Caleb Ontiveros

Against the Ontological Relevance of Meditation

You can’t learn about deep truths about the world from mindfulness meditation.

More precisely, you can’t come to learn any propositional knowledge about the world. This isn’t to say that mindfulness meditation isn’t valuable, it is. It’s a tool for increasing focus and discipline. And a way to practice reducing cognitive fusion.

Yet several claim that you can learn deep truths about the world from meditation. The fancy way to put this is that meditation is ontologically relevant.

We have a sense of being a subject located somewhere behind our heads, occupying the center of consciousness. We have bodies, but are not identical to them. Likewise, we have experiences, but are not identical to those experiences. This subject persists through time, has thoughts, and makes decisions.

Modern Buddhists, and those influenced by Buddhism, suggest that this sense of self is an illusion. On this view, there is no subject that:

  • Persists through time
  • Has a body and experiences
  • Has thoughts and makes decisions

Robert Wright calls this self, the CEO self in Why Buddhism Is True:

Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show.

Leaving aside the issue about whether this is true, I’m skeptical that you can learn this from meditation alone.

Here’s what you’re doing when you sit down to meditate:

  • Focusing on a single type of raw sensations like the breath or tingling in the body
  • Receiving all types of sensations

This dichotomy corresponds to training attention, the ability to focus on a specific thing, and training awareness, being conscious in general. To get a better handle on this distinction consider the visual field: there’s a point where you focus, this is attention, and there’s the entire visual field, including your peripheral vision, this is awareness. Think of attention as the focal point of the mental field, awareness as everything that falls within the mental field. Both practices can be combined as you train both.

As an aside, people often talk about flow as if it were one state. Flow is the wonderful feeling of ‘being in the zone.’ Really, there are two states here, there’s a focused flow, when you’ve zoomed into a single task, ignoring everything else. You’re completely absorbed in the activity. But then there’s also panoramic flow, in this state you’re in the zone, but the zone is much larger. Both of these states have their uses and risks. One can move into both states while meditating.

When you’re training your attention and awareness, you’re doing so in a nonconceptual way. Discursive thought, verbal chatter, these are at first distractions. One notes them and returns to the meditation object. Later thought becomes a meditation object itself.

This nonconceptual nature is easier to understand in the visual case. Suppose you’re meditating on what is front of you. You take in your visual field, not as a space full of chairs, tables, a water bottle, windows or whatever else you happen to be looking at, but as a constellation of light and shadow. While meditating, space is not carved up things that occupy reality. Rather you’re paying attention to raw sensation, raw visual data. Concepts like ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘window’, and such fall away.

If concepts like chair and table fall away, it’s easy to see that selves fall away as well. If there aren’t chairs, then there likely aren’t people. But how could one come to know that there are no chairs through meditation?

Meditation does show that our notion of things depends on having concepts. But this doesn’t show that there are no such things. An infant doesn’t have concepts like a table, but this is because it’s stupid not because its closer to reality.

A more suggestive way that meditation can come to show that you have no self, is that we learn that our sense of being a self is merely a sensation. This self feels like something that has thoughts. But, through training attention, we notice that our sense of self can’t have thoughts. It is in the mental field, it cannot contain it. But this argument confuses the sense of self, with the self. These are distinct. Suppose that what I am is a human organism. Animals can have thoughts and host a mental field! This argument makes a similar mistake to indirect realists, confusing how we experience something with the thing itself.

So much for two arguments for the ontological relevance of meditation.

Ultimately, we cannot learn about the world from meditation because of cognitive penetration. The idea is that our experience is shaped by our beliefs and desires. The philosopher Evan Thompson describes going to a retreat, in Why I Am Not A Buddhist:

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the retreat that what was happening didn’t match the rhetoric of “learning to see things as they are.” We were given a system of concepts to apply to our experience as we practiced meditation. Some of the concepts were seemingly everyday ones like “sensation,” “feeling,” “attention,” and “intention,” but they were tied to Buddhist concepts like “moment-to-moment arising,” “impermanence,” “mindfulness,” “not-self,” and “karma.”

