Comments on Elliot’s Article on IGCs

Elliot writes:

IGCs are a way of introducing Yes or No Philosophy and Critical Fallibilism. I’m posting this seeking feedback. Does this make sense to you so far? Any objections? Questions? Doubts? Ideas that are confusing?

I marked a part I found unclear with a 🤔

Ideas cannot be judged in isolation. We must know an idea’s goal or purpose. What problem is it trying to solve? What is it for? And what is the context?

Makes sense.

Your ideas about the appropriate use of commas are useful for writing, editing and offering writing criticism, but not useful for dealing with a house fire. So you can’t judge your comma ideas in a way that applies independently of the context that they’re intended to deal with. If someone asks you for help with dealing with a fire and you say that commas are mandatory to set off a long introductory clause or phrase, and do so on the basis that that comma-related statement is a perfectly good and true idea, that would be unhelpful and unreasonable.

If you speak of an idea being good without stating a context, you have to have at least some implied context in mind (like it’s useful for solving certain problems, it meets certain criteria of elegance you have for an idea in some field, whatever). Talking in a loose manner like that is okay if you understand what’s really going on.

So we should judge IGCs: {idea, goal, context} triples.
The same idea, “run fast”, can succeed in one context (a foot race) and fail in another context (a pie eating contest). And it can succeed at one goal (win the race) but fail at another goal (lose the race to avoid attention).

Makes sense. I thought the examples were concise and effective.

I think that with my example earlier, the house fire would be a context and a desire to put out the fire would be a goal.

Think in terms of evaluating IGCs not ideas.

A core question in thinking is: Does this idea succeed at this goal in this context? If you change any one of those parts (idea, goal or context) then it’s a different question and you may get a different result.
There are patterns in IGC evaluations. Some ideas succeed at many similar goals in a wide variety of contexts.

Yeah. Like the general idea of being organized succeeds for various goals in cooking, programming, and house tidiness.

Good ideas usually succeed at broad categories of goals and are robust enough to work in a fairly big category of contexts. However, a narrow, fragile idea can be valuable sometimes. (Narrow means that the idea applies to a small range of goals, and fragile means that many small adjustments to the context would cause the idea to fail.)
There are infinitely many logically possible goals and contexts. Every idea is in infinitely many IGCs that don’t work. Every idea, no matter how good, can be misused – trying to use it for a goal it can’t accomplish or in a context where it will fail.
Whether there are some universal ideas (like arithmetic) that can work in all contexts is an open question.

🤔 The IGC concept seems to treat contexts in a more precise way than people might typically talk about that concept. Given that, I am not sure what it would mean for an idea to work in all contexts. I think I’m getting tripped up on “all” specifically. Some ideas seem like they’d be irrelevant for some contexts, so I’m not sure what it would mean for an idea to work in a context for which it is irrelevant. Is there an implied qualifier on “all” that’s something like “for which the idea is relevant”? That’s one guess as to what Elliot might mean. I may have a big misunderstanding of what Elliot means by contexts, though. Not sure.

Regardless, all ideas fail at many goals. And there are many more ways to be wrong than right. Out of all possible IGCs, most won’t work. Totally random or arbitrary IGCs are very unlikely to work (approximately a zero percent chance of working).

Right. That’d be kind of like a creature with a totally random genetic code being well-adapted to some niche – very unlikely to happen.

Truth is IGC success – the idea works at its purpose. Falsehood or error is an IGC that won’t work. Knowledge means learning about which IGCs work, and why, and the patterns of IGC success and failure.
So far, this is not really controversial. IGCs are not a standard way of explaining these issues, but they’re reasonably compatible with many common views. Many people would be able to present their beliefs using IGC terminology without changing their beliefs. I’ve talked about IGCs because they’re more precise than most alternatives and make it easier to understand my main point.
People believe that we can evaluate both whether an idea succeeds at a goal (in a context) and how well it does. There’s binary success or failure and also degree of success.

