Intuitive differences: when to agree to disagree

by Kaj_Sotala 4 min read29th Sep 200935 comments


Two days back, I had a rather frustrating disagreement with a friend. The debate rapidly hit a point where it seemed to be going nowhere, and we spent a while going around in circles before agreeing to change the topic. Yesterday, as I was riding the subway, things clicked. I suddenly realized not only what the disagreement had actually been about, but also what several previous disagreements we'd had were about. In all cases, our opinions and arguments had been grounded in opposite intuitions:

  • Kaj's intuition. In general, we can eventually learn to understand a phenomenon well enough to create a model that is flexible and robust. Coming up with the model is the hard part, but once that is done, adapting the general model to account for specific special cases is a relatively straightforward and basically mechanical process.
  • Friend's intuition. In general, there are some phenomena which are too complex to be accurately modeled. Any model you create for them is bristle and inflexible: adapting the general model to account for specific special cases takes almost as much work as creating the original model in the first place.

You may notice that these intuitions are not mutually exclusive in the strict sense. They could both be right, one of them covering certain classes of things and the other the remaining ones. And neither one is obviously and blatantly false - both have evidence supporting them. So the disagreement is not about which one is right, as such. Rather, it's a question of which one is more right, which is the one with broader applicability.

As soon as I realized this, I also realized two other things. One, whenever we would run into this difference in the future, we'd need to recognize it and stop that line of debate, for it wouldn't be resolved before the root disagreement had been solved. Two, actually resolving that core disagreement would take so much time and energy that it probably wouldn't be worth the effort.

The important thing to realize is that neither intuition rests on any particular piece of evidence. Instead, each one is a general outlook that has been formed over many years and countless pieces of evidence, most of which have already been forgotten. Before my realization, neither of us had even consciously known they existed. They are abstract patterns our minds have extracted from what must be hundreds of different cases we've encountered, very high-level hypotheses that have been repeatedly tested and found to be accurate.

It would be impossible to find out which was the more applicable one by means of regular debate. Each of us would have to gather all the evidence that led to the formulation of the intuition in the first place. Pulling a number out of my hat, I'd guess that a comprehensive overview of that evidence (for one intuition) would run at least a hundred pages long. Furthermore, it wouldn't be sufficient for each of us to simply read the other side's overview, once it had been gathered. By this point, we would be interpreting the evidence in light of our already existing intuition. I wouldn't be surprised if simply reading through the summary would lead to both sides only being more certain of their own intuition being right. We would have to take the time to discuss each individual item in detail.

And if a real attempt to sort out the difference is hard, resolving it in the middle of a debate about something else is impossible. Both sides in the debate will have an opinion they think is obvious and be puzzled as to why the other side can consistently fail to get something so obvious. At the same time, neither can access the evidence that leads them to consider their opinion so obvious, and both will grow increasingly frustrated at both the other side's bone-headedness and their own failure to properly communicate something that shouldn't even need explaining.

In many cases, trying to resolve an intuitive difference simply isn't worth the effort. Learn to recognize your intuitive differences, and you'll know when to break off debates once they hit that difference. Putting those intuitions in words still helps understanding, though. When I told my friend the things I've just written here, she agreed, and we were able to have a constructive dialogue about those differences. (While doing so, and returning to the previous day's topic, we were able to identify at least five separate points of disagreement that were all rooted in the same intuitive difference.) Each one was also able to explain, on a rough level, some of the background that supported their intuition. In the end, we still didn't agree, but at least we understood each other's positions a little better.

But what if the intuitive difference is about something really important? Me and my friend resolved to just wait things out and see whose hypothesis would turn out more accurate, but sometimes the difference might affect big decisions about the actions you want to take. (Robin's and Eliezer's disagreement on the nature of the Singularity comes to mind.) What if the disagreement really needs to be solved?

I'm not sure how well it can be done, but one could try. First off, both need to realize that in all likelihood, both intuitions have a large grain of truth to them. Like with me and my friend, the question is often one of the breadth of applicability, not of a strict truth or falsehood. Once the basic positions have been formulated, both should ask whether, not why. Assign some certainty value on the likelyhood of your intuition being the more correct one, and then consider the fact that your "opponent" has spent many years analyzing evidence to reach this position and might very well be right. Adjust your certainty downwards to account for this realization. Then take a few weeks considering both the things that may have led you to formulate this intuition, as well as the things that might have led your opponent to theirs. Spend time gathering evidence for both sides of the view, and be sure to give each piece of evidence a balanced view: half of the time you'll first consider a case from the PoV of your opponent's hypothesis, then of your own. Half of the time you'll do it the other way around. Commit all such considerations in writing and present them to your opponent an regular intervals, taking the time to discuss them through. This is no time for motivated skepticism - both of you need to have genuine crisis of faith in order for things to get anywhere.

Not every disagreement is an intuitive difference. Any disagreement that rests on particular pieces of evidence and can be easily resolved with the correct empirical evidence isn't one. If it feels like one of the intuitions is strictly false instead of having a large grain of truth to it, it's still an intuitive difference, but not the kind of one that I have been covering here. An intuitive difference is also kind of related to, but different from, an inferential distance. In order to resolve it, a lot of information needs to be absorbed, but by both partners, not simply the other. It's not a question of having different evidence: theoretically, you might both even have exactly the same evidence, but gathered in a different order. The question is one of differing interpretations, not raw data as such.