Less Wrong, the State, and the Trend

There’s a loosely-affiliated community of aspiring rationalists called the Less Wrongers. The old website which was the focal point of the group is http://www.lesswrong.com and the new site, just a couple of months old (the beta version went live in September), is http://www.lesserwrong.com. The community’s goal is to learn how to think better.

A lot of the people in the community strike me as kind of fuck-witted, and all of them strike me as fuck-witted at least some of the time, and there is the usual problem of objective institutions not being a Nash Equilibrium, i.e., they are infiltrated, hollowed out, and converged by people with agendas wearing the original organization as a skinsuit.

BUT:

They are continually improving. They’re already notably more mentally competent, on average, than they were just a few years ago. The rate of change is certainly positive and significantly away from zero. This community, for good and ill, will bear watching.

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More on the ad hominem “fallacy”

In my previous post I argued that ad hominem and tu quoque arguments are not always fallacious. I want to be clear that I am not saying, to those who claim they’re always fallacious, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re a bunch of eggheads, so I’m gonna ignore you.” I’m saying, “You’re wrong.”

Now dweebs with no intellectual self-confidence will say, “Dear God, you can’t disagree with textbooks, man! They’re textbooks!

I can, in fact, disagree with textbooks when they make statements that are ragingly moronic. And I did so in my last post.

Today I want to provide a different, more explicitly rigorous argument refuting the notion that argument ad hominem is always fallacious. I will do this by providing an argument that is both ad hominem, and logically sound. I will also note, for those who collapse in spasms of fear at the idea of disagreeing with actual textbooks!!! that the kind of argument I am going to present is common in the academic literature, including Economics, Psychology, and, hilariously, Philosophy. The Philosophy one is hilarious because the fuck-witted “Ad hominem is a fallacy!” stuff appears in textbooks for Logic classes, which are typically taught by… Philosophy departments.

Here’s the example argument, casual version:

“Joe said that a meteor is bound for Chicago and will kill everyone in the city in an hour or so. Yet he’s calmly sitting here in Chicago with his feet up on the ottoman, sipping a Riesling. So obviously there’s no meteor.”

This is good enough as a counterexample. In other words, I’m refuting Joe’s assertion not by attacking his assertion (not directly), but by stating something about Joe. That is, speaking precisely, an argument ad hominem – “against the man” – and the argument is valid, not fallacious.

But just for thrills, let’s disassemble it and lay all the parts out. I am going to be careful but not anal-retentive about it; professional logicians are welcome to fill in the blanks even more carefully if they want to.

Assumptions:

1. Joe wants to live as an overriding priority. (He may also want other things, but remaining alive is priority numero uno.)
2. Joe is capable of assessing evidence pertaining to the existence and trajectories of meteors (note that if he’s not, nothing he says about the alleged meteor is credible anyway), such that he will believe a meteor is approaching if and only if there is evidence that a meteor is approaching.
3. Joe knows of at least one way to get beyond the meteor’s blast range, and to do so soon enough to remain alive.
4. Joe knows that, if there is a meteor, he will live if and only if he gets outside the blast range soon enough.
5. All methods for being outside the blast range soon enough require that Joe begin to travel immediately.

First conclusion, which follows from 1, 3, 4, and 5:

6. If Joe believes there is an impending meteor, he will begin to move immediately.

Second conclusion, which follows from 6 and 2:

7. If the evidence suggests there is meteor approaching, Joe will begin to move immediately.

Observation:

8. Joe is not moving; he is calmly sitting on his complacent ass in his Lakeside Drive apartment.

Third conclusion, which follows from 7 and 8:

9. The evidence does not suggest there is a meteor approaching.

Let’s re-write 7 – 9 more tersely:

A. If there is meteor evidence, Joe is moving.
B. Joe is not moving.
C. Therefore there is no meteor evidence.

If someone tells you this is an ad hominem fallacy, your only option, as a civilized individual, is to give them a wedgie. There’s nothing else you can really do.

The argument is not fallacious. It is correct.

Again, I want to emphasize for the intellectually pious that the foregoing kind of argument is entirely standard in various branches of the academic literature.

Additionally: If you say X is true because a textbook author asserted it, you’re making an ad hominem argument. This variant of it is usually dubbed “appeal to authority,” but it’s simply the other side of the same coin. In other words, ad hominem is usually interpreted to mean,

“(Something about the author of an argument) ➞ the argument is wrong.”

While an appeal to authority is simply,

“(Something about the author of an argument) ➞ the argument is right.”

