Comments on Paths Forward Part 3

Comments on this essay, continued

See part 1 here

See part 2 here

Summary So Far

Human knowledge can make progress in ongoing, public, written discussions which reuse answers where appropriate and never ignore any issues without answering them. Anyone can contribute to these discussions. For topics that are well understood, most bad ideas will already have answers written down.

Being open to discussion is necessary to being a rational person. You can tell if you’re limiting discussion irrationally by whether you personally have paths forward which you take responsibility for. Your paths forward can cover all relevant topics because you can be open to discussion about what is relevant. And this won’t take too much time because any issue either already has an answer or else is worth the time to answer.

Examples
To help apply the idea of a path forward in real life situations, let’s consider some examples.

• Suppose I give a vague answer. That’s bad because I have’t really answered the issue. There’s no way for that to lead to progress. All you can do is say it’s vague, say it’s unclear how my answer answers the issue, and ask me to give a better answer. If my statement is bad enough all you can do is ask for a better one, but the discussion doesn’t actually make forward progress, then that isn’t a good path forward.

It’s important to be really forgiving though. If I say something vague, maybe I just don’t know better. Maybe I thought it wasn’t vague for some mistaken reason that I could be corrected about. Or you could even be mistaken that it’s vague.

Yeah.

Something that comes up very frequently is that in making some statement, people assume some context in their head which they don’t actually write down or communicate. And so it comes across as pretty vague if you just read what they wrote and don’t supply your own context for it. And you could imagine two or three different contexts which the person could have in mind regarding their statement, and some answers to those. But its a lot of work to try and cover the waterfront of possible meanings instead of just following up and asking them to specify their context more.

Like if someone on FI said “I dislike capitalism cuz there’s a ton of people that it hurts”, there’s lots of stuff they could mean. They could mean anything from “exploitation of low wage workers” to “encouraging a materialistic consumer culture that harms traditional values and personal happiness” to like 10 million other things. Its uselessly vague as written and you’re not obligated to write a treatise in response to someone’s vagueness. But if they are new to trying to do high quality rational discussions, you should have a default assumption that they are proceeding in good faith and are just not very good at discussing things yet. Which is fine, since that’s a skill they can learn 😀👍

Don’t give up on people just because they make a mistake. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Yeah 😀

Tell them that being vague (or whatever else) is a problem, and ask if they’d like to try again. Offer them a reference to read that can help them learn to discuss better. Give them a path forward even though they messed up. And by approaching it that way, there’s also a path forward in case actually you’re misjudging the situation.

Good advice.

• Suppose you write a long argument and I reply pointing out one issue, and I don’t read the whole thing. Good or bad?

It’s fine cuz if I address the issue, you can continue engaging with what I wrote with that issue addressed. Here I’m assuming I don’t have to totally rewrite it cuz I made some fundamental mistake. And if I do have to rewrite it over one issue, maybe it wasn’t very good and you have better things to do than read my current mistaken draft.

It’s fine because there’s a path forward. It may be a bad idea to go through all your points in order. If you have good stuff, answer the issue I brought up, then we’ll continue. A path forward can work fine with many small steps, one by one.

Yeah.

Some readers will be objecting that you have to read a whole argument to understand any part of it. But usually you don’t. In the cases where someone reads too little, tell them that the issue they’re raising is answered later. Give them a quote or page number. That’s not very hard. If you do that you’ve answered what they said; if you don’t then you haven’t.

After the issue I point out is resolved, what next? That depends. If you made a big mistake, you may need to revise your whole argument, or even change your conclusion. If I made a mistake, I could continue reading and better understand what it’s saying now that I’ve learned something. If you made a small mistake, like having a confusing sentence, you could just fix that one part, and then I could continue reading to answer other issues you bring up.

If I point out one issue with your ideas, that’s a good test. If you react irrationally, now I know a rational discussion isn’t available.

This is a reason to be direct/blunt/not concerned with politeness rules, as well. People who are easily offended don’t really offer rational discussion. If you violate politeness rules you’ll find this out more quickly.

For discussion to be thoroughly rational, it has to be open-ended, and not have “taboo” topics. And one of the things that “politeness” takes off the table is making certain moral indictments of people you are talking to which people consider to be TOO OFFENSIVE (by saying e.g. that an implication of their worldview is evil and so they have evil views).

