Paths Forward: Additional Thoughts

Have you read my Paths Forward essay yet? Read it first. This post has additions which build on it.

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.

Bad Approaches

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Paths Forward Summary

trying to summarize Paths Forward: there should always be a way that if you’re mistaken, and someone else knows, you can find out. if no one knows a mistake, it’s hard to blame you too much, let’s not worry about that case right now. but it’d be really sad if someone does know, and they are willing to share the info, but you keep making the mistake anyway. that’s such an avoidable mistake.

this is important because of fallibility – people do make lots of mistakes (often without realizing it – any of your ideas could be mistaken and you don’t know which. none of them are safe ideas that couldn’t be mistakes, which would be infallible). so because people make mistakes a lot, a main issue in epistemology is how to find and correct mistakes. being able to be told what other people already know is a really useful way.

but there is a problem because you can’t read everything or debate with everyone or debate with every idea.

people don’t know how to deal with that. so they end up ignoring people with low social status, and ignoring ideas that sound “crazy” to them. and ignoring things they regard as off-topic. that’s a very very bad way to handle it. it blocks off learning about any BIG mistakes – because they mostly talk to similar people and talk about ideas with only limited differences from their own.

the way to deal with ALL ideas that disagree with you is you either 1) write a refutation or, most of the time, 2) refer to a refutation already written by someone else or you. (you must take responsibility for it. if it’s wrong you don’t just blame the author, if you used it and it’s wrong, then you were wrong).

it's also necessary to write down your positions (or refer to writing by someone else). otherwise people don't know what you think and can't point out mistakes they know. making your ideas public lets people check if they disagree (and lets them learn from you). if your ideas are hidden, no one is going to tell you criticism in the first place.

each rival, disagreeing idea only needs to be answered once by one guy, if it's written down in public. so people can work together to address all the ideas arguing with their view, instead of just ignore lots.

then there’s a path forward: someone can point out a mistake in what’s written down.

and also a path forward for the people who disagree with you: they can read your answer and learn why you’re right.

if there is an idea that disagrees with your thinking, that NO ONE has answered (in writing, in public) ... why not? someone ought to answer it and actually deal with the details of it, and give the opportunity for counter-arguments. if no one has done that, how do you know it’s wrong? you shouldn’t be ignoring ideas that no one refuted thoroughly, correctly, seriously.

if your ideas are unpopular so not many people help argue them, that’s not a good excuse for ignoring lots of arguments against your position. if you want to have unpopular ideas, it will take more time to check them for errors, because other people help less. you should put in that time. unpopular ideas are more risky in that way.

if your ideas are popular and something “everyone knows”, then someone really ought to have addressed every known criticism, since you have so many people to do it. if you have so many people and not a single one of them will answer an argument adequately, that’s a big problem there! if a new criticism is thought of, and you don't want to answer it, and you can't get anyone else to deal with it either, then apparently your entire large popular group of people is irrational, so having a big group doesn't really count for anything in that case (and don't even try to claim all 20 million of you are too busy).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Alan's Paths Forward Summary

The following is a guest post by Alan Forrester. It summarizes the Paths Forward idea. These concepts are really important and people have a hard time with them, so summarizing is valuable. Here's another summary I wrote.

People say you should be willing to open minded. You should be willing to consider new ideas because they might be better than your current ideas. But people don’t give substantive advice on how to do this.

This is a difficult problem because you only have a limited amount of time in the day, and you may have stuff to do.

What you need is a path forward: a way to advance a discussion or disagreement (including discussions and disagreements in your own mind).

A bad path forward impedes progress by rejecting ideas without answering them, regardless of your reason for doing that. Examples include authority, social status, curation, moderation or gatekeepers.

A good path forward lets you get ideas from anyone. A good path forward always involves discussion because only rational discussion can solve problems.

This may sound like it’ll take a lot of time. But you need not write a fresh answer to every question. You can direct people to stuff that was written before the question was asked. And the answer could also have been written by somebody else. What matters is whether it answers the question, not who wrote it or when it was written.

