Re: How You Do Not Tell the Truth

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sat May 05 2001 - 13:45:48 MDT

Robin Hanson wrote:
> wrote:
> > [Y]our paper seems to come down pretty hard against the assumption
> > that people seek the truth, in the title and in most of the last part.
> OK, yes, we do take a position on that point.

I don't know about "seeking the truth", but one thing that has struck
me over the years is how amazingly cooperative people can be when
it comes to working together to reach some mutually-desired practical
goal. I'm a computer programmer, and I've been repeatedly amazed
that's it's possible for a group of several dozen software people,
of different national origins (American, Indian, Chinese, and Russian, say)
and with great divergence in their ability to produce what a magazine
editor or English teacher would consider polished prose, to nevertheless
get extremely complex ideas sufficiently well communicated to each other
(in broken English) to get the job very well done. It's rather a source of
optimism to see such a spectacle taking place, and it also nicely illustrates a
philosophical point about the significance of language that I've picked
up from my betters and retailed on this list -- namely, that words
and sentences are really (*) just a crude way for two or more human minds
to get pointed in more or less the same direction, after which a finer-grained
interaction with and knowledge of the world itself (the world of the
particular computer environment and user needs in question, in this example),
on the part of each individual, takes over and carries everybody the rest
of the way.

I imagine the **real** enterprise of scientific investigation, the part
that actually takes place at the leading edge and involves planning experiments,
interacting with laboratory equipment, analyzing the results, and actively
interpreting them to discover how they integrate into the body of existing
theory and knowledge in a field, is a lot more like participating
in a successful software project (or a well-run factory manufacturing
computers, cars, or tennis shoes) than it is like participating in a theological
debate or a lawsuit (though I'm sure there's plenty of the latter spirit at
conferences and in the clash of titanic egoes in the literature).

> > I've been reading some of the papers in your references, and the way
> > I see it now is that there is a process which must occur in order for
> > everyone to be mutually informed about each other's beliefs.
> Happy to see you reading on this. Most of the literature does deal with
> some stable end of a conversation, but one paper does not. See:
> "Disagreement is unpredictable"
> or .ps

When it comes to gassing off for pleasure (;->), or reading for pleasure,
it seems easy enough to sniff out sufficient information about your potential
interlocutor or contemplated choice of author to know in short order
whether the effort's going to have enough of a payoff to be worth
the bother.

With a possible conversational partner, there's the old trick of finding
out what kind of books that person likes. With a lot of the participants
on this list, the Web hands over this information gift-wrapped and tied
up in ribbons. For example, I can go to Eliezer's "Bookshelf" page
( ) and see that he's a fan
of Robert Wright. That speaks volumes (more than just the volume
mentioned ;-> ) about the kind of attractors in the memetic landscape
he's likely to be hanging out around. It means that if I were
ever to post a comment on the Extropians' containing the standard
sociobiological view of the relevance of parental investment to human
sexual psychology, I could probably count on Eliezer, at least, taking
my side (though my arguments would probably be coming out of
Donald Symons' _The Evolution of Human Sexuality_, the first book **I**
came across on the subject, rather than Robert Wright). On the other hand,
I wouldn't dare to post such an inflammatory remark on the Usenet newsgroup
soc.motss (I did once, back in 1989 I think -- it was a mistake then, and
it would be a mistake now).

Of course with Eliezer, as with other extremely smart people I
know, you can count on him putting a personal and perhaps
surprising spin on things, just for the sake of not giving the
game away! That sort of disagreement for independence's sake,
or just to keep things interesting, is not fatal to there being
a "stable end of a conversation", as long as there's implied
agreement about the basics.

An author is even easier -- you can go straight to the index of a book
you've picked up at Barnes & Noble, find a topic you know about, and
see what the author has to say about it.

> > When I was asking about disagreement above, I was talking about the
> > initial stage in this process, when you first discover that you have
> > different posterior [anterior?] beliefs. What is the best approach to resolve
> > the dispute? The methods I have seen so far (as in the paper above)
> > are quite impractical for human beings to apply IMO as they seem to
> > require excessively detailed knowledge about the state of the world.
> Practic[ing] rational reasoning involves lots of error-prone reasoning
> disciplined by meta-processes that look for and correct for systematic
> biases. talks more about this.
> Psychologists have studied this a lot. See "Metacognition" and the
> "flexible correction model". If you find that your disagreement is
> predictable, I think you should think of that as having uncovered a
> systematic bias to correct for. In general, you just [moor] your beliefs
> in the opposite direction from the bias you perceive.

Back in the 1970's, what I was a fan of behaviorism, it was a source
of great amusement to me (and a rather shocking revelation about
the nature of some kinds of intellectual discourse) to read transcripts
of "debates" between B. F. Skinner and "humanistic" or "third force"
(after behaviorism and psychoanalysis) psychologists like Carl Rogers.
It became clear after a while that Skinner and these people were
not even **trying** to come to grips with each other's arguments --
they were just talking past each other, on skew trajectories, in
a sort of formal ballet of discourse. They had long ago decided to
agree to disagree, and were just going through the motions for the
audience's sake. It reminds me a bit of a comment that Gerald Edelman
made in a _New Yorker_ interview, as reported by John McCrone:
"Interviewed in the _New Yorker_ magazine, Edelman said that the mainstream
of mind science -- dominated as it was by the computational model -- was
so far off the mark as to be 'not even wrong'." Now when **that** kind
of disagreement is constrained by good manners, you get either avoidance
of discussion, or a "debate" in the style of B. F. Skinner and
Carl Rogers. If it's not constrained by good manners, but still
taken deadly seriously, you get war.

Jim F.

(*) At least in the rough-and-tumble world of affairs, as opposed to language
as an aesthetic and artistic medium -- I guess a forum like this list is
more an example of the latter, amateurish as it may be, than the former.

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