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How to Not Lose an Argument

100 Post author: Yvain 19 March 2009 01:07AM

Related to: Leave a Line of Retreat

Followup to: Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale, The Skeptic's Trilemma

"I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me."

        --Dave Barry

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

But I do want to talk about a very closely related skill: not losing arguments.

Rationalists probably find themselves in more arguments than the average person. And if we're doing it right, the truth is hopefully on our side and the argument is ours to lose. And far too often, we do lose arguments, even when we're right. Sometimes it's because of biases or inferential distances or other things that can't be helped. But all too often it's because we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

How does one avoid shooting one's self in the foot? In rationalist language, the technique is called Leaving a Social Line of Retreat. In normal language, it's called being nice.

First, what does it mean to win or lose an argument? There is an unspoken belief in some quarters that the point of an argument is to gain social status by utterly demolishing your opponent's position, thus proving yourself the better thinker. That can be fun sometimes, and if it's really all you want, go for it.

But the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind. If you want a world without fundamentalist religion, you're never going to get there just by making cutting and incisive critiques of fundamentalism that all your friends agree sound really smart. You've got to deconvert some actual fundamentalists. In the absence of changing someone's mind, you can at least get them to see your point of view. Getting fundamentalists to understand the real reasons people find atheism attractive is a nice consolation prize.

I make the anecdotal observation that a lot of smart people are very good at winning arguments in the first sense, and very bad at winning arguments in the second sense. Does that correspond to your experience?

Back in 2008, Eliezer described how to Leave a Line of Retreat. If you believe morality is impossible without God, you have a strong disincentive to become an atheist. Even after you've realized which way the evidence points, you'll activate every possible defense mechanism for your religious beliefs. If all the defense mechanisms fail, you'll take God on utter faith or just believe in belief, rather than surrender to the unbearable position of an immoral universe.

The correct procedure for dealing with such a person, Eliezer suggests, isn't to show them yet another reason why God doesn't exist. They'll just reject it along with all the others. The correct procedure is to convince them, on a gut level, that morality is possible even in a godless universe. When disbelief in God is no longer so terrifying, people won't fight it quite so hard and may even deconvert themselves.

But there's another line of retreat to worry about, one I experienced firsthand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can't remember exactly why. In the borderlands between waking and sleep, I remember thinking: I feel like a total moron. Here I am, someone who goes to atheist groups and posts on atheist blogs and has told all his friends they should be atheists and so on, and now it turns out God exists. All of my religious friends whom I won all those arguments against are going to be secretly looking at me, trying as hard as they can to be nice and understanding, but secretly laughing about how I got my comeuppance. I can never show my face in public again. Wouldn't you feel the same?

And then I woke up, and shook it off. I am an aspiring rationalist: if God existed, I would desire to believe that God existed. But I realized at that point the importance of the social line of retreat. The psychological resistance I felt to admitting God's existence, even after having seen Him descend to Earth, was immense. And, I realized, it was exactly the amount of resistance that every vocally religious person must experience towards God's non-existence.

There's not much we can do about this sort of high-grade long-term resistance. Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn't. But there is a less ingrained, more immediate form of social resistance generated with every heated discussion.

Let's say you approach a theist (let's call him Theo) and say "How can you, a grown man, still believe in something stupid like talking snakes and magic sky kings? Don't you know you people are responsible for the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War and the Spanish Inquisition? You should be ashamed of yourself!"

This suggests the following dichotomy in Theo's mind: EITHER God exists, OR I am an idiot who believes in stupid childish  things and am in some way partly responsible for millions of deaths and I should have lower status and this arrogant person who's just accosted me and whom I already hate should have higher status at my expense.

Unless Theo has attained a level of rationality far beyond any of us, guess which side of that dichotomy he's going to choose? In fact, guess which side of that dichotomy he's now going to support with renewed vigor, even if he was only a lukewarm theist before? His social line of retreat has been completely closed off, and it's your fault.

Here the two definitions of "winning an argument" I suggested before come into conflict. If your goal is to absolutely demolish the other person's position, to make him feel awful and worthless - then you are also very unlikely to change his mind or win his understanding. And because our culture of debates and mock trials and real trials and flaming people on Usenet encourages the first type of "winning an argument", there's precious little genuine mind-changing going on.

Really adjusting to the second type of argument, where you try to convince people, takes a lot more than just not insulting people outright1. You've got to completely rethink your entire strategy. For example, anyone used to the Standard Debates may already have a cached pattern of how they work. Activate the whole Standard Debate concept, and you activate a whole bunch of related thoughts like Atheists As The Enemy, Defending The Faith, and even in some cases (I've seen it happen) persecution of Christians by atheists in Communist Russia. To such a person, ceding an inch of ground in a Standard Debate may well be equivalent to saying all the Christians martyred by the Communists died in vain, or something similarly dreadful.

So try to show you're not just starting Standard Debate #4457. I remember once, during the middle of a discussion with a Christian, when I admitted I really didn't like Christopher Hitchens. Richard Dawkins, brilliant. Daniel Dennett, brilliant. But Christopher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain irritating. This one little revelation completely changed the entire tone of the conversation. I was no longer Angry Nonbeliever #116. I was no longer the living incarnation of All Things Atheist. I was just a person who happened to have a whole bunch of atheist ideas, along with a couple of ideas that weren't typical of atheists. I got the same sort of response by admitting I loved religious music. All of a sudden my friend was falling over himself to mention some scientific theory he found especially elegant in order to reciprocate2. I didn't end up deconverting him on the spot, but think he left with a much better appreciation of my position.

All of these techniques fall dangerously close to the Dark Arts, so let me be clear: I'm not suggesting you misrepresent yourself just to win arguments. I don't think misrepresenting yourself would even work; evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars. Don't fake an appreciation for the other person's point of view, actually develop an appreciation for the other person's point of view. Realize that your points probably seem as absurd to others as their points seem to you. Understand that many false beliefs don't come from simple lying or stupidity, but from complex mixtures of truth and falsehood filtered by complex cognitive biases. Don't stop believing that you are right and they are wrong, unless the evidence points that way. But leave it at them being wrong, not them being wrong and stupid and evil.

I think most people intuitively understand this. But considering how many smart people I see shooting their own foot off when they're trying to convince someone3, some of them clearly need a reminder.

 

Footnotes

1: An excellent collection of the deeper and most subtle forms of this practice of this sort can be found in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the only self-help books I've read that was truly useful and not a regurgitation of cliches and applause lights. Carnegie's thesis is basically that being nice is the most powerful of the Dark Arts, and that a master of the Art of Niceness can use it to take over the world. It works better than you'd think.

2: The following technique is definitely one of the Dark Arts, but I mention it because it reveals a lot about the way we think: when engaged in a really heated, angry debate, one where the insults are flying, suddenly stop and admit the other person is one hundred percent right and you're sorry for not realizing it earlier. Do it properly, and the other person will be flabbergasted, and feel deeply guilty at all the names and bad feelings they piled on top of you. Not only will you ruin their whole day, but for the rest of time, this person will secretly feel indebted to you, and you will be able to play with their mind in all sorts of little ways.

3: Libertarians, you have a particular problem with this. If I wanted to know why I'm a Stalin-worshipper who has betrayed the Founding Fathers for personal gain and is controlled by his base emotions and wants to dominate others by force to hide his own worthlessness et cetera, I'd ask Ann Coulter. You're better than that. Come on. And then you wonder why people never vote for you.

Comments (389)

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 19 March 2009 02:30:49AM 21 points [-]

You've overlooked another way to "win" an argument: To persuade otherwise uninvolved third parties.

Typically, two people arguing are already thoroughly fortified in their opinions. Few people find argument for its own sake enjoyable and thus are unlikely to be lured into a debate they have no emotional stake in; as well, upon rising to the occasion to defend their side, their resistance to acknowledging their opponent's valid arguments will be stronger than ever.

Less-involved bystanders, however, can view the argument with a more impartial eye, and are much more likely to be persuaded. Of course, this is typically the justification made for the style of debating you argue against in this post--especially on the internet, where bystanders are plentiful and social dynamics are strongly subject to John Gabriel's G.I.F. Theory--but it's not at all clear that such an approach is actually effective for this purpose, any more than it is for persuading the opposing party.

As an aside, I can think of at least two other reasons to engage in debate; but neither derives value from actually winning the argument, and thus are irrelevant in this context.

Comment author: dclayh 25 March 2009 08:45:22PM 6 points [-]

Bystanders may well identify themselves emotionally with one debater or the other, so being "nice" to one's opponent would reduce the defensiveness of the audience as well.

Comment author: Gray 05 April 2011 01:59:51AM *  12 points [-]

The science of winning arguments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

Huh? This can't be the consensus view here. Is it?

Because my opinion has developed over the years to conclude the exact opposite. Rhetoric has always been "the study of how to use language well." What has happened? Wikipedia defines it as "the art and study of the use of language with persuasive effect". Ah, that happened to it. Anyone interested I invite to compare the definitions provided by various dictionaries. Some dictionaries will offer both kinds of definitions, because lexicographers aren't supposed to decide which definition is best.

But I implore others, especially those with a rational bent, to not give up the decent meaning of the term rhetoric. It isn't just "flowery language" that some allege can only be used to obscure thought. It's a whole study, what was once a whole discipline(1). It's the art of how to use language well.

I used to think otherwise, until I've been in too many rather strange discussions with people online who are, otherwise, intelligent people. What happens in many cases is that people misunderstand each other, but this misunderstanding isn't due to the semantics of the language used. In many cases, for instance, my meaning is exactly contrary to what others apprehend; yet, the words are all there, how did they misunderstand?

What I didn't understand but realize now is that we need to take some responsibility not just for the semantics of language, but for the pragmatics. That is, some thought and skill needs to go into not just the meaning of what we say, but the effect we have on others by saying it. Even between rationalists.

One of the most common things I've seen, not just in my own discussions, but in observing the discussions here and elsewhere on the web, is misleading emphasis. For instance, obviously, it should be the very point you're making that you should be emphasizing in your language. But if this emphasis is done poorly, readers may not realize that you're making a point at all, and might ask "get to the point". In other cases, the wrong point is being emphasized, and the writer or speaker is dumbfounded when he realized that his point was missed altogether.