Even one issue is important because one issue can potentially ruin the whole thing. If you address the issue or explain why it’s an isolated issue, then your other ideas become issues for me again, and I should continue.

• Suppose I bring up an issue and you don’t answer. You’re silent. That’s bad. There’s no path forward.

You might think you have an answer. But if you don’t give the answer, then no one is going to learn anything. If your answer is so great, write it down once and then provide it when it comes up. Then it will be exposed to public criticism and maybe one day someone will tell you a problem with it. Or people can learn about it and maybe tell you a way to make it even better.

Silence blocks off all the good paths forward like you learning something, me learning something, or both. It’s irrational.

I think that one thing people do is only count stuff as “silence” if they have a intentional, conscious policy to not reply to something the other person said.

If they instead have a vague intent to reply that never gets acted on, they consider that being “busy” instead of being silent.

They could also reply but at such a slow rate and with such low attention that it impedes the discussion from ever reaching a resolution. The fact that they aren’t technically being silent doesn’t stop this approach from sabotaging the discussion all the same.

Or if they lack the knowledge to have an effective discussion for other reasons (like cuz they struggle with understanding English or they lack a ton of common background knowledge) and they continue trying to muddle through badly instead of actually learn the skills they need to have the discussion, that’s another way of sabotaging progress. But hey at least they’re trying, right?! 🙄

• When I read something, often part of it is confusing. This may be my fault or the writer’s fault. It doesn’t really matter. Anyone who is using this as one of their answers is responsible for clarifying. They shouldn’t be using something unclear as an answer. If I ask a clarifying question, that is a path forward. If no one answers, then everyone who uses that material is blocking the path forward and is irrational.

Clarifying questions should be welcomed. They help make answers better. The answer can be updated to be clearer. Then in the future this particular clarifying question won’t be asked. Rather than complaining that clarifying is a lot of work, fix things. If your answer isn’t clear, it’s not very good and you should be happy to improve it. Don’t have low standards for the quality of ideas you’re satisfied with.

A bit of a tangent: it seems like it’d be good if book-writing was more iterative. Before ebooks, putting out a book was kind of a big deal. You had to do a printing and stuff. And people would update books sometimes, correct errors etc, but it’d be years in between updates.

But now ebooks are fairly widely used and it’d be much easier to just push updates to correct errors and clarify stuff. I don’t think that’s super common though. Its interesting. I have apps that seem to get updated every week, but books get updated maybe once a decade…

• Some people say they’re too busy to answer things. But why aren’t there high quality prewritten answers they can refer to and take responsibility for? If you’re too busy to write new answers, so what? Use existing answers. If there aren’t existing answers written down and you’re too busy to write an answer, don’t claim to have an answer. Don’t think, “I know the answer. It’s just not written anywhere and I’m too busy to write it”. If you do that, there’s no path forward, and you’re an irrational person who isn’t open to discussion.

People might already have a refutation of your idea that you haven’t written down. If you were open to discussion, they could tell you. Blocking people from correcting you is incompatible with progress and learning. It’s not a path forward.

• Sometimes I might say, “What you’re talking about conflicts with theme X I read in book Y that I thought was good. What do you think?” Is that a good answer? It doesn’t answer everything and it’s short. But it does provide a path forward. The person can say whether they agree or disagree with X, and why. The discussion can make progress.

It’s fine to have big picture concerns. It’s fine to wonder how an idea connects with some other idea you think matters. It’s fine to bring up ideas that are in books. If the other guy already knows about this issue, he can answer immediately, no problem. If he doesn’t know about this, maybe he should. He should either investigate the issue or explain why he thinks it’s irrelevant. All of these are good outcomes.

How ideas connect with each other is really important.

Yes.

OTOH one mistake people make is what I’d call an academic approach to ideas, where they look for connections or conflicts between ideas kind of for its own sake, without having a specific problem which they are trying to solve in mind.

So they ask fake questions in which they kind of cargo cult the sort of questions they think someone with a genuine interest/problem might ask.

Some ideas I advocate seem to contradict what people already think they know. I should explain why either it doesn’t actually contradict, or why their thinking is mistaken.