If you refer somebody to a pre-written answer, you should give specific references where possible, e.g. - a page or chapter of a book instead of a whole book. You should also be willing to fix flaws in those answers.

Good answers will be public so lots of people can read them. They should also be written since written material is easier to quote, edit and analyse in detail.

You should also take responsibility for your paths forward. If you recommend stuff written by somebody else, you should be willing to answer questions about it and address flaws.

Good paths forward make general claims. General claims solve more problems and are easier to criticise than more limited claims. So if they are right they are very useful, and if they are wrong it is easier to find the flaw.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (34)

Paths Forward Short Summary

When there's a disagreement, ask yourself: "Suppose hypothetically that I'm wrong and the other guy is right. In what way would I ever find out and learn better?" If there's no good, realistic answer then you're bad at paths forward.

There exist methods for finding out you're mistaken about disagreements that aren't overly time consuming, and paths forward discusses them. (This has some overlap with Popper, but also adds ideas like having a public, written account of your position, by you or someone else, that you believe is correct and will take responsibility for. Popper didn't cover how to address all criticism without it taking too long.)

If you want to understand how paths forward work, go through these links:

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Justin Kalef vs. Paths Forward

Philosopher Justin Kalef joined FI list, then quickly left. I emailed him about leaving:

I see that you decided to leave without offering a criticism of any point, sharing any of your positions, or attempting discussion once. Sad. I take it you disagreed with some things I said and changed your mind about your supposed interest in open discussion. Presumably you mentally categorized your disagreements as something other than disagreement (e.g. you judged me unserious, ignorant, arrogant, or whatever). And somehow that let you think there was no need to allow the possibility of counter-arguments or clarifications-of-misunderstandings regarding your your negative judgements.

Since you won't argue your case (including by linking anything prewritten), do you know anyone who will discuss and could represent your views? If not, aren't you shutting down rational enquiry regarding your views? If you care about the truth, how can you simply silently refuse to argue your side by any means (including link or proxy)?

If you don't know how to fit discussion into a busy schedule, there are methods which I can explain to you. That's a solvable problem, not a reason one has to give up. Or if there was some other problem, you could have stated it briefly in case there was a misunderstanding or solution.

He replied 5 weeks later:

Hi, Elliot. Apologies for taking so long in getting back to you: I'm in transit this summer and had many administrative issues to deal with, also.

The main reason I decided to leave the group was that I am very busy and need to be highly selective with how I spend my free time. I occasionally participate in online discussions, but usually I do this on widely read blogs where I think a point needs to be made to stop large-scale consensus from shifting uncritically in a certain direction, or where I expect that the other participants in the conversation are likely to offer arguments, information, and ideas that will be particularly useful to me in the pursuit of my (admittedly quite narrow) range of interests.

I appreciate what you're trying to do, but a) my inbox is already too full, and it was filling up with more and more posts from your website; and b) frankly, I think the questions your group was discussing were not in general being addressed very helpfully. For instance, there was (as I recall) a discussion on artificial intelligence. There is a wealth of important material to digest on that subject. If this were a conversation in which some genuine experts on robotics, logic, computer languages, etc. were taking part, I could see some optimism for helping to resolve it: but as it stood, it seemed that the crowd was trying to tackle some a posteriori issues from the armchair. That's just one example.

I don't agree that, by my leaving the group, I am shutting down rational enquiry regarding my views. I am far from the only person in the world who could explain the problems with many of Ayn Rand's ideas; and even if I were the only one, you could pursue these conversations on your own without me. I have in no way prohibited you from having your own conversations. Surely, what I do with my own time is my business, particularly when I have the sorts of constraints on my time that I do. Do you really think that, if a thousand groups wanted me to participate and talk about my ideas, I would be doing about my ideas, I would be morally obligated to participate in all of them?

