Exploratory writing. Day 2 of writing after the “---“.
This is the kind of thing I write daily and sometimes send out privately to the FI contributors google group.
In general, (apparent) clashes between major/important/valuable ideas make good writing topics. (Partial) disagreements are interesting that aren’t too easy to resolve or one-sided.
I decided to share this one publicly for several reasons including to see if I get worthwhile comments.
# Paths Forward vs. Closed and Certain
Howard Roark to Vesta Dunning in a deleted scene in *The Early Ayn Rand*, while breaking up with her, emphasis added:
> “I didn’t want it to come to this. I think I knew also that it would, from the first. I’m sorry. There are chances I shouldn’t take. You see—I’m weak, like everybody else. *I’m not closed enough nor certain enough.* I see hope sometimes where I shouldn’t. Now forget me. It will be easier than it seems to you right now.”
Paths Forward (PF) is about being open and uncertain – a fallibilist who expects to make errors and wants corrections from other people. It’s also about enabling others to learn from you. When people disagree, regardless of who is mistaken, PF can help the mistaken party(s) learn something.
(If there is a non-mistaken party – often there isn’t – PF can help them learn, too, but that’s less reliable. Lots of the learning benefit for the correct party is from writing up your ideas and organizing them in the first place. As to a discussion with an incorrect critic, it can be interesting and useful to find out some ways that your persuasive/educational materials are lacking. Thinking through your own thoughts in a rational, detailed, objective way, and writing educational material, are very similar activities. Feedback on weaknesses in educational material can help you think better. They help you find ways to organize your thoughts better, such as putting some things in words that you previously used intuition for.)
Objectivism says to be more closed and certain – at least if you’re Roark or someone really, really good. I don’t think being closed and certain would apply the same way for clueless people, though they should try to have more of a self instead of living by a contradictory mix of many other people’s advice.
Closed and certain means – judge and don’t doubt your judgment just because many people disagree. Only reconsider if there is a reason. Live by your ideas instead of hedging, partly sticking to convention that you disagree with, partly trying to be normal and not an extremist.
PF means judge and be open to *rational* criticism. But also, you may be mistaken about which criticism is rational (or relevant, interesting or smart), so you need failsafe mechanisms and other stuff to prevent your bias and systematic error from sabotaging you. Don’t trust your intuition, it’s been corrupted by anti-rational memes.
There is some compatibility here, despite the different emphasis. Rational judgment is good. Irrational criticism doesn’t matter. PF puts significant effort into cheaply and efficiently dealing with bad criticism. It doesn’t just say “I judge it’s bad” and move on because that’s not robust enough for dealing with bias/error/etc, but it wants to do something approximating that in many cases, because (especially if you’re great) most criticism really is low value.
(Even if you’re not great, most criticism is low value. It’s low quality. It’s wrong a lot. Whether it’s wiser than you doesn’t matter too much because the transaction costs are high. Live by your own ideas, understand them more, and improve them. Most critics who know more than you only know a bit more and their knowledge is too specialized for their own context. Their knowledge, despite being 20% better than yours, is worse in your context. And fitting their knowledge into your context is more expensive than just creating more knowledge of your own. Context translations like that are expensive and only really make sense if you’re a great thinker, who is good at them, and you’re doing it to get some great ideas that are really worth the effort and offer some unique value you can’t get otherwise.)
Traditions/conventions are dangerous – anti-rational memes – but heresy/deviance are even more dangerous. Major non-conformity can go wrong a lot more ways than it can go right. You need to know what you’re doing, a lot. It’s suitable for highly skilled people but not most people.
Being closed and certain of yourself, while being a non-conformist, can fail badly if you don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s your life and it’s OK to make a try for it. It’s your risk to take. But you should know the risks. Or use PF methods to reduce the risks.
Rand was very wise. “I see hope sometimes where I shouldn’t.” I do that too. She writes for a very advanced context – her own. Much of it doesn’t fit quite right for most people, but that’s good advice to me. People think Objectivism is kinda beginner friendly but most Objectivists don’t get it and most of the advice is actually best for really smart people (or really high integrity or productivity). Most people are kinda hopeless themselves and shouldn’t be going around judging others as hopeless. But when I see hope where I shouldn’t, I interact with people with no value to offer (other than as e.g. a psychological research subject) and they have a bad time. Related, I should get better at cutting off PF interactions faster. Make them shorter and harsher. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, a lot, initially, but I could ask some harder questions/criticisms sooner and get enough info to pronounce a judgment (if the questions/criticisms don’t alienate the person).
I pronounced some major judgments with Ella. And she didn’t leave. That’s OK. I think that’s good. Better to see if she’ll leave over them earlier rather than later. Maybe I should have said them even sooner. I could have said a lot of those judgments almost immediately. They’d seem less plausible to her that way – how could I know all that when we’ve barely spoken? – but if she wants to assume I can’t know much, that makes her less suitable to talk to, that isn’t something to accommodate (it is something unconventional which could confuse people, so it’s worth communicating a little bit about – acknowledge it seems like you don’t have enough info, say skill and experience reduce the amount of info needed).