Understanding relationships between ideas helps us understand them better and is a great issue to raise. Discussing those issues is a good path forward.

• Some people say, “I studied this issue, you don’t know anything”. This provides no path forward. What if you studied it and reached a wrong answer? If you learned so much from your studying, then you should already have a really good answer. Share it.

I don’t care that you studied something. I care if your studies led to actual results that you’re willing to contribute to a discussion. If you don’t do that, your studies don’t have a rational path forward.

• Some people say, “I’m a psychiatrist and you’re a philosopher. Some of what you say is irrelevant to my field, and other stuff is mistaken, which you would know if you learned psychiatry.” This statement doesn’t provide any path forward.

Which points are irrelevant, and why? We could discuss relevance. What would I have learned if I studied psychiatry, specifically? Bring up some ideas, provide answers about the topic. It often works well to explain an idea in your field briefly and what it’s consequences are (such as how it wins the argument for you), and then refer people to a book for the details of why that idea is true.

In the context of stuff like the Real Peer Review twitter account, I’ve seen people saying that maybe if you were familiar with the field of [Insert fake left wing field here] then you’d understand the subtle and sophisticated point some journal article is making.

People are massively deferential to BS fields and “expertise” in such fields. And so a lot of the people in them don’t really ever have to engage in critical discussion.

If my points are wrong because I don’t know your field, show me some writing which explains this. Instead of calling me ignorant, refer me to answers. Then I can learn more, or explain mistakes with your answers, or both.

And if you don’t have any pre-written answers that apply to the specific issues I’m raising, then that’s interesting. Why has no one in your field ever answered these issues (in a reusable way)? Improve your field’s literature instead of making irrational excuses to end discussion.

Extended Example: The Busy Intellectual
Some people are super awesome. They’re so smart they get really popular and everyone wants to discuss with them. They’re so flooded with issues, they don’t even have time to refer everyone to pre-written answers. What can they do?

These amazing people need discussion places. Instead of having individual discussions with everyone, there can be group discussion. At the discussion place, many people can give answers. People who partly understand the busy intellectual’s work, and want to learn more, will answer some issues.

If you’re a busy intellectual, and I have an issue with your work, set things up so that I can get an answer at your discussion place. That is a path forward.

It doesn’t matter if you own or created the discussion place. It doesn’t matter if your work is the only topic discussed there. What matters is that all issues actually get answered, and that you take responsibility for this.

The best discussion places are public, online, and use writing. That makes the discussion open to more people, keeps track of what’s said. A great approach is an email discussion list, which handles nested quoting and notifications well, and can keep long discussions organized over time.

How people use quoting plays a big role in whether a discussion place is good. Without quotes, people forget the context of ideas, talk past each other, reply to things that weren’t said, and discuss vaguely.

(If you’re interested in learning at a good discussion place, you should join the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group.)

Good discussion places also do not moderate (block) contributions for “low quality”, or for much of anything besides being automated non-human spam. Moderation policies are a way to keep some ideas out of the discussion, without answering them, even though those ideas could be correct. Moderation prevents some ideas from being discussed and answered. It’s irrational (and authoritarian).

The stuff that might get blocked as low quality is stuff people thought was worth writing. It’s part of them. If its crap, they should be able to say it and get criticism about it, instead of being forced into a straightjacket of discussion topics + tone which forces them to misrepresent who they are and what they want to talk about.

Now imagine you’re a busy intellectual and some issue is brought up, but no one answers it. You’ve got a nice discussion place that answers some issues, but not this one. Then you need to either answer it (or else consider it an unanswered issue). If your thinking has an unanswered issue, you should reconsider it. Try to fix the problem, but also consider other ideas. There’s only a path forward for your thinking if you take responsibility for every unanswered issue.

The discussion place approach saves a lot of time. Many issues can be answered by others who are trying to learn. In the manageable number of cases where an issue isn’t answered, you can quickly refer people to a pre-written answer. If that happens too much, you should consider writing better material. That way, people can understand your answers better and talk about them with less intervention from you.

Do you think there could be a problem where you write really good material but not enough people really understand it well enough to answer questions effectively?

Like Rand wrote lots of really good stuff. How many people are there who even understand 5% of it?

