Combat vs Nurture & Meta-Contrarianism

My ini­tial re­ac­tion to Com­bat vs Nur­ture was to think “I already wrote about that!” and “but there should be three clusters, not two”. How­ever, look­ing at my old posts, I see that my think­ing has shifted since I wrote them, and I don’t de­scribe the three clusters in quite the way I cur­rently would. So, here is how I think about it:

  • “Face Cul­ture” /​ “Play­ing Team”: When peo­ple offer ideas, their ego/​rep­u­ta­tion is on the line. It is there­fore im­por­tant to “rec­og­nize the value of ev­ery con­tri­bu­tion”—ac­cept­ing or re­ject­ing an idea has a strong un­der­cur­rent of ac­cept­ing or re­ject­ing the per­son offer­ing the idea. This some­times makes ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion im­pos­si­ble; the value of team mem­bers is greater than the value of the spe­cific de­ci­sion, so in­cor­po­rat­ing in­put from a team mem­ber can be a higher pri­or­ity than mak­ing the best de­ci­sion. Much of the time, bad ideas can be dis­carded, but it in­volves a dance of “due con­sid­er­a­tion”: an idea may be en­ter­tained for longer than nec­es­sary in or­der to sig­nal strongly that the team val­ued the in­put, and down­sides may be down­played to avoid mak­ing any­one look stupid. Even­tu­ally you want some­one on the team to point out a de­ci­sive down­side in or­der to re­ject a bad idea, but ideally you coax this out of the per­son who origi­nated the idea. (I called this “face cul­ture”, but I have heard peo­ple call it “play­ing team”.)

  • In­tel­lec­tual De­bate: It is as­sumed that en­gag­ing with an idea in­volves ar­gu­ing against it. Ap­prov­ing an idea doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily sig­nal any­thing bad, but un­like face cul­ture, ar­gu­ing against an idea doesn’t sig­nal any­thing bad ei­ther. Ar­gu­ing against some­one (gen­uinely or in a devil’s-ad­vo­cate po­si­tion) shows that you find the idea in­ter­est­ing and worth en­gag­ing with. Con­cepts like bur­den of proof are of­ten ap­plied; one tends to op­er­ate as if there were an ob­jec­tive stan­dard of truth which both sides of the de­bate are ac­countable to. This warps the epistemic stan­dards in a va­ri­ety of ways, for ex­am­ple, mak­ing it un­ac­cept­able to bring raw in­tu­itions to the table with­out putting them in jus­tifi­able terms (even if a raw in­tu­ition is your hon­est rea­son). How­ever, if you have to choose be­tween face cul­ture and in­tel­lec­tual de­bate cul­ture, in­tel­lec­tual de­bate is far bet­ter for mak­ing in­tel­lec­tual progress.

  • Mu­tual Cu­ri­os­ity & Ex­plo­ra­tion: I called this level “in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty” in my old post. This level is closer to the spirit of dou­ble crux or cir­cling. In this type of con­ver­sa­tion, there may still be some “sides” to de­bate, but ev­ery­one is on the side of the truth; there is no need for some­one to take one side or the other, ex­cept to the ex­tent that they hold some in­tu­itions which haven’t been con­veyed to oth­ers yet. In other words, it is more nat­u­ral to weave around offer­ing sup­port­ing/​con­trary ev­i­dence for var­i­ous pos­si­bil­ities, in­stead of stick­ing to one side and defend­ing it while at­tack­ing oth­ers. It is also more nat­u­ral for there to be more than two pos­si­bil­ities on the table (or more pos­si­bil­ities than peo­ple in the con­ver­sa­tion). Peo­ple don’t need to have any ini­tial dis­agree­ment in or­der to have this kind of con­ver­sa­tion.

Whereas Ruby’s Com­bat vs Nur­ture post put the two cul­tures on a roughly even foot­ing, I’ve ob­vi­ously cre­ated a hi­er­ar­chy here. But, the hi­er­ar­chy swings be­tween the two poles of com­bat and nur­ture. Ruby men­tioned that there’s a con­trar­ian as­pect to in­tel­lec­tual de­bate: the blunt­ness man­ages to be a coun­tersig­nal to the more main­stream nice­ness sig­nal, so that get­ting blunt re­sponses ac­tu­ally sig­nals so­cial ac­cep­tance. Yet, Ruby also men­tions that the cul­ture amongst bay area ra­tio­nal­ists is pri­mar­ily nur­ture cul­ture, seem­ingly al­ign­ing with the main­stream rather than the con­trar­ian com­bat cul­ture. I ex­plain this by offer­ing my three-layer cake above, with mu­tual cu­ri­os­ity and ex­plo­ra­tion be­ing the meta-con­trar­ian po­si­tion. Although it can be seen as a re­turn to nur­ture cul­ture, it still sig­nifi­cantly differs from what I call face cul­ture.

