By reading this essay, you acknowledge that I, the author of this essay, do not accept any responsibility for the completeness or correctness of this essay. Loyal to its own principles, this essay is under continuous improvement. If you have comments or suggestions, please send me a mail to fabian@thisDomain .
OverviewThis essay consists of three parts, each with several chapters, and each with several sections:
Introduction to Rationality (ChapIntro)This chapter covers the definition of rationality (SecDef) and common objections to rationality (SecObj).
Statements (ChapStat)This chapter covers the building blocks of rationality: Rational statements (SecStat), nearly rational statements (SecNearly), irrational statements (SecNonRat), and founding statements (SecFounding).
Deduction (ChapDed)This chapter covers mechanisms for logical deduction: the concept of rules (SecRules), logical proofs (SecProofs) and other techniques of rational thinking (SecTec). It also discusses the concepts of truth and reality (SecTruth).
Discussions (ChapDisc)This chapter covers arguments in discussions (SecArg), fallacious arguments (SecNonRatArg), and dealing with non-receptive people (SecNonRec).
Goals and Problems (ChapGoals)This chapter defines the notion of goals (SecGoals). It also covers different classes of problems (SecProb) and decision problems in particular (SecDec).
Advice (ChapAdv)This part contains advice on how to become more rational (SecMore) or less rational (SecLess). It also contains advice on how to talk (SecTalk).
Appendix (Appendix)The appendix contains questions about this essay (About), references (Bib), and acknowledgements (Acknowledgements).
Have a look at the highlights of this essay (Highlights).
HighlightsParticular highlights of this essay are:
- The definition of truth (Truth)
- A classification of different types of problems in life with blueprint solutions (SecProb)
- An article about superstitions (NoBOD)
- An embedding of ethics into the framework of rationality (Moral and following)
- A discussion of free will (FreeWill)
- A call to change your point of view (GiveUp)
- An introduction to true but irrelevant arguments (Irrelevant)
- For technical folks: The definition of "good rules" (GoodRules)
- For technical folks: a new Turing-complete formalism (URS)
If you don't know where to start, start with the definition of rationality (Def), and read the essay top down.
IntroductionThis part covers the definition of rationality (SecDef) and common objections to rationality (SecObj).
DefinitionThis section covers questions concerning the definition and the use of rationality. Metaphorically speaking, rationality tries to build up arguments from statements — much like we build up a tower from bricks.
What is rationality?Rationality in the sense of this essay is a framework for reasoning. This framework comprises
- The concept of clear and matter-of-fact statements
- Reasoning techniques on these statements
- The concept of goals, and techniques to achieve these goals
Seeking the TruthRationality can help us pursue certain goals (PartGoals). This essay assumes that one of the central goals is finding the truth. The truth can help us understand the world, help us predict things that will happen, and serve to achieve other goals. This is why the truth takes a central role in this essay (WhatIsTruth). Even if we can probably never know the truth in perfection, every bit we know brings us closer to this goal.
This priority for truth is by no means universal. As Niccolò Machiavelli argued, it can sometimes be rational to be not truthful (Machiavelli).
What is the Truth?No-one knows what is the truth. There may even be multiple truths, or no truth at all. This essay dedicates a section to these arguments (SecObj). This essay takes the following stance on truth: We perceive ourselves in a stream of sensory impressions: colors we see, feelings we have, sounds we hear. Our aim is to explain and predict these impressions. We want to know why we had a certain impression, and we want to know what future impressions we will have. For this purpose, we hypothesize what could be the reasons for our past sensations, and what will be likelihoods of future sensations. In other words, we build theories on our stream of sensations. These theories are approximations of truth: The more sensations we gather, the better we are able to understand past sensations, and the better we are able to predict future sensations. Thus, by our very nature, all we do is approximating truth by theories.
This entails, crucially, that we always have to be ready to give up our theories if counter-evidence appears. This is the central insight of rationality: If we want to approach truth, we have to give up convictions that are wrong (Wrong).
This essay will define the notion of truth, and it will outline ways to approach truth. It dedicates an entire section to this concept (SecTruth). However, this essay will not tell us what is true. Rationality gives us a framework for truth, but not truth itself. Finding the truth is left to us as humans.
It is a way to seek truth.
What does it mean to speak rationally?Speaking rationally means speaking with the goal of finding the truth (SeekTruth). This means in particular
- Making clear, matter-of-fact statements
- Basing statements on reasons
- Being open to the discussion and revision of these statements
This does not mean that speaking rationally would be the only good way to speak. There are many domains of life where it is not necessary or appropriate to speak rationally (NoUse).
What is a rational argument?A rational argument is a proof. The proof shows that if certain obvious statements are true, then a certain hypothesis must also be true. This way, an argument helps us illuminate a bit more of truth and reality (SeekTruth). This essay dedicates a section to proof techniques (SecProofs), a section to what an "obvious statement" is (SecFounding), and a chapter about making an argument together with other people (ChapDisc).
What does it mean to be rational?Being rational means using rationality (Def) to do the things that are most useful to achieve your goals. This essay dedicates a section to the formal definition of goals and the types of goals (SecGoals) and a part to how these goals can be achieved (PartGoals).
Such a focus on goals may sound like an egoistic killjoy ideology. However, whether rationality is egoistic or not depends on how you choose your goals. For example, it can be your goal to help a friend, to be an honorable member of society, or to achieve world peace, but it can also be your goal to make the best of your vacation, to learn dancing or to allocate enough time everyday for doing nothing. It is your own choice how to set your goals — egoistic or altruistic, fun or serious. Rationality will then help you achieve these goals efficiently.
Why is rationality useful?Rationality (Def, Speak, Arg, Rational) comes with a number of advantages:
VerifiablilityVerifiability means that you can see why a statement makes sense. You can also question whether it makes sense. This makes a rational argument convincing.
TransparencyOther people can question the validity of a statement in a rational argument. If there is doubt, then the statement in question can be changed. Public scrutiny is one of the most powerful means to ensure the robustness of an argument.
RobustnessIf two people agree on the same assumptions, they will arrive at the same conclusions from them (QPerson). If the assumptions remain valid, the argument can even withstand time. That is, if you rethink a rational argument 2 years later, you will still find it true (QTime).
Predictive PowerRationality can predict the truth under certain circumstances. If you start from true statements and you use valid building principles, you will arrive at new true statements (ChapDed, Conclusions, MiracleOfLogic). For example, if rationality tells you that by the laws of nature, a stone dropped from a tower will fall down, then the stone will indeed fall down (NoBOD). This predictive power makes rationality highly useful [Wikipedia / Predictive Power].
TruthfulnessThrough all of the above, rationality assures that our words and thoughts stay close to truth (SeekTruth). This, in turn, helps us get a bit closer to reality (Reality).
Positive social effect
AcceptanceMost people will follow a rational argument and agree on it (provided that they agree on the assumptions). Hence, a rational argument can be advocated towards other people.
JustifiabilityRationality has the side-effect that conclusions become justifiable for ourselves and also for others (QPerson). If necessary, we can explain our conclusions (GiveReasons). People who can explain their opinion rationally are often appreciated by others (at least on the long run or in retro-spective).
ReliabilityRationality allows us to estimate better our own capacities and incapacities. This allows us to be more careful about the things we promise. Promising only things that we can fulfill makes us more reliable (FailFast).
TrustPeople trust another person if they know that this person will not say wrong things. Rationality is one of the safest means to reduce the number of wrong things that we think and that we say. Therefore, rationality makes us more trustworthy.
StabilityIf we follow rational principles, our behavior will appear less arbitrary to other people. We will be less capricious and more stable.
Use for InstructionsRationality can also prove beneficial when we have to instruct somebody: If we do not give reasons for our instructions, the addressee will feel surrendered to arbitrariness. If we give reasons for our instructions, the person will understand why some action is necessary and will perform it much more readily — and probably also better (GiveReasons).
ClarityOther approaches, such as talking about beliefs, relying on emotions or avoiding discussion altogether each have their benefits — but if we want to convince somebody of something, then rationality is the safest vehicle from one mind to the other (Clear).
HarmonyRationality helps us sort our thoughts. It helps discover what we want, what we believe and why we believe it. With its emphasis on discovering truth, it brings harmony with reality.
SafetyRational conclusions are safe and reliable. If we follow rational conclusions, it is less likely that we will have to regret something later on (SecDec).
Problem DecompositionRationality can be used to decompose a complex problem (Decompose). When multiple adverse circumstances combine, rationality can help disassemble the big obstacle into smaller obstacles (DontMix). This can simplify surmounting them.
Problem solvingRationality provides not only a framework for discussing problems (Problems), but also a spectrum of problem soving techniques (SecProb).
Decision takingRationality provides techniques for taking decisions in such a way that it is less likely that we will regret a choice later on (SecDec).
Advantages in Discussions
Stable argumentsRationality allows us to make precise arguments in a discussion. It allows us to spot and wield off wrong counter-arguments (ChapDisc).
PrecisenessRationality allows us to state our thoughts in a precise and minimalistic way. This may help us see that our views are not incompatible after all with our partner's views (BePrecise, NoContradiction). This insight can take the sting out of disputes.
Avoidance of DisputesRationality teaches us to avoid drawing conclusions prematurely. If people avoid drawing unbased conclusions from other people's views, they may avoid embarking on unnecessary disputes. In particular, they can avoid that neutral statements are perceived as reproaches (NoReproach). If people stop presenting subjective preferences as objective facts, many disputes could be avoided altogether (NoSubjective, AvoidIKnow). If people stop making pejorative subjective statements about other people, insults can be avoided (NoSubjective).
(basic recipe for inner harmony)
Where is rationality not useful?It is not always necessary and also not always useful to express thoughts in a rational way. The arts, for example, including poetry, music and painting, would be crippled if reduced to rationality. Their goal is not to produce rational statements (Speak) or to make rational arguments (Arg), but to express certain feelings or thoughts, to create beauty, or to convey a certain impression on the audience.
In general, tasks that require creativity can often not be accomplished by purely rational means. Rationality can prove statements and help achieve goals, but it cannot (by itself) discover new paths to solutions. In fact, rationality often needs creativity to discover such paths (ChapGoals).
Emotions, too, are often best left without rational arguments. Even though it is possible talk rationally about emotions (Feelings), that may not always be necessary or useful. Religion is another topic where rationality may be inadequate. Unfortunately, also the foundations of ethics go beyond rationality. It is hard to arrive at common ethic standards through purely rational means (see, e.g, [Thoughts on Ethics / General Thoughts on Ethics] for a discussion). Thus, moral standards will be nothing more than personal preferences in rational arguments (Moral).
One problem rationality does not solve either is the divergence of personal preferences. Different people find different things important. Rationality cannot change that. For example, rationality cannot be used to "prove" that one sort of ice cream is better than another (Preferences). Therefore, rational conversations are rarely about personal preferences. This makes them often abstract and impersonal.
If you talk rationally with a friend of yours about a problem of his, you might be signed off as un-empathic. This is a little unfair, because a rational analysis of his problems is a much greater proof of friendship than blind support, because it shows that you value his well-being more than your relationship. However, it is not always appreciated.
Sometimes, too much of rationality may also cause problems. One pitfall is trying to give evidence for every single statement. Every evidence is again a statement and requires new evidence. In general, it is impossible to give cycle-free, finite evidence for every statement [Wikipedia / Infinite Regress]. Thus, one has to stop at some moment and accept certain statements as assumptions (Basic).
A similar problem appears when one seeks to define common words. Each definition consists again of words and these words have to be defined. As before, it is in general impossible to define all words of a language in a cycle-free, language-inherent and finite way (see [Thoughts on Atheism / Ultimate reason] for mathematical details). As a proof, look into a Chinese dictionary. It defines all words, but you will still not learn a single new word unless you already speak Chinese. Furthermore, an exact and correct definition of a word (as opposed to a description) can be arbitrarily complex. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously showed how difficult it is to define what a "game" is. Therefore, it is necessary to stop drilling deeper at some point and resort to the intuitive meaning of the words (Language, TalkToArgueWords). This essay will point out a way to do that (Mean).
Rationality is often misused for the sole purpose of cantankerousness. Once a discussion dives into the details of a question with no practical relevance, rationality becomes a tool of quarrel. When people argue, the goal should not be to be proven right. Rather, the goal should be to discover new insights and to get closer to truth (SeekTruth). In a similar bad spirit, rationality is often used to make destructive arguments, i.e. statements that serve the sole purpose of invalidating somebody else's view, without offering an alternative. This can poison human relations. This essay dedicates a section to this phenomenon (SecLess).
Thus, it turns out that rationality is just a tool. If applied in the wrong place, it can be inconvenient or even provoke harm. If applied in the right place, it can be useful.
"What cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating."
While this sword undoubtedly cuts out the crap, it also seems to cut out almost everything else as well, as it prevents taking position on several topics such as politics or religion.
What is the cost of using rationality?Using rationality (Def, SeekTruth) requires a lot of effort. It is difficult to arrive at new statements, it is cumbersome to find reasons and it is strenuous to verify an argument (Arg). Furthermore, rationality often shows that we know far less than we thought we would know. Many of our convictions may turn out to be nothing more than assumptions. Rationality might also destroy the statements on which we wanted to build further arguments. Thus, rationality might lead us to much weaker conclusions than we were aiming at. Thus, we might be forced to give up quite a number of convictions (GiveUp).
The conclusion of a rational argument may be something different from what we expected when we started building the argument. It may be something we can hardly believe, something we don't like or something we just don't want to be true. This is highly inconvenient. Moreover, rational arguments are often perceived by others as cold and merciless. For example, if you talk rationally with a friend of yours about a problem of his, you might be signed off as un-empathic (NoUse).
Furthermore, rationality does not allow us to do the things that we often enjoy so much. First, rationality does not allow us to be self-rightous. If we follow the rational principle, we are forced to consider every statement objectively, no matter who advocates it. Second, rationality does not allow us to lump together unrelated problems. Instead, we have to consider each problem separately (DontMix). This way, the success or failure of one problem is not allowed to spread to another one. Third, rationality does not allow fleeing the problems (Think). Rationality forces us to face a problem and to decompose it. Last, rationality does not allow blind support of somebody's view. When asked, we might be forced to contradict a friend. This is strenuous (NoWish).
In general, however, the upsides of rationality outweight the effort we have to invest in it (WhyUse).
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
ObjectionsRationality may not always be useful (NoUse). Worse, it is sometimes perceived as inappropriate, cold, or insulting. This section covers some common concerns about rationality. This essay dedicates another section on how to be "less rational" (SecLess).
If rationality is not always useful, why use it at all?As we have seen (NoUse), rationality is not always helpful. Consequently, the question arises whether it should be used at all.
This question transfers to several domains:
We can never eliminate all crimes in this world.
So why do we keep hunting criminals?
We can never accumulate all the wisdom of this world.
So why do we go to school at all?
We cannot use a hammer for screws.
So why do we still keep the hammer and do not throw it away?
We can never get all the chocolate in this world.
So why do we take a piece if we are offered one?
The answer to all these questions is the Pragmatic Principle:
Sometimes it can be reasonable to be not truthfulRationality is a tool to achieve goals (Rational). This essay assumes that truth is one of these goals (SeekTruth). However, there are cases where it can be reasonable for one's goals to deviate from the truth. These cases are, e.g.:
- When speaking the truth would counteract our own interests
- When seeing the truth would disrupt our view of the world
- When speaking falsehood helps manipulating other people
- When knowing the truth would make us unhappy
This argument has been supported most strongly by the Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli [Wikipedia / Machiavelli]. Indeed, falsehood can be rational, in the sense that it can serve our goals (Goals). Yet, the present essay is based on the assumption (Assumptions) that truth is among our goals (SeekTruth). This is because, in the vast majority of cases, truth serves all of our goals well. Not last, speaking falsehood can be immoral, and thus counteract the goal of morality (Moral). Therefore, this essay views rationality as a means to find truth. This view corresponds to the scientific, humanist, enlightement-inspired view of the world. Yet, it is not the only possible view.
What is wrong with non-rationality?This essay advocates the use of rational statements (Speak). However, as we have seen, also non-rational statements have their purpose (NoUse). Non-rational statements serve, e.g., in poetry, music, religion, and art. So the question arises why we are not just fine with the non-rational statements.
The problem with non-rational statements is that some of them are as "true" (and therefore as "false") as their opposites. Have a look at the following non-rational statements:
Love is everything.We might as well say "Peace is everything". This statement is as true or as false as the love statement.
Everything in life comes and goes.We can as well say "Everything in life comes to an end". Both statements are true to a certain degree.
The Earth will be destroyed one day.We may as well claim that the Earth will never be destroyed. None of us will be able to verify these statements.
Italy is a great country.It will be easy to find arguments for "Italy is a not so great country".
This does not mean that non-rational statements would be useless. They can still serve their purpose. However, they cannot serve the purpose of convincing someone or yourself of something. Whenever we want the opposite of our statement to be false, rational statements are our best bet.
It is impossible to give reasons for all statements on principle!A rational argument aims at giving evidence for a statement (Arg). Unfortunately, every evidence is again a statement and requires new evidence. In general, it is impossible to give cycle-free, finite evidence for every statement [Wikipedia /Infinite Regress, Regress argument]. See [Thoughts on Atheism / Ultimate reason] for a proof.
To avoid this, we have to rely on founding statements. These are, for example, statements about our immediate perception. A statement such as "I have the impression of seeing something blue" cannot be wrong. This essay dedicates a section to these founding statements (SecFounding).
You cannot believe only what you can prove!Rational thinking produces theories about this world (Theories), and uses them to make predictions (Truth). There are statements that cannot be proven this way. These include, among other things, personal preferences (Preferences) and ethical convictions (Moral). They also include statements about God.
If a statement cannot be proven this way, then it might be that statement is not objectively valid. It is subjective. That means that different people can have different views about that statement. This holds for example for many ethic convictions. Even supposedly "basic" principles (such as "You shall not kill"), are in fact disputable (e.g., in countries that allow the death penalty). This also holds for religious beliefs. For most religious beliefs, there are people who believe something different. Therefore, subjective statements should not be regarded as absolute truth (NoSubjective).
This does not mean that we should not believe in subjective statements. Everybody is free to believe as he wishes. In fact, most people do believe in non-provable statements, simply because the realm of provable statements is so limited. Furthermore, non-provable statements do have their role in rational arguments. They are assumptions (Assumptions). For example, most people believe that it is morally wrong to kill someone without a reason (Moral). Even if that statement cannot be proven, it may still form the basis of a valid rational argument. Likewise, one can have a rational discussion about God once one assumes his existence. Thus, the fact that some statements cannot be proven does not render the rational principle useless.
Some assumptions may be wrong!Rational arguments must assume that some initial statements are true (Arg). If it turns out that an assumption was wrong, the whole argument collapses.
Wrong assumptions are indeed a major problem in all domains of reasoning. This applies in science, and in human thinking in general. Rationality offers means to mitigate this problem: It sees all of our thinking in general as nothing more than an approximation of truth (WhatIsTruth). Thus, it is clear from the beginning that all our arguments and thoughts are nothing more than attempts to approach reality. This entails that we have to be ready to give up our convictions if they do not serve this purpuse.
Therefore, rationality emphasizes that every statement shall be open to verification and questioning (Speak). The more people are allowed to check a rational argument, the less likely it is that there are wrong assumptions in it (QPerson). Furthermore, rationality emphasizes the art of determining, abandoning, and improving false assumptions. This continuous strive for the truth, even at the expense of past beliefs, is one of the cornerstones of rationality (SeekTruth). Thus, while rationality cannot always exclude wrong assumptions, it offers at least mechanisms to detect and eliminate them. This cannot be said about every school of thought.
but it must be lived forwards
Logic is undecidable.Classical first-order logic is undecidable. That means that there exist statements for which we will never be able to find out whether they are true or false. Thus, if rationality uses first order logic, it faces statements within its own domain that it cannot handle.