But I guess if you have a bunch of people who each understand a somewhat different 5%, that starts to be pretty good. They can answer something regarding the 5% they are good on while you do other stuff. Comparative advantage 🙂

On the other hand, if no one is interested in discussing your ideas, then you may have to answer everything yourself. In that case, you aren’t actually a busy intellectual getting flooded with inquiries.

You don’t necessarily have to read everything at your discussion place. You just have to take responsibility for everything. You can monitor discussion and see that issues are getting answered. When a particular topic gets a lot of discussion, take a look. If someone doesn’t get an answer but isn’t persistent about moving the discussion forward, that’s his fault. He should make an effort to resolve disagreements, not just give up immediately. Watch for this if you have time, but you can’t help everyone.

There are ways to monitor your discussion place efficiently. Watch for people who give lots of good answers. When they don’t know the answer to an issue (it doesn’t matter if they thought of the issue or someone else did), pay closer attention. If no one else gives an answer as good as you could have given, answer the issue yourself.

Big picture: If there’s nowhere that people with criticisms, questions or other issues can get answers from you or regarding your ideas, then you aren’t open to discussion. If there is somewhere but it’s not very good, you aren’t open to discussion. If there is somewhere and you take responsibility for its quality and participate as needed, then you’re open to discussion.

When do you personally need to participate? Whenever there won’t be a path forward unless you participate. You need to take responsibility for making sure there are always paths forward for all issues. If you do that you’re rational, and if you don’t you’re irrational.

Extended Example: The Content Guy
Some people are pretty happy. They think their life is pretty good. They don’t really feel the need for a path forward because they’re content with what they already have. Usually they do try to make progress in a few areas like their career or a favorite hobby, but they don’t have a path forward for everything. They don’t really want to be intellectuals. They know they aren’t open to discussion about everything, but so what?

They might be wrong! Maybe their whole lifestyle is a mistake. Maybe they’re suffering and don’t realize it.

Lots of people suffer in some area, but are so defeatist about the inevitability of suffering in that area that they don’t really count it as suffering.

Like they hate their job but think everyone hates their job, its inevitable, so not worth mentioning or trying to improve…

and they’ll tell themselves stories like “having to do something for work ruins everything.” So just totally ignore that there’s people who live and enjoy their work…

Maybe what they think is happiness isn’t very good, and a much better kind of happiness is possible. Maybe they have huge problems which they’re blind to.

It’s important to be intellectual enough to improve your life. There should be a path forward to a better life.

If someone raises an intellectual issue, you can ask how it’s relevant to you. Say you don’t just want knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but improving your life would interest you.

If you’re content with your life, lots of intellectual ideas aren’t relevant to you. Keep doing your thing. But some are relevant. If someone explains how something is relevant, it’s important to discuss it.

You may think something would be relevant if it were true, but you consider it false. But how do you know? You’re not an intellectual. Unless you have rational path forwards to find out about all your mistaken ideas, you shouldn’t trust your judgment about what’s false.

If you aren’t interested in something because you think it’s false, that’s a big mistake. You need to be open to discussion. What if it’s true? If you won’t consider it, there’s no path forward and you’ll be wrong forever. You need to be intellectual enough not to block off progress.

You can point out how majorly wrong people have been in the past (about things like racism or slavery, how to treat women, etc.) and argue that there’s no reason to think that they’re immune to having big blindspots. But I find this isn’t very effective. Everyone kind of thinks they’re at the end of moral progress or something, doesn’t take seriously that they could be making major mistakes. Even people who’ve actually UNDERGONE a big worldview change take this kind of attitude — often they’re MORE SURE they aren’t making big mistakes BECAUSE they’ve made a major world view transition. Instead of learning the lesson of humility, they get more arrogant 🙁

You may think if you aren’t aware of a problem, it can’t be that big a deal. You’re wrong. People actually put a lot of effort into hiding their problems from themselves. People put lots of energy into pretending their problems don’t exist. People refuse to admit problems exist, and make up excuses for why stuff isn’t that bad.

(I’m not giving any examples here on purpose. Short examples of problems people deny won’t be convincing. People will deny the examples are problems, or deny they personally have that problem. If you want examples, read my websites or ask.)

