Failure modes of determinist goggles

[Content note: more free will / responsibility stuff, because apparently I never get sick of it.  Contains some qualifications on points I made last time which hopefully won’t be taken as defenses of what I criticized before.]

Now it’s the other side’s turn.

My last post was a diatribe of sorts against the societal values that I’m afraid free-will-leaning outlook on life will lead to (see “Political ideology and perception of free will” for an explanation of what I mean by “free-will-leaning” and “determinism-leaning”).  But I don’t consider an unchecked determinism-leaning outlook to be a good alternative.  In my opinion, it leads to a situation which might be equally dangerous in its own way, and which is the focus of today’s post.

I. What do determinist goggles do, exactly?

Parallel to their counterpart discussed in the last post, “determinist goggles”* are a metaphor I made up to describe a certain way of viewing the world — this time, involving a tendency to see conscious actions as determined by external factors.  While a human who makes a decision may still be nominally considered as somehow a responsible actor by someone wearing determinist goggles, all credit or blame will tend to be focused away from them and towards circumstances outside of their control.

According to the determinist-goggler, human society is composed of individuals whose capacities for accomplishing things are in very large part dictated by their genetic conditions, their upbringing, temporary conditions that they’re subject to (e.g. sickness, treatment by others in their lives), and large-scale societal forces which buffet them to and fro as they struggle along the winding road of life.  Freedom on some level exists but mainly belongs to those for whom such factors are less unfairly restrictive; maybe they should be held at least somewhat accountable for their occasionally destructive choices.  The rest of the population should be treated with sympathy for having a difficult road to follow; their mistakes can mostly be explained in terms of unfortunate factors they have no choice over, and those who do manage to triumph in spite of their circumstances should be applauded.  However, most successes and failures are brought about by good and bad circumstances respectively, and neither the winners nor the losers should receive judgment that they don’t really earn.

In the determinist-goggles-colored world, most of us have a rather hard time succeeding at various things through no fault of our own; yet, we are constantly getting blamed for our failures by others who refuse to see everything that’s tying us down.  The refusal of others to recognize the struggles we have had to go through is easily explained by the fact that they are more fortunate and have probably never had to face those particular struggles (either that or they have experienced our struggles first-hand but are too self-centered to be able to empathize when they apply to other people).  How convenient for them, what with their advantage of never having to actually understand anything about our handicaps, that they can so easily close dismiss our difficulties in order to give themselves credit for their relative success.

There’s one observation I want to get out of the way first.  It is surely the case that across cultures and throughout history, a number of ideologies or key components of ideologies have been inspired by the determinism-leaning mentality; Marxism comes to mind, for instance.  During my lifetime, a newer kind of determinist-goggles-ism has appeared to strengthen considerably and has materialized into an ideology which focuses on combating social inequalities brought about by privileges on various axes, nowadays often referred to as “Social Justice”.  This is nothing more or less than an independently living and breathing manifestation of the view from determinist goggles which has been fleshed out into a full-blown social and political belief system.

However, today I don’t intend to hone in on directly discussing the flaws in today’s Social Justice movement and in how its objectives are argued.  That is a target that’s already getting beaten to death in this part of the internet in particular and seems to be part of a wider culture war online (and the real world) in general.  I’d prefer to hold my focus on the purely determinist-goggles-colored view and the difficulties that arise from it, rather than getting bogged down in commenting on some vast body of cultural rhetoric which is being used to treat a wide array of concrete social ills.  I can’t promise that I’ve entirely succeeded at this, but I have tried to address the determinist-flavored mentality at the individual level as I did for its opposite, and I’ll leave it to the reader to connect the dots between the arguments I make and their applications to the current culture-wide discourse.

*It has been suggested to me that I replace the words “libertarian” and “determinist” in my “goggles” terminology with the expressions “high-agency” and “low-agency”.  This strikes me as most likely an improvement, but just for continuity’s sake, I’d rather make this post more consistent with the last one and save the change for next time.

II. Limitations on respect for limitations

As with the polar opposite pair of goggles which I treated in the last post, someone who puts their faith in determinist goggles will suffer from considering only one point of view while ignoring any and all hints of the other.  This is again the most direct and obvious (even tautological) fault to find with wearing one pair goggles of any type and never taking them off.  The committed determinist-goggler will fail to allow the possibility that they or the person they are sympathizing with can possibly change how they act, react, or feel about things that are happening to them.  This is problematic already, but it lends itself almost inevitably to further fallacies.

To understand the trap that one is vulnerable to falling into, I think we have to go back to the philosophical definition of determinism, even as I continue to stress that in practice one’s choice of goggles probably isn’t all that correlated to one’s choice of metaphysical beliefs. The view from the determinist goggles is still rooted in abstract determinism.  I’m going to say we might as well assume hard determinism rather than soft determinism here, because we’re talking about a model which renders virtually null the power to make free choices in any meaningful sense.

What is hard determinism?  When you get down to it, it’s the belief that everything, in particular every human action, is completely determined by prior events and therefore cannot happen differently (for some intuitive and meaningful definition of “cannot”).  So nobody — neither you and your friends, nor the antagonists in your narrative — can actually help what they’re doing.

The main criticism of this comes from the apparent implication that nobody can be held morally accountable for anything.  This is a problem because it seems to contradict the very foundations of most systems of ethics, but also because in practicality it utterly and profoundly goes against the way we human beings actually process what is happening to us.  When we like something we see in the world, we naturally want to praise those whose actions have put it that way; when we are upset with something we see in the world, we instead want to yell at those people and hold them accountable for fixing the problem (“those people” may occasionally includes ourselves, when we recognize our potential to change the world for the better).  Without being able to do this, we are stuck in a rather nihilistic reality where we essentially have no real purpose, lacking the capacity to directly enact change or to shame someone else into enacting change.  Nobody actually lives this way, regardless of the conclusions they may arrive at by doing philosophy.

Now go back to the determinist goggles, which don’t exactly make one a hard determinist but have an effect which is roughly similar.  In principle, the goggles should cause the wearer to go easy not only on themselves for their failures but also on their oppressors for their failures.  After all, everyone (not just ourselves or the people we’re sympathizing with at the moment) acts according to what circumstances dictate, right?

But in practice, nobody knows how to function according to this assumption.  So instead, determinist-gogglers tend to follow a slightly adjusted premise that some circumstances (conveniently, the ones they and their friends find themselves under) dictate negative behaviors while other circumstances (ones which apply to their adversaries), well, they’re not really a valid excuse for anything.

One can see this play out in local settings where attempts to enforce a determinist-goggles-ism which applies equally to all parties leads to an unsustainable system of social rules.  I’ve certainly witnessed such strife firsthand.  One person in a social unit explains that they can’t stand Behavior Y, that unfortunately they have an “emotional need” for Y not to be done in their general direction, so it’s imperative to adhere to a rule of not doing Y.  That’s all fine and good until someone else who interacts with them expresses their own “emotional need” to do Y, stating that it’s impossible for them to cope without doing Y.  Maybe everything can be worked out serenely within a group where at most one person wears determinist goggles.  But I imagine most groups probably have more than one determinist-goggler in them, and then it quickly becomes infeasible to come up with social contracts agreeable to everyone without first fighting a war over whose “needs” are actually valid.

I’d like to point out another scenario in which this conundrum shows up, perhaps slightly in disguise.  Determinist-goggles-ism tends to imply that one should always lend a helping hand to the less fortunate, because their misfortune is probably not their own fault.  Yet curiously, I’ve noticed that a lot of my acquaintances, despite generally appearing to have determinist goggles on, in certain contexts manage to avoid doing this.  For instance, I almost never witness anyone give money to homeless people on the street, not even the least judgmental and most empathetic people I know.  (Lest I sound holier-than-thou here, I admit to walking past beggars on a daily basis and rarely stopping to give them my spare change; I do feel bad about this despite the excuses I come up with.)  As to how they justify this, the most likely explanation seems to me that they assure themselves that their own difficulties (specifically financial ones) effectively prevent them from “being able to” lend a hand to people in a blatantly more desperate situation, or at least that one should look towards others of greater means to perform such acts of generosity.  And I’m not claiming this rationalization is entirely wrong.  But it looks to me like a lot of determinist-gogglers have succeeded in maneuvering towards a model in which their difficulties somehow kinda-sorta trump others’ (obviously worse) difficulties.

In fact, this even applies to the personal story I told last time about choosing to take a particular city bus without a ticket during one year, which I used as an example of something morally questionable that I tried to justify to myself through libertarian-free-will-ist thinking.  After I wrote about that, I got to remembering that I also had a second, quite different, rationale for this cheating behavior.  Recent months had not been particularly kind to me, and I felt that I’d been having a rough time.  I was, for the first time in my life, trying to establish myself in a new country, and it hadn’t exactly been smooth sailing.  Not only had I found myself majorly inconvenienced by countless hours of wasted time trying to navigate an unfamiliar system in a new language; I had recently wound up paying hundreds of Euros to the government unnecessarily.  Sure, I was still doing fine financially despite that, but I told myself that after all I’d been through, I deserved to get a small break just this once, even if that required a bit of cheating.  Now at first glance, under determinist-goggles-ism (certainly hard determinism) the concept of “desert” is questionable if not utterly meaningless.  But I think I had fallen prey to the temptation to privilege my own unfortunate circumstances over any difficulties I might create for others, in a similar fashion to what I described above in the begging example.

To sum up the point of this section, any attempt at modeling people’s behavior in terms of circumstances and “needs” in a pure and even-handed way is practically guaranteed to break down and devolve into a contest over which kinds of excuses are most valid.

III. Empower failures

In my view, the most crucial failure mode of the determinist goggles can be summarized in one word: disempowerment.

southpark_bloodymary.png                        from South Park’s season 9 episode “Bloody Mary” (warning: the episode’s content takes its title far too literally)


Everybody wants to feel empowered (at least in the front of their minds, most of the time).  That goes for wearers of determinist goggles as well.  So determinist-gogglers tend to go through all kinds of mental gymnastics (e.g. semantic manipulation like replacing the term “victim” with “survivor”) in order to emphasize what little control people have over their situations at the same time as granting them a sense of empowerment.  I contend that this is no more than a futile effort to have one’s cake and eat it too.  If one is going to ascribe to a belief system where someone’s action or state is determined by external forces, then an obvious immediate consequence is that someone has less power over their situation.  There’s no getting around it.

I don’t think there’s any need for me to delve too much into why powerlessness is bad.  Clearly it leads to hopelessness in bettering one’s situation as well as a lack of credit for (or ability to be inspired by) those who have (because the improvement in their situation was “just luck”).  Also — and I think this point is underacknowledged, but I won’t dwell on it today — it opens one up to deliberate bullying, oftentimes by extreme free-will-gogglers.

I sometimes ponder how wimpy so many of us would seem to the multitudes of all everyone who existed through the entirety of human history up to very recently (not to mention citizens of many developing countries today).  This may seem like a bit of a deviation from the main thrust above, but bear with me for a few moments and I hope the connection will become clear.  Throughout most of history, almost nobody was as privileged or financially comfortable as most citizens of developed countries are today.  Throughout most of history, many men had to do backbreaking labor for little pay; many women died in childbirth and most of those who didn’t still went through the process in incredible pain; disease was rampant; there was no “health insurance” as we know it and whatever healthcare was available was barbaric and terrifying by our standards and often did nothing to cure the recipient’s ailments anyway; although humankind was free of the hazards of modern technology, both institutions and human interactions were a lot less regulated and most people probably had far more reason to feel unsafe in their day-to-day lives; it was probably pretty common to remain for one’s lifetime within a radius of some 20 miles; and so on.  My presently-existing self for one would probably be pretty traumatized by some of what the average person had to go through even only a few centuries ago.

Today, most of us can’t imagine having to live the way our ancestors did.  Because of advances in science, medicine, law, and so on, we are able to enjoy an enormously higher quality of life, and accordingly, our tolerance for many things has become considerably weaker.  On the whole, this is something to be celebrated.  The kind of progress humankind has made and continues to make in preventing so much suffering and raising our standards and expectations is absolutely the noblest goal we as a species can strive for.  But every major step forward comes at some cost, and undoubtedly one such cost has been a collective decrease in hardiness and fortitude against what our still-chaotic world might throw at us.

Therefore, wherever we’re engaging in the fight for progress, as important as it is to highlight and foster a culture of sensitivity for the plights of those whose lives we want to improve, we should do so with an eye towards also empowering those individuals by allowing the possibility that they may yet pull themselves through adversity and come out stronger.  Ideally nobody should have to make the most out of unfair circumstances, but “ought” and “is” are two different concepts, and lack of fairness doesn’t imply lack of agency: the fact that someone is not to blame for their situation doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t something they could (and therefore should) do to better it, or at least to learn how to cope with it as long as it remains to be resolved.

This consideration helps me to understand where Richard Dawkins was coming from in his infamous “Dear Muslima” “open letter”, which touched off the internet war known as Elevatorgate — if you were anywhere near the atheist web around 2011 you may have heard of it.  Not that this puts me anywhere close to agreeing with it, mind you: Dr. Dawkins’ nastily sarcastic overreaction (and subsequent defenses) to what seems to me a mild and mostly reasonable request made by a feminist atheist was unjustified on multiple grounds.  (I’m not going to go easy on a man who holds himself up as a paragon of levelheadedness and rationality at every turn.)  In particular, Dawkins failed to acknowledge the validity of complaining about one particular problem given much worse problems in other places or during other historical periods.  He seemed not to recognize the fact that working hard to improve adverse conditions everywhere — not just at the place and time where they are worst — is nothing less than the face of progress itself and a part of what it means to have high standards.

Yet at the same time, I think I do understand a bit of the frustration behind Dr. Dawkins’ snarky words.  When progress has brought us to a point that our difficulties are tiny in comparison to the problems that were commonplace in recent memory or are rampant in other parts of the world, we should make at least some effort to respect that when we talk about them, to have perspective, to instill a conviction in our audience that although something is unacceptable, we will still be able to deal with it.  After all, look at what so many others have managed to endure.  We’re allowed and even encouraged to be upset about this thing, but talking about it like it’s The Worst Thing In The World when it’s clearly not might start to do more harm than good.  If that was Dawkins’ frustration, then I think he took it out wrongly on the particular activist he was attacking, but I do recognize where it may have been coming from.

On a more personal note, I have been extremely fortunate in the three decades of my life so far in just how little I have had to experience physical pain.  Nearly everyone I know by my age has had to go through a very unpleasant accident or a difficult recovery from some medical procedure, to say nothing of the agony that just about everyone suffered at some time or another in the days before modern medicine.  But I can’t help by worry that the statistical likelihood of facing severe pain bound to catch up with me one day and that due to my lack of experience I might not handle it well.  I remember reading the story of a guy on Reddit whose traumatic accident led to the most painful scene imaginable (which I haven’t the slightest desire to elaborate on) who made a side-comment about how sometimes it was nice to be able to remind himself that no painful event for the rest of his life would be anywhere near as agonizing as what he’d already gone through.  In a weird way, I almost envy this kind of security.

