Paths Forward

Every smart person knows you should be “open to discussion”. If there are better ideas than yours, you should learn them and change your mind. If you won’t reconsider your ideas, you’re irrational.

But discussions are frequently limited. Joe will end a discussion when Sue isn’t satisfied. She’ll accuse Joe of having a “closed mind”. Joe will claim he already won the debate and Sue just wouldn’t listen, or else say he doesn’t have time to answer everyone and everything. Sue will reply that Joe is evading her questions, criticisms and explanations which he’s unable to answer. How do you sort this mess out?

It’s important to be open to discussion so that your ideas can be questioned and refined, and so you can learn new things. You shouldn’t avoid criticism or innovative new ideas. It’s worth considering if your idea is mistaken or there’s a better idea.

But there are some reasonable limits. There are only 24 hours in a day. You can’t individually discuss everything with everyone. Nor can you be expected to learn the details of every speciality like medicine, logistics, management, chemistry, law, physics, programming, sales, marketing, art and engineering.

So, how do you know if you’re really open to discussion, or not? What are reasonable limits? What is evading discussion?

A limit on discussion is irrational if it blocks a path forward.

A Path Forward

A path forward is a good way that a problem, issue or disagreement can be solved, allowing the discussion to move forward. (The concept even works with self-discussions in your own mind.) They’re ways mistakes can be fixed. They’re ways progress happens and you learn, rather than getting stuck.

Paths forward depend not just on your ideas about an issue, but also your methods of thinking. How do you handle discussions? How do you handle disagreements? Are you blocking any ways for mistakes to be found or corrected?

Paths forward are individual. You should personally have paths forward for all of your ideas, and take responsibility for their quality.

If there’s no path forward for your idea, then if you’re mistaken you’ll never find out. Progress will never be made in your life, at least for that issue. (The issue may be more important than you know, and the flawed methods of thinking may apply to many other issues.) You could get stuck forever. You’re limiting discussion enough that you’re not open to discussion.

There are also bad paths forward. For example, if you try to think of everything yourself, that could theoretically succeed. You might figure everything out yourself. But that isn’t realistic, and would be unnecessarily difficult. The technical possibility that it could work doesn’t make it rational.

Another bad path forward is selectively considering ideas according to someone else’s judgment. Don’t use authority, social status, curation, moderation or gatekeepers instead of your own mind. That’s irresponsible. It’s seeking an excuse to reject ideas without answering them. You should put your energy into rational thinking instead of finding excuses not to.

It’s important to always keep a good path forward. It’s ideal if good ideas from anyone can help you. There should be some way for anyone to contribute a good idea they have, so no innovations are blocked. The point of being open to discussion is to learn what others know.

If you have a bad idea but no one knows what’s wrong with it, that’s a tough situation. If you’re really clever maybe you can figure it out. Try, but it’s understandable not to make a breakthrough. But if someone does know better, there should be a path for you to find out.

If someone has a point which you haven’t answered, and you refuse to listen for any reason, then you’re irrational. You’re not open to discussion; there isn’t a path forward.

Whatever limits you place on your openness to discussion, they must not block paths forward.

Discussion

Paths forward work by discussion. If there’s no communication of any kind, how can good ideas reach you?

For discussions to make progress, there should be a back-and-forth. Question, answer. Criticism, answer. Argument, answer. Claim, answer. Explanation, answer.

A good answer is any response that is part of a path forward. If you have a solution with no known problems, great. But any answer that contributes to progress, and doesn’t block off further discussion, is fine. Intellectual discussions usually require many small steps to get very far.

Often, discussions are more complicated than back-and-forth. There might be a group of people. Someone might answer their own question. But the basic structure of a discussion is that issues are brought up and people try to answer them.

If any issues with your ideas don’t get answers, that’s blocking paths forward you could have had. Every issue is an opportunity to potentially learn something. Trying to answer issues is how you can improve your mind. There might be an important point there. Ignoring it is irrational.

There’s no way to judge ideas other than discussion. A rational discussion can evaluate an idea. Nothing else can. Rational discussions are open-ended meaning there are always paths forward if anyone has any new ideas about the topic. Any other way of dealing with ideas is irrational because it would reject some correct idea.