Some people pretend something isn’t a problem if they have an argument (which they aren’t open to discussion about) for why that problem is an inevitable part of life. Rather than solve the problem, they tell themselves a better life isn’t possible. Then, believe it or not, they will claim they’re content with their life. Almost everyone does this sometimes.

Yeah 🙁

Still doubt it? No problem. There are answers already written. The link discusses the issue of your life having big problems you aren’t aware of. That is relevant to you. You should be interested. You should react in a way that has a path forward in case I’m right about this.

If you read my answers and think I’m wrong, don’t react with silence. Then there’s no path forward in case actually you misunderstood something. What if I’m right? Want to bet your life on this? Instead of ignoring this disagreement, point out at least one issue with what I’m saying. Contribute a step to the discussion. Then there’s a path forward, step by step. (The best place to discuss is at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group. You can also email me at elliot@fallibleideas.com.)

Conclusions

Rational people are open to discussion because they recognize they may be wrong about some important things. Many people claim to be open to discussion, but limit it. You can judge whether limits are rational or irrational by whether they keep a path forward open or not.

A path forward is a way progress can happen, a way disagreements can be resolved, a way learning can take place. There should be paths forward so that any improvement can reach you, no matter who thought of it. (As long as it’s relevant to your life. But make sure there are paths forward for improving your understanding of what is relevant to you and what is a good life.)

Don’t make irrational excuses. You’re not too busy to deal with paths forward. Your life is not so problem-free that no progress could help. Never say (or act like), “I’m too busy to proceed in a rational way” or “I’m happy with my life, I don’t need reason”.

Take responsibility for your paths forward. Don’t assume “scientists” or other authorities have it covered for you. Don’t trust someone else to be rational for you. Consider important ideas. Use paths forward involving clear public writing with context.

If you agree, start making changes to become more rational. If you think you already do this perfectly, put that to the test in some discussions at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group. Or if you disagree, you should be open to discussion about why that is, if nothing else. If you won’t even discuss your reasons for not having paths forward, you’re irrational.

Thinking in terms of paths forward is an opportunity to be more rational. You can have better discussions and a better life.

On an earlier comment post elliot asked:

In addition to commenting on specific passages, I suggest you separately comment on the overall main concept. big picture stuff. how does this fit into life? is it important? what’s the point of it? what problems does it solve? do you like it? are you going to do it? got objections overall? etc etc

such replies could work with various other stuff you read, too.

BIG PICTURE COMMENTS:

I liked the essay. It has a big potential audience of people it can help — from regular Joes to busy intellectuals.

I think there’s a nice spirit throughout the essay of treating everybody as a mind worthy of respect by default. Like it says “If there’s nowhere that people with criticisms, questions or other issues can get answers from you or regarding your ideas, then you aren’t open to discussion.” Just regular people should be able to get answers from you — being able to get answers from you isn’t some elite status. The essay is explicitly anti-authority of experts, too: “Don’t use authority, social status, curation, moderation or gatekeepers instead of your own mind. That’s irresponsible.” And it gives the example of people who know some stuff being able to help a busy intellectual answer questions. Lots of people get scared off of intellectual stuff by thinking maybe they aren’t worthy and don’t have the mind for it. But the entire essay is very against that sort of approach. I think that is a nice and rare quality.

I think the Paths Forward essay takes discussions seriously. It treats discussions as something which can and should make progress. It gives lots of specific advice about how to approach discussion and avoid some common pitfalls. It offers explicit criteria for good answers which it argues for. Most people’s approach to discussions is similar to most people’s approach to playing games — its unserious and casual. Paths Forward takes discussions seriously enough to try and avoid systematic mistakes which mess up people’s progress in their individual lives (and progress in all fields of knowledge).

If the ideas in this essay were taken seriously, understood, and applied, it would revolutionize the world.

I think a big part of what would prevent it from being taken seriously and applied is people NOT LIKING IT.

To take one example, Elliot wrote:

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.

and i commented (in Part 2 of my comments)

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!!!

(And Alan pointed out this happens in physics re: MWI 😩)

So I think it’s a great essay, but basically lots of people will resent it, because it will threaten some of their excuses for delegitimizing disagreement. And so they’ll turn to one of their standard rationalizations (like dismissing “some guy on the internet”) and it won’t really catch on. Not sure how to address this problem 😔

Paths Forwards Comments Part 2

Comments on this essay, continued

See part 1 here
See part 3 here

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:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/22542/richard-feynman-i-can-live-doubt

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.

