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Conversation Halters

38 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 February 2010 03:00PM

Related toLogical Rudeness, Semantic Stopsigns

While working on my book, I found in passing that I'd developed a list of what I started out calling "stonewalls", but have since decided to refer to as "conversation halters".  These tactics of argument are distinguished by their being attempts to cut off the flow of debate - which is rarely the wisest way to think, and should certainly rate an alarm bell.

Here's my assembled list, on which I shall expand shortly:

  • Appeal to permanent unknowability;
  • Appeal to humility;
  • Appeal to egalitarianism;
  • Appeal to common guilt;
  • Appeal to inner privacy;
  • Appeal to personal freedom;
  • Appeal to arbitrariness;
  • Appeal to inescapable assumptions.
  • Appeal to unquestionable authority;
  • Appeal to absolute certainty.

Now all of these might seem like dodgy moves, some dodgier than others.  But they become dodgier still when you take a step back, feel the flow of debate, observe the cognitive traffic signals, and view these as attempts to cut off the flow of further debate.

Hopefully, most of these are obvious, but to define terms:

Appeal to permanent unknowability - something along the lines of "Why did God allow smallpox?  Well, no one can know the mind of God."  Or, "There's no way to distinguish among interpretations of quantum mechanics, so we'll never know."  Arguments like these can be refuted easily enough by anyone who knows the rules for reasoning under uncertainty and how they imply a correct probability estimate given a state of knowledge... but of course you'll probably have to explain the rules to the other, and the reason they appealed to unknowability is probably to cut off further discussion.

Appeal to humility - much the same as above, but said with a different emphasis:  "How can we know?", where of course the speaker doesn't much want to know, and so the real meaning is "How can you know?"  Of course one may gather entangled evidence in most such cases, and Occam's Razor or extrapolation from already-known facts takes care of the other cases.  But you're not likely to get a chance to explain it, because by continuing to speak, you are committing the sin of pride.

Appeal to egalitarianism - something along the lines of "No one's opinion is better than anyone else's."  Now if you keep talking you're committing an offense against tribal equality.

Appeal to common guilt - "everyone is irrational now and then", so if you keep talking, you're claiming to be better than them.  An implicit subspecies of appeal to egalitarianism.

Appeal to inner privacy - "you can't possibly know how I feel!"  It's true that modern technology still encounters some slight difficulties in reading thoughts out of the brain, though work is underway as we speak.  But it is rare that the exact details of how you feel are the key subject matter being disputed.  Here the bony borders of the skull are being redeployed as a hard barrier to keep out further arguments.

Appeal to personal freedom - "I can define a word any way I want!"  Now if you keep talking you're infringing on their civil rights.

Appeal to arbitrariness - again, the notion that word definitions are arbitrary serves as a good example (in fact I was harvesting some of these appeals from that sequence).  It's not just that this is wrong, but that it serves to cut off further discourse.  Generally, anything that people are motivated to argue about is not arbitrary.  It is being controlled by invisible criteria of evaluation, it has connotations with consequences, and if that isn't true either, the topic of discourse is probably not "arbitrary" but just "meaningless".  No map that corresponds to an external territory can be arbitrary.

Appeal to inescapable assumptions - closely related, the idea that you need some assumptions and therefore everyone is free to choose whatever assumptions they want.  This again is almost never true.  In the realm of physical reality, reality is one way or another and you don't get to make it that way by choosing an opinion, and so some "assumptions" are right and others wrong.  In the realm of math, once you choose enough axioms to specify the subject matter, the remaining theorems are matters of logical implication.  What I want you to notice is not just that "appeal to inescapable assumptions" is a bad idea, but that it is supposed to halt further conversation.

Appeal to unquestionable authority - for example, defending a definition by appealing to the dictionary, which is supposed to be a final settlement of the argument.  Of course it is very rare that whatever is really at stake is something that ought to turn out differently if a Merriam-Webster editor writes a different definition.  Only in matters of the solidest, most replicable science, do we have information so authoritative that there is no longer much point in considering other sources of evidence.  And even then we shouldn't expect to see strong winds of evidence blowing in an opposing direction - under the Bayesian definition of evidence, strong evidence is just that sort of evidence which you only ever expect to find on at most one side of a factual question.  More usually, this argument runs something along the lines of "How dare you argue with the dictionary?" or "How dare you argue with Professor Picklepumper of Harvard University?"

Appeal to absolute certainty - if you did have some source of absolute certainty, it would do no harm to cut off debate at that point.  Needless to say, this usually doesn't happen.

And again:  These appeals are all flawed in their separate ways, but what I want you to notice is the thing they have in common, the stonewall-effect, the conversation-halting cognitive traffic signal.

The only time it would actually be appropriate to use such a traffic signal is when you have information so strong, or coverage so complete, that there really is no point in further debate.  This condition is rarely if ever met.  A truly definite series of replicated experiments might settle an issue pending really surprising new experimental results, a la Newton's laws of gravity versus Einstein's GR.  Or a gross prior improbability, combined with failure of the advocates to provide confirming evidence in the face of repeated opportunities to do so.  Or you might simply run out of time.

But then you should state the stoppage condition outright and plainly, not package it up in one of these appeals.  By and large, these traffic signals are simply bad traffic signals.

Comments (94)

Comment author: grobstein 22 February 2010 12:32:42AM 14 points [-]

In the wild, people use these gambits mostly for social, rather than argumentative, reasons. If you are arguing with someone and believe their arguments are pathological, and engagement is not working, you need to be able to stop the debate. Hence, one of the above -- this is most clear with "Let's agree to disagree."