Indeed, rationality faces statements that it cannot prove or disprove. One such statement is for example:
Even rational theories change over time!Newton's theory of gravitation, for example, was for sure a rational one. Yet it has been replaced by Einstein's theory of relativity. Other scientific theories are changed as well. Does this not show the limits of the rational principle?
In the framework of rationality, our view of the world is just an approximation of reality (WhatIsTruth). We try to find theories that explain this world, and that predict what will happen. If we find out that a theory does not work, we change it. This way, we approximate truth better and better over time. The clear disadvantage of this technique is that our theories change from time to time. However, this technique is still better at predicting and explaining than most alternatives. For example, rationality is clearly better than the alternative of not making any theories at all. Rational theories help us understand at least some things of this world. This property makes them useful by the pragmatic principle.
Also, changing a theory is clearly better than sticking to a wrong theory, if we want to predict things. This is why rationality puts particular emphasis on the ability to change convictions. It turns out that those people who do not change their convictions in the face of counter-evidence are less good at predicting things. Indeed, scientific theories are constantly being evaluated and challenged, in order to always get them closer to truth.
It is considered one of the beauties of science (and of the rational principle in general) that it evaluates itself over time. If a predicted statement turns out to be false, we may challenge the argument that lead to it. We may correct it, possibly by admitting that some assumptions were wrong or that some conclusions were invalid. Thereby, we learn new things. This is a call that appears repeatedly in this essay (WhatIsTruth, Wrong, Contingency).
Science has brought us many ills!Science has brought us progress on many accounts, but also many ills: Wars have become more sophisticated, weapons have become more dangerous, environmental damage has become more profound, and many of our philosophical and spiritual foundations have been shattered. Thus, we may ask whether rational thinking (and science as one of its applications) is good for humanity.
Science and thinking by itself is neither good nor bad (Good). It is a tool that helps us understand and use our physical environment in a more effective way. Whether this is good or bad depends on what this tool is being used for: It is "good" if it is used to develop a new medicine, and "bad" if it is used for developing a more lethal weapon. Thus, the question of good and bad is not a question of science, but of ethics (Moral). Rational thinking cannot replace ethics, but help us understand and formalize it.
Rationality can only work if we admit the principle of identity. This principle, however, is not self-evident.This objection relates to the classical paradox of Theseus' ship. It goes as follows: Suppose we built a large ship. Over the years, all parts of a ship will eventually be replaced by newer parts. When all parts have been replaced, is the ship still the same ship? If not, when did it stop being the same ship? If yes, what if we took all the old parts and assembled another ship. Would that be the same ship?
This paradox shows that the question of when two things are the same is not trivial to answer. (See [Wikipedia / Ship of Theseus] for a discussion). For most rational arguments, we need indeed the concept of identity. However, we usually only require the concept of real, unaltered identity. This concept is usually undisputed. For example, if we do not replace the parts of Theseus's ship, then everbody will agree it is still the same ship.
If we replace the parts of the ship, the relation of identity becomes disputable. Fortunately, nobody forces us to define the notion of "identity" for these cases. We can just say that we do not know whether the ships are identical or not (Unknown). The theory of rationality put forward in this essay says that words are nothing more than human artifacts (Mean, TruthEtc). They have no foundation in nature. "identity" is not something that is there in this world, and that we have to define. Rather, it is a term that we humans apply in certain cases. Thus, it is up to us to decide whether we want to apply the word "identity" to Theseus' ship or not (Definitions).
In general, we can avoid the problem by making our statements more precise (BePrecise, TalkToArgueWords). For example, we can say that the structure of the ship is still the same, while the parts are not. This does away with the conundrum.
Rationality assumes that the concept of truth exists. This assumption may be wrong.Assume that truth does not exist. Then, the statement "Truth does not exist" would be true. Hence truth exists in any case. [Wikipedia / List of Paradoxes]
In other words: The very attempt to argue that truth does not exist presumes that it exists, because making a claim and arguing for a claim is only possible if truth exists. If truth did not exist, then the claim "truth exists" would not be any different from the claim "truth does not exist". This essay dedicates a section to these conundrums (SecTruth).
though we are unable to fix conceptually what that "is" signifies.
(i.e., it does not make sense to ask what existence is
because by asking for it, we already presume it.)
Rationality assumes that there exists a reality. This assumption may be wrong.It has been argued that we cannot be sure whether the physical system in which we perceive ourselves really exists. There could be no such system at all. There could be also multiple such systems. Then, our sensations would be just impressions. We would live in a reality similar to the one outlined in the movie "The Matrix" [Matrix]: Everything is just impressions and nothing really exists.
The hypothesis that reality would not exist is unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable). Therefore, there is no use arguing about this statement. As all unfalsifiable statements, the truth or falsehood of this hypothesis has absolutely no influence on our life. As we have no way of escaping our reality, no way of perceiving other realities and no way of determining whether there exist other realities, the existence of other realities is completely irrelevant in everyday life. It just does not matter whether everything around us is simulated or real — because these two notions become equivalent if we cannot prove them different. Therefore, rationality explicitly excludes such notions (Unfalsifiable).
This essay offer the following solution to these conundra: We perceive ourselves in a stream of sensations (WhatIsTruth). Whether these sensations are "real" or "unreal" in some unfalsifiable sense is irrelevant. The goal of rationality is, given some sensations, predicting others. For this purpose, we build up theories that help us make predictions (Theories). The theory that reality exists is a very successful theory. Therefore, most people accept and use it. The concepts of reality and truth are discussed in detail later on (Reality, SecTruth).
Rationality assumes that people around us exist. This assumption may be wrong.It has been argued that our fellow humans might be just machines that act as if they had a conscience — but that do not. Such machines are called "zombies" in philosophy. In this scenario, the social part of our perceived reality would be just simulated by things that seem human but that are not.
By definition, it is impossible to distinguish between a machine that mimics a conscious human in a perfect way and a real human. Therefore, such a hypothesis is unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable). An unfalsifiable hypothesis is irrelevant, because it will make no difference if this hypothesis is true or false.
As a matter of fact, I assume that the reader of this essay is a human with consciousness. Whether he is or not, he is kindly invited to discuss the concept of rationality, with or without consciousness [Thoughts on Atheism / Matrix]. In particular, he is invited to read this essay for a definition of the concept of reality (Reality).
There is no objective truthIt is surprising to learn how few things we really know for sure. As an example, take a seemingly obvious statement, such as the observation "This apple is green". If taken with philosophical rigor, a number of questions arise from just this simple statement. First of all, how can we be sure that there is an apple in the first place? It could be just an illusion. After all, people fall prey to all kinds of optical illusions. For example, people see oases in the desert even though there are none. So there is no reason to assume that this apple is real. The only way we have to verify that there is an apple are our sensory organs — and these are untrustworthy. Furthermore, even if we agree that there is an structure of atoms in the shape of an apple, how can we be sure that this structure of atoms is an apple to both of us? After all, it is just an arbitrary structure in the sea of atoms around us. Last, how can we make sure that your concept of an apple is the same as mine? We never discussed the concept of an apple, and I cannot be sure whether your idea of an apple is not, by chance, that of a long, bended yellow fruit, which I would call "banana".
Now assume that we managed to agree that there is an apple. Then we might still disagree about the notion of "green". Your sensory impression might be completely different from mine and we have absolutely no way of exchanging them. Furthermore, different cultures might have different notions and granularities of "green". Your "green" might be different from mine. Last, the apple might not actually be "green", but have red spots. Then, can we still call the apple "green"?
These arguments can easily be contined to infinity, and that is what many philosophers do. It has been argued that objective truth cannot exist and that, for this reason, we can never agree on reality. Surprisingly, proponents of this theory want us to agree on that. However, how can we be sure that we understood what they were saying, given that there is no objective truth? Why do they even talk if, strictly speaking, no one can understand them? This shows that the very discussing of the hypothesis that we do not agree on reality proves it wrong. It seems that, even though there might be no objective truth, people do agree on most things of the physical world, on words and on their meanings.
We might be tempted to point out that people argue all the time about things they disagree on. This, however, is just because there is no point discussing the things that one agrees on. Indeed, the fact that people do discuss the things they disagree on proves that they do agree on the vast majority of things and meanings, because otherwise they would be unable to discuss the ones they do not agree on.
This essay argues that we perceive ourselves in a stream of sensations (WhatIsTruth). We make hypotheses about this stream of sensations, and we build up theories about them. Some of these theories are particularly successful — in the sense that they help us predict following sensations with astonishing accuracy. For example, we come up with the theory that most people agree on the basic things of reality (such as green apples). This theory allows us to predict that most people will say "there is a green apple" when asked what they see when we show them a green apple. These theories are not always right, but they are usually so good that no one questions them. Still, this essay dedicates a topic and a section to those who wish to go into detail (Truth, SecTruth).
Rationality assumes that free will exists. But does it?Rationality is all about goals and ways to achieve these goals (Rational). This setting assumes that people are capable of deciding for a certain solution and then implementing that solution. However, it is not clear whether people really have the power to decide what they do. First, people's decisions are much more influenced by their background, their upbringing, their culture, their emotions, and social constraints than we commonly like to admit. Is someone who hits somebody in anger really in control of his actions? Can someone with a conservative upbringing really decide to have a liberal life style? Can a drug-addict really decide to stop taking drugs?
The answer is probably: partially. While we cannot control all of our actions, we do control a great deal of them. It would be a waste of opportunity of we gave up the control that we do have (Pragmatic Principle). Worse, it would be irresponsible to blame external factors for something that lies in our own hands. This essay will repeatedly advocate responsibility for one's own actions (BeResponsible, Moral).
The second argument against free will is more of a philosophical nature. It says that our so-called free will is in fact the outcome of a chemical process in the brain. Our decisions are determined not by ourselves, but by the state of our neurons. If we knew the state of all neurons, we could predict what a person will decide. Indeed, a some of our decisions are caused by known neuro-chemical processes: Drugs can influence our mood, and diseases of the nervous system can bring hallucinations, depression, anxiety, and paranoia. This makes it conceivable all our mental life, including our decisions and reasoning, would be driven by physical processes. If that is the case, then no-one can really be responsible for his actions — because no one is free to choose or change the state of his neurons. In this scenario, we could not even blame a person for a crime, because his actions are just the result of his brain activity, which he cannot change.
From a pragmatic perspective, however, it makes no difference whether a person's actions are determined by his brain activity or by what we call "free will". The concept of "free will" allows us to describe and predict people's behavior. If someone says that "He wants ice cream" (Desires), then we know that giving that person ice cream will make him happy — no matter whether this desire for ice cream is the outcome of a chemical process or not. If we tell someone that if he commits a crime, he will be punished, then that person is less likely to commit a crime — no matter whether this consequence is the outcome of a purely materialistic computation or the active decision of a conscious self. For this reason, the concept of free will is a useful assumption, in the sense that it allows us to predict reality. This essay will give a limited definition of this concept further down (FreeWillEx). For this essay, the notion of free will is an auxiliary notion that serves a purpose (Aux, Truth, Reality).
like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself
Rationality, including this essay, relies on natural language. Natural language, however, is inherently fuzzy.It is well-known that natural language is ambiguous and fuzzy. Thus, it can be asked whether natural language is the right vehicle to express rational thoughts.
Indeed, people have run into this problem when they tried to formalize proofs. This is why formal langages (such as the languages of math and logic) have been developed. They provide an unambiguous way to express statements.
In most cases, however, natural language is still the vehicle of choice (and be it only to teach the formal languages). Fortunately, natural language has a built-in mechanisms to deal with unclear statements: In order to determine whether a message has been received, we can ask the receiver to paraphrase the message. If there is doubt about a statement, the statement can be discussed and clarified. And indeed, in most cases, natural language succeeds quite well in transmitting its message — as the reader experiences while reading this text. Therefore, it is justified to assume a basic understanding of words (WordMeaning). This essay will argue that such an implicit understanding of words is all we need (Mean). As Augustine of Hippo remarked once concerning the definition of the word time:
Who guarantees that the outcome of a logical conclusion holds in reality?If we start from premises that correspond to reality, and if we use a valid logical argument, then we will arrive at conclusions that correspond again to reality. This is the basic mechanism of rational arguments (Arg). For example, if we know that
This essay cannot explain why this is in this way. On the contrary, it has to assume that the Miracle of Logic works. This essay will make extensive use of this principle to explain the mechanisms of reasoning (ChapDed).
You simply cannot see the world in this way!It may seem strange to describe the world by statements that build on each other. It appears that this approach is too simplistic for a world that is so complex.
Yet the statements of rationality are very powerful. They can express the uncertain, the unclear, the unknown and that it is unknown whether something is unknown. They can even say that they cannot say something. This essay later presents a list of things that we can express rationally (SecStat).
You do not know everything!Rationality builds its arguments on statements. These statements can only be made if one has certain knowledge about the world. Therefore, the question arises whether the principle of rationality does not overestimate the knowledge that we have.
We are certainly far away from knowing everything that there is to know. Fortunately, rationality by itself does not require that much about the world be known. On the contrary, rationality will probably reveal many things that we thought we know, but do not know (Cost). Rationality allows us to express what we do not know (Unknown).
People just don't act rationally!Rationality may be a great theory, but reality shows that people just do not always act rationally. Therefore, we can ask what is the benefit of rationality, if people mostly behave irrationally.
It is true that people often do not act rationally (Rational). This, however, does not deprive rationality of its raison d'être. Just like a law is a good thing, even if people break it, rationality is a good thing, even if people don't follow it. Just like the law, rationality serves as a yard-stick rather than as a description of reality. Rationality can serve to assess the usefulness, the reasonableness or the morality of a behavior, even if that behavior is useless, unreasonable or immoral.
If we can rationalize all questions, then do we need humans at all? Can't all the reasoning be done by a machine?It is a very interesting question whether reasoning can be outsourced completely to computers. The renaissance philosopher Leibniz dreamed of a machine that, given all the political preferences and military facts, would compute whether the country should go to war.
The central problem is that rationality provides the framework for such reasoning, but is disconnected from reality. The framework does not "know" whether a certain assumption is true or not. For example, the framework does not know whether the statement "The target country has rich oil resources" is true or not. For now, the connection between rationality and reality has to be established by humans. This is also the reason why we cannot outsource, e.g., legal court decisions to reasoning machines: Whether or not a certain term (such as "malevolent intention") applies in reality or not has to be decided by humans.
Furthermore, rationality is not always the right way to go (NoUse). If we outsourced all reasoning to a machine, then we would deprive ourselves of the non-rational options.
However, there are some cases where both conditions are fulfilled: rational thinking is the preferred way to go and the truth of statements is computer-accessible. In these cases, computers can indeed help with making decisions. This holds in particular when the rational argument is huge, with millions of assumptions and consequences. And indeed, computers do the reasoning for us in these cases. They do computations for train schedules, bridge achitectures and aircraft steering. In these cases, the reasoning can be out-sourced.
If rationality works, then all people should always arrive at the same conclusions. However, they usually don't.Rationality emphasizes the objectivity of an argument (Arg). In principle, people sharing the same assumptions should arrive at the same conclusions. However, in reality, we witness a vast diversity of opinions and behaviors, disputes and sometimes wars — even if everybody claims to act rationally. Why is this the case?
Several factors might play a role here:
- Not everybody likes the principle of rationality. Some people prefer doing without it. Even those people who do like rationality may not always choose to apply it either. Sometimes, people who want to apply rationality may simply not be able to (DontAssumeRationality, Sorry, Cannot).
- Rationality relies heavily on assumptions. Different people make different assumptions. For example, people may have different ethical standards (Moral). Since ethical standards translate to personal preferences in the framework of rationality, people with different moral convictions will end up drawing different conclusions (Assumptions).
- Different people have different preferences. For example, some people dream of a new car, others would rather go on vacation. If both persons follow the same rational argument of spending their money so as to make their dreams come true, they will end up doing different things (Preferences).
- Sometimes, people may know things that other people do not know. Then, rational arguments will lead to different conclusions.
- Lastly, there may be cases where people do not want to arrive at a certain conclusion. Then, no rational theory will lead them there.
Sounds all great and you are surely right, but sometimes I just cannot be rational.Rationality has some benefits that other approaches do not have (Use). However, rationality demands a lot of effort and energy (Cost). Therefore, nobody can always be rational — even if he wanted to.
This seems to be a very normal phenomenon. After all, we cannot always succeed with everything. Still, by the Pragmatic Principle, rationality remains a useful thing to have. Even if we do not apply it in all cases where it would be useful, it can still be of benefit in those cases where we do apply it (WhyUse).
StatementsStatements are the building blocks of rationality (Def). This part of the essay will talk about different types of statements:
- rational statements (SecStat)
- nearly rational statements (SecNearly)
- irrational statements (SecNonRat)
- founding statements (SecFounding)
Rational StatementsThe world is so complex and diverse that it may seem impossible to approach it with rationalism. But rationality can deal with many different types of things, including supposedly "irrational" ones. Far from having to neglect irrational things, rationality can express them and deal with them. This section will explain how different phenomena of this world, irrational as they might seem, can be "wrapped" into rational statements. For this purpose, the section introduces different types of statements. Metaphorically speaking, we will introduce the types of bricks with which we can build our towers. This section will also propose wordings for the statements. These wordings are by no means compulsory. Clearly, people can phrase their statements any way they want. The wordings proposed here just serve as examples.
Simple StatementsRationality builds on statements. Statements in the sense of rationality are only declarative sentences, i.e. sentences that can be true or false. For example, the following sentence is a statement:
- Questions ("Is the Earth flat?")
- Commands ("Go home!")
- Interjections ("Uh!")
- Incomplete sentences ("Well, you know...")
NegationsStatements can be negated. For example, we can negate the statement "The Earth is flat" and say
Some care has to be taken with negations. For example, the negation of "The Earth is flat" is not
Statements about the UnknownFor many statements (in fact, for the vast majority of statements), we do not know whether they are true or false. For example, we do not know whether there is intelligent life on the Planet Mars. Rationality allows us to express this, e.g., by statements of the form "As of now, I do not know whether ...". For example, the following statement is a rational statement:
This transformation might sound trivial. It might seem as if the new statement did not carry any value. However, even a statement of the form "I do not know..." carries value. For example, assume that you are driving a truck that weights 8 tons. Assume you come to a bridge and you ask the bridge guard whether the bridge can withstand the weight of your truck. If the bridge guard replies "We do not know whether the bridge can withstand the weight of 8 tons", then this is a strong argument for you not to try it out. The argument goes like this: Whenever you do not know whether your action will cause harm and whenever the expected harm is huge, you will refrain from that action (RuleInvention). This way, the unknownness of a statement becomes part of your rational argument (Arg).
In fact, many unnecessary problems arise because people think that they always have to know the answer. It is much more rational to say "I do not know" than to give a false account. It is OK to not know something (AvoidIKnow, NoOp).
Directional statementsSometimes, an argument is not sufficient to support a hypothesis. For example, if a journalist is murdered in some country, we would like to deduce that the press freedom in that country is under threat. However, such a conclusion may be too strong and the evidence too week. In such cases, we can make a directional statement. Such a statement can take the form "This seems to indicate that..." or "This seems to support the hypothesis that...". In the example, we can say:
This seems to support the hypothesis that the press freedom in Timbuti is under threat.
Directional statements are useful to structure rational arguments. They are also useful to indicate the purpose or broader aim of an argument. At the same time, they avoid premature conclusions, because they do not actually entail a statement.
Existential statementsSometimes, it is not possible to make an absolute, general statement. For example, not all Germans are blond. Therefore, we may not say "Germans are blond" (Generalizations). The statement might apply only to certain instances, only in certain cases, or only at certain points of time. To make this explicit, we should use an existential statement. An existential statement can, e.g., take one of the following forms in a rational argument:
- "Sometimes,..." / "Often, ..."