I'm not someone who has studied much rhetoric. I'm just realizing it's something I should have already been studying, and now I'm engaging with it. I don't think studying rhetoric will cause you to become a better writer or speaker; most of us become better writers by reading good writers. But I think it is useful, for a rationalist community such as this one, to have a set of terms for various rhetorical tropes. This could begin the process of rationalists engaging each other in rhetorical critique, as well as logical and grammatical critique(2), which I think would be a net benefit.

(1) Case in point: This sentence is what rhetoricians call mesodiplosis.

(2) My philosophical dictionary alludes to a notable contradistinction between grammar and rhetoric: grammar is about using language correctly, rhetoric is about using language well.

Comment author: kurige 19 March 2009 08:35:38AM *  12 points [-]

This post goes hand in hand with Crisis of Faith. Eliezer's post is all about creating an internal crisis and your post is all about applying that to a real world debate. Like peanut-butter and jelly.

If you want to correct and not just refute then you cannot bring to the table evidence that can only be seen as evidence from your perspective. Ie. you cannot directly use evolution as evidence when the opposing party has no working knowledge of evolution. Likewise, a christian cannot convince an atheist of the existence of God by talking about the wonders of His creation. If you picture you and your opponent's belief systems as vin-diagrams then the discussion must start where they overlap, no matter how small that sliver of common knowledge might be. Hopefully, if you and your opponent employ crisis-of-faith properly, those two circles will slowly converge.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 02:08:13PM 7 points [-]

For our European readers, I would like to note that what kurige meant by 'Like peanut-butter and jelly' was something like 'they go really well together, and in fact one would probably not put one on a sandwich without the other'.

Just try not to picture it; you'll be fine.

Comment author: ciphergoth 19 March 2009 10:53:19PM 11 points [-]

Probably most people know this, but if you find yourself needing to mention this again it's vital to add that "jelly" here refers to what we call "jam", because to us, "jelly" is what you call "Jell-O". You can imagine why we're not thrilled by the thought of a peanut-butter and "Jell-O" sandwich!

Comment author: [deleted] 01 December 2013 06:20:55PM 2 points [-]

[insert discussion about the difference between jam and marmalade here]

Comment author: hegemonicon 19 March 2009 02:43:47PM *  4 points [-]

This is a critical point.

One of the reasons arguments seem to exist at all - from what I can understand - is that when people look at the same things in different ways, effectively seeing two different things. A christian might look at the world and see the wonder of God's creation, but a physicist might see nothing but billions and billions of tiny particles interacting. Someone pro-life might see an abortion as a murder, while someone pro-choice might see it as part of a woman's right to her own body.

You need to frame the argument so both parties are looking at the same thing for any progress to be made. Otherwise, people just become more and more entrenched in their position, while getting more and more frustrated that the other person doesn't see it their way.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 02:53:03PM 6 points [-]

When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus, this was basically his only point. If you clearly define your terms, thereby unambiguously fixing the referents for your propositions, then all disagreement will disappear.

In later works, he realized that there are a lot of things we do with language other than relating propositions, that you use language before you get definitions, and that things are generally a bit more complicated than he used to think.

Comment author: ciphergoth 19 March 2009 10:50:20PM 4 points [-]

Of course, in practice this process of definition is more like iterative refining than fixing for all time, but the result is the same: the point is to ensure that your discussion is actually about the world. This is what making beliefs pay rent and tabooing words are all about.

(Hmm, we're developing a vocabulary drawn from EY posts - are there more standard terms for these things we could be using?)

Comment author: Annoyance 21 March 2009 03:27:17PM 2 points [-]

that you use language before you get definitions

Ah, but that's simply untrue. We use language before we get explicit definitions. The implicit definitions are a necessary precursor for language use.

Comment author: Jack 19 September 2009 01:21:18AM 3 points [-]

Maybe. But the point is that implicit definitions are never clearly defined. Indeed, they are hardly definitions- more like an incomplete sense of in what circumstances the use of the word is appropriate.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 01:54:16AM 31 points [-]

The first rule of persuading a negatively disposed audience - rationally or otherwise - is not to say the things they expect you to say. The expected just gets filtered out, or treated as confirmation of pre-existing beliefs regardless of its content.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 March 2009 02:44:21AM 19 points [-]

Sadly, the unexpected frequently gets translated into the expected, even to the point of explicit denials of a position being ignored repeatedly in a single conversation.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 03:44:17AM 14 points [-]

Then say something more unexpected. There's an art to it.

How hard is it to fit a simple denial into a frame? Not hard at all.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 March 2009 03:29:03AM 3 points [-]

This situation is especially troublesome if you've already been market as standard opponent #445, such as when you change your own mind you a new, more subtle position that is similar to your old position.

Comment author: AndySimpson 19 March 2009 06:09:32AM 5 points [-]

When I adjust my position in subtle ways like that, I go to pains to point it out, which is rhetorically advantageous and shows that there's a real dialectic going on.

Comment author: jacoblyles 20 March 2009 08:24:11AM *  6 points [-]

Also, by following their arguments, trying to clarify it and understanding the pieces. Your sincere and genuine attempt to understand them in the best possible light will make them open to your point of view.

The smart Christians are some of the most logical people I've ever met. There worldview fits together like a kind of Geometry. They know that you get a completely different form of it if you substitute one axiom for another (existence of God for non-existence of God), much like Euclid's world dissolves without the parallel postulate.

Once we got to that point in our conversation, I realized that they we agreed on everything about the world except that postulate, which they were also aware of. I realized that they were neither stupid nor evil, as I had assumed before (a remarkably common, and uncivil, view that atheists have of believers). I still disagree with them. However, I was fine with leaving the conversation with both of our positions unchanged, but understanding each other better.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 08:39:12PM 6 points [-]

Most of the comments in this discussion focused on topics that are emotionally significant for your "opponent." But here's something that happened to me twice.

I was trying to explain to two intelligent people (separately) that mathematical induction should start with the second step, not the first. In my particular case, a homework assignment had us do induction on the rows of a lower triangular matrix as it was being multiplied by various vectors; the first row only had multiplication, the second row both multiplication and addition. I figured it was safer to start with a more representative row.

When a classmate disagreed with me, I found this example on Wikipedia. His counter-arguement was that this wasn't the case of induction failing at n=2. He argued that the hypothesis was worded incorrectly, akin to the proof that a cat has nine tails. I voiced my agreement with him, that “one horse of one color” is only semantically similar to “two horses of one color,” but are in fact as different as “No cat (1)” and “no cat (2).” I tried to get him to come to this conclusion on his own. Midway through, he caught me and said that I was misinterpreting what he was saying.

The second person is not a mathematician, but he understands the principles of mathematical induction (as I'd made sure before telling him about horses). And this led to one of the most frustrating arguments I'd ever had in my life. Here's the our approximate abridged dialogue (sans the colorful language):

Me: One horse is of one color. Suppose every n horses are of one color. Add the n+1st horse, and take n out of those horses. They’re all of one color by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must be of one color. Therefore, all horses are of one color.

Him: This proof can't be right because its result is wrong.

Me: But then, suppose we do the same proof, but starting with on n=2 horses. This proof would be correct.

Him: No, it won’t be, because the result is still wrong. Horses have different colors.

Me: Fine, then. Suppose this is happening in a different world. For all you know, all horses there can be of one color.

Him: There’re no horses in a different world. This is pointless. (by this time, he was starting to get angry).

Me: Okay! It’s on someone’s ranch! In this world! If you go look at this person’s horses, every two you can possibly pick are of the same color. Therefore, all of his horses are of the same color.

Him: I don’t know anyone whose horses are of the same color. So they’re not all of one color, and your proof is wrong.

Me: It’s a hypothetical person. Do you agree, for this hypothetical person—

Him: No, I don’t agree because this is a hypothetical person, etc, etc. What kind of stupid problems do you do in math, anyway?

Me: (having difficulties inserting words).

Him: Since the result is wrong, the proof is wrong. Period. Stop wasting my time with this pointless stuff. This is stupid and pointless, etc, etc. Whoever teaches you this stuff should be fired.

Me: (still having difficulties inserting words) … Wikipe—…

Him: And Wikipedia is wrong all the time, and it’s created by regular idiots who have too much time on their hands and don’t actually know jack, etc, etc. Besides, one horse can have more than one color. Therefore, all math is stupid. QED.

THE END.

To the best of my knowledge, neither of these two people were emotionally involved with mathematical induction. Both of them were positively disposed at the beginning of the argument. Both of them are intelligent and curious. What on Earth went wrong here?

^One of the reasons why I shouldn’t start arguments about theism, if I can’t even convince people of this mathematical technicality.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 23 February 2011 09:31:16PM *  3 points [-]

Him: Since the result is wrong, the proof is wrong. Period. Stop wasting my time with this pointless stuff. This is stupid and pointless, etc, etc. Whoever teaches you this stuff should be fired.

...

What on Earth went wrong here?

The problem was that your ultimate conclusion was wrong. It is not in fact the case that "mathematical induction should start with the second step, not the first." It's just that, like all proofs, you have to draw valid inferences at each step. As JGWeissman points out, the horse proof fails at the n=2 step. But one could contrive examples in which the induction proof fails at the kth step for arbitrary k.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 09:39:39PM *  1 point [-]

I don't think I ever got to my "ultimate" conclusion (that all of the operations that appear in step n must appear in the basis step).

I was trying to use this example where the proof failed at n=2 to show that it's possible in principle for a (specific other) proof to fail at n=2. Higher-order basis steps would be necessary only if there were even more operations.

Comment author: JGWeissman 23 February 2011 08:58:26PM 3 points [-]

Mathematical induction using the first step as the base case is valid. The problem with the horses of one color problem is that you are using sloppy verbal reasoning that hides an unjustified assumption that n > 1. If you had tried to make a rigorous argument that the set of n+1 elements is the union of two of its subsets with n elements each, with those subsets having a non-empty intersection, this would be clear.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 09:35:28PM 0 points [-]

Induction based on n=1 works sometimes, but not always. That was my point.

The problem with the horses of one color problem is that you are using sloppy verbal reasoning that hides an unjustified assumption that n > 1.

I'm not sure what you mean. I thought I stated it each time I was assuming n=1 and n=2.

Comment author: Douglas_Reay 28 March 2014 09:31:48PM 2 points [-]

What on Earth went wrong here?

You might find enlightening the part of the TED talk given by James Flynn (of the Flynn effect), where he talks about concrete thinking.