Saving Time

So, how can we have good paths forward open to all ideas (without ignoring any) even though we can’t talk with everyone individually? How do we filter through all the bad and irrelevant ideas?

The main technique is: It doesn’t matter when an answer was written, or by who. It only matters if it answers an issue, or not.

You can reuse answers that were already written down in the past, by you or others. And you don’t have to answer something if someone else does.

Most bad ideas get pretty repetitive. People will keep bringing up the same points over and over. That’s fine. They don’t know better. You can deal with it by answering the issue once, then after that refer people to your existing answer.

This approach is easy to misuse. Sometimes you ask someone a question and they say, “Read my book”, but then you read their book and it doesn’t actually answer your specific question. Then you tell them about the problem and they say, “Read my other book”. But instead of reading it, you ask them to give you a quote and a page number that talks about your question. Then they don’t answer, or say they’re too busy. So you recognize they’re irrational and not open to discussion. There’s no path forward in that situation. That’s sad.

Whether an answer is old or new, you need to make sure it actually answers the issue. You might get this wrong sometimes, but you better make a serious effort. Don’t just vaguely recommend a whole book on a similar topic and pretend it’s an answer.

If your answer has a flaw, that’s alright. Someone (including you) can consider that issue and fix it. There’s still a path forward. You can’t expect all your initial ideas to be perfect. The important thing is the discussion can continue and ideas can be improved without limit.

If there are good ideas already written down (or in any format which allows reuse), then you can save lots of time. If there aren’t (reusable) answers yet, then the issues people are raising are worth taking some time to answer properly. Contributing your answers to the discussion lets others learn from those answers or tell you issues that you didn’t know about.

Good Answers

Answers shouldn’t be judged by who wrote them or when. What are good ways to judge them?

Consider whether an answer is true or false. You should always be looking for mistakes. But you won’t always spot mistakes. An answer can be a good path forward even if it’s mistaken, since the mistake could be pointed out and progress could still be made.

Being right and being rational are different things. Try to be right, but don’t expect to always be right. But being rational is something you should always do. Rationality is about changing your mind if you’re wrong, being open to discussion, and keeping a good path forward.

So, what can we look for to judge whether answers allow a rational path forward?

  • Public Accessibility

    If answers aren’t public, then lots of people might know about an issue with them but never get the chance to say so. To be open to rational discussion, you have to expose your ideas to public criticism, not just discuss with a limited group of people.

  • Written Format

    Writing is the best format for answers. It’s easy to share publicly, quote, edit, and read at your own pace. Writing lets people analyze every detail, and it keeps records of the whole history of discussion. It’s fine to have discussions in other formats, but if you think an answer is really important and you want people to take it seriously, you should write it down.

  • Clarity and Context

    Quality answers are written very clearly. People should be able to tell what it’s saying, and why, without having to ask a lot of questions.

    Answers should also explain what issue they’re answering and how they answer it. Leaving out the issue in question is a common mistake. An answer doesn’t really make sense by itself, it needs an issue to answer.

    The context and history of the issue should be available. The limits or known flaws of the answer should be explained. Other answers to the issue should be considered and their flaws pointed out. (Any of this can be done by a reference if it’s explained somewhere else. Repetition isn’t needed.)

    All of this keeps discussions clear and organized. This becomes especially important on difficult topics where progress is achieved using hundreds of steps.

  • Personal Individual Responsibility

    For you to have a path forward, you need your own answers. You don’t have to write them yourself, but you have to treat them as your own answers which you’re fully responsible for. If a mistake is found, you were mistaken. If someone has a question about an answer, he’s questioning you, and it’s your responsibility to see that the question is answered.

    If you didn’t write an answer and want to use it, you need to endorse it. You need to answer any issues with it. If you aren’t taking responsibility for an answer, then it isn’t actually a path forward for you.

  • Big Ideas

    The best answers deal with general principles. They try to say something important. They’re powerful enough to answer entire categories of issues. Special cases and exceptions are a bad sign which should be minimized.