- "In some cases,..." / "In many cases,..."
- "There is one..." / "There are some..."
- "Some..." / "Many..." / Most..."
Statements about possibilityIn many cases, we want to point out that something is possible — without actually implying that it will happen. For example, if you are driving a car and if you are having an accident, it is possible that you are catapulted through the windshield, even though this does not necessarily have to happen. In the simplest case, we can express such possibilities by statements of the form "It is possible that...". In the example, we could say:
Belief StatementsMany things we talk about are not proven facts, but beliefs. For example, people believe that a certain soccer tem will win, that genetically modified food is dangerous, that the theory of the Bing Bang is true or that a certain religious faith is right. Beliefs are a phenomenon that seems to escape rational thinking. Yet, also beliefs can be "wrapped" into rational statements. Such statements start with "I believe..." and are called belief statements. For example, the following sentence is a rational belief statement:
It might seem as if this statement did not carry any value, because it ultimately wraps an unproven statement. Still, the statement can be a useful part of rational arguments (Arg). For example, if you believe that GM food is dangerous, then you will avoid GM food. This is a very rational conclusion. This argument is independent of whether GM food is actually dangerous or not. Similarly, opponents of GM food can found lobby groups based on their belief that GM food is dangerous, even if we do not yet know whether it is dangerous or not. This way, beliefs can become part of rational arguments.
It seems that a number of problems could be avoided if people made a better distinction between what they know and what they believe. It is much better to say that we believe something than to say that we know something if we don't (NoSubjective). Another problem seems to be that as soon as someone states his belief, other people who have a different belief start arguing against it. Such an effort is futile — unless the speaker's belief has an effect on other people or if the speaker is interested in discussing the belief (TalkToArgue).
It may also happen that the speaker does not have an opinion at all about something. For example, the speaker may simply have no clue about whether GM food is good or bad. Then he should say so:
Statements about UncertaintyUncertainty is closely related to the phenomena of beliefs (Beliefs) and of unknownness (Unknown). Rationality can deal with uncertainty by sentences of the form "It is uncertain whether...". For example, if it is uncertain whether a certain number wins the lottery, then we can say:
Mathematicians have developed a theory that can be used to describe the phenomenon of uncertainty and randomness. This is the Probability Theory [Wikipedia / Probability theory]. It can make rational statements about uncertain phenomena. For example, even though it cannot predict the outcome of a single dice roll, it can predict with high accuracy what amount of money you will win if you always bet on the same number and roll the dice a large number of times.
Private ReasonsRationality emphasizes the public verifiability of arguments (Speak). However, we may not always wish to relinquish our private reasons for something. Rationality allows wrapping private reasons for a certain conclusion into a generic statement of the form "These are private reasons". For example, we can say
This technique bears certain problems. For example, people might start guessing the reasons for the conclusion and that is seldom desired. Furthermore, the fact that a person has private reasons can already raise suspicions. If that could become a problem, the speaker will have to refrain from discussing the argument with others — or he will have to discuss it with a friend in private. A rational argument without public scrutiny is more likely to contain mistakes, but can still be useful. See [Thoughts on Ethics / Privacy violarion] for a moral discussion of privacy violations.
Statements about FeelingsEmotions and rationality are traditionally seen as two opposing phenomena. Yet, this dichotomy is unjustified. Rationality allows wrapping a feeling into a rational sentence. For example, we can say:
It is very hard to find a rational argument that has as its conclusion a statement about the emotional state of a person. In other words, there will be no rules that allow us to predict an emotion in a provably correct way. However, in many cases, we will be able to derive dispositions for feelings (Dispositions).
Likewise, it is often impossible to give reasons for feelings or to predict feelings from rational arguments. This, however, makes statements about feelings no less rational than statements about other unpredictable phenomena. A person's emotional state is a fact in its own right and does not require reasons (EmotionalState).
Statements about DesiresA desire is a feeling (Feelings) of hoping for a certain state of the world. A desire can be expressed rationally by a statement of the form "I want...". For example, we can say:
Many desires are not "rational" in the sense that they contradict other goals. For example, the desire to eat chocolate is "irrational" in the sense that it is in conflict with the goals of healthy teeth and healthy body weight. Still, desires can rationally lead to advice (Advice) or other logical conclusions. In fact, we would have a number of problems less in this world if people were not afraid to state what they really want — for fear of being "irrational" (SayWant).
Disposition StatementsA disposition is a state of the world that is considered likely. For example, if you take away somebody's bicyle, that person is likely to get angry. However, we cannot prove a priori that he will get angry. In fact, he might not get angry at all. To reason with these likely, but unproven states of the world, rationality allows disposition statements of the form "It is likely that...". For example, we can state
Still, dispositions can be used in rational arguments (Arg). For example, assume that we have the following statements:
Inclusion StatementsOften, we would like to rely on facts or assumptions that have been made beforehand. Rationality allows us to take over an existing body of statements by an inclusion statement. An inclusion statement for a source X takes the form "We assume all statements in X". For example, we can use an inclusion statement to take over all definitions of the national civil law:
CitationsStatements can come from several sources. People, newspapers, books and TV shows all produce statements. These statements are not necessarily true. For example, a book might say "The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a Boarding School of magic.". This statement is false. However, rationality can wrap it into a citation statement. A citation statement takes, e.g., the form "X says that ...". In the example, the citation statement is:
Personalized StatementsSome statements are not universally valid, but depend on the speaker. For example, Bob may find Alice beautiful, but everybody else may find her ugly. Then, the statement "Alice is beautiful" is debatable. Still, rationality allows personal statements to be wrapped into rational statements by sentences of the form "I find...". In the example, Bob may say:
There exist personal statements on which a large majority of people agree. For example, most people will say that a colorful sunset is beautiful. In this case, we may (with a certain degree of sloppiness) say that the sunset is beautiful. However, this is just a simplification. We may actually meet someone who does not find the sunset beautiful.
Meta StatementsMeta statements are statements about other statements. For example, the following statement is a meta statement:
People often talk about "the meta level". In fact, there is not only one meta level, but infinitely many. This is because each statement on a meta level can be again the object of a new meta statement, such as the following:
DefinitionsA definition is a statement that defines one notion to mean another notion. For example, we can define that the word "bachelor" shall mean "unmarried man":
If a word already exists with some standard meaning, a re-definition of that word can be namespaced by attaching a qualifier:
Definitions can be useful to shorten complicated explanations. Such definitions can be implicitly namespaced to the current argument. For example, people can agree to call a country "peaceful" if it was not involved in a war in the last 50 years:
Limit StatementsThere are cases where we have only a very vague idea of a certain quantity. For example, assume that we do not know how long the next meeting with the boss will take. Assume, however, that we definitively know that meetings with the boss always take longer than 2 hours. Rationality allows us to describe this state by a limit statement. A limit statement is a statement that does not specify a quantity, but an upper or lower bound of that quantity:
Unfortunately, limit statements are used far too seldom. It often happens that people inquire about a quantity ("Do you know how long the meeting will take?") and the other person, having only a vague idea of the quantity, says that he does not know the answer ("I do not know how long the meeting will take."). But in many cases, just the vague knowledge would already be of use to the first person. Therefore, rather than saying that we do not know the answer, we should provide whatever little information we have ("I do not know how long the meeting will take. All I know is that it will definitively take longer than 2 hours.") (SayIt). In order to trigger such an answer from our interlocutor, we can use a trick and ask for a very absurd bound for the quantity. If we are lucky, our interlocutor will reply with the bounds he knows ("Do you think the meeting will take rather 15 minutes or rather the whole afternoon?" — "Oh, certainly not 15 minutes! Meetings with the boss always take longer than 2 hours."). (See also AvoidIKnow)
PatternsA pattern is a description of a certain generic behavior — whether this behavior appears in the real world or not. For example, the following collection of statements is a pattern:
In the framework of rationality, a pattern definition is the assignment of a certain name ("The Don Quixote pattern") to a certain pattern ("The person believes that he is being attacked and starts fighting back"). A pattern definition does not make any claim about reality. For example, when we define the Don Quixote pattern, we do not claim that people would imagine their enemies. We do not even claim that there exist people who imagine their enemies. We just say that, if someone imagines his enemies, then he can be called a Don Quixote.
Pattern definitions are definitions in the sense of rationality (Definitions). Just like other definitions, pattern definitions serve to abbreviate. It is easier to say "He is a Don Quixote" than to explain that he is someone who imagines his enemies and fights them in vain. As soon as we apply a defined pattern, we do make a statement about reality. Beyond that, patterns serve mainly illustrational purposes.
Personal PreferencesA personal preference is a statement about what the speaker likes or dislikes. For example, if you like the movie "The Life of Brian", you will say
It may seem as if personal preferences are irrational. But, on the contrary, they can be used very effectively in rational arguments (Arg). A statement such as "I like 'The Life of Brian'", for example, may lead you prefer this movie over another one, when it comes to decide what DVD to rent. This is a perfectly rational argument, based upon a supposedly irrational statement.
GeneralizationsA generalization is a statement that makes an all-embracing claim about a large class of people, objects or events. One example is
- If we can rationally proove that the generalization holds (as in the example that "there is no even prime number, except the number 2")
- If we have examined all instances and found the generalization to hold (as in "All votes in this district are valid — there was no vote that was invalid")
- If we have a statistic certainty that the statement holds in general (e.g., by help of a valid large sample and correct statistical generalization (EstablishRule))
Other generalizations can be problematic. Examples for such generalizations are "Italians are unpunctual", "The postal service is slow" or "Germans are blond". Such statements are problematic, because, technically speaking, they are proven wrong as soon as we find a single counter-example (SecRuleTruth). Furthermore, if the statement is pejorative, we may actually insult people with it (depending on your moral framework (MoralFrame), see e.g. [Thoughts on Ethics / Insult]). Therefore, generalizations should be watered down, if they are not meant with mathematical rigorosity (NoGen, Personal, Existential, Guarded). We may not automatically assume that a generalization is intended in the watered-down meaning, because some generalizations (such as scientific statements) are indeed meant in their all-embracing meaning.
Guarded GeneralizationsA guarded generalization is a statement that talks about the majority of cases without making a claim about all cases. Such statements can, e.g., take one of the following forms:
- In general...
- In the majority of cases...
Guarded generalizations serve to make observations that cannot be formulated as true generalizations (Generalizations) because they do not apply in all cases. Guarded generalizations cannot yield statements about a particular instance, but they can yield disposition statements (Dispositions) and existential statements (Existential) and insight in general.
EvaluationsRationality emphasizes objectivity and shuns generalizations (NoGen). However, we cannot always just make dry statements about facts of the world. We want to attach a value to them. Rationality allows this in the following cases:
- We can say that a certain behavior advances or obstructs a certain goal (SecGoals, Good). We say that the behavior is "good" or "bad" for this goal. We have to mention this goal in order for the judgement to be valid.
- We can say that a certain behavior is immoral with respect to a certain moral framework (Moral). If the behavior is immoral with respect to all common moral frameworks, we do not have to specify the framework explicitly. We can say that the behavior is immoral.
- We can say that we like or dislike a certain thing, fact or person (Preferences, Personal).
- After having gone through a decision process (SecDec), we can judge a certain behavior with respect to certain goals. A decision process can evaluate different behaviors with respect to different goals. This may lead to advice (Advice).
These are the only cases in which rational language allows attaching a value to a fact.
Schranken-SchlussA Schranken-Schluss is a statement that says that, even though a certain property is vague or fuzzy (Fuzzy), the property holds to such a strong degree that it is justified to say so. For example, we can say
ComparisonsA comparison is a statement that says that one thing has a property to a higher degree than another thing. For example, we can say:
Nearly RationalSome statements are not rational in the strict sense. Instead, they implicitly stand for a rational statement (SecStat). Such abstract statements are called nearly rational. Nearly rational statements are useful because they are less clumsy than the purely rational statements they represent. If we want to use a nearly rational statement in an argument (Arg), though, we have to be ready to replace them by their rational counterpart.
Context-dependent StatementsSome statements are only true in a certain context. Take, for example, the following statement:
Colloquial time references ("today", "now") and colloquial space references ("here") can be handled in a similar way: Whenever someone makes a statement that employs such a colloquial reference, we should think of it as if the reference had been replaced by the actual date or location. For example, if an American citizen says on the 1st of May 2009 that Barack Obama is his president, then we shall read this statement as
In most cases, the context of a statement is obvious to the reader. If it is not, however, it should be made explicit in order to be a valid rational statement.
Stressed sentencesA stressed sentence is a sentence in which one component (such as the verb or a noun) is stressed. Such a sentence commonly implies that the negation of the sentence holds if this component is replaced by something else.
Take for example the sentence
I know what happened: Bob ate the cake yesterday.
implies: The cake disappeared and it's Bob's fault. Alice did not get a piece of it.
I know what happened: Bob ate the cake yesterday
implies: Bob did not just put it away, he actually ate it.
I know what happened: Bob ate the cake yesterday
implies: Bob did not have anything to eat, but found the cake and ate it.
I know what happened: Bob ate the cake yesterday
implies: Bob did not eat the cake today.
The implied sense of stressed sentences may not always be clear, because it depends on the audience, the circumstances and the intention of the speaker. Furthermore, the implied meaning of a stressed sentence gets lost when the sentence is passed on to other people or when it is written down. Therefore, stressed sentences should always be accompanied by the implied statement in order to be a valid rational statement.
ReproachesA reproach is a statement that implies that the listener did something wrong. A reproach often implicitly implies the request to stop, justify, and compensate that behavior. For example, a reproach can be:
A reproach is only a valid rational statement if it comes with the moral rule. In case the moral rule is not given, one may ask for it. If the moral rule does not exist, then the reproach is a false reproach (FalseReproaches).
MetaphorsA metaphor is a statement that draws an analogy between the state of the world and an object or idea. One famous example is a monologue from Shakespeare's "As you like it", which compares the world to a theater stage:
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
One of the most frequent pitfalls of rational discussions is to draw conclusions from metaphors. For example, people might start arguing that, since the world is a stage, there should be someone who has written the play. This, in turn, entails all kinds of unsupported conclusions (predestination of our behavior, existence of an audience etc.). Worse, this pitfall can be used to put words in somebody's mouth ("Shakespeare has said that the world is a stage. Hence he believed that our actions are predetermined by some kind of script."). A metaphor makes a statement only about one single analogy between the vehicle and the tenor. It does not allow us to conlude that there would be other analogies.
Metaphors may seem like very weak rational statements. And indeed, metaphors by themselves cannot be used to deduce other statements. Rather, metaphors serve to illustrate a point. Metaphors are more catchy and easier to remember than pure descriptive statements. For example, we can say
Abstract statementsAn abstract statement is a statement whose literal reading does not yield concrete truth conditions. For example, the following statement is an abstract statement:
Germany has had no civil war in the last 50 years.
PoliciesA policy is a goal (Goals) whose literal meaning does not directly yield truth conditions for the desired state. For example, the following statement is a policy:
- We want to allow for more immigration
- We want to allow schools to teach in foreign languages
- We want to provide tax money for cultural organizations
Fuzzy statementsA fuzzy property is a characteristics that can be fulfilled to a certain degree. For example, properties such as "easy", "expensive" or "important" are fuzzy in nature. If a thing has a fuzzy property to a certain degree, then the thing also has the opposite property to a certain degree. For example, writing your name is "easy". However, it is still so complicated that a baby cannot do it.
Therefore, fuzzy properties are admissible in rational arguments only if they appear in comparisons (Comparisons) or schranken-schlusses (Schrankenschluss). Alternatively, fuzzy statements can be wrapped into a simple statement (Simple) that says that the fuzzy statement holds to a certain degree:
Loaded statementsA loaded statement is a statement that requires implicitly that another statement is true. Consider for example the question
We cannot always avoid loaded statements. For example, the statement "The Earth is round" presupposes the existence of the Earth. Presuppositions can be factored out by assuming them (Assumptions), by proving them or by using them as a condition (Implications). This way, loaded statements can become rational statements.
Non-RationalThere are types of statements that look rational, but that are poisonous to a rational argument. These are non-rational statements. This section lists a few of them.
Implicit statementsAn implicit statement is a statement that is intended by the speaker, often also heard by the listener, but not made explicit in what is said. Examples are:
What is said: Adolf Hitler was also an atheist!
What is heard: Atheism is bad
What is said: You were not at the party yesterday!
What is heard: You should have come and I am angry at you
What is said: After all, it was the US that invaded Iraq
What is heard: This invasion caused more trouble than it solved
Implicit statements convey information without making it the subject of discourse. Thereby, implicit statements violate the call for clarity and explicitness of rationality (Speak). Therefore, implicit statements are not rational. They have no place in a rational argument (Arg). They should be uncovered wherever possible (Uncover). Indeed, implicit statements are the root of a considerable number of communication problems (NoReproach, NoContradiction, Uncover, Simplicity).
Principle of SimplicitySentences can have multiple meanings and readings, and also implicit meanings (Implicit). These lead to misunderstandings. The Principle of Simplicity assumes that the intended meaning of a sentence is the meaning that cannot be expressed easily more explicitly [TOE / Declaration]. For example, assume that someone says "I will be at the party tonight". There are different possible readings of this phrase:
- The person will be at the party tonight
- The person is planning to be at the party tonight, but is not yet sure
Cultural statementsNot all statements that people make are rational statements in the sense of this essay — even if they may seem so. For example, in many cultures, it is common to say "yes", even if one does not agree. In these cases, politeness is valued more than the literal meaning of the words. Another example is the US, where it is common to ask "How are you?", even though people rarely care. It is common to answer "great!" even though this is rarely true. In a similar spirit, some cultures may shun explicit statements about sensitive topics, preferring an implicit understanding between speaker and listener instead. This attitude may also vary from speaker to speaker.
Rationality is based on the principles of explicitness and exactness (Speak). Therefore, in order to incorporate such culturally colored statements into a rational argument, the statements have to be "translated" first into explicit statements. This may potentially come at the cost of lost politeness or unwelcome explicitness. At the same time, it yields all the benefits of rationality (Use) and cross-cultural interoperability.
False ReproachesA reproach is a statement that implies that the listener is doing something wrong (Reproaches). A reproach always goes hand in hand with a moral rule that is being violated. A false reproach is a statement that is intended to be a reproach, but does not have this moral rule. In other words, a false reproach claims that some behavior is wrong, even though there is no reason why it is wrong.
An example for a false reproach is:
Hägar: She says this as if it were something bad...
Colored languageColored language is wording that attempts to influence the listener or reader by appealing to emotion [Wikipedia / Loaded language]. Colored language as understood in this essay involves in particular
i.e. words that give subjective value to something. These are, among others: legendary, great, eminent, visionary, outstanding, leading, celebrated, cutting-edge, extraordinary, masterly, brilliant, famous, remarkable, prestigious, world-class, respected, notable [Wikipedia / Wikipedia:Words to watch / Puffery]. These words implicitly express a personal valuation (Personal). Unless this valuation is universal, it is not a rational statement in the sense of this essay (Speak).
Valuating synonyms for "to say"
i.e., words that imply that what was said is wrong, right, good or bad. These are, among others: reveal, point out, expose, explain, find, note, observe, insist, speculate, surmise, claim, assert, admit, confess, deny [Wikipedia / Wikipedia:Words to watch / Synonyms for said]. These words express both a citation and a valuation of that citation. Thus, the statements are loaded (Loaded).
i.e., words that make something sound good. Examples are: passed away, gave his life, resting place, make love, collateral damage, living with cancer, sightless, people with blindness, an issue with [Wikipedia / Wikipedia:Words to watch / Euphemisms]. These words implicitly express a personal valuation (Personal).
I believe that contraception does help against AIDS.