Comment author: gwern 29 March 2014 01:53:31AM 2 points [-]

Hah! I thought of the exact same thing before I saw your comment: the interviews by Luria with Russian peasants where the peasants refuse to abstract in any way. Shalizi provides an example http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/484.html :

Consider the following dialogue (p. 112) with an illiterate peasant named Nazir-Said:

The following syllogism is presented: 'There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?'
Subject repeats syllogism exactly.
So, are there camels in Germany?
"I don't know, I've never seen German villages."
Refusal to infer.
The syllogism is repeated.
"Probably there are camels there."
Repeat what I said.
"There are no camels in Germany, are there camels in B. or not? So probably there are. If it's a large city, there should be camels there."
Syllogism breaks down, inference drawn apart from its conditions.
But what do my words suggest?
"Probably there are. Since there are large cities, there should be camels."
Again a conclusion apart from the syllogism.
But if there aren't any in all of Germany?
"If it's a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there."
But I'm saying that there are no camels in Germany, and this city is in Germany.
"If this village is in a large city, there is probably no room for camels."

Comment author: arundelo 29 March 2014 03:47:42AM 0 points [-]

Not to deny that this is an example of someone who does not think abstractly -- I agree that it is -- but there's also a Gricean interpretation: From the subject's point of view, if the experimenter already knows that there is literally not even one camel in all of Germany including all of its cities and villages, then the experimenter would not ask whether there are camels in a specific city in Germany, therefore the experimenter must mean, "There are no camels in Germany not counting the cities", or "There are extremely few camels in Germany".

Comment author: gwern 29 March 2014 04:01:02AM 1 point [-]

That doesn't wash given the dialogue, rather than a single question. A single question might reasonably elicit a Gricean answer to a different question, but repeated questioning on the same point?

Comment author: Alicorn 23 February 2011 08:59:08PM *  1 point [-]

Why didn't you drop the "horses" example when it tripped him up and go with, I dunno, emeralds or ceramic pie weights or spruckels, stipulated to in fact have uniform color?

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 09:42:44PM *  2 points [-]

I suspect that I lost the second person way before horses even became an issue. When he started picking on my words, "horses" and "different world" and "hypothetical person" didn't really matter anymore. He was just angry. What he was saying didn't make sense from that point on. For whatever reason, he stopped responding to logic.

But I don't know what I said to make him this angry in the first place.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 23 February 2011 10:21:17PM 14 points [-]

Leaving aside the actual argument, I can tell you that there exist people (my husband is one of them, and come to think of it so is my ex-girlfriend, which makes me suspect that I bear some responsibility here, but I digress) whose immediate emotional reaction to "here, let me walk you through this illustrative hypothetical case" is strongly negative.

The reasons given vary, and may well be confabulatory.

I've heard the position summarized as "I don't believe in hypothetical questions," which I mostly unpack to mean that they understand that hypothetical scenarios are often used to introduce assumptions which support conclusions that the speaker then tries to apply by analogy to the real world, and that a clever rhetoritician can use this technique to sneak illegitimate assumptions into real-world scenarios, and don't trust me not to sneak in assumptions that make them look stupid or manipulate them into acting against their own interests.

I don't know if that's a factor in your case or not, but I have found that once I trigger that reaction, there's not much more I can do... they are no longer cooperating in the communication, they are just looking for some way to get out. If I press the point, I merely elicit anger and defensiveness and a variety of distractors.

The best way around this I've found so far, and it's only hit-or-miss, is to avoid the stance of "here let me show you something" altogether.

I am a lot more successful if I adopt the stance of "I am thinking about a problem that interests me," and if they express interest, explaining the problem as something I am presenting to myself, rather than to them. Or, if they don't, talking about something else.

At the risk of sounding like Robin, the fact that this is successful leads me to believe that at least sometimes, what's really going on is that I've stepped on some status-signaling landmine, and the reaction I'm getting actually translates to "I refuse to cede you the role of instructor by letting you define the hypothetical."

And suggesting that this might be what's going on works about as poorly as you'd expect it to were it what's going on. Of course, that's precisely what makes status-signaling a fully generalizable counterargument, so I take it with a grain of salt.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 10:27:18PM *  2 points [-]

"I refuse to cede you the role of instructor by letting you define the hypothetical."

You know, come think of it, that's actually a very good description of the second person... who is, by the way, my dad.

I am a lot more successful if I adopt the stance of "I am thinking about a problem that interests me," and if they express interest, explaining the problem as something I am presenting to myself, rather than to them. Or, if they don't, talking about something else.

This hasn't ever occurred to me, but I'll try it the next time a similar situation arises.

Comment author: Pfft 29 March 2014 01:35:09PM *  1 point [-]

In The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky writes about "Intellectual Trauma":

One of Freud's conceptions was that the growth of many individuals is shaped by unsuspected fears that lurk in our unconscious minds. These powerful anxieties include the dread of punishment or injury or helplessness or, worst of all, the loss of the esteem of those to whom we are attached. Whether this is true or not, most psychologists who hold this view apply it only the the social realm, assuming that the world of intellect is too straightforward and impersonal to be involved with such feelings. But intellectual development can depend equally upon attachments to other persons and can be similarly involved with buried fear and dreads. [--] By itself, the failure to achieve a goal can cause anxiety. For example, surely every child must once have thought along this line:

Hmmmm. Ten is nearly eleven. And eleven is nearly twelve. So ten is nearly twelve. And so on. If I keep on reasoning this way, then ten must be nearly a hundred!

To an adult, this is just a stupid joke. But earlier in life, such an incident could have produced a crisis of self-confidence and helplessness. To put it in more grown-up terms, the child might think, "I can't see anything wrong with my reasoning--and yet it led to bad results. I merely used the obvious fact that if A is near B, and B is near C, then A must be near C. I see no way that could be wrong---so there must be something wrong with my mind." Whether or not we can recollect it, we must once have felt some distress at being made to sketch the nonexistent boundaries between the oceans and the seas; What was it like to first consider "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" What came before the start of time; what lies beyond the edge of space? And what of sentences like "This statement is false," which can throw the mind into a spin? I don't know anyone who recalls such incidents and frightening. But then, as Freud might say, this very fact could be a hint that the area is subject to censorship

If people bear the scars of scary thoughts, why don't these lead, as our emotion-traumas are supposed to do, to phobias, compulsions, and the like? I suspect they do---but disguised in forms we don't perceive as pathological. [---]

This seems to fit the anecdote very well--your interlocutor could not find a fault in the reasoning, noticed it led to an absurdity, and decided that this intellectual area is dangerous, scary, and should be evacuated as soon as possible.

Comment author: David_Gerard 23 February 2011 10:08:40PM -2 points [-]

"No. Just an example. Lies propagate, that's what I'm saying. You've got to tell more lies to cover them up, lie about every fact that's connected to the first lie. And if you kept on lying, and you kept on trying to cover it up, sooner or later you'd even have to start lying about the general laws of thought. Like, someone is selling you some kind of alternative medicine that doesn't work, and any double-blind experimental study will confirm that it doesn't work. So if someone wants to go on defending the lie, they've got to get you to disbelieve in the experimental method. Like, the experimental method is just for merely scientific kinds of medicine, not amazing alternative medicine like theirs. Or a good and virtuous person should believe as strongly as they can, no matter what the evidence says. Or truth doesn't exist and there's no such thing as objective reality. A lot of common wisdom like that isn't just mistaken, it's anti-epistemology, it's systematically wrong. Every rule of rationality that tells you how to find the truth, there's someone out there who needs you to believe the opposite. If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy; and there's a lot of people out there telling lies."

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 23 February 2011 09:41:48PM 0 points [-]

Suppose every n horses are of one color. Add the n+1st horse, and take n out of those horses. They’re all of one color by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must be of one color. Therefore, all horses are of one color.

You didn't actually prove that n+1 horses have one color with this, you know, even given the assumption. You just said twice that n horses have one color, without proving that their combined set still has one color.

For example consider the following "Suppose every n horses can fit in my living room. Add the n+1 horse, and take n out of those horses. They can fit in my living room by assumption. Remove 1 horse and take the one that’s been left out. You again have n horses, so they must again fit in my living room. Therefore, all horses fit in my living room."

That's not proper induction. It doesn't matter if you begin with a n of 1, 2, 5, or 100 horses, such an attempt at induction would still be wrong, because it never shows that the proposition actually applies for the set of n+1.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 09:52:33PM *  0 points [-]

.... The first n horses and the second n horses have an overlap of n-1 horses that are all the same color. So first and the last horse have to be the same color. Sorry, I thought that was obvious.

I see your point, though. This time, I was trying to reduce the word count because the audience is clearly intelligent enough to make that leap of logic. I can say the same for both of my "opponents" described above, because both of them are well above average intellectually. I honestly don't remember if I took that extra step in real life. If I haven't, do you think that was the issue both people had with my proof?

I have a feeling that the second person's problem with it was not from nitpicking on the details, though. I feel like something else made him angry.

Comment author: JGWeissman 23 February 2011 10:03:12PM 2 points [-]

The first n horses and the second n horses have an overlap of n-1 horses that are all the same color. So first and the last horse have to be the same color.

You need to make this more explicit, to expose the hidden assumption:

Take a horse from the overlap, which is the same color as the first horse and the same color as the last horse, so by transitivity, the first and last horse are the same color.

But why can you take a horse from the overlap? You can if the overlap is non-empty. Is the overlap non-empty? It has n-1 horses, so it is non-empty if n-1 > 0. Is n-1 > 0? It is if n > 1. Is n > 1? No, we want the proof to cover the case where n=1.

Comment author: MoreOn 23 February 2011 10:19:28PM 0 points [-]

But why can you take a horse from the overlap? You can if the overlap is non-empty. Is the overlap non-empty? It has n-1 horses, so it is non-empty if n-1 > 0. Is n-1 > 0? It is if n > 1. Is n > 1? No, we want the proof to cover the case where n=1.

That's exactly what I was trying to get them to understand.

Do you think that they couldn't, and that's why they started arguing with me on irrelevant grounds?

Comment author: JGWeissman 23 February 2011 10:34:56PM *  7 points [-]

And the point that I am trying to get you to understand, is that you do not need special rule to always check P(2) when making a proof by induction, in this case where the induction fails at P(1) -> P(2), carefully trying to prove the induction step will cause you to realize this. More generally you cannot rigorously prove that for all integers n > 0, P(n) -> P(n+1) if it is not true, and in particular if P(1) does not imply P(2).