Right. Like for the context of someone living in a Western country, someone could judge whether an idea succeeds at the “getting rich” goal. But then if the idea (say a business idea) does really well, they might say it really succeeded at the getting rich goal, as opposed to merely succeeded. So that would be a degree thing.

On the one hand I think that it can be reasonable to have a range of outcomes that you treat as a broad category of “succeeding at goal”. There doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong with that to me.

On the other hand, it seems like you could think of things in terms of multiple different goals, e.g. “get rich” and “get really rich”. And even if you didn’t know the exact point where the cutoff was between those two, you might know what definitely counts as one but not the other. So you might know that making $1 million counts as “rich” but not “really rich”, and that $10 million counts as “really rich” and not merely “rich”. So you could break down the “degrees” into different goals if you wanted to.

Therefore, it’s believed, we should reject ideas that will fail and then, among the many that can succeed, choose an idea that will bring a high degree of success and/or a high probability of success.
I claim that this is approach is fundamentally wrong. We can and should use only decisive, binary judgments of success or failure.
The main cause of degree evaluations of ideas is vagueness, especially vague goals.

My guess is that Elliot will address issues like the one I bring up with my rich versus really rich example when he talks about vagueness.

Reading Until the First Error, Test Prep, & Addressing an Objection


In a recent video Elliot talked about the idea of reading until the first important error as a method of engaging with literature (and here is some more relevant material in the same video). I recommend watching that (short) segment of the video as context. I thought of a somewhat different context for applying the idea of reading until the first error. The idea comes up in the test prep context, in which people prepare for standardized examinations involving multiple choice questions.

In the test prep context, people might have a question where, for example, they have to pick from five different ways of writing a sentence. What the test prep people teach you to do is to find a pattern or “split” in the five options. Here is a simple example I made up:

1) Apples is delicious very.
2) Apples are being very deliciously.
3) Apples are very delicious.
4) Apples is delicious.
5) Apples they are delicious.

You can knock out 1 and 4 with just a quick glance. You don’t need to get to the end of the sentence to identify those are wrong. You can quickly see the verb agreement problem (“apples” is plural, “is” is singular) and reject the answers on that basis. Then you have more time to spend analyzing the answers that don’t have these more obvious errors.

Addressing an Objection

Many people would see the value of reading until the first error in the test prep context, when what’s at stake is saving some time on an exam. Nevertheless, they might reject taking a similar read-until-the-first-error approach with a book. But presuming the basic method of reading until the first error works to save time in smaller cases, wouldn’t it be more important to use it when hours and hours of reading some literature reference with important flaws might be at stake?

Someone might object that there is value in the big thing (such as a book) despite it having errors, and so the person being referred to the thing shouldn’t reject the book because of some error. They might further claim that this situation is different enough from the test prep example that the read-until-the-first-error approach does not apply. If value being present in the books despite errors is the problem, the person making the reference to the book could do things like the following:

  1. Limit the scope of what they are citing to just the material they think is good and error-free (e.g. rather than citing a book, maybe they should only cite a specific chapter or section).
  2. State any qualifications, disclaimers, or modifications to the literature at the time they make the reference, so that the person can read the material with those qualifications in mind (e.g. if they think part 3 of a 4 part argument they are referencing needs a change in order for them to agree with it, say that).
  3. Be available to explain why alleged errors are unimportant, not relevant to the reason they are citing the material, not actually errors in light of further explanations in the book, and things like that.
  4. Write a summary/short version of the relevant parts of the book’s material with any errors cleaned up, with important differences from the book noted, and with references to the book as appropriate.

If the person making the literature reference does stuff like this, then they can still incorporate the literature into their argument without expecting that people read stuff while having objections. The person making a literature reference should be willing to address literature errors and try to at least “patch” the literature into something that they themselves would agree with. If they are unwilling to do that, it seems unreasonable for them to cite to the literature and expect others to read on despite those others seeing flaws.