SideswipesA sideswipe is a statement that values or devalues something or someone or a statement, while this assessment is not the main content of the statement. This includes for example
pejorative subordinate phrases
Example: "I saw this guy, who has slept with practically every girl in town, yesterday in the train"
Example: "I saw my idiotic brother yesterday in the train"
phrases that imply that a hypothesis (Hypotheses) is true or false
Example: "In India, most people are still religious." (implying that being religious is something wrong or something that dies out.)
I think he is idiotic.
Empty phrasesEmpty phrases are phrases that carry no significant meaning. These include for example
- Basically, ...
- You know, ...
- Well, ...
- What we do is...
- ...right? (if you do not expect an answer)
- Whatever, ...
- I mean ...
- Really ...
- ... sort of/kind of ...
- I would say ...
- We say, OK, ...
- I hope you get the idea.
- Note that...
- I inform you that...
These phrases do not carry meaning. Therefore, they have no use in rational language (Speak). While they are not harmful, and while it may not always be possible to avoid them, avoiding them is good rational practice (StdGoals, Flooding).
Noisy phrasesNoisy phrases are phrases that emphasize something emotionally without adding new information. While these phrases do not say anything wrong, they usually heat up the discussion needlessly. Therefore, it is good rational practice to see where they can be avoided (Speak, StdGoals, Flooding). Examples are:
can be replaced by "their"
can be replaced by "not"
can be replaced by "not"
can be replaced by "more"
can usually be dropped
"even" (in the sense of emphasis)
can usually be dropped
can often be removed
Unfalsifiable StatementsA statement is falsifiable if we could theoretically find out if it was wrong. In other words, a statement is falsifiable if we can imagine a situation that proves that the statement is false. For example, the following statements are falsifiable:
The Earth has only one moon.If, one day, we find a second moon that orbits around the Earth, then the statement is wrong.
4 + 2 = 6Two is two times one. So if we compute 4 + 1 + 1, and we do not get 6, then the statement is wrong.
Bob is angry.If Bob actually appears to be very happy and, when asked, says that he is not angry, then this statement is wrong.
This seems to be a very natural property of statements. Yet, it is not. The following statements are not falsifiable:
If you dance enough, then it will rain.If it does not rain, then you simply did not dance enough. Because if you dance enough, it will rain. (There is no way to prove this statement wrong.)
Reality does not exist, everything is just a dream.We can never find out whether this statement is false, because there is no way to escape reality (RealityExists).
Bob is not a human, but a perfect robot that looks and behaves in all aspects like a human.If Bob appears like a human, and nothing distinguishes him from a human, then we have no way to prove this statement wrong (Zombies).
One day in the future, the Earth will be destroyed.To prove this statement wrong, we would need to wait for an infinite time. If the statement is false, we would never know, because the Earth continues to exist.
Falsifiability is about the possibility that, in theory, a counter-argument could be found. Thereby, falsifiability is a purely theoretical property of a statement — it does not actually require proving or disproving something.
This theoretical property has a very concrete consequence: For every falsifiable statement, there is some hypothetical situation that proves it wrong. This means that, if the statement is true, this hypothetical situation will not appear. For example, if it is true that "the Earth has only one moon", then the situation where we find a second moon will not appear. This means that a falsifiable statement always makes a claim about the real world. By taking a position concerning the world, falsifiable statements become vulnerable — and thereby useful.
Non-falsifiable statements have no such benefit. They not exclude any state of the world or any event that may happen. (Because, if they excluded a state or event, they would become falsifiable) This means that such a statement carries no predictive meaning about the world (Conclusions). If you assume such a statement, you will not be able to predict that some things will happen or will not happen. Therefore, you are as wise as before.
Nothing about the real world can be deduced from a non-falsifiable argument. Nothing can prove or disprove a non-falsifiable statement. Therefore, it simply does not make sense to assume that a non-falsifiable statement is true (or false) in order to learn something about the world. Such statements may only be used as assumptions, and only in purely theoretial rational arguments. Once they served as assumptions, the conclusions of the argument will also be unfalsifiable. We should never hope to prove or disprove an unfalsifiable hypothesis from real world facts (Popper).
Unfortunately, non-falsifiable statements abound and create never-ending disputes (see, e.g., [Thoughts on Atheism / Supported]). Such statements should simply not be argued about, because their truth or falsity has no effect on the world.
If there is no such thing, the statement is unfalsifiable. Abandon it.
General ValuationsPeople seem to love statements that value or devalue a thing, country, event or person. We will call these statements general valuations. Examples for such statements are "Life in Italy is great" or "The party was crap". Such statements are very likely to cause debate. This is because their truth conditions are not clear. What feels great for one person may feel awkward for another. Every argument that says that something is great will find a matching argument that says it is bad. For example, if we say that life in Italy is great, because it is always sunny, we may also argue that life is not so great because of corruption.
- make personal statements, such as "I like life in Italy" (Personal)
- make the statements more precise, such as saying "In Italy, it is mostly sunny." (Guarded)
Abstract universal hypothesesAn abstract universal hypothesis is a general statement about the world that does not have clear truth conditions. This means that the statement cannot be instantiated, that it is not true in all instantiations (Instantiations), or that it is not possible to falsify it (Unfalsifiable), to make it concrete (Abstract) or to operationalize it (Policies). Such statements often play on metaphors without tenor (Metaphors), fuzzy properties without comparison (Fuzzy) or abstract statements without explanations (Abstract).
Everything in life comes and goes.This statement is not true for "everything". It is not true for death, for example.
Matter and thought are duals in life.This statement does not have clear truth conditions. It does not make any predictions about the world, and so we are not any wiser if we assume this statement (Conclusions, Unfalsifiable). It is not clear what would be seen as a proof for or against this hypothesis.
More examplesMore examples are the theory that everything in life goes in cycles [Thoughts on Atheism / Cycles], the theory of conscious beings behind everything [Thoughts on Atheism / ConsciousBeings], the idea of a sense behind everything [Thoughts on Atheism / SenseBehindEverything], and the idea of life duality [Thoughts on Atheism / Dualism].
Since abstract universal hypotheses lack clear truth conditions, they are not rational statements (Speak). They should be replaced by metaphors (Metaphors), patterns (Patterns), theories (Theories) or more concrete statements (Basic, SecNearly).
And in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.
Founding StatementsIf we always wanted to give reasons for our statements, we would end up in an infinite cycle — always giving a reason for the previous reason (Basic). This is why we have to rely on founding statements that require no further reasons. In the brick metaphor (SecDef), these statements are those that need no other bricks below them. Whether or not a statement can be a founding statement depends on its credibility. Different types of statements (as introduced in the previous section, SecStat) can serve as founding statements, depending on whether we trust them or not. In the brick metaphor, this means that we can use bricks of different colors as the foundations of our towers.
Founding statementsRationality always questions statements. Even seemingly obvious statements can be questioned, because they can be plain wrong. This includes, for example, the things we see: A spoon put in a glass of water looks bent — even though it is not. Thus, strictly speaking, we have no way of making statements about reality that do not deserve being questioned (Objective). However, if we always question our statements, we would never be able to make any statement. This is because every statement we make requires other statements as justification. These statements require again other statements as justification and so forth (Basic). Therefore, if we want to make statements, we have to assume some statements.
The statements that we assume in an argument are called the founding statements. A founding statement is a statement that we will not question not for the current argument [Wikipedia / Basic belief]. This section will list some of the types of statements that make good founding statements. They are "good" in the sense that they allow for true predictions (Truth).
Founding statements are not immune to questioning. They can be (and should be) put in doubt whenever they appear suspicious (Wrong). They can even be wrong. The question of truth is treated further down in this essay (Truth). The current section just lists statements that make good working hypotheses for our arguments (Arg).
Statements about the speaker's emotional statePeople know in general how they are feeling. Therefore, the following types of statements are valid founding statements, if they are about the speaker himself:
- Personal preferences (Preferences)
- Personalized statements (Personal)
- Statements about desires (Desires)
- Statements about feelings (Feelings)
Statements about perceptual evidencePerceptual evidence is something that can be seen or touched or otherwise perceived. A perceptual statement says that the speaker has a certain perception, e.g.
Statements about realityIf we see or otherwise perceive something, then the fact that we perceive that something is trivially true (Perceptual). However, this does not mean that what we perceive is actually the case in reality.
However, in the vast majority of cases, our perceptual evidence does correspond to reality (in the sense of Reality). Therefore, the assumption that perceptual evidence corresponds to reality is a good founding statement (Founding). It is such a good founding statement that we will omit the distinction between what someone perceives and the state of reality. Instead of saying "I perceive a green apple", we will just say "there is a green apple".
There are cases where perceptual statements are justly put in doubt. People may hallucinate or succumb to optical illusions. However, in the vast majority of cases, perceptual evidence is a reasonable working hypothesis.
Standard GoalsPeople have different goals in life (Goals). We may not assume that they share their goals. However, here are some of the more common goals, where it is reasonable to assume that most people share them:
- Being healthy
- Being rich
- Avoiding effort
- Doing something that one enjoys
- Being socially respected and not socially rejected (SocialNorms)
For people whose goal is to be rational (Rational), we may also assume the following sub-goals:
- Getting to know the truth (in topics of interest)
- Doing the things that are most useful to achieve one's goals (Good, Goals).
Note that a goal does not mean that a person actually thrives for it (or for its sub-goals). This is because there can be conflicting goals. It can also be because the person does not know consciously about the goal or does know how to achieve it — or for a wide variety of other reasons.
Inclusion statements from authoritative sourcesStrictly speaking, there is no such thing as an ultimate authority in rational thinking. Statements by scientists can be questioned just like statements by the police, by the president, by the king, by Jesus or by the Dalai Lama (Decompose). However, it is common to rely on authorities in domains in which we are not knowledgeable. For example, it is common to assume statements made in scientific consensus literature. These are usually good founding statements (Inclusion).
Statements about the meaning of wordsFor this essay, words are artifacts that humans create to express and share theories. The meaning of a word is nothing that is fixed in nature. Rather, it is the set of logical rules that the word appears in (Mean). Then the question arises how we can ensure that people mean the same thing when they use a word. Theoretically, people could be understanding completely different things when they talk to each other (and this is indeed sometimes the case). Yet, it is reasonable (in the sense of Truth) to assume that the people with whom we talk have the same understanding of basic words. Otherwise, we would probably not have been able to talk with them in the first place. Indeed, in most cases, natural language succeeds quite well in transmitting its message as the reader experiences while reading this text. Therefore, it is justified to assume a basic shared understanding of common words (Language, Mean).
For the other, non-basic words, there is the dictionary. The dictionary explains the meaning of a more complex word through more basic words (Mean). We can include the dictionary into our argument by inclusion (Inclusion). Thereby, words mean what the dictionary says. It is a reasonable assumption to assume the inclusion of the dictionary.
It is also possible to claim that a word is often used with a different meaning than the one in the dictionary. Such a claim is not a founding statement and would require reasons. It is also possible to decide to use a word in a different meaning (Definitions).
Previous resultsIf previous arguments have already established a statement, it is valid to take that statement over as a founding statement. This is because, if the statement is questioned, one already has a way to prove it. In practice, this technique is very common. It is simply inefficient to re-build every argument from scratch.
Common knowledgeThere are some statements of common knowledge that are so obvious that they are commonly taken for true. These include knowledge about basic processes of nature, basic properties of things or basic facts of this world. The following statements are examples of common knowledge:
- If an animal is eaten, it dies.
- London is in England.
- Most dogs have fur.
AssumptionsAn assumption is a statement that we take for true for the sake of the argument (Arg). Thus, assumptions are those statements that we are pretty sure of, that we do not want to discuss, and where we assume that our interlocutor shares this opinion. This does not make these statements true, to be sure. Assumptions can be false.
An assumption typically takes the form
Common AssumptionsIt is common to make the assumption (Assumptions) that things happen the way they usually happen. Examples for these assumptions are:
- proper functioning of technical equipment
- no major emergency, earthquake or fire during the next few hours
- proper behavior of our fellow citizens
honesty and trustworthiness of our fellow citizens
(in particular the assumption that every waiver, permission, threat or statement is true [Thoughts on Ethics / Dixit])
Once we are done with our argument, we can revisit the common assumptions and elaborate cases where the common assumptions do not hold. For example, when planning a trip, it can be useful to have "a plan B" in case the public transport to the airport is blocked (PlanB). It is reasonable to revisit first the assumptions that are least likely to hold.
Logical Axiom SchemataAxiom schemata are statements that contain variables for other statements (Axioms). Some axiom schemata are necessarily universally valid. For example, the following axiom schema is universally valid:
DeductionThis part introduces rules (SecRules) and their truth conditions (SecRuleTruth). Rules allow deducing new statements from known statements. The part goes on to discuss the concepts of truth and proofs (SecTruth). After these rather technical sections, we discuss other, informal, techniques of rational thinking (SecTec).
RulesRules are one particular type of rational statements. A rule says that certain things entail other things. Rules are an essential notion of rationality. This section will start with the notion of implications, and then generalize it to the notion of rules.
ImplicationsAn implication is a statement that says that if a set of statements are true, then another statement must be true as well. For example, the following statement is an implication:
An implication, as any other statement, can be true or false. In the example, the implication may be false (if the lamp is broken). Yet, the statement is still an implication nevertheless.
In everyday language, implications can be formulated more loosely. Here are some examples of statements that are sloppily formulated, but still acceptable implications:
If two people really love each other, then they should marry.(Conclusion is an advice (Advice))
If this thing works, I will be rich.(Non-explicit references, omission of "then", but still valid)
If this thing works, and if nobody else does it before me, I will be rich.(Two "if"s, meaning "and")
Whenever he sleeps, he snorrs.("Whenever" instead of "if"; omission of "then")
Note that these statements are implications, no matter whether we agree with them or not (Simple). An implication only works in one direction: The premise implies the conclusion. If the conclusion holds, this does not tell us much about the conditions in general. It is a logical fallacy to use the fact that the conclusion holds to deduce that the conditions hold (SecNonRatArg).
Unfortunately, people sometimes read implications the other way round. A journal recently reported that scientists discovered that "If the wind blows from a certain direction with a certain strength, then the water of the Red Sea is blown away, leaving a land passage between the two shores.". From this implication, the journal deduced that "If the water of the Red Sea yields a land passage, then the wind blows from a certain direction". (That is: The journal read the implication the other way round.) Therefore, the journal concluded, God did not part the waters as described in the Bible. This line of reasoning is false. Even if the wind can part the waters, it need not be the only force that can do so. Furthermore, God might also have used the wind to part the waters. Note that the argument used in the journal is false no matter whether God actually parted the waters or not. Even if we believe that it was indeed the wind that parted the waters, the way the journal argues is wrong.
RuleA rule is an implication (Implication) that talks about all people or all things that fulfill a certain condition. Usually, a rule starts with "If someone..." or "If something". For example, the following statement is a rule:
Note that a rule does not have to be true. The following rule, e.g., is wrong:
InstantiationInstantiation means replacing the variables in a rule (Rules) by concrete people or things. For example, if we have the rule
If Alice steals something, then Alice is a thief.
Axiom SchemataAn axiom schema is a rule (Rules) that has variables for other statements. For example, the following statement is an axiom schema:
Claim rulesAny simple statement (SecStat) can be transformed into a rule. This works by using the statement as a conclusion, and using as premise a statement that is trivially true, such as "1=1". For example, the statement "The Earth is not flat" can be transformed into the following rule:
Circular rulesA rule (Rules) is circular, if its consequence is one of the premises. The following rule, e.g., is circular:
Time ruleA time rule says that whenever something happens, something else happens, too. The following statement, e.g., is a time rule:
If Bob sings today, then it rains today.
If Bob sings now, then it rains now.
Class rulesA class rule is a statement about all instances of a certain concept. For example, the following statement is a class rule about dogs:
These kind of deductions work only if the statement about classes is phrased as a rule. Therefore, class statements have to be implicitly understood as rules when used in a rational argument.
Other RulesRules and axiom schemata can formalize many real world laws. Examples for such rules are
These include for example the law of gravitation. This law can be stated as an implication as follows:there are two physical bodies A and B &
the mass of A is m(A) &
the mass of B is m(B) &
the distance between A and B is r
=> the force between A and B is proportional to m(A)*m(B)/r/r
Regulations can likewise be formulated as rules. For example, the rule that someone is admitted to the A-levels if and only if he passes the exams in Math and English can be formalized as the following implications:X passes the exam in Math & X passes the exam in English => X is admitted to the A-levels(with the use of negation (Negations))
X does not pass the exam in Math => X is not admitted to the A-levels
X does not pass the exam in English => X is not admitted to the A-levels
Common sense knowledge such as "every human will die" can likewise be formulated as implications. For this purpose, the implicit type assumptions of the sentence become the conditions of the implicationX is a human => X will die.
If someone says or thinks something, we can usually not draw many conclusions from that (Beliefs). However, there are certain rules that seem to apply to human thinking as well. For exampleIf someone thinks that X, then he does not think that ~X.See [ORNLU] for a set of such rules.
Such rules are used to formalize a domain of discourse. The rules are usually employed as assumptions (Assumptions) in a rational argument. Note that the rules can be, but do not have to be prescriptive. For example, rules can formalize legal or moral rules. Yet, in our context, rules are mainly descriptive: They say that certain things imply other things. If we use such a rule as an assumption, we assume that the rule describes reality.
The Truth of RulesIn this section, we will discuss when a rule is true and when it is wrong. Crucially, we will discuss the truth of a rule not with respect to universal truth, but with respect to our knowledge.
KnowledgeKnowledge is a set of simple statements (Simple) or negated simple statements (Negations). For example, the following is such a set of statements:
It is not the case that the Earth is flat.
- If S appears in the set of statements, then we will call S true with respect to our knowledge,
- If S appears negated in the set of statements, or if S is negated, and appears positive in the set of statements, then we will call S false with respect to our knowledge,
- In all other cases, we will call S unknown with respect to our knowledge.
- The statement "Bob loves Alice" is true with respect to our example knowledge
- "The Earth is flat" is false with respect to our example knowledge
- "It is not the case that the Earth is flat" is true with respect to our example knowledge
- "Bob does not love Alice" is false with respect to our example knowledge
- "Alice loves Bob" is unknown with respect to our example knowledge
Note that the truth of a statement is, up to now, only defined with respect to a given knowledge. If a statement is true with respect to our knowledge, this does not mean that the statement corresponds to reality. It does not even mean that the "knowledge" corresponds to reality. We will discuss the more general notion of reality later (Truth).
In all of the following, we assume a given set of statements as knowledge. We assume that this set contains roughly all common sense knowledge (the Earth is not flat, etc.). Thus, the notions of "true" and "false" will be defined with respect to this set of statements for now.
Truth of an implicationAn implication (Implications) expresses an if-then-situation. The if-part is the premise of the implication, and the then-part is the consequence of the implication. An implication is wrong with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge), if the premise is true, but the consequence is false. Consider the following example:
In all other cases, the implication is said to be true. The following implication, e.g., is true:
The implication is also said to be true if the premise is false. With a false premise, we can make an arbitrary number of true implications:
If the Earth is flat, then Alice loves Bob.
(Some cocks think the sun rises because of them)
Existential VariablesA variable that appears in the conclusion of a rule (Rules), but not in the premise is called an existential variable. Such variables mean that there is something unspecified that will take the role of the variable. Consider the following example:
Existential variables may not be instantiated (Instantiations). Thus, the instantiations of the rule are:
If Alice keeps sending secret SMS all day long, then Alice is in love with Y.
If the conclusion of an instantiated rule contains an existential variable, then the conclusion is true with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge), if we can find a value for the variable such that the conclusion is true. Suppose, for example, the following knowledge:
Carla is in love with Bob.
Alice keeps sending secret SMS all day long.
Alice is in love with Bob.