Though the meditation practice was ostensibly nonconceptual, it happened in an ecosystem that was already populated by concepts. This shaped the experience of the “nonconceptual” practice.

Consider the variety of things people say you can come to learn through meditation. Though the traditional Buddhist view is the no-self one, there are others who say that you may come to extend the self through meditation. You could come to learn that everything is in the mind, but you could also come to learn that there is no mind and everything is out in the world. What you learn is contingent on how meditation is framed and the environment one meditates in.

In this way, meditative experiences are similar to religious experiences. What the experience is depends on how it is conceptualized. A Christian experiences the love of God, a Buddhist Nirvana, an atheist nature.

This isn’t to deny that meditation is valuable. However, you should invest in how you and the people around frame it. What meditation is useful for, is for training particular skills and generating experiential, perspectival knowledge. It’s one thing to know something abstractly, another thing to experience it.

But it’s not ontologically relevant.

You See The Territory Or Nothing At All

This post is about the philosophy of perception, what makes a philosophical debate substantive, and cognitive qualia.

Consider two views about the nature of perception and the world: on indirect realism we perceive a veil, we only indirectly get at the world through this veil. On direct realism, we perceive the world. The veil is lifted and we are in direct contact with the world.

On indirect realism what we perceive are mental objects like sense data. This is the veil that stands between us and the world. We must infer the existence of the world.

You can visualize the two views in the following ways:

indirect: perceiver => sense data => world
direct: perceiver => world

indirect: perceiver => map => territory
direct: perceiver => territory

indirect: perceiver => veil => world
direct: perceiver => world

Indirect realism gets its intuitive appeal from the idea of hallucination. If I have the experience of a red elephant in my room then I am perceiving my visual field, not a red elephant in the room. The object of my perception is the appearance of a red elephant, nothing more. We can visualize this as:

perceiver => experience of a red elephant => 

The last arrow points to nothing because there is no red elephant in the world. Here’s how the direct realist would visualize this case:

perceiver => 

The direct realist says that you don’t perceive anything when you hallucinate. You either see the territory or nothing at all.

Despite the intuitive appeal of indirect perception, the direct view is better. Using our visualization, you can get at this by stepping back and considering the question that a theory of perception should answer: what is the object of one’s perception? In the case where perception is accurate, the answer is the world. But for the indirect realist, the object of perception is a mental object, like sense data.

But how is the object of perception perceived? What is it perceived through?

On direct realism the object of perception is perceived through mental states, which we can call experience. Returning to the visualization, the `=>` is experience.

perceiver => world = perceiver experiences the world

The indirect realist cannot say this. This is because the object of perception is a mental object. Which is to say, it is experience. On this, picture one only experiences experiences. You can visualize this as follows:

indirect: perceiver => experience => world = perceiver experiences experience

Of course, there’s a sense in which you can experience experiences. I can experience an AirBnB experience. But when we say that, experience means two different things. What the indirect realist is committed to is the idea that one perceives mental states through other mental states at the same moment. This isn’t right, there’s just experience. Not experiences of experience. The mistake that the indirect realist makes is that they confuse the object of perception with the vehicle of perception, what was is aware of with how one is aware. We’re aware through experience, not just aware of things in our head.

You might be wondering what is going on in this debate. Is it substantive? Sometimes we debate things that are substantive, like whether there is a God or not. On other occasions, it seems like we are playing verbal or conceptual games.

I think this is a case where we’re playing conceptual games.

Here are two tests for whether something is a conceptual debate or not.

First the taboo test. Try to carry on the debate in other terms. If you can’t do this, there’s a good chance you’re arguing over the meaning of words or a concept. Here’s how this would look like in the God debate:

Before taboo
atheist: there is no God
theist: there is a God

After
atheist: there is no supernatural triomni person
theist: there is a supernatural triomni person

There's clearly a substantive debate here. Whether or not there is a supernatural triomni person is not a linguistic matter.

