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:

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.


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.

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.


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?


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? 🤔


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):



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.


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.

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.