I’ve said this be­fore, and I’ll say this again: plac­ing these con­ver­sa­tion cul­tures in a hi­er­ar­chy from worse to bet­ter does not mean that you should frown on “lower” strate­gies. It is very im­por­tant to meet a con­ver­sa­tion at the level at which it oc­curs, re­spect­ing the games of face cul­ture if they’re be­ing played. You can try to gen­tly move a con­ver­sa­tion in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion, but a big part of the point of my origi­nal post on this stuff was to say that the un­der­ly­ing cause of differ­ent con­ver­sa­tional prac­tices is the level of in­tel­lec­tual trust pre­sent. Face cul­ture is a way to man­age con­ver­sa­tions where peo­ple lack com­mon knowl­edge of trust (and per­haps lack ac­tual trust), so must sig­nal care­fully. In­tel­lec­tual de­bate re­quires a level of safety such that you don’t think an ar­gu­ment is a per­sonal at­tack. Yet, at the same time, in­tel­lec­tual de­bate is a way of man­ag­ing a dis­cus­sion in which you can’t trust peo­ple to be de­tached from their own ideas; you ex­pect peo­ple to be bi­ased in fa­vor of what they’ve pro­posed, so you em­brace that dy­namic and con­struct a for­mat where in­tel­lec­tual progress can hap­pen any­way. The level of mu­tual cu­ri­os­ity and ex­plo­ra­tion can only be reached when there is trust that ev­ery­one has some abil­ity to get past that bias. (Ac­tu­ally, dou­ble crux seems like a bridge be­tween in­tel­lec­tual de­bate and mu­tual ex­plo­ra­tion, since it still leans heav­ily on the idea of peo­ple tak­ing sides.)

Hav­ing es­tab­lished a meta-con­trar­ian hi­er­ar­chy, we can ex­tend the idea fur­ther. This stretches things a bit, and I’m less con­fi­dent that the five lev­els which fol­low line up with re­al­ity as well as the three I give above, but it seems worth men­tion­ing:

  • 0. Open Ver­bal Com­bat: This is the “lower” level which face cul­ture is a re­ac­tion to. Here, ev­ery­one’s ego is out in the open. There is still a ve­neer of plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity around in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty: ar­gu­ments would be mean­ingless if no one re­spected the truth at all and only ar­gued what was con­ve­nient to them in the mo­ment. How­ever, at this level, that’s al­most ex­clu­sively what’s hap­pen­ing. Even in cases where it looks like ar­gu­ments are be­ing re­spected for their un­de­ni­able force, there’s a lot of sta­tus dy­nam­ics in play; peo­ple are re­act­ing to who they can ex­pect to be on their side, and logic only has force as a co­or­di­nat­ing sig­nal.

  • 1. Face Cul­ture.

  • 2. In­tel­lec­tual De­bate.

  • 3. Mu­tual Cu­ri­os­ity.

  • 4. Ex­chang­ing Gears: Once ev­ery­one has a com­mon frame­work of mu­tual cu­ri­os­ity, in which ex­chang­ing in­tu­itions is ac­cept­able and val­ued rather than steam­rol­led by at­tempts at ob­jec­tivity, then a fur­ther evolu­tion is pos­si­ble, which in­volves a slight shift back to­wards com­bat cul­ture. At this level, you don’t even worry very much about de­cid­ing on the truth of things. The fo­cus is on ex­chang­ing pos­si­ble mod­els; you trust that ev­ery­one will go and ob­serve the world later, and up­date in fa­vor of the best mod­els over a long pe­riod of time. Ar­tic­u­lat­ing and un­der­stand­ing mod­els is the bot­tle­neck, so it de­serves most of the at­ten­tion. I think this is what Ben Pace de­scribes in Share Models, Not Beliefs. How­ever, this shift is smaller than the shifts be­tween lev­els be­low this one (at least, in terms of what I cur­rently un­der­stand).

Again: the biggest take-away from this should be that you want to meet a con­ver­sa­tion at the level at which it is oc­cur­ring. If you are used to one par­tic­u­lar cul­ture, you are very likely to be blind to what’s go­ing on in con­ver­sa­tions fol­low­ing a differ­ent cul­ture, and get frus­trated or frus­trate oth­ers. Read Sur­viv­ing a Philoso­pher-At­tack if you haven’t, and keep in mind that re­spond­ing from com­bat cul­ture when some­one is used to nur­ture cul­ture can make peo­ple cry and never want to speak with you ever again.