Comment author: MoreOn 25 February 2011 06:08:30PM 0 points [-]

More generally you cannot rigorously prove that for all integers n > 0, P(n) -> P(n+1) if it is not true, and in particular if P(1) does not imply P(2).

Sorry, I can't figure out what you mean here. Of course you can't rigorously prove something that's not true.

I have a feeling that our conversation boils down to the following:

Me: There exists a case where induction fails at n=2.

You: For all cases, if induction doesn’t fail at n=2, doesn’t mean induction doesn’t fail. Conversely, if induction fails, it doesn’t mean it fails at n=2. You have to carefully look at why and where it fails instead of defaulting to “it works at n=2, therefore it works.”

Is that correct, or am I misinterpreting?

Anyways, let's suppose you're making a valid point. Do you think that my interlocutors were arguing this very point? Or do you think they were arguing to put me back in my place, like TheOtherDave suggests, or that there was a similar human issue that had nothing to do with the actual argument?

Comment author: Sniffnoy 25 February 2011 10:07:48PM *  2 points [-]

To butt in, I doubt your interlocutors were attempting to argue this point; they seem like they were having more fundamental issues. But your original argument does seem to be a bit confused.

Induction fails here because the inductive step fails at n=2. The inductive step happens to be true for n>2, but it is not true in general, hence the induction is invalid. The point is, rather than "you have to check n=2" or something similar, all that's going on here is that you have to check that your inductive step is actually valid. Which here means checking that you didn't sneak in any assumptions about n being sufficiently large. What's missing is not additional parts to the induction beyond base case and inductive step, what's missing is part of the proof of the inductive step.

Comment author: JGWeissman 25 February 2011 06:52:26PM 1 point [-]

Of course you can't rigorously prove something that's not true.

Your hindsight is accurate, but more than just recognizing the claim as true when presented to you, I am trying to get you to take it seriously and actively make use of it, by trying to rigorously prove things rather than produce sloppy verbal arguments that feel like a proof, which is possible to do for things that aren't true.

For all cases, if induction doesn’t fail at n=2, doesn’t mean induction doesn’t fail. Conversely, if induction fails, it doesn’t mean it fails at n=2. You have to carefully look at why and where it fails instead of defaulting to “it works at n=2, therefore it works.”

This is accurate, and related, but not the entire point. Distinguish between a proof by mathematical induction and the process of attempting to produce a proof by mathematical induction. One possible result of attempting to produce a proof is a proof. Another possible result is the identification of some difficulty in the proof that is the basis of an insight that induction isn't the right approach or, as in the colored horses examples, that the thing you are trying to prove is not actually true.

The point is that if you are properly attempting to produce a proof, which includes noticing difficulties that imply that the claim you are trying to prove is not actually true, you will either produce a valid proof or identify why your approach fails to provide a proof.

Do you think that my interlocutors were arguing this very point? Or do you think they were arguing to put me back in my place, like TheOtherDave suggests, or that there was a similar human issue that had nothing to do with the actual argument?

No, your interlocutors were not arguing this point. Their performance, as reported by you, was horribly irrational. But you should apply as much scrutiny to your own beliefs and arguments as to your interlocutors.

Comment author: Nornagest 23 February 2011 11:03:38PM *  0 points [-]

The case of two horses is special here because the sets 1..n and 2..n+1 don't overlap if n+1 = 2, and not because of some fundamental property of every induction hypothesis, but that -- along with some arbitrary large n, and maybe the next case if I'm using any parity tricks -- is one of the first cases I'd check when verifying a proof by induction.

Comment author: Dan_Moore 23 February 2011 11:20:57PM *  1 point [-]

The case of P(n) -> P(n+1) (i.e., the second part of the induction argument) that fails is n=1. (In other words n+1 = 2).

The second part of the induction argument must begin (i.e., include n >= n0) at the value n0 that you have proven in the first part to be true from 1 to n0. In this case n0 = 1, so you must begin the induction at n = 1.

Comment author: JGWeissman 23 February 2011 11:38:54PM 0 points [-]

The case of P(n) -> P(n+1) (i.e., the second part of the induction argument) that fails is n=1. (In other words n+1 = 2).

I have edited my comment to avoid this confusion.

Comment author: Nornagest 23 February 2011 11:26:34PM *  0 points [-]

You're right, of course. I was trying to describe the flaw in the set-overlap assumption without actually going through an inductive step, on the assumption that that would be clearer, but in retrospect my phrasing muddled that.

I'll see if I can fix that.

Comment author: MKani 10 December 2011 09:45:32PM 5 points [-]

This post was actually pretty enlightening. I've had the typical religious debate with a theist before, and I use to go ahead with the 'kill them with arguments' method, and I did notice that it left people more convinced of their beliefs than they were before, even if I 'won' the argument.

Comment author: Demosthenes 20 March 2009 03:54:56AM *  5 points [-]

American Rhetoric is an incredible site and there are some real gems that aspire to rational persuasion with some flair.

<http://www.americanrhetoric.com/top100speechesall.html>

Malcolm X's "Ballot or the Bullet" navigates the fact that he is black, widely regarded as dangerous and Muslim all at once while urging people to put these things aside and think about his plans and their outcomes. He does a first rate job of tailoring his rhetoric to increase your emotional desire to think and not react.

Milton Friedman is another person to watch live. He gets a bad rap from people who don't watch him, but if you have ever heard him speak, he excels at softly thinking through positions with the listener while still taking bold positions.

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfdRpyfEmBE&feature=player_embedded>

They said it best in Howard Stern Private Parts:

"I want to hear what he'll say next."

Gladwell is probably the best for presenting fact and figures in speeches. You might not like his numbers or rigor, but his presentatoon methods are top notch, often focused on challenging his listeners beliefs with academic research:

<http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6204900041349106153&ei=YRTDSerTM4qIqwLbn9yuCw&q=Gladwell&hl=en>

Comment author: komponisto 19 March 2009 07:17:53AM 5 points [-]

Sometimes the harsh approach has surprisingly good results. Example.

But Christopher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain irritating

Tangential, I know, but this surprises me. Hitchens, with his literary background, strikes me as a very nuanced thinker, attuned to the various shades of gray. (For example, he's by no means unmoved by religion's contributions to art and culture.) Maybe you're thinking of his talent for devastating rhetorical flourish, as in his infamous comments on Jerry Falwell?

Comment author: Yvain 19 March 2009 10:50:00AM 5 points [-]

I accept your correction. I've only seen Hitchens on TV a few times and never read his book. My introduction to him was in fact his Jerry Falwell comments. If you say he's more nuanced in his writings, I believe you.

Comment author: ciphergoth 19 March 2009 10:57:39PM *  4 points [-]

I've read God is not Great and seen footage of him in debate, and while I admire him in many ways, in other ways think he's a total arse and an embarrassment, and I don't think Yvain's picture of him is all that unfair. There isn't anyone prominent who thinks that the Sistine Chapel is bad because it's religious.

(I should add that there's almost nothing he has to say about religion that I actually disagree with, I just wouldn't use his turns of phrase to my religious friends)

Comment author: MBlume 19 March 2009 11:49:03PM 7 points [-]

I should add that there's almost nothing he has to say about religion that I actually disagree with, I just wouldn't use his turns of phrase to my religious friends

You use different rhetoric to energize the base than to sway the undecideds. Hitchens often acts as a cheerleader. All of the big four do from time to time -- well, maybe not Dennett.

Comment author: ciphergoth 20 March 2009 08:01:49AM 1 point [-]

Hitch has the strongest line in work-the-base rhetoric and so provides a good example of the sort of rhetoric you shouldn't use when trying to sway the undecideds, which was Yvain's point.

Comment author: Br000se 19 March 2009 08:16:02AM 4 points [-]

My goal going into arguments is not to crush them or convince them that I am right. I try to keep a more open mind and understand their arguments. If you start out with a goal of crushing them you won't be in a state of mind to admit if their arguments are stronger.

Comment author: Woofenstein 19 March 2009 06:32:37AM 3 points [-]

My sense is that the most rational argument is the one that gets you closest to your true goal. The theme of my most persuasive arguments is usually something like, "Once we sort things out I bet we'll see that we're really in substantial agreement." Dale Carnagiesque or not, to me rhetoric doesn't have to be a "dark art," full of manipulation and cant. Instead, I try to give respect and keep in mind what I really need to take away from the transaction. I also conceptualize what my erstwhile opponent needs and why. This way, minds may yet meet and all parties have a line of social retreat.

Comment author: jacoblyles 20 March 2009 08:14:58AM *  9 points [-]

I am curious about the large emphasis that rationalists place on the religious belief. Religion is an old institution, ingrained in culture and valuable for aesthetic and social reasons. To convince a believer to leave his religion, you need not only convince him, but convince him so thoroughly as to drive him to take a substantial drop in personal utility to come to your side (to be more exact, he must weigh the utility gained from believing the truth to outweigh the material, social, and psychic benefits that he gets from religion).

For rationalists' attention, there are myriad more important and relevant issues where human irrationality has an effect on the world. In addition, these issues are normally easier to change people's beliefs about.

People have been believing in God for 500,000 years. People have been believing unsupported things about Global Warming for 30. I would rather teach people how to be skeptical and cautious about modern policy debates than have Yet Another God Conversation.

I was scarred by religion growing up. I understand the impulse to despise it and oppose it. But there came a time in my life when I realized that it was going to be around for as long as humanity, though its fortunes may wax and wane. It's time to move on.

Comment author: Johnicholas 19 March 2009 02:44:29PM 4 points [-]

In Rhetoric, they call this technique "Concession".

Comment deleted 19 March 2009 02:06:11AM *  [-]
Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 March 2009 02:50:12AM 4 points [-]

I've had similar thoughts as well. One problem, it seems, is the amount of effort it requires to argue in this way. If you don't know your opponent's position backwards and forwards, it can be very difficult to come up with a line of retreat for them to follow. If you don't actually grok your opponent's position, pretending to do so is unlikely to be effective. Ultimately, it probably pays to specialize a bit in a couple of areas so you know everyone's argument well enough to find those lines of retreat and to help them intuitively understand your argument.

Comment author: conchis 19 March 2009 12:09:31PM *  8 points [-]

Yvain, I enjoy your posts, and generally find them useful, informative, and well written.

I also recognize that this view is controversial in some circles, but one thing that would make me enjoy them rather more is if you managed to ferret out the implicit assumption that crops up every now and then that your rationalist protagonists are necessarily male. (Or at least predominantly so, I haven't been back to do an exhaustive stock-take of your gender specific pronoun usage, but I do recall being struck by this at least once before, so I figured it was worth a comment this time.)