Therefore, those who would claim that ad hominem is a fallacy, and cite textbooks as support for this claim, are, in technical terms, fucking themselves over. You tell me, doofuses: Are ad hominem arguments valid or not? Double bind, bitchez!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Xtra credit for nerdlingers: Put A – C in proposition/contrapositive form.

ANSWER KEY!!!

Using symbolic logic with arrow indicating implication and tilde (~) meaning “not”:

The statement

A ➞ B

implies the contrapositive statement

~B ➞ ~A.

For example,

If something is a cat, then it is a mammal.
implies
If something is not a mammal, then it is not a cat.

Thus:

Proposition:
Meteor evidence ➞ Joe is moving.
Therefore, by the contrapositive:
~Joe is moving ➞ ~Meteor evidence.

When a “fallacy” is not a fallacy

A standard assertion in propositional logic textbooks is that tu quoque (roughly, “you do it too”) and ad hominem (arguing “against the man”) are logical fallacies. This is the received wisdom, which is wrong. They are not always fallacious.

I am going to refute this silliness, discussing both “fallacies” in the same post because, while they’re distinct in principle, they often travel together in practice. E.g., both often come up in political debates.

1. Tu quoque is not a fallacy when were are faced with two choices and must choose one. E.g., Suppose that in some election our only realistic choices are a Democrat and a Republican. If a Dem supporter points out that the Republican candidate has killed someone, it is perfectly reasonable for a Rep supporter to point out that the Democrat candidate has also killed someone.

That’s because the question we’re debating is not “What’s right or wrong?” but “Which of the two options should we elect?” Our choices are often about the lesser of two evils, and we should vote, not for the candidate who is perfect, which is not an option, but for the candidate who is the best available choice.

2. We also often hear argument ad hominem as an alleged fallacy. But argument ad hominem is only fallacious under certain conditions.

An example of an ad hominem argument that really is fallacious would be “Pythagoras really wanted the Pythagorean Theorem to be true, therefore, due to his bias, the theorem is wrong.” Whether he wanted it to be true is not relevant. Just look at the theorem’s assumptions and determine if the conclusion follows from them.

This is all very well if we are just deducing the logical implications of a set of assumptions. But that’s rarely what is going on in real-world discussions like political discussions.

Consider: “The New York Times, and leftists and general, have consistently lied in the past, therefore there is a high probability that their assertions about matters of fact today are lies.”

This is not fallacious. It’s simple reality. In fact, it’s an example of something that those same logic textbooks will tell you is a valid kind of reasoning: Inductive reasoning. Indeed, to deny it is to say, “You cannot form beliefs based on what you’ve observed in the past.” To deny it is to say, “No matter how many times the boy cries wolf and turns out to be lying, you cannot validly conclude that he’s lying this time.” Sorry, wrong. You can, validly, conclude that. In fact you must conclude it based on the evidence.

So we have, “The New York Times says President Trump made a racist statement,” and my reaction is just going to be “They’re lying.” Based on experience, it’s literally hundreds of times more likely that they’re lying than that they’re telling the truth. This is not engaging in an ad hominem fallacy; it’s forming your beliefs based on evidence.

In your life you will encounter plainly false assertions from obviously untrustworthy sources immeasurably more often than you will encounter proofs of mathematical theorems. (This is true even for mathematicians, let alone everybody else.)

3. Another reason ad hominem is not always a fallacy: People’s actions reveal their beliefs and therefore something about their information. If someone tells me that he believes Chicago is going to be obliterated by a meteor tomorrow, but he continues to stay in Chicago, I can infer that he doesn’t really believe it. Whatever facts he knows have not actually convinced him that there’s an impending meteor. If he says, “Here are 50 pages of evidence that there’s an onrushing meteor,” I’m logically correct to say, “You’re staying in Chicago, so I can infer that the 50 pages contain no convincing evidence of a meteor.” So no, I’m not going to waste hours pouring over your alleged “evidence.”

This, of course, takes me to an old video game called Road Rash. “Finally!” you say. “I was wondering when he was going to get to Road Rash.” Road Rash was a motorcycle race game from the early 1990s. You were a biker on a motorcycle and you’d compete against other, digital bikers animated by the game. It had the following interesting feature: The game had hills, and occasionally a car would come at you in the opposing lane – which you’d be in because you were trying to pass another biker – from over a hill. Of course, you couldn’t see the car, so you’d get smeared by it. UNLESS! you had a couple of the digital bikers ahead of you. If they were near the top of the hill, they’d all move over into the right lane all of a sudden, because they could see the car. That told you that you’d better get over to the right as well. That is, you were inferring something that the other bikers knew based on their behavior.

