False false dichotomies

Jed Harris wrote, in one of his otherwise very insightful comments:

(Incidentally, there probably is no viable distinction between cognitive structure and content.)

This statement is true, in that there is probably no distinction that I can write, that Jed can’t come up with a counter-example to.  Much as I can’t write a definition of "game" that Wittgenstein couldn’t come up with a counter-example to.

But the statement was used to imply that distinguishing AI architectures by reliance on content vs. learning is nonsensical.  If that were so, knowledgeable people would be confused when Eliezer (or Lenat) says Cyc emphasizes content more than other architectures do.  They aren’t.

Some more-popular false false dichotomies:

  • Nature vs. nurture (e.g., genetic or instinctual vs. learned behavior):  We’re told that there’s no true distinction between them, since "nurture" can only occur when expected by "nature".  I like Paul Bloom’s reply (paraphrasing), "There’s something wrong with a theory of mind that says that a knee reflex and word learning are the same sort of thing."
  • Race:  We’re told that race is a "social construct" because, for any particular genetic criteria you set to determine who is in a race, someone can be found who looks to us like they belong to that race, yet doesn’t satisfy your criteria.
  • Gender:  There are people naturally having characteristics of both sexes; people whose phenotypic gender is different from their genotypic gender; and people who’ve had sex-change operations.  Therefore, there is no gender.

You probably knew where I was going with this when you saw the Wittgenstein reference.  Every word in our languages breaks down when you apply enough pressure to it.  A word encodes a statistical regularity.  Applicability in all cases is not required.  Forbid us from using words that aren’t precise, and we’d be unable to talk at all.

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