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Don’t Apply the Principle of Charity to Yourself

49 UnclGhost 19 November 2011 07:26PM

In philosophy, the Principle of Charity is a technique in which you evaluate your opponent’s position as if it made the most amount of sense possible given the wording of the argument. That is, if you could interpret your opponent's argument in multiple ways, you would go for the most reasonable version. This is a good idea for several reasons. It counteracts the illusion of transparency and correspondence bias, it makes you look gracious, if your opponent really does believe a bad version of the argument sometimes he’ll say so, and, most importantly, it helps you focus on getting to the truth, rather than just trying to win a debate.

Recently I was in a discussion online, and someone argued against a position I'd taken. Rather than evaluating his argument, I looked back at the posts I'd made. I realized that my previous posts would be just as coherent if I'd written them while believing a position that was slightly different from my real one, so I replied to my opponent as if I had always believed the new position. There was no textual evidence that showed that I hadn't. In essence, I got to accuse my opponent of using a strawman regardless of whether or not he actually was. It wasn't until much later that I realized I'd applied the Principle of Charity to myself.

Now, this is bad for basically every reason it's good to apply it to other people. You get undeserved status points for being good at arguing. You exploit the non-existence of transparency. It helps you win a debate rather than trying to maintain consistent and true beliefs. And maybe worst of all, if you're good enough at getting away with it, no one knows you're doing it but you... and sometimes not even you.

Like most bad argument techniques, I wasn't aware I was doing this at a conscious level. I've probably been doing it for a long time but just didn't recognize it. I'd heard about not giving yourself too much credit, and not just trying to "win" arguments, but I had no idea I was doing both of those in this particular way. I think it's likely that this habit started from realizing that posting your opinion doesn't give people a temporary flash of insight and the ability to look into your soul and see exactly what you meanall they have to go by is the words, and (what you hope are) connotations similar to your own. Once you've internalized this truth, be very careful not to abuse it and take advantage of the fact that people don't know that you don't always believe the best form of the argument.

It's also unfair to your opponent to make them think they've misunderstood your position when they haven't. If this happens enough, they could recalibrate their argument decoding techniques, when really they were accurate to start with, and you'll have made both of you that much worse at looking for the intended version of arguments.

Ideally, this would be frequently noticed, since you are in effect lying about a large construct of beliefs, and there's probably some inconsistency between the new version and your past positions on the subject. Unfortunately though, most people aren't going to go back and check nearly as many of your past posts as you just did. If you suspect someone's doing this to you, and you're reasonably confident you don't just think so because of correspondence bias, read through their older posts (try not to go back too far though, in case they've just silently changed their mind). If that fails, it's risky, but you can try to call them on it by asking about their true rejection.

How do you prevent yourself from doing this? If someone challenges your argument, don't look for ways by which you can (retroactively) have been right all along. Say "Hm, I didn't think of that", to both yourself and your opponent, and then suggest the new version of your argument as a new version. You'll be more transparent to both yourself and your opponent, which is vital for actually gaining something out of any debate.


tl;dr: If someone doesn't apply the Principle of Charity to you, and they're right, don't apply it to yourselfrealize that you might just have been wrong.

Conversation Halters

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 February 2010 03:00PM

Related toLogical Rudeness, Semantic Stopsigns

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

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

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

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

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Atheism = Untheism + Antitheism

86 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 July 2009 02:19AM

One occasionally sees such remarks as, "What good does it do to go around being angry about the nonexistence of God?" (on the one hand) or "Babies are natural atheists" (on the other).  It seems to me that such remarks, and the rather silly discussions that get started around them, show that the concept "Atheism" is really made up of two distinct components, which one might call "untheism" and "antitheism".

A pure "untheist" would be someone who grew up in a society where the concept of God had simply never been invented - where writing was invented before agriculture, say, and the first plants and animals were domesticated by early scientists.  In this world, superstition never got past the hunter-gatherer stage - a world seemingly haunted by mostly amoral spirits - before coming into conflict with Science and getting slapped down.

