Philosophical Landmines

by [anonymous] 3 min read8th Feb 2013146 comments


Related: Cached Thoughts

Last summer I was talking to my sister about something. I don't remember the details, but I invoked the concept of "truth", or "reality" or some such. She immediately spit out a cached reply along the lines of "But how can you really say what's true?".

Of course I'd learned some great replies to that sort of question right here on LW, so I did my best to sort her out, but everything I said invoked more confused slogans and cached thoughts. I realized the battle was lost. Worse, I realized she'd stopped thinking. Later, I realized I'd stopped thinking too.

I went away and formulated the concept of a "Philosophical Landmine".

I used to occasionally remark that if you care about what happens, you should think about what will happen as a result of possible actions. This is basically a slam dunk in everyday practical rationality, except that I would sometimes describe it as "consequentialism".

The predictable consequence of this sort of statement is that someone starts going off about hospitals and terrorists and organs and moral philosophy and consent and rights and so on. This may be controversial, but I would say that causing this tangent constitutes a failure to communicate the point. Instead of prompting someone to think, I invoked some irrelevant philosophical cruft. The discussion is now about Consequentialism, the Capitalized Moral Theory, instead of the simple idea of thinking through consequences as an everyday heuristic.

It's not even that my statement relied on a misused term or something; it's that an unimportant choice of terminology dragged the whole conversation in an irrelevant and useless direction.

That is, "consequentialism" was a Philosophical Landmine.

In the course of normal conversation, you passed through an ordinary spot that happened to conceal the dangerous leftovers of past memetic wars. As a result, an intelligent and reasonable human was reduced to a mindless zombie chanting prerecorded slogans. If you're lucky, that's all. If not, you start chanting counter-slogans and the whole thing goes supercritical.

It's usually not so bad, and no one is literally "chanting slogans". There may even be some original phrasings involved. But the conversation has been derailed.

So how do these "philosophical landmine" things work?

It looks like when a lot has been said on a confusing topic, usually something in philosophy, there is a large complex of slogans and counter-slogans installed as cached thoughts around it. Certain words or concepts will trigger these cached thoughts, and any attempt to mitigate the damage will trigger more of them. Of course they will also trigger cached thoughts in other people, which in turn... The result being that the conversation rapidly diverges from the original point to some useless yet heavily discussed attractor.

Notice that whether a particular concept will cause trouble depends on the person as well as the concept. Notice further that this implies that the probability of hitting a landmine scales with the number of people involved and the topic-breadth of the conversation.

Anyone who hangs out on 4chan can confirm that this is the approximate shape of most thread derailments.

Most concepts in philosophy and metaphysics are landmines for many people. The phenomenon also occurs in politics and other tribal/ideological disputes. The ones I'm particularly interested in are the ones in philosophy, but it might be useful to divorce the concept of "conceptual landmines" from philosophy in particular.

Here's some common ones in philosophy:

  • Morality
  • Consequentialism
  • Truth
  • Reality
  • Consciousness
  • Rationality
  • Quantum

Landmines in a topic make it really hard to discuss ideas or do work in these fields, because chances are, someone is going to step on one, and then there will be a big noisy mess that interferes with the rather delicate business of thinking carefully about confusing ideas.

My purpose in bringing this up is mostly to precipitate some terminology and a concept around this phenomenon, so that we can talk about it and refer to it. It is important for concepts to have verbal handles, you see.

That said, I'll finish with a few words about what we can do about it. There are two major forks of the anti-landmine strategy: avoidance, and damage control.

Avoiding landmines is your job. If it is a predictable consequence that something you could say will put people in mindless slogan-playback-mode, don't say it. If something you say makes people go off on a spiral of bad philosophy, don't get annoyed with them, just fix what you say. This is just being a communications consequentialist. Figure out which concepts are landmines for which people, and step around them, or use alternate terminology with fewer problematic connotations.

If it happens, which it does, as far as I can tell, my only effective damage control strategy is to abort the conversation. I'll probably think that I can take those stupid ideas here and now, but that's just the landmine trying to go supercritical. Just say no. Of course letting on that you think you've stepped on a landmine is probably incredibly rude; keep it to yourself. Subtly change the subject or rephrase your original point without the problematic concepts or something.

A third prong could be playing "philosophical bomb squad", which means permanently defusing landmines by supplying satisfactory nonconfusing explanations of things without causing too many explosions in the process. Needless to say, this is quite hard. I think we do a pretty good job of it here at LW, but for topics and people not yet defused, avoid and abort.

ADDENDUM: Since I didn't make it very obvious, it's worth noting that this happens with rationalists, too, even on this very forum. It is your responsibility not to contain landmines as well as not to step on them. But you're already trying to do that, so I don't emphasize it as much as not stepping on them.