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.