Paths Forward Comments Part 1

Comments on this essay

see part 2 here
see part 3 here

Every smart person knows you should be “open to discussion”. If there are better ideas than yours, you should learn them and change your mind. If you won’t reconsider your ideas, you’re irrational.

But discussions are frequently limited. Joe will end a discussion when Sue isn’t satisfied. She’ll accuse Joe of having a “closed mind”. Joe will claim he already won the debate and Sue just wouldn’t listen, or else say he doesn’t have time to answer everyone and everything. Sue will reply that Joe is evading her questions, criticisms and explanations which he’s unable to answer. How do you sort this mess out?

Lots of people do evade questions and throw up barriers to rational discussion. And sometimes there’s an issue of skill in argument — people might approach a discussion with an open mind and in good faith but just kinda suck at explaining, figuring out relevant examples, etc. It seems really easy to fool oneself about whose responsibility a failed discussion was (often its both parties in a two-sided discussion, but both blame the other person, as you illustrate above).

I think people could read this essay and be like “oh man i totally kept paths forward open but Sue was such a bitch and blocked everything.” I wonder if you have specific advice for the issue of not fooling yourself about how competent you were in a discussion. It’s kind of a tangent but seems important.

It’s important to be open to discussion so that your ideas can be questioned and refined, and so you can learn new things. You shouldn’t avoid criticism or innovative new ideas. It’s worth considering if your idea is mistaken or there’s a better idea.

But there are some reasonable limits. There are only 24 hours in a day. You can’t individually discuss everything with everyone. Nor can you be expected to learn the details of every speciality like medicine, logistics, management, chemistry, law, physics, programming, sales, marketing, art and engineering.

So, how do you know if you’re really open to discussion, or not? What are reasonable limits? What is evading discussion?

A limit on discussion is irrational if it blocks a path forward.

A Path Forward
A path forward is a good way that a problem, issue or disagreement can be solved, allowing the discussion to move forward. (The concept even works with self-discussions in your own mind.) They’re ways mistakes can be fixed. They’re ways progress happens and you learn, rather than getting stuck.

Lots of people on FI are frequently given paths forward and then don’t want to take them. Like if you suggest a book, or even a chapter of a book, that they could read in order to understand your perspective, they just aren’t interested (see also: for more on this)

Paths forward depend not just on your ideas about an issue, but also your methods of thinking. How do you handle discussions? How do you handle disagreements? Are you blocking any ways for mistakes to be found or corrected?

This is like how reason overall doesn’t depend on being right on some specific issue but is about your methods.

Paths forward are individual. You should personally have paths forward for all of your ideas, and take responsibility for their quality.

If there’s no path forward for your idea, then if you’re mistaken you’ll never find out. Progress will never be made in your life, at least for that issue.

No paths forward = STUCK FOREVER on some issue. This is a big deal!

(The issue may be more important than you know,

And how would you find out if it was more important, if you were blocking paths forward on discussing it?

and the flawed methods of thinking may apply to many other issues.)

And they often do apply.

For example its very common that people have a mistaken idea of “fun” that’s something like “mostly thoughtless relaxation”, and they apply it to a bunch of different areas.

So someone’s mistaken thinking on how they approach playing a video game could also apply to how they play poker, how they play some IRL sport, how they read fantasy books, etc

You could get stuck forever. You’re limiting discussion enough that you’re not open to discussion.

Limiting discussion enough such that you’re not open to discussion could include conducting discussion at such a slow rate (due to e.g. persistently being “busy”) that it becomes impractical to communicate much about what you are discussing.

There are also bad paths forward. For example, if you try to think of everything yourself, that could theoretically succeed. You might figure everything out yourself. But that isn’t realistic, and would be unnecessarily difficult. The technical possibility that it could work doesn’t make it rational.

Yeah. There’s no good argument for doing this approach. Why try and do everything yourself when other people exist?

Another bad path forward is selectively considering ideas according to someone else’s judgment. Don’t use authority, social status, curation, moderation or gatekeepers instead of your own mind. That’s irresponsible. It’s seeking an excuse to reject ideas without answering them. You should put your energy into rational thinking instead of finding excuses not to.

Wanting an excuse to reject ideas without answering them is a common issue.

Another issue that comes up is: lots of people sincerely think understanding discussions in various fields is fundamentally beyond them 🙁

Like cuz they are not a “math person” or don’t have a “mind for science” or whatever people say.

So basically they think that relying on experts is the best they can do.

It’s important to always keep a good path forward. It’s ideal if good ideas from anyone can help you.

More than just ideal, right? “Ideal” in common usage is like, its the goal, its very nice if we get there, but if we come up a little short, no big deal.

But I get the impression you don’t quite mean it that way here, or am I wrong?

Not having any way for good ideas to reach you from some people is a bit like categorically blocking yourself off from win-win capitalist transactions with some people. Like if you had a “no transactions with Jews” rule or something. There’s no good reason for it — its purely irrational. And it harms YOU.