Good Answers
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.

Ya.

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.

Yeah.

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…

Topics

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.

Yeah.

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.

Helping Others

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.

Yeah.

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.

What Is Ayn Rand’s Concept of Prime Mover About?

Introduction

Rand uses the term Prime Mover in a key scene in The Fountainhead, and also in the book’s introduction. At first glance, it can be kind of unclear what she means. And Rand’s not a vague writer — she writes precisely. So what does this term mean? 🤔

J INVESTIGATES! 📚🔍👀

To start with, let’s just look at the term itself. A Prime Mover sounds like a first or initial or main (Prime) entity which moves something.

So two things to ask: what is the entity? And what is being moved? Some possibilities:

1) A Prime Mover is a thing within some physical object, which literally causes it to move (like an engine). So in this case an engine would be a Prime Mover and a car would be that which is moved. I’m going to call this a Physical Prime Mover.

2) A Prime Mover is some “spiritual” or “inspirational” element within a person, which causes that person to create or achieve something. So for example, a filmmaker’s desire to see their vision of a movie realized could be the Prime Mover within a filmmaker. The desire metaphorically “moves” the filmmaker. I’m going to call this an Inner Prime Mover.

3) A Prime Mover is someone who accomplishes some great achievement, pushes some field forward, etc., through their creativity and productive energy. So in this case someone like Rand, or Rockefeller, or Feynman would be the Prime Mover, and you could say that society as a whole is what they metaphorically move. I’m going to call this a Human Prime Mover.

4) A Prime Mover is an entity that gets the whole universe started. So, certain conceptions of God, basically. I’m going to call this Aristotle’s Prime Mover for reasons which will become apparent 🙂

Now, what’s interesting is that all of these are actual uses of the term “Prime Mover”. And I’m going to argue below that Rand herself uses Prime Mover in at least two of the senses just mentioned (Inner and Human).

I think that for a full understanding of what Rand meant by Prime Mover, some understanding of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is essential, and some familiarity with the scientific/technical meaning of Prime Mover (which corresponds to what I called the Physical Prime Mover above) is a good idea. So I’ll be discussing those topics as well.

Rand’s Direct Uses of Prime Mover

There is one reference to the term Prime Mover within the story of The Fountainhead, in Roark’s courtroom speech near the end of the novel (emphasis added):

No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man’s spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego.

The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. [Justin’s note: Another term for this would be a FOUNTAINHEAD] The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.

And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.

I think many people would read this as talking about the Human Prime Mover. I certainly thought that was the case myself, and even made a video based on that interpretation (see here)

But its worth parsing the text very carefully. If you do, another possibility becomes clear.

Note that the part that mentions Prime Movers…

“that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover.”

…is actually talking about “power.” So Rand is writing that the secret of the creators’ power ⚡️– as distinct from the creators themselves — is that the power was a Prime Mover, or analogous to a Prime Mover.

So it seems like Rand might have the Inner Prime Mover meaning in mind here.

There is also some discussion in the author’s introduction section of The Fountainhead , which seems to be about an Inner Prime Mover (emphasis added):

Was The Fountainhead written for the purpose of presenting my philosophy? Here, I shall quote from The Goal of My Writing, an address I gave at Lewis and Clark College, on October 1, 1963: “This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself—to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.
“Let me stress this: my purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers

My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark [or the heroes of Atlas Shrugged] as an end in himself …

“I write—and read—for the sake of the story…. My basic test for any story is: ‘Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?’

Rand is the entity being moved here. So that’s Inner Prime Mover.

Also of note, Rand titles Part I Chapter 4 of Atlas Shrugged “THE IMMOVABLE MOVERS.” I’ll talk a bit more about that below.

One last bit of textual evidence directly from Rand on Prime Mover — in the Ayn Rand Marginalia book, there appears the following passage by John Herman Randall from his book Aristotle:

the only fact that justifies nature to man, is that the world exists to make life possible, and at its fullest, to make possible the best life, which for Aristotle is the life of sheer knowing, “Nous nousing nous.”