In practice, it can be almost impossible to get out of a degrading argument without being somewhat intellectually dishonest. And people generally are willing to be a little dishonest if it will get them out of an annoying and unproductive situation.

If you have frequently been on the receiving end of "conversation halters," consider the hypothesis that you are doing something wrong. If you often provoke the reaction that people would rather not engage with you, the social part of your argumentative technique is badly broken.

Comment author: dsalamon 21 February 2010 09:08:10AM 9 points [-]

Eliezer - this is an interesting list, but perhaps it has more to do with you than with the people you're talking to.

For instance, when I was younger I had many arguments that ended in debates over definitions. (apparently the source of three of your above examples), but that's because I wanted (and was hanging out with people who wanted) to win for winnings sake. It was how that group determined status.

This is a list of symptoms -- what are the things you're doing in conversation that reduce people to saying things like this to escape? (or, alternatively, why are you talking to people who care more about proving to you that they're not listening than they do about learning from you? [and you learning from them])

Comment author: Wei_Dai 21 February 2010 10:48:43PM 7 points [-]

why are you talking to people who care more about proving to you that they're not listening than they do about learning from you?

It's a good question, but if I were to guess I'd say that Eliezer thinks that changing those people's minds would help reduce existential risk. For example they might be people working on UFAI, or otherwise not taking existential risk seriously enough.

What can we do (in conversation, as opposed to writing a blog post about it) to avoid triggering these conversation halters, or to overcome them? Anyone have ideas?

Comment author: h-H 22 February 2010 07:19:29PM *  0 points [-]

the majority of these don't require much effort to defeat, the most difficult IMO are: Appeal to permanent unknowability which is more or less based on Appeal to inescapable assumptions.

while something like Appeal to unquestionable authority could be easily defeated by say showing said authority to have been wrong on even a single occasion, the above pair are not so easily dealt with-I'm assuming if someone uses those conversation halters they're not unqualified to continue the discussion given irrationality but rather it is an issue of which axiom/s to use.

note that if the conversation reaches the point where it's about initial assumptions then that is a good sign, if both sides see that it is their priors being discussed it can save both a lot of effort, and in fact those two particular conversation halters might even indicate a rationalist with differing priors, while the other convo-halters are more or less indicators of inaccurate priors, or outright irrationality-for eg. # Appeal to personal freedom.

as the post says, defining what constitutes an end to the debate before the debate occurs would eliminate almost any attempt at halting, a simple reminder of the agreed upon conditions would suffice, but if the debate has winnowed out the layers and it's a battle of the priors, well, at least you've eliminated the majority of counter arguments, and frankly I don't think there is any way to overcome it easily.

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 09:06:30PM 9 points [-]

An aside: many people here assume that attempts to cut off debate stem from a desire to protect a meme - but there are at least two other motivations:

  1. Time constraints.
  2. Distaste for tone (e.g. if the opposite party is growing aggressive in their comments).
Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 09:30:30PM 13 points [-]

When I don't have internet access I tend to halt some debates when it seems clear that everyone involved is making claims that should be justified by science but no one involved knows the science. A lot of times I just say "Neither of us knows what we're talking about. Let's change the subject." That seems reasonable to me and usually everyone immediately recognizes that they have been bullshitting for the last 5 minutes.

Comment author: thomblake 22 February 2010 02:58:04PM 2 points [-]

This sort of thing is actually common in professional philosophy, when done from the armchair. ("Well, that's an empirical question") Discovering that X can be verified empirically, where both sides of the disagreement depend upon X, tends to end the discussion. (Compare "A solution exists" jokes).

Comment author: Nick_Novitski 20 February 2010 07:34:50PM 9 points [-]

I hear appeals to my politeness.

That is, because many people debate in order to show their skill at debating, or because they want to dominate the other person by making them submit to their position, some folks will mistake you for one of those people (assuming, of course, that you aren't), and they'll be upset by a debate continuing on for too long.

A rarer and sillier objection: the argument to coolness. "Why are you getting so upset about this? It's not like it, or anything else, matters that much."

Comment author: MichaelGR 21 February 2010 08:40:59AM 0 points [-]

A rarer and sillier objection: the argument to coolness. "Why are you getting so upset about this? It's not like it, or anything else, matters that much."

I've often heard a variation of:

"Well, it's not like we can do anything about it anyway, eh?"

Comment author: Rain 22 February 2010 07:21:47PM 7 points [-]

I've found the best way to continue a discussion (if one wished to do so under the stated conditions...) when encountering a conversation halter is to put on a quizzical expression and utter a simple, confused-sounding question like, "How so?" or "Really?"

Asking questions, especially when you act confused (and many of these tactics are confusing on purpose, and thus it's not a false front), seems to put people in a better mood to counter with more substantive debate. Maybe it puts them into teaching mode, automatically granting them status without conceding the argument itself, or it shows that you genuinely would like to discuss the topic but aren't being combative about it, I'm not sure. It just works well for me.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 February 2010 01:53:24PM *  7 points [-]

I have just been reminded of another kind of Conversation Halter: fogging.

Essentially it involves just saying that they could be right. Not contesting any particular argument or even continuing to assert the position and yet not clearly updating either. In its most practical use it is a debate halter used when debating is not necessarily desired, but I mention it because it often also serves as a rhetorical tactic when debating. Depending on the tone and context 'you could be right' can mean "You're wrong and I do not need to justify myself, I'm authoritative enough to countersignal and you have no chance to reply!"