Now imagine a mildly futuristic world in which some humanistic organization is pushing for the creation and distribution of bodily implants which immediately ease even the most minor twinges of pain.  Disregarding possible risks that come from the weakening of our bodies’ natural alarm systems, this would seem like a marvelous step forward from the humanistic point of view: what could be a more worthwhile goal than to lessen suffering?  Now as far as the proponents’ rhetoric goes, the most persuasive flavor will probably strongly emphasize how bad even the most minor physical pain is.  In fact, such conviction will probably be sincere on the part of the most passionate members.  I have a feeling that in this hypothetical world, after enough exposure to such rhetoric, I’d likely grow even more intolerant of pain than I likely already am, perhaps extremely enough to reach the point that maybe even stubbing my toe would seem like a minorly traumatic event.  And I’m afraid that in the event of the pain-reduction-implants initiative falling through, or even if it passes but there are flaws in the implementation (as there always are), I would wind up in a rather weaker position when it comes to dealing with pain than real-me is today.

In my hypothetical sci-fi scenario above, of course it’s still a great idea to go ahead with the pain-reduction technology, and maybe even the most extreme “stubbing one’s toe is unbearable!” rhetoric is worth the potential downside I suggested.  But it should be done in a calculated way that doesn’t disregard that potential downside, and I have a feeling that determinist goggles are pretty likely to blind the wearer to this consideration.

This discussion may appear to have strayed far from my initial characterization of the determinist goggles, but the theoretical connection and empirical correlation are clear as day to me: the more one focuses on external circumstances, the more one relies on external changes to maximize one’s state of well-being.  And while such an attitude has probably been the crucial force behind much of human progress which has succeeded in improving well-being all over the world, it can also have the effect of disempowerment on the individual level.  And it might be good to keep that in mind.

IV. Lack of might makes right

I’ve seen another common abuse of the determinist goggles which alarms me even more, though.  To motivate my perception of it, I’ll start by recalling something I read online a very long time ago — I must have been in high school still — on some right-wing site.  I don’t actually remember where this was or the exact wording, but it was a phrase about liberals that went something like

left-wing principles, where people are judged more according to their grievances than according to their deeds.

This was long before I started framing everything in terms of deterministic vs. free-will-libertarian positions, and I was (and still am) fairly liberal myself, but this snide throwaway line stuck with me and gave me serious food for thought.  I don’t think it’s a fair branding of liberalism in principle, but over the years I have come to suspect that the American Left is being guided by a giant pair of determinism goggles, and the “judge people according to their grievances” mentality does seem like an easy trap to slip into if one gets overly dependent on them.

The pure, idealized version of a moderately determinist-leaning viewpoint is the assumption that there are hidden external forces behind people’s behavior, so we should refrain from giving them all the credit for doing well and go easy on them when they do badly.  To the extent that it makes sense in the first place to assign praise and blame to people for their actions, possible causes outside of their control should always be entered into the equation.  In particular, if we see someone doing poorly at life, we should cut them some slack and lean towards believing that they really are putting in a laudable amount of effort despite the fact that on the outside they look like they’re doing poorly.  It only takes a short leap of logic to go from this to the belief that someone is laudable because on the outside they look like they’re doing poorly.  (Or conversely, the belief that someone is automatically deplorable because on the outside they look like they’re doing really well for themselves.)

And I do see evidence in many people’s rhetoric of this logical leap taking place subconsciously.  This worries me particularly in the case of someone openly exposing their own tendencies towards unproductive behavior or general difficulties in coping (e.g. severe anger) in a boastful tone, as though it’s somehow a virtuous trait in itself rather than an understandable reaction to something tough they’re going through.  In some extreme cases, this declaration seems to be performative rather than truthful, a thinly-veiled form of bragging and vying for status.

I hesitate to make this point, because I’m afraid it could be easy to misunderstand and get taken very badly, but I see a crucial difference between recognizing that someone is virtuous in spite of their weakened state and deciding that they are virtuous because of it.  It’s the difference between being able to receive empathy and understanding for one’s failings and being compelled to cling onto a righteous indifference towards overcoming them.

I can’t think of any popular quote which annoys me more profoundly than this one.  I blame it on determinist goggles.

Determinist goggles may seem like a much more enlightened and progressive alternative to their libertarian-free-will counterparts, instilling empathy and compassion in those who glimpse through them.  The world through determinist goggles appears at first glance to be one where everyone is just doing whatever they can just to muddle through and should be understood rather than morally judged for the situations they wind up in.  But on viewing reality this way long enough, one learns to lose hope for actual remedies to the variety of problems being faced by humankind.  It is a world where the only practical way to live is to assume that some people do have genuine agency and that the rest are powerless to do anything other than wring their hands and sit around waiting for those free agents to act.  Taken to an extreme, this reality will eventually devolve into a society where the weak are assumed to hold innate moral superiority over the strong even while the very categories of “weak” and “strong” can only be defined relative to each member’s point of view, and such a society cannot hope to function.


Failure modes of libertarian* goggles

*metaphysical (not political)

[Content note: more musings on cause and effect, free will, and moral responsibility, touching on the rationale behind sins ranging from general ableism and classism to greedy cookie-grabbing.]

Now it’s time for me to delve deeper into what I have called before the “libertarian-free-will mindset” and the “deterministic mindset”.  In this post, I explained what I mean by these competing concepts and emphasized that I see them as a major component of almost every disagreement and debate.  At the time I was using the clumsy terms “free-will-leaning” and “determinism-leaning” in referring to them, but more recently I’ve come up with “libertarian goggles” (with the understanding that we are using “libertarian” in the metaphysical rather than the political sense, though political libertarians are probably gazing through these a lot of the time too) and “determinist goggles”.  I think this is less awkward… or maybe it’s more awkward, but for now I’m going to stick with them anyway.  The word “goggles” in each case is intended to stress that I’m gesturing towards a way that people tend to perceive things: again, all of this has very little to do with anyone’s abstractly-held philosophical position (which they may not have developed anyway), but the assumptions they tend to make when sizing up a situation involving human behavior.  Someone can study philosophy and decide that the arguments for incompatibilist free will are the most valid, while in their day-to-day lives they tend to excuse people’s behavior as the function of their background and environment; someone else can behave likewise without having ever given a single thought to the academic philosophical issue of free will in the first place.

Today I want to explore the flaws in the view through libertarian goggles and exactly how it may affect a person’s judgment or the rationalizations they construct for it (I intend to get to my issues with determinist goggles in the next post).  This may sound like the premise for another dispassionate essay written in a cerebral, sitting-back-in-my-armchair-musing voice.  Actually, this essay feels to me like more of a personal rant than it might seem on the surface from my tone.  I’ve known people who rarely seem to take their libertarian goggles off, and they frustrate me.  In several cases, I feel that I’ve been directly victimized by them via this mode of thinking.  In my experience, they are prone to several logical fallacies which might not necessarily from the free-will libertarian premise but which I am going to speculate are at least strongly correlated with a tendency to view the world through nondeterministic-free-will-ish assumptions.  I don’t promise any kind of clinching argument to show that this is the case; I’m mainly just going to describe my observations of such a correlation.

Before I begin, I should of course make the obvious disclaimer that I realize humans are complex and it would be foolish to imply that they fit neatly into the categories of “libertarian gogglers” and “determinist gogglers”.  But I’ve known a number of people who appear pretty far in one direction or the other even while this doesn’t apply to anywhere near everyone, just as I’ve known a number of people whose political views align clearly with the right or the left while at the same time a lot of other people are centrist.

I. What do libertarian goggles do, exactly?

The “libertarian goggles” I speak of are a metaphor meant to describe a certain way of viewing the world.  Libertarian goggles cause the wearer to see most conscious actions as completely free choices which bring with them moral responsibility.

The world viewed through libertarian goggles looks like a bunch of people choosing to do bad things and then placing the blame for their behavior on the folks around them, or their genetics (in particular, sickness or disability), or Society, or The Government, or This Bad Economy, instead of on themselves for not trying harder.  Nobody is bound by the conditions they find themselves in; therefore, to pretend that they are amounts to excuse-making.  It’s all a matter of attitude, plain and simple.  And the allure of being able to explain their own failures away by putting them on other people or on supposedly extenuating circumstances is strong enough that it blinds them to all of the agency they really have.  This is the main reason why so many others (who lack libertarian goggles and the wisdom they bring) wind up learning to explain so many things with a deterministic model.  These people would be so much better off, so much more able in their own lives and in not damaging the lives of others, if only they would see this, because understanding one’s own freedom empowers one to overcome any difficulty.

People failing at things don’t make up the whole world, of course.  There are plenty of people who do really well, and they manage this mainly through pushing themselves and not falling into the rut of blaming the rest of the world for their difficulties.  Where they start out and just how much effort they have to exert to pull themselves up is essentially irrelevant when it comes to bestowing praise: someone from a less fortunate background has just as much ability to move upwards as anyone else, and the fact that they start out in a lower position only means more reason that they ought to work hard to improve their situation.


It follows from what we see through the libertarian goggles that doling out pep talks rather than sympathy to those who are struggling seems like a reasonable way to go.  And if someone asks for our help when they clearly could be pushing harder to better themselves instead of trying to leach off of other people, then naturally we will be reluctant to help them if in doing so we slow ourselves down on our own journey upwards (which tends to be a risk of sacrificing for someone else).  In fact, helping them would actually be doing them a disservice, more often than not, because it would instill a reliance on other people for support rather than on their own willpower.  Surely it’s much more virtuous to stand back and let those who are in trouble hit bottom so that they have no choice but to learn how to bounce back from adversity on their own steam.  Tough love, and all that.

Needless to say, I’ve seen that last idea held up as the rationale for any and all forms of bullying.  A society which places faith in libertarian goggles can be a pretty harsh place.  But might this framework still lead to a coherent model, however harsh, of the world in which we live?

Well, it’s clear enough to me that the model is fundamentally flawed and does not lead to a full picture of the territory.  The sort-of-tautological criticism that can be made against the libertarian-leaning view which stands out immediately in the context of other things I’ve written here is that the libertarian goggles act as a shield against incoming gadflies whispering deterministic heresy.  That guy over there seems to be acting irresponsible for no apparent rational motive and claims that he’s trying to stop acting that way but has trouble controlling it for some reason.  His behavior doesn’t match the symptoms of any of the three or four disorders that we acknowledge exist.  Without libertarian goggles we might be receptive to at least the vague suggestion that there’s something wrong with the guy — something deep in his wiring and therefore not entirely under his free control — which doesn’t have a name yet (or that his behavior might be influenced by his upbringing or how society treats one or more demographic categories that he fits into etc., all aspects of his life we’re not in a position to understand right now).  The small handful of very well-known conditions which we do recognize weren’t always known; they had to be discovered through the study of medicine.  There are undoubtedly many other such conditions which still haven’t been discovered.  But once we’re wearing the libertarian goggles, we’re no longer open to considering such a notion; we’re sticking with our very conservative List of Known Conditions and it doesn’t occur to us to seek any explanation from outside of it.  We will instead throw up our hands and invoke a sort of mysterious Agency of the Gaps to explain away his behavior… which is just another way of saying that we’ll conclude that it’s his own damn fault, because somehow he chooses to have a weaker will or less moral fiber than we have.

This is obviously not the right approach for investigating empirical reality, for a number of reasons including those outlined in my post about “gadfly speculations”.  (The analogous criticism is equally valid, of course, for the determinist-goggles mindset, but I’m waiting until another day to pick on that.)  However, my issue with the libertarian-goggles approach extends beyond its inherently fallacious nature to the fact that in my experience it brings with it a bundle of other wrong-headed attitudes, which I attempt to describe below.

II. The strong link in the chain

I wanted to separate under several headings my criticisms of what I consider to be harmful ways of thinking that come from wearing the libertarian goggles for too long, but I couldn’t help but realize that they’re all just different ways of looking at the same core idea.

I remember once hearing a little parable that had been passed among the philosophy students at my university, which went like this.  In some fictional philosophy department (at least, obviously not ours), it is arranged for there to be a large plate of cookies laid out each day as free food for the poor undergrads and grad students in the department.  (Note that there are always many more students than cookies, but I suppose the point is that there should always be some food resource during the day, however small, for the most exhausted students to dip into to keep their sugar levels up.)  But many of the faculty members have a habit of grabbing cookies for themselves, even though they are obviously meant for the students.  One day there are ten cookies on the plate, and ten professors each take a cookie.  In this way, the cookies disappear one by one, so that by the late morning they are all gone and none of the philosophy majors who wanted a little sugar rush have had the opportunity to get any.  The students are understandably annoyed and looking for someone to blame.  The thing is, it wouldn’t have bothered anyone if only two or three of the cookies had disappeared.  It wouldn’t even have been such a problem for nine out of the ten cookies to be gone: the state of greater-than-zero cookie material being available for snacking emergencies is all that mattered.  So it’s tempting to blame the professor who took the last cookie.  But somehow it doesn’t seem fair to put all the blame on her.  The philosophy students spend so much of their energy arguing about it that soon they are all in dire need of a pick-me-up, which is a problem because meanwhile there are still no cookies and they’re no closer to agreeing on who should be held accountable.

I hypothesize (with all the weight of my authority as an armchair social psychologist) that the philosophy majors who are libertarian-gogglers are distinctly more likely than the rest to put the default blame on the professor who took the last cookie.  I call this “privileging the final link in the causal chain”.  In our cookie example, the causal tree looks pretty simple, with all of the choices leading up to the final result being independent.  It can be drawn as a directed graph looking something like this (time flows left to right; the yellow node represents the “no cookie material left in plate” state).


In our real world, most causal trees look more like this, with many choices influencing other choices.


At each node (except yellow one on the right, which represents a final state), some agent made a decision, for better or for worse.  In my opinion there’s actually a pretty straightforward way to quantify the rightness or wrongness of each of these decisions.  But that doesn’t tell us anything about which decision-maker ultimately deserves praise or blame for the final state, because as I’ve argued before, agency does not imply moral responsibility.  It follows that it is dubious to assume that the main responsibility lies with, say, one of the agents at the nodes directly pointing to the rightmost one above, just because those decisions happened after the other ones which influenced them.

But I find myself in disagreements with certain people — and from my observations those people are the kind that are wearing libertarian goggles a lot of the time — who seem to assume without questioning that the responsibility lies entirely with whomever made the most recent decision (indicated by red nodes in the pictures above).  And I’ve found it hard to convince them otherwise.

