In praise of boring claims

Leah Libresco is doing a series of posts on Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Her two most recent posts (out of three) both seem to make this complaint about Dennett: many of his claims are rather boring (to imperfectly condense the critiques into bumper-sticker form). The first of the two takes aim at this paragraph from Dennett:

In spite of the religious connotations of the term, even atheists and agnostics can have sacred values, values that are simple not up for reevaluation at all. I have sacred values–in the sense that I feel vaguely guilty even thinking about whether they are defensible and would never consider abandoning them (I like to think!) in the course of solving a moral dilemma. My sacred values are obvious and quite ecumenical: democracy, justice, life, love, and truth (in alphabetical order).

Leah correctly notes that “democracy excepted, almost everyone is in favor of the nouns he listed” (and in our society, democracy comes pretty close too). But she thinks this is a problem:

It’s cheating and unhelpful to say that your non-negotiable is The Good, which is essentially Dennett’s summation.  It’s unfair to your readers, because you’re not giving them a fair shot at you, and it’s bad for you, because, when push comes to shove, you’ll have an easier time clinging to your non-negotiables if they’re a little less diffuse.

Similarly, the second post is titled, “Dennett’s Thesis isn’t Evidence for Very Interesting Claims” starts this way:

The main thrust of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is that the history of religion is not incompatible with evolutionary theory.  That sounds a lot less exciting than an attack on religion, but it’s what the book is actually about.  Dennett’s book doesn’t mount up any direct evidence against the truth claims of religion, but it does make the argument that religion is something you might be reasonably likely to observe in a world where there was no god.  That means the mere existence of religion is not strong evidence for the existence of god.  Fine and dandy.

But that’s not really so big a claim…

I think the criticisms in the second post are partly based in a misunderstanding of Dennett’s intentions, but ignoring that, my reaction is “so what if Dennett’s claims are boring?” In the case of the first post, I’m unclear on what the basis is for the claim about ease of “clinging” to a value, but the complaint about being unfair to readers seems to imagine that discussion must be an oppositional activity (to talk of “cheating” frames it as a game or sport), where players are required to stick their necks out so the other players have a fair shot at decapitating them.

That can be fun, I guess, but if the goal is to get at the truth rather than to treat argument as warfare, sometimes there’s a big benefit to setting aside beliefs that you aren’t sure about, or which know you would have a hard time justifying to other people, in favor of focusing on the things everyone can agree on and working from there. I’ve actually been meaning to do a post on this with respect to the kind of “boring” values Dennett endorses, but for now, I’d recommend reading this interview with Matt Yglesias, specifically his comments on the first two books, where he explains how seemingly banal claims can have quite radical implications.

Another good example of the value of boring claims is the paper “Intelligence Explosion: Evidence and Import” by Luke Muehlhauser and Anna Salamon. When I got my job working for the Singularity Institute, one of the things they had me do was read the paper, find something to disagree with, and explain why. This was actually a really hard task, because for the most part the claims are very carefully qualified.

I found a couple nitpickable things, particularly the claims about the Gödel machine and AIXI, and the claim about good outcomes depending on solving problems in decision theory and value theory. Even then, though, the issue is mainly of the claims not clearly being true rather than clearly being false, and the claim about Gödel machine and AIXI is just one of several pieces of support for the more important claim that there’s a significant chance of human-level AI coming this century (which would be a big deal, as I argued in my last post).

I know for a fact that Luke (and probably Anna, though I’m less familiar with her writings) subscribes to important theses about the future of AI that didn’t make it into the paper (see here, for example, for somewhat stronger claims about when human-level AI is likely to happen). I suspect a lot of people–and not just Leah–would on those grounds criticize him for being somehow sneaky, holding back the things he really wants to say, and hiding them behind relatively uncontroversial claims.

But a paper like IE:EI has the potential to be incredibly valuable. By sticking to relatively uncontroversial claims, it can get everyone on the same page for further discussion and action. And it’s a good example of how seemingly boring claims (like, “there’s at least a ten percent chance of human-level AI in the next century) can actually have really important consequences (again, see my last post).

In fact, I suspect the academic philosophy world could benefit a lot from being more boring. Right now, the academic philosophy world is set up to reward finding innovative ways to be wrong. It would be nice if there were more rewards for philosophers saying things that are boring but clearly correct.

  • leahlibresco

    My problem with “justice, life, love, and truth” is that they’re deceptively uncontoversial. Those names take a lot of different definitions (“He killed, so it’s just to kill him” “Killing is an act of injustice. No one has the right to deprive others of life, so the death penalty cannot be just”), so Dennett hasn’t actually helped me narrow down where he lives in ethical conceptspace. That was my objection.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Well, when you talk about something like “justice,” there are certainly details to be worked out. But it’s not like the death penalty advocate and death penalty opponent are talking about totally different things when they talk about “justice.” Verbal disputes are a problem, yes, but I don’t think this is one of them.

