30 Fundamentals

In my second ever post I wrote this about my experience reading sociology of science writing:

It’s exasperating to read something were the author’s preoccupations and thought patterns are so unlike your own that you want to launch into a long counterargument every other sentence. The kind of background assumptions that float by unnoticed when you agree with them work very differently when you don’t. What happens when you read a text by someone with a very different underlying worldview is that things sound not so much simply false but some combination of nonsensical and outrageous. “Bullshit” captures the feeling rather than “false”. /—/

It’s interesting how so many things are implied and unsaid (and how, if you agree with these things, you don’t even notice). A writer may leave things unspecified for several reasons: they might not be aware of their own assumptions, they might think they are obvious, or they might just think the reader agrees. Or all three.

It was only later and with more experience that I could piece together how their writings made sense against a whole other background of beliefs and interests than my own. This background was never explicitly described to me. It had to be inferred, and I came away with the conviction that we should be far more explicit about the assumed background against which we intend to communicate.

Any communication relies on a background of shared understanding, against which particular messages are interpreted. Sometimes this is defined by space/context: “in this space this is the assumed background, if you disagree with any of that, you need to be upfront about that”, and sometimes by person: “I’m known to think such and such, and it’s against that background you should interpret what I say”.

This works ok in the real world. It doesn’t work at all on the internet where voices are disembodied and spaces have ill-defined borders.

Particular publications make things a little better. When reading an article in, I don’t know… Breitbart or Jezebel, Reason or Jacobin, Vox or Quillette, you at least know the basics of what kind of background to assume[1]. But out on the wild internet everything is fragmented and there are more individual bloggers, tweeters, youtubers and whatnots than you can count.

There are some problems with this. Firstly, you don’t know if you’re listening to a crazy person, or less glibly, someone whose background assumptions and preoccupations are so different from your own that anything they say is going to be unreliable, irrelevant or incomprehensible (except as an exercise in intellectual tourism, which can be interesting but exhausting and with high variance).

Secondly, because every piece of writing is more ambiguous than the writer realizes, you don’t necessarily know all the nuances of the message you’re supposed to take home. You might get the wrong idea or just a jumble of nonsense. Even if you comprehend the literal meaning, you’re still likely to miss or misunderstand at least some of the intended implications, which makes it hard to pull off subtle, indirect or satirical messages effectively, severely limiting the quality of online writing. It also encourages a shoot-first-ask-questions-later, “thorns out” approach to reading about contentious issues. That makes it hard to pull off even unsubtle, direct and honest messages sometimes.

It would be helpful if people writing online could point to some description of their fundamental beliefs, interests and assumptions, so you could get a better picture of who they are and where their writing is coming from [2].

I’ve tried to do this below. I wrote down my fundamentals, my main beliefs, my intellectual background scenery. They are all things that inform what I write, are relevant to how I interpret other texts, and help others interpret my writing.

I’d like to encourage other bloggers and writers to do this too. It’s a great tool, not just for others but for yourself too. Have one you can link to so people can sniff you out and get a feel. But be warned, enumerating your own unstated basic beliefs was much harder than I thought it’d be. It’s a chasing-your-tail type enterprise that’ll leave you unsatisfied. I thought I’d have 10 or 12 points but now there’s 30 because I kept coming up with more. The list of background things people can differ on without necessarily realizing it seems infinitely long, and knowing whether to include something or take it for granted doesn’t get any easier just because you’re writing specifically to solve that problem one level above. There are assumptions behind assumptions behind assumptions.

What can safely be ignored because it’s obvious? I spent several paragraphs at the top saying “way less than you think”. Do I have to say that I think the world is round and that human rights are a good idea?

It’s made me extremely self-conscious. I’m effectively writing something and saying “judge me by this”. Please don’t. These are not the end. They are not my set of conclusions. They’re my beginning, the base of operations from which I explore.

30 fundamentals

#1
I subscribe to scientific materialism as a tentative metaphysics. Physical reality is what there is, and everything in the universe is a manifestation, however indirect, of the laws of physics[3]. Ideas about human-centric phenomena (thought, emotion, choice, morality) being ontologically fundamental aren’t, in my view, worth taking seriously other than as interesting social or psychological phenomena.