These other bikers never spoke, but if they did, one can imagine them all getting over to the right, even as they said to you, over their shoulder, “Don’t worry; there’s no oncoming car!”

“Bullshit,” you’d say, “you’re getting over to the right so I’m getting over to the right!” This is both tu quoque and ad hominem… but it sure as shit isn’t a fallacy. It is simple, undeniable reality.

A more real-world example:

Suppose some white leftist tells me he thinks “racial inclusiveness” is vital, and “segregated” neighborhoods are bigoted and evil. But he lives in an all-white or 95%-white neighborhood. I can infer that he himself doesn’t really believe that “inclusiveness” is important. This is logically relevant, because it shows that even a person with a strong emotional incentive to find convincing arguments for it, cannot find an argument that convinces him. I am therefore entitled to conclude that no convincing arguments exist.

Maybe there are convincing arguments, but I can validly conclude that it’s improbable. In fact, it’s VERY improbable, because human beings can convince themselves of the most astounding bullshit when they really want to. If a leftist can’t make himself believe X even when he really wants to, then X is very unlikely indeed.

Hordes of “intellectuals” will shriek, “But that’s ad hominem and therefore a fallacy!” which is why “intellectuals” are held in such low general esteem: Because so many soi-disant “intellectuals” are so nakedly stupid and intellectually dishonest.

The Mind Cannot Foresee Its Own Advance

There’s a proposition that if you’re rational, the future evolution of your beliefs is unpredictable to you.

This is relevant to everything, including, importantly, politics.

It’s easy to explain why it’s true:

Suppose you’re rational. Then anything that is predictable based on your current information, you have predicted. (Presumably you weren’t shocked when the sun rose this morning.) In other words, predictable events are already incorporated into your beliefs.

It follows that the only thing left to change your beliefs over time is new data that wasn’t predictable.

That immediately implies that if you’re rational, the future evolution of your beliefs over time is unpredictable to you.

(Thus the title of this post, a quote from economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek.)

Contrapositive: If you can predict the future evolution of your beliefs, you’re not rational.

The implications are kind of astounding.

For one thing, there’s an old notion that “social advancement” is objectively assessable, and we can predict how society’s views will evolve as society becomes more advanced. We do this by looking at the recent direction of changes in our beliefs, and inferring that in the future, they will continue to change in the same direction.

WROOOOOONG! (Insert grating buzzer sound here.)

If you’re thinking this way, you haven’t really understood your own notion of what it means to be advanced, if your notion of “advanced” involves rationality.

E.g., suppose in 1933 everyone had said, “Hey, we just repealed Prohibition! So obviously what a more advanced society than us would do, would be to go further in the same direction and FORCE everyone to drink alcohol!”

Ah, not so much, no.

While that example is fanciful, try this one:
In the past, it was illegal in some areas to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Now we’ve gotten rid of those laws, and some seem to think a straight-line extrapolation of that change implies that the next, more advanced step is to fine businesses for calling a woman a woman. Apart from the question of whether this is really a straight-line extrapolation of anything, that’s not the way to forecast society’s more advanced beliefs anyway.

Actually, if you’re rational, the path of your beliefs through belief space will be what’s called a random walk, or, more poetically, a drunken walk. That means that for your beliefs to change in any direction is equally likely, in an expected value sense. It won’t be a continuation of their past direction (except by coincidence).

See the link above for what a random walk looks like.

It looks like chaos.

This isn’t saying reality won’t be like the past – you can expect that Earth’s gravity will be tomorrow what it is today – it’s saying your beliefs’ future trend won’t necessarily be like their recent trend. In other words, if you revised your estimate of Earth’s gravity upward today, you can’t conclude that you’re probably going to revise it upward again tomorrow.

It’s easy to see why this has to be the case. Otherwise you’d say something like this:

“I currently believe Earth’s surface gravity is 9.81 meters per second per second, but I expect to receive new information tomorrow which will make me believe that it’s 9.82 meters per second per second.” That would be fucktarded, in technical terms. Obviously if you really anticipated that, then your current belief is that it’s 9.82!

An implication: If you’re not perpetually surprised by the changes in your own beliefs over time, you’re doing something wrong intellectually.

If you’re rational, every now and then the change to your beliefs will be very large. Some propositions that seem outrageous to you today will seem indisputable to you some number of years from now.