    Some people try to avoid being wrong by making small claims, which are hard to criticize because there’s so little content to discuss. That’s a mistake. You can’t learn much unless you’re willing to risk saying something that matters. Refusing to try is a way to block your paths forward.

Topics

Broad interests are generally a good idea, but no one can consider everything or find all the connections between topics. You can’t learn about everything, but you can learn about ideas relevant to you and your interests.

A breakthrough in physics might require revising a chemistry theory, so chemists need to know about it. A new idea about art might lead to improved marketing techniques, and marketers who find out will have an advantage. An idea about organizing information could help people in any field. Ideas about rational discussion and paths forward are important to everyone.

Look for ways other topics are relevant to your interests. Keep an open mind to the possibility that fields other than your own are useful. But don’t expect to find everything. If someone raises an issue you think is irrelevant, ask them about how it’s relevant, instead of ignoring the issue. Or tell them why it’s irrelevant in order to expose your reasoning to criticism.

You should be interested in the topic of what’s relevant to you. That is relevant to you. If you won’t discuss which topics to discuss, you’re not discussing in a rational, open-ended way capable of making unbounded progress.

Discussing which topics to discuss creates a path for good ideas to reach you. If an idea is relevant, and someone else knows why, there’s a two-step path forward there. You can find out about the relevance first, and then the idea.

Helping Others

Rational paths forward benefit you. They also help others. Answering issues provides a way for other people to learn (especially when it’s on a webpage). And the more they learn, the better they will be at figuring out innovative new ideas that are valuable to you.

There’s an interesting symmetry here. Whenever you discuss a disagreement with someone, you don’t know who will be right. Maybe you’ll be right and teach him something. Maybe he’ll be right and teach you something. Or maybe you’ll both be mistaken and cooperate to figure out a better idea. You only find out who was helping who after the discussion, in retrospect. Before the discussion is finished, you’re in symmetric positions and don’t know who is giving or receiving help.

But actually, rational discussion helps everyone. There are lots of ways to learn from any discussion. For example, you can learn how to explain your good ideas more clearly.

The important thing is not to assume you’re right before a disagreement is discussed. Go into discussions curious, hoping to learn something new. Have a little humility. Remember that some of your ideas are mistakes, and you don’t know which they are. Answering issues can help others, and it also allows a path forward for dealing with your mistakes.

If you won’t answer an issue, you’re not only denying the other guy any help, you’re irrationally blocking your own path forward. Helping others and helping yourself actually involve exactly the same actions: rational discussion that keeps paths forward open.

Summary So Far

Human knowledge can make progress in ongoing, public, written discussions which reuse answers where appropriate and never ignore any issues without answering them. Anyone can contribute to these discussions. For topics that are well understood, most bad ideas will already have answers written down.

Being open to discussion is necessary to being a rational person. You can tell if you’re limiting discussion irrationally by whether you personally have paths forward which you take responsibility for. Your paths forward can cover all relevant topics because you can be open to discussion about what is relevant. And this won’t take too much time because any issue either already has an answer or else is worth the time to answer.

Examples

To help apply the idea of a path forward in real life situations, let’s consider some examples.

  • Suppose I give a vague answer. That’s bad because I have’t really answered the issue. There’s no way for that to lead to progress. All you can do is say it’s vague, say it’s unclear how my answer answers the issue, and ask me to give a better answer. If my statement is bad enough all you can do is ask for a better one, but the discussion doesn’t actually make forward progress, then that isn’t a good path forward.

    It’s important to be really forgiving though. If I say something vague, maybe I just don’t know better. Maybe I thought it wasn’t vague for some mistaken reason that I could be corrected about. Or you could even be mistaken that it’s vague.

    Don’t give up on people just because they make a mistake. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Tell them that being vague (or whatever else) is a problem, and ask if they’d like to try again. Offer them a reference to read that can help them learn to discuss better. Give them a path forward even though they messed up. And by approaching it that way, there’s also a path forward in case actually you’re misjudging the situation.