Just to clarify, I don't mean Theo here. If you want to use a specifically male example, that's fine. But phrases like "the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind" and "[e]ither a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he doesn't" strike me as problematic.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that you're being consciously sexist here. In fitting with the theme of this post, I spent a fair while rejecting others' calls for gender neutral language under the mistaken (largely emotional) impression that agreeing with them would have be an admission of some deep moral flaw in me, rather than merely a small and relatively painless step towards inclusiveness - and ultimately better communication.

Comment author: Yvain 19 March 2009 01:57:34PM *  11 points [-]

I'm glad you brought that up.

I've thought about this a few times, and I agree with you that it promotes sexism and is bad, but I just really hate using the phrases "he or she" every time I have to use a pronoun. A sentence like "A rationalist should ensure he or she justifies his or her opinion to himself or herself" is just too awkward to understand. And I am too much of a grammar purist to use "them" as a singular.

I used to use the gender-neutral pronoun "ze", but people told me they didn't understand it or didn't like it or thought it sounded stupid. And I tried using "she" as the default for a while, but people kept getting confused because they weren't expecting it, and trying to figure out where I'd mentioned a female.

I'm willing to accept whatever the common consensus is here. Maybe Less Wrong-ers are open-minded enough to accept "ze" where the average reader isn't.

(I've heard some people here use "ve" a few times, but from the context I gathered it was more of a way to refer to aliens/AIs/transhumans than a normal gender-neutral pronoun. Is this true?)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 19 March 2009 07:23:49PM 12 points [-]

I think I remember reading that the plural used to be conventional grammar and was then deliberately suppressed in favor of "he".

I use the plural. It grows on you surprisingly quickly and isn't at all obtrusive. Anyone who doesn't already have the info stored "Oh, Eliezer uses the plural" after reading my writings for months is a case in point thereof.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 20 March 2009 02:02:18AM *  11 points [-]

Use of the plural form also has the advantage of being the stylistic direction the language is trending to. English is a mass hallucination anyways, why stand in futile defiance of its whims?

The grammatical value of "they" used as a singular has been discussed frequently at the inestimable Language Log, including citations of the form used by such disreputable, notorious abusers of the noble English tongue as William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill. A good post on the subject, though by no means the only one, can be found here.

Maybe next time, we can all argue over splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, or other happy chestnuts of wholly-unfounded prescriptive grammar pedant absurdity.

Comment author: Liron 20 March 2009 12:41:19AM 3 points [-]

Indeed! I pay attention both to gender pronouns and to Eliezer's writing patterns, and I never noticed this. (Eliezer_2000 used "ve" a lot though.)

I had previously decided on "he" in order to optimize for flow, but I am happy to accept this well-made point and switch to "they'.

Comment author: conchis 19 March 2009 07:03:36PM 7 points [-]

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I do appreciate that this inevitably opens up a can of worms, and that no solution is really ideal.

I agree that "he or she" awkward in many, if not most situations. For whatever it's worth, my preferred solution is to use the plural (they/them/their) in any situation where it's unambiguous enough to function effectively, and to otherwise use she/her. If people are confused by feminine pronouns... well, that kind of just illustrates the problem, and making them think about that at least serves some sort of purpose.

Comment author: moshez 05 April 2011 12:53:17AM 4 points [-]

Instead of gender neutrality, try to go for gender balance? I use alternate "he" or "she", and occasionally, semi-intentionally contradict myself [for example, in a talk about Bayes, I explained what I meant by "overconfidence" with an example -- the specific numeric example used a name, Sally, and the general definition used "he". For underconfidence, I used "Barry" and "she" respectively". I believe Eliezer used to physically flip a coin for he vs. she.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 April 2011 04:34:11AM 5 points [-]

Eliezer still does.

Comment author: moshez 05 April 2011 04:46:18AM 1 point [-]

I guess that's fairer than switching (there might be an unfair on/off pattern), but would take me out of my writing flow, which is why the strict-alternation compromise is what I adopted.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 05 April 2011 06:20:09PM *  0 points [-]

Idea: every once in a while just flip a coin or otherwise generate a bunch of random bits. Save them and load up the file or get out the piece of paper you wrote the results down on or such when you're ready to start writing. Then simply start peeling the bits off each time you need a new randomly assigned gender.

Comment author: moshez 05 April 2011 06:22:23PM 0 points [-]

That doesn't fix the "flow" issue. When I'm writing, the last thing I want to do is to be flipping through my files, looking for the bit file, etc. etc...

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 April 2011 06:30:24PM 3 points [-]

Could you use whether the minute on your clock is odd or even?

Comment author: moshez 05 April 2011 06:32:55PM 0 points [-]

It still means I need to break my typing to look at an external stimulus. Honestly, so far I've not seen many instances where strict alternation worked badly, so I'm not motivated to solve this non-problem.

Comment author: jslocum 16 April 2011 02:34:06AM 1 point [-]

It would be better to flip a coin at the beginning of a document to determine which pronoun to use when the gender is unspecified. That way there is no potential for the reader to be confused by two different pronouns referring to the same abstract entity.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 05 April 2011 06:27:12PM 0 points [-]

I mean, if you go "I am about to write, so I'll load up the random male/female file right now" (though I admit, I haven't tried this and it may very well also be disruptive to quickly tab to that file, check the next random gender and then delete it).

Oh well, if that doesn't work, then... next idea then. (I don't have the "next idea", though, so you or someone else will have to come up with it. :))

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 19 March 2009 05:46:25PM *  4 points [-]

For myself, I use the generic feminine wherever possible in writing, but that's just me. In natural speech, I use they, like everyone else.

Comment author: RobinZ 09 July 2009 03:35:29PM 5 points [-]

Sometimes I flip a coin for each hypothetical person I invoke.

Comment author: Johnicholas 19 March 2009 02:29:30PM *  10 points [-]

Hofstadter has made an excellent argument on this topic called "A Person Paper on Purity in Language".

Iain Banks, in "Player of Games", also expressed this sentiment pretty well:

"Marain, the Culture's quintessentially wonderful language (so the Culture will tell you), has, as any schoolkid knows, one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person's sex in Marain, but they're not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it's brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over."

My preferred sex-neutral pronoun is "they".

Comment author: ciphergoth 19 March 2009 05:19:57PM 3 points [-]

Yes, I also prefer "they".

Comment author: sketerpot 22 March 2009 09:41:49PM 8 points [-]

It's unobtrusive and it has a decent chance of actually catching on, unlike any alternative I've ever heard of. There's something to be said for practicality.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 02:45:36PM 4 points [-]

Regarding being a grammar purist, it should be noted that being offended at using 'them' as a singular indefinite is a relatively recent trend.

'ze' and 've' are aesthetically unpleasing, but using them more is likely the only way they would become less so. You won't find me doing it anytime soon though.

It should be noted that until recently, 'man' was gender-neutral in English. John Stuart Mill found himself just on the cusp of that, and tried to argue for women's suffrage in England on the basis that the law referred to 'man' and so included women. (he lost). Common archaic equivalents to todays' 'man' and 'woman' are 'were' and 'wif', where 'man' meant the whole species (though commonly that only considered males).

'She' isn't that confusing, and radical feminism isn't the pernicious beast it was in the 90's, so it seems like 'she' is the best bet for a gender-neutral personal pronoun.

Personally, I prefer to invent a subject for such a thought experiment and then use the appropriate pronoun for the person's gender - which is what you did here with Theo.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 08:02:39PM 1 point [-]

Personally, I prefer to invent a subject for such a thought experiment and then use the appropriate pronoun for the person's gender - which is what you did here with Theo.

The problem with inventing a subject is that people may notice a (unintentional or even nonexistent) trend to always cast one gender as the brave, smart, rational protagonist and the other gender as the cowardly, stupid, silly antagonist.

Personally, I don't care what technique is used (fictional subject, always "he", always "she", "he or she", "they", invented pronouns, etc.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 19 March 2009 10:59:15PM 1 point [-]

Flip a coin?

Comment author: steven0461 19 March 2009 02:46:20PM 4 points [-]

Landsburg:

I am therefore confident that no attentive reader will mistake my repeated use of the generic pronouns "he," "him," and "his" for the exclusively masculine pronouns with the same spellings and pronunciations.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 02:49:34PM 0 points [-]

I'm using this disclaimer from now on. Nearly as hilarious as it is awesome.

Comment author: komponisto 19 March 2009 03:28:14PM 2 points [-]

A lot of people object to "he or she" on grounds of euphony; but clarity of meaning should always take priority in our considerations over sound. The fact is that "he or she" is what we actually mean.

Granted, like any phrase, it is inelegant in certain contexts, and can become tiresome if repeated. So one has to use workarounds. Luckily, "they" (always perfectly acceptable in spoken conversation) is also available for judicious written use.

"the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his or her mind" sounds just fine. ("Their" could also be substituted.)

"Either a person has enough of the rationalist virtues to overcome it, or he or she doesn't" is bad, mainly because of the "or" preceding "he or she". "He/she doesn't" is better, but "they don't" is probably the best (certainly in a comment; maybe a post should be more formal?).

Invented pronouns are just too strange and should be avoided.

Comment author: MBlume 20 March 2009 02:30:07AM 6 points [-]

but clarity of meaning should always take priority in our considerations over sound.

Agreed. Sound is deeply important though. Most of us on a forum like this spend our days navigating seas of words. To give no consideration to the sound of those words is exceptionally bad fun theory.

Comment author: MixedNuts 22 June 2011 03:39:59PM 2 points [-]

"he or she" is what we actually mean

Still sexist, for the reason "whe or ble" is still racist.

Also, down with the gender binary. Do we actually mean that we should argue with men and women to change their minds, but not with genderqueers?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 March 2009 02:02:07PM -2 points [-]

Please stick with "he".
I agree that it's imperfect, but inelegance matters.

Comment author: conchis 19 March 2009 07:05:37PM 9 points [-]

If inelegance is your primary concern, then "she" seems at least as good, and probably a lesser evil for other reasons.

Comment author: taryneast 22 June 2011 03:26:42PM 0 points [-]

And I tried using "she" as the default for a while, but people kept getting confused because they weren't expecting it, and trying to figure out where I'd mentioned a female.

