Career, Physics and Goals (was: Artificial General Intelligence Speculations)

I don’t think I’m really qualified to give a precise number. I haven’t read widely enough, plus I myself am irrational in a lot of ways so I can’t reliably identify irrationalities in others.

I said there were “few” because even if I count every single “philosopher” in the Objectivism or CR communities as “rational” (and I very much don’t), that still isn’t very many people.

I suppose there could also be more philosophical communities that I haven’t yet discovered, which would increase the number if true.

This is most of what I was getting at earlier (reading it again I see that I wasn’t very clear about how to interpret my enumeration as an answer to the original question you asked). Rephrasing a bit

It would be nice to:

  1. have all of one’s ideas fully explicit and fully integrated with one’s life.
  2. live a life free of self-coercion, and have ideas which are completely unrefuted.
  3. be in control of one’s life.
  4. have a thinking advantage in other fields.
  5. discover significant new knowledge (and it’s easier when there are lots of low-hanging fruits, and I bet there are lots of low-hanging fruits given how few rational philosophers there are).

That’s basically why I’m learning philosophy.

I have never seriously considered doing philosophy as a career, I guess because I’m not convinced that doing 1)-4) actually requires that. 5) probably does require that, but it doesn’t necessarily seem significantly more self-interested than the pinnacles of achievement in other fields, like making a fundamental physics breakthrough or getting extremely rich or something.

If someone could teach people to think better—even if only by an epsilon—that would obviously have major upsides for humanity.

I guess the personal upsides would require a lot of chewing and integration to achieve. You seem to think that doing extremely detailed textual analysis and building idea trees and learning grammar and daily journaling and stuff is also required (I believe you about this, but I don’t know it in a completely first-handed way: I couldn’t give a super great explanation of why it’s so important. I need to make a more serious attempt to try that stuff out.).

The “discovering new knowledge” upside, after one has thought of a good new idea (and integrated it, if that’s relevant) would require finding a way to spread one’s ideas. I haven’t thought much about what that requires but it sounds very difficult, even if one has a huge amount of wealth, a high social-status position, or even a philosophy book that has sold millions of copies like Atlas Shrugged.

Are you finding this discussion helpful? @lmf

I haven’t been giving much advice, but I’d advise that it’s worth considering. I think it’s a good thing to think through.

A philosophy career is not required. But consider this:

If you get good enough at philosophy to rationally approach some other field, and dramatically reduce the risks of systemic errors, then you are now a world-class philosopher.

Make sense? Agree?

I don’t think stuff like that is a strict, hard or logical requirement. Requirement is a strong word. There are many other paths for which making progress is not literally impossible.

Yes. Spreading philosophy ideas is hard.

Spreading ideas is also problematic when you have unconventional ideas in another field, like physics. If you make a physics breakthrough using conventional methods, and it makes sense from a conventional point of view, and you have a PhD, a job in the field, publications, etc., then spreading it is a smaller problem (though still a problem – it can depend on social status games and insider politics – e.g. other people who did not make a break through may nevertheless want to be higher status than you and spread their ideas over yours, or spread the ideas of someone else who will do favors for them in return rather than spread your ideas).

However, if you come up with an unconventional physics breakthrough, it’s hard. Some of the hardness is similar to the hardness of spreading good philosophy ideas. Those violate some convention, tradition, standard expectations, common sense, existing intuitions people have, etc. That is a problem that some new physics ideas run into too. MWI has that problem.

Also, if you come up with a physics breakthrough in an unconventional way – using unconventional reasoning – that also makes spreading harder. For example, if you get good at philosophy and then use it to help make progress in physics, there is a risk no one will listen because they can’t follow your reasoning.

It partly depends. If you use some philosophical methods but not arguments/reasoning, it’s less of a problem. People can follow physics/math arguments even if they don’t understand your methods for developing the ideas initially. Some physicists develop ideas with some inspiration no one else understands, and people will see that as a stroke of genius and accept it if they can see why the conclusions are right in terms of ideas they already know.

One can also develop a physics idea partly using philosophical reasoning/arguments, but then, once you have the conclusion, invent a second set of arguments for it which doesn’t rely on any controversial philosophical premises. This can be very hard but sometimes it’s not so hard. This can make the idea easier to spread.

Where I wrote “physics” you could substitute another field. It’s not about physics specifically.

Good ideas in physics also tend to make testable new predictions or allow people to compute things that no one knew how to compute before, which helps them spread.

edit: MWI is an exception to this, but I think e.g. Newton and Einstein had profound philosophical insights that were nonetheless able to spread fast, because they involved new math and predictions.