#2
Point 1 doesn’t in any way mean that I reject art, beauty, emotion, meaning and myth as vitally important and interesting (like a “vulgar” materialism would). Believing that the universe is physical doesn’t imply that the conceptual systems with which we represent it and relate to it need to be physics-like. That we have a particular kind of territory doesn’t mean we have to have a particular kind of map. There are many valid maps of the world.

#3
Maps, and claims using words are not strictly true or false, they need to be converted into a concrete and specific form (in theory down to physics, although this doesn’t happen) to have strict truth values[4]. Natural-language claims instead have varying degrees of validity. When validity approaches infinity, we call it truth.

#4
Validity can’t be quantified, but some maps clearly hug the territory tighter than others. From that gradient we get that objective truth is a real thing. While it doesn’t exist in pure form, we can work on enriching it and produce artifacts with high concentrations. When impurities are judged to be negligible, we call it fact.

#5
Many of the things we believe are not facts, they’re narratives — stories that are interpretations and generalizations of many facts. Narratives translate a strange, bewildering world into mentalese by using the building blocks of thought: causation, intention, agents, relationships, importance, good and evil, promises, rights and obligations.

#6
The supposed facts that make up narratives can themselves be seen as sub-narratives, all in a fractal structure. The difference between a fact and a small narrative isn’t well defined. That’s because of how words work — they inherently contain different levels of generalization, interpretation and valuation. Thus, the structure and adoption of narratives shapes our collective worldviews and our societies, all the way up the chain from single words to full-blown paradigms. The struggle for the rights to shape them resembles war.

#7
The study of rhetoric as usually defined is far too limited. We focus on rhetoric as trying to convince people to make a specific decision, but the constant reshaping of our shared conceptual world by the process of discourse is a more important arena for rhetoric.

#8
Models, rules, and patterns have exceptions. That does not invalidate them. Outside of hard science, it’s rarely a good idea to make models and concepts much more complicated to chase a few outliers and edge cases.

#9
The truth and accuracy of claims must take precedence over their social and political implications (in the public sphere, that is, because in personal situations tact is often more important). This is all for Kantian reasons: if we stop evaluating claims by their accuracy we can no longer trust them. Academic research that rejects this and sees itself as engaging in a political project (no matter how laudable) rather than a scientific one have severe legitimacy problems for this reason. Having a fundamentally political, strongly values-oriented way of seeing the world runs counter to the dispassionate rationality required for generating reliable knowledge.

#10
My personal disposition is towards decoupling and I maintain that requests for it ought to be heeded.

#11
The human brain is a biologically evolved organ and nothing about human behavior makes sense except in the light of evolution. Human nature matters. Furthermore, sex differences exist and are not conjured out of nothing. Intelligence tests measure something real, and it is significantly heritable. As are many, many other traits. Denying all this fundamentally corrupts your capability to think about anything relating to human beings.

#12
Point 11 doesn’t mean that everything about humans is biologically “hard-wired” (avoid this word) or ought to be explained solely in biological terms. Human minds grow in constant interaction with their surroundings and their behavior are in response to environmental conditions, meaning that while there is a human nature, it manifests in different ways and is only observable as a highly garbled signal.

#13
To generalize point 12: whether it’s personalities, behavior, history, technology, social arrangements or culture, there’s a certain level of freedom and contingency in how it develops. There are also restrictions of varying hardness that make some configurations and structures more stable and thus likelier than others. “It’s fixed” and “it’s arbitrary” are complementary partial narratives over a complex reality where the social world semi-contingently grows inside a cost-space defined by biology and material constraints. Easy peasy.

#14
Free will is a confused concept, on a philosophical level. Some conceptions point to something that exists, some to something that doesn’t, and others don’t point to anything at all because they’re self-contradictory. I like to say that it exists[5] on certain levels of abstraction and not on others, in a similar way that a surface can be smooth on a macroscopic scale even though it isn’t if you look at it in a microscope.

