TLDR: I’m interested in creating an online map of philosophical concepts and their interrelations; which could be used to automatically identify contradictions within, and implications of, given belief systems. I am looking for interested collaborators - especially those with coding capacities – and development advice. I believe there are compelling reasons for EAs to be interested in this proposal. 

[If you’re interested in reading the full Philosophy Web proposal, please see the following link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1X9fdGUMFase_GGPlXqJH6CcydREaSaDb/view?usp=sharing]

 

What is Philosophy Web?

Philosophy Web is a proposal to create an interactive online map of philosophical concepts, and the relationships of support and opposition between them. This map would take the form of a node and spoke diagram, with nodes representing concepts, and spokes representing the links between them.

Users would be able to add concepts to their own personalised webs of belief. Philosophy Web would then automatically highlight potential contradictions and implications of these personalised conceptual maps; helping users expand their intellectual horizons, discover errors in their thinking, and incorporate a broader evidential base in formulating their theories (or do the same for other belief systems they were interested in investigating).  

 

Why Philosophy Web? 

Philosophy Web has the potential to assist philosophers in several ways [each of which are expanded upon in the above linked proposal document]:

  • Philosophy Web would facilitate research into the underexplored conceptual space between philosophical specialisms, to pluck the low hanging intellectual fruit which grows there.  
  • Philosophy Web would reveal “long range”, implications of, and contradictions within, philosophical theories; which might otherwise be difficult for supporters (or critics) to discern.
  • Philosophy Web would support comprehensive philosophical theory building. Comprehensive philosophical theories draw upon - and test themselves against -  broader evidential foundations, and are thus likely to constitute epistemic improvements on extant (predominantly very narrow) theories. 
  • Philosophy Web would provide a valuable educative resource for Philosophers.

As an EA, you might find this compelling for several reasons: 

  • If you intrinsically value knowledge, Philosophy Web could represent a valuable epistemic tool for facilitating new discoveries, encouraging clearer and more synoptic thinking, and generally assisting philosophical progress[1].
  • Intellectual progress within philosophy has been a major contributor to efforts to improve the world. Historically, movements to topple the slave trade, institute democracy, and advance women's rights can be traced to developments in ethical and political theory. Today, Effective Altruism has grown out of the arguments of philosophers like Peter Singer, Will MacAskill and Nick Bostrom. Tools which facilitate philosophical progress may thus yield significant (albeit difficult to quantify) benefits to society; revealing moral evils, and motivating the efforts to overcome them. 
  • “Improving the quality of deliberation” is a cause area with an extremely high potential for impact. One way to Improve Deliberation involves creating tools to assist reasoning about complex topics of major ethical significance; such as politics and economics. 
    If successful, Philosophy Web would constitute a “proof of concept” for a species of epistemic tool (a personalisable belief web), which could be translated into a variety of these high impact fields. Such translations could generate significant epistemic benefits for the relevant fields, analogous to those theorised for Philosophy Web; including revealing low-hanging intellectual fruit, facilitating evidentially richer theorising, and unveiling theories’ hidden contradictions and implications.
    Even marginal improvements in deliberation in fields like economics could yield colossal benefits, given the vast resources disposed on the basis of economic theories, and the breadth of organisations influenced by economic thinking. 

 

 

What does Philosophy Web Need? 

Presently, Philosophy Web primarily requires technical support. I am hopeful that the programming required to create Philosophy Web would not be unduly complex, however it comprehensively exceeds my bedrock programming capacity of “absolutely nothing”. If you can code, and might be interested in taking this idea forwards, please reach out to me in the comments or by direct message (or just take the idea and run – I’d be happy with that too). Likewise, please comment if you know a person or group who might be interested in hearing this idea. 

Secondarily, I need advice about the best way to present and develop this idea. I currently have three plans for how Philosophy Web could be developed. It could be developed by crowdsourcing, in a manner analogous to Wikipedia. It could be developed by curation, in a manner analogous to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Or it could be developed by a combination of the two: initial curation to “interesting proof of concept” stage, followed by crowdsourcing to encourage further development. I am especially interested in feedback on the merits of these development options. Any other feedback is of course also appreciated. 

 

Who Are You & How do I Get in Touch? 

I am Ben Evans, a solicitor and former philosophy student, interested in rationalism, effective altruism, and intellectual progress. You can get in touch by commenting below or - if you want to reach out in private - by messaging me on LW, or on the following email address: philosophywebmail@gmail.com.

 

Thanks in advance for your consideration!


 


[1] This will be especially compelling if you value “fundamental” knowledge, concerning the base nature of reality, more than other knowledge. 

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It sounds interesting, albeit to be fair a bit gimmicky as well. To me at least, which may not mean much: I can imagine taking a few minutes to play around with such a tool if it existed, maybe find some contradiction in my beliefs (probably after realizing that many of my beliefs are pretty vague and that it's hard to put these hard labels on them), and get to the conclusion that really my beliefs weren't that strong anyway and so the contradiction probably doesn't matter all that much. I can imagine others would have a very different experience though (and maybe my expectation about myself is wrong as well of course).

I'd be interested in your thoughts on a few questions:

  1. Can you describe an example "user journey" for Philosophy Web? What beliefs would that imaginary user hold, how would they interact with the software, what would come out, just as one prototypical example?
  2. Would there be other, maybe simpler ways for that imaginary user to get to the same conclusion, not involving Philosophy Web? What bottleneck prevents people from making these conclusions?
  3. Who would be the primary target audience for this? What would make the tool "effective"? Are you primarily thinking about EAs getting to a more self-consistent belief set? Philosophy students? Everyone?
  4. What are the most likely ways in which such a project would fail, given you found the necessary support to build it?
  5. Does the project's success depend on some large number of users? What's the "threshold"? How likely is it to pass that threshold?
  6. What would be the smallest possible version (so MVP basically) of the project that achieves its primary purpose? Could something be prototyped within a day that allows people to test it?
  7. Assuming the project is built and completed and people can use it as intended - what are the most likely reasons for members of your target audience to not find it useful?

As an additional note, I'm quite a fan of putting complex information into more easily digestible forms, such as mind maps, and could imagine that "data structure" in itself being quite valuable to people merely to explore different areas of philosophy, even to a limited degree. I'm not quite sure though if the project entails such a web being presented visually, or if users would only see the implications of their personal beliefs.

This may be of interest. Several of the links on this website have the user test the consistency of their philosophical beliefs.

https://www.philosophersmag.com/games