Analysis of Two Passages That Discuss Suffering

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics Passage

From Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics:

I have to give a shout-out here to my teacher Shinzen Young, who wrote an excellent book about how meditation can help with chronic pain. His formula is one every human being should memorize: Suffering = Pain × Resistance. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Suffering (in his definition) is not. It comes from fighting or resisting some uncomfortable sensation or emotion or whatever. When we do this, there’s a snowball effect: tension spreads, and the original insult starts to reverberate through the whole mind-body tract, leading to even more discomfort, stress, and reactivity. The suffering amplifies.
You can literally watch this dynamic play out when your knee starts to hurt when you meditate. There is the pain of it, but there’s also your panicked judgment of the pain—Oh, man, this is only going to get worse; there is bracing in the body and the face; there may be a slight holding of the breath; and there is almost always that subtle aversion layer being activated. So one meditative solution is to counterintuitively focus on the center of the sensation of pain itself, relaxing and breathing into it, trying to let go of your aversion and develop a kind of field naturalist’s curiosity and acceptance instead. You watch your pain like it’s an intriguing little animal. When we do this, the pain itself can diminish dramatically and sometimes even disappear.

Good Things About This Passage

Stuff I liked in this passage:
1. Separating pain from suffering conceptually, and in particular discussing the issue in terms of there being pain and there being a judgment of the pain.
2. Treating suffering as a solvable issue.
3. Using a really concrete example regarding a knee which I think helps people understand the issue.
4. Bringing up the idea of adopting the perspective of a field naturalist, because that emphasizes having a more objective perspective. I think having an objective perspective is important for people to do when dealing with emotional issues.

Bad Things About This Passage

I disliked this part:

When we do this, there’s a snowball effect: tension spreads, and the original insult starts to reverberate through the whole mind-body tract, leading to even more discomfort, stress, and reactivity. The suffering amplifies.

I didn’t find that the mention of reverberation or the mind-body tract added clarity.

I also disliked:

Suffering = Pain Ă— Resistance.

I don’t like when people try to use math to reflect non-mathematical relationships in a metaphorical and imprecise way.

I found this writing unclear:

trying to let go of your aversion and develop a kind of field naturalist’s curiosity and acceptance instead.

Is “acceptance” supposed to be an attribute of the field naturalist? Cuz I can see curiosity being an attribute of a field naturalist but I’m confused about the acceptance idea, and thought maybe it was kind of separate from the attributes of the field naturalist. “Acceptance” is not concept I associate particularly strongly with field naturalists. I actually read “acceptance” as separate initially, but then I read it again and wasn’t sure. If the intent was to make it separate then I think maybe the writing is kind of awkward.


You can literally watch this dynamic play out when your knee starts to hurt when you meditate.

I’m not sure what the author intended to communicate by putting “literally” into this sentence.

Elliot Animal Welfare Tree

Elliot has written many blog posts on the subject of animal rights and animal welfare. One of the posts has a discussion treewith the following node:

Suffering is a state of mind. It requires having a mind which makes value judgments or otherwise has some sort of opinions: that it wants, prefers or likes some things over others. Then it can be disappointed, can form a negative judgment of a situation, etc. Without human-like intelligence, animals are unable to decide what they like or dislike. They don’t have any opinions. They don’t care one way or another because caring is a type of intelligent thought.

Good Things About This Passage

  1. The writing here is precise and clear about what claims it is making; there are no vague metaphors and there is no unclear use of math. Specifically, the relationship between suffering and judgment is clearly stated.
  2. It is concise. It says a ton in relatively few words.
  3. It is well-structured. We get a statement of position (that suffering is a state of mind), some reasons for that position, and an analysis of a consequence of that position using a specific example (animals).
  4. The argument presented is easy to follow and interesting.

I don’t think there is anything objectively bad about the passage when it is considered in context. It’s not a complete, self-contained argument, but it’s a node on a tree, not a treatise, so a failure to be complete would not be a criticism.

I think Elliot’s passage could be criticized from the perspective of certain goals (such as pandering and not offending people), but I think those goals are bad.