This particular fallacy takes on many variants.  One of them is putting primary responsibility on someone (agent X) for choosing one out of the only two actions A and B allowed to them by someone else (agent Y).  Agent Y may have foisted upon X a choice between two equally unethical actions A and B, and it seems clear enough to me that Y deserves somewhat more of the blame than X does for whichever one of them X chooses.  But I remember once discussing such a philosophical thought experiment with a group of my colleagues over lunch, where Y is somehow forcing X to choose between killing two people, and I was surprised at how many of them thought it obvious that X was primarily guilty for whichever murder results, having been the one to actually pull the trigger.

Another variant, fairly common in political discourse I think, is the notion that it’s fair to judge agents equally for performing the same action with the same result, even if these choices were influenced by very different sets of circumstances.  This disagreement can take place even between people who agree that both agents should be judged negatively but differ on what should be the appropriate magnitude of punishment for each of them.  A typical dialogue between a Libertarian-Goggler (abbreviated LG) and a Devil’s Advocate (abbreviated DA, whom I consider the hero in this scenario for playing the gadfly role) might look something like this.

LG: I propose that the law against committing A should be applied equally to citizens X and Y, since they both did it to the same negative effect.

DA: But is that fair?

LG: What do you mean, “fair”?

DA: Citizen X was essentially manipulated into doing A, while citizen Y made a very conscious choice to do it.  They both need to be penalized, but surely it’s unfair to treat X as harshly as we treat Y, given X’s extenuating circumstances.

LG: It’s perfectly fair.  Both chose to do A when they could have made a different decision, do you deny that?

DA: No, but consider the fact that citizen X didn’t hadn’t been properly exposed to all the facts surrounding the ramifications of doing A, was in a more desperate situation that made A harder to avoid, and had less beneficial alternate choices at his disposal than citizen Y did.

LG: Could Mr. X have made himself less ignorant if he’d tried hard enough to learn the relevant information?

DA: Well, technically yes…

LG: And could Mr. X still have overcome temptation to do the right thing, which would still mean not doing A, even if the other choices were less than ideal?

DA: Yes…

LG: Then both should be held equally responsible for what they did.

DA: Come off it!  You know the situations aren’t equal, so it’s unfair!

LG: Were their choice-making capabilities not equal?  Either you have free choice or you don’t… [And so on.]

My claim about where libertarian-gogglers tend to stand in such debates begs the question of why the libertarian goggles should influence one’s thinking in this way.  Before writing all this out I imagined introducing my answer to this in a big reveal that might sound clever.  But actually, since I opted for abstract descriptions without real examples, the way I’ve written it already renders the connection pretty obvious.

Libertarian goggles impede one’s ability to recognize the legitimacy of circumstantial factors in choice-making.  Since they highlight freedom in choice-making abilities, external influences (genetics, upbringing, physical/mental conditions, surrounding societal forces, etc.) fade into the background.  When someone decides to do something, an observer wearing libertarian goggles sees the event of that choice clearly without considering the backdrop of events leading up to it.  Such events include other nodes in the causal chain, or restrictions placed on the choice-maker, or aspects of the life of the choice-maker which have led them up to the point of making said choice.  The scenarios I laid out above are all variants of this kind of blind spot.

Now libertarian goggles don’t render the wearer completely unable to perceive the presence of extenuating circumstances surrounding a decision.  Libertarian-gogglers (or at least most of them) aren’t so delusional that they entirely refuse to acknowledge that certain conditions or prior events might make things easier or more difficult for the people they’re observing.  What they refuse to acknowledge is the notion that such factors affect in any way the essential freeness, and therefore the attached moral responsibility, associated to the choices themselves.  In other words, even if they view the factors as factors in some physical or psychological sense, they don’t fully recognize their influence in a metaphysical sense with ethical import.  I assume there’s some limit to the degree of distortion provided by even the strongest libertarian goggles out there — for instance, hopefully the wearer would recognize that the classic scenario of having a gun held to one’s head is a factor that sharply reduces autonomy and the weight of moral responsibility.  But I often suspect it’s the case that the distortion can be severe enough in a number of cases to stretch the wearer’s perceptions to the edge of what “basic social common sense” allows.

The upshot is that the libertarian-goggler will survey an event that resulted from human choices and zoom in on exactly one of those choices that lead to it.  Which of course is exactly what I was arguing against here, via some sort of “argument by symmetry” showing that there are no grounds for arbitrarily privileging one node over others.

III. Reaching the logical conclusion

I’ve already alluded to the obvious potential for certain malicious types of bullying that can arise from abusing the guidelines outlined above for navigating life via the libertarian-free-will route (which I would describe as a very narrow path with “tough love” on one side and “overt disgust for those doing worse than you do” on the other).  Let me now mention a related nasty behavior that just naturally appears at the end of the path the libertarian-goggler travels on.  It is often colloquially referred to as “victim-blaming”.

Victim-blaming occurs when a crime is committed against someone and that someone, the victim of the crime, is met with moral judgment for having failed to act more wisely in order to prevent that crime.  I claim that this unfair reaction is essentially the natural logical conclusion of libertarian-free-will-colored thinking.  It is precisely what can result from a habit of wrongly isolating particular agents in a complicated situation as the bearers of primary responsibility.

In my experience, true, explicit victim-blaming (as in actually placing the blame on the victim rather than merely pointing out that they would have been better off doing something differently) is relatively rare on the individual level, although many other types of rhetoric are easily mistaken for it.  However, I’ve definitely seen plenty of the more abstract variant of blaming a governing system for not managing to sufficiently enforce rules against things that will hurt them.  On a small scale, this can take the form of cheating and finding various minor shortcuts that go against the rules because of the unlikelihood of getting caught and/or light punishments for those who are, and then defending one’s behavior on the grounds that “if they cared that much about us not cheating they would do a better job of enforcing the rules”.  Here someone is ignoring all the potential constraints on the rules enforcement system which is running things, and ultimately putting the blame on the people running that system, rather than themselves, if things go badly (that is, if they cheat and this harms someone else).  And yes, a few years ago I began to notice that the people I knew who seem to explicitly or implicitly endorse rationalizations of this kind were the ones whose views on current issues seemed the most influenced by libertarian goggles; in fact, I think that very observation is what started me down my train of thought that has led me to writing this post today.  And I’m willing to bet that there’s a strong correlation between full-on victim-blaming and libertarian goggles as well.

But lest I sound like I’m preaching from a high horse, I can definitely point to a blatant example of this behavior in myself.  During my first year in the city where I currently reside, I was living just outside of the city and was very dependent on public transportation.  A lot of my daily movements were within official city limits, but my home was just outside of them.  Very annoyingly, the monthly fee for transportation passes costs twice as much when including the zone surrounding the main city.  Each month I paid to recharge my transportation card for within city limits only, with the intention of finding ways to avoid using the one last bus that went outside the limits to take me to my apartment.  But eventually I succumbed to laziness and developed the habit of taking that bus anyway, despite the fact that I had no valid ticket for it.

The bus system here is run in such a way that nobody ever checks for tickets except for controllers who only board buses very occasionally.  The fine for being caught without a ticket is some 30 Euros.  My decision to pay for only the cheaper monthly pass and ride dirty for that one route proved to be a rational one from the point of view of personal finances: visits by controllers are so rare that I was only caught once during that year, and the 30-Euro fine I paid was far less than the money I saved by not paying for extra-urban access.  But more interesting was the way I constantly tried to justify this choice of breaking the rules on an ethical (rather than rational-self-interest) level.  I kept pointing to the fact that obviously this city does a very lackadaisical job of enforcing payment for bus rides.  And somehow I convinced myself (and even still sort of halfway believe) that if I was doing harm by getting illicit rides on that bus, it was really the city’s fault for failing to deter me from it — this was often dressed up as “the fact that they clearly don’t try that hard to enforce it means it must not matter very much to many people”.  Never mind the fact that the city legislators probably have their hands tied in ways I can’t imagine, or that it’s those who are lower on the rungs of the economic ladder rather than the rule-makers that were likely to suffer indirectly from my actions, etc.  Sometimes selective blame-assigning can be so tempting.

If you have read up to this point, you may be objecting that what I’m describing in this section doesn’t really follow as a natural conclusion of what I detailed previously with a node directly pointing to the rightmost one being singled out as the ultimate cause of some effect.  Surely when a crime is committed, the final decision involved in the causal chain is that of the criminal or rule-breaker, so the libertarian-goggler would blame the criminal rather than the victim?  My answer is that I’m not contending that the libertarian-leaning mentality dictates that one should necessarily point the finger at the one whose decision came temporally last.  My thesis is that the libertarian-leaning mentality disregards the difference between agency and ultimate responsibility and singles out one decision as carrying the moral weight, based on whichever one is most convenient to single out.  In a lot of contexts, this is one of the decisions which comes temporally last with an arrow pointing directly to the effect, because absent other deciding features of the situation this may seem like the canonical choice.  In other contexts of personal involvement, the most convenient agent on whom to load the blame is one which is definitely not you or your friends, and preferably one which is remote and faceless (e.g. “the city” for not disciplining bus-riders effectively).

The point is that the libertarian-goggler, wanting to focus on someone’s freedom of choice not bound by other forces, finds themself in the tricky position of selecting one node in the diagram as representing freedom in the truest sense, because the model of absolute freedom begins to break down when considering more than one agent in the same picture.  And sometimes this means they have to be a little bit arbitrary in their selection process.

The world through libertarian goggles can appear an exciting and beautiful place, where everyone has indefinite unfettered potential and is empowered to overcome any seeming obstacles in their way to achieve what they desire provided they desire it badly enough.  But one consequence of denying that difficulties can be legitimate hindrances is that we all feel entitled to withhold help from the less successful lest they drag us down instead of pulling themselves up as we want to keep doing for ourselves.  In the end we face the danger of finding ourselves in a world where blame is bestowed entirely on those who fail for their failures regardless of unfortunate circumstances; credit is doled out only to those who succeed regardless of luck and privilege; and those who climbed their way to the top through whatever means they could get away with feel justified in looking down upon those whose heads they stepped on.  In short, it is a world which legitimizes the domination of the weak by the strong.

Confessions of a helpless epistemon

[Content note: Staying in the realm of useless abstractness and away from concrete examples.  This is the longest I’ve ever had a substantial unfinished draft lying around — around four months! — which is a record I hope will never be reached again on this blog.  Hopefully the tone and focus hasn’t been too badly diluted by this gap.]

I was so pleased when I first encountered the term “epistemic helplessness”, because it described my own mental state so much of the time.

Feeling misunderstood is a hallmark of the emotional experience of the typical teenager, but probably most humans at any stage of life experience this emotion regarding some aspect of who they are.  For me, I oftentimes think that the main element behind what routinely causes other people to not relate to me comes down to a state of epistemic helplessness which is fairly dominant in my perception of the outside world.

But before I get into the misunderstandings which I attribute to this uncomfortable epistemological state, I should first try to convey what “epistemic helplessness” means when I apply the description to myself, or at least what it feels like from the inside.

To put it rather vaguely, I feel that I like in a world of uncertainty.  Now I’m pretty sure* that everyone feels that way to some degree.  But the longer I’ve lived, the stronger an impression I’ve gotten that relative to most of the people around me, I’m quite uncertain of empirical facts.  Not just simple statements about the physical world, but also (and especially!) assessments of complex constructs and situations involving many humans, such as political events.  On any given topic, there are about a hundred other (pretty easily visible) people, clearly far more knowledgeable in that arena than I’ll ever be, who are arguing from multiple sides of it.

And when I say “uncertainty”, I don’t mean it in the sense of being inclined towards assigning probabilities to things and updating based on incoming evidence — what some call Bayesianism — rather than leaning towards believing something is absolutely true or absolutely false.  If anything, my Bayesian mindset makes me feeling more epistemically empowered; it certainly doesn’t constitute any mental state that I would call “helplessness”.  No, I mean “uncertainty” as in often having no idea where to begin in assessing a situation, because no matter how much the evidence seems to suggest one outcome (or probabilities assigned to a set of possible outcomes), life is always complicated enough that there’s sure** to be something else I haven’t considered.

I suffer from too much imagination, and that clearly lies at the root of this issue.  Part of the definition of maturity is having respect for how complicated the world we live in really is.  But an excess of respect for this complexity can be paralyzing.  It means that no matter how much evidence you see for some involved idea or stance, no matter how many reasonable-sounding arguments are made, all of that justification amounts to almost zero in the vast sea of uncertainty made up of so many vague might-be’s coming from all directions.  To make things worse, there’s a certain laziness ingrained in my intellect where I tend not to be well researched on most topics I find myself discussing — this is something to do with the fact that I’m interested in a lot of things but only seem able to muster Interest in a seemingly arbitrary subset of them.  The result is that I’m often much less knowledgeable than my acquaintances about whatever issue we’re debating.  All in all, sometimes the urge to just throw up one’s hands and give up the search for truth (or the quest to get as close as possible to it) is irresistible.

So when all is said and done, an overload of respect for complexity probably doesn’t lead to the most sophisticated approach to analyzing our universe.  And of course, from the outside, some of the rhetorical behavior that results from it is hard to tell apart from naïvité and a lack of respect for complexity.

* Yes, the turn of phrase “I’m pretty sure” seems to contradict what I just said in the previous sentence, but it so happens that I do have relatively reasonable levels of confidence in my understanding of how other individuals function; see below.
** And yes, the start of this sentence makes me sound awfully uncharacteristically confident as well, but clearly certain meta-level propositions are exempt from my perpetual tendency towards uncertainty; this is definitely apparent below.

I strongly suspect that a lot of those people with whom I’ve found myself discussing some contentious issue or question quietly carry an impression of me as excessively timid and mild in my opinions, or trying to disagree equally with everyone, or even as somewhat “radically centrist“.  True, I’ve already admitted on this blog that I did have tendencies towards “radical centrism” at some earlier times in my life (by the way, I thought I was making up that phrase at the time I wrote that post — add another to the list of terms that already existed at the time I “invented” them).  But while that flaw isn’t entirely unrelated, I am not typically trying to lean towards the most central or even the most neutral position on any current topic of discussion.  Instead, I’m leaning towards no position, because in the world as I see it there is surely a possible counterpoint to every point being put forth.