Like, you’re saying achieving 1) - 4) is as hard as becoming a world-class philosopher (or at the very least achieving 4 is). This sounds plausible to me.

I guess it doesn’t mean much that adopting philosophy as a career isn’t technically required to become a world-class philosopher, because adopting physics as a career also isn’t technically required to become a world-class physicist.

However, I do think that becoming a world-class physicist probably requires more effort than becoming a world-class philosopher, because of competition: the standard physics canon is basically true, and most physicists are basically rational (at least while working). The same cannot be said of philosophy / philosophers.

It has been helpful in the sense that I think I see more clearly the crucial importance of learning more philosophy.

It has not been helpful in the sense that I don’t think I have yet solved any of the issues that caused me to make this thread.

Yeah it didn’t reach a conclusion, but do you regard it as useful progress worth doing?

I was going to go in a different direction.

So, if you’re already a world-class philosopher, would you want to pursue a different career? If you’ve made it to world class at the most important field, wouldn’t you want to use that and do stuff with it? Most people trying to learn it fail, but you succeeded, and it’s super important, and hardly anyone is doing anything with it … at that point it’d be weird to go move on to something else. It’s possible you’d still want to move on but seems kinda unlikely. If you had trouble caring about philosophy, finding it motivational, etc., it’s doubtful you’d have gotten so good at it in the first place.

Does that make sense?

I don’t know. Effort is hard to measure. I think philosopher is harder in some ways, e.g. the failure rate is much higher. Also, the available educational resources for physics are much better than for philosophy.

A major cause of the higher failure rate for philosophy is inadequate honesty rather than inadequate effort.

Also, there are way more amateur philosophers than amateur physicists. And there are way more people who stray out of their field into philosophy (e.g. scientists writing philosophical claims in their papers) than there are people who stray out of their field to do physics.

In some sense, it seems like there are a little of people trying to do some philosophy and interested in some of it, and they just find it hard and aren’t very good at it. Broadly, people find stuff like math, observational evidence, and facts a lot easier to deal with than more “subjective” issues (in other words, issues they don’t know how to be objective about). (It’s unclear how much favoring math is a cultural issue vs. something that’d be common in alien civilizations.) (I know the majority of people actually suck at math, but hopefully you can understand what I mean anyway.) Philosophy is in some ways more abstract and complicated – further from any kind of formalization and harder to do anything with without ongoing active, successful use of creativity and good judgment with no clear rules for how to judge.

Another example of effort is a great philosopher ought to be good at speed reading. It’s not a hard requirement but it’s a reasonable ask/expectation. It’s a lot of effort, but if you read enough it’s worth it. There are other fields where learning this skill is a good idea, but it’s not a current expectation. Whereas I think with philosophy, it’s reasonable to expect it. Philosophers ought to do whatever it takes to pursue truth/knowledge/etc effectively. You can’t make an excuse about it not being part of the job description, like you often can with other fields.

The hardest part of speed reading, btw, is not reading the words fast enough but understanding them fast enough. This requires automatizing lots of thinking skills.

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I think I’ve always had this implicit assumption that if I ever became a world-class X, I would switch fields.

E.g. the thing I was saying about philosophy, but also: There was this one particular problem in physics that I used to really care about (now I lean more towards thinking it’s second-handed and a non-problem, but never mind that), and I always believed that if I ever solved it, I’d quit physics and go into business or economics or engineering or philosophy or biotech or something.

edit: I have some introspective thoughts about why this might be the case (somehow I think it has to do with things that I want that conflict), but they aren’t complete and I have to go do other stuff right now so this is all I will say on the matter for now.

But yes, regardless of my above post, it does make sense that a person would normally be more interested in a field in which he already has world-class specialized knowledge, not less.

These are good points. I don’t know either.

IMO, the main obstacle to philosophy as primary career is chance of failure. If you had a 99% chance of becoming a great philosopher, I’d advise definitely do that. Don’t hold off over concerns about money or spreading the ideas. But it’s a harder question if the success chance is 50%, 10% or 1%.

Why? Philosophy is the most important field and it also needs productive people much more than other important fields. And if you’re great at it, you’ll be able to make your life work out well – it directly helps with being happy and having a good life. Even if you don’t spread the ideas, you can use them for personal problem solving enough to get some money and other things you want. (Getting enough money to support yourself is not some sort of super hard problem in our society. It’s pretty easy and accessible. The issue is more about finding a way to do it that you like, but there are many options so with great problem solving skills you should be able to work something out.)