  • Suppose you write a long argument and I reply pointing out one issue, and I don’t read the whole thing. Good or bad? It’s fine because there’s a path forward. It may be a bad idea to go through all your points in order. If you have good stuff, answer the issue I brought up, then we’ll continue. A path forward can work fine with many small steps, one by one.

    Some readers will be objecting that you have to read a whole argument to understand any part of it. But usually you don’t. In the cases where someone reads too little, tell them that the issue they’re raising is answered later. Give them a quote or page number. That’s not very hard. If you do that you’ve answered what they said; if you don’t then you haven’t.

    After the issue I point out is resolved, what next? That depends. If you made a big mistake, you may need to revise your whole argument, or even change your conclusion. If I made a mistake, I could continue reading and better understand what it’s saying now that I’ve learned something. If you made a small mistake, like having a confusing sentence, you could just fix that one part, and then I could continue reading to answer other issues you bring up.

    If I point out one issue with your ideas, that’s a good test. If you react irrationally, now I know a rational discussion isn’t available.

    Even one issue is important because one issue can potentially ruin the whole thing. If you address the issue or explain why it’s an isolated issue, then your other ideas become issues for me again, and I should continue.

  • Suppose I bring up an issue and you don’t answer. You’re silent. That’s bad. There’s no path forward.

    You might think you have an answer. But if you don’t give the answer, then no one is going to learn anything. If your answer is so great, write it down once and then provide it when it comes up. Then it will be exposed to public criticism and maybe one day someone will tell you a problem with it. Or people can learn about it and maybe tell you a way to make it even better.

    Silence blocks off all the good paths forward like you learning something, me learning something, or both. It’s irrational.

  • When I read something, often part of it is confusing. This may be my fault or the writer’s fault. It doesn’t really matter. Anyone who is using this as one of their answers is responsible for clarifying. They shouldn’t be using something unclear as an answer. If I ask a clarifying question, that is a path forward. If no one answers, then everyone who uses that material is blocking the path forward and is irrational.

    Clarifying questions should be welcomed. They help make answers better. The answer can be updated to be clearer. Then in the future this particular clarifying question won’t be asked. Rather than complaining that clarifying is a lot of work, fix things. If your answer isn’t clear, it’s not very good and you should be happy to improve it. Don’t have low standards for the quality of ideas you’re satisfied with.

  • Some people say they’re too busy to answer things. But why aren’t there high quality prewritten answers they can refer to and take responsibility for? If you’re too busy to write new answers, so what? Use existing answers. If there aren’t existing answers written down and you’re too busy to write an answer, don’t claim to have an answer. Don’t think, “I know the answer. It’s just not written anywhere and I’m too busy to write it”. If you do that, there’s no path forward, and you’re an irrational person who isn’t open to discussion.

    People might already have a refutation of your idea that you haven’t written down. If you were open to discussion, they could tell you. Blocking people from correcting you is incompatible with progress and learning. It’s not a path forward.

  • Sometimes I might say, “What you’re talking about conflicts with theme X I read in book Y that I thought was good. What do you think?” Is that a good answer? It doesn’t answer everything and it’s short. But it does provide a path forward. The person can say whether they agree or disagree with X, and why. The discussion can make progress.

    It’s fine to have big picture concerns. It’s fine to wonder how an idea connects with some other idea you think matters. It’s fine to bring up ideas that are in books. If the other guy already knows about this issue, he can answer immediately, no problem. If he doesn’t know about this, maybe he should. He should either investigate the issue or explain why he thinks it’s irrelevant. All of these are good outcomes.

    How ideas connect with each other is really important. Some ideas I advocate seem to contradict what people already think they know. I should explain why either it doesn’t actually contradict, or why their thinking is mistaken.

    Understanding relationships between ideas helps us understand them better and is a great issue to raise. Discussing those issues is a good path forward.

  • Some people say, “I studied this issue, you don’t know anything”. This provides no path forward. What if you studied it and reached a wrong answer? If you learned so much from your studying, then you should already have a really good answer. Share it.

    I don’t care that you studied something. I care if your studies led to actual results that you’re willing to contribute to a discussion. If you don’t do that, your studies don’t have a rational path forward.