Can also be used as a parallel to 'Appeal to inner privacy' and 'Appeal to humility'.

(I advocate the careful use of this Halter in non-epistemic circumstances.)

Comment author: [deleted] 22 February 2010 04:14:57AM 1 point [-]

non-epistemic circumstances

These seem like circumstances to avoid.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2010 04:25:24AM 3 points [-]

In many human interactions matters of fact are asserted (including 'you should') which are not necessarily the most useful to focus on. Fogging can help 'halt' the undesirable turn of conversation. I can't avoid everyone who doesn't have perfect, philosophically honed boundaries.

Comment author: komponisto 20 February 2010 03:41:37PM *  7 points [-]

Also: appeal to less than absolute certainty: "There's no way we can know for sure, since we weren't there. We can make judgments, but we don't have knowledge." Or, when you say "X", someone responds "are you really sure of X?", and you say "I'm 99% sure of X", they accuse you of retreating from your position: "Oh, well you didn't say that before; you just said 'X', which is an expression of absolute certainty" -- thereby interrupting the conversation and dodging the disagreement.

Closely related to the appeal to permanent unknowability and the appeal to humility.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 February 2010 11:24:31PM 1 point [-]

Isn't that precisely what the appeal to humility is?

Comment author: komponisto 20 February 2010 11:52:39PM *  1 point [-]

It's related. The distinction would be that, in the appeal to humility, the one denies that we can be 99% sure of the proposition in the first place, or perhaps even much greater than 50%; whereas in the appeal to less than absolute certainty, they ignore the significance of 99% certainty, and pretend that only 100% certainty "counts". (Or, they may ignore the significance of 90% certainty, and pretend that only >99% certainty "counts", etc.)

Comment author: Baughn 02 March 2010 09:50:49AM *  2 points [-]

When this happens to me, I often try to explain how 100% certainty (or 0%) is a mathematical concept that's incompatible with how evidence is actually gathered (which they'll usually nod along to, unless they see where this is going), and then proceed to explain how this means that the word "certainty" does not, in fact, mean 100%.

This has yet to convince anyone. I should probably think of something else.

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 06:46:37PM 0 points [-]

Taboo "certainty"?

Comment author: Gavin 20 February 2010 06:59:34PM 6 points [-]

I'm a bit confused by your use of Appeal to personal freedom. If the "personal freedom" is the freedom of everyone to hold their own opinions, then it's just a restatement of egalitarianism. If it's about the definitions of words, then it seems to fall under the arbitrariness category.

Can you explain what sets this apart from the other categories?

Comment author: brazil84 20 February 2010 05:18:11PM 6 points [-]

Don't forget the "Appeal to Google" i.e. the person claims that there is plenty of evidence to support his position but refuses to concisely summarize or quote it. Instead, he just points to just points to some big document, or even the entire internet.

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 05:49:54PM 1 point [-]

It's a particularly seductive one, too - many a forumite or blog commenter may commit it with the best intentions.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 February 2010 08:03:48PM 7 points [-]

Does that actually attempt to halt further conversation though?

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 08:51:44PM 5 points [-]

It can be such an attempt: if, in order to continue discussing X, I have to refute such-and-such megabytes of text from an external link, that places an asymmetric burden on me.

It would be reasonable to say, "You're coming in in the middle of an argument - the points you are trying to address are being discussed [here](URL)", but "BOOK TITLE decisively proves my point" is another variation of the appeal to unquestionable authority.

Comment author: komponisto 20 February 2010 09:48:42PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Benquo 20 February 2010 08:47:35PM 1 point [-]

I don't know if that is usually an attempt to halt further conversation, as much as an attempt to shift the burden of evidence to the other party, but it sure seems to have the effect of closing down a line of argument. So it sounds like a distinct but related move.

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 09:21:06PM 1 point [-]

Burden shifting language in general is almost always a sign either of two debaters having very different prior data or one or more of them being really irrational.

Comment author: Cyan 20 February 2010 08:21:33PM *  1 point [-]

It attempts to halt the sub-conversation that starts with, "How about some references?" E.g., this.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 February 2010 01:05:42PM 0 points [-]

It seems to be designed, or at least hope to halt further conversation on a particular premise. I suppose if you use it on your actual conclusion then you are trying to halt further conversation. Essentially 'that is wrong and easily verifiable, learn better'. That may be appropriate it in some of the cases (as with conversation halters in general).

Comment author: [deleted] 21 February 2010 09:18:27AM 15 points [-]

Appeal to harmony - "Let's agree to disagree." If you keep talking, you're being quarrelsome.

A Few Billion Lines of Code Later: Using Static Analysis to Find Bugs in the Real World contains a nice example:

As a final example, a buffer overflow checker flagged a bunch of errors of the form

unsigned p[4]; ... p[4] = 1;

"No, ANSI lets you write 1 past the end of the array."

After heated argument, the programmer said, "We'll have to agree to disagree."

(It helps to know that this is forbidden by the C and C++ Standards. This rule is so well-known among programmers that if this guy were a physicist, he may as well have said, "No, neutrons are positively charged.")

Comment author: [deleted] 22 February 2010 04:13:18AM 2 points [-]

I'm just speechless. Why would you even argue about it in the first place when you can just go look at the standard or write a toy program that would run if and only if you could write past the end? This should be the canonical example of the sort of irrationality that involves ignoring the data that you have.

