Comments on this essay, continued
Whether an answer is old or new, you need to make sure it actually answers the issue. You might get this wrong sometimes, but you better make a serious effort. Don’t just vaguely recommend a whole book on a similar topic and pretend it’s an answer.
If your answer has a flaw, that’s alright. Someone (including you) can consider that issue and fix it. There’s still a path forward. You can’t expect all your initial ideas to be perfect. The important thing is the discussion can continue and ideas can be improved without limit.
There’s a lot of issues people struggle with in acknowledging flaws with their ideas.
One major one is this — people HATE having open-ended problems that they have to admit ignorance on.
Most people would vastly prefer a bad answer, which they hold dogmatically and shut their mind to criticism of, over an answer of “I’m not really sure.”
This comes up in all sorts of people’s ideas. Like one common example is religious people who have very bad explanations for how the universe started that just push the problem back…
An example of a different attitude is provided by Feynman:
You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me. [smiles]
back to essay:
If there are good ideas already written down (or in any format which allows reuse), then you can save lots of time. If there aren’t (reusable) answers yet, then the issues people are raising are worth taking some time to answer properly. Contributing your answers to the discussion lets others learn from those answers or tell you issues that you didn’t know about.
Answers shouldn’t be judged by who wrote them or when. What are good ways to judge them?
Consider whether an answer is true or false. You should always be looking for mistakes. But you won’t always spot mistakes. An answer can be a good path forward even if it’s mistaken, since the mistake could be pointed out and progress could still be made.
Lots of people will throw out a whole valuable system of ideas (like Objectivism) because they spot some mistake in the thinking of one of its advocates (while systematically avoiding any engagement with the mistakes in their own thinking).
An FIer finds excitement in finding mistakes because it provides an opportunity for improvement and doing better.
But there’s another type of mentality which finds mistakes exciting because it lets them throw stuff out wholesale. They’re excited by the prospect of finding an excuse to remain intellectually stagnant. Very sad!!!
Being right and being rational are different things. Try to be right, but don’t expect to always be right. But being rational is something you should always do. Rationality is about changing your mind if you’re wrong, being open to discussion, and keeping a good path forward.
So, what can we look for to judge whether answers allow a rational path forward?
• Public Accessibility
If answers aren’t public, then lots of people might know about an issue with them but never get the chance to say so. To be open to rational discussion, you have to expose your ideas to public criticism, not just discuss with a limited group of people.
Why do people not make their stuff publicly accessible? Some answers:
Some people have legitimate privacy concerns, but then don’t use creativity to try and address them.
Some people have exaggerated/unrealistic privacy concerns.
Some people think that if they get lots of crit in public, they might feel pressured to change in ways they don’t want to. So they just try and stop that from happening.
Some just aren’t very serious about improving their ideas. Intellectual discussion is a game for them.
• Written Format
Writing is the best format for answers. It’s easy to share publicly, quote, edit, and read at your own pace. Writing lets people analyze every detail, and it keeps records of the whole history of discussion. It’s fine to have discussions in other formats, but if you think an answer is really important and you want people to take it seriously, you should write it down.
I saw a video of some guy who I guess had a debate with Sam Harris recently, and he made a vid in order to explain what he thinks went wrong with the discussion.
The topic itself (meta about discussion problems) was a good one and something which unfortunately is rarely discussed. But the choice of format was something I thought was weird. He gave some reason like “it was the quickest way to do it” but writing emails is pretty quick … making a video is some extra steps compared to writing an email! He wasn’t like recording the video while walking outside, he was at a computer in his house or whatever. To top it all off he called it an “open letter” 🙄 An actual (electronic) letter would have been better …
• Clarity and Context
Quality answers are written very clearly. People should be able to tell what it’s saying, and why, without having to ask a lot of questions.
Answers should also explain what issue they’re answering and how they answer it. Leaving out the issue in question is a common mistake. An answer doesn’t really make sense by itself, it needs an issue to answer.
The context and history of the issue should be available. The limits or known flaws of the answer should be explained. Other answers to the issue should be considered and their flaws pointed out. (Any of this can be done by a reference if it’s explained somewhere else. Repetition isn’t needed.)
All of this keeps discussions clear and organized. This becomes especially important on difficult topics where progress is achieved using hundreds of steps.
• Personal Individual Responsibility
For you to have a path forward, you need your own answers. You don’t have to write them yourself, but you have to treat them as your own answers which you’re fully responsible for. If a mistake is found, you were mistaken. If someone has a question about an answer, he’s questioning you, and it’s your responsibility to see that the question is answered.
If you didn’t write an answer and want to use it, y>u need to endorse it. You need to answer any issues with it. If you aren’t taking responsibility for an answer, then it isn’t actually a path forward for you.
Yeah. Without responsibility, you citing stuff just becomes a way for you to help entrench your positions by pretending to be an intellectual…
• Big Ideas
The best answers deal with general principles. They try to say something important. They’re powerful enough to answer entire categories of issues. Special cases and exceptions are a bad sign which should be minimized.
Some people try to avoid being wrong by making small claims, which are hard to criticize because there’s so little content to discuss. That’s a mistake. You can’t learn much unless you’re willing to risk saying something that matters. Refusing to try is a way to block your paths forward.
