Linch's Shortform

post by Linch · 2019-09-19T00:28:40.280Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · EA · GW · 5 comments

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comment by Linch · 2019-09-19T00:28:40.458Z · score: 28 (12 votes) · EA · GW

cross-posted from Facebook.

Sometimes I hear people who caution humility say something like "this question has stumped the best philosophers for centuries/millennia. How could you possibly hope to make any progress on it?". While I concur that humility is frequently warranted and that in many specific cases that injunction is reasonable [1], I think the framing is broadly wrong.


In particular, using geologic time rather than anthropological time hides the fact that there probably weren't that many people actively thinking about these issues, especially carefully, in a sustained way, and making sure to build on the work of the past. For background, 7% of all humans who have ever lived are alive today, and living people compose 15% of total human experience [2] so far!!!


It will not surprise me if there are about as many living philosophers today as there were dead philosophers in all of written history.


For some specific questions that particularly interest me (eg. population ethics, moral uncertainty), the total research work done on these questions is generously less than five philosopher-lifetimes. Even for classical age-old philosophical dilemmas/"grand projects" (like the hard problem of consciousness), total work spent on them is probably less than 500 philosopher-lifetimes, and quite possibly less than 100.


There are also solid outside-view reasons to believe that the best philosophers today are just much more competent [3] than the best philosophers in history, and have access to much more resources[4].


Finally, philosophy can build on progress in natural and social sciences (eg, computers, game theory).


Speculating further, it would not surprise me, if, say, a particularly thorny and deeply important philosophical problem can effectively be solved in 100 more philosopher-lifetimes. Assuming 40 years of work and $200,000/year per philosopher, including overhead, this is ~800 million, or in the same ballpark as the cost of developing a single drug[5].


Is this worth it? Hard to say (especially with such made-up numbers), but the feasibility of solving seemingly intractable problems no longer seems crazy to me.


[1] For example, intro philosophy classes will often ask students to take a strong position on questions like deontology vs. consequentialism, or determinism vs. compatibilism. Basic epistemic humility says it's unlikely that college undergrads can get those questions right in such a short time.


[2] https://eukaryotewritesblog.com/2018/10/09/the-funnel-of-human-experience/


[3] Flynn effect, education, and education of women, among others. Also, just https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenian_democracy#Size_and_make-up_of_the_Athenian_population. (Roughly as many educated people in all of Athens at any given time as a fairly large state university). Modern people (or at least peak performers) being more competent than past ones is blatantly obvious in other fields where priority is less important (eg, marathon runners, chess).


[4] Eg, internet, cheap books, widespread literacy, and the current intellectual world is practically monolingual.


[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_drug_development

comment by MathiasKirkBonde · 2019-09-19T22:41:31.709Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

If a problem is very famous and unsolved, doesn't those who tried solving it include many of the much more competent philosophers alive today? The fact that the problem has not been solved by any of them either would suggest to me it's a hard problem.

comment by saulius · 2019-09-20T20:37:52.218Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Honest question: are there examples of philosophical problems that were solved in the last 50 years? And I mean solved by doing philosophy not by doing mostly unrelated experiments (like this one). I imagine that even if some philosophers felt they answered a question, other would dispute it. More importantly, the solution would likely be difficult to understand and hence it would be of limited value. I'm not sure I'm right here.

comment by saulius · 2019-09-20T20:46:10.063Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

After a bit more googling I found this which maybe shows that there have been philosophical problems solved recently. I haven't read about that specific problem though. It's difficult to imagine a short paper solving the hard problem of consciousnesses though.