Virgil Kurkjian

Virgil Kurkjian's Comments

The Devil Made Me Write This Post Explaining Why He Probably Didn't Hide Dinosaur Bones

You say, "...we care a lot about which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct because it does make predictions about the thing we care about." I agree that if different interpretations make different predictions about things we care about (or any things), then we should care a lot about the interpretation.

However, I am writing explicitly about cases where different interpretations strictly do not make different predictions. In the section you quote, I say, "This is assuming that they [the different perspectives] truly are empirically indistinguishable."

A reasonable objection might be that different theories can never truly be empirically indistinguishable. If so, then my arguments would apply only to cases where theories seem indistinguishable for the moment.

You also say that our purpose may be "to understand what's going on beyond what can be predicted"; the issue is that observations are the only tool we have to understand what is going on. If two theories both fit all available and predict the same potential observations, those theories seem to be perfectly equal.


Ok, actually I was just going back through one of Alexander's posts from 2014 and found a case of him using the term "counterspell" in exactly the way I use it here:

The proper counterspell to such nonsense is Reverse Causal Arrows – could it not be that states with more marijuana users are more likely to pass proposals liberalizing marijuana laws? Yes it could.

I wasn't aware of this when I wrote the post, but apparently there is some precedent for my usage.


You're entirely right! Like you said, these are sort of concrete suggestions to be used on a case-by-case basis. I don't think a conversational strategy should be based around them, and what you describe is much more appropriate.

Sometimes, though, you'll be talking to someone you know and trust, and notice that they introduce an isolated demand for rigor or respond to tone, and you'll think, "I notice that's wrong, how do I disagree in a respectful way?" This is intended to help fill the gap in such situations. One tool in the toolbox.


You seem to be thinking of a case where Counterspells would be used against honest epistemological heuristics. I agree that this is inappropriate. But in such a case you just need to tell them that you were making a call about the discussion rather than their position (this is still meta-debate), something like: "I didn't suggest that your tone makes you wrong, but it does make me not want to engage with you." Though frankly in such a case I can't see why you would want to engage further, making me even more skeptical of the idea of these double counters.

The idea of a Counterspell assumes (by definition; I invented it) 1) That the original speaker made a true logical fallacy, 2) That the responder is choosing to engage and respond in good faith, and 3) That the Counterspell response is appropriate, i.e. that it really does point out why the original argument was incorrect in that it didn't provide good evidence for some conclusion. If they fail at that, it's not a Counterspell. Because of this, the very idea of counter-counterspells is wrongheaded. The suggestion is to make a dismissive response to an honest, correct, and good-faith attempt to engage with someone. That's something I'm not interested in.

Another way to put it is that Counterspells are intended to move discussions away from meta-debate. Rather than calling someone out for violating norms and trying to rack up hits against their credibility, Counterspells help you to engage with the content of someone's complaint even as you are disagreeing with it. I think that's incredibly helpful.

(Also I can't see why this is at all frequentist in perspective. Bayesians can believe in true states of the world as well.)


All of your proposals miss my point, as does the idea of counter-counterspells. They may be epistemically virtuous, but they are what Alexander would call Meta-Debate, discussion of what can be debated, who is a trusted source, and how the discussion can be held. As Alexander points out, there's nothing wrong with Meta-Debate, and it can be useful. It's still not part of the actual debate.

I’ve placed it in a sphinx outside the pyramid to emphasize that it’s not a bad argument for the thing, it’s just an argument about something completely different.

Ultimately they have no bearing on whether or not the topic of discussion is true or false. Certainly I could tell someone, "Your belief in a flat earth makes me not interested in trusting your thoughts on homeopathy", and I would be right to do so. But homeopathy is still true or false regardless of this person's other unconventional beliefs.

Even beyond that, assuming the goal of a discussion is to change your partner's mind (I know it's not always, but let's assume), then these do a terrible job of that. Counterspells are designed with the assumption that you want to convince someone discussion in good faith, and designed to engage with their (incorrect) arguments directly. What you propose are all dismissals.

Even so, I don't think they're great meta-arguments. Certainly you can see the problem with, "Martin Luther King was a criminal, criminals are usually bad, and I have a limited amount of time to analyze every argument that comes my way."


I agree that they are most useful when actually trying to change someone's mind.

I originally thought that they would be more effective in writing than in person, but after making the list some I've been surprised at how quickly and naturally they can be used in conversation. It took a few seconds the first few times, but I didn't really need to practice. YMMV.

I actually have a pretty narrow range of uses in mind, and I think some of our disagreement comes from thinking I intend these for general use. You correctly point out that Counterspells don't make any positive progress in the debate, they just swat things down (like a... counterspell?). And yeah, that's all they are. They don't do much heavy lifting and you need other tools to actually change someone's mind (most of the time).

All I'm saying is whenever you would say, "That's invalid because [Fallacy Name]", instead say, "[Counterspell]". It has to exist within the framework of better rhetorical skills, and yeah, if someone is the kind of asshole who pulls them out as underhanded tricks, these won't save them.


Ah, understood! Yeah, the term is imperfect. Call them whatever you like.


Agreed; like many things, these are guidelines for a conversation with someone you want to have a conversation with. You'll notice that I didn't include Counterspells for things like Social Shaming from Varieties of Argumentative Experience or Name-Calling from How to Disagree. Alexander discusses the whole issue at length in his essay.


I agree that rhetoric can be dangerous, but I'm actually not sure how it applies in this case. Don't these Counterspells strictly dominate, "You used X logical fallacy against me"?

It's true that many complaints about "logical fallacies" are mistaken, but I think that one of the nice features of Counterspells is that because their forms are so tight, they can actually help you realize when you're misapplying them to something that is a valid inference (or something that is a different fallacy than you first thought). In the process of developing this idea, more than once I have gone to use a Counterspell against something, only to find in the process that my interlocutor was saying something very different than what I had initially imagined.

I think their formulaic, fill-in-the-blanks nature forces you to engage with the material more than you might otherwise; I think they're the opposite of an excuse not to listen. And since they only make sense in response to certain invalid inferences, I don't think there's much opportunity to shoot your foot off. Many of them include a request for elaboration, and in a respectful discussion where no one engages in rhetorical tricks, they will never come up.


You're right to read it as an in-joke, and I'm glad that you saw it that way. I think your comment actually goes on to capture the rest of what I was trying to say with that quip. The deeper level of the joke is that this community regularly mints new jargon which can get pretty weird — if we're not careful, someone will go off the deep end and try to call a new idea something stupid like, I dunno, "Counterspells". (I was thinking of this comment when I wrote the joke.)

On a more textual level, I came up with the term as a personal joke, but the name stuck, and now I can't think of them as anything else. Feel free to call this idea whatever you want.

I don't think "Fully General Counterargument" describes what I've done here, though. Eliezer points out on that page that 'you are a sophisticated arguer; you have used your intelligence to trick yourself' is an argument that you can use "when you encounter a seemingly intelligent person who says something you don’t like". (So technically his example is not FULLY general.) But each of the Counterspells I present here are coherent arguments only when someone has made an argument based on a specific logical fallacy. If someone makes an ad hominem against you, it doesn't make sense to pull out a Counterspell designed for Straw Men.

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