Short Critiques of (Humanities) Academia

Today’s subway station thoughts:

I originally got into reading Less Wrong because it seemed a lot like academia except with people whose minds worked more like mine.  A version of academia where I wouldn’t have to act like I agreed with ideas that made no sense to me, like:

  • Once a thinker is famous, you can (or should) never rightfully displace them from fame by arguing or by citing new information; the best you can do is produce a “critique.”  If sufficiently damning, your “critique” will eventually be read alongside the original thinker to achieve some sort of synthesis (?).
  • The respectable way to think about a topic is not to look at information about it and think about that information sensibly; it’s to read an extremely wide range of famous thinkers, then “apply” them to the issue.  You must do this to be “an intellectual.”
  • Any thinker can be “applied” to any issue, but they must be treated as stand-ins for static, fixed sets of ideas rather than people of their time.  Aristotle and David Hume can be brought back from the grave to speak upon, say, modern political issues.  But they must say exactly the things they said centuries ago, even though they would surely say other things if they were alive today.
  • All famous books are famous for a reason.  There is something good somewhere in Plato’s Republic, even if you can’t see it.
  • There are no stock phrases that shouldn’t be reified.  If you can say the words “free will” or “the self” then there must be a set of True and False propositions about these things, and we can usefully talk about them by using these phrases.  Asking whether such a concept makes sense in the first place is anti-intellectual.
  • As a consequence of the previous point, “the hard problem of consciousness” is a sensible and non-misleading term.
  • You should accept and enjoy, and ideally practice, a turgid, imprecise style of writing that is totally inconsistent with any standard of good writing that exists outside of academia.  You don’t need to think carefully about the definitions of the words you use – in fact, it is better if you don’t, as long as you use big words.  Say “ontology” instead of “stuff,” “irreducible” instead of “unavoidable,” “instigate” instead of “cause.”  (This sounds like I’m attacking humanists, but most scientists can’t write either.  If that sounds arrogant of me to say, well, it probably is.  But I just mean relative to ordinary standards of writing – what you’d find in average-quality magazines, newspapers, essay collections, etc.)
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Then I learned about Friendly AI, prediction markets, pop Bayesianism, the bad fanfic, “politics is the mind-killer but we’re all libertarians somehow,” and many other things in Less Wrong that didn’t make sense to me either and seemed like in-group shibboleths that I would never be comfortable with.

(The point of writing all this is that it’s funny to think of HPMoR as Less Wrong’s equivalent of Plato’s Republic.)






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