And Rand comments on this:

“The psychological pride of the Unmoved Mover”

Note that Unmoved Mover is commonly treated as a synonym of Aristotle’s Prime Mover (which I’ll talk about in the next section). The meaning here is a bit ambiguous, but in the context of the author discussing man, man’s life, etc., and Rand talking about Pride (an Objectivist virtue) it seems like she’s thinking of the Human Prime Mover meaning.

Rand & Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover

To understand the concept of the Prime Mover or Unmoved Mover, it is very helpful to know the origin. The Prime/Unmoved Mover is a concept in Aristotle’s philosophy, and Rand was very familiar with Aristotle and admired his philosophy greatly (as the titles of the parts of Atlas Shrugged, among lots of other evidence, demonstrates)

Leonard Peikoff presents Aristotle’s theory of the Prime Mover here. Aristotle’s problem situation was that he wanted to explain “motion” — not physical motion per se, but all change:

Now let’s ask the question: What keeps it all happening? What keeps things striving to actualize their forms? What keeps things on the go? Why are the acorns out to become oaks, and the baby busily changing into a man, and the water flowing downhill, and the sculptor shaping his statues, etc.? Why does the universe not run down, stop dead, become motionless? In a word: what is the cause of motion? And by “motion” in this question, we mean any change, any happening, any occurrence. […]

Now let us engage in a chain of reasoning here with Aristotle, and let us call this factor (whatever it is) that is responsible ultimately for motion “the Mover” (and if you want to anticipate, you can give it a capitol “M”). What can we infer about it? Well of course, the first thing is, it must be an eternal existent, since it is the cause of motion, and motion is eternal. Well let us ask the question: Can the Mover itself move? Answer—no; this Mover must be itself unmoved and even immovable.

The reason Aristotle wants the Mover to be unmoved is that he is trying to avoid an infinite regress. He wants to avoid the question: “what moves a Mover that can itself move?”

Peikoff goes on to describe other characteristics of the Mover, before telling us that, essentially, the Prime Mover moves stuff by serving as an inspiration to an intelligence connected to one of the celestial spheres, and that that’s what gets the whole process of motion and change in the universe going. (Side comment: From a modern perspective, its kinda weird stuff, but keep in mind that all fields were in their early days, including astronomy)

Peikoff then talks about the nature of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. The Prime Mover is a mind, so it thinks. But it can’t move, it can’t have a process of reasoning, it can’t have senses (because these are all the processes that the Prime Mover is supposed to explain) (Side comment: Aristotle’s Prime Mover doesn’t make a lot of sense, honestly.)

A mind needs some object of contemplation though. Peikoff:

Well what is the object of its contemplation? Well, it can only contemplate something which is motionless, obviously. And the only thing which is motionless is the Prime Mover. And consequently Aristotle draws the conclusion that the Prime Mover thinks or is conscious only of Himself. […]

He describes it as pure self-consciousness, thought thinking about itself. Now this eternal, immutable, perfect, utterly self-absorbed mind responsible for the motion of the universe Aristotle frequently calls theos, “God.” And this is therefore regarded as Aristotle’s God.

So this is Aristotle’s Prime Mover. And we can see how Rand took some stuff from Aristotle’s views on this topic, which he meant as an actual explanation of reality, and incorporated them as nice metaphors in the context of her own philosophy. For example, the Unmoved Mover thinks only of himself in the context of Aristotle’s philosophy because Aristotle is trying to avoid an infinite regress problem. But, in the context of Rand’s philosophy, “the Prime Mover thinks or is conscious only of Himself” has a completely different — rationally selfish, self-oriented, first-handed — meaning.

With that background on Aristotle’s Prime Mover theory, it should be clear why the expression “move[s] the world” — which appears 3 times in The Fountainhead — would be relevant to understanding and interpreting Rand’s use of the term Prime Mover. Aristotle’s Prime Mover is a literal world-mover 🌎 (by way of inspiring celestial-sphere intelligences, at least…)

From the author’s introduction of The Fountainhead:

It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature—and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning—and it is those few that I have always sought to address.

