False Dilemmas w/​ exercises

This is the third post in the Ar­gu­ing Well se­quence, but it can be un­der­stood on its own. This post is in­fluenced by False Dilemma, The Third al­ter­na­tive.

A false dilemma is of the form “It’s ei­ther this, or that. Pick one!” It tries to make you choose from a limited set of op­tions, when, in re­al­ity, more op­tions are available. With that in mind, what’s wrong with the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples?

Ex. 1: You ei­ther love the guy or hate him

Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment 1: “Only a Sith deals in ab­solutes!”

Coun­ter­ar­gu­ment 2: I can feel neu­tral to­wards the guy

Ex. 2: You can only add and sub­tract in math­e­mat­ics.

Uh, di­vi­sion and mul­ti­pli­ca­tion, right?

Ex. 3: Either you get me that new car, or you don’t love me!

I can care about your well-be­ing and hap­piness and not get you that spe­cific car. I could buy a used car, so you wouldn’t freak out if it got dam­aged or [3 differ­ent ex­am­ples based on what the (father?) thinks is best].

Ex. 4: You didn’t donate to the food drive, so you don’t care about starv­ing chil­dren!

I do care about starv­ing chil­dren, but my fam­ily and I are just barely scrap­ing by and I value feed­ing them first.


How would you gen­er­al­ize the above ex­am­ples? Of course it pre­sents a cer­tain set of op­tions as the only available op­tions (I said this in the in­tro!), but what’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween those op­tions? Are there differ­ent types of op­tions that are similar/​differ­ent be­tween the ex­am­ples?

One way to frame it is to sep­a­rate op­tions into two types: val­ues and ac­tions

With that frame, false dilem­mas can be cat­e­go­rized into 4 va­ri­eties:

1. Only these val­ues are com­pat­i­ble with an agent

2. Only these ac­tions are com­pat­i­ble with a sys­tem/​environment

3. Only these ac­tions are com­pat­i­ble with this value

4. Only these val­ues are com­pat­i­ble with this action

Th­ese 4 va­ri­eties cor­re­spond to each of their re­spec­tive ex­am­ples above (this is not a co­in­ci­dence). Note: you could have an­swered Ex.3 as (4) and Ex.4 as (3), it re­ally just de­pends on the truth of the situ­a­tion. I’ll leave the de­tails as an ex­er­cise for the reader.

[Also, I’m stick­ing my neck out here and claiming that these are the only 4 cat­e­gories a false dilemma can ever fit. Prove me wrong in the com­ments and I’ll up­date the post]

So how about try­ing this new frame out on the fol­low­ing:

Ex. 5: You can ei­ther get up and work out ev­ery day or stay on that couch and stay an un­healthy slob!

Ouch. Rephras­ing: “Only work­ing out ev­ery day is com­pat­i­ble with de­siring health”. There’s also couch-to-5k, high in­ten­sity train­ing 1-3 days/​week, play­ing sports to­gether that could all im­prove health and be bet­ter long-term or tran­si­tion­ing-wise or what­ever you also value.

Ex. 6: Pen­cils are for writ­ing and erasing

I could use it to make a beat, play mi­ni­a­ture foot­ball, as a flag­pole in a dio­rama, as a gift, or to poke holes in a page, or …

Ex. 7: You up­set your friend Alice with an in­sen­si­tive joke. Bob tells you, “I can’t be­lieve you said such a ter­rible thing. You don’t care about her at all!”

Rephras­ing: “Only never hurt­ing some­one’s feel­ings is com­pat­i­ble with car­ing about them”. I care about Alice very much, I just re­ally suck at show­ing it. (I think it’s in­ter­est­ing that this cov­ers failed goals/​good in­ten­tions. This makes sense since agents, like us, aren’t log­i­cally om­ni­scient)

Ex. 8: You ei­ther care for an­i­mal life or your own tem­po­rary com­fort!

I can care about both to differ­ent de­grees.


What’s a pos­si­bly ideal gen­eral al­gorithm to solve False Dilem­mas?

1. What are the pos­si­ble val­ues and ac­tions?

2. What’s ar­bi­trar­ily con­strained?

3. Yoda Timers: brain­storm more options

[Note: Some of these ex­am­ples are limited be­cause we don’t know the con­text or the pur­pose, so it’s hard to enu­mer­ate very use­ful ac­tions/​ac­cu­rate val­ues. That’s okay be­cause in re­al­ity, you can in­tro­spect and ask ques­tions]

Use­ful Con­straints:

Con­straints can be use­ful when used pur­pose­fully. False Dilem­mas are gen­er­ally bad be­cause they are ar­bi­trary con­straints and no one is even aware that a con­straint is be­ing used! In the fol­low­ing prompts, what’s a use­ful con­straint to use and why is it use­ful?

Ex. 9: “Write a 500 word es­say on the United States”

“Nar­row it down to the front of one build­ing on the main street of Boze­man. The Opera House. Start with the up­per left-hand brick.” [This is stolen from Zen and the art of mo­tor­cy­cle main­te­nance]. Nar­row­ing down the topic is use­ful for writer’s block.

Ex. 10: Prove that given two Nat­u­ral num­bers (0,1,2,3,...) n and m, n*m = 0 if and only if one of them is 0.

