It’s Not So Only

When I read this piece and its comments the other day something stood out to me.

It’s the fourth entry in a slow burn debate between a psychiatrist and an economist over whether most mental illnesses are best thought of as actual illnesses (as a psychiatrist would see it) or as unusual preferences (as an economist would see it).

It’s notable how far removed from concrete facts this debate is. It’s all about how we ought to model mental illness. In other words, exactly in what manner, according to what standards, and with what goals in mind we ought to squeeze messy reality into conceptual-verbal-legal boxes. Or perhaps more accurately: what boxes in what shapes and in what arrangement we’re going to use.

This is a particular kind of disagreement, one that isn’t simply a matter of facts or a matter of mere preference. For long time readers of this blog this isn’t exactly a new topic. It’s the sort of thing I like to bang on about, and I think I’ll keep banging on about it until the end of time, or until this class of disagreement is as familiar as plain factual and value-based ones, whatever is first.

There’s a tendency to put disagreements in either the factual or value-based bucket: objective or subjective[1]. Both are hard simplifications, and neither of them explain most disagreements very well. In Partial Derivatives and Partial Narratives I showed (I think) how

Savage political fights can happen without any factual disagreement or fundamental value difference.

It’s not a revolutionary insight. We get that many disagreements are made up of both factual and preferential parts, but what I don’t think gets sufficiently appreciated is that these “alloys” of fact and preference have properties of their own that don’t easily reduce to properties of the parts. Table salt consists of sodium, a metal, and chlorine, a gas, but thinking of it as “some metal and some gas” isn’t all that helpful. We’re better off thinking of salt as another substance, even though in chemical terms it isn’t (at least not in the same way). I don’t think plain combinations like “matters of policy” that easily fall apart into factual belief components and values components quite capture this.

I like to think of matters of model — disagreements about how to represent or make sense of reality. We cannot do this anywhere close to perfectly, because reality is unfathomably complicated and detailed. We have to compress (simplify and generalize) aggressively. When we do that we have to make choices[2], and thus, the result is value-laden.

So, it’s really all subjective? No, that attitude is part of the problem. A “one drop” rule that says that as soon as something has elements of preference in it becomes completely subjective means we’ll miss a lot as well, because, despite rumors, there’s a real world out there with real patterns and regularities in it. Not having a perfectly objective answer doesn’t make something arbitrary. There are many valid ways to make a map of the London Underground, but none of them have Waterloo and Westminster on the same side of the river.

We can try to prise apart the isses and oughts that make up model disputes but it’s awkward and unintuitive. But it is theoretically possible, which is unfortunate because it obscures the possibility and potential benefits of learning to deal with them in their naturally occurring form[3].

Our understanding of model type disagreement is severely underdeveloped compared to the classic factual and preferential (or terminal values) types, and that, somehow, apparently gives us the impression that they’re some kind of illusion. The philosopher David Chalmers’s paper on verbal disputes from 2011 begins like this:

Is there a distinction between questions of fact and questions of language? Many philosophers have said no. But a version of the distinction is ubiquitous, in philosophy and elsewhere, in the notion of a verbal dispute. Intuitively, a dispute between two parties is verbal when the two parties agree on the relevant facts about a domain of concern, and just disagree about the language used to describe that domain. In such a case, one has the sense that the two parties are “not really disagreeing”: that is, they are not really disagreeing about the domain of concern, and are only disagreeing over linguistic matters.

Right. Here Chalmers right away gets to what bothered me about a few comments to the article about mental illness, such as this one:

I thought from the start of this “disagreement” that there was no disagreement to speak of. This is now more evident than ever. Bryan and Scott do not have different opinions about the facts; they have different preferences (irony intended) regarding how to speak about what are obviously the same facts, because different ways of speaking are likely to accomplish different goals.

If a disagreement isn’t about facts, it’s about preferences, which are implied to be arbitrary (almost like favorite ice cream flavors) and thus not a substantial, serious disagreement.

And this one more or less says that model disagreements don’t count as quite real:

The phrases ‘libertarian free will’ and ‘compatibilist free will’ are abominations. If libertarians and compatibilists aren’t using ‘free will’ to mean the same thing, then they don’t disagree with each other, which they obviously do (and are obviously trying to do).
/—/
If you and I are “debating” about whether stealing is always wrong, but you’re just defining ‘wrong’ to mean ‘doesn’t maximize utility’, then we’re not really disagreeing.

Again this idea that a disagreement must be factual or it’s not really a disagreement.