Alice is in love with Frank.
Confidence of a ruleA rule (Rules) generalizes an implication (Implications). Consider, e.g., the rule "Alice likes everything that is sweet". Formally, this rule is:
If honey is sweet, then Alice likes honey.
If cake is sweet, then Alice likes cake.
If soup is sweet, then Alice likes soup.
Alice likes chocolate.
Honey is sweet.
Alice likes honey.
Cake is sweet.
Now let us look at the cases where the rule applies. These are the first 3 instantiations of the rule. The consequence of the rule is true in the first instantiation (with chocolate), in the second (with honey), but not in the third (with cake). Thus, the rule is correct in 2 out of 3 cases where is applies. Thus, its confidence is 2/3 = 66%. This means that the rule is correct 66% of the cases.
Formally, the confidence of a rule with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge) is the number of instantiations where both the premise and the consequence are true, divided by the number of instantiations where the premise is true.
If the confidence is 100%, we say that the rule holds in our knowledge. If the confidence is not 100%, we call the rule incorrect.
Support of a ruleThe confidence of a rule indicates the proportion of cases where the rule is correct (Rules, Confidence). There is a second important measure, the support of a rule. The support of a rule with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge) is the number of instantiations where both the premise and the conclusion are true (Instantiations). The support of a rule is important to deal with rules such as the following:
Applicable rulesA rule is applicable to our knowledge (Knowledge), if there is an instantiation where the premise is true (Instantiations). Consider, e.g., the following rule:
Now let us look at the following rule:
Explicative RulesA rule (Rules) is explicative with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge), if it has high support (Support) and high confidence (Confidence). This means that the rule correctly predicts many statements in our knowledge, and it does not predict many wrong ones. We say that the rule "explains" our knowledge.
As an example, assume that we have knowledge about countries in the Americas. We discover the rule "Whenever I cross a border, there is a border control". This rule is explicative, because it has high confidence and high support. Indeed, whenever we go from one country to another country in the Americas, there is a border control. The rule ceases to be explicative once we gain knowledge about European countries. Large parts of Europe have no border controls.
Coverage of a ruleConfidence and support are the main properties of rules (Confidence, Rules, Support). There is a third property, which plays a lesser role: the coverage. Consider, e.g., the following example:
The coverage of a rule is the confidence of the inverse of the rule, where premise and consequence are interchanged.
In some sense, confidence corresponds to the correctness, and coverage corresponds to the completeness of the rule.
Negating RulesA rule has a premise and a consequence (Rules). Each of these components can be negated(Negations). Assume for example the following rule:
Negating the premise
If X does not smoke excessively, then X will attract cancerThe confidence of this rule is 1 minus the confidence of the original rule. If the confidence of the original rule is smaller than 50%, then the rule with the negated premise has a confidence that is larger than 50%.
Negating the consequence
If X smokes excessively, then X will not attract cancerThe coverage of this rule is 1 minus the coverage of the original rule.
Negating both the premise and the consequence
If X does not smoke excessively, then X will not attract cancerThis rule swaps the confidence and the coverage of the rule. It has the same confidence and coverage as the original rule with premise and conclusion swapped:If X will attract cancer, then X smokes excessively
Precise rulesA rule is more precise than another rule in our knowledge, if both have the same premise, and if the consequence of the first rule implies the consequence of the second rule with high confidence (Rules, Knowledge, Confidence). For example, consider the two following rules:
Whenever X eats toothpaste, X does not feel well.
Too Precise RulesWe want rules to be as precise as possible (PreciseRules). However, rules can also be too precise. As an example, assume that we visit a coal mine. We see that every miner has his personal pickaxe. So we want the general rule
Thus, preciseness and confidence are a trade-off: We can make the rule more precise, but then we risk making false predictions on new evidence.
Predictive RulesA rule is predictive with respect to our knowledge (Rules, Knowledge), if some of its instantiations have a true premise and an unknown conclusion. For example, the following rule is predictive:
Our goal will be to find rules that are predictive, because they tell us something that we do not yet know (GoodRules). At the same time, we do not want only conclusions about the future. We also want the rule to make some conclusions about the past or present, so that we can verify them with today's knowledge. In the example, the rule makes also conclusions about the weather in the past. Thus, we can check the confidence of the rule (Confidence). Only if this confidence is high, we will trust the predictions of the rule for the future. Thus, we want the rule to be both supported (having non-zero support (Support) and coverage (Coverage)), and predictive. At the same time, the rule may not be too predictive (TooPredictive).
Too Predictive RulesIn general, we want rules to be predictive (Rules, Predictiveness). However, rules can also be too predictive. Consider for example the following rule:
General rulesA rule is more general than another rule in our knowledge, if both have the same conclusion, and if the premise of the second implies the premise of the first rule with high confidence (Rules, Knowledge, Confidence). For example, consider the two following rules:
If X eats too much chocolate, then X attracts caries
Note that we can always make the rule more general, simply by adding true premises to the premise. For example, the following rule is even more general:
Too General RulesIf a rule is more general than another rule (GeneralRules) without having higher support (Support), then the rule is too general in our knowledge (Knowledge). Consider, e.g., the following two rules:
If X eats too much sweets or climbs Mount Everest, then X attracts caries.
Strictly speaking, even the rule "If X eats too much sweets" is too general. To be less general, we should restrict it to the cases where we have concrete evidence. If, e.g., we have observed caries in a scientific study in the year 2012, then the less general rule would be:
Typed GeneralizationsThe typed generalization of a rule is a rule that has the same conclusion, and whose premise just binds all variables to their semantic classes (Rules). For example, consider the following rule:
Trivial RulesA rule (Rules) is called trivial, if its typed generalization (TypedGen) has a high confidence (Confidence). For example, the following rule is trivial:
Independence of eventsThe premise and the consequence of a rule are called independent in our knowledge (Knowledge), if the typed generalization of the rule has the same confidence as the original rule (TypedGen, Confidence, Rules). Consider for example the following rule:
Good rulesA rule in the sense of this essay is an observation about a regularity in life (Rules). For example, a rule is "When the moon has a halo, it will rain". Rules can be measured on various dimensions. We will call a rule "good" if it has a number of properties. The first two properties can be verified without looking at whether the rule is applicable or not:
Not circularA rule is circular if its conclusion is a premise (CircularRules). Such rules do not give us any insight.
RationalityA rule is rational if its premises and conclusions are rational statements (SecStat). This means, in particular, that its conclusions are falsifiable (Unfalsifiable), and concrete (Abstract, AUH).
The two most important properties of a good rule are as follows:
ExplicativenessThe rule is explicative (Explicative), i.e., it predicts some things that we already know (Knowledge), and most of these predictions were true.
PredictivenessThe rule predicts things that we did not yet know (Predictiveness)
In addition, we want the rule to be the "right" rule in comparison to other similar rules:
GeneralityThe rule should be as factually general as possible (GeneralRules), but not too general (TooGeneralRules). In particular, premise and the conclusion may not be independent (Independence).
PrecisenessThe rule should be as factually precise as possible (PreciseRules), without being too precise (TooPrecise).
PredictivenessThe rule shall not be too predictive (TooPredictive).
The following picture illustrates the properties of a rule with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge): This figure assumes that all conclusions of the rule are positive statements.
CorrelationsA correlation is a rule with high confidence (Confidence) and high coverage (Coverage). This means that whenever the premise is true, the consequence is true — and vice versa. This can be indicated by saying "if and only if". For example, the following rule is a correlation:
Whenever the moon is close to the Earth, the tide rises.
CausationOne thing causes another thing if, whenever we do the first, the second happens. For example, excessive smoking causes cancer, because if we smoke excessively, we will (likely) get cancer. In the framework of rationality, a causation takes the form of a rule (Rules):
We define causation as follows: A rule expresses a causation, if
- there are instantiations (Instantiations) where the premise is false in our knowledge (Knowledge).
- for some of these instantiations, we can change the world so that the premise becomes true in our knowledge.
- in all of the instantiations where we make the premise true, the conclusion becomes true in our knowledge (Knowledge).
- the rule has high confidence (Confidence)
Truth of a ruleA rule is the phenomenon that the truth of a certain statement often entails the truth of another statement (Rules). Properties of the rule, such as its (Confidence), (Coverage), and support (Support) are defined only with respect to our knowledge (Knowledge). As our knowledge grows, the confidence of our rule may decrease. Assume for example that we believe that "All sheep are white". As long as we only see white sheep, that rule has a confidence of 100%. If, one day, we see a black sheep, the confidence of the rule decreases.
Thus, we can never be sure whether a rule will not one day produce an incorrect prediction. Thus, we cannot prove that a predictive rule is true (Predictiveness). However, we may be able to prove that a rule is wrong, in the sense that it has not 100% confidence. If we keep increasing our knowledge, and one day we find that a prediction of the rule turns out false, then the rule is not 100% correct. This is the central insight of Karl Popper's theory of scientific falsification (Unfalsifiable). However, there are a few cases in which we can establish the truth of a rule (Generalizations), or at least with a certain probability (EstablishRule).
Establishing a ruleWe may never hope to prove a predictive rule true (Predictiveness, Popper). The confidence of a rule is based only on the knowledge we have (Confidence, Knowledge). Still, we would like to know the confidence of our rule on the "total set of knowledge", i.e., on the set of all statements that are true in reality. We call this confidence the true confidence. If the rule has a true confidence of 100%, we say that the rule holds in reality.
Even if we do not know that total set of knowledge, we can still make statements about the true confidence of a rule under certain conditions. As an example, assume a tourist guide in Rome, who has the impression that the Swedes in his groups are always very polite. Let us assume that he never sees an impolite Swede. So he comes up with the following rule (Class):
- If the guide has seen no case where the rule applies (no Swede), then he can make no statement about the confidence of the rule.
- If he has seen a few instances, he can make an existential statement (Existential). For example, he can say "I have had some Swedes in my groups who were very polite". He cannot say anything about the true confidence of the rule.
If all or of the instantiations of the rule that he has seen are true, he can make an existential statement, a guarded generalization, or a generalization about the people he saw (Existential, Guarded, Generalizations). For example, he can say "All Swedes who I saw in my groups were very polite".
He can also say that the rule holds with respect to his knowledge (Knowledge). But he cannot say anything about the true confidence of the rule.
- If he has seen a statistically significant number of instances of the rule (which were all true), then he can say that the rule holds in reality with a certain probability — for the Swedes who participate in his tourist groups. For example, he can say "With a probability of 95%, the rule 'The Swedes in my groups are polite' holds in reality.". Statistical science tells us how many instances of the rule we have to see to make such a statement (typically at least 100). The rule can still turn out to be wrong on the total set of knowledge. If, for example, from that day on, the Swedes in his groups are always thugs, then we have hit the 5% probability where the rule does not hold in reality. In any case, the statement applies only to Swedes who participate in the tourist groups. The guide cannot say anything about Swedes in general, because those who participate in his groups may already be a selection of Swedes (those that are interested in Italian culture).
- If the sample of Swedes is unbiased, and if the guide has seen a significant number of instances, then he may say that the rule about all Swedes holds in reality with a certain probability. Statistical theory tells us what number is significant and how an unbiased sample can be collected.
- If the guide has seen all possible instances (all Swedes), then he can establish the true confidence of the rule with certainty.
Fuzzy implicationsStatements do not always hold with 100% certainty (Fuzzy). For example, the statement "Ethiopia is a poor country" may hold only to some degree, because not all people in Etiopia are poor. It may hold only to a certain percentage, say 60%, because 60% of people in Ethiopia live on less than 2 USD a day. Let us assume we have another statement that holds to a certain degree, say "Ethiopia is illiterate", which holds at 20%. Then we may ask what is the degree of truth of the following implication (ImpTruth):
There are a number of ways to define the degree of truth of this implication. These use the notion of T-norms of Fuzzy Logic [Wikipedia / T-norm]. If a and b are truth values between 0 and 1, then the T-norm indicates to what degree the conjunction of them is true. There are a number of standard ways to determine that degree:
- Tprod: Tprod(a,b) = a*b.
- Lukasiewicz-Norm: Tluka(a,b) = max(0,a+b-1).
- Tmin: Tmin(a,b) = min(a,b).
- Extreme Norm: T1(a,b) = (a=1)?b:(b=1)?a:0.
- Yager-Norm: T[w](a,b) = 1-min( 1 , ((1-a)^w+(1-b)^w)^(1/w) ) for a parameter w
Fuzzy rulesWe have seen that statements and implications can hold to some degree (Fuzzy, FuzzyImp). Then the question arises whether rules, too, can hold to a certain degree. It turns out that yes, they can. Our knowledge in this case is a set of fuzzy statements, each with a degree of truth. Let us look at all instantiations of the rule, and let us denote the degree of truth of the i-th premise as pi, and the degree of truth of the i-th conclusion as ci. Then the notions of Confidence, Coverage, and Support transfer as follows:
- The support is ∑ i pi
- The confidence is ∑ i norm(ci, pi) / ∑ i pi
- The coverage is ∑ i norm(ci, pi) / ∑ i ci
This topic is dealt with in detail in [SocialTags / Chapter 2.2.2].
ProofsThis section will introduce the notion of proofs. A proof is a formal procedure that establishes that something must be true. Metaphorically speaking (Metaphors), a proof is like a tower of bricks. Every brick is a statement, and it serves as the reason for deducing new statements.
TheoriesA theory is a set of statements. The theory is called rational if its statements are rational. This means that they take the form discussed in SecStat or SecNearly, and no statement takes a form discussed in SecNonRat.
The statements of the theory do not have to be true, they can be any statements. Theories can also contain rules (Rules). A theory can be introduced by saying something like "Let me share some unproven thoughts on this" or "I have a theory on this". For example, we can say:
InferenceInference is a process that takes a theory (Theories) and that adds a new statement to the theory. We will concentrate here on one particular type of inference, called rule application. Rule application picks one of the rules from the theory (Rules). It instantiates the rule (Instantiations) in such a way that the premise of the rule appears in the theory. Then, it adds the conclusion of the instantiated rule to the theory.
Let us look at an example. Assume that our theory is
|Bello is a dog.|
|If X is a dog, then X is a mammal|
|Bello is a mammal||(Rule Application from 1 and 2)|
Technical: Deduction SystemsIn this essay, we use only Rule Application to do inference (Inference). There are many other ways to perform inference. These methods differ in several aspects:
- Most systems use not natural language, but formal languages to represent their statements. There are different languages of varying syntax, complexity and expressivity. Some systems do not work on sequences of statements, but on graph-like structures.
- The systems have different sets of axioms (LogicalAxioms)
- The systems use different inference rules (Inference)
A system defined by these three components is called a deduction system. Deduction systems come with a number of interesting properties and challenges. I have summarized these concepts in [Algorithms].
Technical: The Universal Replacement SystemIn this essay, we use only Rule Application as a rule of inference (Inference). Rule Application subsumes the rules of inference that are commonly known as Modus Ponens and Instantiation. Thereby, Rule Application is powerful enough to be a deductive system on its own right (Deduction). To illustrate this, I have invented the Universal Replacement System, URS for short. URS is a minimalistic formal system that uses Rule Application as its only built-in mechanism. As a minor formal deviation from the present essay, URS uses the snake arrow "~>" in place of the "if... then" to represent rules (Rules). URS also has a mechanism to include external axioms (Axioms, Inclusion). Thereby, it can simulate propositional logic, set theory, lambda calculus, and other systems. A detailed description of URS and a demo can be found in [URS].
Technical: Formal LanguagesThe Universal Replacement System (URS) can work with different types of formal languages: with infix notation, with prefix notation, with latin characters as well as with binary symbols or other symbols. In the present essay, we use natural language. Natural language has well-known shortcomings when it comes to the logical representation of facts. However, if only rational statements are used as defined in this essay (SecStat), natural language is sufficiently precise to do the limited types of inference that we do in this essay (Inference). In order to really work with a formal deduction system, the natural language sentences might have to be structured with parentheses, so that that matching substrings is avoided.
Technical: Complexity of Deduction SystemsIn general, the complexity of a deduction system (Deduction) can be either in its logical axioms (Axioms) or in its inference rules (Inference): Systems that have few rules of inference usually need many axioms. Conversely, systems that have few axioms or no axiom need many rules of inference. In URS (URS), almost the entire complexity is in the logical axioms. URS has only one single rule of inference (Rule Application). This sets the hard-wired, built-in part of the formalism to a minimum, and allows applications to choose and add an arbitrary number of application-dependent axioms. This can be done by assuming axioms (Axioms) as proof assumptions (Pasm).
We cannot reduce the number of inference rules to zero. We need to treat at least the Modus Ponens as a built-in rule. To see this, consider the problem of the tortoise and Achilles. This is a fictitious dialog between a tortoise and person named Achilles, which was written by Lewis Carroll. In the dialog, the tortoise accepts a statement X and it also accepts the statement X=>Y. However, the tortoise does not accept Y. Achilles will argue that, if we have a statement X and if we have the statement X=>Y, then these statements together imply Y. This is by itself an implication:
Technical: SemanticsIn deduction systems (Deduction), one commonly distinguishes between the syntax of the system and its semantics. The syntax defines the form of the input, i.e., the formal language of the system (FormalLan). The semantics defines what the syntax "means".
As an example, take the statement "All men are mortal". In the formal language of First Order Logic, this statement looks as follows:
It becomes clear that this formalization does not solve any problem. Once the statement has been reduced to the question of set inclusion, we can start asking for the semantics of set inclusion. Paradoxically, the semantics of sets is usually defined in terms of First Order Logic. Thus, what is called semantics is just the syntactic transformation of one formal language into another — back and forth. Sometimes, the semantics is defined in terms of natural language. We would say that the above First Order Language statement is true, if and only if every man is mortal. Yet, even natural language is nothing more than a formal language — with a set of allowed words and a grammar that tells us how to assemble the words to syntactically correct sentences. Thus, what is usually known as semantics is nothing more than a mapping of one formal language into another.
HypothesesA hypothesis is a statement (SecStat) of which we do not know whether it is true. The statement might be a belief, a conviction or a subjective opinion, but possibly not a fact (Unprovable).
Proof AssumptionsA proof assumption is a statement that we assume to be true for the sake of a proof (Proofs). Technically, all proof assumptions together form a theory (Theories). The theory can contain simple statements (SecStat) and rules (Rules).
Usually, one uses as proof assumptions statements that are certain to be true: One uses founding statements such as common knowledge, known facts, or statements about perceptual evidence (SecFounding). Proof assumptions can also be the rules of a domain (OtherRules). These rules formalize the domain knowledge of a certain scientific, legal, or common sense domain. Usually, one assumes only rules with 100% confidence or near perfect confidence (Confidence). Proof assumptions can also be logical axiom schemata (LogicalAxioms). These schemata formalize reasoning principles, such as e.g., First Order Logic axioms, rules of equality, or rules of computation.
ProofsInformally speaking, a proof is a process that establishes that a hypothesis (Hypotheses) is true. Technically, a proof is a process that starts from proof assumptions (Pasm). It repeatedly applies inference (Inference), until the hypothesis is derived. Thereby, the proof establishes that, if the proof assumptions are true, then the hypothesis has to be true as well.
Let us look at an example. Assume that we are standing in front of the office door and it is locked. We are wondering whether we left the keys inside. Technically, we want to prove the hypothesis
|The office door is locked|
|Whenever the office door is locked, I locked it|
|Whenever I locked the office door, I have the keys of my office|
|I locked the office door||(from 1 and 2)|
|I have the keys of my office||(from 3 and 4)|
In general, a proof can have three outcomes:
- The proof can find that the hypothesis follows from the proof assumptions (i.e., that the hypothesis is true)
- The proof can find that the negation of the hypothesis (Negations) follows from the proof assumptions (i.e., that the hypothesis is false)
- The proof can find that neither the hypothesis nor its negation follow from the proof assumptions. That is, if the assumptions are true, the hypothesis can be either true or false.