There should be some way for anyone to contribute a good idea they have, so no innovations are blocked. The point of being open to discussion is to learn what others know.

If you have a bad idea but no one knows what’s wrong with it, that’s a tough situation. If you’re really clever maybe you can figure it out. Try, but it’s understandable not to make a breakthrough. But if someone does know better, there should be a path for you to find out.

And you should expect to need the help and input of others (even if indirectly, through books, though frequently directly) for similar reasons to why you should expect to engage in trade with many people in a modern complex society

If your standards are low enough, and you’re willing to put in enough time to do it, you could be pretty self-sufficient (like, hunt, grow food, live in a cabin u made etc). But there’s no way to produce sous vide cookers and iPhones and iMacs yourself (well, without nanotechnology or something at least). And you shouldn’t live in this self-sufficient, deprived way, without some rather good reason for doing so. Otherwise you’re just depriving yourself for no reason.

The same applies to ideas. If you were willing to live a very static, mistake-filled life where nothing much happens, you could do it yourself. But if you want to do much of anything worthwhile, you need paths forward. You need to benefit from the ideas and crits other people can offer.

If someone has a point which you haven’t answered, and you refuse to listen for any reason, then you’re irrational. You’re not open to discussion; there isn’t a path forward.

Whatever limits you place on your openness to discussion, they must not block paths forward.

Paths forward work by discussion. If there’s no communication of any kind, how can good ideas reach you?

For discussions to make progress, there should be a back-and-forth. Question, answer. Criticism, answer. Argument, answer. Claim, answer. Explanation, answer.

A good answer is any response that is part of a path forward. If you have a solution with no known problems, great. But any answer that contributes to progress, and doesn’t block off further discussion, is fine. Intellectual discussions usually require many small steps to get very far.

Often, discussions are more complicated than back-and-forth. There might be a group of people. Someone might answer their own question. But the basic structure of a discussion is that issues are brought up and people try to answer them.

Tangential comment but group IRL voice discussion is one of the worst formats imaginable. The fact that it’s so popular — that that’s basically what Objectivism and other groups promote as like the default discussion method — shows the lack of seriousness about quality discussion that pervades our culture.

It’s a real pain to keep track of everyone’s points without any sort of text record. It’s a pain to do that with one person. And then you’ve got people arguing wildly different things from wildly different frameworks, all at the same time, and there’s a time limit (whether stated or implied). Uggggh.

If any issues with your ideas don’t get answers, that’s blocking paths forward you could have had. Every issue is an opportunity to potentially learn something. Trying to answer issues is how you can improve your mind. There might be an important point there. Ignoring it is irrational.

There’s no way to judge ideas other than discussion. A rational discussion can evaluate an idea. Nothing else can. Rational discussions are open-ended meaning there are always paths forward if anyone has any new ideas about the topic. Any other way of dealing with ideas is irrational because it would reject some correct idea.

Saving Time
So, how can we have good paths forward open to all ideas (without ignoring any) even though we can’t talk with everyone individually? How do we filter through all the bad and irrelevant ideas?

The main technique is: It doesn’t matter when an answer was written, or by who. It only matters if it answers an issue, or not.

Making a judgment as to whether something actually answers an issue requires not being a second-hander. You can’t judge — with your own mind — if a purported answer actually answers an issue, if your typical mode of “analysis” is “well a committee of such-and-such scientists said this issue was addressed” or “snopes says this claim is false” etc.

If you’re not used to making your own judgments of stuff, citing authorities is comforting cuz then you get to be arrogant and feel like you know stuff. “Well POLITIFACT says…”

But for someone used to taking that approach, this whole judging stuff yourself, don’t take stuff on authority thing is gonna sound terrifying

You can reuse answers that were already written down in the past, by you or others. And you don’t have to answer something if someone else does.

Most bad ideas get pretty repetitive. People will keep bringing up the same points over and over. That’s fine. They don’t know better. You can deal with it by answering the issue once, then after that refer people to your existing answer.

This approach is easy to misuse. Sometimes you ask someone a question and they say, “Read my book”, but then you read their book and it doesn’t actually answer your specific question. Then you tell them about the problem and they say, “Read my other book”. But instead of reading it, you ask them to give you a quote and a page number that talks about your question. Then they don’t answer, or say they’re too busy. So you recognize they’re irrational and not open to discussion. >There’s no path forward in that situation. That’s sad.

People do way worse than say “read my book.” They say something meaning “read my vague impression of what the results are like for a google search on the topic we are arguing about. I’ve never performed the search myself, but the first two paragraphs of a Vox article I recently read, when plugged into my pre-existing worldview, gave me a strong sense of what the results of such a google search should be like.” And if you ask them to be more specific they act like you just asked them to single-handedly put together a manned mission to Mars. I don’t really get it.

Why Don’t People Like Good Discussion Formats?