Yes - and this is the problem. People shouldn't think that a female pronoun is weird... just because it's female. ...and you shouldn't be afraid of using it just because people might think it unusual and get confused for all of two seconds.

If you, and the other more post-prolific and respected members of the community used female pronouns more frequently (ie on average: as often as male ones) then eventually it would become commonplace and people would eventually figure it out.... that it's just a pronoun. Just like the other one... only female.

Alternatively, a lot of people these days are just fine with "they"/"them".

Yes we have twisted English into a way it never was used before and it sounds weird to those of us "brought up better"... but this is what happens with languages.

Especially English.

I'm sure I could go through your last post and pick out half a dozen things that, in their time, were considered weird and "not correct English"... until everyone that used to hate them died off and it became just part of common language.

AFAICT, it's currently the most widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. You can fight the tide... or not. :)

Comment author: kluge 19 March 2009 05:29:43PM 0 points [-]

I find it very hard to consider that anything but nitpicking. Although that's probably because my native language is Finnish and it doesn't have separate third person pronouns for different genders. I don't think that distinction is worth making.

Then again, since English does have he and she, perhaps one can't avoid it.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 05:47:46PM *  3 points [-]

I agree. And after studying Japanese, I started to find it silly that English (like most Western languages) makes the distinction between 'singular' and 'plural'. Like whether we're talking about exactly 1 thing or any number other than 1 is information important enough to encode with every noun, but it's usually not worth mentioning what the particular number is.

ETA: exactly what Nebu said below.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2009 01:01:58AM 2 points [-]

I feel like mentioning that English seems to be quite tolerant of not making the singular/plural distinction. When borrowing from languages that don't make this distinction (in my experience, Japanese and Lojban), it seems that people simply use the existing form for both singular and plural: "This gismu is different from all other gismu in that instead of taking just one sumti or finitely many sumti, it can take infinitely many sumti."

Comment author: taryneast 22 June 2011 03:36:54PM 1 point [-]

Doesn't even have to be non-english words:

"this sheep is different from other sheep in that it thinks that it is a fish unlike these fish that think they are sheep"

/contrived_example

Comment author: Annoyance 19 March 2009 07:46:24PM 0 points [-]

In everyday life, the difference between one and several often is important enough to mention, but it would be too complex to create special grammatical categories for individual numbers.

I'm amazed that ancient people put enough emphasis on past/present/future to justify having irregular verbs. They must have had a very strange conception of time.

But then I'm also amazed that Russian doesn't have a definite article...

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 09:30:33PM *  3 points [-]

In everyday life, the difference between one and several often is important enough to mention, but it would be too complex to create special grammatical categories for individual numbers.

I think what Thomblake would like (and which is how I understand Japanese to work) is to be to use a noun without specifying whether or not it is plural, and have extra (not necessarily "grammatical categories") contructs for adding the extra information of whether it is plural or not.

E.g.

  • "What did you do yesterday?"
  • "Oh, I hung out with {friend}."
  • "Really? Were there a lot of people?"
  • "Nope, just one {friend}." / "Yes, many {friend}." / "Well, it was three {friend}."

So it's not new grammatical categories (as long as you don't consider just prefixing the word "three" to be a new grammatical category).

The way English works, there's no way to use a noun while leaving the "1 vs not 1" information ambiguous. If you leave off the "s", you must be referring to exactly one instance. If you put the "s", you must be referring to a non-1 instance (possibly zero instances).

Comment author: MichaelVassar 19 March 2009 02:45:08AM 1 point [-]

The inventors of the original form of rationalist virtue AND rhetoric sure didn't think that the latter was a dark art. Rationalists should WIN!

Comment author: AndySimpson 19 March 2009 06:23:05AM 11 points [-]

Rationalists should shouldn't deny themselves the utility of rhetoric. Any rational rationalist can see that rhetoric is the path to winning, a kind of social theatre that lubricates decision-making with irrational or intermittently rational groups. If a group needs to be convinced of a position within a finite amount of time, bare reasoning isn't always the best option.

Maybe that is too Machiavellian to be "really" rational, but it is the winning path.

Comment author: Yvain 19 March 2009 03:42:44PM *  8 points [-]

I think I am using "rhetoric" in a different way than Aristotle. For Aristotle, it was the art of speaking clearly and eloquently to communicate a position. I am using it more in the way people use when they say "empty rhetoric" or "political rhetoric". "Unless you give up your rights, the terrorists have already won" is my idea of an archetypal rhetorical technique. That may not be fair to the field of rhetoric, but I need some word to describe it and I can't think of a better one, so "rhetoric" it is.

Rhetoric is a technique that may be useful to rationalists, but it's not a rationalist technique. Compare the use of force. I may, as a rationalist, decide the best way towards my goal is murdering all who oppose me, in which case I'll want to know techniques like how to use an assault weapon. But there's still something fundamentally shady about the technique of killing people; it may just barely be justified on utilitarian grounds for a sufficiently important goal, but it's one of those things that you use only as a last resort and even then only after agonizing soul-searching. I feel confident saying that the technique of murdering people effectively as a Dark Art.

I feel the same way about rhetoric (by my pessimistic definition). Tricking people into believing things they have no legitimate evidence for can certainly be helpful, but the more people do it the worse the world gets. Not only do people end up with less than maximally accurate beliefs, but every rhetorician needs to promote Dark Side Epistemology in order to keep zir job. And if I use rhetoric, you need to start using rhetoric just to keep up, and sooner or later everyone's beliefs are completely skewed and inaccurate. It's not quite as Dark an Art as force is, and it's much easier to justify, but it's in the same category.

Be careful about using the "rationalists should win" slogan too literally. Martial artists should win too, but that doesn't mean they should take an AK-47 to their next sparring match and blowing their opponent's face off. Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

Comment author: Emile 20 March 2009 04:44:55PM 9 points [-]

Be careful about using the "rationalists should win" slogan too literally. Martial artists should win too, but that doesn't mean they should take an AK-47 to their next sparring match and blowing their opponent's face off. Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

I disagree. The problem with using dishonest rethoric to win in a debate isn't that it's winning dishonorably; it's that it's winning at the wrong game - on a game that you wouldn't consider the most important if you looked at it closely.

To continue with the martial arts analogy, imagine say a Chinese kung fu master in World War 2 Nanjing that knows that Japanese soldiers are coming over to kill off all of his family. Should he try to win the fight honorably? Or just try to win using every dirty trick in the book (including running away)? If he focuses on winning honorably, he's lost sight of his main goal (save his family) in favor of a secondary one (win honorably).

Similarly, if you foxus on "winning the debate", and as a result push people into a corner that will make them dislike you and become more attached to their identity as a believer in whatever - you focused on the wrong subgoal, and lost at the one which was important to you.

Comment author: Yvain 20 March 2009 07:08:23PM 5 points [-]

I'm a precedent utilitarian. I try to maximize utility, except when doing so would set a bad precedent that would lower utility later.

Precedent utilitarians are usually good about restraining from force. Yes, killing a rich miser and distributing her money to the poor might increase utility. But it sets the precedent that anyone can kill someone if they think of a good enough reason, and most people won't be smart enough to limit themselves to genuinely good reasons. Therefore, precedent utilitarians generally respect the rule of not killing others. But in certain cases this rule breaks down. In the WWII example you mention, it doesn't seem particularly dangerous to set the precedent that you can use force against invaders coming to kill your family.

I try to use the same thought process when evaluating when to use rhetoric. If anyone can use rhetoric any time it furthers a goal that they consider genuinely good, then there's little incentive to use rational argument except on the rare hard-core rationalists who are mostly resistant to rhetorical tricks. I want to be able to condemn a demagogue who uses rhetoric without being a hypocrite. If I needed to use rhetoric in a situation where I couldn't blame anyone else for using rhetoric, like trying to save my family, I'd do it.

(the problem with precedent utilitarianism is that the calculations are impossible to do with real math, and mostly just involve handwaving. But I hope it at least gives a sketch of my thought processes)

Comment author: AllanCrossman 20 March 2009 07:17:34PM *  6 points [-]

Yvain: "I'm a precedent utilitarian. I try to maximize utility, except when doing so would set a bad precedent that would lower utility later."

I think this is an odd thing to say. Any utilitarian ought to be declining short-term gains that result in long-term losses. So why the need for this specific disclaimer?

Comment author: topynate 21 March 2009 05:36:37PM 4 points [-]

Yvain seems to be using the term to mean a utilitarian (in the pure sense) who scrupulously considers the force of his example. The implication is that many don't - we're not talking about perfectly rational beings here, just people who agree with the principle of utility maximization.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 07:55:43PM 4 points [-]

Martial artists place high value on winning honorably. I see no reason why we shouldn't emulate them.

Except, of course, for all those aspects of martial arts which we shouldn't emulate.

Comment author: pjeby 19 March 2009 10:39:56PM 3 points [-]

Um, isn't it kind of rhetorical to compare rhetoric to force and murder?

Also, all your articles here that I recall -- likewise those of Eliezer on Overcoming Bias -- are masterful applications of rhetoric. So I'm kind of confused here. Is this one of those "do as I say, not as I do" things?

Comment author: Yvain 20 March 2009 06:59:20PM 3 points [-]

If you mean the articles here are clear or well argued, thank you. I have no objection to clarity or good argument; see the first paragraph of the comment above. If you mean that I'm using dirty tricks like the "terrorists win" example, then I'd like to know exactly what you mean so I can avoid doing it in the future.

When I compare rhetoric (meaning "empty rhetoric", as mentioned) to force and murder, I'm not saying they're equally bad, or doing one leads to the other or anything like that. Just that they're bad for the same reason. Both are potentially "useful" techniques. But both prevent rational argument and if used too frequently lead to a world in which rational argument is impossible.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 21 March 2009 03:54:09PM 4 points [-]

If you mean the articles here are clear or well argued, thank you. I have no objection to clarity or good argument; see the first paragraph of the comment above. If you mean that I'm using dirty tricks like the "terrorists win" example, then I'd like to know exactly what you mean so I can avoid doing it in the future.

I think the point is that you do a little of both; loosely speaking you are guilty of being fairly eloquent--presenting your ideas persuasively and engagingly, in a style that is inherently likely to increase acceptance.

It is an unavoidable facet of human communication that the same idea can be more or less persuasive depending on how it is presented. Over on OB, Robin uses a far more neutral (or at times even anti-persuasive) style, and if memory serves me he and Eliezer have argued a bit about such use of style.