  • Some people say, “I’m a psychiatrist and you’re a philosopher. Some of what you say is irrelevant to my field, and other stuff is mistaken, which you would know if you learned psychiatry.” This statement doesn’t provide any path forward.

    Which points are irrelevant, and why? We could discuss relevance. What would I have learned if I studied psychiatry, specifically? Bring up some ideas, provide answers about the topic. It often works well to explain an idea in your field briefly and what it’s consequences are (such as how it wins the argument for you), and then refer people to a book for the details of why that idea is true.

    If my points are wrong because I don’t know your field, show me some writing which explains this. Instead of calling me ignorant, refer me to answers. Then I can learn more, or explain mistakes with your answers, or both.

    And if you don’t have any pre-written answers that apply to the specific issues I’m raising, then that’s interesting. Why has no one in your field ever answered these issues (in a reusable way)? Improve your field’s literature instead of making irrational excuses to end discussion.

Extended Example: The Busy Intellectual

Some people are super awesome. They’re so smart they get really popular and everyone wants to discuss with them. They’re so flooded with issues, they don’t even have time to refer everyone to pre-written answers. What can they do?

These amazing people need discussion places. Instead of having individual discussions with everyone, there can be group discussion. At the discussion place, many people can give answers. People who partly understand the busy intellectual’s work, and want to learn more, will answer some issues.

If you’re a busy intellectual, and I have an issue with your work, set things up so that I can get an answer at your discussion place. That is a path forward.

It doesn’t matter if you own or created the discussion place. It doesn’t matter if your work is the only topic discussed there. What matters is that all issues actually get answered, and that you take responsibility for this.

The best discussion places are public, online, and use writing. That makes the discussion open to more people and keeps track of what’s said. A great approach is an email discussion list, which handles nested quoting and notifications well, and can keep long discussions organized over time.

How people use quoting plays a big role in whether a discussion place is good. Without quotes, people forget the context of ideas, talk past each other, reply to things that weren’t said, and discuss vaguely.

(If you’re interested in learning at a good discussion place, you should join the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group.)

Good discussion places also do not moderate (block) contributions for “low quality”, or for much of anything besides being automated non-human spam. Moderation policies are a way to keep some ideas out of the discussion, without answering them, even though those ideas could be correct. Moderation prevents some ideas from being discussed and answered. It’s irrational (and authoritarian).

Now imagine you’re a busy intellectual and some issue is brought up, but no one answers it. You’ve got a nice discussion place that answers some issues, but not this one. Then you need to either answer it (or else consider it an unanswered issue). If your thinking has an unanswered issue, you should reconsider it. Try to fix the problem, but also consider other ideas. There’s only a path forward for your thinking if you take responsibility for every unanswered issue.

The discussion place approach saves a lot of time. Many issues can be answered by others who are trying to learn. In the manageable number of cases where an issue isn’t answered, you can quickly refer people to a pre-written answer. If that happens too much, you should consider writing better material. That way, people can understand your answers better and talk about them with less intervention from you.

On the other hand, if no one is interested in discussing your ideas, then you may have to answer everything yourself. In that case, you aren’t actually a busy intellectual getting flooded with inquiries.

You don’t necessarily have to read everything at your discussion place. You just have to take responsibility for everything. You can monitor discussion and see that issues are getting answered. When a particular topic gets a lot of discussion, take a look. If someone doesn’t get an answer but isn’t persistent about moving the discussion forward, that’s his fault. He should make an effort to resolve disagreements, not just give up immediately. Watch for this if you have time, but you can’t help everyone.

There are ways to monitor your discussion place efficiently. Watch for people who give lots of good answers. When they don’t know the answer to an issue (it doesn’t matter if they thought of the issue or someone else did), pay closer attention. If no one else gives an answer as good as you could have given, answer the issue yourself.

Big picture: If there’s nowhere that people with criticisms, questions or other issues can get answers from you or regarding your ideas, then you aren’t open to discussion. If there is somewhere but it’s not very good, you aren’t open to discussion. If there is somewhere and you take responsibility for its quality and participate as needed, then you’re open to discussion.

