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Things you contradict you do not endorse.
Things you endorse you do not contradict.

When people write they mention all sorts of things, but are usually only trying to express a few things. I call these things they mean to communicate the substance or main point(s) or the thrust or gist. So, when I say something is the main point, that does not mean it's objectively more fundamental, it simply means it's what the speaker's main point is.

there are two rivals approaches to human interaction that I want to discuss. to illustrate, I'll use Caeli and Isyn.

First, here's:

Caeli's Description Of Both Styles

Caeli, when presented with some theory, first tries to find truth or value in it. She skims over mistakes to try to get the complete idea. And if the idea seems right to her, she doesn't care how many premises are messed up.

Isyn believes that if a theory is criticised, and the criticism is true, then the theory is refuted. He doesn't want to waste his time on false theories, so he always looks for errors. If he sees any, that's that. The theory is false. If he doesn't find errors on the first pass, then he'll evaluate the merit of the theory.

Caeli believes theories are not simply true or false, but rather they are truer or less true. She knows that all progress in human knowledge can be thought of as going from one misconception to another less misconceived one. And so it doesn't seem important to her if a theory has errors, as long as they don't entirely ruin what's being proposed. One common example is statements of the form, "X because Y" where Y seems to be false. Caeli would ignore Y, and consider whether X had merit. Just because the person presenting the theory explicitly claims X has something to do with Y, doesn't mean they actually need to be considered together.

Isyn doesn't want to endorse errors. So he contradicts them. He certainly doesn't want to add errors to his worldview, so he won't add theories with errors in them. When he argues, you can't persuade him if he can find any errors in your suggestion. Even if you find some flaws in his current view, he will sooner take no stance than adopt your faulty new idea.

When you talk to Caeli about one of your new ideas, you generally find yourself discussing just the ideas you were interested in. On the occassions where Caeli insists on going over some side point, Caeli always does it to explain something you will find interesting and relevant. You can make all the errors you want while expressing yourself. From grammar and clumsy terminology, that she doesn't think is best, to appealing to blatantly false theories because they were the best way you could think of immediately to explain what you wanted to, or even because you don't know they're false. Caeli thinks of "not best" as "less true" and won't contradict unless it seems very urgent.

Isyn believes his worldview has no known flaws. Sure, he's fallible, but he's reconciled his worldview with every criticism he's ever encountered. He considers ideas different from his to be criticism, and so discussions with him always revolve around who should change his view to match the other's.

Caeli only criticses your suggestions when she believes you will enjoy the criticism. Usually this is when she believes the criticism is very important to understanding the issue being discussed better, but if she knows you well, she can judge what side issues you will like to hear about also.

Isyn believes everyone either wants to improve *all* their views, or ought to. He doesn't really care about bad people (those who ought to, but don't, want to improve all their views). And so Isyn believes criticism on any subject where you're wrong will help you, unless you are bad.

Caeli looks for ways to improve the ideas you suggest to her. Isyn doesn't bother if he sees any flaws, unless he happens to be in a mood where doing so seems entertaining.

When you argue with Isyn, you almost never discuss what you wanted to. First you argue over terminology and semantics. If yours are different than his, he will not understand what you're talking about, and will only hear what he sees as your semantic misconceptions. And he won't try your semantics out unless you can win that argument with him.

Caeli you don't even have to ask. If you say something she finds strange, she will just quietly find an interpretation that seems to be what you meant. If she can't understand, then she'll ask you to explain what you mean further.

If Isyn can't understand, he'll tell you you don't make sense, and you're therefore wrong.

Next, to argue with Isyn, you have to go over every last premise you give until he's satisfied with them. You might be tempted to not bother with premises, but then Isyn will ask why he ought to think your idea is true. If you say it is just an attempt to explain some part of reality, and its explanatory power seems to you to speak for itself (but only when used...), Isyn will think you're begging the question (assuming your conclusion is right, an invalid way to argue).

Even if you do get the topic to your main point, you won't stay there. First Isyn will tell you every reason that comes to his mind that you're wrong. Then when you defend each criticism, he will tell you every reason that each one of your defenses is wrong. And when you defend those criticisms, he will criticise your newest set of defenses. And so on. This has quite a possibility of continuing on long past the original topic being forgotten. Only when Isyn runs out of criticism at every level will he finally look at the merits of your suggestion.

Isyn is easily distracted. All topics seem to him about equally interesting. When the subject changes, he hardly notices.

Caeli notices when discussions drift, and often tries to bring them back. She knows that arguments thrice removed don't actually have much bearing on what's at issue. Because their relation is as the foundations, or the premises. Such things don't actually exist though. Caeli follows Popper in thinking we don't need verification of our theories (arguments that they are true). And not only that, but we cannot get verification anyway. So no matter how many reasons X is true are refuted ... well X never needed any in the first place. We only give them because it's a good way to explain what we mean by X better.