How does it go in the perception debate?

Before taboo
direct: the object of perception is the world
realist: the object of perceptions are mental states 

After
direct: mental states are not the object of awareness
indirect: mental states are the the object of awareness

This, of course, pushes the debate from perception to awareness. This may game will be played a few rounds, but it’s not clear to me how to proceed once the words like perception, awareness, contents of experience, and acquaintance are tabooed. Which is one would expect if one is only arguing over the purview of a concept. Both parties agree that we have experiences that are candidates for perception. The direct realist doesn’t deny that we can have the experience of a red elephant suddenly appearing in our rooms. What they do deny is that there would be any perception going on in that case. But it's difficult to restate this debate without using perception or its synonyms.

A shorter way to determine whether a debate is purely conceptual is to ask whether it differentiates between different ways for the concrete world to be. Consider debates over the following propositions:

1. Pluto is a planet
2. If something is a planet, then it clears its planetary orbit

If two parties are disagreeing about whether Pluto is a planet, they are likely disagreeing over whether Pluto meets the requirements for being a planet, like whether it clears the neighborhood around its orbit. The concrete world would be one way if Pluto cleared its neighborhood, it would be another way if it didn’t.

If two parties disagreed over the second proposition, then they’d be debating the requirements for being a planet. This is a conceptual matter. The concrete world would not change if the proposition were true or not.

Now, move to the debate over the nature of perception. We have two propositions:

3. Charles perceives a red elephant
4. If someone perceives X, then X is a mental state

Does the first differentiate different ways for the concrete world to be? It depends. If what perception means is having a mental state that includes the appearance of a red elephant, then yes, it does. If the proposition were true, then Charles has a mental state that includes a red elephant. If it were false, then he has a different mental state. What it would be like to be Charles would be different in the two cases.

True: Charles has a mental state that includes the appearance of a red elephant.
False: Charles has a different mental state

Likewise, if what perception means is to accurately represent the world, then this to differentiates between different ways for the concrete world to be. In one case, there is a red elephant and in another case there isn’t. The concrete world is different in both cases:

True: there’s a red elephant
False: there’s no red elephant

The debate over the nature of perception isn’t about whether there are red elephants or not. Nor is it about whether one can have the mental state that would be characterized by the appearance of a red elephant.

Instead, it’s about whether perception has as its object the world or some mental state. Which is to say it’s about propositions like this:

If someone perceives X, then X is a mental state

Whether this proposition is true or not will make no difference to the concrete world. Which indicates that this debate is merely conceptual.

Cognitive Qualia

I used to think that debates over concepts didn’t matter. Of course, conceptual clarity is useful because it eases communication and carving up the world neatly makes it easier to handle.

But the debates don’t matter in the sense that you aren’t figuring out anything fundamental about the concrete world. Whether or not there are quarks, whether ants are sentient, or whether egalitarian societies are more productive -- these debates matter. They get at different ways for the world to be in a way that purely conceptual debates do not.

But there’s another way in which these debates matter, something that took me a few years to realize.

I was reminded of this by hearing Eric Weinstein say the following to Josh Wolfe:

The thing that I am talking to now is the projection of you inside of my head. That comes from the stimulation. I mean, I believe that I have eyes, I don't want to get completely Jiggy but just assume that reality is the standard picture of reality. I see you as being across the room for me, but that's not the thing that it's really happening, what’s really happening, if everything I know to be is correct, Is that the thing across the room for me is generated a model in my mind, which is the only thing I've ever interacted with.

This is wrong. Eric spoke to Josh Wolfe, not a model of Josh Wolfe.

But that’s not the main point here, the main idea is that what it’s like to be a direct realist can differ radically from what it’s like to be an indirect realist. In other words, there’s such a thing as cognitive qualia. Qualia refers to the subjective character of mental states. There’s something it’s like to be sad, overjoyed, feel pain, feel pleasure. Likewise, there’s something it’s like to believe that you can see the territory, something else to believe that you’re stuck to seeing the map.