The use of “move the world” here seems compatible with the Human Prime Mover. Grasping any truth is the act of an individual — a person. And to grasp the full reality of man’s proper stature would require deep philosophical understanding; to achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature would require a very productive life. So Rand’s talking about individuals achieving great things here. People moving the world. Human Prime Movers.

Technical Meaning & Motive Power

There is also a technical meaning of Prime Mover in engineering. This would be the Physical Prime Mover meaning.

If you are familiar with Objectivism, then two words from the following Merriam-Webster definition of the concept “Prime mover” should immediately jump out at you (emphasis added):

an initial source of motive power (as a windmill, waterwheel, turbine, or internal combustion engine) designed to receive and modify force and motion as supplied by some natural source and apply them to drive machinery

Motive power!! 😮

Motive power is a big idea in Atlas Shrugged both literally (with the trains 🚂) and metaphorically. A search on an ebook version of Atlas Shrugged indicates the term comes up 20 times. It actually comes up 3 times in The Fountainhead too!

I think motive power and Prime Mover are related concepts. In particular, metaphorical uses of motive power and what I’ve been calling the Inner Prime Mover seem related.

There’s plenty of literal uses of the term motive power. Here’s one example from Atlas Shrugged, and note the chapter title and the line “to keep it immovable” (emphasis added):

CHAPTER IV

THE IMMOVABLE MOVERS

Motive power—thought Dagny, looking up at the Taggart Building in the twilight—was its first need; motive power, to keep that building standing; movement, to keep it immovable. It did not rest on piles driven into granite; it rested on the engines that rolled across a continent.

And then pretty shortly thereafter in the same chapter, a metaphorical usage of motive power (emphasis added):

She had always been—she closed her eyes with a faint smile of amusement and pain—the motive power of her own happiness. For once, she wanted to feel herself carried by the power of someone else’s achievement.

Dagny being the motive power of her own happiness sounds a lot like Rand saying her “prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark […] as an end in himself.”

Here’s some more uses of motive power in a metaphorical way from Atlas Shrugged (note that this isn’t comprehensive, just some examples). Hank Rearden thinking about stuff (emphasis added):

He observed, indifferently, the devastation wrought by his own indifference. No matter how hard a struggle he had lived through in the past, he had never reached the ultimate ugliness of abandoning the will to act. In moments of suffering, he had never let pain win its one permanent victory: he had never allowed it to make him lose the desire for joy. He had never doubted the nature of the world or man’s greatness as its motive power and its core.

This is about individuals having motive power and driving the world. It corresponds to Human Prime Movers.

Francisco talking to Hank (emphasis added):

Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of value lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you’re facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it’s much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man’s motive power?
Man’s motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue.

More Hank Rearden inner monologue (emphasis added):

He thought: Guilty?—guiltier than I had known, far guiltier than I had thought, that day—guilty of the evil of damning as guilt that which was my best. I damned the fact that my mind and body were a unit, and that my body responded to the values of my mind. I damned the fact that joy is the core of existence, the motive power of every living being, that it is the need of one’s body as it is the goal of one’s spirit, that my body was not a weight of inanimate muscles, but an instrument able to give me an experience of superlative joy to unite my flesh and my spirit

These last are talking about a motive power within man. So they correspond to the Inner Prime Mover.

And back to The Fountainhead, here’s Roark explaining second-handedness to Wynand, by way of his observations on Keating (emphasis added):

I’ve looked at him—at what’s left of him—and it’s helped me to understand. He’s paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Saying that others were Keating’s motive power seems like saying he lacked an Inner Prime Mover. Keating killed his Inner Prime Mover by denying his own preferences regarding e.g. becoming a painter. Thus, he turned to the approval of other people as the driver of his life and choices.

Conclusion

I think Rand used Prime Mover, and some closely related terms, in at least two senses. The first sense, which I’ve called the Human Prime Mover, describes individuals accomplishing great things in the world, and thus moving the world forward. The second sense, which I’ve called the Inner Prime Mover, describes some driving inspirational or creative element within someone which moves them to do great things.

As you can see, Prime Mover can mean lots of stuff. In the Objectivist context, I think it might be a good convention to use Prime Mover for what I’ve been calling Human Prime Mover. And to use something like “motive power” for what I’ve been calling Inner Prime Mover.