This post is based on a discussion with ChristianKl on Less Wrong Chat. Thanks!
Many people disagreed with my previous writings on hypotheticals on Less Wrong (link1, link2). For those who still aren’t convinced, I’ll provide another argument on why you should take hypotheticals seriously. Suppose you are discussing the issue of whether it’d be okay to flick the switch if a train was about to collide with and destroy an entire world as a way to try to sell someone on utilitarian ethics (see trolley problem). The other person objects that this is an unrealistic situation and so there is no point wasting time on this discussion.
This may seem unreasonable, but I suppose a person who believes that their time is very valuable may not feel that it is actually worth their time indulging in the hypothetical that A->B unless the other person is willing to explain to them why this result would relate to how we should act in the real world. This might be especially likely to be true if they have had similar discussion before and so they have a low prior that the other person will be able to relate it to the real world.
However, at this stage, they almost certainly have to update, in the sense that if you are following the rule of updating on new evidence, you have most likely already received new evidence. The argument is as follows: As soon as you have heard A->B (if it would save a world, I would flick a switch), your brain has already performed a surface level evaluation on that argument. Realistically, the thinker in the situation probably knows that it is really tough to make the argument that we should allow an entire world to be destroyed instead of ending one life. Now, the fact that it is tough to argue against something doesn’t mean that it should be accepted. For example, many philosophical proofs or halves of mathematical paradoxes seem very hard to argue against at first, but we may have an intuitive sense that there is a flaw there to be found if we are smart enough and look hard enough.
However, even if we aren’t confident in the logic we still have to update our priors, once we know that there is an argument for it that at least appears to check out. Obviously we will update to a much lesser degree than if we were confident in the logic, but we still have to update to some extent, even if we think the chance of A->B being analogous to the real world is incredibly small, as there will always be *some* chance that it is analogous assuming the other person isn’t talking nonsense. So even though the analogy hardly seems to fit the real world and even though you’ve perhaps spent only second thinking about whether A->B checks out, you’ve still got to update. I'll add another quick note: you only have to update on the first instance, when you see the same or a very similar problem again, you don't have to update.
How does this play out? An intellectually honest response would be along the lines of: “Okay, your argument seems to check out on first glance, but I’m rather skeptical that it’d hold up if I spent enough time thinking about it. Anyway, supposing that it was true, why should the real world be anything like A?”. This is much more honest than simply trying to dismiss the hypothetical by stating that A is nothing like reality.
There’s one objection that I need to answer. Maybe you say that you haven’t considered A->B at all. I would be really skeptical of this. There is a small chance I’m committing the typical mind fallacy, but I’m pretty sure that your mind considered both A->B and “this is analogous with reality” and you decided to argue for the second because you didn’t find a strong counter-argument against A->B. And if you did actually find a strong counter-argument, but choose to challenge the hypothetical instead, why not use your counter-argument? Why not engage with your opponent directly and take down their argument as this is more persuasive than dodging the question? There probably are situations where this seems reasonable, such if the argument against A->B is very long and complicated, but you think it is much easier to convince the other person that the situation isn’t analogous. These situations might exist, but I would suspect that these situations are relatively rare.