Comment author: pjeby 21 March 2009 04:46:03PM 4 points [-]

But that is precisely the sort of "dirty trick" you claim to be against. By using murder as an example, you're setting off a "boo light" (opposite of applause light) and linking it to the thing you want people to dislike. That's rhetoric, and emotional manipulation.

And it's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, in itself. Used to strengthen a valid argument, it's fine. Arguing that it's bad in and of itself is a misunderstanding... and another "boo light" (e.g. "empty rhetoric", "dirty tricks").

Emotional manipulation is unavoidable, by the way. Boring presenters and neutral presentations are just manipulating people's emotions either towards boredom and not caring, or to "respect", "status", and "seriousness", depending on the audience. It's best to deliberately choose what emotions you want to create, in whom, rather than leaving the matter to chance.

Comment author: Nominull 19 March 2009 03:28:30PM 8 points [-]

We're running up against the equivocation at the core of this community, between rationalists as people who make optimal plays versus rationalists as people who love truth and hate lies.

Comment author: Annoyance 21 March 2009 03:29:39PM 2 points [-]

rationalists as people who make optimal plays versus rationalists as people who love truth and hate lies

It's only possible for us to systematically make optimal plays IF we have a sufficient grasp of truth. There's only an equivocation in the minds of people who don't understand that one goal is a necessary precursor for the other.

Comment author: Annoyance 21 March 2009 03:28:36PM 2 points [-]

Rationalists should WIN!

Rationalists have better definitions of "winning". They don't necessarily include triumphing in social wrestling matches.

Comment author: Annoyance 19 March 2009 07:43:12PM 0 points [-]

Bad, bad idea. There's no way to avoid losing an argument, because most of the time arguments are social wrestling contests / displays of influence and status.

The only thing you can do is to always make sure you're supporting the right side. That doesn't guarantee that you don't lose, if losing is defined as not coming out as the social victor and failing to convince your opponent or your listeners.

You can't control the responses of others. You can force them to be rational. All you can do is be correct.

As a rationalist, that's all you should really care about anyway. But precious few of us are rationalists.

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 07:47:16PM 3 points [-]

As a rationalist, that's all you should really care about anyway.

Surely you don't mean that simpliciter. There are other things that one should care about, perhaps even while wearing a 'rationalist' hat. It seems that being able to argue in a way that supports the truth without alienating one's friends seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

Comment deleted 19 March 2009 09:52:05AM [-]
Comment author: MBlume 19 March 2009 09:57:26AM 4 points [-]

The most important reason to argue with someone is that someone should change their mind.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 08:19:34PM 3 points [-]

Not sure why Marshall is being voted down here; I agree with him completely. The main reason I "argue" with someone is to seek truth. Perfectly rational agents with the same information should never disagree. So if I disagree with someone, either one (or more) of us is not rational, or one (or more) of us has information that the other one doesn't.

If I argue with someone, I am doing them a favor by expending effort to provide them with more information or helping them see their irrationalities. If someone argues with me, they are doing me a favor by expending effort to provide me with more information or helping me to see my irrationalities.

When I argue with people who are relatively rational (e.g. most of my friends), this works well. Usually one of us learns something new.

When I argue with people who are less rational (e.g. most people in general), this does not work very well, and I run into the problems described by Yvain here.

Comment author: teageegeepea 19 March 2009 02:44:31AM *  -1 points [-]

If you believe morality is impossible without God, you have a strong disincentive to become an atheist

That idea is distinct from whether or not God exists. In arguments about evolution I have made the point that it is compatible with both the existence and non-existence of God. I did not say that to "leave a line of retreat" for the Christian anti-Darwinist I was talking to, but because I believed he held an incorrect notion of what Darwinian evolution is. The notion of leaving a line of retreat for others seems less rationalist, for it implies valuing certain beliefs themselves rather than the truth per se. The reason to leave a line of retreat for yourself is because it is always possible you are wrong about something and so it is wise to be prepared.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 19 March 2009 03:25:31AM *  2 points [-]

P(evolution|God) is much lower than P(creationism|God), so even if you are leading them to the right conclusion about evolution, they still aren't really reasoning properly if they still hold their belief in God. In fact, one might argue that they are doing worse.

The notion of leaving a line of retreat for others seems less rationalist, for it implies valuing certain beliefs themselves rather than the truth per se.

That depends on your motivations. The line of retreat is also useful for improving their reasoning capabilities. Changing one's mind in the face of emotional resistance is hard and takes practice to master.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 08:22:51PM -1 points [-]

P(evolution|God) is much lower than P(creationism|God)

I'd write that as P(evolution|Creationist God) < P(creationism|Creationist God). One can easily conceive of many variants of God which are not only compatible with evolution, but for which evolution is the most sensible explanation for what we observe around us. E.g. a God which sets the initial conditions of the universe, starts the big bang, and then does not interfere from there on.

The other benefit of writing it that way is that it more clearly highlights the tautological nature of the argument for creationism given the existence of (a creationist) God.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 20 March 2009 01:04:43AM 4 points [-]

however P(evolution | moral God) would be rather low.

ie, think about all the nasty stuff that had to happen to, well, give rise to all the currently existent beings. Evolution is a nasty process. A god that is sufficiently intelligent and powerful that it COULD have engineered the species it wanted right from the start, rather than just setting stuff in motion and waiting for something interesting to evolve, allowing all that suffering to happen in the process, well... that would seem to exclude such a being from having anything resembling human morality, right? So when taking into account the often associated "god is good" claim, well, the whole thing completely implodes, no?

Comment author: thomblake 19 March 2009 08:25:33PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure you need that. If you're willing to grant an omnipotent being, it seems like spontaneous creation of whatever he wants would be more likely than anything else.

If miracles are possible, they're always the simplest explanation for everything. Which might itself provide a methodological reason for denying them.

Comment author: Nebu 19 March 2009 09:37:21PM 0 points [-]

Well, now we're getting into a discussion about the nature of God.

An omnipotent, but non-omniscient God might be compatible with evolution, especially if the universe is large (as it seems to be), because perhaps God, while capable of spontaneously creating stuff, just isn't paying attention to anything going on in our particular neighborhood of the universe.

An omnipotent and omniscient, but disinterested God would also be compatible with evolution, as he could, if he wanted to, create new species, but just doesn't bother, as he has other things to worry about.

Etc.

If miracles are possible, they're always the simplest explanation for everything.

What about if miracles are possible, but extremely improbable? Which I think exactly describes the universe we are currently in, assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

Comment author: thomblake 20 March 2009 01:35:01AM 1 point [-]

assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

Nope. by 'Miracle' I mean God goes *poof* and things happen. If you've got an omnipotent, omniscient being with his grubby little paws in everything, then he provides the simplest explanation for any phenomenon.

Comment author: MBlume 20 March 2009 01:40:13AM 2 points [-]

Not true -- you would still model God as some sort of cognitive entity. Miracles which are parsimonious given the temperament revealed by his previous miracles would be simpler.

For example, given a Judeo-Christian God, if you discovered that gay men were living longer happier lives than straight men, this would not be easily explained as a miracle.

Comment author: Nebu 20 March 2009 07:49:08PM 0 points [-]

assuming you are willing to accept "new organisms of a new specie spontaneously coming into existence via random quantum effects" as a possible but extremely improbably miracle.

by 'Miracle' I mean God goes poof and things happen.

Hmm... I think we are talking about the same territory. It's just that in your map, you've labelled the territory as "God" and in my map, I've labelled the territory as "random quantum effects".

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 22 June 2011 04:16:44PM *  1 point [-]

evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars

Does it? I genuinely don't know, since I haven't really studied the subject yet, but it strikes me that if lying didn't work, we wouldn't have developed this whole arms race of deception and social games. You might as well say that the Dark Arts in general don't really work, that humans are notoriously bad at them. Yet my own impression is that if you find something to say that's nice or what the other person wants to hear, regardless of whether you mean it, a lot of people will lap it up if you aren't too crude about it. As has been said elsewhere on lesswrong, it takes effort to detect falsehood, whereas acceptance is natural.

Comment author: wedrifid 15 December 2011 04:27:22PM 1 point [-]

evolutionary psychology tells us humans are notoriously bad liars

Does it?

Hard to answer. Compared to what exactly? We do know that we have all sorts of microexpressions that reveal our emotional state and that most people give off indications that they are being deceptive. And this isn't just failing to hide dishonestly - there is a whole part of the brain in there actively making muscles move to give indications to others that include telling them we're lying. So whether or not we are good liars I don't know but we are certainly worse liars than we could be if we weren't actively shooting ourselves in the foot!

Comment author: jmmcd 11 December 2011 03:53:07PM 0 points [-]

Bear in mind that the most effective lies are the ones you yourself. So people are very good at convincing themselves of positions which will turn out to be useful if others also believe them. I think it's fair to say that few people are good at conscious lying.

Comment author: Peterdjones 22 June 2011 05:10:42PM 0 points [-]

it strikes me that if lying didn't work, we wouldn't have developed this whole arms race of deception and social games.

Or we keep plugging away futiley at it because the rewards are so high: cf gambling.

Comment author: Desrtopa 08 January 2011 06:06:39PM *  1 point [-]

But there's another line of retreat to worry about, one I experienced firsthand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can't remember exactly why. In the borderlands between waking and sleep, I remember thinking: I feel like a total moron. Here I am, someone who goes to atheist groups and posts on atheist blogs and has told all his friends they should be atheists and so on, and now it turns out God exists. All of my religious friends whom I won all those arguments against are going to be secretly looking at me, trying as hard as they can to be nice and understanding, but secretly laughing about how I got my comeuppance. I can never show my face in public again. Wouldn't you feel the same?

I think everyone has trouble dealing with situations like this, but I find that if you want to salvage status, it helps to make a display of your impressive ability to gracefully change your mind.

Comment author: AnthonyC 15 March 2013 05:34:27PM 0 points [-]

TOMIN And you think I'm crazy for believing in the Ori? VALA Not crazy, Tomin. Just...wrong...

TOMIN There are still so many things about it that mean a great deal to me. VALA I don't doubt that there's morality and wisdom in it. That's what made it such a powerful lure for so many people. I think in principle, the idea of bettering ourselves...is what it's all really about

Comment author: CBorys 31 May 2012 07:07:20AM 0 points [-]

I thought it to be a nice illustration: Dawkins vs. Tyson This is a 2-minute-excerpt of "Beyond Belief", where Tyson accuses Dawkins of "the first type of winning an argument". (But his answer is no more than "You're right. But some people are worse".)