Technical: ComputabilityThe purpose of a proof (Proofs) is to prove whether a certain hypothesis (Hypotheses) follows from the proof assumptions (Pasm). The logical axioms and the inference rules are given by a deduction system (Deduction). There are some hypotheses that a deduction system can never prove or disprove — no matter how good the system is or how long we keep proving.
To see this, consider the following hypothesis:
This problem appears because the sentence refers to itself. It may, however, also appear with other sentences (e.g., the sentence "This algorithm terminates"). If we restrict the set of sentences that we want to consider, then we can ensure that deductive systems can prove or disprove our hypotheses. See [Wikipedia / Decideable fragments of FOL] for some sets of decideable statements. See [Wikipedia / Ackermann class] for one of the more powerful sets.
If we do not restrict the set of sentences, then we can use arbitrary logical statements as assumptions and as hypotheses. Unfortunately, it may happen that we hit or create an undecidable statement in the process of the proof. In that case, we will never be able to prove or disprove our hypothesis. Worse, we will possibly even be unable to determine whether we hit an undecidable statement, so that we would have to keep on trying without ever knowing whether we tried enough.
In reality, the effect of undecidable statements is limited, for two reasons: First, the unprovable statements either involve self-reference or are rather complex. Thus, they are unlikely to appear in everyday discourse. Second, all deduction systems are at least correct, which means that every statement that one proves is indeed true and every statement that one disproves is indeed false. Thus, even if there exist statements for which we cannot say whether they are true or false, all those statements where we succeed are indeed true or false as predicted. Therefore, by the pragmatic principle, rationality still remains useful.
Technical: Reductive ProofsA proof usually starts from the assumptions and derives the hypothesis (Proofs). However, we can also read the proof backwards: We start at the hypothesis (Hypotheses), we apply the rules of inference (Inference) backwards until we arrive at the proof assumptions (Pasm). Such a process is called a reductive proof.
Here is again the previous example (Proofs): Assume that I am standing in front of my office door and it is locked. I am wondering whether I left the keys inside. Technically, we want to prove the hypothesis
|The office door is locked|
|Whenever the office door is locked, I locked it|
|Whenever I locked the office door, I have the keys of my office|
A reductive proof would start with the hypothesis. It would ask: In order to prove the hypothesis, what statements do I have to prove? It turns out that it is sufficient to prove
|Prove: I locked the office door||(because of 3)|
|Prove: The office door is locked||(because of 2)|
It turns out that reductive proofs are just the dual of constructive proofs. Therefore, we will limit ourselves to constructive proofs in the sequel.
Consequences of a ruleA proof is a process of repeated inference (Proofs, Inference). In this process, a rule can give rise to conclusions. These conclusions can be used in other rules as premises. These rules produce again conclusions, and so on. This means that a single rule can give rise to many direct and indirect conclusions.
We capture this transitivity by the notion of consequences. The consequences of a rule in a proof are all conclusions of this rule, plus the consequences of all rules in which these conclusions were used as premises. This is a recursive definition.
Good rules in proofsA rule can be called predictive, general, and precise with respect to our knowledge (GoodRules). If it has all of these properties, it is called a good rule. This notion can be generalized to the scenario of proofs (Proofs). The proof assumptions (Pasm) take the role of our knowledge (Knowledge). The consequences of the rule (Consequences) take the role of the conclusions of the rule.
This allows us to generalize the properties of a rule to the properties of a rule in a proof process: The rule is called predictive, if some of its consequences are not in the proof assumptions. The notions of support, confidence, preciseness, and generality are defined accordingly. If a rule is not circular (CircularRules), rational in premises and conclusions (SecStat), explicative (Explicative), predictive (Predictiveness), is general (GeneralRules), precise (PreciseRules), but not too predictive (TooPredictive) under these generalized definitions of the terms, then the rule is a good rule in the proof.
Rational ArgumentsA rational argument for a hypothesis (Hypotheses) is a proof (Proofs) of the hypothesis from proof assumptions (Pasm) that are founding statements (SecFounding). Thus, a rational argument is sequence of statements, where each statement is supported by one or multiple reasons — which are again statements. In the end, the argument derives the hypothesis.
Metaphorically speaking, the statements in an argument act like bricks. One statement can be the support (i.e., the reason) for another statement. We try to build up a tower with the bricks in order to reach new statements. Such a tower can be read in two ways: It can be read bottom-up, so that new statements are constructed on top of known statements. This is a constructive "usual" proof (Proofs). The tower can also be read top-down, so that a complex statement is decomposed into simpler statements (Decompose, ReductiveProofs).
TruthThis section will attempt to define the concept of truth. For this purpose, it will make heavy use of the concept of theories (Theories). These help us define the notions of truth (Truth) and reality (Reality).
Deductive TheoriesA theory is a set of statements (Theories). It can contain all types of statements: simple statements (SecStat) and rules (Rules) alike.
Some theories mainly consist of rules. We call such theories deductive theories. As an example, consider the following theory:
|Coke is a carbonated beverage.|
|If X is a mentos, if Y is a carbonated beverage, and if I throw X into Y, then X quickly catalyzes the release of CO2 from Y.|
| If Y is a carbonated beverage, and if X quickly catalyzes the release of CO2 from Y, then we get a foam explosion.|
Proof Assumptions and Deductive TheoriesIn this section, theories (Theories) will take two roles:
- A theory can serve as proof assumptions (Pasm). These are statements that we assume to be true. We will call such a theory assumptions for short.
- A theory can contain mainly rules. Then it is a deductive theory (DedTheories). These theories will serve to deduce statements (Inference).
Conclusions from theoriesGiven a theory of assumptions (Pasm) and a deductive theory (DedTheories), we can draw conclusions. This works as follows: We start out with the theory of assumptions. We use it as proof assumptions. Then we add the deductive theory as additional proof assumptions. Then we apply rules of inference (Inference). This way, we derive new statements (Proofs). These new statements are called the conclusions of the deductive theory from the assumptions.
As an example, let the following be the theory of assumptions (Pasm):
|m is a mentos.|
|c is coke.|
|I throw m into c|
|Coke is a carbonated beverage.|
|If X is a mentos, if Y is a carbonated beverage, and if I throw X into Y, then X quickly catalyzes the release of CO2 from Y.|
|If Y is a carbonated beverage, and if X quickly catalyzes the release of CO2 from Y, then we get a foam explosion.|
|c is a carbonated beverage||(from 2 and 4)|
|m quickly catalyzes the release of CO2 from c||(from 1, 7, and 5)|
|we get a foam explosion||(from 7 and 8)|
The statements that we can derive from the two theories together are called the conclusions of the deductive theory from the theory of assumptions. If a conclusion was already part of the assumptions, then the conclusion is called an explanation. If the conclusion is not part of the assumptions, then the conclusion is called a prediction.
Reasonable TheoriesDeductive theories can draw conclusions from assumptions (Conclusions). Even though the assumptions can be arbitrary statements, it is helpful to imagine that the assumptions are the statements that are known to be true until the present point of time. The deductive theory will then make predictions about the future.
We call a deductive theory a reasonable theory for a given theory of assumptions, if it has the following properties:
- Every rule is a good rule (GoodRulesP)
- There is no theory with less rules that is at least as correct and as supported as the original one.
Intuitively speaking, a reasonable theory is a theory that produces conclusions from assumptions. Some of the conclusions are already part of the assumptions. We call them explanations (Conclusions). The explanations tell us that the deductive theory is in tune with what we have already observed in the past. The conclusions of the theory shall not be in contradiction with our assumptions, because otherwise the theory would be incorrect. If these conditions hold, we call the theory explicative (Explicative). Other conclusions of the theory are neither part of the assumptions, nor in contradiction with them. They are new, hitherto unknown, statements. We call them the predictions of the deductive theory (Predictiveness). The predictions tell us something about the future.
Contingency of Reasonable TheoriesA theory can be applied to observations of the past to make predictions about the future (Conclusions). We call the theory reasonable, if none of its conclusions is in contradiction with what we observed in the past (ReasonableTheories). As time proceeds, we gain more and more knowledge, which we add to our assumptions (Conclusions). If we apply the theory again, it might happen one day that the theory produces a conclusion that is in contradiction with our knowledge. Then the theory ceases to be reasonable. Thus, a theory can be reasonable up to a certain point of time, and it can become unreasonable after that point of time. Throughout history, this has happened many times.
Theories can also become unreasonable if we find a new, simpler theory that has the same goodness (ReasonableTheories). Then, the new theory is reasonable and the preceding, more complicated one, turns out to be redundant. Therefore, the previous theory stops being reasonable. This, too, has happened many times throughout history.
All of this shows that the notion of a "reasonable theory" is contingent. Theories can seem reasonable and become unreasonable. This even holds for theories that are considered "necessarily true" (Necessity).
TruthCommonly, a statement is seen as "true" if it corresponds to reality [Wikipedia / Correspondance theory]. However, we have no means of verifying that reality is actually the way we perceive it. Reality could be entirely different from what we think it is. This is because we can be tricked by our senses (Objective). For example, people can see an oasis in the desert, even if there is none.
It could even be that the concept of reality is inconsistent altogether (TruthExists). It could be that only we exist and everybody else is just an imagination (Zombies). It could be that everything around us is just impressions in our mind and that reality does not exist at all (RealityExists).
This essay proposes the following solution to these conundrums: I, the author if this essay, perceive myself in a stream of sensory impressions. These include the things I see, I feel, I hear, and I think. It does not matter whether these sensory impressions are real or imagined, or whether they correspond to something that exists or not. The only thing that matters is that I do have impressions. It is irrelevant whether I really have these impressions or whether just have the impression of having these impressions. Saying that I have the impression of having impressions just introduces a needless layer of indirection. Therefore, we can omit it. I will say that I perceive myself in a stream of impressions, and for ease of notation, I will see this stream of impressions as a stream of statements (SecStat).
My goal is to predict these impressions. That is: My goal is to generate the impression that I predicted that I will have a certain impression and that, later on, I do indeed have this impression. Technically speaking, I am looking for reasonable theories for my stream of sensations. Given the past sensations at any point of time as assumptions, the theory shall produce a non-empty set of conclusions (Conclusions). These conclusions shall not contradict my impressions. Some of the conclusions shall explain past sensations and others shall predict new impressions. All conclusions shall be falsifiable, rational, and there shall be no simpler theory to the same effect. In short, the theories I seek shall be reasonable theories (ReasonableTheories). I seek reasonable theories for my set of sensations. Such theories help me structure and predict my stream of sensations.
We have already seen that the notion of reasonable theories is contingent. A theory can be reasonable, and stop being reasonable at any point of time (Contingency). I will call "truth" those theories that will always be reasonable. True theories are those theories that are eternally reasonable. I cannot know these theories. I do not even know whether there is only one such theory or multiple such theories. Therefore, I approximate truth by theories that are reasonable at my current point of time. Theories that stand the test of time are closer to truth. This corresponds to our intuitive understanding of the concept of truth: If a theory makes consistently useful and correct predictions, people will call the theory "true". This use of the word "true" is justified, because the word "true" does not have any other useful definition. People who oppose the concept of "truth" usually do not offer any alternative definition of the word — let alone a useful one. Therefore, the word is meaningless unless we attach a sense to it. In this essay, I decide to use the word "true" to describe reasonable theories (Definitions). Truth is the set of theories that will always be reasonable, at all time points in my stream of sensations. Since I cannot know this set of eternally reasonable theories, I approximate it by reasonable theories based on my experience. This view of truth is, of course, itself nothing more than a theory (TheoryOfTruth).
(I think therefore I am)
RealityI call "reality" the system of physical objects in which I perceive myself. The theory that says that reality exists turns out to be very reasonable (Truth): It allows me to predict my sensory impressions with astonishing accuracy. In contrast, the theory that says that reality would not exist (TruthExists) is unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable): It does not make any predictions. Therefore, I abandon it.
I also have the theory that says that other people around me exist (including the reader of this essay). This theory is also reasonable: It allows to make very valuable predictions about my sensory impressions about these other people. The theory that says that other people would be mindless zombies (Zombies) is unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable): It does not make any predictions. Therefore, I abandon it. Therefore, from now on, I will assume that reality exists (in the common understanding) and that people around me exist.
There has been considerable debate as to whether reality is pre-determined by the laws of nature or not. This essay takes no stance in this question. According to my current reasonable theories, I can neither support nor contradict this hypothesis. Thus, it remains a hypothesis (Hypotheses).
Free WillI, the author of this essay, have a number of theories about reality (Reality). One theory is that people have a "free will". This is the ability to decide for or against certain actions. There is considerable debate about the exact definition of this concept (FreeWill). This essay cannot define the concept precisely. Rather, it defines the "theory of free will". This theory says two things: First, the decisions that people take cannot be predicted by current technical means. Second, the decisions that people take can often be influenced by incentives and punishments. This theory of free will allows predicting certain dispositions (Dispositions). It also allows predicting that certain things cannot be predicted. These observations are enough to make the theory of free will a reasonable theory (ReasonableTheories) — and thus an approximation of truth (Truth).
The theory of free will is a very limited theory. It does not attempt to explain any of the philosophical conundrums associated to the idea of free will. However, in this very limited sense, it is a reasonable approximation of truth. See further up for a discussion (FreeWill).
Is Truth Subjective?This essay defines truth as the set of reasonable theories on the stream of sensory impressions (Truth). This definition, by itself, is subjective. Technically, it only defines truth for myself, the author of this essay.
However, I found that is a reasonable theory (ReasonableTheories) to assume that other people work according to the same theory of sensory impressions. This theory allows me to predict my sensory impression about what other people say about their sensory impressions. Furthermore, I have the theory that these sensory impressions are universal, in the sense that people subjected to the same conditions (Reality) experience similar sensory impressions. This is nothing more than a theory, but it turns out to be a very reasonable one: In the majority of cases, it allows me to predict what other people say about their impressions.
With these theories in place, truth becomes more objective. If reality exists, and if people in the same reality have the same sensory impressions, then they share the same concept of truth (as defined in this essay). And indeed, most people, if not all, share the theories about reality, people, and the physical world. This entails that reasonable theories are also shared. Indeed, reasonable theories are usually readily accepted. This makes truth sufficiently objective.
Necessarily True StatementsIn philosophy, one distinguishes contingently true statements from necessarily true statements. While the former just happen to be true, the latter have always to be true in all possible worlds. For example, it is a contingent truth that the Earth has one moon. It could also have two moons. However, it is necessary truth that 4+1=5, because 5 is defined as the successor of 4.
Thus, something is necessarily true if it could not be otherwise. It is contingently true, if we can imagine it to be otherwise. This distinction between contingent truth and necessary truth is difficult, because it depends on our own imagination and on our own definitions. Our imagination and our definitions, however, are contingent. Consider the following truths:
- The Earth has one moon. We can imagine that the Earth has two moons. Hence, the number of moons is a contingent truth. However, if the Earth had more than one moon, it would be exposed to different forces of gravitation. It would have a different distance from the sun, it would have a different temperature, it might not have water, and life might not have evolved. Then, would it still be "the Earth"? So, does the Earth not necessarily have exactly one moon?
- Let us look at the other example: 4+1 did indeed always yield 5. But what if, one day, 4+1 does not yield 5? What if we find that our theory of numbers is inconsistent and that things happen that we did not foresee? Every argument that we bring against this possibility could just be as false as arguments that people have brought in other cases.
- Consider the question whether light is electromagnetic waves. We can certainly imagine that light is something different than electromagnetic waves. Hence, the two are not necessarily identical. Yet, in physical science, light is defined as electromagnetic radiation. Thus, the two notions are necessarily identical. Now, are they, or are they not? Already the fact that we can ask this question seems to imply that the concept of necessity is, in fact, contingent.
Auxiliary NotionsOur theories contain statements and rules (Theories). We use them to describe, explain, and predict our sensual impressions (Truth). Some of the statements in the theories are about sensory impressions. These are directly either true or false — depending on whether they correspond to the speaker's perception or not. They can also be unknown, if they concern the future. All other statements in our theories are not directly observable. They are auxiliary statements. Auxiliary statements can be scientific statements, legal statements, religious statements, or freely invented notions (Definitions). Auxiliary statements can be derived from rules (Rules) and can derive other statements. Words, notions, and concepts that appear in auxiliary statements are called auxiliary notions.
In our example of the theory about carbonated beverages (DedTheories), the notion of "catalyzing the release of CO2" is an auxiliary notion: It is used in the consequence and in the premise of rules, but it is not directly observable.
Auxiliary notions serve purely to bridge the consequences of some rules with the premises of other rules. An auxiliary notion that never appears in the premise of a rule is a useless auxiliary notion.
Religious truthA religion can be seen as a set of beliefs, and thus as a theory (Theories). Some people take a religious theory as the truth (Truth). However, religious theories are often not theories in the sense of this essay (Theories). This is because there is often considerable debate about what statements make up the religious theory. Different people, times, and societies may have different interpretations of sacred sources. Thus, for some religions, it is hard to come up with a list of clear, non-redundant statements (SecStat) that would constitute the theory.
In cases where such theories (or sub-theories) exist, the theories usually contain universal abstract hypotheses (AUH). Examples are "The universe is perfect", "Everything in this world is divine", or "Every bad event will have a good consequence". Such statements are hard to nail down as objectively true or objectively false (WhatsWrong). The theory "God is good and makes this world good", e.g., predicts many "good" events in life. However, we can as well imagine that "God is evil and makes this world evil". The world offers as many arguments for "God is good" as it does for the hypothesis that "God is evil". These statements are abstract universal hypotheses (AUH), and thus not rational. This makes the religious theory not rational (Theories).
Furthermore, religious theories usually contain unfalsifiable statements (Unfalsifiable). Examples are "There exists a god", "There is an afterlife", or "God created the world" . Such statements do not produce any verifiable predictions or explications about this world. They do not predict or exclude any event in life. Thus, we are no wiser about this life if we assume such a statement. Therefore, the statement is not rational, and thus the theory is not rational (Theories).
Religious theories usually give explications for past events (Explicative). These include explications of how the world came into existence, why a certain disaster happened, or why certain fossils have been found. The explications are often of the form "God did this, therefore it is this way" or "God wanted it this way, therefore it is this way". These explications, however, can justify only known events. They cannot be used to predict unknown events. Thus, while such rules are explicative, they are not predictive (Predictiveness). To see this, we can make a thought experiment: To whatever question comes up, I (the author of this essay) will answer "Because I wanted it this way and made it happen by magical powers". This theory can explain all events of the past. It was always the author of this essay who made the events happen. Yet, this theory cannot be used to predict events, because nobody knows what the author of this essay wants next. Therefore, the theory is useless. From a rational point of view, religious explications are of similar nature. They do not make predictions and are thus not good rules (GoodRules). Therefore, the religious theory is not reasonable (ReasonableTheories).
Other religious rules do make predictions, but these concern only the future and not the past. Such rules say, e.g., that the world will be destroyed one day. Such a rule is predictive (Predictiveness), but not explicative (Explicative). Thus, it suffers from the opposite problem of the previous "God did it"-rules: We have seen no instance where the rule worked in the past. Thus, there is no reason to believe it will work in the future. Therefore, such a rule is not a good rule in the sense of this essay (GoodRules). Thus, the theory is not reasonable in the sense of this essay (ReasonableTheories). (A rational theory about the end of the world would be a theory that shows that the sun burns its material away, and that any planet left without a sun will be pulled into neighboring planets by gravitation. Both of these rules are explicative and predictive.)