Comment author: djcb 22 February 2010 09:41:41PM 1 point [-]

well, going slightly off-topic here; it's not strictly forbidden to write past the end of the array, it's just that the result is undefined. Depending what's on the stack, it might actually work in some cases. Needless to say, one should never do this.

Comment author: Jiro 27 March 2014 06:56:37PM 1 point [-]

He was probably confusing it with the idea that it is legitimate have a pointer that is one past the end of an array for the purpose of comparing pointers. You still can't dereference it reliably, however.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 February 2010 02:58:52AM 0 points [-]

Er, s/run/run properly/.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 24 February 2010 07:12:52AM 5 points [-]

Of the top of my head I can think of a few items to add to the list.

Appeal to intra-group agreement - An example would be "If the FSM really exists, our family/tribe/facebook fraternity would have to be broken apart" in this case the person is putting the fate of a social bond at stake so as to counterbalance the value or arguing with him. You may win the debate over me, but you'll destroy your community - is the spirit behind it.

Appeal to Low energy level - This is mostly used in social situations in which the energy level is high, everyone is having a good time, for instance. If an argument is going on, someone may slightly start fading her attention away, looking bored, so as to oblige those arguing to change topic to keep the energy level high. I do it all the time when people start arguing about astrology or god. I suppose this is used mostly by alpha males and women, since they have more power over the group. It can also be done explicitly, by complaining, if the person has enough status in the group.

Appeal to common cause - "I see your point (even though she doesn't) but we must remember that we are here for a reason, the Party must prevail" The cause justifies the end of the debate. We shouldn't risk the causes loss over such a mundane issue.

Appeal to status lowering - "Well, yes, you may think freezing your head is a rational idea, but what do you think your girlfriend would think of this?" Rationality is supposed to include baby-producing strategies, so this can be quite appealing in the presence of someone who would actually think less of you for an opinion.

Appeal to biological need - Anything that one's body can do that will halt the debate can be used as an excuse, bathroom, thirst, headache, sleepiness. Even a short break might bring the debate's energy level below its working threshold.

Appeal to time constraint - same as above, but due to external circumstance.

Appeal to lack of intelligence - This is quite unlikely to happen in this blog comments, but someone could easily declare incapacity to understand subject X in order to stop someone else from arguing Y, given both know that X is required knowledge to grasp the persuasiveness of Y.

Appeal to humor - As most of the above, this is not epistemic in nature, but it is by far the one most available in my memory along with inescapable assumptions. Thor is trying to be serious, but everything that he says seriously is turned into a joke, or everything new. In this way it is never possible to delve deep, and the argument fades away.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 February 2010 07:20:00AM 0 points [-]

Appeal to lack of intelligence - This is quite unlikely to happen in this blog comments, but someone could easily declare incapacity to understand subject X in order to stop someone else from arguing Y, given both know that X is required knowledge to grasp the persuasiveness of Y.

This is one that is sometimes best conveyed through action rather than stated explicitly.

Comment author: Johnicholas 21 February 2010 02:55:30PM *  5 points [-]

There has been a lot of work on argumentation, argumentation schemes, and burden-of-proof moves; I'm thinking in particular of Douglas Walton - http://www.dougwalton.ca/ - but the field of argumentation is big and old. This is heavily-trodden territory.

EY has a somewhat novel slant on things, and so may be able contribute to the conversation, but by not citing (or not looking for previous work) he's being (accidentally) somewhat deceptive here.

It's tempting to portray your thoughts as original and without precedent, but even if they feel original and without precedent, they probably aren't.

See EY's critique of Gould - http://lesswrong.com/lw/kv/beware_of_stephen_j_gould/

Comment author: wedrifid 21 February 2010 03:09:33PM 5 points [-]

As a matter of course I expect most things I read here to be based on works from other sources or reinventions thereof.

As an aside I would expect Eliezer to have far less to cover in the field of argumentation than many other potential explorers. He tries to cut himself off from a lot of the paths of argumentation that are paved in filth which means he doesn't follow them along enough to really understand the sophisticated nuances. One would expect make his writing more useful for 'how to not' than 'how to'.

Comment author: bigjeff5 29 January 2011 05:25:40AM 0 points [-]

Hopefully nobody who reads this site believes an explanation of old ideas are new ideas. The tactics described here are, by definition, old tactics because they are used by people in ordinary conversation. Furthermore, they are used often enough that I would be shocked if anybody who reads this site has not encountered a single variation of the tactics described.

However, people might not be aware that the purpose of these arguments is often simply to end all further debate, and to do so in a clearly intellectually dishonest way.

This is worth pointing out, but pointing this fact out did not, to me, imply that Eliezer had discovered the idea that these tactics are used to halt conversations. I'm not really sure why you inferred that from what was written.

In other words, just because I state the fact that the Sun is 93 million miles away does not in any way imply that I am the man who discovered that the Sun is 93 million miles away. I wouldn't expect anybody to infer that, yet somehow you did (figuratively speaking, of course).

Comment author: Johnicholas 30 January 2011 12:18:36AM 0 points [-]

Yes, it's a matter of readers expectations and assumptions. The same text can be read more generously, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, or less generously, holding the author to some more-rigorous standard.

Including specific references into the literature is more professional and more helpful to the reader.

Comment deleted 20 February 2010 03:54:34PM [-]
Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 20 February 2010 07:30:30PM 6 points [-]

It's funny when two people both want to have the last word in spinning a conversation they're ending. People do indeed feel like they're committed to something when they engage; they won't just say "I'm sick of talking about this; bye".