Comment author: Hzle 28 May 2012 10:20:34AM *  0 points [-]

Well watching people argue, ways to "win an argument" - to give everyone the impression that your points are better - include

a) not listening to the other person b) intimidating them by claiming or implying they are stupid for not agreeing c) making better points and counterarguments

c) usually gets lost in the messy nature of arguments. But you can make the better points, and because of the limits of human knowledge, they still tend to be 'the best guess we have is that X is true', so could still be wrong

In debating technique, I spotted a while ago that it was clever to sidestep the confrontational style of argument sometimes, and turn the conversation to things you can both - apparently harmlessly - agree on. That way when you deliver your logic - even if it, in reality, contradicts what your opponent is saying, their stubbornness hasn't been tweaked in the same way. If they disagree they may well do it more sensibly

Doesn't always work that way. Some people - even if they are very capable of dispassionate analysis - are politically passionate by nature, and prefer to have a cause, and a whopping great shouting-match :)

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 01:58:49PM 0 points [-]

d) Make it look like the other person is saying something the nearest available stupid or objectionable thing to what they actually said. (Alternately, make it seem like they are saying the worst available stupid or objectionable thing within the constraints of what your knowledge of the social context suggests you will be able to get away with.)

The above tactic seems to be the go to strategy of practical argument. People - particularly those who consider themselves higher status - do it without thinking about it or trying.

Comment author: Lawless 15 August 2012 06:27:11PM -3 points [-]

The psychological resistance I felt to admitting God's existence, even after having seen Him descend to Earth, was immense. And, I realized, it was exactly the amount of resistance that every vocally religious person must experience towards God's non-existence.

I'm amazed. I totally can't understand this kind of thinking (which you believe to be human nature).

Me, I don't believe that God exists. In fact, I hold the belief in God for little less than a mental disease. That is because there is virtually no evidence to support the existence of God, and a lot of evidence that seems to suggest that God doesn't exist. I don't need to read any of Richard Dawkins's books, because everything he says about religion is so self-evident to me that I find it astonishing that there are people in the world to whom it isn't.

However, should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever. I would simply discard the hypothesis "God doesn't exist" because it has been proven wrong, and base my future actions on the discovery "God does exist". And I wouldn't feel silly in front of all the religious people – because they were still fools to believe in God without any proof. That they happened to guess right on this occasion doesn't mean that their method of forming one's opinions (randomly believing in things regardless of evidence) was superior to mine (believing what is supported by evidence). This one time they were right and I was wrong, but in the long run, I will still be right more often than them.

To sum up, the reason why I don't believe in God, is because the information available to me at this moment strongly supports that. Nevertheless, I am not married to the hypothesis that God doesn't exist. Should He really exist, I absolutely want to know about it as soon as possible. My primary interest is to learn, not to uphold any of my current beliefs.

The people like you, however, don't seem to be interested in finding out the truth. Rather it somehow seems to be important to you that the God do not exist. That's what would make you react with resistance when provided with evidence that He exists. In other words, you believe to be a rationalist, but the thought that the truth might be different from what you believe now horrifies you.

Why would that be so?

Comment author: gwern 15 August 2012 11:49:41PM *  6 points [-]

I'm amazed. I totally can't understand this kind of thinking (which you believe to be human nature)....everything he says about religion is so self-evident to me that I find it astonishing that there are people in the world to whom it isn't....In fact, I hold the belief in God for little less than a mental disease. That is because there is virtually no evidence to support the existence of God, and a lot of evidence that seems to suggest that God doesn't exist....However, should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever.

If you really believe that then you can test this with hallucinogens; in a non-trivial fraction of users (in good settings), they induce mystical or religious experiences and so there's a good shot they would do so for you. Have such an experience and still maintain your atheism, and maybe I will credit your claims to be atheistic based on purely rational grounds. Otherwise, you just look to me like, say, SF author John Wright: a strident atheist until he had some hallucinations after surgery and immediately flipped his views to become a strident theist.

Seriously. Standard hallucinogens like psilocybin or LSD are easily obtained, cheap, and safe for at least a few doses.

What's stopping you? Don't you believe your beliefs why you don't believe?

Comment author: gwern 05 September 2012 10:44:55PM *  2 points [-]

Interesting datapoint: MacLean et al 2011 did a RCT of psilocybin. Those reporting a mystical experience saw a rise in their Openness, while those reporting no mystical experience show, if anything, a fall. See the graph on pg6. (It's almost like they're updating on their experience.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 August 2012 12:12:59AM 2 points [-]

should I be shown proof that God exists, I would accept it without any resistance whatsoever.

If you really believe that then you can test this with hallucinogens;

Wait... are you suggesting that psilocybin-induced hallucinations are proof that God exists?

Comment author: gwern 16 August 2012 12:18:25AM *  3 points [-]

I'm saying that if you have a psilocybin-induced hallucination of God and then become a theist, that's a darn good piece of evidence that stuff like the argument from evil or argument from silence weren't why you were an atheist. (And so if you were claiming previously that they were, you were either lying or badly mistaken.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 16 August 2012 01:50:40AM 0 points [-]

Ah. Yes, agreed with this.

Comment author: Lawless 17 August 2012 10:19:29AM -1 points [-]

a darn good piece of evidence that stuff like the argument from evil or argument from silence weren't why you were an atheist.

I don't think my being an atheist has anything to do with the argument from evil or the argument from silence. (I can explain more if anyone's interested.) I am an atheist because, based on my current knowledge, the hypothesis that God does not exist seems far more likely to be true than the hypothesis that God exists. That's all there is to it.

you can test this with hallucinogens

I assume that hallucinogens cause hallucinations, that is, distort my perception of reality. Why should I want to do that?

they induce mystical or religious experiences and so there's a good shot they would do so for you. Have such an experience and still maintain your atheism, and maybe I will credit your claims to be atheistic based on purely rational grounds

If I were hallucinating and perceived something that convinces me that God exists, I would start believing that God exists. However, I assume that the effects of the drug would wear off sooner or later. When that occurs, I would recall the experience I had and give the "proof" I saw a serious thought. It is likely that I would realise that the perception was not real, I was merely hallucinating. So I would change my mind back to the belief that God doesn't exist.

I am not atheist in the sense that I so badly want the God not to exist that should I see any evidence that He exists, I would reject it. I am an atheist in the sense that I consider it reasonable to base my actions on the assumption that God doesn't exist, and I refuse to start believing in God without sufficient evidence that He exists.

The author of the article, though, seems to have some psychological problem with the possibility that God exists. That's what my comment was about.

Comment author: gwern 19 August 2012 02:13:43AM 2 points [-]

If I were hallucinating and perceived something that convinces me that God exists, I would start believing that God exists. However, I assume that the effects of the drug would wear off sooner or later. When that occurs, I would recall the experience I had and give the "proof" I saw a serious thought. It is likely that I would realise that the perception was not real, I was merely hallucinating. So I would change my mind back to the belief that God doesn't exist.

That's pretty much the question. Wright could have reasoned the exact same way... and he didn't. Would you - really?

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 19 August 2012 08:36:07AM 1 point [-]

Wright's pre-conversion writing gave me the impression of someone who really wants to base their life on unyielding and absolute moral axioms, so he's not working that well for me as an ”it could happen to anyone” case. More as an example that the sort of people who like engineering and for some reason become dogmatic hardcore libertarians, communists or religious literalists can dramatically change allegiance after suitable neurological insult.

Comment author: gwern 19 August 2012 06:13:51PM 3 points [-]

Mm, I'm not sure that group doesn't embrace LWers as well. We may claim to be open-minded and uncertain, but are we? We have plenty of libertarians here, after all.

(I think that would be testable, though; IIRC, there are a number of psychological questionnaires measuring dogmatism or need for certainty/closure (from the old research into authoritarianism). Administer along with some sort of religious questionnaire before psychedelic use, see whether the high scorers on one become higher on religion afterwards as compared to the low scorers, and especially the high scorers who report a specifically religious psychedelic experience. Too bad the drugs are so controlled and there will probably never be any real studies on this...)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 20 August 2012 05:25:18AM 0 points [-]

I've been wondering whether an unusual number of smart people these days are ones that were libertarians in their early twenties and have become less so later on. Possibly similarly as in an earlier generation an unusual number of smart people were communists in their early twenties and became less so later on.

There's definitely a lot of background assumptions sympathetic to libertarianism on LW, but I haven't seen much of the sort of absolutist first-principles stances I associate with the group of people I'm thinking of in grandparent comment. It's the difference between thinking that free markets are a good starting metaphor for thinking about arranging human affairs and insisting that a strict adherence to a few easily listed axioms like absolute property rights can be pretty much the only thing you need to successfully run a human civilization.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 16 August 2012 01:08:36AM 0 points [-]

Psilocybin can also induce suicidal despair in a non-trivial fraction of users. I would highly recommend against its use by anybody who isn't extremely emotionally stable to begin with.

Comment author: gwern 16 August 2012 01:40:05AM 2 points [-]

Cites or numbers for non-trivial? I looked for info on psilocybin and suicide, and the only review I found cited listed, after I jailbroke a copy, just one suicide and few deaths.

I haven't looked into psilocybin in as much detail as LSD, but I had assumed it was considered very safe since it seemed to be the hallucinogen of choice in recent American research.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 16 August 2012 11:30:59AM 1 point [-]

Personal experience. Psilocybin trips vary wildly, but everybody who uses it regularly eventually encounters an episode of extreme despair. (It's not as bad as LSD, wherein you can very easily get caught in a mental loop - which if you're thinking negative thoughts will send you into an emotional deathspiral - but it's definitely a tangible risk)

It's not that it induces despair, per se, but it heightens emotional response to stimuli considerably. (Particularly in the very high dosages necessary to induce hallucinations.) It's necessary to strictly control your environment.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 December 2013 06:17:37PM 0 points [-]

But the most important reason to argue with someone is to change his mind.

It feels so quaint to see the generic "he" in an Yvain post. (I think he later used novelty gender-neutral pronouns for a while and now uses the singular "they".)

Comment author: Vaniver 01 December 2013 07:21:04PM 1 point [-]

This might have been the last Yvain post to do so, because of this comment further down the page. Looking at the next ~5 of them in chronological order, I couldn't find any generic pronouns, so I couldn't easily test it.