Have you read my Paths Forward
essay yet? Read it first. It's more polished writing. If you like it and you want more, then read this.
These are some additional thoughts about paths forward. They're a little bit disorganized, but that shouldn't stop you from learning. This post has additional points and different ways to look at the topic. It covers some issues with a lot more detail. But seriously do read the Paths Forward
When two ideas conflict, either or both could be mistaken. Resolving conflicts of ideas is the key to learning, problem solving, and progress. It's one of the big topics in epistemology (the study of knowledge and ideas).
If both ideas are mine, then I must be mistaken about something. I should try to resolve the conflict. I can resolve the conflict by coming up with some better ideas. These ideas will need to solve the same problems as before (or else explain why some of those problems are misconceived), while fixing the conflict. A simple case is if I figure out a conflicting idea is mistaken, then I can replace it with a better idea to resolve the conflict.
Sometimes both ideas are pretty good, and I'm mistaken that they conflict. That's important too. Neither idea was good enough to explain why there wasn't a conflict. There's still something to learn.
Commonly, my idea conflicts with your idea. That's called a disagreement. This is a learning opportunity too. At least one of us is mistaken. And if neither of us knows enough to persuade the other, then we each have more to learn, even if our idea is correct.
It's important to look for conflicts between ideas (disagreements) and resolve them. If we don't do that, then our bad ideas won't get fixed; we won't learn new things and make progress.
Every disagreement (conflict of ideas) involves at least one mistake somewhere. Resolving conflicts of ideas means correcting errors. Correcting errors is how progress is made. It's how things get better. It's the best thing in life.
There are several important topics here. One is how to resolve conflicts between ideas (the answer involves using criticism, among other things). Today, I want to talk about openness to critical discussion (which is one of the important ways to resolve conflicts between ideas in order to find and correct mistakes).
People say things like, "I'm too busy" or "I can't debate everyone". They block off discussion. Then they miss out on learning opportunities, stagnate and die.
Everyone has a time limit of 24 hours per day. Being busy is not some kind of special exception. No matter how empty your schedule is, you still wouldn't have time to debate everyone on the internet or everyone in a big city. Time management is an issue everyone faces and saying you're busy doesn't address anything.
The philosophical issue of how to be open to discussion, while having limited time to talk with everyone who might wish to discuss, has basically the same answer whether you're busy or not.
Sometimes people decide who to discuss with by social status or authority. They figure they can't talk with everyone who disagrees with them, so they'll try to pay attention to the best people. But what if they are mistaken about who is the best? Or what if the guy who comes up with a great new idea isn't one of the best people? By looking at the speaker of an idea, instead of the idea itself, they are acting irrationally. Ideas should be judged by stuff like whether they make sense, whether they are logical, whether they give helpful explanations or whether they solve problems. Judging ideas by the social status or authority of the speaker is no good. (Authority actually is a kind of social status.)
This is a "who should rule?" approach as the philosopher Karl Popper called them. It's deciding who (or what) gets to make the decisions, who (or what) matters more than who, which sources of ideas get special privileges, and that kind of stuff. Instead, what we should be doing is making it easy to fix mistakes. People with high social status have enough advantages already, we should be trying to minimize that so reason can operate, rather than reinforce it so if they're wrong they keep their status anyway.
Second bad approach: Sometimes people have a disagreement and they skim over the other guy's conflicting idea. They take a quick look. Then if it seems amazing, they will try to resolve the disagreement. But if they aren't impressed, then they ignore it without resolving the disagreement. This is irrational because an idea that doesn't seem awesome to you immediately could still be true. This approach will miss opportunities to correct your mistakes.
A Path Forward
The rational approach to disagreements involves what I call a "path forward". It has to do with setting things up so there is some way that, if you're mistaken, you could find out and get your mistake corrected. This way progress and learning are never blocked off.
Note the goal here isn't just any path forward. It's a good
one. What does that mean? Well, if you ignored every critic in the world, you still might happen to think of your mistakes yourself. Figuring out everything yourself is a path forward that's theoretically capable of correcting any mistake and allowing for unbounded progress. But it's not very realistic. We want a path forward that works better than that.
Thinking of everything yourself is too hard. You have blind spots. Other people can be a source of good ideas including criticisms. (It can work kind of like comparative advantage from economics, because other people have different stuff they are best at than you.) What we really want is to be able to make progress whenever we have a good new idea, or whenever someone else does. That'd be optimal. If no one thinks of something, oh well, what can you do? But if someone else figures something out and we block off that progress instead of learning it, that's bad!
It's important that good ideas can spread. It's important that if I'm wrong, and someone else knows I'm wrong, then I can find out.
But lots of times when someone thinks I'm wrong and tries to tell me, he'll actually be wrong. Just discussing with everyone who disagrees with me – who thinks they have a good idea I should learn – isn't going to work. We all have limited time, and there are a lot of people in the world.
