i’m happier with this draft. it’s new material except the first section is edited from the previous draft. i didn’t really clarify the audience in my mind much, but managed to write this anyway. (vaguely, the audience is a smart 20yo who likes the idea of the rational quest for truth and doesn’t know much about philosophy. ofc the same material could work fine for a 50yo who isn’t too closed minded).
what’s missing that’s important to cover? i haven’t yet reread to check for completeness and compare it against my notes to see what points i could add. note i’m not trying to cover everything useful here, just enough for ppl to understand the main points. i’ll add some links to read my other PF writing at the end – someone who likes this enough to want to actually do it can read more essays np.
which parts are unnecessary?
what do you disagree with or find unpersuasive?
note: the essay should read OK on its own, but it isn’t going to be standalone. it will be part of a website with other essays covering evolution, reason, yesno, CR, fallibilism, and a few other things like that. and i will add links to supporting material in this essay.
# Paths Forward
## The Problem
*If I’m mistaken about this idea, how will I find out?*
A **path forward** is an answer to this question. It’s a way to make *progress* – a way to find out about and correct a *mistake*. You should ask this question often because without a good answer you’re at risk of being mistaken and *staying mistaken* in the long term.
A second question to ask is: *What will be the negative consequences if I’m mistaken about this idea?* In other words, what’s at risk?
Paths forward thinking builds on the fallibilist, evolutionary epistemology of **Critical Rationalism** and **Critical Fallibilism**. Learning works by generating ideas and correcting mistakes, so paths forward are a fundamental part of learning. We can’t prove, support or justify our ideas; the best you can say about an idea is that it hasn’t been refuted so far. And we’re fallible – we commonly make mistakes and can never get guarantees that an idea isn’t mistaken – so we should always be taking into account the possibility of mistakes having some plan so we don’t get stuck. *What are you doing about your fallibility, both generally and for individual ideas?*
Create and verbalizing an approach to finding and correcting errors puts us in a better position to analyze and improve it, and to consistently use it.
Reasonable people already try to find and correct their mistaken ideas. Being imperfect, they inevitably miss some mistakes, and make some new mistakes when attempting corrections. And people can’t foresee what will be known in the future, so tons of ideas are actually mistakes from the perspective of the much better knowledge that we hope will exist a million years from now.
So: do your best to seek the truth, try to use good judgement, critically consider your own ideas, and learn about the methods of reason. This is the viewpoint of many smart people, but it’s too vague and doesn’t specify what actions to take.
And there’s a big mistake most smart people are making! Consider this modified question:
*If I’m mistaken about this idea, **and someone else understands the mistake and is willing to share a better idea**, how will I find out?*
If you don’t think of something, that’s fine – you can’t figure everything out. And if no one thinks of something, that’s fine – we all missed it, that’s bound to happen sometimes. But what if someone does figure an issue out, and would be happy to tell you, and you stay mistaken anyway? That’s an *avoidable* failure.
If people could stop missing out on great ideas *which are already known*, that’d be a huge improvement. This is hard because there are a ton of ideas in the world (too many to read through them all, let alone discuss them).
**Paths Forward** explains how people miss opportunities to learn from others, and how to fix this problem. It proposes a better way to *organize* learning and knowledge, including specific actions to do. The goals are to better enable you find and correct your mistakes and to better enable other people to help you.
## The Solution
As you learn, gather written material which you can refer to which expresses what you believe to your satisfaction (you will endorse it and take responsibility for its correctness as if you wrote it yourself). To the extent you either can’t find adequate material, or you create new ideas, then write it yourself.
*Don’t just learn things. Get them in writing.* (In theory, it’s possible to use other mediums, like a video of a lecture, as long as it can be made publicly available on an ongoing basis so that discussions can refer to it. But writing is pretty dominant because it’s the best format. Important video and audio should be transcribed.)
Less than half of this writing should be positive explanations of what you believe and why. You also need answers to potential questions and criticisms, and you need criticisms of contradictory rival positions.
If you build your knowledge this way, it’s easy to answer large numbers of intellectual inquiries: refer people to the pre-existing writing which addresses their question, criticism, or rival idea. Unless someone says something new to you, you can respond to any discussion point with a reference.
This enables you to have public contact info and engage with anyone who thinks you’ve made a mistake. For each of their questions, criticisms and alternative ideas, you already have writing to address it! New ideas will take more thought to address, but will come in at a manageable rate and be worth the effort.
*What is a reference?* Typically it’s an internet link or a citation to a book or paper. It can be any clear way to point someone to information which is publicly available in a stable, longterm way. **Any time you refer someone to information, it should be treated the same as if you wrote it yourself, today.** Think of using a reference as copy/pasting the entire text of the reference as your discussion reply. If that would be appropriate, great. If not, don’t use it (one alternative is to refer to smaller sections of it).
*What if you’re so popular that you get too many inquiries to give even short responses like references to pre-written answers?* Then you should be popular enough to have a discussion forum when your fans respond to inquiries with references (and you or your fans can put together FAQs and other documents to make it easy to find the references you use to answer common inquiries). With that much success, you should also be able to earn the money (or get donations) to hire an assistant to answer inquiries for you (as with fan help, they can answer the easy ones and pass the interesting ones on to you).
*What about the problem of bad references?* People often try to refer someone to an entire book instead of just the relevant part. Worse, sometimes the whole book is irrelevant. To solve this, create a library of good references (you can do this publicly on a blog, or keep it as notes that you can copy/paste). The references can include specific sections (possibly from multiple sources) along with a few sentences of explanation summarizing how the references are relevant to the issue. If you receive a reference you suspect is inadequate, ask for a more specific reference and a couple sentences stating what you will find at the reference and how it matters to the issue.
*What about a succession of bad references?* People sometimes give you a bad argument, you refute it, and they give you another bad argument, and they repeat this forever. It’s the same issue whether the arguments are freshly written or via reference. Handle this by pointing out and criticizing the *pattern* of bad arguments.
*What about a succession of bad questions or criticisms?* Sometimes people keep asking about the same issue in different ways, or try to criticize the same point with different words. What should you do when people get repetitive? Speak to the *theme* involved. E.g. they keep talking about concrete examples, but you recognize they’re making the same conceptual mistake every time. Reply about the conceptual mistake instead of getting caught up in the details. A rule of thumb is to address specifics three times then cover the more general issue. Going through some specific examples helps people understand it better, but doesn’t need to be done endlessly if you can recognize some kind of repeating issue to address in a more general purpose way. In the future, you can refer to specific examples you already covered in the past and then move on to referring to an explanation of the general issue, rather than doing three more examples.
*How do I organize my references?* Have a smaller number of pieces of writing which explain general principles and address big categories of issues. Those are the hard and important parts. In addition to that, as participate in discussion you can build up *bridging material*: short explanations that say how one of the general principles answers a specific issue and then give a reference to the general explanation. The bridging material is what you usually want to refer people to so they can get an answer tailored to their question or criticism. This way, you have lots of customized answers to many different issues, but they’re cheap to make because they consist of a small amount of unique writing plus one or more references. If you create material like this each time you discuss, you’ll quickly go from just having some main ideas covered to also covering many specific inquiries in a reusable way. Before long, you’ll build up great, specific, customized answers to most inquiries so discussion won’t take much effort.