Robin Hanson has called out how beliefs are basically just like clothes. They have a social and functional role:

Functionally, beliefs inform us when we choose our actions, given our preferences. But many of our beliefs are also social, in that others see and react to our beliefs. So beliefs can also allow us to identify with groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status.


This picture is insightful, but incomplete. Beliefs have an experiential role as well. This matters.

On Being Angry Forever

Why do we concern ourselves with conflict and plotting? That man you are angry with – can you wish for him anything worse than death? He is going to die without your doing a thing.

Seneca, On Anger

Agnes Callard has an argument for why you can be angry forever. I think it’s wrong, but it useful for thinking about the nature of emotions:

1. There are reasons to be angry
2. Reasons to be angry do not go away.
3. If reasons to be angry do not go away, then all things considered, you have reasons to remain angry forever.
4. Therefore, all things considered, you have reasons to be angry forever.

Callard calls this the argument from grudges:

Once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever.

Many people accept (1). (2) is more surprising. Here’s Callard on the intuition:

The tendency to cling to anger through apologies and recompense, for years sometimes and to the detriment of all parties concerned, is routinely dismissed as irrational...

But this idea ignores the fact that there are reasons to remain angry. And the reasons are not hard to find: they are the same reasons as the reasons to get angry in the first place. Apologies, restitution, and all the rest do nothing to cancel or alter the fact that I stole, nor the fact that I ought not to have stolen.

In other words, reasons to be angry do not go away. If you’re angry at the fact that someone stole from you, the act that they stole does not go away.

Grudges are not that different from other emotions, like gratitude and grief. If you’re grateful that someone helped you in a time of need, then the fact that they helped you in a time of need is something you can be grateful about forever. If you experience grief at the death of a loved one, then you have a reason to grieve for all time.

This comparison highlights an asymmetry between positive and negative emotions. It’s reasonable to be grateful forever, but not to hold grudges or grieve forever.

This asymmetry seems fundamentally right to me.

Emotions are instrumentally useful. They shape our experiences, actions, and model of the world. When we have a reason to be angry, it’s not just because someone stole from us. It’s because being angry will help us stand up for our rights. In my view, by responding in a  particular way, your reasons are dominated by your past, what you’d like to do and who you want to be. Callard’s view assumes that the reasons to have some emotional response are merely determined by the facts we are reacting to. The problem with this view is that it's not clear what would determine what makes some emotions fit to a situation other than facts about us, our needs and past, and the situation.

This explains why anger fades overtime. Emotion fades as it becomes useful. There is no point at being angry at someone when doing so will make no difference. It also explains the asymmetry between positive and negative emotions. Prompting positive emotions by remembering reasons to be grateful or happy is often useful for crafting who we want to be and how we want to act.

Anger is only useful when it’s useful, and for most of us, that’s increasingly rare.

Endurable Startup Opportunities From Covid19

Covid19 has rapidly and seriously changed the American economy and culture. How endurable are these changes? If these changes are endurable, there will be many Covid19 related post-lockdown opportunities for startups. If not, perhaps we will reset the world in a year or so and startup opportunities will be the exact same as they were in 2019.

My sense is that we’ll see the acceleration of existing trends and a few serious opportunities, but that this can be overstated. If you’re looking for new ideas, don’t update too much on Covid19.