So we need ways for good ideas to be able to reach me, even though I don't personally talk with everyone.
There are some things set up to help spread ideas. Books and other publications help. A decent amount of the good ideas people think of get published via books, journals, magazines, newspapers, blogs, websites, radio or TV. If I read some books, I can find some good ideas there and learn about some of my mistakes.
But how do publications work, exactly? It used to be that it was hard to get published unless you had high social status or a gatekeeper thought you had a good point. This kept the amount of published work manageable, but it also prevented some good ideas from being published.
Today, anyone can publish online. That's great because now everyone with a good idea can share it. Few important ideas go unpublished, if the author wants to share them. However, so much stuff gets published that no one can follow a thousandth of it. It's easy to miss out on good ideas that would be easily available if only you knew the right webpage.
There's a fundamental problem here. If you limit communication and block off some ideas then that will include some good
ideas. You'll miss out on opportunities to learn things that someone knows. But if you don't limit communication and block anything off, then there's too much stuff
and we run out of time, so we still might miss an opportunity.
There are hard problems here, but there's a lot you can do to deal with it well. And almost no one is handling these issues very well. People routinely ignore those with lower social status without realizing that's irrational. People routinely look at the ideas that make it through gatekeepers or curators and naively think they aren't missing out on anything good. No! Gatekeepers are fallible! Don't assume something is good because a curator liked it, or bad because a curator disliked it. Start thinking for yourself, and with effort and skill you could learn to notice lots of mistakes by curators.
A Path Forward Example
Let's look at an example of a good path forward. This is pretty generic and illustrates the main concepts.
A critic disagrees with me. I point him to something that's already written. It can be by me, or it can be something I endorse by someone else. Either way, I'm responsible for any mistakes in it. Now there's a path forward. It may persuade him. He can learn. His learning isn't blocked off (while his life isn't exactly my problem, I think it's really great if you leave your critics with a path forward too!). If he finds a mistake in it, he can tell me, and then I can learn.
He may be mistaken about what he thinks is a mistake. If his point is new to me, I should talk with him and we can try to figure out what's true. If I already know about his idea and disagree, I can refer him to something that addresses his misconception, which again I'm responsible for.
This process can repeat a lot with very little time investment on my part. If he's unwilling to deal with pre-written answers to his points, and wants me to write new stuff, that's irrational. What's wrong with pre-written material? If he won't address things I refer him to, he's blocking progress, at which point there's no path forward.
If he blocks the path forward, there isn't a lot I should do about it. That's sad, but some people are irrational and you can't lose sleep trying to help them all. You should try to be forgiving and give people several chances because there could easily be a misunderstanding. But if someone is actually putting their effort towards blocking progress instead of making progress, and they don't want to cooperate for mutual benefit, then let it go and deal with people who care about reason.
The path forward discussion process uses people's time roughly according to how much they already know (that's relevant). If I refer a critic to some argument and he isn't familiar with it, he'll have to put time and effort into studying it. If he doesn't want to do that, he's in no position to correct my thinking on this topic. On the other hand, if he already is familiar with the answer I gave him, then he'll be able to answer me much more quickly. (Note it doesn't matter if the answer is pre-written or not, nothing really changes.)
If he knows a bunch of things I don't, I might find myself being the one spending a bunch of time learning things to continue the discussion. But that's OK if I spend lots of time in the cases where the other guy knows more about the topic than I do! What we wanted to avoid was me spending a lot of time dealing with lots of people who know much less than me. (But without just ignoring them, in case someone I think knows less is actually right about something. Even if I think someone doesn't know much and their idea sounds dumb to me, it's important there be a path forward so potential progress isn't blocked.)
What if I haven't already written an answer to something? Well if I've never addressed a topic before, maybe it'd be good to write an answer. Then if I think my answer is good enough, I can reuse it later to save time. I can and should consider topics in the first place. And I should write down what I think so that it's exposed to criticism and I can reuse it instead of complaining I'm busy.
Writing about every topic would be a lot though. Material written by others works fine too, if I agree with it. As long as someone wrote it down, then people who disagree can learn from it, and it's exposed to potential criticism. But the important thing is, whether I am using my own writing or someone else's, I have to take full responsibility for it. If I use a book to speak for me, I have to be just as concerned with any errors in the book as if I wrote it myself. If the book contains errors and isn't good enough to stand up to criticism, then I can't use it to speak for me. I'll have to find a webpage with better answers or write my own, or write some extra material to fix the problems with the book (or change my mind).