As always, you have to decide if it's worth challenging any obvious face-saving signal. People sure get defensive if you do.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 21 February 2010 06:07:44PM 1 point [-]

Isn't this an opportunity to allow them a line of retreat?

Comment author: lunchbox 21 February 2010 12:06:09AM *  12 points [-]

The items on that list of appeals can also be ranked. According to mainstream US values, "Appeal to egalitarianism" trumps "Appeal to unquestionable authority", "Appeal to personal freedom" trumps "Appeal to egalitarianism"; and so on. The standard political talk show debate consists of a back-and-forth escalation up this ladder.

For example, in a televised debate on regulation:

Person 1: "The National Bureau of Economics Research published a study showing conclusively that regulation of X is harmful" (authority)

Person 2: "Well, I don't care what the elite economists say; the poor are not getting equal access to X and that is unfair." (egalitarianism)

Person 1: "Sure, it's unequal, but if the government played big brother with X, that would violate our fundamental freedoms." (personal freedom)

Comment author: ata 21 February 2010 12:58:05AM *  14 points [-]

I think Eliezer's using these terms in a more specific sense than you are. For instance, your Person 2 is making an appeal to egalitarianism (in the conventional sense) as an argument for their position; while it still may be invalid, it's not an argument for why the debate should stop, which is what this post is about, if I'm reading it correctly. The appeal to egalitarianism is something like "Both of us have equally valid opinions, so who's to say which of us is right or wrong? Let's agree to disagree." The appeal to personal freedom is "I have a right to my opinion, so by arguing with me, you're infringing on my rights" (I encounter that one depressingly often), "I define my words this one way, so by disputing that, you're infringing on my rights", etc. They're never arguments (even wrong ones) about the actual merit of the views being debated.

Comment author: lunchbox 21 February 2010 09:03:55PM 4 points [-]

Oops, yes, I misread the original post. Thanks for pointing that out.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 21 February 2010 02:37:08PM 3 points [-]

I'm not entirely sure it's the same. I mean, what you're describing is more a policy/decision debate. That is where principles like egalitarianism, personal freedom, and such are actually valid to appeal to since they're part of that-which-we-value.

It's not exactly the same thing as what the OP is talking about, is it? (unless person 2 is saying "because it is unfair, the study that implied those consequences is, in fact, invalid" rather than "even given those consequences, it's still worthwhile because this value here is so important")

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 21 February 2010 02:45:49PM 2 points [-]

Meta: Why was this voted down? (I voted it up earlier, and it's at 0 karma at the moment.)

I understand that the actual point in the comment is tangential to the original article, and thus could be taken as off-topic or wrong, but I find it valuable to read such comments and the reactions that they evoke; such exchanges help point out the limitations of the tools and frameworks being discussed.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 February 2010 02:54:49PM 3 points [-]

I voted it up as an interesting tangent and a credible point. While lunchbox is talking about a different usage of the appeals it does demonstrate that there is a blurry line there between 'conversation halter' and 'actual argument that isn't necessarily designed to end the debate except in as much as they think they other person should see their error and concur'. Intent, context and tone make huge differences here.

Comment author: timtyler 20 February 2010 05:07:05PM *  7 points [-]

Thinking about various other conversation-stoppers, these come to mind:

  • Announce that you are leaving the conversation;

  • Declare that the conversation is insignificant;

  • Declare that the conversation is a digression;

  • Declare that the conversation is off-topic;

  • Declare that the issue has been resolved elsewhere;

  • Declare that the conversation has stooped to ad-hominen;

  • Invoke Godwin's law;

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 11:14:04PM 3 points [-]

Declare that the issue has been resolved elsewhere;

I have encountered this many, many times on Less Wrong. And it is often not strictly true.

Comment author: timtyler 20 February 2010 11:46:11PM 11 points [-]

You are only saying that because you haven't read The Sequences. ;-)

Comment author: loqi 20 February 2010 08:07:01PM 3 points [-]

But most of those items are perfectly reasonable in many contexts. The items on Eliezer's list strike me as being more reliable indicators of flawed thought.

Comment author: timtyler 20 February 2010 09:00:27PM *  2 points [-]

Yes - that was mostly the point. Terminating the debate can be a sensible thing to do sometimes. RobinZ makes a similar point.

Comment author: MrHen 20 February 2010 09:38:17PM 6 points [-]

This is similar to something I had started in my drafts folder. I guess it now belongs better as a comment here:

Distracting Honesty

A behavior of written argument is to anticipate an objection and answer it before the opposition can raise it against you. A similar, slipperier act is to simply acknowledge a weakness and never bring it up again.

There are various examples of this but an obvious one can be found in my confession. My claim is that I want to be Rational. The objection is, "But you believe in God!" So, before anyone gets to point that out, I bring it up, confess it, and move on while claiming I will address it in the future.

All of this is completely honest, but beware lest it acts as a curiosity stopper. A point addressed by an author with a claim of solutions in the future isn't grounds for dismissal of the point.

This isn't to say I have changed my mind and will be opening my worldview for public display. I happen to think I have a good reason for ignoring the elephant in the room and can merrily dodge requests for details. But if someone throws me a ringer by asking anyway, it may do me some good. After all, my rationality is your business.

The point: Honesty is an easy ping of following in EY's list above:

Appeal to humility; Appeal to common guilt; Appeal to inner privacy;

Comment author: RichardKennaway 21 February 2010 02:17:30PM 2 points [-]

There is also the example Eliezer originally linked to: appeal to your interlocutor's limitations, as in Grobian's behaviour. It's a universal counterargument against anything you can say in reply.

