Lmf's quick questions about CF

Topic Summary: I will use this thread to ask questions about CF that are not long enough or complicated enough to deserve their own thread.

Goal: Better understand what CF says, on its own terms. In thinking about some of the stuff in another thread, I realized that it would behoove me to better distinguish those of my criticisms of CF which are substantive from those which are merely semantic. To do that, it would help to better understand what CF is actually saying.

CF relevance: Obvious.

Do you want unbounded criticism? (A criticism is a reason that an idea decisively fails at a goal. Criticism can be about anything relevant to goal success, including methods, meta, context or tangents. If you think a line of discussion isn’t worth focusing attention on, that is a disagreement with the person who posted it, which can be discussed.) Yes.


Q1) What does CF say that an idea is?

I want a definition. In this article, ET says

You can define “idea” in different ways.

but I don’t think he proceeds to define it.

CF says that an idea is some thing which can fail or not fail at achieving a goal, in a given context. But I don’t understand what this “thing” is.

My definition is something like the following: an idea is an attempted identification of a fact of reality. My concept of “idea” is very close to my concept of “proposition.”

CF’s concept of “idea,” whatever it is, seems to disagree with mine, for I say that a fact of reality is either true or it is not true, regardless of what one’s goal is. Relatedly, I think that an idea is not the type of thing about which we can predicate that it works or doesn’t work. E.g. there is no sense in which an idea like “that’s a chair” works or doesn’t work. All I can predicate about “that’s a chair” is that it is true, it is false, it is probably true, etc.

An idea is like a thought but involves a little more structure or organization. A thought or idea is a mental unit (which is often a grouping of other mental units, not a simple, basic thing). The specific details of the data structure aren’t known.

So, an idea is a goal-oriented thought. It succeeds or fails at goals. It can be evaluated in terms of goals. It’s not arbitrary, pointless or purposeless.

This is a broader concept than how you’ve taken it:

there is no sense in which an idea like “that’s a chair” works or doesn’t work.

Propositions succeed or fail (work or don’t work) at the goal of being true. CF’s concept of ideas is a superset of propositions.

And propositional thoughts can also be evaluated for other goals too. There are many reasons one might think or say something is a chair besides just to try to make a true statement. E.g. one’s idea that something is a chair might work, or not, for the purpose of choosing something good to sit on.

My concept of “idea” is very close to my concept of “proposition.”

I think propositions are too narrow of a category. “Getting a burger” is an idea but not a proposition. It’s a plan of action which may succeed at a goal like satisfying hunger. It could be a component of a proposition like “Getting a burger will satisfy my hunger” but I think the plan itself – just getting the burger – is an idea on its own. You could think about it independently from your hunger and could use or evaluate it for other goals.

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Can an idea be arbitrarily complex?

Like, besides considering some propositions and noun phrases to be ideas, am I correct in assuming that CF would also consider Atlas Shrugged or the blueprints for an airplane to be ideas?

Calling an entire book one idea would be unusual terminology and I mostly try to use words in ways that are reasonably close to standard English terminology. And it’s really hard to avoid refutation with that many targets for criticism. And I haven’t found any need to call something like Atlas Shrugged one idea because it covers many topics, but the blueprints for designing one single type of airplane do sound like something I might refer to as one idea. I don’t think CF philosophy relies on any length or complexity limit for the term “idea”.

The reason why I asked is that I am trying to understand what CF means when it talks about ideas that contain counterarguments to attempted refutations.

In order for an idea—an idea by itself, with no outside help—to address every attempted refutation, in order for it to answer an entire library of criticism, it would sometimes have to be very long and complex. In particular, this must surely mean that many ideas end up being so long and complex that we can’t store the entire idea in our crow consciousness at once.

Do you deny this?

Because it’s not clear to me that an idea which doesn’t fit in consciousness agrees with standard English usage. Such a thing would also seemingly contradict your statement that an idea is a mental unit.

Ideas often contain what could be called footnotes to other ideas. The footnoted ideas are in some sense part of the first idea and also in some sense separate.

I don’t understand what you mean. Could you give an example of two ideas, one of which contains footnotes to the other?

edit: never mind. I think I maybe get it now. Thinking.

In an old thread, ET emphasized the following philosophical principle:

Q2) What is meant by “safe”?

My normal way of thinking about the safety of ideas is that it is a relative term. Because of fallibility, no conceptual identification is ever perfectly safe, so technically, we can only say that some are more safe or less safe than others. But that contradicts CF, because it is an epistemological degree judgement. As a result, I don’t have a crystal clear idea of what is meant. (Does it mean that the idea that you should ignore the error is refuted? If so, why? What refuted it? And relative to what goal?)