That being said, I would be willing to address one of Rand's arguments that I disagree with. If you like, please send me a number of her conclusions: your choice. If any of them are both interesting and dubious to me, I will ask you to reproduce a summary of her argument for the conclusion (with short quotes if you like). I find that Randroids tend to refer excensively to her novels. That's okay, but a novel is not an argument. If you can extract from her novels a coherent argument for an interesting view, I will address that argument (again, if the conclusion is interesting and if I find the argument dubious).

I replied:

OK, Rand conclusions:

VoS ch. 4:

there are no conflicts of interests among rational men

RotP, The “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”:

nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species

VoS ch. 8:

One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.

CUI ch. 14:

  1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

  2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

  3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.


money is the root of all good

(all italics omitted)

Regarding being busy and discussion: I think, if you wish to be a serious, rational, public intellectual with an opinion on Ayn Rand, who is very busy, then you ought to have a website (or equivalent) where you've posted your position on Ayn Rand (references are fine for unoriginal points). Otherwise your view of Ayn Rand is inaccessible which prevents both learning from it and criticizing it.

You say there are other critics. Sure. But you haven't chosen specific criticisms which you will take responsibility for. Just pointing in the general direction of a bunch of arguments – many of which contradict each other – isn't a meaningful take on the matter.

If you choose to focus on other matters, that's fine. I and others can pursue the matter without you. In that case, I'd say that you should not make claims about the matter you've chosen to stay out of.

It's interesting that you bring up the scenario of 1000 forum invitations. When we first met, I asked if you knew of a single good forum meeting certain criteria. You said that you didn't know of any, so I invited you to FI. There is a shortage of invitations to worthwhile forums, not a surplus! In this context, you shouldn't give up on a forum so fast. You should instead write a public criticism and see if there's any answer or misunderstanding – especially a criticism of a way in which FI fails to meet the criteria we'd discussed (which I understood you to think were good criteria).

Regarding AI: If lack of expertise caused any mistakes, you could point them out rather than comment on the credentials of the speakers. Especially when you don't know, and didn't ask, anyone's credentials. (A lot of the discussion participants do have expertise relating to computation).

It's also generally a difficult and debatable problem to judge which credentials matter – e.g. for AI discussion, is it more important to be good at programming or good at epistemology? And which credentials shall we defer to for that meta-debate? That's another reason to focus on the issues, not credentials.

Which Rand conclusions would you have used? Share them in the comments below!

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

My Paths Forward Policy

If you think I'm mistaken or ignorant about something important, I want to hear it. I am open to public comments and criticism. See Paths Forward for an explanation of my methodology for not blocking error correction (always having some Path Forward so that if I'm mistaken, and someone knows it, and they're willing to tell me, then I can be told and I won't ignore it).

I do not reply to everything addressed to me, at all venues. I do reply to a fair amount, but I don't have time to answer everything. However, I will guarantee you some attention if you follow a method of getting my attention which anyone can follow with predictable success. Here's what you do:

  1. Post your issue to the FI Google Group. Format your post correctly, e.g. by making it plain text with attributed quotes. Read the guidelines for quote formatting. For most issues, you should quote from something you're arguing with and point out a mistake in the quote. You can also do general comments and respond to your own paraphrases of my views, but pointing out at least one mistake in a quote is important too.

  2. If you don't receive a reply from anyone within a few days, post a self-reply with some followup points. Try again. If the first post didn't have them, follow up with a brief statement of why this is important and a brief summary (one paragraph max, each). Also make sure you're providing a clear question or call to action. What do you want to happen next? What sort of response do you want? Mention you want a Path Forward from me.

  3. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, write a self-reply asking why you didn't receive a reply, and include a brief statement of why replying to you matters and what you're looking for.

  4. If you still don't receive a reply within a few days, email me personally ([email protected]) and ask for an answer and say that you've read Paths Forward. Link the FI Google Group topic, or at least give the subject line and date.

Summary: Post to FI. Follow up on why it matters and what reply you want. Follow up asking why no one is answering. Follow up by emailing me. You will get an answer by the end of this process.


You're welcome to try contacting me in other ways, and that often works, but no promises.