#15
In practice, there are, when assigning responsibility for life outcomes, two poles: one being a high-agency stance that treats individual freedom and responsbility as absolute, and the other a low-agency stance that treats choices as constrained so much by social structures that responsibility is best placed on the system as a whole[6][7]. I don’t have much of a dog in that fight and I think people who favor one of these approaches across the board are doing it wrong; they’re appropriate in different measures depending on the specific context[8].

#16
While inequality does not itself prove unfairness, there is manifestly a lot of unfairness even in the best of modern societies. This should not be denied, and the “just-world” fallacy is indeed a fallacy. A generous welfare state is thus justified. There’s no panacea against unfairness, but increased transparency and attempts to locate particular sources of unfairness are good starting points. Some sources of unfairness (like some people growing up with better parents) cannot reasonably be eliminated.

#17
Humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups for almost all of their evolutionary history. Agriculture and industry are late inventions that put humans in unnatural conditions, leading to many, many good things but also to a lot of problems, including large scale war, oppression, regimentation, boredom, alienation etc. Lots (not all) of social problems are both “innate” and “environmental” at once by being a product of our nature having adapt to conditions it didn’t evolve to fit into.

#18
Way more social and political problems, dissatisfactions, internal dissonances etc. than we think stem from us living in very large (as opposed to small sub-dunbarian) societies. When everyone no longer knows everyone else, we can’t rely on intuition to run society any more. Complicated issues will have to be managed, and we can’t just go by what feels right (or dismiss something because it doesn’t), because on this scale there are dynamics we don’t inuitively comprehend. The result has been the emergence of impersonal, formal institutions like laws, bureaucracy, currency, property and contracts — everything hippies hate. I sympathize. Really, I do. But it’s sheer size that demands those things, not artificial imposition. We can’t have large societies that “feel right”.

#19
Today we live in physical proximity with people who, on a subcultural or individual level, don’t share our historical and cultural reference frames the way everyone would in a small tribe. This is an overall good because of the level of self-determination, self-cultivation and intentional community it allows, but comes with costs like alienation, loneliness and communication difficulties.

#20
War, violence, genocide, conquest, exploitation and poverty are not the products of modernity, capitalism or the industrial revolution. They are as old as civilization (some are older). Western civilization as an escape from a violent, oppressive, dirt-poor past is an extraordinary accomplishment, and it has every right to feel good about itself for that. Similarly, modernity was and is a great thing that’s led to prosperity beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and we should bow down and thank it for what it has given us and continue to give us, before we start legitmately complaining about downsides that certainly do exist.

#21
Moral progress does happen, but not because we’re “becoming better people” or “discovering what’s Right” in any fundamental sense. There’s no grand arc to history. It happens because our societies are getting wealthier to the extent that we can afford to be more generous to each other: more altruism towards strangers, more principles, more personal freedom, more acceptance for nonconformity and more concern about suffering. The viability of moral progress is contingent on that prosperity continuing.

#22
Consensus morality is downstream from practicality. It does not grow into a predetermined shape dictated by some elusive “correct” ethical theory, instead it thrives and withers selectively based on the shape of the space available. We will not have morality that demands too much of us and we will not have morality that prevents us from picking low-hanging fruit. We find ways to justify the rules we need.

#23
Consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics are not substitutes. They are complements, dealing with different facets of a morality full of internal tensions. The notion of a “true” ethical theory and strong moral realism makes no sense to me.

#24
Much of our thinking is half-conscious at best and our powers of introspection are way weaker than we think. Intuitions about our own motives and behaviors are not to be trusted, and powerful feelings are to be acknowledged but viewed with suspicion. Only by studying psychology (for understanding minds annd emotions), economics (for understanding behavior), math/machine learning/cognition (for understanding properties, categories and concepts) and philosophy (for when the rest isn’t enough) can we even begin to understand what we’re thinking and why.

#25
Specialization is necessary but academically overvalued for structural reasons, and interdisciplinary work is less than 1% of what it should be. I invented the word erisology partly because I want a “science” of how argumentation and rhetoric actually works in societies where people don’t understand each other, but also because I think there should be an intellectual specialty dedicated to understanding and bridging — by translation, comparison and refactoring — the differences between other intellectual specialties.