You should spend time, regularly, on finding out about other people’s ideas, including ones that clash with your intuitions and interests. You should spend some time addressing ideas you think are wrong. Instead of ignoring them without understanding or refuting them, you should learn to understand and refute them.
The better you are at learning and criticizing, the faster and easier it is to understand and refute things.
The better ideas you know, the easier to refute most bad ideas. You can point out how it e.g. contradicts CR without argument. You can point out an asymmetry where CR criticizes X but X does not criticize CR.
Finding out ways that other people misunderstand your ideas also helps you find candidate areas to improve. Maybe you could make that clearer, better organized, add a new idea to fill in a gap, or take a previously intuitive/subconscious idea and put it into words.
Talking with others involves using words which is something you should be doing anyway. Words help you understand your own ideas better. You should use objective arguments, in words, whether you talk to other people or not. Objective means, roughly, that the argument would work equally well for anyone instead of being inadequate to persuade other people who don’t already agree with you on some points. (Objective does not mean perfectly complete. The problem is stuff like arguing on the basis of personal experiences that you can’t formulate as objective evidence (a few other people may have had similar experiences, or sometimes even many people, but “I feel it’s true” isn’t objective even if other people feel it too); the problem isn’t leaving out the full arguments for every premise.)
Which ideas should consider and how much? *Don’t fully control that.* If you take full control over that, your own biases and errors can block certain ideas. You can stay wrong, forever, about some issues. You should partly seek to challenge yourself, seek out variety, consider anything highly popular, consider things you think look somewhat promising/interesting, and so on. But you should partly let other people decide, choose randomly, and other things that your own biases/errors can’t control.
I let people come to my forums and ask me anything. I respond a lot. People can repeat key points if i don’t answer (they do this sometimes) or use my Paths Forward Policy if they think it’s necessary to get my attention (no one does this because they find my responsive enough normally and/or they don’t think they seriously have really important corrections that they seriously thought through and which merit them taking on the responsibility of pressing my publicly available Big Red Button and/or they find pressing the button too hard, even though it’s really not very hard.)
I could respond half as much and it’d still be OK. What if I got 100x the questions? I’d select a few randomly and I’d ask other people (e.g. Alan, Justin, Alisa, Anne, etc.) to select a few for me. I’ll always have time to answer a few things chosen by a few top people. I could also randomly select some medium or low tier people and let them pick some questions, though that overlaps with picking random questions. And I’d set up a voting mechanism and regularly answer the highest voted questions according to a standard policy (there would be some minimum amount I did without any judgment, I could also optionally do extra). Voting is good because I should answer stuff that many people think is important or think I’m wrong about. I shouldn’t only judge by popularity but I should address popular issues. And all this could be improved. It’d be easier to improve if I was in that situation. People like Jordan Peterson are not trying to do this in some kinda serious, thoughtful, rational way, let alone trying to improve it. They are so bad at it that they block being told about Paths Forward itself – you can’t educate them on why they need some intellectual processes to avoid bias and hear ideas.
And when you address ideas, there needs to be followup possible, iteration possible, initial questions possible before criticizing, and so on. If you give people only one iteration of discussion, you aren’t allowing them to do criticism well (nor, in the alternative, to learn much from you).
Anyway, how do you make all this compatible with **closed and certain**? Well people actually do find me quite dismissive and judgmental. Sure I’ll consider ideas, but I’ll respond with hard questions, demanding requests (like reading a book or things that would require knowing multiple books to be able to do), or harsh criticisms.
Keeping an *active mind* is not about doubting myself. It helps me think. While I could be wrong about anything, I’ve done the active mind thing, and the searching for known alternative ideas thing, and the enabling alternative ideas to come to me thing … I’ve done those so much that the inflow of notable ideas has gotten quite small (for ~anyone else it’d be quite large, they haven’t e.g. learned both CR and Oism, they didn’t even learn the low hanging fruit of culture clash and well known philosophies, let alone allow for finding out about more obscure ideas like YESNO, TCS or Paths Forward).
Closed = judgmental. Most issues can be addressed fast if you already know the answer. If you don’t know the answer, you should be curious (given relevance – if it seems irrelevant just say that). The more you learn, the harder it is to say something you don’t already have an answer to, so you start seeming more closed, more confident, etc. You earn your confidence in your ideas by exposing them to lots of criticism, learning and refuting many alternative ideas, etc.
Closed and certain is bad for beginners, but can and should be earned. The more you’re better than other people, the more you should focus on your own ideas, and give short answers that could help other people who were rational (e.g. referring them to books or other educational material) but you should never entirely focus on your own ideas – all the combined brains of everyone else can think of a lot even with systematic biases and other major problems.