Hunter-gatherer superstition isn't much like what we think of as "religion".  Early Westerners often derided it as not really being religion at all, and they were right, in my opinion.  In the hunter-gatherer stage the supernatural agents aren't particularly moral, or charged with enforcing any rules; they may be placated with ceremonies, but not worshipped.  But above all - they haven't yet split their epistemology.  Hunter-gatherer cultures don't have special rules for reasoning about "supernatural" entities, or indeed an explicit distinction between supernatural entities and natural ones; the thunder spirits are just out there in the world, as evidenced by lightning, and the rain dance is supposed to manipulate them - it may not be perfect but it's the best rain dance developed so far, there was that famous time when it worked...

If you could show hunter-gatherers a raindance that called on a different spirit and worked with perfect reliability, or, equivalently, a desalination plant, they'd probably chuck the old spirit right out the window.  Because there are no special rules for reasoning about it - nothing that denies the validity of the Elijah Test that the previous rain-dance just failed.  Faith is a post-agricultural concept.  Before you have chiefdoms where the priests are a branch of government, the gods aren't good, they don't enforce the chiefdom's rules, and there's no penalty for questioning them.

And so the Untheist culture, when it invents science, simply concludes in a very ordinary way that rain turns out to be caused by condensation in clouds rather than rain spirits; and at once they say "Oops" and chuck the old superstitions out the window; because they only got as far as superstitions, and not as far as anti-epistemology.

The Untheists don't know they're "atheists" because no one has ever told them what they're supposed to not believe in - nobody has invented a "high god" to be chief of the pantheon, let alone monolatry or monotheism.

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Of Lies and Black Swan Blowups

16 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 April 2009 06:26PM

Followup toEntangled Truths, Contagious Lies

Judge Marcus Einfeld, age 70, Queens Counsel since 1977, Australian Living Treasure 1997, United Nations Peace Award 2002, founding president of Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, retired a few years back but routinely brought back to judge important cases...

...is going to jail for at least two years over a series of perjuries and lies that started with a £36, 6mph-over speeding ticket.

That whole suspiciously virtuous-sounding theory about honest people not being good at lying, and entangled traces being left somewhere, and the entire thing blowing up in a Black Swan epic fail, actually does have a certain number of exemplars in real life, though obvious selective reporting is at work in our hearing about this one.


Part of the Against Rationalization subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Dark Side Epistemology"

Previous post: "Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies"

The Sacred Mundane

42 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 March 2009 09:53AM

Followup toIs Humanism a Religion-Substitute?

So I was reading (around the first half of) Adam Frank's The Constant Fire, in preparation for my Bloggingheads dialogue with him.  Adam Frank's book is about the experience of the sacred.  I might not usually call it that, but of course I know the experience Frank is talking about.  It's what I feel when I watch a video of a space shuttle launch; or what I feel—to a lesser extent, because in this world it is too common—when I look up at the stars at night, and think about what they mean.  Or the birth of a child, say.  That which is significant in the Unfolding Story.

Adam Frank holds that this experience is something that science holds deeply in common with religion.  As opposed to e.g. being a basic human quality which religion corrupts.

The Constant Fire quotes William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as saying:

Religion... shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

And this theme is developed further:  Sacredness is something intensely private and individual.

Which completely nonplussed me.  Am I supposed to not have any feeling of sacredness if I'm one of many people watching the video of SpaceShipOne winning the X-Prize?  Why not?  Am I supposed to think that my experience of sacredness has to be somehow different from that of all the other people watching?  Why, when we all have the same brain design?  Indeed, why would I need to believe I was unique?  (But "unique" is another word Adam Frank uses; so-and-so's "unique experience of the sacred".)  Is the feeling private in the same sense that we have difficulty communicating any experience?  Then why emphasize this of sacredness, rather than sneezing?