Some religious theories also make outright incorrect predictions, in the sense that the theory has been used in the past to predict something that has turned out to be false (e.g., that the Earth is flat). In these cases, the theory is usually said to have been wrongly interpreted, whereas it is usually affirmed that the current interpretation is the right one. However, the theory is not changed, which would have been the adequate rational reaction to a wrong prediction (Wrong). In other cases, the religious theories make predictions that turn out to be false (e.g., that a certain person will be healed after prayer). This makes the theories incorrect from a rational point of view. An incorrect theory is not reasonable (ReasonableTheories).
Sometimes, people say that a religious theory deduces a statement that was recently discovered by science, even though that statement was not previously known to be deducible from the religious theory. Such assertions are e.g., that some fact discovered by science has been predicted by a holy book. Such assertions are not predictions in the sense of this essay, because they are made after the fact is known. They are called postdictions (NoBOD).
Last, religious theories are usually redundant, meaning that they predict something that can equally well be predicted without transcendant assumptions. It is rare that a religious theory makes a verifiable prediction about the real world that could not have been predicted by science. This makes religious theories non-minimal and thus not rational (ReasonableTheories).
That said, not every religious theory is unreasonable in the sense of this essay. For example, it is a reasonable theory that minding one's own faults before criticizing others is beneficial for a society. Religious theories (or their interpretations) also provide extensive moral frameworks (Moral). These frameworks serve a purpose from a rational point of view. Religious theories can also provide a world view and emotional comfort, even if they constitute no reasonable theory in the sense of this essay. After all, everybody is free to believe whatever he wants, no matter whether this essay defines a belief as "reasonable" or not.
The Meaning of WordsIt is very hard to define the meaning of a word (Language). First, people rarely agree on the meaning of words when they start thinking about them. This is often a cause for conflict (TalkToArgueWords). Even if we succeeded to agree on a meaning, we would never be able to define all words. This is because we always define words by other words, which leads to an infinite regression (Basic). Furthermore, it might just be impossible to define a word in its entirety. "time", for example, is a notoriously difficult concept to define, as Saint Augustin once remarked. The same is true for the concept of "game", as Wittgenstein observed. It may also be true for concepts such as "carbonated beverage" — for which we have an intuitive understanding, but possibly no crisp definition (try defining what a "beverage" is).
Surprisingly, words work very well in practice, as the reader experiences while reading this text. This essay proposes the following theory (Theories) for the role of words:
Words are the constituents of statements (SecStat), and thus of rules (Rules) and theories (Theories). They serve to express and share theories. Given a theory, the meaning of a word is the set of rules that it appears in. For example, whenever we point to a flat thing with four legs, we use the word "table". The word "table" appears in other rules, such as "When we eat, we usually use a table", or "Tables usually have four legs". The set of all these rules (and situations) is the meaning of the word "table".
Thus, the meaning of a word depends on how the word is used, and what role it takes in a theory. This insight has several consequences. First, the meaning of a word is not something absolute. It depends on the theory it is used in. Second, the meaning of a word may change — with time, with context, or with users. This insight clears up a great deal of disputes about the "true" meaning of words (TalkToArgueWords).
This theory does away with the need to define words. The meaning of a word is just the set of rules that it appears in. This corresponds to our intuitive understanding of words, as follows. If someone asks us what a word means, we rarely give a logical definition. Rather, we give a set of rules in which the word appears. For example, if someone asks us what a "carbonated beverage" is, we might reply:
If we want to communicate our theories to other people, we have an interest (Goals) that other people understand our words. The standard way to do this is to use a commonly accepted theory that defines (or describes) the words: a dictionary. A dictionary contains exemplary sentences with the word. In the terminology of this essay, the dictionary contains rules with that word. These constitute a subset of the meaning of the word. By an (implicit) inclusion statement (Inclusion), a dictionary can become part of our argument. It provides rules that narrow down the meaning of the words. It is good rational practice to use these definitions as founding statements in rational arguments (WordMeaning). If we do not find the word in a dictionary, if it is ambiguous, or if we require it in a different meaning, we can describe the word ourselves, together with our interlocutor (Definitions).
If we know in which rules words and statements appear, then we know how to use them — we understand them. Thus, the logical definition of a word is unnecessary for the use of the word. A great deal of philosophical discussions becomes superfluous (in this sense). Most notably, a great deal of cantakerousness becomes superfluous, too (TalkToArgueWords). If we still strive for a crisp definition of a word by other words, then we should first see in which rules the word appears. This step, however, is usually omitted — although it is the basis for the understanding of a word. So, before trying to define "soul", "self", or "sense of life", we should ask ourselves in which regularities or rules these terms appear. We may then decide to accept the set of these rules as the definition of the term.
The Theory of TruthThis essay has defined truth as the theories that are eternally reasonable (Truth). It has introduced auxiliary notions as ways to describe and model sensory impressions (Aux). This viewpoint on truth is of course by itself nothing more than a theory (Theories). In this theory, "truth" itself is nothing more than an auxiliary notion.
This theory of truth does not claim that this is the way humans think or the way humans perceive truth. Most notably, the theory depends on a concept of statements and thus of language. To what degree humans model reality with or without language is a matter of ongoing debate. Humans also lack the capability to perform the consistent reasoning that the theory requires. Rather, the theory of this essay is to truth what grammar is to language: It is a way to formalize the phenomenon, without claiming that humans work that way. Every child can speak grammatically correct sentences without knowing the grammar. Yet, we use the grammar to model the language. In the same way, every child perceives reality and builds up knowledge about reality without knowing logical rules. Yet, to describe this phenomenon, we use logical rules. This is what the theory of truth of this essay does.
The theory of this essay offers a framework to define the notion of reality (Reality). It also gives answers to the questions of existence and zombies. The theory also gives a meaning to words, without having to define them (Mean). Thus, it breaks the vicious circle of infinite regress. The theory also connects the notion of reality with the notion of scientific inquiry, as follows: Scientific inquiry aims to find and verify rules. This essay defines truth as the extrapolation of this search. Science driven to ideal perfection is truth. Science in its current state is an approximation of truth. In a nutshell, this essay's theory of truth tells us that we have to be ever more precise, and ever more careful if we want to approach truth.
SummaryThis essay proposes the following theory (Theories) on truth (Truth, TheoryOfTruth), words (Mean), and morality (Moral):
- Truth is a set of human theoriesHumans try to explain and to predict the events of this world (Reality). For this purpose, they develop theories (Theories). These theories explain past events (Explicative), and they predict future or unknown events (Predictiveness). Theories that fulfill this purpose are considered the truth. When the theory fails, it is no longer considered the truth. This means that truth is nothing absolute. Rather, it is a framework that humans build to cope with their perceptions.
- Words are auxiliary notionsTheories consist of rules (Rules). Rules consist of statements (SecStat). Statements consist of words. In this view, words are artifacts that humans use to express and share their theories. Thus, a word is not an innate property of the object that it denotes (if any). Rather, it is a notion that obtains its meaning from the rules it is used in. Therefore, words are not "correct" or "wrong", and they do not have an absolute meaning. They are just terms that appear in rules. Different people can use the same term in different rules (Definitions), and over time, the meaning of a term can change. If we want to communicate our theories, we just have to make sure that our terms correspond to the terms of the other people.
- Moral statements are personal statementsAs we shall see later (Moral), moral statements take the form "Bob finds that Alice's behavior is morally wrong". Thus, moral statements are personal statements (Personal): They are an appreciation (or deprecation) of some behavior. In this view, ethics is not something that is absolute. Rather, it is a personal preference. Several preferences together form a moral framework (MoralFrame). If people decide to enforce this moral framework, it becomes a law. That is all there is to ethics.
In this theory, truth, words, and ethics are purely human artifacts. They are things that we construct to cope with reality, to share theories, and to structure our lives. This implies that these items have no foundation in nature. Rather, they are human constructions. They have no value per se. Rather, they gain their value through human consensus. They are not eternal or immutable. Rather, they evolve according to human decisions.
TechniquesThis section will introduce some common techniques of rational thinking.
Proofs in the real worldWe have seen how to formally prove the truth of a statement (Proofs). Proving a statement is a very tedious and complicated process. It is close to impossible to prove all our statements formally — not least because we lack a formalization of the world in the form of rules (OtherRules). Yet, this tedious process is needed if we want to establish the truth of a statement with certainty (as far as this is possible (Truth)). Therefore, proofs are used in several domains of human activity. First and foremost, proofs are the backbone of mathematics. Mathematics is again the backbone of a large number of domains and applications, such as the engineering sciences, data analysis, and computer science. Proofs are also used in the sciences in general, to convince fellow scientists of the correctness of a theory (Conclusions). This applies to the science of physics as well as to computer science. It applies to micro- and macro-economics, and even to philosophy. Proofs are also used in the legal domain, to show whether or not a certain law applies in a certain case. This reasoning is known as subsumption reasoning. In all of these cases, people have developed a (more or less complete) formalization of their domain in the form of a theory of rules (OtherRules).
In everyday thinking, proofs play a smaller role. In most cases, we have an intuitive idea of what statements we want to see as true. Then we come up, a posteriori, with an argument to convince ourselves (and others) of the truth of that statement. In many cases, rules are just invented on the fly (RuleInvention). This leads to a type of informal proofs, which we will discuss in this section.
DecompositionProofs can use simple statements to arrive at complex statements (Proofs). Proofs can also be used, vice versa, to decompose a complex statement into simpler statements. The hope is that, by repeated decomposition, one arrives eventually at very basic statements that require no further decomposition (SecFounding). Thereby, the decomposition proves the complex statement. Technically, such a proof is a reductive proof (ReductiveProofs).
To see how far one can go with the decomposition, let us assume a sample discussion. Assume that Alice thinks that everybody in our country can read and write. To prove the contrary, one could cite the scientific studies that give evidence for the illiteracy in our country. If Alice still has doubts, even the statements made in the scientific studies can be decomposed and questioned. If the doubts still remain, Alice could redo the study by herself. She could pick a random sample of people and check whether they are literate. This process will prove or disprove the hypothesis about the literacy rate in our country. Thus, the complex theory that there exist illiterate people in this country has been decomposed into basic statements about whether a certain respondent could write his name. Note that rationality emphasizes the right to decompose and question any statements, even those of scientific studies.
GroundingGrounding is the process of making statements explicit and thus admissible in rational arguments. It is the prerequisite for any argument or formal or informal proof (Arguments, RealProofs). Grounding means:
Making nearly rational statements rational (SecNearly)
- finding the tenor for metaphors (see Metaphors)
- substituting references by their referees (Context)
- making vague statements clear (Plain)
- transforming fuzzy statements (Fuzzy) into comparisons (Comparisons) or schranken-schlusses (Schrankenschluss)
- operationalizing abstract goals (Policies)
- explaining abstract statements (Abstract)
- providing the moral rule for reproaches (Reproaches)
Removing irrational statements (SecNonRat)
- removing colored language (ColoredLanguage)
- removing empty language (Empty)
- making the implied meaning of stressed sentences explicit (Stressed)
- making the presuppositions of loaded statements explicit (Loaded)
- making cultural statements explicit (Cultural)
- finding, for each statement X, another statement that we would see as a proof that X is false (Unfalsifiable)
- making sideswipes explicit (Sideswipes)
It is good practice to ground all statements before starting a rational argument.
Naming facts, assumptions, and goalsIn everyday reasoning (RealsProofs), it is easy to lose track of assumptions, facts, goals, and hypotheses. Therefore, it is a good strategy for the purpose of approaching truth to make these statements explicit. That means:
- Being aware of the assumptions that one is making (Assumptions). Quite often, things that one thinks are true are in fact mere assumptions. It helps clarify the assumptions upfront with our interlocutor.
- Being clear what are one's goals (Goals). One should be able to name one's goals in a few simple sentences. Surprisingly, people often do not know what they want.
- Being aware of what one wants to know. Quite often, people do not know what hypothesis they are chasing (KnowStat).
Modus TollensThe Modus Tollens is an axiom schema (Axioms, LogicalAxioms) that says
|(X => Y) => (~Y => ~ X)||(Assume Modus Tollens)|
|If it rains then the street is wet||(Assumption)|
|The street is not wet||(Assumption)|
|If the street is not wet then it does not rain||(by Rule Application from 1 and 2)|
|It does not rain||(by Rule Application from 3 and 4)|
Thereby, the Modus Tollens allows us to "turn around" an implication (Implications): If the consequence is not fulfilled, the condition cannot be fulfilled either. This reflects in the ways we can negate rules (NegRule) and in the idea of necessary conditions (Necessity). It is used in the Reductio ad Absurdum (Reductio).
Reductio ad AbsurdumThe Reductio ad Absurdum is a proof strategy that works as follows: Assume we want to prove that some statement X is false. For example, we want to prove that the following statement is false:
|The Earth is flat||(Assumption)|
|...||(Many intermediate steps)|
|If someone travels continuously westward, he finds the end of the world||(Intermediate conclusion)|
|If Ferdinand Magellan travels continuously westward, he finds the end of the world||(Instantiation)|
|Ferdinand Magellan continuously traveled westward||(fact)|
|Ferdinand Magellan finds the end of the world||(Modus Ponens)|
We know that Magellan did not find the end of the world. Therefore, the Earth cannot be flat. People will usually find this line of argumentation sufficiently convincing.
To be logically correct, however, we need a precise argument that shows that the Earth is not flat. For this, the reductio ad absurdum proceeds as follows: From the hypothetical scenario, we build an implication:
These last 3 steps are always the same for the reductio ad absurdum. Thus, to prove a hypothesis wrong, it is usually sufficient to build a hypothetical scenario that leads to a false conclusion.
Shortened EvaluationThere are two cases in which we can avoid checking an implication in its entirety (Implications).
The first case works if we have an implication as follows:
The second case works if we have two implications with the same conclusion:
B => C
Using shortened evaluation, we can avoid checking unnecessary statements. This strategy, however, can also be misused (DecDuc).
Making a moral analysisA moral analysis means deducing whether someone did something "wrong". In the framework of rationality, a thing is never wrong by itself. It is only wrong in the opinion of a person, an authority, or a law (Moral). Thus, we first have to make up our mind about what we consider "wrong". The list of things we consider "wrong" is called a moral framework (MoralFrame). It can be the national law of our country, a religious list of dos-and-donts, a liberal framework [Thoughts on Ethics] , or our own list. A moral framework can say, e.g.:
If X is a thief, then X acts in a morally wrong way according to this framework.
Hypothetical scenariosA hypothetical scenario is an argument (Arguments) that is based on the assumption (Assumptions) that something happens. Hypothetical scenarios can be useful to figure out the consequences of an action or an event. Speaking in the brick metaphor (SecProofs), hypothetical scenarios are towers that one builds on the side, just to see where they go.
Hypothetical scenarios can be used to figure out whether a hypothesis is wrong. For this purpose, one constructs a scenario in which the hypothesis is true. If this scenario leads to a contradiction with reality, then the hypothesis is false (Reductio).
It is often much easier to prove a hypothesis wrong than to prove it right (Popper). Therefore, once we have a hypothesis, rather than accumulating evidence for it, we should try to prove it false. Simply pursuing more and more positive evidence just isn't useful (NegEv).
Rule inventionRule invention is one of the less elegant, but more frequent techniques of rational thinking. In the vast majority of cases, we do not possess a sufficient number of rules to prove a hypothesis right or wrong (RealProofs, OtherRules). Therefore, we often invent the required rules on the fly. These rules form a theory (Theories) that we use as proof assumption (Pasm).
In order to arrive at true conclusions (Truth), the invented rule has to be true. For this essay, this means that the rule has to be a good rule (GoodRules), so that the theory of invented rules is a reasonable theory (ReasonableTheories). Only reasonable theories make good on-the-fly inventions. All other theories will most likely not yield true conclusions.
This means that the invented rule has to make predictions other than the one we want to prove. A rule that simply predicts our hypothesis is not convincing (and most likely false). The predictions of the theory have to be not incorrect, and verified in the past. They may not be in contradiction with other reasonable theories. The rule may still turn out to be wrong (Contingency). However, rules that consistently make correct predictions will be reasonably close to truth (Truth). See further down for an example (ArgFalse).
Using intuitionIf one has a good intuition, then the outcome of a rational argument should conform to one's intuition (Arguments). Therefore, one strategy of building a rational argument is to start with the hypothesis that one expects intuitively to be true (Hypotheses). One can try to prove this hypothesis with rational methods (Proofs). This may fail, of course, if the intuition is wrong. If the intuition is right, then the proof will succeed. For example, we have a strong intuition that it is a bad idea to cross a railway line if the barriers are down. Starting from the standard goal of staying alive (StdGoals) and some very basic rule inventions in the domain of physics (RuleInvention), we can quickly construct a rational argument that supports this intuition.
If one has a strong aversion against one of the possible conclusions, it is worth examining why one has this aversion. The reason may be either a fact with which one feels uncomfortable (and tries to brush aside) or a line of thought that is worth considering in the argument. In both cases, it is good to be aware of one's aversions and note down possible reasons. They might turn out handy in our line of reasoning.
Presenting the argument to other peopleRational arguments rely on transparency and verifiability. If one wants to validate an argument, it is a good idea to share it with another person. This helps check the assumptions one is making and the conclusions that one draws. If there is nobody who would listen to the argument, it is a good idea to imagine presenting the argument to somebody. In the ideal case, one imagines presenting the argument to someone who has a different opinion. This helps spot the weak points of the argument. It also helps see reasons and statements that we did not know about. This is essential in a world where additional information can make theories incorrect (Contingency, AAP, NegEv).
Notwithstanding privacy issues (Private) and potential negative consequences of airing one's opinion, one should be able to present one's argument to anybody. What you say to one person you should be able to say to any other person. If you find yourself saying contradictory things to different people, you are not being rational. Transparency and consistency across different interlocutors are the safeguards of rational arguments.
Getting a second opinion also helps assessing the truth of what other people tell us. If one person says one thing, and another person says a contradictory thing, then one of them is lying.
— I would immediately go to another doctor.
Empathizing with other peopleOne way to check a rational argument is to put ourselves into the place of the person who is concerned by the argument. In other words: We imagine that we are the person about whom we are talking. Then we can use intuition (QIntuition) to check the validity of our argument.
The process of imagining oneself in another person's shoes is called empathizing. Empathizing is one of the most powerful means to check the emotional consequences of our argument. For example, when arguing that we have the right to do something to another person, we can sidestep for a moment and imagine that someone did that something to us. This will help us assess the effect of our behavior on the other person. If we decide that that effect is too negative, we may refrain from what we were planning to do.
Imagining one's future opinionIn order to check the validity of an argument, we can imagine how we would think about the argument in some years' time. We can imagine different courses of time and see whether the argument maintains its validity in retrospect. A good rational argument will remain valid over time.
It may also be useful to look back at the arguments that one has built in the past and see if they are still valid. If one has built arguments that have become obsolete over time, one can try avoiding such reasoning in future arguments.
Having a plan BTo make a rational argument water-tight, it is useful to check to which degree the argument relies on assumptions. To find out how important the assumptions are, we can use hypothetical scenarios (Scenarios). We can build a hypothetical scenario for the case that an assumption is wrong and see if we can still get to the conclusion. If we can, the argument is stable (and the assumption is superfluous). If we cannot, we should consider making an argument for the case where the assumption is wrong.
A hypothetical scenario for the case where one of the assumptions is false is known as a "Plan B". To maximize the probability that our conclusions are correct, we should start making a plan B with the assumptions that are most likely to be wrong.
Finding negative evidenceSome hypotheses that seem true can become false if more evidence appears (Contingency). For example, assume that you learn that your girlfriend has pictures of another guy in her room — all in frames, and with personal drawings by him for her, and that she even got in touch with his parents. You might want to deduce that your relationship is in danger. However, if you then learn that this guy is her god-son, 4 years of age, you might reconsider your conclusion (AAP).
Therefore, we should never rely just on the positive evidence. We should always try to find also negative evidence against our hypotheses.