Comment author: jimrandomh 20 February 2010 03:16:31PM *  3 points [-]

Add false appeal to present ignorance to the list. Sometimes people will say that there currently isn't enough evidence available to finish the debate, so we should put it off. When this is said, it usually either misrepresents the amount of evidence currently available as less than it is, or accurately represents the amount of evidence available but is spoken by someone with no intention of ever gathering more. For example, "We don't know whether the earth is warming right now, so we shouldn't do anything hasty until we know more."

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 20 February 2010 07:25:52PM 0 points [-]

Presumably that's not a conversation halter; you can immediately make the case that their statement is false now (maybe after a break to gather some facts). I guess I'd be likely to end the discussion if someone said something ridiculous about the present state of scientific fact (e.g. "the jury is still out on evolution - we need to wait for more evidence"), and it was a central point.

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 04:40:46PM *  0 points [-]

I disagree with, Appeal to inescapable assumptions. My specific reason is that I think it would insulate physical materialism from the main type of argument you can make against it. I see empiricism as a huge, impenetrable fortress built on assumptions that are reasonable but not necessary. Interestingly, while appealing to the possession of different assumptions, I probably would appeal to humility, personal choice, etc.

so some "assumptions" are right and others wrong.

An assumption is still an assumption. Some assumptions are more natural than others in the context of a scientific worldview, however, we haven't established that the scientific worldview is applicable always and everywhere. If anything changes -- for example, if reality is far more strange than we anticipate -- then as a culture and a society we need the flexibility to reconsider assumptions.

Also, did you mean, 'appeal to escapable assumptions'?

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 05:13:36PM 4 points [-]

I think one of us may be misunderstanding Eliezer Yudkowsky's point - I thought he was referring to the kind of argument which goes:

Look, the problem of induction states that you have to assume something in order to draw conclusions at all, so that means that I have the freedom to assume that the God of the Bible created the entire universe for the benefit of humanity, whom He created in His image. You can't tell me your assumptions are better, because any assumptions are necessarily arbitrary.

What does objecting to this kind of stupidity have to do with empiricism?

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 08:58:39PM *  3 points [-]

So obviously that argument is stupid. But I don't think it is a conversation halter. I think it is the case that you have to assume something in order to draw conclusions at all (and I think there are probably a couple more of these in addition to induction). So once we've said "we're allowed to assume this" obviously our debating opponents are going to want to assume things of their own. The right response to that is not "AHHHHH! CONVERSATION STOPPER!" Rather, we need a language for distinguishing good assumptions from bad assumptions. So this move shouldn't stop the conversation. Rather, it leads to a conversation about what makes some assumptions justified.

ETA: And

In the realm of physical reality, reality is one way or another and you don't get to make it that way by choosing an opinion, and so some "assumptions" are right and others wrong.

Just isn't going to be the kind of language that lets us evaluate assumptions. The whole point of assenting to any assumptions is just so that you can say something true or not true.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 21 February 2010 05:36:42AM 3 points [-]

The point isn't that these are uncounterable, but that they are not commonly countered. Because of this people have become conditioned to use them to end conversations.

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 06:28:25PM *  0 points [-]

It's the same argument. While I wouldn't want to defend this one (!) I don't think it's an intrinsically flawed category of argument.

Consider all the 'dualists' (I presume they exist) who believe that if God exists, he exists outside of / independently of empirical evidence. If they are forced to take on the assumptions of empiricism, they have no position and readily concede this. Declaring that you cannot question or revisit initial assumptions would simply close the dialogue with them.

Comment author: komponisto 20 February 2010 07:12:56PM 6 points [-]

Consider all the 'dualists' (I presume they exist) who believe that if God exists, he exists outside of / independently of empirical evidence. If they are forced to take on the assumptions of empiricism, they have no position and readily concede this. Declaring that you cannot question or revisit initial assumptions would simply close the dialogue with them.

You can always avoid confronting any argument whatsoever by declaring your opponent to be operating under the assumptions of some "ism" that you refuse to accept. But unless you actually proceed to argue against those assumptions, you're the one who's closing the dialogue. Which is the whole point.

And that's almost always how it is with believers in religion. As I mentioned in my very first comment on LW (which somebody downvoted), they are invariably the first ones to say "this conversation will go nowhere". And they're right, because they've made sure of that.

The fact that your opponent's assumptions are different from yours isn't a point against your opponent unless you can show that yours are better or at least just as good. But since the point of claiming different assumptions is usually to cut off the discussion in the first place, that doesn't generally happen.

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 09:57:50PM *  0 points [-]

Both you and Matt_Simpson seem to be making a similar argument in response to my comment - that it's OK to visit and question initial assumptions.

So maybe I'm missing the point of this post. Is questioning and revisiting assumptions something you're opponent is allowed to do in an argument, or not allowed to do?

My impression is that the conversation ends because at least one side isn't willing to argue about initial assumptions. (Indeed, if there was an argument for it, it wouldn't be an assumption.) People will just say things like, 'it is self-evident that ....' or, 'oh, if you don't even believe that then there's nothing to talk about!'.

I haven't had many conversations with dualists since commenting on LW (where are they, anyway?) but my guess is that the main premise they would disagree with is that you should not believe something you don't have the right kind of evidence* for, even if it is consistent and seems like a nice explanation to you. There is an argument for this premise, so the initial assumption they would debate with must be in there somewhere. If my guess is correct, but I'm not sure.