Here’s an example that may further clarify my confusion:

ET, like everyone else, sometimes makes typos. A typo is an error, because when someone types a word, he has the implicit goal of spelling it correctly (with some exceptions, e.g. if the goal is to quote somebody who made a typo).

It is hard for me to imagine that ET actually understands the underlying cause of why he makes typos. Knowing that would require a knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain that I don’t think anyone possesses at present. He probably knows some things about his typos, like I bet he has some knowledge about situations where they are more likely to occur, but that isn’t the same as understanding a cause.

So in what sense is it unsafe for him to ignore typos? He seems to think (rightly) that his typos are not a big deal.

It’s common that terms can be used both in terms of degrees or in a binary way. E.g. “it’s not hot out” is a standard thing for someone to say who would also say “it’s very hot” or “it’s hotter than yesterday”.

The use of a term in a binary way does not imply a disagreement with using it in a degree way too. Not does it imply perfection. E.g. saying it’s not hot out does not mean it’s perfectly cold, or that there is zero heat outside.

Degrees of safety are not epistemological degree judgments (although there are many ways to define them and you could probably come up with a version that is). They are not degrees of goodness of ideas, degrees of truth, degree of belief, degrees of strength of arguments, or that kind of thing. I don’t see safety as playing a key role in epistemology.

I do know about the underlying causes of typos. I don’t have perfect knowledge down to absolute foundations, but I have substantial knowledge going down several layers.

I’ll try to explain what I was talking about.

I have repeatedly observed people make mistakes, have no significant understanding of the cause, and not think that’s important. I think they’re wrong and that behavior is unwise and unsafe.

E.g. they will say something illogical that doesn’t make sense. Then they won’t want to investigate the issue. Without using these words, they basically put it in the category “My mistake was I said stuff that didn’t make sense”, and then are satisfied with that (because they do it routinely and think that’s unavoidable?) rather than wanting deeper knowledge of what error they made, why, how they made it, how to prevent it from reoccurring, how to keep it within boundaries so it doesn’t cause arbitrary problems, etc.

Typos are something I have within reasonable boundaries; they aren’t causing unbounded problems for me. I see people with errors that they can’t contain to any clear boundaries at all, because they barely know anything about what happened, and they still resist investigating the error. They often dismiss the error as small/unimportant, without being able to give any explicit reasoning for how/why they know it’s small/unimportant, and in cases where I doubt it’s small or unimportant.

Yes, I know this.

But the fact that the concept of safety measures something that lies on a continuum means that it has to be used as a relative term. If you want to say as a binary judgement that something is or isn’t “safe,” you have to have some context in the back of your mind; you have to be implicitly comparing its safety to the safety of something else.

Part of my problem is that I still don’t know what context you have in mind for your judgement about safety. See also below.

To clarify, I took safety here to be used in the metaphorical way, where an idea is “safe” insofar as it is not in “danger” of being refuted. For example, compared to most of my other ideas, my idea about what I had for lunch today is extremely safe, but my idea about what I’m going to have for dinner today is not safe at all (i.e. I have some idea, but I could easily change my mind). I have seen you use “safe” in this exact manner before, e.g. you once said something about Objectivist forums on which all of Ayn Rand’s ideas are safe.

It seems almost obvious to me that this notion of safety plays a key role in epistemology. And it is closely related to what I mean when I talk about degrees of confidence in an idea: I think I should have a high degree of confidence in a safe idea, and a low degree of confidence in an unsafe idea.

But it sounds like here, maybe you meant “safe” more literally, as in like you think a person is incurring danger, injury, or risk?

Okay, then what are the underlying causes of typos, in the case of a person like you who has an enormous amount of experience writing and reading? What is the “significant understanding of the cause” that you possess?

I can imagine understanding the underlying cause of some typos. For example, maybe some of a person’s typos are because he has his spellchecker disabled, or maybe some of a person’s typos are because he needs glasses and can’t see the words on his screen clearly, or maybe some of a person’s typos are because he never ended up figuring out how individual letters are pronounced in the English language. I could also imagine someone writing “it’s” instead of “its” because he doesn’t understand the difference. But generally, I think explanations like that only work for a very limited subset of typos, and that the best explanation for the rest of them (if we had it) would look more like “neuron 1665918C fired incorrectly.”

All of that is just a long-winded way of saying that I would like a specific explanation of what causes your typos, rather than a general explanation of what causes the typos of a village idiot. (Or, if you don’t want to get personal, you could give specifics for a hypothetical writer who is at approximately your level.)

If it’s hard to explain… don’t worry about it I guess. I am curious, but this was kind of a digression anyway. I already learned the information which is important with respect to my original question, which is that you think you do understand the causes.

This is hard to reply to because I think it has parochial errors which would require clarifications and significant effort to discuss while not leading to important benefits.

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