#26
I identify with nerds (especially of the STEM variety) and instinctively tend to take their side in any disagreement or conflict. However, I’ve noted that the closer I get to such nerds the less I feel like one of them.

#27
I massively prefer creation and synthesis over other processes, I think in literally all areas of life. When I played computer strategy games as a kid I liked to place the enemies as far away from me as possible so I could build my civilization in peace. When fighting became inevitable I lost interest and started a new game. I think I actually spent more time modding such games than playing them. This has a big influence on my attitudes to everything, especially politics.

#28
No 27 also affects my sense of aesthetics. Great works of art and culture are necessarily (but not suffciently) impressive feats of creation. Unfortunately this view of art and aesthetics has gradually — over the 20th century — been crowded out by ideas that instead emphasize potential for interpretation, audience provocation and (banal) messages. The result is a lot of extremely unimpressive art, which is all too easy to satirize.

#29
Ideologies describe the world but also work to reshape it in their own image. For that to yield good results an ideology must expect a little bit more of the world than it currently delivers, but not too much more, lest the cable pulling us forward breaks from the strain. Good ideology is practical but not cynical, optimistic but not utopian.

#30
Everyone arguing has a point, even if often not a very strong one. Charity and civility in disagreement is an essential virtue, and make an effort to understand under what conditions something seemingly wrong would make sense. People are more different in how they see the world than we think, and we should practice telling ourselves stories that make the other sympathetic.

So there it is. I’m not satisfied with it but I doubt I would ever be. Some topics have received more coverage than they deserve, while some important stuff that lends itself well to concision have got less. I still think it has some value in helping readers understand where writing on this blog is coming from.

I noticed that this ended up more focused on fundamental “beliefs” than attitudes and feelings. That might have been a mistake, since I believe it’s deep-lying emotional reactions and intuitive thought patterns that determine what beliefs we’re predisposed to. In other words, there is another layer below.  If I were to try this again I think I’d focus on that. I’m sure to feel even more self-conscious then.

• • •

Notes

[1]
However, this has the problem of erasing the personal intellectual background of their contributors in favor or the one represented by the publication, making it more likely that individual writers get misinterpreted. The same applies to membership in political parties or organizations.

[2]
Yes, dishonest propagandists can abuse this just like they can abuse everything else, but it would increase the cost of doing so and still be beneficial for the rest of us.

[3]
I don’t consider quantum indeterminacy, however interesting, to be of much philosophical consequence in practice. This is partly because the sort of non-determinism people tend to want doesn’t seem to be the kind that quantum mechanics delivers (i.e. on a human scale and relevant to choice, historical contingency etc.).

[4]
I’m taking about what philosophers call synthetic claims, not analytic ones that aren’t about the external world.

[5]
The word “exist” is of course highly complicated. My The Big List of Existing Things discussed its possible meanings.

[6]
And sometimes by extension on everyone participating in it. I’m significantly less sympathetic to this hardline view than to its softer cousin, as I think it’s important to place well-defined, limited responsibilites on people.

[7]
Thanks to Liskantope for discussing these two perspectives in detail here and here.

[8]
This, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying “I am a political centrist”.

15 thoughts on “30 Fundamentals

  1. I was nodding along to most of this–yes, this fits in with the conception of you I have from your blog– until I got to number #26. Whereas the other points felt fleshed out and I could easily start to see their implications in the things you’ve written, this one felt open. “However, I’ve noted that the closer I get to such nerds the less I feel like one of them,” you wrote, but I realized I didn’t have a clear conception of why. What is a nerd, and where is that distance you feel when you get close to them coming from? (I can maybe start to guess–and perhaps with some of this I’m just being obtuse!–but I find it funny that this feels like a statement that needs quite a bit more interpretation, in a list of things that are supposed to help with interpretation, particularly when that list is so well-made.)

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      1. I kind of mean that, yes. It’s true that point is less transparent than the others. What I mean is that I normally see myself as a pretty typical STEM-type by temperament, and conversely that most of them are like me. However, I normally don’t hang out a lot with that many of this group, so sometimes when I do I realize that the difference is greater than I think I think it is (since I usually compare myself to non-nerds) and I actually don’t feel that much more at home around too nerdy nerds than I do around garden-variety wambs.