Aren’t you being unfair here? They’re using disagreement in a particular sense, local to this context? It’s shorthand for factual disagreement.

Yes, sure. I get what they mean and I’m not berating them. But I think the point stands: there’s this idea a disagreement must either be factual or ultimately arbitrary, and if we find out that we’ve treated something as factual even though the factual model is inadequate, we dismiss the whole thing as a mistake. Libertarian vs. compatibilist free will isn’t a real disagreement because it’s not strictly a matter of fact, but it does refer to something substantial and can’t be reduced to just a matter of ice cream flavor type arbitrary personal taste either without being obviously unsatisfactory. When none fits, it feels fake.

As Chalmers said: they’re only disagreeing over linguistic matters.

I want to borrow a Swedish comeback phrase here[4]: det är inte så bara. Literally it translates to “it’s not so only” (analogous to phrases like “it’s not so bad”). “Only” is reinterpreted as an adjective meaning “insignificant”, meaning that what’s only the case is, contrary to what’s been implied, still quite important.

These disagreements are only about words. Well, that’s not so only, buddy. Words aren’t just arbitrary symbols, they refer to concepts. And concepts aren’t inert objects, they’re constructed, and reconstructed, all the time, and in parallel, but partially overlapping branches, so that there isn’t even one consistent canonical construct to a concept at a given time. The other concepts we use to represent, define and explain concepts are actually part of what they are and how they work[5] — work as parts of how we think about things, communicate, and process information collectively.

But sure, pull out a dictionary to settle an argument…

In Wordy Weapons of Is-Ought Alloy I wrote about how arguing about words is wrongly thought of as nitpicky and irrelevant:

Arguing semantics are often derided, but it shouldn’t be. Telling someone not to argue semantics is to imply that they should accept whatever vocabulary is given to them, i.e. accept to have the terms of debate dictated to them. That’s often tantamount to begging the question, since a lot of public discourse is dedicated to shaping the meaning of labels and getting them to stick to certain things (and to resisting and disrupting your enemies’ attempts to do this). That’s PR. That’s rhetoric. But not traditonal, “focused” rhetoric where a man in a toga tries to convince the senate to launch an invasion. This “unfocused rhetoric” isn’t about some specific decision, it’s about influencing the background memetic environment to be more favourable to your interests.

Chalmers explores verbal disputes at length and in detail his article, but when you need to go to a philosophy paper to read about what should be a household insight, something’s wrong. Clearly this isn’t, even among philosophers, old hat enough to have been condensed into something sufficiently digestible to make it into popular consciousness. They dig hard, but they don’t seem to have struck gold yet.

The classic “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is designed as a simple entry point into philosophical thought, because it gets people thinking about how words work and how they map onto reality[6]. That this works, as in, that it disrupts our habitual thinking patterns to confuse us and notice that confusion, instead of us quickly and effortlessly classifying it as a toy example of a matter of model, is to me a sign of failure.

If we’re not comfortable with such toy examples, how can we competently deal with real ones? Like, say, how to think about mental illness? Or any of the other hot-button model disputes we get into, such as whether Christmas is under attack, what genders there are (really, almost anything to do with gender), what racism means, who’s a true fan of something, who’s what and with whom in politics, what progress means and whether it’s happening, what’s cultural approriation is and is it bad, what is and isn’t political, ideological or propagandistic, who’s screwing over whom, and who’s a victim, hero, villain, sidekick, or mere obstacle.

This BBC radio series on disagreement is about how to argue constructively. Its second and third episodes are on matters of values and matters of fact. In a world where we were confortable with dealing with matters of model, it would have got its own episode.

• • •

Notes

[1]
Some would argue here that I shouldn’t lump in moral values with preferences, because they aren’t merely subjective. I’m not going to get into that. For the purposes of this post I’ll consider (moral) values subjective.

[2]
Choices of what to put in the same category, what to explain in what terms, what’s essential and what’s incidental, what to highlight and what to ignore, what to treat as central and peripheral, signal and noise, et cetera. Et cetera.

[3]
A major benefit (as I see it) could be that if you don’t cast disagreements as purely factual or preferential you lose some lazy ways to dismiss other people. With factual questions there’s a right answer, so you can just think people who disagree are wrong. Either they are entirely wrong or you are, and you are clearly not entirely wrong. No need to listen. And preferential issues are arbitrary, so while you can’t prove someone wrong as such, there’s no insight to gain by listening to them either.

[4]
I don’t think I’ve ever heard an English equivalent. I suppose the closest is “that’s not nothing” but it’s not quite the same and not as cute.