* where "the right kind of evidence" means that it is positive evidence in the context of possible falsifying evidence

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 10:10:37PM *  1 point [-]

So maybe I'm missing the point of this post. Is questioning and revisiting assumptions something you're opponent is allowed to do in an argument, or not allowed to do?

Is something the conversation-halter refuses to do, in an argument.

Does that clear it up, or not?

Edit to clarify: in a reasonable debate, the disputants will on occasion have to admit to inconsistency in their present worldview and revise their thinking, and such a revision will often lead to a changed mind on the lesser matter about which the debate resolved. This is the optimal result of an argument about assumptions. This conversation-halter is the declaration that the mere fact of differing assumptions removes the burden to defend the attacked position.

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 10:19:45PM *  0 points [-]

Is something the conversation-halter refuses to do, in an argument. Does that clear it up, or not?

No, according to the post, the conversation halter wants to revisit and question assumptions. The criticism is that the person wants to pick a different assumption like it's a free choice they can make.

Well, it is. The assumption is either self-evident to them, or it isn't. Sometimes a discussion about a priori assumptions will reveal that an assumption is self-evident to them in a way that they hadn't thought about, but sometimes, people really do have different ideas about what is self-evident.

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 10:56:55PM 3 points [-]

I get the sense that we're talking about different situations entirely. I've seen people claim that they have the right to assume whatever they want, and therefore they are exempt from evidential argument. That sounds to me like exactly what Eliezer Yudkowsky was describing. People who are sincerely taking the argument meta are completely outside the scope of this post.

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 10:36:19PM *  1 point [-]

So I agree that this move of bringing up assumptions isn't necessarily a conversation halter. But if it just comes down to people having different notions of what is self-evident... well then it is a conversation halter. That is why I don't think a discussion about our assumptions should be about their self-evidence. Here are some other features of assumptions that can be used to evaluate them: utility, parsimony, generality, predictive capacity, fruitfulness.

Assuming the existence of a God has no utility, negative parsimony, zero predictive capacity and while fruitful in some circumstances, extremely destructive in others. Assuming induction as valid on the other hand...

ETA: Also, a lot of time all the assumptions an empiricist or physicalist needs are already implicit in the discourse. You can bootstrap from there.

Or take propositional logic. Assume A=A. Or don't. But if you don't your logic is useless.

Comment author: byrnema 20 February 2010 10:54:50PM 0 points [-]

OK, it might likely be a conversation halter, but maybe it should be. If your view is being attacked based on initial assumptions you don't agree with, you can just state that. In this case, you might have good reason to cut off the flow of debate.

But even if you don't want to halt the conversation, if visiting initial assumptions is the next step, what else can you do?

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 11:16:20PM *  0 points [-]

I'm all about visiting initial assumptions. But declaring your assumptions "self-evident" isn't a justifying move. All this means is "I don't have any reasons for believing it, but I do." Now if there were no ways around that it wouldn't be a silly thing to say. But look! There are ways to talk about propositions even when we have to stop talking about whether those propositions correspond to reality! So now we don't have to stop talking. More than that, it doesn't make sense to stop talking because "My assumptions are useful, fruitful, and parsimonious and yours are not." is close to a knock out response to "I have no reason to believe this, but I do."

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 20 February 2010 07:54:45PM *  0 points [-]

I disagree with, Appeal to inescapable assumptions. My specific reason is that I think it would insulate physical materialism from the main type of argument you can make against it. I see empiricism as a huge, impenetrable fortress built on assumptions that are reasonable but not necessary.

.

Appeal to inescapable assumptions - ...the idea that you need some assumptions and therefore everyone is free to choose whatever assumptions they want.

Where does that preclude criticizing assumptions? (I presume this is your quarrel) In fact, the next line endorses the criticism of assumptions:

In the realm of physical reality, reality is one way or another and you don't get to make it that way by choosing an opinion, and so some "assumptions" are right and others wrong.

Comment author: roland 20 February 2010 07:13:22PM 1 point [-]

Appeal to inescapable assumptions - closely related, the idea that you need some assumptions and therefore everyone is free to choose whatever assumptions they want.

Eliezer I think this might be correct in some cases, since we all have different prior beliefs and therefore update differently on the same data.

Consider Jaynes' example of the experiment with the psychic: the skeptic sees evidence of cheating and the believer a proof of his beliefs.

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 08:59:18PM 1 point [-]

In cases such as the one you cited, the assumptions are not inescapable - a sane believer could be convinced that the experiment in question was a fraud after all when presented with convincing independent evidence of wrongdoing (e.g. photographic evidence of the psychic cheating), and a sane skeptic inversely.

Comment author: roland 20 February 2010 10:32:20PM 0 points [-]

Hmmm... I'm not so sure. How much time and energy would a sane skeptic be willing to put into examining the independent evidence? If he couldn't find any flaw in the independent evidence would he believe or would he rather assume that there is a flaw but that he wasn't able to find it? You see where this is going?

Comment author: RobinZ 20 February 2010 10:53:08PM 1 point [-]

How much time and energy would a sane skeptic be willing to put into examining the independent evidence?

Quite a bit. I think you underestimate the open-mindedness of a certain kind of person - they might be quite confident and yet still passionately willing to look for evidence contrariwise.

Comment author: roland 21 February 2010 08:16:04PM -2 points [-]

Well, words are limited, I recommend Jaynes' example of the psychic he goes more into the math of it all.