In addition to making small claims, people can also hedge a ton to obfuscate what their actual claims are, which can produce a similar effect…
Broad interests are generally a good idea, but no one can consider everything or find all the connections between topics. You can’t learn about everything, but you can learn about ideas relevant to you and your interests.
A breakthrough in physics might require revising a chemistry theory, so chemists need to know about it.
I’ve heard that various filmmakers and cinematographers got into the details of chemistry etc to make new types of film to do what they wanted to accomplish visually (this was more in the past, before digital). I thought that was interesting. Lots of people wouldn’t think of filmmaking and chemistry as strongly related but all sorts of connections can come up IRL.
A new idea about art might lead to improved marketing techniques, and marketers who find out will have an advantage. An idea about organizing information could help people in any field. Ideas about rational discussion and paths forward are important to everyone.
Look for ways other topics are relevant to your interests. Keep an open mind to the possibility that fields other than your own are useful. But don’t expect to find everything. If someone raises an issue you think is irrelevant, ask them about how it’s relevant, instead of ignoring the issue. Or tell them why it’s irrelevant to expose your reasoning to criticism.
You should be interested in the topic of what’s relevant to you. That is relevant to you. If you won’t discuss which topics to discuss, you’re not discussing in a rational, open-ended way capable of making unbounded progress.
Yeah. this is one of the big points where path forwards hits the skids for many people i think. There’s a few big issues here that i can identify.
One big thing is people have relativism about preferences/interests. They think lots of people are into lots of different stuff and “it takes all kinds” and bristle at the idea that some stuff is objectively more important than other stuff, that they might want to make an effort to discuss different topics than the ones they initially brought up, that they might want to change their interests, etc. The very idea of changing their interests might strike them as rather implausible, except when it’s part of a socially acceptable preference change – like wanting to go out less when you are older/have kids etc.
Also people identify with their current interests very strongly. So if you criticize those interests, it’s seen as an attack on the person.
Also if you are saying they should be willing to consider spending time on other stuff than their current interests/topics of preference, and say it is bad if they don’t, then people get scared that someone is trying to force them to do something in the name of morality. Since most people’s conception of morality is really bad, once most people get a whiff of morality in your arg they’re running for the exits. So it’s a big problem.
Another issue is, people kind of doubt the power of philosophy to make big changes in their life. This is understandable given most people’s experience with philosophy. So lots of people think philosophy is just sort of an idle hobby, like stamp-collecting or something, and just find it strange when someone insistently argues that there’s real stakes to philosophical discussions and that their desire to focus on (for example) their poorly-thought-out idea of “the meaning of life” is a mistake.
Also, some people are (somewhat understandably) concerned about the possibility of messing up existing projects in their life if they don’t carefully limit the scope of their philosophical discussion to “safe” topics. But people don’t realize 1) there’s tons of ongoing disasters in their life that could be fixed by philosophy, 2) there’s ways to go about implementing new philosophical ideas that don’t involve sudden radical changes, and 3) if they learn enough they’ll feel okay making whatever changes they decide on– it won’t be scary anymore cuz they’ll be fully convinced its a good change.
Discussing which topics to discuss creates a path for good ideas to reach you. If an idea is relevant, and someone else knows why, there’s a two-step path forward there. You can find out about the relevance first, and then the idea.
Rational paths forward benefit you. They also help others. Answering issues provides a way for other people to learn (especially when it’s on a webpage). And the more they learn, the better they will be at figuring out innovative new ideas that are valuable to you.
There’s an interesting symmetry here. Whenever you discuss a disagreement with someone, you don’t know who will be right. Maybe you’ll be right and teach him something. Maybe he’ll be right and teach you something. Or maybe you’ll both be mistaken and cooperate to figure out a better idea. You only find out who was helping who after the discussion, in retrospect. Before the discussion is finished, you’re in symmetric positions and don’t know who is giving or receiving help.
But actually, rational discussion helps everyone. There are lots of ways to learn from any discussion. For example, you can learn how to explain your good ideas more clearly.
The important thing is not to assume you’re right before a disagreement is discussed. Go into discussions curious, hoping to learn something new. Have a little humility.
There’s some common sets of bad attitudes people bring to discussions.
Arrogance is one — people assume they are smarter/know more than other people (cuz they have more degrees or higher IQ or whatever), can’t learn from them, etc. They assume a TEACHERY tone, where they are sharing the blessings of their superior wisdom and intellect with lesser mortals. And if you challenge them a bit they’ll condescendingly slap you down. And if you challenge them a lot they’ll say they have better things to do than discuss matters with idiots or something like that.
OTOH sometimes people are too humble. Timid, afraid to ask questions or share what they really think, and easily bullied by the arrogant people mentioned above. So they fall into kind of a “student” role relative to any “teachers” that happen to be in the discussion.
Remember that some of your ideas are mistakes, and you don’t know which they are. Answering issues can help others, and it also allows a path forward for dealing with your mistakes.
If you won’t answer an issue, you’re not only denying the other guy any help, you’re irrationally blocking your own path forward. Helping others and helping yourself actually involve exactly the same actions: rational discussion that keeps paths forward open.
Yeah. Nice example of HARMONY OF INTERESTS.