The stuff below is adapted from an FI post. A poster asked why people don’t like higher quality written discussion formats, and prefer to just talk in-person instead. I replied:

I think a lot of it is: basically, for most people who engage in them, “intellectual discussions” serve a similar function in their life to discussions about sports or recent movies etc. There’s not some big distinction in their mind, where there’s some social fluff topics and some stuff they really care about. To them, its basically all stuff to talk about over lunch or at the bar. And maybe something you can try and impress others with by dropping some prestigious quotes/references. For most people who engage in them at all (a pretty small slice of people already), “intellectual discussions” are the raw material for certain sorts of common social interactions. That’s the primary purpose. Such people primarily are social-valuers, not idea-valuers.

People don’t expect to make big progress or learn things from intellectual discussion. They expect it to be something like: “oh you read/like Rand? Yeah, I don’t like her much. Have you read Rawls? I like Rawls. (some quote from Rawls to impress you). Good talk.” But with more social vibes added.

Now consider the perspective where social interaction is the primary purpose of the intellectual discussion. How would someone with that perspective react to a proposal to take the discussion to a written format like private email or a discussion list? Well, such formats take away the primary value they get from the interaction. Such formats remove the social part. The discussion becomes more about just the ideas. So from the perspective of a social-valuer, such a proposal is actually counterproductive. It defeats almost the entire point of the activity for them. So of course those people are not going to do that.

BTW I’m not claiming they care zero about the ideas and topics. They care a little. It’s not a zero value to them. But it’s not primary, because if it were, they would use more effective methods for learning about and discussing ideas…

I remember being super naive about how people approached ideas and intellectual topics. Like people would say they were an Objectivist and I would believe them, but then they thought that compromise in one’s work was necessary and inevitable. And people would say they liked discussing ideas but they didn’t seem to have much interest in actually doing that. I even believed common cultural stuff that said universities were some kind of intellectual place.

Big picture, i think if you’re used to the seriousness that Elliot brings to discussing ideas, it can be super easy to fool yourself about the honesty and integrity of random people you meet who claim to have some interest in ideas. Cuz anything less than Elliot standard just seems kind of bizarre and pointless, and it seems really weird that people would lie about having interests.

BTW, I think it’s easier to fool yourself about other people’s honesty and integrity in engaging in intellectual discussion if you stay within certain standard social guardrails. Like people might seem reasonably engaged if you engage in some pointed back and forth arg-and-counterarg a bit, but if you start going meta and bringing up more methodological issues, they’ll get irate/confused/bored pretty quickly. It’s a bit like they’re acting. The scene has some superficial plausibility if you stick to your lines, but once you start going off-script, oh boy…


Tolerance doesn’t mean approval. I think some people get confused on this.

Libs talk about tolerance being good. But what is tolerance?

Oxford English dictionary says:

The action or practice of tolerating; toleration; the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others; forbearance; catholicity of spirit.

The spirit of this is NOT that you think the stuff you are tolerating is great or wonderful. It’s that you will deal with the fact that people do the tolerated stuff, and won’t be too harsh towards people because they do that stuff.

Suppose you say something like “Well I think transgender stuff is kinda weird, but whatever, if people want to do that, that’s their life I guess. I’ll treat them normally when dealing with them.” That is a tolerant attitude. It is clearly expressing some disapproval but isn’t nasty to transgenders.

That kind of sentiment is not nearly enough for libs though. They want acceptance and approval. They are very pushy about this.

And they want acceptance and approval without having any good args about why their pet causes should be accepted and approved.

What do they do instead of offering args? Generally, they assert people who disagree with them are hateful bigots.

This is an irrational act of intimidation. It is immoral and they should stop.

The libs think they are on the side of tolerance/progress/justice. But due to the irrationality of their approach, they risk pushing acceptance for stuff that is actually bad.

And also, because of the revolutionary nature of their approach (which focuses on using cultural pressure and intimidation over reason), they risk triggering an intolerant backlash, which would hurt the people they are supposedly campaigning for the most.

Another thing libs do is demand attention for their lib stuff.

Many libs think people should have an active interest in stuff like the various pronouns for different gender identities etc. Or that libs have a right to harass people at brunch in order to “raise awareness” for their causes.

But why should I have interest in their stuff? Why should I be aware of it? I have better things to do with my life. My awareness and attention are valuable. I don’t care about the stuff they care about. They are being intolerant in asserting a right to my attention and energy and effort.

The spirit of tolerance doesn’t mean I have to learn a bunch about what you are into or try and cater to your idiosyncratic preferences or anything like that.

Here is an analogy: if I’m running a normal American diner, it’s a tolerant attitude if I’m willing to serve anyone who wants to eat my food, regardless of what they look like, sound like, where they are from, etc. That stuff doesn’t matter to the interaction of serving them food.

That doesn’t mean I have to cater to every religious or dietary restriction, though. It’s not wrong or intolerant of me to simply not serve vegan or kosher food. It’s not intolerant of me to have zero interest in learning about halal. Maybe I just want to make pancakes and cheeseburgers and milkshakes! That’s fine. It’s my life, my diner, my choice as to what to spend time. Other people should respect and tolerate that.