But the misconception of my thought processes is probably worsened by the fact that I often come off as rather lazy in backing up my claims that there might be other sides to some issue.  This is because my doubts are often based not in concrete speculations but in vague suspicions that “this kind of thing” always has other possible explanations.  So the scene isn’t necessarily one where I’m playing the role of a gadfly poking and prodding with actual concrete suggestions, but one where I’m despondently deflecting other people’s assertions with vague, almost trollish-sounding remarks like “well it depends on who you ask” and “there are multiple sides to every story” and “there are always more obstacles for someone in that position than we might think”.  For instance, I oftentimes have an attitude like this in the face of erupting scandals over the actions or inactions of persons in powerful-looking positions — I have a tendency to reserve my judgment on the basis of “I have a feeling there’s a lot more dry bureaucracy involved for that individual than we know about, having no idea what their day-to-day program is actually like”.  And it can be hard to make others understand that at least in theory I’m addressing things this way out of a profounder sense of uncertainty than what they seem to routinely experience, rather than out of an excess of charity or just plain (slightly obnoxious) laziness.

A further irony is that at least half the time, my opinions aren’t interpreted as stubbornly noncommittal but rather the opposite: it’s assumed that deep down I must have a strong opinion one way or the other, and since I seem skeptical of the confident views being put in front of me, I must be taking the other side of the debate.  In these cases I suppose that not only does my level of uncertainty come across as overly lazy, but that it comes across as so unbelievably lazy that it can’t be genuine: I’m obviously just being coy about the fact that I positively disagree.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints about having one’s opinion shoehorned by others via a false dichotomy, but I’m often still taken aback at how inconceivable to some people it apparently is that my opinion could ever be one of genuine agnosticism.

A number of people through the course of my life have been concerned about how often and strongly I seem to rely on majority opinion.  I can’t tell you how many times it’s been pointed out to me that I can’t base my tentative conclusions (which aren’t always properly recognized as tentative; see above) on “what other people think”, because Other People is obviously a very fallible source of factual beliefs.  This criticism is of course only a minor variant on the classic “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?” argument.  In my opinion there’s a pretty obvious rebuttal to the typical bridge-jumping objection, but I prefer to lay out the initial response that usually goes through my head (despite it being less precise and more on the emotional side) whenever I’m warned about the dangers of citing majority opinion.

There is a famous quote from science fiction writer and skeptic Isaac Asimov that I always think of in this context, although the analogy required will be a rather loose one:

“Don’t you believe in flying saucers?” they ask me.  “Don’t you believe in telepathy? – in ancient astronauts? – in the Bermuda triangle? – in life after death?”

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out “Don’t you believe in anything?

“Yes,” I said. “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.”

A lot of the time I feel sort of like Mr. Asimov being pestered to believe in a bunch of controversial phenomena.  Only instead of supernatural or paranormal things, I’m being bombarded with claims that sound scientific or somehow common-sense, along with arguments for them that sound perfectly reasonable on first hearing.  “Don’t you believe in my amateur understanding of the nutritious value of ingredient X?  On my sensible-sounding but simplistic argument on the dangers of activity Y to one’s health?  On my elementary mathematical demonstration of why economic policy Z is a good idea?”  Or even occasionally, “Don’t you believe my factual claim based on evidence provided by that specific scientific authority whose paper I can refer you to (in a field where the experts constantly disagree and the consensus changes every 10 years)?”

And my response basically boils down to “No, no, no, no.”  Or more specifically, “There’s always another side we’re not thinking of right now or an aspect we just can’t understand from our position; there’s always another expert who disagrees; etc.”

One can imagine my interlocutor throwing their hands up in exasperation at this point and crying, “Don’t you believe in some kind of claim using some kind of justification?  Or are you just infinitely skeptical about everything?”

And my answer is, “Yes!  I believe in evidence.  But not necessarily everything that you might consider good evidence.  I mean evidence that appeals to both the overly-imaginative and the lazy intellects.  Evidence that makes some assertion look significantly more likely regardless of how many additional wrinkles to the situation we may not be considering.  Evidence that shines out as a truly unambiguous beacon in my very foggy world.”

For me, majority opinion is serious concrete evidence of this kind.  It is not absolute proof.  The majority can be wrong.  My perception of what actually is the majority belief is also prone to error, especially because my view of the majority often doesn’t extend beyond my local bubble.  But a lot of the time, what Other People think is a far stronger indicator that a certain assertion is at least worth seriously considering than one person’s plausible-but-overly-simple-looking explanation of it.

Think of it this way: my concern is that I can’t understand most issues well enough to properly evaluate all sides of them and that I can’t trust most other individuals to understand them well enough for this either, no matter how confidently they claim to.  But if a large collection of other people, each with their own knowledge of various aspects of the problem, generally takes a particular side?  Now we’re essentially looking at an average over many outcomes, which is clearly more statistically significant than a the outcome of a single experiment whose degree of uncertainty appears rather high.

The importance I put on what other people think is complemented, perhaps, by a fair amount of confidence in how other people function.

I can’t fully explain or justify this, but I think it’s inherent both in how I navigate real life and in how I argue in my persuasive writing.  On this blog, for instance, when I’m not framing and justifying the points I make in terms of dry abstract logic, I’m generally appealing to some striking impression of human behavior, in particular to provide explanations for why we humans make the rhetorical mistakes that we make.  My whole thing about free-will explanations versus deterministic ones (on which I intend to expand soon with a series of other posts) was pretty much entirely an appeal to this sensibility, once I got past the pure philosophizing on the problem of free will.

I call this my “social sense”.  It’s largely built on my commitment to empathy and increasing experience with other people, and therefore my confidence in it is only getting stronger the older I get.  I’d say that “social sense” appears to have a pretty good track record with me, but that’s probably largely an illusion arising from an ability to re-frame things in accord with my already-existing convictions on how humans act, rather than from any tested predicative power.

Maybe I can try to explain this confidence in “social sense” as follows.  There’s a common misconception that emotions are inherently irrational, so to be as rational as possible we have to minimize our reliance on emotion, and so on.  I call this a misconception because I believe that emotions can be harnessed to work in tandem with cold logic, since ultimately, the feelings we experience are a natural function provided by the process of evolution which provides us helpful instincts about sentient behavior happening around us.  I want to suggest that, in the same vein, even if I’m tremendously fallible in understanding abstract philosophical or scientific models and considering all their possible alternatives, at least the “social sense” I’m equipped with through biology is reasonably likely to point me towards truth concerning the behavior of my fellow humans.

And this at least gives me a small weapon for skepticism about all the factual claims that fly my way: sometimes I can say, “Regardless of how valid your logic sounds right now, this kind of justification is often a particular trap that people fall into because of X, Y, and Z, and therefore I find it suspect.”  I don’t claim that it’s really much of a weapon, but I’ll take what I can get.

I apologize for all this vague and blathering exposition of my experience of epistemological helplessness.  But to be coherent and rigorous would almost certainly open me up to all kinds of plausible-sounding counterarguments, and after all, how much can I ever feel really sure of?

Disagreements are like onions II

(or “Why we shouldn’t put all our arguments in one rhetorical basket”)

[Content note: Pulse shooting, homophobia, Islamophobia, gun issues, fundamentalist Christianity, and, sadly, more Donald Trump. A bit on the disjointed side, and perhaps best read as three separate sub-essays.]

As the title suggests, this is a direct follow-up to my last post, “Disagreements are like onions“.

I. Separation, period

…What was I saying? Oh yes, I think all of this can be generalized a little further. In the other post, I suggested that we should make a priority of separating the object level from the meta level, or different “degrees of meta”, when analyzing a given disagreement. One obvious challenge that could be raised against this thesis is whether for any two “layers” of an argument one is really more “meta” than the other in some obvious way. For instance, in the example I gave in the other post about separating the possibility of Trump not being the rightful president from the possibility that his executive orders were wrong, it doesn’t seem that clear whether “legitimacy of election” is the meta-level issue while “morality/legality of executive action” is the object-level issue or vice versa. And it doesn’t really matter — the arguments I was giving were for separating the two, without necessarily applying any particular asymmetric treatment to them.

So the moral of the story as I see it is even a little simpler: just try not to conflate different layers. And now, “layers” is not meant to imply hierarchy with respect to any axis. Considering this in terms of object/meta level distinctions was useful, because it seemed to me that an awful lot of this conflation was between layers that differed in levels of meta-ness, but this isn’t always so.

When we strip away all the talk of object and meta levels and just talk about “levels”, the primary reason for the fallacy becomes even more apparent. A person who is defending a position with many levels is often tempted to throw all of their eggs into the basket of their favorite one, which is often the one which feels easiest to defend.

Although this behavior seems extremely common and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times without realizing it, some of the most blatant (and kind of hilarious) examples of it which come most easily to my mind involve fundamentalist Christian apologetics of the most extreme and crackpotty kind. For instance, I remember hearing an open-air preacher on a university campus who was carrying on, in his slow, booming voice, by giving a rendition all of what he considered to be the principal sinful behaviors of us students. It quickly became clear that homosexuality held a position of special status among this horde of evil lifestyle choices, because apparently every single other one was a special case of it. “Extramarital relations is what happens when you give in to your baser passions, so that is a form of homosexuality. Same with pot-smoking, so that is a form of homosexuality. Social Darwinism is also a form of homosexuality. Being a Democrat is a form of homosexuality. Mormonism is a form of homosexuality…” And so on and so on. Now the issue of same-sex attraction isn’t in any obvious way more or less “meta” than questions surrounding these other supposed evils. But it was certainly a hot-button issue at the time as well as evidently this preacher’s specialty, so it was convenient for him to frame absolutely every idea he wanted to attack in terms of homosexuality.

(On a purely comical note, I’m reminded of a Canadian friend who facetiously explained to me that where he grew up, not only do bears represent the epitome of danger, but every threatening thing up there is in fact, at least in some indirect way, a form of bear-ness. As far as I’m concerned, this assertion is really no less ridiculous than that of the evangelical preacher above.)

And while extreme fundamentalist Christians are on my mind, does anyone remember the young-earth creationist Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind?  His “doctoral dissertation” is available in pdf format online and is another quintessential example of bundling all of one’s ideological opposition into one narrow category.  Apparently, every non-Christian idea that Hovind disliked was yet another face of the “religion of evolution”, throughout all 6,000 years of our world’s existence, from Cain and Abel to the ancient Greek philosophers to Galileo to the origins of Communism.

But atheists have been known to engage in this kind of thing as well.  Around 2012, there was an attempt made by part of the atheist community to splinter off into a group called Atheism Plus, comprised of atheists who wanted to stand up for certain specific humanitarian values outside of the very basic brand of humanism that generally goes hand in hand with a positive lack of religious belief.  Although this new movement was advertised by luminaries such as Dr. Richard Carrier as being based simply upon the sentiment that as a group they should stand up against bad behavior on the part of members of the mainstream atheist community, it seemed clear pretty early on that the intent was to bind atheism together with the beliefs of the then-emerging online social justice movement. I can’t help but feel that by attempting to make such object-level beliefs an inherent part of what it meant to be an atheist, the advocates of Atheism Plus were muddying the distinction between the core of a skeptical belief system and adherence to the particular social and political ideas that they liked. I considered the attitude that an atheist committed to social justice shouldn’t be willing to march for secularist causes alongside other atheists who didn’t see exactly eye-to-eye with them on all social issues to be divisive, and I feared that it would weaken both the battle for freedom from religion and the battle for social justice. And it seemed clear that a lot of this arose from a desire (conscious or subconscious) to sneak in a lot of specific tricky, controversial views under the banner of general skepticism, which is a much more easily defensible value at least in a room of committed nonbelievers.

One Atheism-Plus-related essay that stuck in my mind was this manifesto (long, but altogether quite an insightful and relevant read for this discussion, although ultimately I disagree with it).  Here is a particular excerpt whose essence stayed with me years later:

I saw in skepticism a great deal of potential, too. It was a community that had until recently been very much based in the “hard” sciences and in addressing the more objectively falisfiable beliefs that people held, like cryptids, UFOs, alt-med and paranormal phenomena. But I saw absolutely no reason that skepticism couldn’t be compatible with the social justice issues I also cared about, like feminism. I saw in feminism a lot of repeated mistakes made due to a lack of critical inquiry and self-reflection, and rejection of the value of science and that kind of critical thought, and I also believed that a whole lot of what feminism, and other social justice movements, were trying to address was very similar kinds of irrational beliefs and assumptions, stemming from similar human needs and limitations as beliefs in the paranormal. Misogyny, sexism, cissexism, gender binarism, racism, able-ism… these things didn’t seem meaningfully different to me from pseudo-science, new age, woo, religious faith, occultism or the paranormal. All were human beings going for easy, intuitive conclusions based on what they most wanted or needed to believe, and on what most seemed to them to be true, without that moment of doubt, hesitation and humility that skepticism encourages.

What I felt skepticism could offer all of us, in enabling us to cope with our faulty perceptions and thought, was a certain kind of agency. An ability to make a choice about what we believe instead of just going with the comfortable and most apparent truthiness. And in allowing us that agency, in allowing us that choice… we could make the right choices. Instead of settling for what we are, how we tend to see, think and believe… we could try to be something better. We could look to what we could be, to how we could see, think and believe.

In other words, the writer, Natalie Reed, saw certain social justice stances as following from the same skeptical mindset from which atheism also follows and therefore as a necessary biproduct of performing atheism “the right way”. To me, this seemed in tension with what she said in the very next paragraph about freedom and ability to choose beliefs; clearly, Reed saw only one right answer to certain non-deity-related questions and was frustrated that the atheist community as a whole was failing to embrace it.  Here she didn’t come across to me as possessing the Theory of Mind to see that the skepticism that might lead others to non-belief in gods might not lead to non-belief in all of the other things she was skeptical of, or that other skeptics might even consider parts of her socially liberal ideology to be examples of “truthiness” which deserve more skepticism.

Anyway, to leave the arena of religion for more mainstream politics, I’ve also seen left-wing rhetoric along the lines of “being pro-gun is wrong because if you think about it, the presence of guns stifles free speech, which is one of the pillars of our democracy”.  To me this argument appears to be reaching pretty far by making a pretty indirect connection between gun control and a more popular and easier-to-defend American value.  I’m sure that this kind of argumentation is pervasive in right-wing spaces as well — probably lots of bending-over-backwards interpretations of various proposals as boiling down to “more government control” or something like that — but having had very little exposure to those spaces during the last decade, I don’t really know. I see no reason not to suppose that it is present in most ideological communities.

II. Another reason not to draft all arguments as soldiers

In this more general context of separating layers, my point (2) under section III of the last essay (“Upholding a principle that belongs to one ‘layer’ of the disagreement only on grounds of being in the right at another ‘layer’ isn’t upholding the principle at all”) reminds me a lot of something I wrote on my tumblelog (my Tumblr blog) back last August.  I link to it here and insert a more up-to-date revision of it as follows.