I could talk about all nat­u­ral num­bers n &m; how­ever, it may be eas­ier to di­vide this into 4 cases: n = 0 & m = 0, n >0 & m = 0, n = 0 & m > 0, and n > 0 & m >0. This is use­ful be­cause it’s triv­ial to prove each case, and it’s hard (for me!) to prove this in a way that doesn’t rely on cases.

Ex. 11: You listed them out, and it ap­pears you have 10 prob­lems in your life and you can’t even do any­thing about some of them!

Cir­cle which ones you can do some­thing about, and con­strain your thoughts/​ac­tions to only those prob­lems. Con­strain­ing in this way helps com­bat feel­ing over­whelmed/​hel­pless.

Ex. 12: Your friend asks “Where do you want to go eat?”. You say “Oh wher­ever, I’m not pick”. They say, “Oh me too!”. (Nor­mally it takes 5-10 min­utes af­ter this to figure out where to go)

I could say any­thing like “Place A and B are very close and I like both, which one is good for you?”, and that nor­mally speeds up the pro­cess. Same ap­plies for pick­ing a time and place for hang­ing out. “How about this coffee­house at this time? Is that good?”

Ex. 13: You always seem to have trou­ble de­cid­ing what food to or­der when you go to a new restau­rant.

There are sev­eral con­straints that may serve you well. One is “Pick what is pop­u­lar in the restau­rant”, an­other is “pick the first thing that sounds good” (Got this from some­one here in LW).

In­tro­spec­tive Prob­lem Set

Very of­ten we ar­bi­trar­ily con­strain what we can do.

Ex. 14: How do iden­tities (I am a Par­ent/​Good Stu­dent/​ Good friend/​Smart Per­son/​etc) con­strain pos­si­ble ac­tions? What’s a spe­cific ex­am­ple of an iden­tity you’ve held (or are hold­ing) that has con­strained what you thought you could do.

By iden­ti­fy­ing as X, we must act like some­one who is X. Whether that’s mimick­ing how we’ve seen an­other X act, or how our model of be­ing X.

I’ve per­son­ally iden­ti­fied as a “Good Stu­dent”. What I mean is that as long as I re­ally put in the time to study, then I have done my duty. This has con­strained pos­si­ble ac­tions such as ask­ing what speci­fi­cally con­fused me and googling other ex­pla­na­tions.

Ex. 15: Are there any times when it’s good to con­strain who you are/​ what you can do?

Tons! The search space of a prob­lem is some­times very big. Hav­ing an iden­tity/​ be­ing a role always is usu­ally bad be­cause it con­strains you to a spe­cific chunk of search space always. But tem­porar­ily play­ing as differ­ent roles helps search through differ­ent chunks more effi­ciently.

For ex­am­ple, play­ing as the devil’s ad­vo­cate with your­self can help search for the very best rea­sons why your idea is good, and find the very best rea­sons why it’s bad. When a friend tells me a huge prob­lem they’re deal­ing with, it’s time to switch to “Very con­cerned friend who listens”. When I meet some­one very shy, it’s time to switch to “Talka­tive friend who asks easy ques­tions”.

This is also re­lated to the In­tel­li­gent So­cial Web.

Ex. 16: What about emo­tions/​men­tal states? What’s a time they’ve con­strained you to do some­thing bad? What about some­thing some­thing good?

Some­times when some­thing frus­trat­ing hap­pens, I feel like I’m only con­strained to the ac­tion “Eat some­thing sweet and dis­tract your­self”. Real­iz­ing that, I have now pro­duced sev­eral al­ter­na­tives: take a walk, take care of any pre­sent needs (hunger, sleep, etc), play pi­ano, call a loved one, etc. I would say this is cat­e­gory 2, “Only these ac­tions are com­pat­i­ble in this spe­cific en­vi­ron­ment”

Be­ing in a med­i­ta­tive state helps me love those who are late (it’s true be­cause it rhymes). I am con­sis­tently way more pa­tient in a med­i­ta­tive state and it’s my go to move when some­one is late.


Cat­e­gory Qual­ifi­ca­tions was about see­ing words as a set of qual­ifi­ca­tions and how to wield qual­ifi­ca­tions to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate. This post is about see­ing con­straints in plan­ning/​agents/​en­vi­ron­ments and how to wield those con­straints effec­tively to achieve your goals.

When ar­gu­ing well, it’s use­ful to know ex­actly which con­straints are be­ing used and why they are be­ing used. Peo­ple fall vic­tim to False Dilem­mas when they’re not aware of the im­plied/​as­sumed con­straints.

In the next post, we’ll be in­ves­ti­gat­ing how to find cruxes and how this is use­ful when ar­gu­ing well.

As a fi­nal ex­er­cise (which I haven’t worked my­self), how does this ap­ply to con­flict vs mis­take cul­ture?

[This is an iter­a­tive post/​se­quence. I don’t think any of us on LW claim we have the 100% truth/​fi­nal word on a topic. If you strongly down­vote a post, please also leave a com­ment say­ing why it’s wrong/​not use­ful so the iter­a­tive/​im­prov­ing pro­cess can hap­pen]