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  2. [Had this response in mind a week ago, but Life got in the way, as it does.] I think laying out a set of basic ground beliefs like you have done for quick reference is an excellent idea. I’m reminded of something Scott Aaronson once said about how deep discussions between strangers would go a lot more smoothly if the participants began by laying out a summary of their life-changing, belief-shaping experiences. This is quite a different endeavor of course, perhaps an even tougher one than yours. As it is, I’d appreciate if more bloggers followed your example, but the idea of doing this myself feels pretty daunting. In fact, I view at least half of my blog posts as attempts to expand on one or more of my fundamental beliefs, and even giving myself all that room to explain my views can still leave some of them a little confused. Attempting to distill each idea down to a few sentences to be placed in a list would be delicate and tricky indeed.

    I find myself nodding along — sometimes quite enthuastically — with most of your fundamentals. The biggest exceptions are #21 and #23. Really, I only disagree with #23 on a gut level, and I find justifying my gut feeling on it surprisingly dicey, and I’m open to changing my mind on it. As for #21, my issue is with your denial that we’re “discovering what’s Right”, because certainly the claim that we’re “becoming (innately) better people” is absurd from a biological standpoint. I would argue that absolutely we’re making progress over the centuries in our knowledge of ethics, just as we have in mathematics and the sciences. Our increasing awareness of certain kinds of injustices, the effects they have, and the incorrect assumptions they were made on, is continually being passed down through the generations and added to our cumulative knowledge. I think slavery is the obvious example here: for most of human history, it was taken for granted as morally permissible, and now it’s almost universally condemned.

    Also, I find your final footnote about being a political centrist interesting: might you be suggesting that high-agency vs. low-agency stances are correlated to general directions on the political compass? 😉 (Of course, I would not say that the need to consider both points of view for any given issue implies that we should wind up averaging out near the center.)

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    1. Hi, sorry I’ve ignored this for so long, it’s easy to forget if you don’t jump on it right away.

      I’d like to see such a list from you, the one I saw in response certainly was interesting. I feel it tells you a lot about a person, not just what their opinions are but what they choose to talk about. And trying to be this brief is a good exercise.

      I agree with you that we’ve made ethical progress but I think of that more like progress in engineering than progress in science – ethics is constructed, not discovered.

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      1. Your response to my point about #21 suggests that the difference between how each of us perceives moral progress might stem from a differing view of how to think of ethics, which then takes us back to #23. As far as I’m concerned, once we agree on an axiom that sounds something like “morality is about avoiding harm and aiming towards increased well-being for all of us” — an axiom that most of humanity seems to have always implicitly assumed on some level — what I called “discovering morality” essentially amounts to a scientific progress in understanding what constitutes well-being. Viewed from this angle, I see ethics as a form of science (although of course the axiom it’s based on belongs to the realm of philosophy). I’ll agree that the explanation you give for moral progress in #21 is a major part of the story, whereas, to my mind, this “discovery of ethics” is another major part.

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        1. You’re right that there’s a definite difference here. While I agree that what you say is a good idea of what morality should be, I don’t think it’s the one usually used, certainly not historically. I’m weary of thinking of morality in terms of “axioms” at all, and especially when they doesn’t seem to capture how it all really works.

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          1. It sounds like we may have arrived full circle at prescriptivism versus descriptivism again. It’s good to be able to boil down various disagreements into a very few fundamental differences in perspective. I guess that’s one of the main goals of erisology. 🙂

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  3. Hi John,

    I just discovered this blog (found my way here from SlateStarCodex somehow), and am slowly making my way through the backlog. I’m really enjoying it; it’s introduced me to to some new concepts. I really hope your audience grows and you keep writing.

    Regards,
    Zac

    P.S you mentioned you’re not in America. In which country are you based?

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  4. This is great. I’ve found #26 to be pretty true for me too. I’ve always gravitated towards the ‘party people’ socially, while still trying to find the smart ones that want to argue with me too among them.

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