One major thrust of the rationalist approach to winning arguments is to avoid the “arguments are soldiers” mentality — that is, the attitude that every argument for one’s side of a debate, whether good or bad, is an ideological weapon and all must be deployed if one is to win on the political battlefield.  The argument against using arguments as weapons is itself a call for separating the object from the meta, but I see another objection: namely, that the use of “arguments as soldiers” oftentimes implicitly weakens the good arguments for one’s own side.

To give an example of this, I’m afraid I’m going to dredge up a horrible event from last summer: the Pulse shooting (~50 people killed at an Orlando nightclub).  I was traveling at the time it happened and wasn’t able to research all the updates on what was or wasn’t known about the killer hour by hour, so for a few days I was relying on what was popping up on my Facebook newsfeed.  As tragedies go, this one was especially tricky to respond to rhetorically because in the immediate aftermath, as there were so many potential political elements of it pertaining to all sides: in particular, Islam, homophobia, and guns.

Within a day, my Facebook was blowing up with articles giving particular views of the very sparse information we had on the killer at that moment.  The main two groups contributing to the political discussion seemed to be liberals who wanted to play up his homophobia and conservatives (as well as a few anti-Islam liberals / libertarians) who wanted to play up his Muslim-ness.  At the time, judging from preliminary reports I saw trickling in, the levels of both of these traits were unclear.  There were rumors in the early hours of the aftermath that he himself was a regular at the club, and that he had a gay dating app on his phone.  Meanwhile, while it was clear that he was a Muslim, he was raised in America, it wasn’t so clear exactly how strong his ties to ISIS and “radical Islam” were.

I’m going to focus now on the emphasis on the killer’s homophobia, mainly because the people pushing it were the ones on “my side” of most issues and vastly outnumbered the others anyway.  Now there’s nothing wrong in the fact that people were focusing on his homophobia.  After all, it’s extremely important to investigate exactly why someone would perform such an evil act, and it’s completely appropriate for us to feel outraged if part of the motive came from such vile bigotry.  And in fact, it looks like these people turned out to be right: he did choose a gay nightclub out of a desire to attack gays, and he certainly wasn’t a regular or openly gay, etc.  But suppose the evidence had come out differently: would it weaken the gay rights cause in any way?  It would not make gay rights one iota less valid if this guy had shot up a gay club out of pure sadism rather than directed bigotry.  I guess maybe it would make the gay rights cause seem an iota or two less worthwhile, because some of the practical value of a cause lies in how many lives will be affected by it (there’s some importance in demonstrating that homophobia kills).  But I’m going to suggest that even that is only affected a tiny bit, since those 100 lives are still a pretty small fraction of all those who have been killed for being somewhere on the queer spectrum.  My point is not that I was bothered by so many people drawing attention to it (after all, as I have said, this was absolutely appropriate and essential), but that there was this almost-desperate underlying tone implying of “see, this is why homophobia is bad, and this is why gay people deserve equal rights”.  I know that wasn’t actually what anyone was saying or probably even thinking, but that tone does in my opinion sort of communicate an attitude that the validity of gay rights is conditional on exactly which tragedies have arisen from not acknowledging them: if new evidence were to come in showing that the killer wasn’t anti-gay, then where would that leave us?

This reminds me of the common tactic that atheists use in debate where they make a big point of how many lives have been destroyed in the name of religion, implying that this is why religion is incorrect.  I’ve actually seen Richard Dawkins open a debate on the existence of God with this strategy, then backtrack when he sees his debate opponent is formidable at rebutting that point, saying, “But counting up the number of lives lost due to a particular ideology doesn’t really matter anyway; all I care about is which belief system is true!”  (Unfortunately I can’t recall which debate this was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened more than once.)  Well then, Dr. Dawkins, why didn’t you start by arguing that way in the first place?  In this failed rhetorical maneuver, Dawkins has actually damaged the argument against religion as being antithetical to the objective pursuit of truth by implicitly making this point of view seem delicate, as thought it needed to be backed up by statistics on the number of deaths resulting from the failure to choose secularism.

Or, to give another example from the 2016 election campaign, I noticed that many people seemed very anxious to show that Donald Trump was never a competent businessman at all, as though that was the main factor relevant to his candidacy.  As far as I know, a lot of the memes supposedly demonstrating that he hasn’t actually done anything impressive with money were misleading, but I couldn’t actually care less either way because I saw much, much more crucial indications that he was not fit to be president.  I realized that there was some sense in trying to rebut the supporters of Trump who painted him as a savvy businessman, but displaying it in the front and center of the anti-Trump case seemed to me like a confusion of priorities and actually sort of validated the pro-Trump contention that being successful at business qualifies someone for the presidency.

To summarize, when arguments are used as soldiers in this way, it not only often leads to bad arguments being used, but it weakens other, extremely valid points supporting on the same side.  Then if the bad arguments are eventually knocked down, there’s not quite as much left on display in support our cause as there would have been if we had stuck to emphasizing the core reasoning behind it in the first place.

In other words, putting all one’s rhetorical eggs in a single basket (i.e. a particular aspect of one’s worldview) is a risky business.  At worst, the basket will break and the rhetorician will lose the whole debate despite the fact that some of their other stances were valid.  And at best, the single idea they’re classifying everything else under will come out looking correct, but sneaking all the other ideas in under it might come across as shady and underhanded, and those other ideas might not get the acknowledgment or credit they deserve.

III. A postscript on the March for Science

Tomorrow a lot of my American friends will be participating in a march which is purportedly a protest against the new presidential administration’s blatant disregard for some of the less popular findings of science in favor of pseudoscience and general “truthiness”.  While I am all for the original cause of this demonstration, I tend to have misgivings about protests in general.  A lot of these misgivings have something to do with what I’ve been discussing above: it seems that such protests are often billed as being about something at least sort of specific, but then a bunch of other statistically-correlated beliefs wind up getting lumped in with the original cause.  This appeared to be the case for instance with the American “Occupy Wall Street / 99 Percent” movement in the earlier part of this decade, for instance (inasmuch as that movement started out with any specific position in the first place).  It was also apparent at the Women’s March back in January (hello, intersectional feminism!).  I’m not saying that I was actually against any of these demonstrations, and in fact I think that at least some (such as the Women’s March) had wonderful effects.  But I’m bothered by the fact that such protests have a tendency to devolve into a shouting platform that enforces the clustering of a whole bundle of political positions rather than a unified, focused, and concretely-reasoned push for a particular goal.  I’m a member of a Facebook group dedicated to the March For Science, and I’ve certainly already seen a lot of posts there championing areas of science, or even tangential science-related causes like better representation of minorities, etc., which don’t seem directly relevant to the main crises at hand.

That said, the theme of this particular event, Science, is itself of interest when considering the issue of “separating layers”, because the spirit of Science seems in a certain sense to uphold the opposite value to the one I’ve been preaching here.  That is, the idea behind Science is that we are trying to explain empirical phenomena in terms of the most elegant possible models based on natural laws which apply universally.  In other words, Science is on some level all about not considering different questions independently.  For instance, it is often pointed out that to be consistent in one’s denial of biological evolution, one must also deny the validity of a wide range of scientific areas including geology and particle physics.  So I can’t really fault all the posts I see along the lines of “I march because without science we wouldn’t have the medical technology to treat my leukemia!”, even though it would be unfair to directly imply that support for the strains of pseudoscience peddled by the current administration automatically implies opposition to improving the lives of leukemia patients.  After all, the same respect for the scientific process that has led to so many widely celebrated inventions and breakthroughs ought to be applied when it comes to more politically controversial scientific findings as well.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see exactly how tomorrow’s event shapes up.  I guess that as far as my insistence on “separating layers” applies to this situation, I would say that it’s important to realize that it is possible for intellectually honest people to disagree with the scientific consensus on some (object-level) issues without necessarily opposing the (meta-level) values of the scientific process itself.  However, those of us who feel worried about what appears to be a pervasive disregard for science, who feel that people who hold to popular “truthy” beliefs not supported by scientists while otherwise tacitly supporting the scientific process are oftentimes operating on an inconsistent belief system, are certainly quite justified in wanting to engage in peaceful demonstrations against these worrisome modes of thinking.  Or at least as justified as I am in wanting to write long, rambling blog posts about what I consider to be worrisome modes of thinking.

18033965_10213215715533949_4007728607424155360_n(credit to Kendra Hamilton on Facebook)

Disagreements are like onions

[Content note: this is another attempt to convey one of those fundamental ideas which I feel strongly about deep down but is still a little hard to communicate, so I once again erred on the side of long and dry.  Part 1, hopefully to be continued.  Some political examples, especially Trump-related; how can I resist?]

Finally I’ve gotten around to writing the remaining lengthy, cerebral post I’ve been wanting to get out of my system right from the get-go (really, it’s been in my system for a lot of my life).  I want to talk about object levels versus meta levels and Theory of Mind and everything that comes with it.  I’m worried that this post may become overly long and sprawling because it’s such a far-reaching topic in my view, but at least there’s one thing that makes life a lot easier here: a number of people whose blogs I follow have touched on this directly or indirectly in their writings many times.  By pointing attention to such things, they have done a lot of my work for me.  Also, I’m going to postpone a few of the ideas I have in mind to be put in a second post.

Here is a list (nowhere near exhaustive) of what I consider to be some of the more crucial posts of Alexander’s which address the general issue of Theory of Mind / Object-Meta Distinction in one way or another:

There are many, many more essays written by Alexander and others which apply these principles without quite so directly acknowledging them.  In particular, I’ve seen this from other prominent rationalist community members like Ozy (who runs the blog Thing of Things) as well as from Rob Bensinger, although off the top of my head I can’t produce any links since they both write prolifically in a lot of different places and I don’t have such a good memory for their individual articles and/or comments.  This post is my attempt to unify all of these points expressed by them and others into one concept.

But first, here is a series of example scenarios of a variety of flavors in order to motivate the idea.

I. A collection of very short stories

In recent years there have been a number of controversies surrounding high-profile individuals who hold views that are unsavory in some way or other and who were punished for saying those views, by losing their job for example, or just by not being allowed a microphone.  “A Comment I Posted on ‘What Would JT Do?'” addresses one of these cases, where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was fired for voicing highly offensive views.  In it, Alexander expresses frustration with the network for suspending Robertson, arguing that regardless of what side we’re on, we should adhere to the norm of responding to views we don’t like with counterarguments rather than silencing.  Alexander later came to the defense of Brendan Eich when he was fired as CEO of Mozilla for similar reasons.  Much more recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the rationalist community about the forceful protests against the very presence of certain alt-right-ish speakers at universities.  Most seem to agree that regardless of how one feels about what we might call the “object-level situation” (Robertson or Eich or these speakers’ “object-level” positions that we don’t agree with), we should give priority to certain “meta-level” rules (e.g. allowing the opportunity for proponents of all beliefs to take the podium).  Although it’s clearly not quite that simple.  Because, waving aside the whole issue of the “free speech” defense being flawed when “freedom of speech” is understood in the most literal sense, there are some individuals, like possibly Milo Yiannopoulos, who have strayed beyond simply expressing their views into outright bullying.  There seems to be a fine line between speech that is offensive to some groups and actual threats to the safety of members of those groups.  So how exactly do we separate the “object level” from the “meta level” in situations like these?

There has been a particular theme in the debates I’ve (probably foolishly) gotten into with friends over a lot of things relating to the new presidential administration in America.  Many are arguing that we right-thinking Americans who are anti-Trump should refuse to acknowledge Mr. Trump as our president altogether.  They are more or less saying, as I understand it, that the horrid views he has Trumpeted were sufficient reason for various other authorities to have barred him from becoming president in the first place through some sort of brute force, to have refused to go to his inauguration, and get him impeached as soon as possible.  It seems pretty revealing to me that in the midst of some of these “not my president” arguments, the fact that Trump has almost certainly done many highly illegal things is thrown right in with policy positions such as being anti-abortion or (allegedly) anti-gay-rights.  While I agree that he’s “not my president” in the sense of not representing anything I stand for, I vehemently oppose the calls for immediate impeachment, as long as it’s motivated by pure principle rather than objective legal reasoning.  My main argument has a lot to do with how the other side will view what would look like purely political strong-arming in the highly unlikely event that such efforts actually succeed.  I don’t think anyone could completely deny this concern, but apparently I hold unusually strong convictions about the particular importance of considering how other people’s minds will process our behavior.

A few weeks ago I was asked an interesting question by a friend, also pertaining to the American political situation.  We were talking about speculations that some Trump campaign officials engaged in illicit communications with Russian agents, thus swinging the election in his favor.  My friend put forth the idea that if it is ever proven beyond reasonable doubt that Trump won the election through illegal means, then his executive orders should be considered illegal purely by virtue of the fact that he isn’t the rightful president.  I replied that I disagree with this proposal.  Trump’s action as president should be evaluated purely on their own merits (legal, moral, etc.), given the fact that he somehow got into the position he’s in.  In other words, I want our judgments of his becoming president and each thing he does as president to be evaluated as independently as possible.  That way, if we mess up our evaluation of one, this doesn’t affect how we react to the others.  Besides, I believe that both the travel ban and the disastrous first attempt at executing it (these two aspects can be judged separately as well!) were despicable and deserving of harsh judgment quite independently of whether Trump’s presidency itself is legitimate, so it just doesn’t seem fitting somehow for Trump to face legal consequences for the travel ban purely on the grounds that something unlawful was done in his presidential campaign months earlier.  Besides, again, one should consider what his supporters would make of us punishing him for a multitude of actions using the singular strategy of somehow convincing enough people that he never really got elected.

Now let’s move to personal drama of a sort that I’ve seen play out more times than I can count.  Suppose that Alice and Bob are in some kind of close relationship, and Alice gets upset with Bob about something and, let’s say, starts berating him in a tone that somehow goes over the line or with a lot of vulgar language or just generally in a borderline-verbally-abusive way.  Bob disagrees with the reasons why Alice is upset but focuses his resentment around the unacceptable way she talks to him when she’s angry.  Alice’s rebuttal is to point out that Bob yells at her in an equally unpleasant way when he’s upset with her for any reason, and she gives some past examples to lend evidence to the point.  Bob replies that those times were different because for X, Y, and Z reasons, he was right in those arguments and therefore justified in his nasty tone and diction, whereas today she’s wrong in her arguments and thus has no right to talk to him that way.  They are — or at least Bob is — conflating two issues here which should be separate discussions: the specific things they get into arguments about, and the way they talk to each other when they get angry about such things.