Suppose there is nothing written by you that answers a person's criticism or question. And nothing written by anyone else which is good enough for you to endorse and take personal responsibility for. And nothing in other mediums like an audio recording of a lecture. (Writing is overall the best medium for learning, and I usually use it as my example, but other mediums have some advantages and are OK too.) Then it's really important to deal with this disagreement. If you don't, there is no path forward. If you ignore this, and he's right, you won't find out.
Saving More Time: Agreers
Even referring people who disagree with you to pre-written material could be time consuming if you're popular enough. How can that be handled? Let's look at another example.
When you're a beginner, you talk with many people, and encounter both agreement and disagreement. You read many books and webpages, and decide a few are good enough to speak for you and start referring to them. You write many ideas yourself. Many are refuted by critics and you improve your thinking. Some things you reference get refuted, others don't. Because you change everything that gets refuted, over time you build up a collection of ideas that is harder and harder to refute.
And because you (or others) write things down to expose them to criticism (instead of just thinking of them in your head and deciding they are awesome, without others getting a chance to review them for errors), you build up a collection of difficult-to-refute written material which you can refer new people you meet to, as relevant. Over time, as your collection builds up and you become one of the best intellectuals, you find that when you talk to new people, usually they have nothing to teach you, and you already have material to refer them to which covers all their arguments.
Because example-you is so amazing and so much better than most people, you get popular, and attract people who wish to learn from you. At first you personally help some people learn, but then later on there are too many of them. And now you have so many critics, who so rarely surprise you, that even sending them links to answers is not something you want to be doing anymore.
OK, great, so example-you's time is super valuable. But now you have a bit of a following. These generally go together. If your time is super valuable, normally some of your great material will be public and will impress some people. It's not guaranteed. You could be right but unpopular, or you could do confidential secret work; I won't address those special cases today.
Now what you do is create a discussion place online (if you haven't already). Or you can use a discussion place that someone else created, if you're willing to take personal responsibility for it being good enough. Then what you need is for your fans/followers/students to start answering critics for you. I'm going to call these people agreers, in contrast to the people with disagreements we've been considering how to deal with.
(Don't take these categories too seriously, you should treat people's ideas identically whether they are agreers or disagreers. And people can switch which one they are acting like frequently. They're just rough labels to help explain.)
If someone asks a question that you already have an essay answering, one of your agreers can link him to it. If someone has a question about your essay, one of your agreers can answer it. That saves you time!
In general, if you have agreers who want to learn more about your way of thinking, they will act like you did when you were a beginner, less popular and less awesome. There are people getting started learning what you now know. They can deal with critics similar to how you did when you were initially learning it yourself. They are in the situation you used to be in, and they can deal with the stuff you used to deal with.
You mostly directly help the people who know the most, which isn't too time consuming since that's a smaller group. If your agreers are unable to answer a critic, they ask you, and you deal with it (by explaining an error or learning something or whatever is appropriate). Most things are answered by your agreers. The more awesome and popular you get, and the more valuable your time, then the more agreers you'll have to answer things. Get more awesome, get your time more sheltered; it all works out. This way, all disagreeing ideas can get answered, but your own limited time is conserved.
The big point here is you can save a lot of time while making sure all issues get answered
. As long as you take responsibility for every issue having a path forward, then compatible time savers are fine.
If you can't attract any agreers who want to learn the stuff you know about, maybe you're overestimating yourself. If you can, the business problem is solved. If you think you're too busy, apparently you don't have enough agreers of high enough quality (why hasn't your material explained enough to them to make them high quality?) That's your fault and your problem. You think you're busy when actually you're overestimating how good your ideas are. (And possibly you're doing some other mistakes like sharing too few ideas in ways the ideas can be spread around without you repeating yourself. If so, you should get better at teaching and also place a higher value on exposing your ideas to critical examination from the public).
There's a few things to keep in mind, though. What if your agreers think they answered a critic but they're wrong? They have to be good enough that you can take responsibility for what they are doing. To the extent you can't take responsibility for their judgment, you need to be monitoring
what's going on.
Monitoring your discussion place lets you understand what's going on there, and if you should answer something. If something gets a lot of attention, take a look. If something's different than you've answered before, take a closer look.
And about your agreers, remember you can't really trust someone else's judgment until there's been a huge amount of communication, which most people never do (they are too "busy", and ineffective at persuasion, to ever have serious intellectual relationships that actually resolve tons of differences). If you've seen how someone deals with a particular issue several times, that helps. If you've criticized their thinking on dozens of issues and seen how they deal with criticism, that helps. If you've given them a book to read and then discussed it with them to see how well they understood it on their own, that helps. Stuff like this. You really have to know all about your agreers or you shouldn't be trusting them with much of anything. And you still need to do some ongoing monitoring no matter what, or else you're irresponsible.