When do you personally need to participate? Whenever there won’t be a path forward unless you participate. You need to take responsibility for making sure there are always paths forward for all issues. If you do that you’re rational, and if you don’t you’re irrational.

Extended Example: The Content Guy

Some people are pretty happy. They think their life is pretty good. They don’t really feel the need for a path forward because they’re content with what they already have. Usually they do try to make progress in a few areas like their career or a favorite hobby, but they don’t have a path forward for everything. They don’t really want to be intellectuals. They know they aren’t open to discussion about everything, but so what?

They might be wrong! Maybe their whole lifestyle is a mistake. Maybe they’re suffering and don’t realize it. Maybe what they think is happiness isn’t very good, and a much better kind of happiness is possible. Maybe they have huge problems which they’re blind to.

It’s important to be intellectual enough to improve your life. There should be a path forward to a better life.

If someone raises an intellectual issue, you can ask how it’s relevant to you. Say you don’t just want knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but improving your life would interest you.

If you’re content with your life, lots of intellectual ideas aren’t relevant to you. Keep doing your thing. But some are relevant. If someone explains how something is relevant, it’s important to discuss it.

You may think something would be relevant if it were true, but you consider it false. But how do you know? You’re not an intellectual. Unless you have rational path forwards to find out about all your mistaken ideas, you shouldn’t trust your judgment about what’s false.

If you aren’t interested in something because you think it’s false, that’s a big mistake. You need to be open to discussion. What if it’s true? If you won’t consider it, there’s no path forward and you’ll be wrong forever. You need to be intellectual enough not to block off progress.

You may think if you aren’t aware of a problem, it can’t be that big a deal. You’re wrong. People actually put a lot of effort into hiding their problems from themselves. People put lots of energy into pretending their problems don’t exist. People refuse to admit problems exist, and make up excuses for why stuff isn’t that bad.

(I’m not giving any examples here on purpose. Short examples of problems people deny won’t be convincing. People will deny the examples are problems, or deny they personally have that problem. If you want examples, read my websites or ask.)

Some people pretend something isn’t a problem if they have an argument (which they aren’t open to discussion about) for why that problem is an inevitable part of life. Rather than solve the problem, they tell themselves a better life isn’t possible. Then, believe it or not, they will claim they’re content with their life. Almost everyone does this sometimes.

Still doubt it? No problem. There are answers already written. The link discusses the issue of your life having big problems you aren’t aware of. That is relevant to you. You should be interested. You should react in a way that has a path forward in case I’m right about this.

If you read my answers and think I’m wrong, don’t react with silence. Then there’s no path forward in case you actually you misunderstood something. What if I’m right? Want to bet your life on this? Instead of ignoring this disagreement, point out at least one issue with what I’m saying. Contribute a step to the discussion. Then there’s a path forward, step by step. (The best place to discuss is at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group. You can also email me at .)

Conclusions

Rational people are open to discussion because they recognize they may be wrong about some important things. Many people claim to be open to discussion, but limit it. You can judge whether limits are rational or irrational by whether they keep a path forward open or not.

A path forward is a way progress can happen, a way disagreements can be resolved, a way learning can take place. There should be paths forward so that any improvement can reach you, no matter who thought of it. (As long as it’s relevant to your life. But make sure there are paths forward for improving your understanding of what is relevant to you and what is a good life.)

Don’t make irrational excuses. You’re not too busy to deal with paths forward. Your life is not so problem-free that no progress could help. Never say (or act like), “I’m too busy to proceed in a rational way” or “I’m happy with my life, I don’t need reason”.

Take responsibility for your paths forward. Don’t assume “scientists” or other authorities have it covered for you. Don’t trust someone else to be rational for you. Consider important ideas. Use paths forward involving clear public writing with context.

If you agree, start making changes to become more rational. If you think you already do this perfectly, put that to the test in some discussions at the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group. Or if you disagree, you should be open to discussion about why that is, if nothing else. If you won’t even discuss your reasons for not having paths forward, you’re irrational.

Thinking in terms of paths forward is an opportunity to be more rational. You can have better discussions and a better life.

By Elliot Temple, June 2014 |

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