Comment author: RobinZ 21 February 2010 10:28:13PM *  2 points [-]

Taking advantage of komponisto's link, I quote from Chapter 5, pg. 505:

Indeed, the very evidence which the ESP'ers throw at us to convince us, has the opposite e ffect on our state of belief; issuing reports of sensational data defeats its own purpose. For if the prior probability of deception is greater than that of ESP, then the more improbable the alleged data are on the null hypothesis of no deception and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in deception. For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader. As (5-15) shows, the reader's total prior probability of deception by all mechanisms must be pushed down below that of ESP. [emphasis added]

The point I was drawing was precisely captured in Jaynes' caveat - the advocates must, if they can, provide evidence to eliminate other possibilites.

Edit: But I forget my point: they must if they can, but if they can, they will overwhelm the differing priors. Educating a person with poor priors - or poor assumptions in general - is inconvenient, not impossible.

Comment author: roland 22 February 2010 05:34:55PM 0 points [-]

You have a point there, still in practice how difficult would it be to

eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader.

What about cases like a mathematician who just chooses to start with another set of basic axioms?

Lest we don't get lost in a forest of arguments I want to phrase my original point again: we all operate under certain assumptions and no two people probably have the same ones so our conclusions might also differ.

Comment author: RobinZ 22 February 2010 09:08:22PM 1 point [-]

But diagnosing conflicting assumptions does not require that the discussion end. The fallacy of the conversation halter Eliezer cites is assuming that it does end the discussion (therefore protecting the speaker from further defense of their position).

Comment author: RobinZ 21 February 2010 08:26:04PM 0 points [-]

As I do not have access to Jaynes' book, this response is rather less than useful. I assume that Jaynes' example relates to observing just the demonstration of psychic powers - what I am suggesting is that further observations, causally related to the demonstration and those features which may suggest or oppose fraud, can overwhelm this initial difference in interpretation.

I think you might want to reconsider the scope within which appealing to differing initial assumptions is valid.

Comment author: komponisto 21 February 2010 08:28:07PM 3 points [-]

As I do not have access to Jaynes' book,

(Pssst....actually, you do.)

Comment author: RobinZ 21 February 2010 08:32:17PM 0 points [-]

That is convenient! Now I just need chapter and section numbers!

Comment author: Cyan 21 February 2010 09:53:48PM 3 points [-]

That's an incomplete preliminary version of the book; the published version has more material, particularly after Chapter 5.

Comment author: komponisto 21 February 2010 08:36:27PM 0 points [-]

Chapter 5 is what is being referenced, I believe.

Comment author: prase 22 February 2010 06:41:43PM 0 points [-]

This reply seems to be an illustration of the above discussed appeal to authority.

Comment author: roland 22 February 2010 08:09:29PM 0 points [-]

Yep, and so is every appeal to Reverend Bayes and his formulas.

Comment author: h-H 20 February 2010 05:06:57PM *  1 point [-]

a slightly modified version of Appeal to permanent unknowability can be quite legitimate IMO, make it into Appeal to permanent unknowablity given existing conditions then consider the position that our theories are not accurate enough to conclude the existence of Everett branches-or competing theories if one supports them-beyond mathematical abstraction, this seems quite a reasonable position to me-though I'm not so well versed in QM.

on the other hand Appeal to inescapable assumptions seems to be what Eliezer used to be in favor of them being an accurate description of reality. that, or I'm missing something?

EDIT: I agree with byrnnema here

This is an uncharitable interpretation -- I only believe it in a grouchy way -- but my bias here is that I see empiricism as a huge, impenetrable fortress built on assumptions that are reasonable but not necessary. Interestingly, while appealing to the possession of different assumptions, I probably would appeal to humility, personal choice, .etc.

Comment author: Jack 20 February 2010 09:05:19PM 1 point [-]

Appeal to permanent unknowablity given existing conditions

Appeal to temporary unknowability?

Comment author: Kevin92 26 March 2014 11:27:37PM 0 points [-]

I notice I'm confused.

I literally don't know what it means to say "The definition of words are not arbitrary." I suspect either that I lack the background knowledge to understand this sentence, or ironically Eliezer and I may have a different definition of the word arbitrary.

Furthermore, I don't know what the implications are of what he's trying to say. Is he saying that language is not a system of symbols? Is he saying that every word has a "correct" definition?

Comment author: kpreid 27 March 2014 12:29:28AM *  2 points [-]

Is he saying that every word has a "correct" definition?

This but with different quantifiers: some possible definitions are incorrect, as discussed in the article linked in that paragraph.

If there's a missing qualifier here then it's “in practice”. I can perfectly well randomly select an element of the power set of all things which could possibly be referred to by nouns, and declare that that is the definition of “flutzpah”, and that would be an arbitrarily defined word — which no one would ever have a reason to use to actually communicate with.

Comment author: Chrysophylax 27 March 2014 12:48:26AM 0 points [-]

Read the linked post. The main reasons we can't define words however we like are because that leads to not cutting reality at the joints and because humans are bad at avoiding hidden inferences. Not being a biologist, I can't assign an ideal definition to "duck", but I do know that calling lobsters ducks is clearly unhelpful to reasoning. For a more realistic example, note the way Reactionaries (Michael Anissimov, Mencius Moldbug and such) use "demotist" to associate things that are clearly not similar.

Comment author: djcb 22 February 2010 09:53:20PM *  0 points [-]

'If you cannot convince them, confuse them'

Throwing in irrelevant facts, needless complication can be frustratingly effective, esp. when the real party to convince is the audience, not the opponent.

This is not so much a halter as it is a derailer.