The light came on when I realized that I was looking at a trick of Dark Side Epistemology—if you make something private, that shields it from criticism.  You can say, "You can't criticize me, because this is my private, inner experience that you can never access to question it."

But the price of shielding yourself from criticism is that you are cast into solitude—the solitude that William James admired as the core of religious experience, as if loneliness were a good thing.

Such relics of Dark Side Epistemology are key to understanding the many ways that religion twists the experience of sacredness:

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Dark Side Epistemology

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 October 2008 11:55PM

Followup toEntangled Truths, Contagious Lies

If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.

I have previously spoken of the notion that, the truth being entangled, lies are contagious.  If you pick up a pebble from the driveway, and tell a geologist that you found it on a beach—well, do you know what a geologist knows about rocks?  I don't.  But I can suspect that a water-worn pebble wouldn't look like a droplet of frozen lava from a volcanic eruption.  Do you know where the pebble in your driveway really came from?  Things bear the marks of their places in a lawful universe; in that web, a lie is out of place.  [Edit:  Geologist in comments says that most pebbles in driveways are taken from beaches, so they couldn't tell the difference between a driveway pebble and a beach pebble, but they could tell the difference between a mountain pebble and a driveway/beach pebble.  Case in point...]

What sounds like an arbitrary truth to one mind—one that could easily be replaced by a plausible lie—might be nailed down by a dozen linkages to the eyes of greater knowledge.  To a creationist, the idea that life was shaped by "intelligent design" instead of "natural selection" might sound like a sports team to cheer for.  To a biologist, plausibly arguing that an organism was intelligently designed would require lying about almost every facet of the organism.  To plausibly argue that "humans" were intelligently designed, you'd have to lie about the design of the human retina, the architecture of the human brain, the proteins bound together by weak van der Waals forces instead of strong covalent bonds...

Or you could just lie about evolutionary theory, which is the path taken by most creationists.  Instead of lying about the connected nodes in the network, they lie about the general laws governing the links.

And then to cover that up, they lie about the rules of science—like what it means to call something a "theory", or what it means for a scientist to say that they are not absolutely certain.

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Entangled Truths, Contagious Lies

23 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 October 2008 11:39PM

"One of your very early philosophers came to the conclusion that a fully competent mind, from a study of one fact or artifact belonging to any given universe, could construct or visualize that universe, from the instant of its creation to its ultimate end..."
        —First Lensman

"If any one of you will concentrate upon one single fact, or small object, such as a pebble or the seed of a plant or other creature, for as short a period of time as one hundred of your years, you will begin to perceive its truth."
        —Gray Lensman

I am reasonably sure that a single pebble, taken from a beach of our own Earth, does not specify the continents and countries, politics and people of this Earth.  Other planets in space and time, other Everett branches, would generate the same pebble.  On the other hand, the identity of a single pebble would seem to include our laws of physics.  In that sense the entirety of our Universe—all the Everett branches—would be implied by the pebble.  (If, as seems likely, there are no truly free variables.)

So a single pebble probably does not imply our whole Earth.  But a single pebble implies a very great deal.  From the study of that single pebble you could see the laws of physics and all they imply.  Thinking about those laws of physics, you can see that planets will form, and you can guess that the pebble came from such a planet.  The internal crystals and molecular formations of the pebble formed under gravity, which tells you something about the planet's mass; the mix of elements in the pebble tells you something about the planet's formation.

I am not a geologist, so I don't know to which mysteries geologists are privy.  But I find it very easy to imagine showing a geologist a pebble, and saying, "This pebble came from a beach at Half Moon Bay", and the geologist immediately says, "I'm confused" or even "You liar".  Maybe it's the wrong kind of rock, or the pebble isn't worn enough to be from a beach—I don't know pebbles well enough to guess the linkages and signatures by which I might be caught, which is the point.

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