The lockdown has shaped many spheres of our life:

  • Social
    • More games with friends and family over the internet.
    • More group chats.
    • We interact with and may trust strangers a lot less.
    • Demand for better group events. What happened to concerts?
  • Entertainment
    • We have more time and we can’t spend as much of it outside. More Netflix and video games.
  • Wellness
    • We have more time and don’t want to spend all of it on entertainment. Exercise apps like Strava, Nike Run and meditation apps like Calm and Stoa are in.
    • There’s a lot of uncertainty and discomfort, I was told that psychics saw an exceptional boost when relief checks were delivered. I believe it.
  • Work
    • More remote work.
    • Demand for tools and processes that support remote work.
  • E-commerce
    • Medical supplies, food and beverages are in. Fashion and luxury goods are out.
    • Subscription and convenience services are up.
  • Supply chains
    • We’ve learned that many of our supply chains were fragile. Keeping supply chains in America is likely more expensive for both suppliers and consumers, but we’d be more robust as a nation.
  • Science
    • We’ve increased the status for work on pandemic preparedness.
  • State Augmentation
    • Startups and big companies are supplying the state with more masks and tracking programs. The sort of thing that authoritarian governments would have the state do, America has private companies do.

In the short term, there are many useful things to build and contribute to.

In the longer term, I expect that many of these spheres will return to their prior shape. However, there’s promising work to be done and products to built.

  • Social
    • In person interaction is still much better than chatting over Hangouts. We largely want to date, dance, and talk in person. Things don’t have to be this way, but I haven’t seen solutions to this yet.
  • Entertainment
    • Already dying industries like movie theaters have had their death accelerated.
  • Wellness
    • I expect that the small spike is just that and doesn’t indicate a trend. Remote wellness services are not that sticky. The dark secret behind many successful wellness services is that they’re making money off of people who are subscribed but don’t use their product. Nike Run cannot replace the social and motivational goods of CrossFit yet. There’s no evidence to believe that this will change.
  • Work
    • More and more tech companies and startups have already been experimenting with remote work. I expect that trend will continue, but I don’t know whether Covid19 will speed it up or slow it down. On one hand, companies are likely learning that they can continue to be just as productive while remote. On the other, this learning is correlated with unpleasant loneliness and isolation. This association is real and may not go away.
  • E-commerce
    • I’d bet on subscription and convenience services. I’m long Amazon and the ecosystem it requires.
  • Supply chains
    • I wouldn’t be surprised to see more protectionism and a push for bringing supply chains back to America. But a major one? Unlikely.
  • Science
    • There’s a lot of exciting and important work to do here. More and more people will be thinking about pandemic preparedness which is great.
  • State Augmentation
    • The exact shape of this is unclear, but this area is really promising for companies.

I expect that we’ll see an unbundling of services that are stretched across these domains. Right now Zoom is used for work, socializing, and entertainment. Services that specialize in socializing and services that specialize with different kinds of work is promising. One way this can go is that existing services bring video conferencing into their software. There’s space for entirely new products here. Facebook Messenger Rooms is a stab at this.

My sense of how things may go post-lockdown is not set in stone. I expect that I got at least one of the above wrong, someone will make something I won’t expect.

If there’s a cultural change that I hope persists, it’s that America raise the status of building and surviving.

How Philosophy Will Influence Technological Development

What philosophical work should you do if you want to influence the rate of technological development?

This question is related to more fundamental questions. Like:

  • What sort of philosophical work should be done at all?
  • If you want to positively influence the world, what sort of philosophical work should you do?
  • What philosophical research program will most influence the trajectory of civilization?

I'm ultimately more interested in questions like the first two. But one way to make progress on them is to ask descriptive questions, leaving the normative aside. That's what I'll do here. Of course, there is obviously important work for philosophers to do other than influencing the rate of technological development. I see asking the question, “what philosophical work should you do if you want to influence the rate of technological development” as being useful for other goals. Influencing the rate of technological development isn’t all that by itself.

I’ll start by clarifying the question, given examples of influential philosophy, and then speculating on what kind of work is the most promising.

Let's clarify the question.

By influence I mean that there should be a causal connection between the philosophical work itself and a change in technology. The causal chains for technological development are complex and speculative, but in order for something to be influential we need to be reasonably confident that it played a non-trivial role in the chain. Note that it should be insights from the philosophical work itself, not other considerations that play the causal role.