Beginners should explore. And people need to be honest. Most adults with PhDs are beginners in major ways. They e.g. don’t know the foundations of their field. Most economists don’t know Mises let alone epistemology/logic/thinking-methods. If you don’t know both CR and Oism – or know what you believe to be refutations of them – you haven’t seriously tried to learn about what thinking methods are already known, you haven’t explored.
It’s important to be closed to ideas you refuted. Don’t hedge with uncertainty when you reach a judgment (but also be interested in new information, but not repeats of what you already knew when you judged). But beginners shouldn’t judge as much, should be more curious and open. They can judge too but they’ll have to reconsider more because there is less knowledge behind their judgment so it’s easier for a critic to say new information. So in short a beginner’s judgments are less certain and less closed – it’s easier for the issue to be reopened.
Most people are really dishonest about how little they know. They are closed and certain when they haven’t earned it, have no right to it, and don’t know how to do it rationally (they don’t know when or why to reopen issues, they are bad at objectively judging what is new information/reasoning that merits new thought).
PF is not about disrupting the normal process of reaching conclusions and acting accordingly. It’s not, at all, the stuff Rand hates – unlimited hedging, arbitrary doubting, skepticism, relativism, etc. PF demands permanent escape hatches for error and bias, always leaving some sort of door open for new info to come in, for *new contexts*. PF is about not being blind to new contexts. That’s a more Objectivism-friendly way to say it. Objectivists know that you can have valid knowledge in one context, then something changes, e.g. new evidence becomes available, and you have to revisit the matter. PF is equivalent to a policy for making it possible to find out about new contexts instead of ignoring them. And PF is about doing this in ways that work even if you lack integrity, you’re biased, etc. Instead of relying entirely on your own logical consistency, rationality, choice to think instead of evade, etc., PF does even better by helping you have integrity, be rational, and so on. It will work often work for mixed people. It guides them along in ways that prevent some errors, make some biases harder to use, etc. PF has a bunch of *objective* defenses that can work against parts of yourself instead of relying on you to be great. Any reasonable person living in an irrational culture, raised by irrational parents, or who realizes that he’s at the beginning of infinity, should want mechanisms to help defend against and deal with his own flaws instead of assuming he has no flaws.
PF doesn’t conflict with contextual certainty because new arguments, new criticisms, new evidence, new questions you hadn’t thought of, etc., are all equivalent to a new context. If there’s anything you didn’t already consider last time, that’s a new context.
PF also deals rationally with asynchronous debate over time, which doesn’t clash with closed and certain at all. Actually it makes it easier by getting rid of most discussions. Tell the person if they have anything serious to say, they can write it down in detail including replies to exact quotes. If they don’t do that, be closed to them! If they do, good, now you have something with more of a hope it’s gonna help you. And if it sucks you can just point out the first error and say “jeez you tried so hard then made this error while doing your best work, and despite editing, so you must be a bad thinker”. They lose all their excuses they’d have when speaking casually. One of the PF ideas is to ignore whatever you want if the other guy isn’t willing to raise the stakes and enter serious mode where he is exposing himself to more judgment.
And PF says you don’t have to personally write stuff, you can endorse something someone else written (as is or with your own additional notes about which parts you endorse or your additions or alterations). PF says to take responsibility for your ideas, but if you do you don’t have to do all the work of writing them yourself. You can claim ideas someone else wrote if you learn them and take responsibility for their correctness (if your source is wrong that you endorse, you were wrong, and you should fix it or change your mind, don’t blame the author). You can outsource writing arguments and educational materials to others just as much as you’re willing to outsource your personal responsibility to those same materials. You can use ideas, regardless of source, to the extent you’re willing to take responsibility for them. This is kinda the same issue with your own material – many ppl say stuff casually and are ready, if it gets criticized, to disown it or deny having said it or make excuses. PF says it’s perfectly reasonable to only reply to stuff people will take full responsibility for and write in a serious context (normally under their real name, though I think you should give some leeway for that if they are arguing something taboo or even e.g. pro-Trump stuff and they don’t want to get harassed by antifa, but I don’t think you need to give leeway on real names for an epistemology argument, I would give that leeway anyway but I don’t see that you have to).
CR refutes induction. So you can be closed and certain about induction, pending a new context – some new ideas about induction that aren’t already refuted by CR and/or some new criticism of CR. You can do this without writing your own arguments about induction. You can use Popper’s. But in addition to taking responsibility for their correctness, as you would with your own ideas, you need to actually earn the right to use them by *learning them*, as you would with your own ideas. Don’t use arguments you don’t understand. Or at least don’t pretend to understand them. A beginner can say he thinks CR refutes induction but he doesn’t understand CR that well but he’s trying to understand the objective state of the debate, and do you disagree with that state of the debate and if so why, what is the counter to CR? That’s all fine even from a beginner who doesn’t know CR very well. And it’s good, in general, for people to communicate what they think the state of the debate is and to depersonalize things and view matters like there is a permanent, impersonal, ongoing debate of all ideas and we have to try to evaluate its current status.