Money is hardest if you’re trying to get great at philosophy but haven’t gotten there yet. The transition phase is the harder part than after you’re already great. The transition phase is most problematic for money if it takes a long time. What if it takes 50 years? With no changes to human lifespan, that’s actually kinda similar to failure to get great at philosophy. You can see an extra long learning process kinda like failing then trying again, then failing again then trying again, etc. So the repeated failing that makes the learning phase take way longer (or never finish), which makes money a bigger problem in the mean time.

Motivation/interest/preferences are also an important issue. I think it’s pretty implausible to succeed at becoming a great philosopher but not like it. But not liking it is a thing that can get in the way of success. It’s one of the things that can contribute to a higher chance of failure. If you have to change your preferences a lot as part of the philosophy study process, that’s harder than if you don’t.

A main problem with philosophy as a secondary focus is that it may increase the chance of failure. There are some actual advantages though; it’s not purely disadvantages re failure chance.

Would you brainstorm some advantages and disadvantages, for making philosophy a secondary focus, regarding chance of success at becoming a great philosopher?

Note: Failure isn’t a matter of probability – that’s a loose way to talk about it – but it’s hard to predict in advance.

One of the main advantages of working on philosophy – whether primarily or secondarily – is that it helps you take your fate into your own hands. It helps you judge issues for yourself instead of relying on outsourcing that judgment to philosophy experts and current cultural ideas.

This is somewhat of an issue with any field, e.g. if you don’t learn how to repair cars and outsource that to a mechanic, there’s a risk he does a bad job or cheats you or something. And if you don’t understand cars well yourself, you’ll probably make some worse decisions about how to use your car sometimes, leading to more repairs needed on average. You must outsource some judgment; you can’t do everything. Philosophy is the most problematic to outsource because it’s so central to how you think about everything, plus current ideas about it are bad. Because it’s so central to life, no one fully outsources philosophy – they all have some ideas of their own – but many people do a shoddy, bad job with it (often the stuff they customize is worse than convention or common sense).

When I think about what it would take to teach a random person what I know about math, it seems like the only real obstacle is their volition. Like, I feel quite confident that all my knowledge about math could make its way into anyone’s head over the course of only a few years, as long as they wanted to learn it and didn’t choose to evade.

To what extent does the situation with philosophy differ from this? Like, in your experience, when people try and fail to learn philosophy, is their failure mainly because they lost interest or made bad decisions? Or did they get stuck on problems that are so hard and so individualized that no one could figure out how to solve them?

Advantages of making philosophy a secondary focus:

  • It’s a somewhat reversible decision; if I change my mind in a few years it’s probably ok (as opposed if I quit academia, in which case my academic career is over forever)
  • There are some some relatively “normie” parts of my lifestyle that I value (e.g. chatting with people at tea time in the math lounge, not being disowned by my leftist parents, and much more), that are compatible with having philosophy as a secondary focus, but are not obviously compatible with having philosophy a primary focus.
  • When I get self-doubting or depressed I can fall back into the warm embrace of math and data.
  • It’s lower risk for reasons that have already been mentioned in this thread.
  • Another reason why it’s (maybe?) lower risk: studying philosophy is only a good idea if certain beliefs I have about philosophy are true, and I don’t know how to think about the risks associated with that (keeping in mind that e.g. physics too is only a good idea if certain philosophical beliefs of mine are true).

Disadvantages of making philosophy a secondary focus:

  • Whatever my “probability” of success is (and I take your point that it isn’t actually a matter of probability), it’s necessarily even lower if philosophy is a secondary focus.
  • With an open-ended career like physics, there’s no upper limit to how much time I need to put in, and it’s unclear how to rationally balance physics with philosophy. Like, how could I draw the line and say “tonight I’m focusing on physics only”? This is something that I already have a lot of trouble doing. (I think it’s often the cause of evasion / procrastination, too)
  • I have to do a lot of unpleasant + unproductive busywork for academic physics and it’s kind of the bane of my existence (& I wouldn’t have to do any busywork at all if I left academia).

Those points seem worth brainstorming and thinking about, but are not what I asked. My question was specifically “regarding chance of success at becoming a great philosopher”. In other words, in what ways would philosophy as a secondary focus increase or decrease the chance of becoming a great philosopher?

  • Whatever my “probability” of success is (and I take your point that it isn’t actually a matter of probability), it’s necessarily even lower if philosophy is a secondary focus.

I think this disadvantage is the only point that was directly relevant.

But part of why I asked is I’m not sure about that “necessarily”. There are some advantages, so I thought those should be listed before trying to decide whether the advantages or disadvantages are bigger, or deciding how much bigger or smaller they are. (Not that adding them up in one dimension will work great when some are different types of things, but we might be able to loosely approximate it, especially if we take into account some of your context – the more you tie analysis to a single context, the easier it gets to make some reasonable approximations.)