      And sure, Dennett hasn’t narrowed down where he lives in “ethical conceptspace.” But again, so what? He’s making the point that even atheists have what could appropriately be called “sacred values”–why does there need to be anything surprising about the example he uses to illustrate that point?

      • leahlibresco

        Because they’re incomplete. If Dennett is trying to explain what he holds as non-negotiable, and just says justice, he hasn’t put his cards on the table. Since I expect he likes ‘justice’ I’m much more interested to learn how his Justice Detector works. What data does he look to? What would I need to know to make a Dennett’s Moral Judgement emulator that rates things the way he does.

        For some people, the extra data needed is about human nature and telos (things that frustrate the proper end of humans are unjust). If that were the case for Dennett, I’d be pretty interested, since modern humans are an evolutionary snapshot, and we’re able to be altered. Or maybe he wants to go with a more Harris kinda thing, where the axioms are that pain/suffering is bad, and we’ll eventually be able to verify people’s subjective reporting with fMRIs.

        I’m not merely spoiling for a fight, I’m curious.

        • Chris Hallquist

          Unfortunately, no writer can satisfy every reader’s curiosity all the time. :)

          • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

            Sorry, just being snarky :) :

            “You know who else had sacred values of justice, life, love, and truth? Hitler.”

        • eric

          Since I expect he likes ‘justice’ I’m much more interested to learn how his Justice Detector works.

          If atheists are right and there is no god, then his justice detector works the same way yours does. On the other hand if certain theists are right and a moral sense is given to all of us, then…his justice detector works the same way yours does.

      • Ted Seeber

        I personally am so convinced that they’re talking about different things that I am having a hard time right now not seeing the recent presidential election as 99% of the American Voters voting for Intrinsic Evil.

        50% for Bush, er, Obama; 49% for Bush, er, Romney.

        And thus the real problem- I can’t define Good when people call murder and oppression of the poor Good.

        And without an adequate definition, the word is meaningless.

  • eric

    To be pithy, it seems philosophy may share one problem science has – there’s a bias against work that “merely” confirms something we already think we know. Put another way, both have a bias in favor of novelty.

    Personally I think a good, solid argument showing that “religion is something you might be reasonably likely to observe in a world where there was no god” would be pretty useful, even if the idea is old hat as an assertion. You occasionally do hear theists arguing that the best explation for the wide appearance of theistic beliefs across cultures is that there is something to them.

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  • Darren

    Before the question of whether or not this is a boring claim, or a banal claim, is the question of whether atheists _should_ have sacred values.

    Before I am willing to agree to such a claim, I would want answered the question of “Why should I have sacred values?” Why is it better for me to have values which are beyond question than for me to have values which have been subjected to the best trials that I, and my intellectual betters, can devise and which have emerged vindicated?

    • MNb

      +1 – exactly what I wanted to ask.

      “democracy, justice, life, love, and truth”
      It’s very easy for me to think of cases and circumstances where these values are not “sacred” at all. If I had to call one value “sacred” then it might be happiness, but even that one is certainly not beyond question afaIc.

  • keddaw

    Life?

    Human Life (where does it begin/should we terminate life to alleviate suffering?)
    Animal Life?
    All Life?
    Sentient Life?
    Are there gradations of Life, each with a different value?

    Sorry Dennett, I’m just not buying a bold claim that you value life until you explain yourself.

  • Kodie

    Religious people like to appropriate values from the abstract also: like Values, Family, Freedom, Marriage, and even Love, Life, and Truth, to overlap Dennett somewhat, as if they are self-explanatory, but they’re not.

  • Gordon

    I have to say I found Breaking the Spell fascinating. If the claims are boring I somehow failed to be bored by them.

  • baal

    hrm. I may have to read the book. This discussion doesn’t really tell me what Dennet is trying to do. From the various bits of him on the web, I suspect he’s saying a lot more than it looks like he is. He’s deceptive in that his arguments are simplistic in form but I suspect that’s intentional to enhance the understandability of his points. Indeed, my primary complaint about professional philosophers is that they insist on using terms like teleology or “well you can’t trust Catholic Doctrine based on it’s extremely poor epistemology”. I agree with that quote but explaining it would take a while. So much the better if you can say the same thing in easy to follow normal English and not have to learn new vocab to get the concepts across.
    Knowing Dennet’s other work, I would be unsurprised if this one isn’t a walk through a mental landscape where god (and religion) is excised and you have perfectly normal and functioning thinking with out it. That’s a bit of a hard sell to a christian audience (most of the US) and to do it while being entertaining but making ‘boring’ arguments is skillful.

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