Formatting posts correctly is an intentional barrier to entry. If you aren't willing to do that, I suggest you post to my blog comments (which don't have formatting requirements). I consider the FI formatting the best for a serious discussion, so if you're looking for a serious discussion you should learn it. I like this barrier to entry because I believe it improves discussion while avoiding unpredictable, subjective judgements (like about the quality of your writing and ideas – I will not ignore you because I believe your comments are low quality, as long as you follow the steps listed above.)

I don't answer everything the first time, but if you are persistent as stated above, then I can guarantee you an answer.

The reasons I want you to post on my public forum are that I want other forum readers to benefit from my answer, I want my answer to have a public permalink so I can refer other people to it in the future, and I want other people to be able to answer you (instead of me).

If you receive an answer from another person, and you think it's inadequate and really want an answer from me personally, you can continue with the steps outlined above and explain this (say why the answers from the other people are inadequate and why you want my personal attention).

I (or someone else) commonly will answer a point before reaching step 4. Often at step 1. (I'm most responsive on the FI forum, so just posting there with correct formatting is frequently enough to get a reply. I'm next most responsive to personal email, then blog comments, and then less responsive to everything else).

Like many busy people, I am less inclined to answer if I think something is low quality. I certainly don't want to reply to every low quality thing addressed to me. However, if you follow the steps then you'll get a reply from someone, including from me if necessary. (Often other people are fully capable of answering issues, especially the comments I consider lower quality, so I don't always want to do it personally if someone else will do it.)

If you don't want your content to be exclusive to my forum, that's fine. You're welcome to put it on your own website and post a link or copy/paste.

If you want me to address something which costs money, offer me a free copy somewhere within the first 3 steps. If you won't do that, say why.

If I still don't answer after step 4, your personal email went in my spam folder. I don't think this is a common problem, but if it happens feel free to post to FI again and bring it up and I'll see it or someone else will who can contact me. Or it'd be fine to post 10 blog comments in a row or tweet me or something until I notice. Say that you did the 4 Paths Forward steps and I didn't reply, so maybe the email went in spam, and identify the FI posts in question so I can find them. Or you can email Justin or Alan and they'll get my attention. I mention this because spam filtering is a conceivable problem that could get in the way of Paths Forward, and I don't want that to happen. Email is not 100% reliable for contacting me, but it's pretty good and there are solutions if it fails.


What if you don't want to be so demanding and challenging as to ask for a Path Forward from Elliot/CR/FI? Maybe you expect you're wrong (rather than offering a correction), but you're still interested in pursuing the issue and learning something and getting it resolved? Perhaps you want some Path Forward for yourself to make progress?

Follow up on your own posts with new questions, new explanations of the issues and their importance, new angles and perspectives. Rewrite what you're saying a different way. And report what you've done to make progress, what effort you've put in (and what the result was), what you're planning to do, and if you're running out of ideas and if you'd like help with something. Keep at it over time. Be persistent, honest and curious and FI people will want to help. And make it easy for them: take short advice/comments/suggestions and then do a bunch more on your own initiative (and share this so they see giving you help was worthwhile), rather than expecting them to guide you step by step. Put effort into your learning as independently as you can, e.g. by taking book and link suggestions and doing series of blog posts about them as you read. Be a pleasure to help and offer more value than you ask for. (If you don't know how to offer value, but want to, ask.)

Update My Paths Forward Policy is a now a backup for my debate policy. The debate policy should handle most issues. Use it first. If something goes wrong with that, the Paths Forward Policy is still available.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (9)

Sample Paths Forward Dialog

I read Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony by a Sony founder, Akio Morita. I liked it. But near the end were some comments about currency exchange rates which were incompatible with the capitalist, limited-government, free-trade viewpoint. (He's not a Marxist or anything. He's a mixed "moderate".)

Morita died in 1999, but let's suppose I could speak with him. The dialog below is what I would expect the conversation to be like. (Except I'd expect him to be less clear, direct, honest and patient.)