Isyn gets bored quickly talking to anyone not like Isyn, because, as he sees it, if they don't have the same interest in true theories, they're kinda useless anyway.

Caeli only gets bored talking to people like Isyn, because he rarely says anything she enjoys, and makes Caeli explain all sorts of things that neither of them cares about much (When Isyn offers fifty criticisms, and you defend 48, he won't care about those defenses (except to find flaws in them), and will instead focus on the two criticisms still standing.)

When someone mentions tons of wrong things, caeli tries to ignore it. when caeli understands the substance, and considers it importantly flawed, she is willing to criticise. and also, if someone mentions all sorts of right things, and generally seems brilliant, but then messes up the substance, caeli will be equally willing to criticise it. if someone like Isyn (but a little less extreme) encountered these two situations, he would find the first person mostly/almost-entirely wrong, and the second mostly right.


Isyn's Rebuttal

Caeli forgot to capitalise her name once, thus her theory is false. QED

That's a joke, but you wouldn't know from the way Caeli describes Isyn.

Anyway, there are lots of idiots in the world. Lots. And bad ideas outnumber idiots a hundred to one (more actually). If Caeli really gives every idiot, complete with his hundred bad ideas, a serious hearing, trying to make sense of his crap instead of point out it sucks and move on, well where did she find time to write anything? Seriously, you *can't* give *everyone* that much opportunity to babble at you, or you'll die of old age before you hear three good ideas.

Isyn's approach is to listen until it's clear the guy is dumb, then give him a few reasons he's dumb. If he has some good responses to them, then he's interesting, so Isyn will chat more. If he has crappy responses to the first wave of criticism, then bye. he's done. not wasting any more time. this very first screening actually gets rid of nine out of ten idiots, thus saving tons of time for the people actually worth talking to.

Caeli thinks Isyn just throws criticisms out there, but learns nothing from the ones that are refuted. This isn't true at all. Just because Isyn is smart enough to think of lots of criticism, and smart enough to come up with new ones when some of his fail, and smart enough to find flaws in defenses of criticisms ... well why on earth should that mean when some of his criticisms do fail, he just erases that from memory? Of course he keeps careful track, and won't use the same failed criticism again unless he comes up with an improvement.

Caeli says Isyn strays off topic down long chains of criticism never to return. That's not true. Isyn keeps careful track of what criticisms are pending with regard to what proposed theories. If the people he's talking to can't remember, and can't be bothered to reread (Isyn generally converses in text...) things they forget, and can't keep track of what they are proposing is true, then fuck them, they aren't taking the conversation seriously enough.

Caeli says Isyn doesn't notice topic changes. Well, it's true he doesn't make a big deal about them, and they don't bother him, but he does notice. It's just that Isyn finds almost everything interesting.

Caeli's approach, on the other hand, is seriously flawed. She isn't careful to avoid adopting false ideas. She isn't very discerning about what she finds persuasive. She doesn't aggressively hunt down even her own flaws to correct them. And she certainly isn't helpful enough to find other people's flaws for them. Who would want to talk with her, if all she ever says is that your ideas are pretty nice, although not the best? That's boring. She should point out the flaws she sees, and if she sees none, then be bold and take a stance that the idea is good.

When people are half wrong, they ought to fix their view. Isyn wants to help them do that, and knows good people will be grateful. Caeli, on the other hand, will focus on the little bit the guy gets right, and praise him, and then he'll never improve.

Elliot Temple on June 7, 2004

Comments (3)

Wow. No easy to answer questions here.

But, I think this is one of your most interesting posts in a long while. As I read it, I kept starting to think Caeli or Isyn was basically right in their stance, and then suddenly realize maybe it was the other way around...

And after reading, I still don't know your stance. I think I do based on external knowledge, but you give no indication in the post.

Either way, I think both Isyn's and Caeli's stances are not optimal. Isyn's rebuttal is good, and he's right that the way Caeli presents herself would take pretty much ALL her time and most of it wasted. But I think it seems Isyn's method has a fairly good chance of passing over good ideas that just needed a bit more coaxing to really understand them.

If I had to choose one style I'd probably go with Isyn's, but I think the best solution is to mix them together.

Good post!

Dan at 7:41 PM on June 7, 2004 | #950

I think that because our theories are always imperfect, we are always either one or the other in the sense of being too critical or too credulous about the ideas we encounter.

I'd say isyn and caeli are good metaphors for fallibility, and I don't know if it is rational to like either one of them.

And yes, good post ^^

Justin at 12:04 AM on June 8, 2004 | #951

Wow, that was really good. I almost felt like John Kerry as I flip and flopped! ;-)

I could see parts from each that I think mixed together would be pretty good.

Camille at 5:49 AM on June 8, 2004 | #952

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)