Beware defensibility

[epistemic status: confident this is a thing, not sure if I’m framing it right]

I’ve noticed that my writing is usually better when I write it quickly and don’t edit it as much.  Continuously adjusting it results in something blander.  I think this is about defensibility.  Some examples:

  • Academic papers are more defensible than blog posts.
  • Public relations speech is more defensible that private speech.
  • Proofs are more defensible than intuitive arguments.
  • Slowly-written things are more defensible than quickly-written things.
  • “Literal” speech is more defensible than “metaphorical” speech.

Defensibility is about resisting all possible attacks from some class of adversaries.  The more you expect your expression to be picked apart and used against you, the more defensible your expression will be.  Slowly-written things look more polished and the flaws stand out more, so they get nitpicked.

Defensibility can be good.  In mathematics, a defensible argument (i.e. a proof) is more likely to be correct.  In science, a defensible statistical result is more likely to replicate.  Defensible results become blocks of knowledge that others can (and sometimes must) build upon.

Defensibility can be bad.  Academic papers are usually worse at explaining things than blog posts.  PR is usually highly misleading.  Fully formal proofs are usually harder to understand than intuitive arguments.  Defensible art is bland.

Defensibility requires conformity.  If anything you say can and will be used against you, it is better to say the same things others are saying.  Defensible expressions happen in a shared ontology, such as formal logic, or the “ordinary official speech” ontology that Wikipedia uses.

Some expression should be defensible (against different classes of adversaries).  Some shouldn’t be.  It is virtuous to be flexible about defensibility.

Rationality techniques as patterns

[epistemic status: optimistic vision that currently seems highly useful]

In Christopher Alexander’s work, a pattern consists of:

  1. A way of perceiving an existing tension in a living system.
  2. A model for why the tension exists.
  3. A way of adapting the system in a way that resolves the tension.

Christopher Alexander describes hundreds of patterns for towns and buildings in A Pattern Language.  Consider pattern #126, SOMETHING ROUGHLY IN THE MIDDLE:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty.

if there is a reasonable area in the middle, intended for public use, it will be wasted unless there are trees, monuments, seats, fountains—a place where people can protect their backs, as easily as they can around the edge.


Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock-tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand.  Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in twoards the center.  Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

This pattern points out a tension: a public space without a middle will feel weird and people will avoid it.  Next, it gives a model for the tension: it’s because people want their back to be against something.  Finally, it gives a way to resolve this tension: put something roughly in the middle.

Patterns that work well with each other form a pattern language.  SOMETHING ROUGHLY IN THE MIDDLE works with SMALL PUBLIC SQUARES; along with the other patterns, they form a pattern language.

The initial tension will sometimes be diffuse and hard to pin down.  People might feel “off” when they’re in a large empty space but not have the words to say why.  They might not even consciously realize there is a problem and instead just have slightly elevated stress levels.  The tension becomes more pointed if it is explicitly pointed out and especially if there is a model for it.

Many of the rationality techniques discussed in the LessWrong-descended rationality community are patterns in this sense.  The technique of leaving a line of retreat is about noticing a tension (some possibility X seems hard to seriously consider) and resolving it by imagining a world in which X is true in detail (in order to allow yourself to compare the world where X is true and the world where X is false even-handedly).  The technique of finding a true rejection is about noticing a tension (people have arguments where they give false reasons for their beliefs and don’t actually change their minds when these reasons are refuted) and resolving it by urging people to find the actual historical reasons for their beliefs.  CFAR‘s debugging techniques are also usually patterns of this form (they resolve some sort of tension within a person or between a person and their environment, usually reducing stress levels).

Resolving tensions fully brings to mind the image of a placid lake.  But resolving tensions doesn’t necessarily lead to placidity, because systems involving humans are alive.  Solving all of someone’s immediate problems might make them bored, and might make them want to help others.

Christopher Alexander praises the way that well-built towns and buildings bring out life in The Timeless Way of Building (I highly recommend reading the first 2 chapters):

There is one timeless way of building.

It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been.

The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way.  It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way.  And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

It is a process through which the order of a building or a town grows out directly from the inner nature of the people, and the animals, and plants, and matter which are in it.

It is a process which allows the life inside a person, or a family, or a town, to flourish, openly, in freedom, so vividly that it gives birth, of its own accord, to the natural order which is needed to sustain this life.

But as things are, we have so far beset ourselves with rules, and concepts, and ideas of what must be done to make a building or a town alive, that we have become afraid of what will happen naturally, and convinced that we must work within a “system” and with “methods” since without them our surroundings will come tumbling down in chaos.

The thoughts and fears which feed these methods are illusions.

I find Christopher Alexander’s vision highly appealing.  Something happened in Western architecture that interfered with the timeless way of building; this probably had to do with the increase in degrees of freedom in the transition from pre-modern to modern societies.  Similar phenomena have happened in other domains.  Luckily, the way can be regained through the discipline of pattern languages, and eventually through dissolving disciplines and doing what is natural.  There are obvious parallels with Taoism.

I want pattern languages for improving people’s psychological functioning, for improving groups’ ability to work together, for improving models of the world, for making good institutions, for all sorts of things.  Groups of people are developing pattern languages in many different places, mostly without explicitly knowing what they are doing.  I think a more explicit understanding of pattern languages and knowledge of how past pattern languages were created will help to design better ones in the future.  Maybe with the right pattern languages (and with the right going-beyond-them), we can become much more alive, as individuals and as groups, and much more able to coordinate to accomplish very hard things.

The true outside view

[epistemic status: strong opinions weakly held, not very original]

The false outside view says that if you have a contrarian inside view, you’re probably wrong, so you should not act like you’re correct. The false outside view is driven by intuitions about social status and/or fear of being wrong.

The true outside view says that a great deal of good comes from contrarians pushing on their contrarian inside views (acting on them, talking about them with others, etc), so if you have one of those you should maybe do that, while additionally taking others’ perspectives seriously, testing your ideas often, being honest, avoiding some potentially-catastrophic unilateral actions, etc.

The true outside view follows from any halfway-decent decision theory (something like “updateless decision theory for humans”, as gestured at before. This decision theory might look “epistemically modest” sometimes and “epistemically arrogant” other times, but these descriptions impose ego on something that by construction doesn’t have an ego.