Yes, smart and well-informed people often use words in confused ways

One comment on my recent post on deontology was to express incredulity that a term so many philosophers apply to themselves could lack a coherent definition. I, on the other hand, think that’s the most plausible thing in the world, and I’ve stumbled across a good example of it while doing my research for the Singularity Institute.

The issue is the meanings of the word “computation” and “information processing.” For the gory details, see here, but here’s my layman’s summary: the words “computation” and “information processing” get thrown around a lot in cognitive science (including AI, which is why I care about them), but there are some issues with what we mean by them. With “computation,” we know what Turing-computability is, but then there’s this thing called hypercomputation, which goes beyond Turing-computation. Should hypercomputation even be considered computation? Some have assumed the answer is “no,” others say “yes.” And “information processing” seems to be even less well-defined.

This seems to be a worrisomely common situation in the academic literature. Yes, it takes a lot of work to show conclusively that it’s happened in any particular case, but once signs of it start to appear, I think they should be taken seriously.

As for the word “deontology” specifically, my main concern is to discourage the meme that people who aren’t consequentialists must therefore be deontologists (unless they’re virtue ethicists, but virtue ethics is a kind of awkward third wheel of moral theory).

By the way, it’s this kind of thing that’s eating up my time right now and keeping me from blogging more.

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  • Jason Streitfeld

    Really? That’s How you read my comment? As expressing incredulity that philosophers could do such a thing? That’s silly.

    I was explicit: of course it is possible that you are right about there being a lack of cohetence in the term ‘deontology.’ You just haven’t given any reason to think it is so. When you are claiming that the single most popular view in normative ethics is incoherent, you should have a solid argument.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I never made the claim you attribute to me. I made a claim about how a word is used, not a claim about any philosophical view.

      • Jason Streitfeld

        My apologies. When you are claiming that the term denoting the single most popular view in normative ethics is incoherent, you should have a solid argument.

        • Chris Hallquist

          I still used slightly different wording, and I’m not sure what you imagine it means to claim that a term is incoherent.

          The issue is just this: when a “Xism” is frequently used in not-clearly-defined ways, it makes it hard to know how to respond when someone asks you, “are you an Xist?”

          • Jason Streitfeld

            The term “incoherent” means there is a compelte lack of sense. It means the term does not communicate a clear idea. It has no determinate sense. Some might also take it to mean logically inconsistent.

            I think there’s a clear distinction between incoherent terms and vague terms. A term can be used in a way which is not as clearly defined as we might want, but it can still be coherent. Anyway, I don’t see any reason to think that “deontology” is either incoherent or too vague to understand.

            Also, I have to admit to being a little confused about your main purpose. In this post, you say the main purpose is to disrupt the assumption that one must either be a consequentialist or a deontologist. Now, however, you seem to be saying that your main purpose is to explain why it’s hard to know whether or not you are a deontologist at all. I suspect that you might not be clear on exactly what it is you want to say here, or how it is you want to say it.

      • Jason Streitfeld

        By the way, I know you think the whole “be charitable” thing is a red herring and not worth taking seriously. But when you present such a ridiculous interpretation of my comment on your other thread, and when you accuse me of misrepresenting your claim in this thread, you are very clearly lacking charity. It wouldn’t take too much time to read a bit more carefully. The key is this: If you think somebody has misunderstood you or has taken up an unreasonable or silly position, reconsider their words very carefully. Sometimes you will find that you were right, sometimes you might find reason to doubt your first impression. In this case, my comment in the previous post was explicit. I did not express the incredulity you claimed I did. And my previous comment in this post explicitly addressed your claim about the term “deontology.” It was quite clear, I think, that I had understood your argument correctly. Yes, of course, it is possible that somebody might have interpreted me as misattributing a claim to you. Yes, I was not as clear as I could have been. Charity dictates that you make the most reasonable assumption about my intentions, giving me a reasonable benefit of the doubt. I think it’s a principle worth taking seriously.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    By the way, thete’s a difference between having a definition that does not have a determinable application in some cases (e.g “computation”/”hyper computation”) and being I’ll-defined or incoherent. Most, if not all, words have indeterminate applications in some cases, but I wouldn’t say most or all words are incoherent or ill-defined.

    • Chris Hallquist

      The problem with “computation” is much worse than some edge cases. What I gave you is a very sketchy summary of a long article, which may have failed to convey how bad the situation is. I also suspect you may be reading me to mean something other than what I said, though I’m not sure what you think it is I said.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Er, just saw your previous comment in the thread now.

      • Jason Streitfeld

        What I think you are saying is that there is a “worrisome” tendency for academics to use words a lot without paying proper to their lack of exactness. You give the example of “computation,” which I doubt you would suggest is incoherent. You point to a situation where the application of the term is in dispute. As I pointed out, this is not evidence of incoherence. It’s just a fact about natural languages that terms do not always have determinate extensions. This doesn’t mean the terms are poorly defined. However, it might mean that the terms are not well-enough defined for particular situations.

        Is that what you think is happening with the word “deontology?”

        In any case, this is all supposed to be relevant to your previous post on the term “deontology.” In that post, you claimed that the terms may most commonly just be used to mean “not consequentialism.” (You also pointed to a tendency to conflate deonotlogy with Kantian ethics and argued that this could be a problem; however, I don’t see any reason to share you concern about that.) If “deontology” means “not consequentalism,” then is it a case of the word failing to have a clear application in particular situations? If not, the parallel to the case of “computation” is not clear. Perhaps you could clarify all of that.

        Your claim about “deontology” isn’t that it is sometimes hard to apply in particular situations, but that it is actually incoherent. You say that the use of the term, Perhaps you didn’t really mean it when you said that, ‘as a rule, people don’t use the word “deontology” in any coherent way.’ Yet, if “deontology” meant “not consequentialism,” it would be coherent, would it?

        In any case, as I pointed out in my first comment in response to your previous post, the meaning of “deontology” seems clear and is even clearly stated in the SEP article you referenced. As I wrote in that comment:
        I think this SEP entry is pretty clear about what deontology is about. It says that Right trumps the Good: that morality is about promoting the right choices, regardless of their consequences: “For deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm.”

        • Jason Streitfeld

          P.S. Sorry for the typos and whatnot. It’s a shame I can’t preview before I post.

  • Chris Hallquist

    One other thing: would you agree we have significantly different priors for “‘deontology’ is not used in a coherent way?” Because that was my main point in the first paragraph of this post.

    • Jason Streitfeld

      I don’t understand the question. Can you clarify?

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