[5]
This comes from my spotty understanding of the good parts of post-structuralist ideas of language.

[6]
It can also be used to explore ideas like materialism vs. idealism and the existence of an external world and such, but I find that less interesting.

10 thoughts on “It’s Not So Only

  1. I participated quite a bit in the Scott / Bryan debate on this topic, and I think “matters of model” captures the distinction fairly well. It’s especially clear in this case because the model Bryan is using – rational choice theory – spells out most its assumptions explicitly. Rational choice theory assumes, for example, that preferences can be modeled as stable and well-ordered. Addiction was an example Bryan used – but most addicts don’t behave as though they have stable, well-ordered preferences. This isn’t purely a matter of definitions; there are matters of fact that make the rational choice model a poor fit for addiction.

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  2. I wrote the “I thought from the start” comment, and I don’t think I have any real disagreement with anything you said here either, at least in general terms; I may disagree about the particulars of what is involved in the Bryan / Scott argument.

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  3. Implicit in the debate is one important policy question: should preference utilitarians (which Scott and Bryan are both sympathetic toward) give more weight to a depressed person’s verbal desire to become un-depressed even at significant cost, or to their “revealed preference” to stay in bed every day instead of making appointments, exercising, etc?

    Also, I’m surprised you haven’t discussed Eliezer’s contribution to this meta-question: that such model debates (including both trees falling and free will, as explicit examples) are really about edge cases of slightly different clusterings of reality (on an example with some features of each cluster), which are significant when there’s an important way that one treats the clusters differently.

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    1. I haven’t read Eliezer in a long time so I guess I just forgot. This was a pretty quick piece. It is indeed important because it affects what we do, which is why values matter. However, you could theoretically not care about the implications and just want to capture reality accurately. You csn easily call that a value as well if you like, but it’s a different kind of value, in my mind, and don’t really fit with the other.

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    2. > Implicit in the debate is one important policy question: should preference utilitarians (which Scott and Bryan are both sympathetic toward) give more weight to a depressed person’s verbal desire to become un-depressed even at significant cost, or to their “revealed preference” to stay in bed every day instead of making appointments, exercising, etc?

      To me, the relevant policy question is whether we should give weight to a person’s verbal desires vs. just assuming what they want. I’m averse to calling mental things “diseases” or “disorders” because, to me, that implies that they’re necessarily things that people don’t want, and lets people dismiss/not consider the possibility that they’re wrong about that, which can be used to justify forcing or pressuring people into treatment they don’t want.

      …but if you’re right about what policy positions Scott and Bryan support (which seems to be the case, though I’m not sure), then I’m probably more on Scott’s side than Bryan’s, even though I’m superficially closer to Bryan’s (averse to calling mental things diseases and consider at least some “mental disorders” to be unusual desires); it seems we both think that people should be able to seek treatment if the want it and avoid treatment if they don’t, but perhaps differ on how important it is to argue against not being able to seek treatment vs. to argue against forced treatment. Calling mental issues diseases is helpful in arguing against the former, and calling them not diseases is helpful against the latter.

      (See also my first top-level comment on Scott’s post.)

      More generally: Perhaps part of the problem is that there are not only factual differences and preference conflicts, but also differences in what positions people are arguing *against*—and that in turn affects what aspects of definitions people consider important and what’s important to include in their model. And if there are many people on each side of an argument, it could be the case that the different positions people are arguing against all really do exist, and there isn’t one that’s the true representation of the other side and the rest that are just strawmen, and when people who have been involved in different arguments meet they end up misunderstanding each other—either because they have the same position but are expressing it differently, *or* because one has a position that the other doesn’t think anyone really has.

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  4. And here I thought your title was referring to Altenberg’s famous “Was ist so nur?” quip. I’ll bet a bunch of languages have some version of that use of “only” for “unimportant”.

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  5. >So, it’s really all subjective? No, that attitude is part of the problem. A “one drop” rule that says that as soon as something has elements of preference in it becomes completely subjective means we’ll miss a lot as well, because, despite rumors, there’s a real world out there with real patterns and regularities in it. Not having a perfectly objective answer doesn’t make something arbitrary. There are many valid ways to make a map of the London Underground, but none of them have Waterloo and Westminster on the same side of the river.

    Yes, it certainly seems some of the patterns are “more there” across all sorts fo preferences. But making this claim even just ordinally implies a measure over preferences. Where should that come from? Humans might be more likely to agree about salience than preferences, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem either.

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