I know someone who has insisted multiple times that the word “insult” refers not merely to saying nasty things about someone, but to saying nasty things about someone that are unwarranted.  I have looked up the definition of the verb “to insult” in multiple dictionaries and have asked several others what they consider it to mean, and all evidence points to this person being wrong about the definition of “insult”.  But setting aside explicitly agreed-upon uses of words and the confusion that results from going against them, let’s grant that we can define terms in whatever way we choose as long as we’re consistent about how we use them.  To define “insult” as a valid description of a certain unpleasant behavior only as long as it is unjustified given that particular situation weakens one’s ability to separate a personal dispute into two disagreements (the particulars of why they are arguing, and the way they talk to each other when angry) as in the case of Alice and Bob above.  Insisting on such a definition of “insult” betrays a certain mindset.

(Interestingly, I was corrected on my use of “flattery” several times when I was younger, because I understood it to mean, well, more or less the opposite of “insult” regardless of sincerity or validity of the claim of the flatterer, while I was told that an effusive compliment doesn’t count as flattery if it’s actually obviously true.  This does seem more or less in keeping with dictionary definitions of “flattery”, although it looks slightly different from the “insult” situation situation since “to flatter” is meant to carry a connotation of insincerity.)

II. Separation of degrees

I believe that lying at the heart of all the situations described above there is a fundamental concept in common.  Sometimes we might talk about it in terms of “meta levels” and “object levels” (e.g. Alice and Bob have both an object-level disagreement but also have a problem on the meta-level about how they work through disagreements).  I’ve developed a habit of using this language quite a lot actually; I’m always telling myself that I’ll look back on this writing one day years from now and cringe thinking it looks sort of rhetorically immature to refer to “object” and “meta” things so often, but right now it still often seems like the best way to make my point.

At other times, we might speak of Theory of Mind as explained in some of the links I gave above (e.g. we have to operate on some consideration of the minds of Trump supporters).  I claim — and I hope to argue here at least in an indirect way — that both of these ways of analyzing disagreements point to the same underlying fallacy.

Out of all the rationality-flavored topics that I care about and have been writing essays on, this one lies closest to my heart.  I remember first feeling an awareness of the fact that I innately processed certain arguments in seemingly a very different way from the (equally intelligent and much more experienced) people around me at around the age of 12.  These disagreements were all of the flavor of the scenarios described above, where my frustration was with those who didn’t seem to realize that there are certain general rules which we all must agree to follow regardless of who is right or wrong in a particular dispute, because all parties are equally convinced that they’re right.  And that it’s no good to criticize a person you’re disagreeing with for not following some general rule on the grounds that they’re wrong about specifics when they don’t agree that they’re wrong on the specifics; in fact, it’s bound to further irritate them and push them away.  By the start of my teenage years, being bothered by this was already starting to feel like a major hangup that I was almost alone in suffering from, and part of me hoped and expected to outgrow it.  Yet here I am.  I can’t explain precisely why I’ve always felt as intensely about this as I do, although it’s clearly related in some way to the Principle of Charity, as in Scott Alexander’s framing in some of links above (or to my modified Principle of Empathy).

When I first ran into the rationalist community, perhaps the number one reason I started identifying with the individuals therein was that they all seem to intuitively grasp what I’m getting at here.  Sure, some might disagree with how I’m framing it in this essay (maybe because my framing is arguably not the most valid, but more likely due to lack of lucidity in expressing these concepts), but I never fail to feel assured that they get it.  Of course, “it” is rarely directly discussed in purely abstract terms rather than in the context of a particular concrete topic.  But like I said at the beginning, “it” exists as a thread running through the writing of Alexander, Ozy, and many others.

So is there a way of framing this in more definitive, purposeful language than “there’s some object- vs. meta-level thing or some Theory of Mind stuff going on here”?

Well, let’s start with Scott Alexander’s arguments on seeing issues in terms of object and meta levels in his writing which I linked to above, particularly in the “Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz”.  (Warning to anyone reading this who hasn’t gone to the link yet and is interested in taking the quiz: I’m about to “spoil” it.)  Here Alexander posits a series of questions, each of which describes a brief political conundrum and gives two choices as to how to proceed.  The catch is that he has cleverly paired the questions into couples which depict scenarios that are very similar on some “meta” level while (very roughly) the roles of “object” level political positions are switched (e.g. a question about a visit by the Dalai Lama being protested by a local Chinese minority is paired with a question about a memorial to southern Civil War veterans being protested by a local African-American minority).  The final score on the quiz is computed using a system that gives the quiz-taker one point for answering “the same way” on a pair of questions, thus displaying meta-level consistency.  The final evaluation is given as follows:

Score of 0 to 3: You are an Object-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find the solution that makes the side you like win and the side you dislike lose in that particular situation.

Score of 4 to 6: You are a Meta-Level Thinker. You decide difficult cases by trying to find general principles that can be applied evenhandedly regardless of which side you like or dislike.

Many have undoubtedly taken this, along with Alexander’s many other articles which seem to take the “meta-level side” (applying general principles across the board including when he doesn’t like the side whose rights he’s supporting), to imply that he favors meta-level thinking over object-level thinking and that we’re all “supposed to” score a 6 on the quiz.  I think I myself interpreted Alexander’s tone this way for a while.  Then I realized that this isn’t necessarily the right lesson to take away from it.  I can’t speak for Scott Alexander’s exact position here, but I do distinctly recall Rob Bensinger remarking in a different comment section that the Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz serves as an eloquent rebuttal to the attitude that one should always operate on the meta level.  I guess it depends on how one feels about the particular questions asked in the quiz, but I do have to agree that the correct message shouldn’t be to only think on the meta level.  Sometimes there are exceptional object-level circumstances which change the meta-level rules slightly.  For instance, if our Alice and Bob from above are a married couple who have agreed never to try not to let their voices rise above a certain volume when fighting with each other, then one of them might be justified in bending this meta-level rule just a bit in the fight that ensues after finding out that the other, for instance, just gambled away their entire joint life savings without asking, or has been cheating with seven other partners.

Also — this is a much more superficial objection that is easy to remedy — but of course it doesn’t make sense to consider any conflict to have exactly two levels, the “object” one and the “meta” one, because real conflicts are often complicated enough to involve many degrees of “meta-ness”.  For instance, two nations which are run on competing political philosophies (e.g. communism versus capitalism, in this case an object-level disagreement) may try to avoid war with each other in the absence of a particular type of threat or provocation (avoiding force is a meta-level rule), but in the case that they do declare war, they may try to follow international laws pertaining to conduct in war (as in the Geneva Conventions, meta-meta-level rules).  And after all, Alexander talks about an indefinite number of “steps” in the above-linked post on an “n-step theory of mind”.

So we should view any disagreement as likely having many layers of meta-ness, like an onion.  (One may consider the more “meta” layers as being closer to the center of the onion, but I sort of prefer to think of going outward as one gets more “meta”, since meta-level considerations should be a bit more all-encompassing).  And there is no hard-and-fast rule as to some level which will always take precedence over all others in judging any disagreement.  Instead, I think the correct message boils down to something even simpler: we should be aware that these different layers of a disagreement exist; and we should address them all separately in our arguments (even if they aren’t entirely independent).  For a long time, to myself I’ve been referring to this as “separating levels” or “separating layers” or even “separating degrees of meta”.

Where does Theory of Mind come in?  Well, in my experience the general way to fail at the goal I set out above involves disregard for the fact that others’ minds work independently from one’s own.  After all, the most common way to conflate these layers is to insist to one’s opponents that what should be uniform meta-rules need only be applied selectively, depending entirely on the object-level situation.  And it seems to me that the best way to justify this to oneself is to forget that one’s opponents hold differing convictions on the object-level situation which feel just as genuine as one’s own.  That’s basically, by definition, displaying a lack of Theory of Mind.

III. What goes wrong?

When claiming something as a fallacy, I believe it’s always good form to explain why the fallacy leads one astray as well as why people persist in it despite the fact that it leads one astray.  (It’s also nice to suggest a positive solution, but in this case, I don’t have any bright ideas beyond the self-evident “that mode of thinking is wrong, so don’t do that thing”.)

When thinking over why I don’t like it when people “conflate layers” of disagreements, I can’t help treating “reasons why this conflation is logically invalid” and “reasons why this conflation is bad rhetoric which will push people away rather than win arguments” as interchangeable.  Here are a couple of points which may fit one or both criteria.

1) Defending one’s stance on a meta-level issue using one’s stance on object-level issues won’t actually convince anyone not already on board.  If two parties disagree on the object-level issues (which I usually take to be the matter of disagreement which started the conflict in the first place), then for one party to defend their behavior of breaking some meta rule on the grounds that they are right on the object-level issue is a waste of breath.  From what I’ve seen (and from what I feel when this is done to me), it only makes the other party more angry and frustrated.  A valid argument uses premises that everyone involved agrees on and then uses those to convince one’s opponent of something they didn’t agree about.  An attempt at an argument based on a premise that one’s opponent never agreed on is bound to completely fail at accomplishing this.

2) Upholding a principle that belongs to one “layer” of the disagreement only on grounds of being in the right at another “layer” isn’t upholding the principle at all.  This can be seen in my second example with the Trump administration, where using the illegitimacy of Trump’s election to indict him for an executive order sort of implicitly excuses the illegality of the order itself.  Or, going back to our friends Bob and Alice, if Bob says, “I still think you’re wrong on the issue we were fighting about, but much worse than that, the names you called me are completely unacceptable!”, and Alice points out that Bob calls her similar names from time to time (perhaps even in that same fight), and Bob replies, “But I was justified in talking to you that way because there you were wrong!”… well then Bob is essentially implying that there’s nothing innately bad about calling someone those names at all.

Or to take a slightly more universal example, when a child lies to their parent about having done something wrong, the lesson handed to them is often something along the lines of “The naughty thing you did isn’t nearly as bad as the fact that you lied about it!”  But if the child soon afterwards catches their parents themselves lying to avoid getting into trouble for something they did, then justifying it on the grounds of not thinking their crime was actually bad, then there’s a risk of the child coming away very confused about the wrongness of lying.  And I’m not saying that there isn’t a circumstance where the parents’ words and actions might still be completely justified — there are some things that are against the (object-level) rules but which may still be morally right and okay to lie about (i.e. these “layers” do sometimes interfere with each other).  But a parent in this situation should at least be aware of the confusion that might result when laying down a blanket (meta-level) rule that lying is always wrong even when you’re trying to get out of trouble for doing something you feel was okay.

IV. Why do we go wrong?

I expect one could always cite the usual reason where people are prone to not thinking clearly, and to not having a strong Theory of Mind, especially when this allows for rhetoric which seems to work in their favor in the heat of the moment.  As for something more concrete, I think “conflating layers” mainly boils down to one major temptation.

Tying together two different issues in a disagreement allows one to justify oneself based on whichever one is easier to defend.  It’s easier to argue against homophobia itself than to argue purely on the meta-level that someone doesn’t deserve a public platform, so many don’t want to make the effort to separate the issue of the unsavory views of Robinson and Eich and their ilk from the issue of whether they have a right to keep their jobs despite their views.  If we obtain proof that the Trump campaign actually did clinch the election illegally, it will be easier to convince everyone that Trump isn’t the rightful president than to demonstrate that his travel ban was wrong, so a lot of us would feel inclined to use the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency to condemn his attempt at the travel ban.  It may be easier during a particular argument to defend one’s object-level stance than to defend one’s use of nasty insults, so it’s tempting to define the term itself to depend on one’s rightness or wrongness on the object level.

In other words, while one can’t judge the layers of every argument completely independently, by treating them as all part of one singular issue of controversy it becomes way too easy to get away with all kinds of rhetorical shortcuts, so that one can defend one’s stance throughout the whole onion based only on the most easily justifiable layer.  It enables a bait-and-switch behavior which is similar to (or perhaps just a particular flavor of) the motte-and-bailey tactic.

…and actually, I believe all of this can be generalized slightly further, but I’ll save that for another post which (I hope) will appear here soon.

A sensational attraction

[Content note: more of a musing on several disjointed ideas relating to a particular issue than an essay with a unified argument.  For reasons that are about to become apparent, I feel slightly weird about listing all of the possibly troublesome topics appearing in the content — see tags.]

I’ve noticed a general social trend which annoys me.  I guess the best way for me to summarize that trend is to say that any speculation about a person or persons engaging in some belief or behavior which is sufficiently interesting (in a certain sense of the word, to a certain part of society) is accepted by too many as true on insufficient evidence.  Or maybe it would be less clumsy just to give some examples of what I mean.

One of my very favorite historical celebrities is Charles Dodgson, who under the penname Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass (which together occupy a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf), and who also worked as a professional mathematician and an Anglican deacon while dabbling in photography.  It’s been a while since I read a biography of him or any of his non-Alice written works, but I remember always getting an overwhelming sense that he had a strikingly similar personality to mine and that if timing and geography cooperated we could be really good friends.  The type of very left-brained creativity that he seemed inclined towards seems much like mine, although of course I don’t exactly see my creative pursuits leading to any ground-breaking literature.  We would probably clash on many philosophical matters — that whole God thing, for instance — but I can imagine us engaging in really pleasant debates on these topics over drinks.

Now many still seem to appreciate Dodgson’s literary masterpiece(s) as well as his contributions to mathematical logic, but many also seem to insist on the truth of some thorny allegations surrounding his life.  To start with, I’ve heard it stated as a fact more than once that he produced some of his best work under the influence of mind-altering drugs.  For instance, I once had an English teacher who related that some Dodgson authority (presumably more expert than herself) had informed her that he was “definitely tripping” when he wrote the Alice books.  (I’m not sure what substance he was supposed to be tripping on, as LSD wasn’t invented until well after his time.)  Apparently it would have been impossible to come up with a story as nonsensical and surreal as Alice Through the Looking-Glass without being on something to supplement one’s own raw creativity and wit.  But as far as I know, this is where the “evidence” for the claim ends.

That doesn’t seem so bad — after all, the fact that someone created something marvelous under the influence of drugs doesn’t decrease their merit-worthiness in the eyes of myself or many others — but there’s a far more sinister and pervasive allegation out there that Dodgson was an active pedophile.  Supposedly his interest in young Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice in the books, didn’t spring entirely from affectionate feelings as a friendly uncle figure.  This is an assertion made by a significant number of Dodgson biographers which has caused quite a controversy in the field.  Now I wouldn’t want my own fondness for Dodgson and his work to bias me against believing anything unsavory about him.  And I don’t feel the need to say goodbye to the cherished art of a person who has thought or done horrible things; for instance, I don’t believe the fact that John Lennon had a habit of beating his first wife takes away from the greatness of his music or the secular humanist values he promoted.  So I tried to look into the Dodgson allegations with an open mind.  And I really couldn’t find anything to convince me that he approached little girls with any inappropriate motives or behavior.  The only evidence cited is that Dodgson used to photograph little girls in the nude, which does indeed look pretty damning until you realize that in Victorian times children were considered thoroughly nonsexual and photography of naked children was actually pretty common during that period.  It seems to me that Dodgson was basically a gentle, somewhat shy and socially awkward (although that is disputed by some) bachelor who was friendly and relaxed around some child friends.