By philosophy, I'm talking about the kind of philosophy that solves descriptive problems. I'm not talking about these kinds of philosophy:

  • Performative philosophy, where the point of philosophy is to ask questions or express some aesthetic.
  • Historical philosophy, with one caveat that I talk about below.
  • Moral and ethical philosophy.

A good first pass of what I mean by philosophy is expressed by Scott Soames:

Philosophy is the partner of every serious intellectual discipline. It appears when enough is known about a domain to make new progress conceivable, even though it remains unrealized because new methods are needed. Philosophers provide new concepts, new interpretations, and re-conceptualized questions that expand solution spaces.

Philosophy provides the conceptual foundations for theoretical knowledge. Examples below will make it clearer what I mean.

You can influence the rate of growth in two directions: faster or slower.

By technology I mean the kind of things that take us from 0 to 1. Artifacts and processes, from computers, vaccines, microscopes, bombs, and more. I'm not talking about "social technologies" or "cultural technologies", such as institutional designs or group decision procedures like companies and democracy.

By development I mean technological change. It need not be change for the better, though it would be better if it was!

Influential Philosophy

Some philosophical research programs have influenced the rate of technological development. How much influence they had is unclear, but I'm confident that some philosophical work has mattered. I'll give three examples: computation, probability, and predictive philosophy.

Computation

Many people were involved in the creation of modern computers. Babbage, Lovelace, Turing, Von Neumann and many more. The founding text of the architecture of modern computers is “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” written by Von Neumann and the EDVAC design team. However, it’s been asserted that Von Neumann "repeatedly emphasized that the fundamental conception was Turing's."

Alan Turing's Turing Machine is essentially a conceptual analysis of computation. What is computation? From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "A mathematical problem is computable if it can be solved in principle by a computing device." What Turing did is give us a useful abstraction for a computing device. In addition to being a philosophical success, this played a non-trivial role in the development of computers.

As an aside, how much of a role this kind of work played is unclear. It could be that it only sped up the development of computers by a few days. Von Neumann himself may not have been influenced by Turing’s work. Note however, that the intellectual waters that Turing, Von Neumann, and others breathed were made up of work from a rich philosophical tradition going back to Pascal, and including Frege, Godel and Hilbert. The cumulative results of this intellectual tradition likely sped up the development of computers by years, maybe even  centuries. It's not clear. For many inventions, like calculus, it seems like the inventors may have only sped up the development by a few years, likely less. Yet there are many artifacts that have taken a surprising amount of time to invent -- which suggests that invention and intellectual discovery are usually very hard and that humanity can go centuries without discovering something that will eventually be taught to preschoolers of future generations.

Coming back to computation, someone may push back on this work and suggest that it's not philosophy, but logic or computer science. This objection is semantic, but worth addressing. First, Turing’s work is captured by the earlier definition of philosophy. Turing did a conceptual analysis of computation. Conceptual analysis is at the bedrock of what philosophers are up to. Second, it’s pretty close to what a lot of philosophers who specialize in logic do. Of course, one can object that what they are up to isn’t philosophy either but at this point this objection becomes too semantic to me.

Probability

Our concept of probability has impacted several intellectual programs, influencing financial markets, to scientific models, to artificial intelligence. Many philosophers have done important work here. Here are two. Bayes’ Theorem from our friend Reverend Bayes. If you're reading this essay, you likely know what that is. If you don't, go here. It’s mattered for a number of fields, both in terms of establishing epistemic standards, and also proving useful for the work itself, as in artificial intelligence and neuroscience. Another example is work done Frank Ramsey. In the early 19th century Frank Ramsey applied probability to the question of what it takes for an agent's beliefs to be rational. His analysis has impacted how we've modeled agents in economics, psychology and computer science.

Where work on computation verges on the logical, philosophical work in probability verges on the mathematical.