The point of this dialog is to summarize what Paths Forward is about. The same kinds of questions and comments can be used with most people about many topics. (You just replace "Mises" with a relevant, great thinker with published work who the person is contradicting.) This kind of issue comes up all the time.

curi: I saw some negative views on free trade in your book. Have you read Ludwig von Mises, the economist who explains why you're mistaken?

Akio: No.

curi: Will you read Mises now, and study him carefully, and learn all about the issue?

Akio: No. That sounds potentially interesting but I'm very busy.

curi: Will you refrain from making any comments about economics until after you find time to learn about it?

Akio: No. I don't know everything but I know a lot, and many people consider me a wise expert worth listening to.

curi: Can you refute Mises?

Akio: No. I haven't read him.

curi: Are you adequately familiar with the free trader school of thought, from other sources, to refute it? If you are, that should apply to Mises too.

Akio: No, I can't do that.

curi: Do you know of anyone else, in the whole world, who has refuted Mises, and written down the reasons Mises is wrong, who you can reference, endorse, and take responsibility for?

Akio: No.

curi: Then how did you determine that Mises is wrong, or should be ignored?

Akio: I didn't.

curi: Then why are you making public recommendations about economic matters contrary to Mises' published explanations of economics, if you don't know of the existence of any correct arguments that Mises is mistaken?

Akio: What I'm saying sounds right to me, based on what I do know.

curi: It's been refuted in books you've chosen not to read, and have no answer to. Will you change your mind or behavior now that you know this?

Akio: No I won't change. I already knew that there existed books advocating free trade economics, which I couldn't specifically refute or reference refutations of. I spoke anyways, ignoring that knowledge, and ignoring criticism and disagreement from people like you, because I don't care about rational truth-seeking.

If you make statements like these, some people will try to turn the discussion around and ask about your Paths Forward. They will ask you similar questions. Have you read Marx, Krugman, Pikkety, Keynes, or some other anti-capitalist? If not, do you know of any answers to them that you will use to speak for you? But the answer is yes, at least for me! Yes, for the topics I speak about, I do have answers to opposing thinkers, either personally or by reference.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

David Horowitz's Paths Forward

David Horowitz has a comments forum for his Black Book of the American Left:

I welcome comments on the Black Book and will reply to as many as I am able. I especially welcome comments from the left which so far has pretended that this critique does not exist. This is a throwback to the Stalinist era, and I hope that there are some leftists with the integrity to attempt to meet an argument rather than stamping it out. I hope all commenters will treat the intellectual issues involved and not resort to name-calling and anti-intellectual rants.

And below, above the fold, one can read his extended, serious reply to a leftist whose insults had included: “crazy,” “delusional,” “waste of energy,” and “nonsense”.

At this “forum” for his book series, Horowitz seeks feedback and discussion, especially if anyone has a reasonable/serious criticism. It’s a Paths Forward page!

I’ve long noticed the best people tend to be particularly open to discussion, even if they’re high status and busy. I already knew Horowitz talked with people on Twitter. Rand, Feynman, Popper and others answered letters in the mail in addition to all the effort they put into having conversations with people in person (e.g. Rand routinely invited over groups of people for many-hour discussions). And now with the internet, I’ve found people like Deutsch and Szasz far more accessible online than other, inferior intellectuals.

The reason for this is that smarter people are less fearful of criticism, and actually have a confident and eager attitude regarding learning new things and correcting their errors. And the better people are more capable of explaining what they mean and communicating well, and also value practice communicating. The best people also are curious in general, and interested in what the world is like and what people think – and they have the capacity to think about that instead of being overloaded just from trying to do the minimum requirements of their career.

This method is not at all an exact method for judging people (which isn't the point, the point is about the importance and value of discussion). But interest in discussion and criticism is a big deal. And anyone who says “I get plenty of great, critical discussion through private channels” is a liar. There is a shortage of quality discussion in the world, and no one has access to a bunch of great private conversations to the extent that it no longer makes sense for them to use any publicly visible resources. There is no hidden reserve of really smart people for the famous people to have secret access to. That is a myth.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)