predict the observed data, though.)

The rationalist mindset grows out of the Silicon Valley mindset. They have the “minimum viable product”, we have the “minimum viable concept”. Move fast and break assumptions. Test your ideas against other people early and often, go into detail only where it’s called for by the response to your idea, break things up into many small pieces and build on each other. If you want to get a library of common ideas for a subject, read a textbook and go from there.

With this mindset, it’s a waste of time to read a long book just to get a few ideas and maybe an idea about how the author generated them; you could instead take half an idea, smash it against some adversarial thinking, and repeat that three or four times, getting several whole ideas, pushing them into their better forms, and discarding the three or four that didn’t hold up when you tested them. Find techniques that work and, if you can put them into words, give them to someone else and see if it works for them as it did for you.

So academics see us as dilettantes who don’t engage with prior art, are ignorant, and make old mistakes; and we see them as stick-in-the-muds who aren’t iterating, wasting motion on dead ends without anyone to tell them they’re lost and slowing down any attempt at collaboration.

(I don’t think I’ve changed my mind about what I prefer, but I hope I’ve passed an ideological/epistemological Turing test that lets people make up their minds which is better.)

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8 thoughts on “Minimum Viable Concept

  1. I’m not sure the asymmetry is quite as strong as you suggest. Rationalists often say “read the Sequences” instead of just explaining the relevant concept, because they don’t know how.

    Eliezer’s also warned against pretending to give your real reasons, saying things like, if your reason for supporting MIRI is “Eliezer seems like a smart guy and made some persuasive arguments which I can’t give a full account of,” then you should be careful to say *that* instead of trying to reconstruct a half-remembered, wrong version of the argument.

    One thing that might be going on here is that some people really are smarter / more with-it / more philosophically inclined by nature such that one can just give a summary of a novel argument to the other and trust them to unpack it (or *notice* if they don’t understand it), and other people need a lot of detailed examples. This is to some extent affected by contextual knowledge too – I’m probably much worse at parsing some simple mathematical arguments than my native ability could support, simply because I don’t know a lot of the terms.

    The existence of these two levels means that, especially when people from *different intellectual traditions* are trying to communicate, you can’t automatically assume that you are *known to be* on the higher level with respect to their knowledge. It’s something you’d have to signal. One way to try to do this is to try to pass the Ideological Turing Test, as you’ve attempted here. But if you ask for the short version *without* signaling that you know there are levels, and without trying to show that you *actually are* at a high enough level for that to make sense, then the other side will get the impression that you *don’t know there are levels*, and that you think their field must just be stupid for wasting so much time on making detailed arguments. This is true for some cases, but not for the most interesting ones.

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  2. On the specific exchange you’re referring to (I think I know the one), I think that “point me to a post” was intended to play a different role than the one you’re suggesting. In particular, I think that this was what was going on:

    (1) The Sequences made a bunch of claims, some explicit, some implicit, about how contemporary academic philosophy is defective. Many aspiring Rationalists, influenced in part by this, were dismissive of academic philosophy/
    (2) A jumble of argument ensued (which was somewhat confused because there are lots of relevant claims not being clearly distinguished), including your interlocutor making a case *for* academic philosophy.
    (3) Things get heated, people back off and take a break.
    (4) You express curiosity about your interlocutor’s objection to the Sequences’ case against academic philosophy.
    (5) Your interlocutor, wanting to be more careful this time, offers to respond to any *specific* criticism you think might be relevant (to avoid the jumble that happened last time), and further offers to do the work of reading the original text that makes the criticism instead of asking you to do the work of summarizing.

    This seems relevantly different to me from asking *you* to read a paper or chapter of a book.

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    • I disagree. I asked for a short version that might encapsulate the main points they felt it was wrong about. To be told to go get a citation is pushing the burden on me to start a dialogue, rather than staking out preliminary positions to talk out. It’s a lower burden than “go read a chapter of a book you don’t have”, but that’s a difference of degree, not kind.

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      • Oh I think I see–you want me to do literally all of the work in our interactions. You can burden me with requests of summaries but I can’t burden you to direct me to the thing it would be most useful *for you* for me to summarize? That’s an incredibly entitled disposition.

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      • You eventually did the thing, a full day later after a bunch of unproductive argument. It took you, according to my message logs, under four minutes.

        By contrast, picking through all of the criticisms to find post that encapsulated one of the specific criticisms for you to read and address would have taken, at minimum, 10 minutes, probably closer to an hour. And it would have been less productive, since I probably would *not* have found a complete and concise statement of the criticism, and would very likely meet a criticism on your part that was not interesting or productive to engage with.

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      • Elle wrote, in that private message:

        “Well, there are disagreements about ethics (which you discussed on the other thread), there are disagreements about metaphysics (like whether the concept of territory conflates the appearance/reality distinction), and there are objections about mind (like whether zombie thought experiments undermine epiphenomenalism (which David Chalmers has responded to in detail on lesswrong) and there are critiques of our different conceptions of truth (which we can defend by showing you how the sequences conflates conceptions of truth that are conceptually distinct) and there are critiques about our use of concepts (which we can defend by explaining that we are interested only in intrinsic concepts, not extrinsic concepts, because arguments about intrinsic concepts are universalizable whereas arguments derived from extrinsic concepts will yield contingent answers to the philosophical problems).”

        ^ This was exactly what I was asking for in the first place. A list of very short summaries of specific points of disagreement. After the long, unproductive argument, I am no longer interested in debating the merits of philosophy, but this is exactly how a productive debate would start. You implicitly knew my approximate position (“The Sequences are good, I basically agree”) and, AFAIK, have a decent knowledge of what the Sequences say. I had no idea what yours was until you wrote this.

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  3. On reading old books, I think contemporary analytic philosophy is a bit of an exception. If you read the great old ones like Hume, Aristotle, each of them has a distinct style that will help you add lenses through which to see the world, that’s related to but not the same as their content.

    This might be a bit of a caricature, but my sense is that contemporary academic analytic philosophy has a fixed set of methods, with some things in common with math and some things in common with somewhat older analytic philosophy. When the analytics read old books, they read them for content, and interpret them through the lens of contemporary analytic methods. These methods are intended to allow for the accretion of new content and error-correction of old content, to extend a *single* model in the contemporary analytic style.

    The appeal of this project is obvious if you think this can materially advance work on the traditionally important problems of philosophy (Cf. Tsuyoku Naritai!). The disadvantage, on this model, is that in terms of its contribution to your set of tools for perceiving the world, the entirely of contemporary academic analytic philosophy is about as good as a *single* great book – e.g. reading and grokking *just* Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics would do about as much for you. Maybe analytic philosophy does a bit better as an amalgam of cool stuff, but not *proportionally* better given the volume of work it claims to include.

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