Predictive Philosophy

Finally, one can impact the rate of technological development through predictive philosophy. Nick Bostrom's work, like Superintelligence, is a paragon of this. Way back in 1997 Bostrom wrote a paper called "Predictions from Philosophy? How philosophers could make themselves useful". In this paper, he argues that there's a role for a philosopher-polymath. That is, someone who can bring together work from a number of fields, like philosophy, economics, physics, psychology, math and more. In the essay, Bostrom highlights anthropics, the Fermi paradox, superintelligence, transhumanism, uploading, and cosmology as areas for potential philosophical research -- areas he's worked in since writing that paper.

Wilfred Sellars said that:

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

Roughly, the aim of predictive philosophy is to understand how things in a narrower sense of the term hang together and in order to make useful predictions. You could also think of this kind of philosophy as “generalist philosophy” or “polymathic philosophy”, but I prefer the term predictive philosophy since it says more about the methodology.

Though it verges on the normative side of things, Toby Ord's The Precipice is an excellent recent example of this work. Ord is concerned with existential risks to humanity. Here’s a question: what’s the probability that human civilization will be destroyed by a natural extinction risk? On the surface, this may appear to be a strictly empirical question, not something that philosophers would be well suited to answer. This perspective overlooks that is that there’s a lot of uncertainty here and non-trivial questions about how to assess the probability. Do you look at the rate of species like us going extinct? Do you only include mass extinctions or should extinctions of any species like us contribute to the rate? Do you extrapolate the rate from the fact that we haven’t become extinct yet?

In a way, I see this work as similar to philosophical work on the likelihood of the existence of God. Empirical inputs matter a lot (facts about the fine tuning of the universe for example), but there's so much uncertainty that a lot of these issues depend a lot on debates over how priors should be set, reasoning about anthropics, and the nature of probability and explanation. To be clear, I’m talking about probabilistic work by people like Swinburne and Oppy, not ontological arguments. It’s not entirely by coincidence that John Leslie was interested in both existential risk, cosmology, and traditional religious debates.

Promising Philosophy

These are the kinds of philosophical work you should want to do if you want to influence the trajectory of technological development:

  • Formal philosophy
  • Predictive philosophy

The examples of computation and probability are instances of formal philosophy. Superintelligence, The Precipice, and The End of the World are instances of predictive philosophy.

I’ll say more about the methodology and domain selection for these two kinds of philosophy.

Formal Philosophy

With formalizations, the work is more obviously philosophical. Though it has tended to be, and will likely continue to be, on the borders of the logical, mathematical, and conceptual.

When philosophers successfully formalize a concept, sometimes that formalization will directly contribute to the development of technology (as, say, in the example of computers and Bayes’ theorem) or it may indirectly contribute by improving our cognitive capabilities (as,say, work on probability has).

There are two things I'm interested in here: methodology and domain selection.

The methodology is informed by the examples of computation and probability. Philosophy here will often look more like math, logic, and computer science than some philosophers may be used to. The area of philosophy most closely approximating this style of philosophy right now, unsurprisingly, is formal epistemology.

Formal methods aren't enough, one needs to select promising domains. What you're formalizing matters. A large portion of formal epistemology will not influence the development of technology, or likely anything else for that matter, because it's aiming to answer questions whose answers will make no difference to other fields.

There are a few features of this kind of philosophy and its domains that make it more likely that work is promising:

  • The work is mathematical or logical. The historical record suggests that this work matters more for technological development.
  • The work answers foundational questions of a given field. One can imagine a graph of concepts, philosophers want to analyze the ones with the most edges.
  • The work is problem-focused. If we knew the answer to a question or had a refined notion of a given concept it would be useful for solving non-philosophical problems.
  • The work is positive. It puts forward a way the world is, rather than falsifying philosophical theses. There are some potential counter-examples to this, like Godel’s work, but by and large, the philosophy that matters is offering a positive vision of the world that we can do something with, not shooting down an existing framework.
  • The domain itself is speculative and relatively nascent. There’s a lot of uncertainty.

Domains where formalization could be useful are:

  • Modeling agents and decision theory

Work on newcomb-like problems may matter for the development of artificial intelligence.