Yet there seem to be a lot of people whom it seems impossible to sway by invoking the context of Victorian culture and steadfastly refuse to doubt that Charles Dodgson was a pedophile.  I even argued with one person who dismissively waved away my points with “Come on, we all know that’s what most of those celibate clerics were into.”

Meanwhile, contemporary to Dodgson were two consecutive United States presidents, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom are suggested by a number of scholars to have been gay.  It seems perfectly plausible to me that Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, may have been gay, although positive evidence for it seems fairly mild and it seems hard to say with much confidence what a politician’s sexual orientation was from that time.  In the case of Lincoln, I find it somewhat less likely given that he had a fairly decent marriage and fathered several children.  There doesn’t seem to be a whit of evidence for his homosexuality outside of the fact that he shared a (probably large double) bed with several men, most famously his close friend Joshua Speed.  But again, this was not uncommon for the time (indeed I’ve discovered since moving abroad that this kind of thing is still not quite as strange in Europe as it is in the modern American culture I grew up in).  I actually once heard two historians debate this claim on the radio; the one asserting Lincoln’s homosexuality was only able to return again and again to the fact that Lincoln shared a bed with Speed.  In this way, these notions persist.

Or take the frequent allegation that Walt Disney was horribly racist despite otherwise being a kind and inspirational man.  I’ve heard his name casually brought up in conversation as an example of a WWII-era figure whose work was admirable and who seemed like a nice, normal fellow but who treated blacks and/or Jews as inferior.  I’ve looked into this claim and after some searching, all I’ve really been able to find is that Disney (along with other notable figures such as Ronald Reagan) joined a particular actor’s/producer’s group in the 1940’s which has since been shown to have harbored some anti-Semitic sentiment.  Evidence that he was a Nazi sympathizer amounts to stray rumors and seems pretty thin on the ground.  Yet people seem to immediately accept the “Disney was a racist!” narrative without actually investigating the origins of the rumor.

So what is going on here?  At first glance, these might appear to be examples of the insistence within the modern internet-based social justice movement on believing any allegation of racism, abuse, etc. in accordance with what some believe to be the best strategy for combating those evils.  But of course this breaks down when one considers the “Lincoln was gay” theory (homosexuality was generally met with societal judgment until relatively recently, but it’s certainly not considered sinful by social liberals today), or the whole “Dodgson was high” thing.  Plus, I don’t think that many of those who are trying to get everyone to realize that racism and sexism persist today are all that concerned with our recognition that some celebrities of the past held abhorrent views and engaged in abusive behavior.  After all, it’s not really so debatable that a lot of values considered horrible today were either the norm or treated with a blind eye in olden times.

No, something else is at the bottom of this, and I’m reminded of Jon Stewart’s description of how he viewed the biases of mainstream media.  He once characterized news media as catering to “sensationalism and laziness” (linked to the full interview because it’s really good, but the relevant part starts around 4:30).  Well, I suggest that maybe the same holds true for the ideas we let through our own filters: we too often have a weakness for sensationalism, for ideas that are provocative in an immediate way that doesn’t require too much thought or reflection.  That is what the above examples all have in common.  Our society as a whole is sort of obsessed with a number of sensational things including racism, drug use, and pretty much anything to do with sex, especially if it’s something taboo or that once was considered taboo.  These speculations each serve as a sort of cheap momentary distraction which entertains us each time we recall it.

When certain types of content begin to attract our sensationalist and lazy urges, I imagine a lot of it has to do with novelty.

I’m pretty sure nobody who remembers what it was like to grow up will disagree with my impression that a lot of kids, from quite young children to preteens and beyond (sometimes pretty far beyond) are kind of obsessed with joking around about anything sexual, drug-related, or violent, the more shocking the better.  Now I don’t know much about child psychology and I acknowledge there are already several very obvious causes of this — actual desire for sex or interest in drugs, for instance, or the obvious awkwardness and/or smirking from older people when they’re talking about these things — but I don’t think any account of the contributing factors is complete without considering the attraction of novelty.  In my experience, children begin to be prone to talking about these things just when they’re first learning about them.  This is probably due to the shock factor being much stronger when these concepts are newer.  In addition, the impression of understanding these things gives the child a sensation of worldliness.  As kids grow older, the fact that these subjects become less taboo gives them more boldness in bringing them up all the time, while at the same time the subjects are invoked in slightly wittier and less blunt ways as there is no longer so much need for them to signal that they know the basics.  Eventually the presence of such content in all social conversation (in my opinion) wears out its welcome somewhat — I often consider it kind of immature to go on treating everything to do with sex and drugs as all that interesting and funny (not that I’ve never been guilty of it myself) — but it’s kind of hard to stop fixating on those things when the world around you seems pretty addicted to hearing about them.  Eventually, for some individuals, certain topics become so old that they’re no longer worth invoking gratuitously or responding to appreciatively, but in many cases that stage never seem to be reached.

Society as a whole seems to go through a similar set of stages with regard to certain forms of sensationalist content as it goes from almost completely unknown and/or taboo, to the very basics just beginning to become common knowledge, to becoming fully and widely understood and needing to be discussed nonstop, to lingering on as popular subject material despite having been talked/joked to death, to finally (only in some cases) being retired as rather boring or cliché.  We are more or less at the nonstop-discussion stage, for instance, where pedophilia is concerned, which explains the insistence on the unpleasant Dodgson allegations: we as a group want to show ourselves that we’re worldly enough to understand the prevalence of such things.

I always think of a certain routine by the singer-songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer which was recorded on one of his live albums as an intro to the song “We Will All Go Together When We Go” (it can be heard here; warning: very dark nuclear-apocalypse-related humor, though admittedly not much more macabre than Lehrer’s usual).  Lehrer is embarking on a ramble having little to do with the song to follow, something about some (probably fictional) eccentric guy he used to know, and he throws in an inconsequential joke: “I particularly remember a heartwarming novel of his about a young necrophiliac who finally achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming a coroner.”  A slightly tentative, uneasy laugh comes from the audience.  Lehrer then adds, “The rest of you can look it up when you get home”, which is followed by a much louder laugh and some applause.

Now this was recorded back in 1959, and I can tell.  It’s obvious that this had to have been recorded a long time ago, because our collective understanding of and attitudes towards unusual preferences like necrophilia has changed to the point that the joke above just wouldn’t be considered funny by that many people.  I can’t imagine a quip that serves as almost literally nothing more than an acknowledgment of the basic definition of necrophilia being considered worth putting into one’s comedy routine today.  But for the 1959 audience of Tom Lehrer (who was well known at the time for pushing the envelope), kinks like necrophilia were just beginning to enter the collective consciousness so that a few of them were able to get the joke and laugh at it, albeit a little nervously since the concept was still quite new and scandalizing.  Perhaps an audience ten years later would have laughed more fully and easily at the same joke, which might then have reached its peak freshness.  But today it sounds pretty stale.  People still bring up necrophilia in a humorous context left and right of course, but typically not as a joke whose only real element is the definition (“This guy was a necrophiliac, so he decided to become a coroner!” *BA-DUM tsss*).

Meanwhile, other subjects that I expect were sufficiently provocative and sensationalistic to have been fodder for comedy routines at one time eventually seem to have either been deemed offensive or to have worn out altogether.  For instance, I have the impression that old-fashioned comedy contained many more jokes about married men lusting after their neighbors’ wives back this was considered a sufficiently sensational thing to talk about than in modern times, now that our culture has found many fresher and more exciting topics for gratuitous entertainment.  A criticism I sometimes hear by young adults of old-fashioned comedy is that the humor of past generations feels rather cliché, and I suspect this is what causes that impression.  In my opinion, the irony here is that younger humorists seem to overuse certain topics in their content just as much, and while those topics seem fresher today, that might not be the case thirty years from now.

One positive effect of our collective preference for sensationalism is that it leads to greater awareness of people and issues that once went unrecognized.  The drastically increased visibility over the last several decades of gay people in the media is largely due to activism of course, but a lot of it has to do with our culture as a whole discovering some “new” thing, making it gradually less taboo, and finding it engaging enough to portray frequently.  This has helped a great deal to increase visibility for the LGBT community in general.  But clearly the portrayal of diverse sexual orientations has continued to evolve and is still evolving.  Certain types of “gay jokes”, especially the ones whose entire substance is “Gay people exist!”, are now rightly considered offensive, and the moral message of “Gay people are people too!” is now being conveyed in more subtle and nuanced ways.  However, we are only just beginning to reach what I’d considered to be a desired goal of commonly seeing characters who happen to be gay (or any other minority sexual orientation) but who aren’t “gay characters” per se — if we get there, only then might we be able to say that gay culture has reached full mainstream acceptance.

We’ve seen a slightly similar phenomenon with portrayals of mental illness.  Back 50 years ago, the main forms of it portrayed in fiction were very severe disorders featured for shock value (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho).  During my lifetime, however, characters with more common mental illnesses are seen increasingly frequently, which helps bring awareness to a very important issue.

The downside is that there are other issues and groups that also deserve awareness but aren’t fodder for immediate entertainment in quite the same way.  I think asexuality might be the prime example here.  I imagine that many if not most folks are aware of the ace community or at least that some people don’t experience sexual attraction, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the media we consume or even from the assumptions we make in our social interactions.  Asexuals comprise what may be one of the most invisible minority groups in our society, and even though there’s not much explicit anti-asexual prejudice rooted in our traditional culture, there doesn’t seem to be much effort to increase visibility for this group.  The reason behind this is clear: the notion of someone being asexual is interesting in an abstract way, but it isn’t sensationalistic.  Asexuality doesn’t lend itself to interesting situations or plotlines, at least not at first glance.  It’s been widely noted that sitcoms tend to adhere pretty closely to the Everybody Is Single trope where unrealistically few of the characters are in relationships.  This is for the obvious reason that more characters on the dating market means greater potential for engaging stories.  And a character who is single but who just isn’t interested in dating and/or sex seems even less likely than a character in a steady relationship to provide engaging stories of the kind we’re used to consuming.

A similar principle applies to certain kinds of more “mundane” disabilities.  It even applies, say, to high schoolers who (like past-me) aren’t obsessed with drugs, sex, reckless driving, and generally getting into trouble, and yet who (unlike past-me) also aren’t super stereotypically nerdy.  You wouldn’t get the impression that such adolescents exist either from media or from the way most conversations about teenagers go.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to portray someone of one of these groups in a film, TV show, or book in a way that sells.  I believe it can be done with a little creative effort, and that such an effort should be made wherever possible.  And I hope to see our culture adopt an attitude of greater self-awareness of the assumptions that arise from our insatiable attraction to sensationalism as well as a willingness to push back against it.

My evolving views of (American) politics

(a journey in epistemic helplessness)

[Content note: throwback to my first two posts, published this month last year.  On politics but I don’t know enough politics to make a “political” post per se.  A few issues listed in tags.]

First, a “meta” note.  I’m pleased that I got some substantial ideas down in writing here last year, however imperfectly, but I feel that I went very slightly astray of what I originally envisioned for this blog.  Therefore, I’ve made a resolution to steer my writing in a direction away from posts on mostly-impersonal abstract rationality concepts and towards posts on more concrete and personal issues.

The primary purpose for me in writing essays for this blog has always boiled down to something akin to self-therapy, as I tried to make clear from the start.  I think I succeeded in this at the beginning, but eventually my focus got slightly bogged down elsewhere.  I don’t regret focusing on the ideas I tried to express here last year, since it felt necessary to give myself a framework to explain why I think in the way that I do.  However, I’m beginning to wince at how many of my previous essays read like long-winded cerebral wanderings through subtle abstract questions with so much talk of “rationalism this” and “rationalist community that”.  It was never my intention to sketch out a dingy addendum to Yudkowsky’s Sequences.

It should be understood that my “rationalisty” essays aren’t meant to be persuasive in the sense of arguing that my approach to certain questions is objectively the best one; they’re instead meant to describe the way my mind works.  What I’ve ultimately wanted to do all along is jot down in writing the feelings and perceptions that guide my current approach to getting through my life both socially and on a more epistemic level (much of which, clearly, is tied in with rationalism).  And of course, I should feel free to go through with this kind of jotting-down even if I’m afraid what I have to say comprises ideas that are poorly defined, obviously incomplete, or even very likely invalid.  That way, I can more easily analyze my own beliefs, and with any luck, a few other people with whom these questions resonate with can analyze them as well.

Eventually I want to lay out some content that is way more personal.  (I feel like my writing flows more easily and less effortfully when I get a little more personal and less lofty anyway, but we’ll see.)  There are issues that I feel uneasy talking about that I already find myself putting off even though I’ve laid out most of the necessary framework (hopefully stating this intention now will help me to eventually follow through on it).  The evolution won’t be sudden or drastic — for instance, there’s definitely one more essay of the long-winded, cerebral, “rationalisty” type that I want to write here — but as I said, I’m starting to consciously push in the direction of personal stories and rants… And that begins with this entry, a throwback to the essay I wrote a year ago on the evolution of my attitudes through different periods of my life.  (And I’m not going to quit explicitly tying everything into rationalism just yet.)

Before I get started, I have to make it clear that this is a far cry from what anyone could call a “political article”.  This blog could never be a political blog, because, to put it bluntly, I’m somewhat of a political ignoramus relative to the writers who run such blogs, or even compared to many people of similar intelligence to me but no formal expertise in public policy.  I would love to understand more about macroeconomics, environmental policy, our electoral system, world history and events, and many other things, and I believe I have the intellectual capacity to do so (especially the more mathematical areas among these).  Yet somehow I’ve never managed to muster the necessary focus.  Clearly I’m interested in politics as a whole and many political issues (as evidenced by frequent references on this blog), but this is apparently an interest versus Interest thing.  I am, on the other hand, quite engaged with gaining an intuition for a lot on the main characters on the political stage and their personalities as well as the broad mentalities guiding the supporters of particular policies or entire parties.  This is not ideal but so far has been my best guide to understanding concrete issues and feeling sure of which sides of them to fight for.  So my journey is not one of direct understanding but of groping around trying to understand the convictions of others and why they feel as they do.

I. My apolitical beginnings

As most readers have probably figured out by now, I grew up in America.  I also grew up in a fairly liberal household, politically speaking.  I remember my first explanation of the difference between America’s two major parties being, “It’s all very complicated, but the Democrats often try to make poor people richer, while the Republicans often try to make rich people richer.”  As I got older, I asked more questions and learned that the Republicans favored tax cuts for the wealthy and tended to favor fewer restrictions on pollution by big businesses despite what scientific evidence was telling us, while Democrats stood up for things like a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body and increased funding for education and the arts.