Note that even if your agreers aren't all that amazing, they can still do things like answer a question so you don't have to. Just monitor it. Check that the link they gave is a good answer to the question. Check that you agree with the answer they wrote themselves. Comment if you disagree with something. You can cut down on writing stuff yourself a lot even with some beginner agreers.
When you handle discussion this way, then if you're good enough you can shelter your time enough, and any good idea can still reach you. Answers about your ideas will be available in some way, and people who disagree can learn from and/or criticize those answers. If you know something they don't, they can find out. If they know something you don't, you can find out. That's what rationality
is all about – setting things up so there is a path forward, so mistakes can get fixed, and so learning and progress can happen.
Multi-Step Paths Forward
You might write something yourself. You might refer a critic (or agreer!) to something you already wrote. This may itself contain references. You might have an essay that references a book. And that book might footnote another book which footnotes another book. It's OK if a path forward involves lots of steps. It's fundamentally the same thing as long as each step connects and there really is a path the whole way.
(Note, by the way, that it doesn't really matter if you're dealing with a critic or an agreer, the methods stay the same. This is very important because basically everyone and their ideas need to be treated equally, fairly, objectively. All people, regardless of your fallible judgment of their (social) status, are one category. All ideas, regardless of source, are one category. You should be acting with principled methods that deal with the whole categories, not making special exceptions.)
And if you have agreers answering questions for you, there might be multiple steps there too. A critic might have a discussion with your newer agreers. When he raises some issues they don't know how to answer, some intermediate agreers might take an interest and comment. If he manages to bring up questions or criticisms they aren't able to resolve, then some advanced agreers could comment. And if that doesn't settle things, you should have noticed the issue. If you know the answer but no one else does, you ought to explain it. It doesn't hurt anything for the critic to go through several steps. If he knows a lot and his time is valuable, it's OK, he'll be able to say very little and get past the agreers who don't know how to deal with it. Or his own agreers might talk to yours.
These multi-step path are potentially necessary for protecting your time if you're awesome enough. And the structure of knowledge gets complicated as enough good ideas build up. That's fine, because they still allow a path forward. Nothing is being blocked off.
You don’t have to know if you're an agreer, a disagreer, at the top of the pyramid, or whatever. And you can be all of them for different topics. The thing is, you should act the same no matter which place you have
. And you should treat people the same. People are people. Ideas are ideas. Treat them rationally and objectively, not according to your prejudgment about who knows a lot (or their social status or whatever else). You don't really know who is who until after
the discussion, and even then hindsight is fallible.
Paths forward not only don’t make assumptions about the status of people, they are also better in every way than status-based approaches. They are better if you turn out to be right because acting in the rational paths forward way gives other guy a path forward too, and makes for more rational discussion. And if you help people learn your ideas u can gain agreers who may get awesome enough to teach you stuff or work productively in your field. And not acting like Mr. Awesome is way way better if you're wrong. Don't ever be the asshole who is mistaken, and is going around saying how much of a big authority he is while pompously ignoring criticism. Don't ever do anything that risks being that guy.
Other Paths Forward
The concept of a path forward is useful in multiple ways. We've talked about how setting up a path forward is a good standard for being open to discussion or debate. It makes sure good ideas can spread to you (in case you're mistaken and someone else knows better), and also it's important that there's a path forward for others to learn what you know (in case you aren't mistaken).
It's also important when having a discussion to make comments that leave a path forward. If you are confused, you have to make some clear statements about what the issue is (preferably about the topic, but failing that say that you're confused and not sure how to proceed and ask for help with your confusion). If you don't do that, how will progress happen?
If someone asks questions and you give a vague reply that doesn't actually answer his questions, you're blocking off a path forward. What if his questions were leading to some good points? You won't find out. (If he's particularly patient he might repeat himself, but you shouldn't rely on his patience for your path forward to exist!)
If someone says something long, commenting on one disagreement leaves a path forward. Commenting on the whole thing isn't necessary to keep the possibility of progress. Resolving disagreements one at a time is a multi-step path forward, it's fine. It makes all the difference from not answering even one point, which leaves no path forward.
Reason involves a kind of back-and-forth (you can do all the steps yourself, though). When confronted with something, you point out an issue (or concede). Then the issue gets answered and now the ball is in your court again. Or it doesn't get answered, in which case they better concede or else they are irrational and don't understand paths forward.
When dealing with rational people, there's always answers to any doubts you may have. Whenever you can't get answers to your doubts, people are either mistaken or irrational. Tell them about paths forward. Give them the benefit of the doubt at first. Maybe they don't understand reason. Maybe they lost your email. Try a few times to make it clearer what's going on. If they openly refuse to give answers or concede, then you know they are irrational.
Finally, consider that paths forward depend more on how you think about discussion and learning – on your rationality – than on your ideas about specific topics like farming, chess or painting. They are an epistemology issue. To be rational, you should apply them to all discussions about everything.