  • Causation

Most of what academic philosophers have said here isn't useful. Computer scientists and statisticians have done most of the important work to date, but there's no reason philosophically oriented computer scientists or statistically oriented philosophers can't make important contributions here.

  • Philosophy of physics

Most work I’ve seen here just looks like the metaphysics of physics, but I could see work here being promising. I don’t know enough about this physics or the philosophy of physics to have a strong view here.

  • Cultural evolution

This work is unlikely to make a significant difference to technology, but is novel enough that philosophers can continue to make important contributions here. There are sociological questions here around why philosophers' work on cultural evolution hasn’t been more influential.

  • Evolutionary biology

Unlikely to make a significant difference to technology, but worth mentioning since it is an area where scientists should pay more attention to philosophers. Unfortunately, the same philosophers who make important contributions also get caught up in issues that don't make any difference to scientific practice.

  • Information theory

There may not be that much work to do here anymore, I don’t know.

  • Consciousness

Work on the hard problem of consciousness likely doesn’t matter for the development of technology. However, thinking about how to formalize conscious states, debates over global workspace theory and its competitors, or the meta-problem may matter.

  • Neuroscience

Carl Carver has done interesting work here. One aspect of neuroscience that makes it promising for philosophers is that no one has any idea what is going on.

Some of these domains are orders of magnitude more promising that others. The probability that any philosophical research program will result in contributions that impact that development of technology is small. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t worthwhile.

Predictive Philosophy

I’ve sketched out the methodology for predictive philosophy when sketching it out above. There’s more to say about it, but I’m not sure if being more precise would be that useful.

There are a few features of this kind of philosophy and its domains that make it more likely that work is promising for philosophers:

  • The work verges on the logical, mathematical, and scientific. It’s the sort of thing you could almost get away with outside of a philosophy department.
  • The domain takes inputs from a number of different fields. Being a polymath or generalist is required to make a contribution.
  • The domain is relatively neglected.
  • The work is problem focused. If we knew the answer to a question or had a refined notion of a given concept it would be useful for solving non-philosophical problems.
  • There’s a lot of uncertainty. Positions may be determined by nuanced views about probabilities and reasoning under uncertainty.
  • The work has both philosophical and non-philosophical questions at its center.
  • The work analyses the history of technological and scientific development for useful lessons.

There are a number of promising issues here:

  • Emulations and digital uploading

These issues have philosophical and non-philosophical questions at its center, making the work pretty promising.

  • Genomics and gene editing

The uncertainty here makes it potentially promising.

  • Existential risk

See The Precipice. It includes a section for useful future research, many of which are better answered by scientific specialists, but a few that philosophers can contribute to.

  • Artificial intelligence

See Superintelligence and related efforts.

  • Thinking about thinking well

Philosophers and non-philosophers have tackled this, but there’s still so much work to do.

  • Progress Studies

Progress studies are explicitly focused on economic and technological progress. Philosophers of science are especially well suited to contribute here, see below.

  • Philosophy of science

Much of philosophy of science like the metaphysics of science or descriptive history won’t influence science of the trajectory of technology. However, some it can, and potentially has been useful. Mining for applicable lessons, analyzing institutional designs, and coming up with novel systems that change the development of science and technology are quite promising.

  • Philosophy of technological development

Yes, the meta matters. What kinds of philosophy have pushed the peanut of technology forward or backwards? What kind of philosophy should we do if we want to have an impact on technology?

It’s worth reiterating that I’m not suggesting that slowing or speeding up the rate of technology is what philosophers should do. Most of the work above is worth doing, some of it is much more important than others and there’s valuable kinds of work that I’ve left out.

The main idea, that philosophy can and has influenced the development of technology seems right to me. Philosophers, as conceptual engineers, can be more ambitious.

If this is something you'd like to do, reach out to me.

Thanks To Evan Gaensbauer and Arya Sabeti for reading and commenting on earlier version of this post.