At that fairly young age, my skeptical thinking skills had not yet caught up to my innate “believe sufficiently developed-sounding narratives put in front of me” tendency that I’ve alluded to before.  So it’s no surprise that I didn’t subject my initial Democratic sympathies to much critical thinking.

(Warning: if you’re expecting a gripping saga detailing how I swung from this spot on the political spectrum to authoritarian populism, then the alt-right, finally stopping to rest at anarcho-communism or something like that, then you’re in for a disappointment.  Spoiler alert: I’m still mostly sympathetic to the Left.)

The first time there was a political story I really followed was the election of 2000.  At the time I couldn’t really understand how a system which allowed someone to win the popular vote but lose the election could possibly be justified, and the whole thing seemed like a ridiculous mess.  Then the September 11th attacks happened, which finally triggered a habit of following the news regularly.  I remember feeling some sense of loyalty to our then-fairly-new Republican president in the immediate aftermath, which eventually eroded as he for some reason pushed us into Iraq (I didn’t like war, and it seemed that he rushed us into it without obtaining an appropriate amount of evidence, but of course my views were still being colored by those closest to me who were pretty anti-Bush).

Then in high school I began to examine the political climate in America much more closely and critically.  In last year’s post “My Evolving View of Rationalism”, I expressed a belief that most people first form their personal worldviews in high school.  This includes position on the political spectrum (not based on what one is told by parents, etc. but deeply-held beliefs arising from honest questioning).  I remember one defining moment in American History class when I felt this happening to me.  We were watching some video about I-don’t-remember-what, and (I think) a very wealthy CEO was asked whether he considered himself greedy.  He denied it, explaining that he had created thousands of jobs and claiming that he had done more to help the world than Mother Theresa.  I was stunned, not because the man was obviously kind of a jerk (I was expecting that anyway), but because it properly occurred to me for the first time that putting more money towards big businesses might actually help the poor in some way.  Prior to that, I had never made a genuine effort to examine why so many people were in favor of tax cuts for the rich or for big businesses.  I guess I’d been leaning on the assumption that fiscal conservatives were either rich themselves or uneducated (never mind the fact that the most conservative guy I knew growing up was on reduced lunches and had a parent in academia).

It was at around the same time that I began to actually care a lot about religion and why people believed in it in contrast to my earlier religion-is-silly-and-boring stance, as I’ve described elsewhere.  And I put two and two together and realized that religion was playing a major role in politics, and that in fact the stronger sort of religion that I was especially philosophically opposed to was being embraced by the Republican party.  (Another even more significant defining moment I remember that history class is arguing with my mildly conservative teacher over same-sex marriage, when it really hit me that religious belief could lead to moral values that I couldn’t relate to at all and that these could be used to decide moral policy.)  So at around the same time I was realizing that there were other sides to the whole fiscal policy debate, my support for social liberalism was beginning to solidify.  But I remained for the time being not especially outspoken overall when it came to politics.

And then, we entered another presidential election season.

II. How America could have done better in 2004

By 2004, I had cemented myself into a certain political mould, as had many of my high school peers.  Mid-to-late-adolescence, after all, is a period of radical beliefs for many.  I was surrounded by radical Marxists, radical libertarians, radical Christian conservatives, radical anti-Zionists… so what type of radical was I?  Well, by now my budding rationalist sensibilities had instilled in me a distrust of any political ideology that claimed extreme answers to all problems, so I was determined to stay as far away as possible from the periphery of the space of political positions and maintain an openly critical attitude of everyone’s positions.  Of course, what I didn’t have the maturity to see then was that I was being at least as blindly ideological as anyone else — in fact I was essentially masquerading as a radical Centrist.  I still knew that I held a number of partisan positions deep down, but bent over backwards trying not to acknowledge them (some of this was out of a healthy concern that I might be biased towards my parents’ beliefs.  And once again, this was paralleled by how I chose to present my religious views.  I identified as agnostic, which I often defended as the most moderate, open-minded view.  But in retrospect, I was a rather militant agnostic — granted, I still am somewhat — and my attempts to dole out equal criticism to theistic religion and to straight-up atheism were pretty silly.)

And so I was no fan of George W. Bush, but when John Kerry first emerged as Democratic frontrunner, I was determined to conclude that he was probably almost as bad, despite having heard very little of what he had to say.  Then they debated, and my attitude towards him, and the whole electoral contest for that matter, changed completely.

I should back up for a moment and explain one aspect of philosophy that I was very passionate about at the time.  I had become a great follower of what one might pejoratively call “scientism“.  In other words, I valued the scientific method very highly and regarded a general version of it as the best means to reaching empirical truth.  This was the very cornerstone of my philosophical worldview and my brand of rationalism at the time.  I think what spoke to me particularly emphatically was the idea of keeping one’s mind open to all possibilities and then putting them through very rigorous testing — what Carl Sagan called “a marriage of skepticism and wonder” — which required the ability to recognize and admit one’s own mistakes.  It implied a system of self-correction which I considered to be a very beautiful concept.

I had made the connection that the American constitution was an embodiment of a similar concept (very revolutionary for its time): an system of laws which evolved through acceptance of new ideas, testing them by running them past the people; and accordant self-correction.  Of course this was only an ideal and the American government didn’t quite work this way in practice.  But the way I saw it, America was founded upon this principle, the same great principle that governed scientific research, the same concept that separated open-minded rationality from blind dogmatism.  During those years many people were arguing over what it meant to love one’s country in the midst of a war that many of its citizens didn’t support.  I knew where I stood: I loved America regardless of the decisions its politicians made, because its abstract defining ideals formed the very foundation of my creed.  And nothing was more un-American than defending whatever America did on a principle of “my country, right or wrong”.

The final weeks of the 2004 campaign season, and particularly the presidential debates, reshaped my ideas of where each major side of the current political spectrum stood with respect to my most deeply-held epistemic conviction.  On the Democratic side, we had a candidate who spoke in a nuanced way (never mind that I didn’t understand the things he was talking about half the time, what mattered to me was that he sounded oh so nuanced!), but who was routinely criticized for being a “flip-flopper”, which sounded an awful lot to me like a disparaging term for “being able to see two sides of an issue”.  On the Republican side, we had a candidate who seemed to gain appeal by stating everything in as simplistic a way as possible, whose definition of “strong leader” revolved around not questioning the course we were on, and whose overriding concern in the face of criticism was apparently “not sending mixed messages to our troops”.  As someone who wasn’t exactly terribly knowledgeable about many of the object-level issues being discussed, it seemed to me like the debates were really a contest between a philosophy of questioning for the purpose of self correction and a philosophy of maintaining strong convictions for the sake of having strong convictions.

There was a particular moment in the second debate which encapsulated this for me, in which Senator Kerry was explaining why he voted against some pro-life-based laws not because he disagreed with the general stances motivating them but because they lacked certain provisions which he thought were necessary.  He ended by saying, “It’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”  President Bush’s response says it all:

It’s pretty simple when they say, “Are you for a ban on partial birth abortion?  Yes or no?”  And he was given a chance to vote.  And he voted no.  And that’s just the way it is, that’s the vote.  It came right up, it’s clear for everybody to see.  And as I said, you can run but you can’t hide.  It’s the reality.


This is why any account of my personal journey towards today’s flavor of online rationalism is incomplete without discussing how I was shaped by the 2004 election.

When the results of the contest came in, I was bitterly disappointed along with many others.  But I felt like one of the only ones who was disappointed not only because Bush won, but because Kerry, who had felt to me like a voice of genuine reason, lost.  And after that, I guess I sort of made peace with the fact that I felt unable to hold terribly strong or specific convictions on many political issues that weren’t social.  I had a firm feeling about what mattered the most: I was in favor of politicians who operated on open-mindedness, skepticism, and above all, humility and the ability to self-correct.  And the Democratic party seemed to take stances that better encapsulated that attitude and to house more politicians who had that quality.

For the record, I’ve since grown less naïve about Kerry: while I still believe that he was generally sincere and held consistent beliefs, it’s clear to me that he was shrewd about pandering to different groups of people.  However, I hold that Bush, his administration, and the election of 2004 marked the pinnacle of blatant anti-intellectualism in the US during my lifetime.  (Obviously we’ve just started down a new path and I’m not sure what I’ll be calling this trend in another 12 years, but as Trumpism doesn’t seem to have much of a direct relationship to intellectualism, or intelligence, or any form of coherent thought for that matter, it’s hard for me to brand it as “anti-intellectualism”.)

III. A collection of my (non-)convictions

I guess the update I’ll start with is to say that I no longer see the Left or the Democratic party as a paragon of rationalistic ideology in today’s American political scene.  In fact, I’m constantly frustrated by the extent to which left-wing rhetoric seems to be based on unreasoned emotions and aversion to self-correction.  To fully explain this point of view would require another, much longer post, but if you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you’re not far away (in some measure of internet-distance) from blogs which delve into the flaws of today’s liberal discourse all the time.

I still feel woefully un-savvy about political goings-on and all sides of complex issues, but I do follow a particular set of heuristics which lead me to certain (still fairly left-wing) political leanings.  Below is my attempt to summarize a few of them.

First off, I knew I eventually had to link to my post on free will / determinism, with my contention that leaning towards free-will explanations versus deterministic ones corresponds in a rough way to conservative versus liberal attitudes.  I suppose it’s important to mention here that my instinct from the moment I was first exposed to the free will debate was towards determinism; this feels related to my tendencies both towards “scientism” and towards empathy.  I soon realized that the sort of determinism I favored was compatibilism, which doesn’t really contradict anybody’s concrete everyday intuition about either free will or determinism.  And yet, in concrete, everyday situations, I do feel like I lean more towards deterministic interpretations of behavior than the average person does.  This has led me to the left-wing view on many things.

Meanwhile, I have also always been somewhat of a utilitarian by instinct and have trouble interpreting ethical dilemmas using any other language.  Therefore, I take issue on a fundamental philosophical level with axiomatic-looking notions like “fairness”, “desert”, and “natural rights”, even while they are useful terms on a practical level.

I therefore strongly believe that punishment should only be used for the purpose of deterrence, not retribution.  When I was younger, I favored the death penalty for reasons of practicality; since then I’ve turned against it mainly because it seems barbaric, in practice not as humane as it should be in theory, prone to error, and rooted in a desire for retribution.  I am in principal willing for certain drugs to be “illegal” in some sense of the term because it’s easy to demonstrate that they do great harm, but I’m completely opposed to harsh prison sentences for drug offenders as this seems absolutely counterproductive to minimizing harm.  I’ve grown quite cynical about the prison system in general and would much prefer some form of mandatory rehabilitation for certain types of “crimes”.

Foreign affairs is my area of greatest ignorance (I’m truly an instance of the American stereotype of knowing a lot about my own country but little about what’s going on in the rest of the world — even recently moving abroad has not improved this much), but I have some heuristic convictions nonetheless.  I believe that the US should strive to do as much good as possible for the world (and “the world” includes America), but that we are far better able to judge and manage and micromanage what goes on within our own borders than what happens in societies far away with very foreign cultures and political situations.  It follows that interfering in conflicts taking place within other countries holds the risk of creating an even bigger mess and possible permanent occupation situation and should be approached with great caution even when there are potential major benefits to global well-being.  Probably the best type of scenario for the US to get involved in is one where there is some united oppressed group far away without the necessary resources to overthrow their oppressors.  I’m not on principle against the US throwing its considerable strength towards solving what we conscientiously consider to be great atrocities abroad.  But I don’t like the idea of America acting as the world’s police force simply because of our great military power, for the same reason that I dislike unfettered monarchy or dictatorship (what happens when the well-intentioned party with overwhelming power is wrong?)

I’m inclined to oppose any ruthless and inhumane actions partaken in the context of war or for reasons of “keeping America safe”, even though dispassionate utilitarianism does compel me to concede in theory that despicable actions towards a few which seem guaranteed to prevent the deaths of many may be justified.  Conveniently, however, harsh measures such as torture have apparently been shown to not be particularly effective.  Moreover, it is of extreme importance to consider how the rest of the world may react to ruthless practices on the part of the American military and how this may serve to further escalate conflict rather than make the world safer.  (In general, emphasis on Theory of Mind and considering how one’s actions will affect other parties’ perceptions is a big part of what guides me both in political attitudes and elsewhere.)

I still hold the process of and institution of science in highest regard when it comes to determining empirical facts, and therefore assume by default the truth of what the scientific community says regarding issues like evolution and climate change (although I’ve become a little cynical about social sciences as of late).

I continue to vehemently reject social attitudes based on conservative religious convictions such as opposition to same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or euthanasia.  However, one “meta” level up, I don’t have a problem with the fact that some politicians are trying to legislate based on their religious convictions: everyone ought to base their stances on personal moral convictions, and these are based on religious belief for many individuals.  As long as politicians aren’t trying to justify their religiously motivated proposals with claims like “America is a Christian nation”, I don’t consider their proposals to violate the First Amendment or “separation of Church and State”.

In the arena of fiscal policy, I’m still looking to maximize well-being for the greatest number of people.  It’s clear to me that this doesn’t scale linearly with wealth, and so at least on naïve principle I’m in favor of creaming a bit off the top of the highest incomes to give to the poor or to programs which benefit the poor.  However, in the actual world it’s very plausible to me that policies which aim to bring this about may weaken the economy so that everyone is worse off.  My lack of expertise in macroeconomics is hurting me here: I’m not sure to what extent pumping money into the working and lower-middle class (who are likely to spend it all) would benefit the economy versus to what extent this is accomplished through benefits for big businesses.  My inclination for the time being is to make sure that all full-time workers make enough to live on practically (exactly how much is a nontrivial question, of course), although the alternative idea of a universal basic income interests me very much.  While I can see the attraction to libertarianism as an abstract theory and could even see myself taking libertarian stances on many issues, I utterly reject two of the arguments I most often hear for it: “poor people would become richer if they just worked harder” and its neighboring attitudes (see my deterministic inclinations above); and “Taxation is theft!” and similar statements which seem to assume some primal notion of ownership rather than regarding it as an abstract phenomenon contingent an existing State.

There are many more hotly-debated areas of policy on which I have at least some tentative opinion, but these were the main ones I thought to put down in writing at this moment.  Some of them could of course change tomorrow.

Oh, and yes, our mechanisms for self-correction are still of utmost importance in my eyes.  This of course is encoded in our First Amendment protecting free speech, and although I believe that both the Left and the Right have invoked it inappropriately at times, I take very seriously any genuine offense to the spirit of it.  Let’s move towards a norm of listening to each other and compromise or when necessary going with majority opinion in order to work together in an effort to make progress with our policies… but always with the open-minded awareness that we could be wrong.