Intellectual Laziness

Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.

If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said baseis have never been questioned before.

For example:

  • Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
  • Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
  • We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
  • That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
  • Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:

  1. A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
  2. A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
  3. Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.

Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.

(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)

A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.

Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.

An short example contrasting the two:

“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”

vs.

“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”

As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).

Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.

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