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to accumulate only the positive evidence for what we want to believe. In the interest of truth, we should stop accumulating positive evidence at some point of time and start looking for negative evidence [Toolkit / How does this help]. Only if we have analyzed and rejected all negative evidence shall we accept our hypothesis as true. Talking to other people helps find negative evidence (QPerson).
BacktrackingBacktracking is the process of reconsidering the assumptions that we made in an argument (Pasm, Arguments). Backtracking means abandoning one assumption, and redoing the argument without that assumption.
Backtracking can be useful,
- if we found out that one of our founding statements was wrong (SecFounding)
- if we want to find out what would happen if one of our founding statements were wrong (PlanB)
- if our argument produces conclusions that are in contradiction with reality (Reality)
- if certain goals cannot be fulfilled (Backtracking)
Backtracking is essential in a world where things that appeared true can turn out to be wrong (Contingency).
DiscussionsThis part covers arguments with other people (SecArg), fallacious arguments (SecNonRatArg) and dealing with non-receptive people (SecNonRec).
Technically, the types of behavior presented here are patterns (Patterns). This means that they are abstract descriptions of hypothetical behavior that might or might not appear in reality. The responses suggested to counter the behavior are theories in the sense of this essay (Theories). This means that they are not guaranteed to work.
ArgumentsSometimes, we wish to present our rational argument to other people (Arguments). This section explains ways to do this convincingly.
Arguing that a statement is trueIf we want to show our interlocutor that a statement is true, then the most convincing way to do this is usually a rational argument (Arguments). To make a rational argument, it is useful to first make all assumptions, facts, and goals explicit (Name). If we are making assumptions, it is helpful to ask our interlocutor whether he agrees. Once we agree with our interlocutor on the founding statements (SecFounding), we conduct a proof for our hypothesis (Proofs). We might have to come up with some additional rules on the way (RuleInvention). It is useful to check each of this rules for plausibility with our interlocutor. If he agrees, we can build our proof on these rules and deduce the hypothesis.
Throughout our discourse, is useful to use grounded language (Grounding).
Arguing that a statement is wrongTo argue that a statement is wrong, we have to prove (Proofs) that its negation is true (Negations). Thus, an argument against something (Arguments) follows the same structure as an argument for something (ArgTrue): We first make all assumptions, facts, and goals explicit (Name). Then we show that the negation follows from the founding statements (SecFounding).
In reality, such a proof is often shortened. It is often sufficient to name just one founding statement that will allow us to deduce the falsehood of the claim. This statement is called a counter-argument. The proof that uses this statement is usually left implicit.
As an example, consider the following discussion:
Bob: But I saw you at the tennis court in the afternoon!
- If someone sees something, then that something is true
- If someone is in one place at some point of time, he cannot be in another place at that point of time.
- If something happens all day long, it also happens in the afternoon.
Arguing for the truth of a ruleLogical rules are an essential part of rational discourse (Rules). Unfortunately, some rules are so predictive that we may never hope to prove them true in eternity (Popper). Yet, rules that have certain properties (GoodRules) are often acceptable as approximations of eternal truth (Truth).
In order to show that a rule is "true" in this approximative sense, we have to show that it is a good rule (ReasonableTheories, GoodRules). This means in particular that it is rational (SecStat), supported (Support, EstablishRule), general (GeneralRules), precise (PreciseRules), and predictive (Predictiveness). If we succeed in showing these properties, then the rule is a reasonable approximation of truth.
Intuitively, there are three important properties of a rule: (1) it has predicted true things in the past, (2) it never predicted something false, and (3) it makes predictions about the unknown. If it has predicted a large number of true things in the past, then chances are good that it will predict true things in the future. There is no guarantee for that, though (Contingency).
Arguing for the falsehood of a ruleIt is often impossible to argue for the truth of a predictive rule in eternity (Popper, ArgForRule). In contrast, it is easier to argue for the falsehood of a rule. More precisely, it is possible to argue that the rule is incorrect. It suffices to find an instantiation (Instantiations) where the premise of the rule is true in our knowledge (Knowledge) and the conclusion is false.
To make such an argument watertight, it is useful to first clarify with our interlocutor what the rule is supposed to mean (Name). We cannot argue agains a general valuation (GenVal), an abstract universal hypothesis (AUH), or an unfalsifiable claim (Unfalsifiable). If the rule falls into one of these categories, then we should concentrate on showing that the rule is not rational.
If we want to prove the rule wrong, then we can proceed as follows:
- Ask which statement our interlocutor would accept as a proof that the rule is wrong
- Prove that statement
- Ask for a prediction that the hypothesis makes
- Show that the prediction is wrong
For example, to prove that a certain superstition is wrong, we can ask "What would you accept as evidence that the superstition is wrong?". When our interlocutor says that failure to follow the superstition leads to, say, illness, then we can prove the superstition wrong by (1) not following it and (2) not falling ill.
The problem is that our interlocutor will most likely not be willing to produce anything that he would accept as counterevidence for his rule. Here are two strategies that we can use in this case:
- If there is nothing that acts as counter-evidence for the rule, or if the rule makes no prediction whatsoever, then the rule is unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable). That is: The truth or falsehood of the rule has no effect of reality. We can behave as if the rule were wrong and it will not change anything in our lives. It will most likely even save effort (NoBOD). This conclusion might entice our interlocutor to come up with counter-evidence.
- If we want to prove an unfalsifiable rule wrong, we can come up with a similar rule, of which we know that the interlocutor thinks it is wrong. In the example, we can invent a novel superstition and ask the interlocutor why he does not follow it. Then, we use the counter-argument that our interlocutor brings as a counter-argument against the original rule.
Arguing that we should so somethingSometimes we wish to show our interlocutor that it is good for them or both of us to do something (Good). The most convincing way to do this is usually to establish the following facts:
- We have a certain goal X (Goals). It is helpful to reassure ourselves that our interlocutor agrees with this goal.
- A certain action Y will lead to that goal X (Good).
- The action Y is the only one that leads to X without violating other goals.
- Therefore, it is good to do Y
Point 4 follows from the definition of "good" (Good, Advice). This line of reasoning is a general blueprint for an argument for doing a certain thing. The drawback is that the argument works only if the condition in line 3 is fulfilled. If this condition is not fulfilled, then we cannot make an easy argument for doing something. We have to go through a full fledged decision process to figure out the best thing to do (SecDec).
Reactions of our interlocutorOnce we have made our argument (SecArg), it is our turn to listen (Listen). The other person may now say something in reply. We distinguish the following cases:
- The other person does or says something that is unrelated to our point. This problem is discussed further down (SecNonRec)
- The other person acknowledges our point (Ack). In this case, the argument is over.
- The other person produces a valid objection to our point, e.g., by a method outlined in this section (SecArg). In this case, it is our turn to reply (Reac).
- The other person produces an invalid objection. We will discuss this case in the following section (SecNonRatArg).
This model does not apply in all cases. We can imagine discussions with more than two people, asynchronous discussions or verbal interactions that are not discussions in the rational sense (TalkToArgue). In particular, this discourse model assumes that every valid statement deserves an acknowledgement.
Bad argumentsWhen people argue, one person usually tries to bring a counter-argument to the other person's opinion (ArgFalse). There are a number of counter arguments that look rational, but that are wrong. These bad counter arguments are so numerous that it would exceed the frame of this essay to list and explain them all. Therefore, this section explains only some of the more frequent such arguments.
- We commit the fallacy ourselves (SecMore)
- Somebody else tries to trick us into accepting the fallacy (SecNonRatArg, this section)
- Somebody else tries to sell us the fallacy and then avoid any further argument (SecNonRec)
Non SequiturThe most universal fallacious argument is the non-sequitur argument. It takes the following form:
Therefore, I should keep the money, not you.
A valid rational argument has to use rules, e.g., as follows:
A => B.
If the theory between the proof assumptions A and the hypothesis B is missing, then the argument is not a rational argument at all. There is no reason to believe that the hypothesis would be true. Thus, a standard reply to a non-sequitur argument is always:
But this does not mean B. / But why should that mean B?
Him as wellA him-as-well argument assumes that something is good, because someone else did something bad. For example:
Bob: But the US invaded Afghanistan!
Alice: But Al Qaida bombed the World Trade Center buildings!
One standard response to a Him-as-well argument is:
Conspiracy Theories and InsinuationAn insinuation is the hypothesis that something is not as prima facie evidence suggests, but caused by someone with bad intentions. Examples are:
- Osama Bin Laden never existed, but was invented by the USA.
- My teacher gave me a bad grade not because I did bad in the exam, but because I am a foreigner.
- She didn't greet me because she hates me.
Insinuations are valid rational statements. They are dangerous, because they claim that someone did something with a bad intention. This could be an insult in the moral framework (Moral).
In a discussion, an insinuation is often used to prove that the prima facie evidence is false. Yet, an alternative explanation for something does not make that explanation true. The prima facie evidence remains the most plausible explanation until the alternative explanation can show some evidence for it.
A possible reply to an insinuation is:
Yes, but apart from thatAn apart-from-that argument implies that since there is only one argument against a thing, that argument is not strong enough. As an example, consider the following discussion:
Bob: Yes, but apart from that, is there anything you can say against it?
One way to deal with an apart-from-that objection is to say:
True but irrelevant argumentA true-but-irrelevant argument presents a statement that is true or not falsifiable, but irrelevant. Since it is assumed that the interlocutor agrees on this statement, it is assumed that he gives up his previous objection. This technique is a particular case of the non-sequitur argument (NonSeq).
Alice: In the US, Latinos have a lower literacy rate than Caucasians.Bob's statement is true, but it does not contradict Alice's general observation.
Bob: Well, it all depends. It depends on your parents' education, on your social environment, and on your own desire to learn.
Alice: God has healed this guy from cancer!Alice presents an unfalsifiable statement that does not answer Bob's question.
Bob: Great! So, why does he not heal others from cancer?
Alice: The Lord knows best what he does.
Alice: You failed miserably in the math exam! You should work harder!Bob's statement may be true, but does not address Alice's concern.
Bob: But I did well in the English exam!
The true-but-irrelevant argument is not a valid counter-argument. The original hypothesis is not refuted. This type of argument can be seen as a special form of missing acknowledgement, a non-receptive behavior (MissingAck).
If confronted with a true-but-irrelevant argument, we can say:
It does not change the fact that (repeat your point)
Worse things have happened at seaA worse-things argument says that there are things that are much worse than those observed by the other person and that, therefore, these things are not so bad after all. Example:
Bob: Well, come on. Other couples are already divorced!
When confronted with a worse-things argument, we can say
(repeat your point here)
StrawmanA strawman argument is an argument that misrepresents or exaggerates the position of the opponent and then argues against it. For example:
Bob: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.
One standard way of dealing with such an exaggeration X' of the original argument X is to say:
One particular instance of the strawman argument misportrays the original hypothesis as necessary or perpetual:
Bob: I don't see why you always have to go swimming!
Reason as excuseThe reason-as-excuse argument presents a reason for something as an excuse for that something. However, a reason for something does not necessarily make that thing any better (Good). A reason for something also does not make that thing morally correct (Moral). A reason for a behavior does not automatically justify that behavior. In particular, a reason why a statement is false does not make that statement true.
Here are some examples for this fallacious argument:
Bob: My advice can help you with your problem!In this example, Bob wants to offer Alice advice. He tries to "prove" that he knows enough to help. However, his "proof" consists of a reason why he does not know enough to help us. Therefore, Bob should not give Alice advice.
Alice: But you do not know enough about my problem to give me advice.
Bob: Yes, that is because you do not tell me enough!
Bob: X is a secular countryIn this example, Bob wants to prove that X is a secular country. Alice makes an objection. But instead of refuting the objection, Bob confirms it. Therefore, the objection is true. Thus, X is not a secular country.
Alice: But the constitution of country X says that its president has to be of a certain religion. If a country prescribes the religion of its president, it is not secular.
Bob: Yes, X prescribes the religion of its president because the majority of people in X is of that religion and they would not accept a president of another religion.
Alice: People are xenophobic because, statistically, foreigners are more likely to be criminals than other people.In this example, Bob explains why foreigners are supposedly more criminal. By his explanation, Bob does not contradict Alice's original statement. On the contrary, he gives a reason for it. Therefore, Alice's original statement stands undisputed. (Bob refutes the implicit statement that foreigners would be more likely to be criminals just because they are foreigners. Alice did not make that statement, though.)
Bob: But foreigners are just more likely to be criminals because they are more likely to be young, male, jobless and without education. These factors correlate with criminality, for foreigners as well as for natives.
- Imagine you have not received your salary for two months. When calling the HR department, they explain you that the salary department is chronically overtaxed and that all employees receive their salary 2 months late. You feel better. However, this explanation just reinforces the fact: The salary department does not do its job correctly.
- Imagine you have a meeting with someone and that person is 30 minutes late. As an explanation, he says: I am sorry, I had to eat dinner before coming here. That may be true, and it is probably also the reason for his being late, but it does not justify that he let you wait. He could have eaten dinner earlier.
- Imagine that someone shoots and seriously injures your friend. You are very angry at this person. Upon investigation, it turns out that the person is a mentally ill patient who has escaped from hospital. This fact may dampen your anger. However, it neither justifies nor alleviates the injury.
If confronted with such a reason-as-excuse argument against our statement X, we can say
False DichotomyThis argument wrongly assumes that we have the choice between only two options, which exclude each other. For example:
Bob: I think we should invest more in education!
Alice: OK, so you think that the current laissez-faire attitude of the courts is OK.
If we are confronted with a false dichotomy, we can say
Wrong rulesA wrong rule is a rule (SecRules) that does not hold in reality. Such wrong rules are, for example:
Assuming that something is good or bad because it is new or oldQuality and newness are independent of each other. Something may be new and good (such as a vaccine), new and bad (such as pollution), old and good (such as fairy tales) or old and bad (such as witchburning).
Assuming that something is good or bad because it is frequent/popular/normal or rare/unpopular/abnormalThis conclusion is wrong. Something that is frequent may be bad (according to some moral framework (Moral)). Take the example of environmental pollution.
Assuming that someone who tells us something endorses what he is telling us.This assumption is wrong. If our child tells us he got a bad grade at school, he may be just as disappointed about it as we are.
Assuming that a member of a group identifies with the bad things that the group or some of its members do or did.Most Chinese whom you will meet have nothing to do with the human right abuses in their country. Most Germans whom you will meet have nothing to do with the Nazi regime. Most Muslims whom you will meet have nothing to do with terrorism. (DontId)
Assuming that an individual represents a groupEven if you meet an American who does not know that Europe is a continent, this does not mean that all Americans would not know that. Even if you hear a religious preacher say that something should be done or should not be done, this does not mean that all the faith adherents share that opinion.
Assuming that guilt and damage are always correlatedPeople may cause damage without being guilty of it (think, e.g., of a baby). In these cases, we can still talk of damage, even if there is no guilt. There are other cases where people are guilty, even if they do not commit (physical) damage. These cases include, e.g., denial of assistance or coercion. See [TOE] for a discussion.
Technically, a wrong rule is a rule that produces incorrect predictions on our knowledge (Confidence). Therefore, it will most likely produce wrong conclusions. A wrong rule that someone uses to "prove" a statement X can be countered either by discussing the underlying wrong rule (ArgAgainstRule) or by saying
I read itIf someone makes an I-read-it argument, he supports a statement by saying he read somewhere that this statement is true. Typical examples are advice on food ("You should not eat sausages because it is bad for your health") or on certain behaviors ("You should not use dish soap to clean the bathroom"). As evidence for such statements, the person typically cites Web pages, friends, or newspaper articles.
Newspapers, friends, and Web sites, however, may report false information. It is not sufficient that someone thinks or writes something to make it true. General statements (SecRules) are only true if they have made true predictions in the past, and if they make predictions for the future (SecTruth). The safest way to validate a general statement is through a scientific study (EstablishRule, Authority). Scientific studies about health effects can only generalize from the subjects of the study to the world population if at least a hundred people participated in the study (EstablishRule). Studies about the health effects of medical drugs, for example, have to have thousands of participants in order to prove that the medicine is harmless and that it has the desired effect. Studies with less participants can only yield a hypothesis (Hypotheses). They are not statistically significant.
Even if the claim has been scientifically validated, the newspaper, Web site or friend my may still misinterpret the study. Scientific studies usually come with a caveat that more research is needed to validate the hypothesis — a note that is often omitted in news articles. Lastly, the newspapers, friends, and Web sites may also be misinterpreted themselves. Therefore, care is necessary with "I read it" arguments. If we follow wrong or useless advice, we just complicate our life needlessly. We discuss this in NoBOD. Therefore, we should take care and avoid gullibility.
To counteract the I-read-it arguments, I have created a Web page that also makes all sorts of claims. The reader is invited to have a look at this page, and next time someone makes an I-read-it argument, this argument can be countered by an equally plausible I-read-it argument. The page is here.
(If you don't know anything, you have to believe everything)
I know someoneThe I-know-someone argument seeks to reject a guarded generalization (Guarded) by naming a counter-example. However, a guarded generalization remains valid even if we find a counter-example, because the generalization makes a claim only about the majority of cases, not about the single instance. Example:
Bob: Well, you cannot really say that. I read about a woman who stole a car. So it all depends.
If confronted with an I-know-someone argument, we can reply, e.g.:
Why not?The why-not argument implies that, if we do not have a reason against something, then we should do that something. Consider the following sample discussion:
Alice: OK, let's go watch a movie.
There are some standard arguments against doing a thing X. We are usually just too lazy to enumerate them. These standard counter-arguments are:
- X requires effort, thus counteracting our goal of avoiding effort (StdGoals).
- X costs money (StdGoals).
- We do not want to do X (Preferences).
Rhetoric questionsA rhetoric question is a question with an obvious answer. When the listener gives that obvious answer, the asker assumes that the listener agrees with him on some hypothesis. Examples are:
Now I ask you: Will a minimum wage increase the workers' living standard or not?The obvious answer is "yes". This answer is taken as a proof for the hypothesis that we should introduce a minimum wage. However, whether the minimum wage is good or not depends on large number of factors and not just on the living standard.
So didn't our party predict the economic problems years ago?Again, the obvious answer is "yes" (nearly every opposition party predicts problems). This answer is taken as a proof that the opposition party would be better than the ruling party. Such a proof, however, requires a decision process (Evaluations).
You want to ride a motorbike? Do you want to get killed?The obvious answer is "no". This, however, does not mean we should not ride a motorbike, because riding a motorbike does not automatically kill you.
So do you think it is normal that this country invaded this other country?Again, the obvious answer is "no". This answer is taken as a proof for the wrong conduct of the invader. However, moral conduct is not decided by normality, but by a moral framework (Moral, Normal, WrongRules). Invading another country may be justified under certain circumstances (think of the US invading Germany during World War 2).
The rhetoric question forces the listener to give a predetermined answer, which is wrongly seen as a proof for the hypothesis. This proof happens through a wrong rule (WrongRules). Therefore, a rhetoric question is a bad argument. A rhetoric question that asks X to imply Y can be countered, e.g., as follows:
Non-receptivenessNot all people strive for truth. Sometimes, people strive mainly to establish their own viewpoint, no matter whether it is right or not. It can take considerable effort to determine and counteract such behavior.
Non-receptivenessNon-receptiveness in the sense of this essay is conversational behavior that does not give due attention to an argument brought by the interlocutor or that prevents the interlocutor from giving arguments altogether.
Non-receptiveness is not necessarily intended. Sometimes people are just too busy or too lazy to take into account an argument. In some cases, however, non-receptiveness is a sign of disrespect, cantankerousness or arrogance. Non-receptiveness may be deprecated behavior under your moral framework (Moral).
If someone does not give due respect to the arguments of his interlocutor, this means that he is not interested in revising his position. Therefore, non-receptiveness means that the person may be talking without the aim of speaking truth. Therefore, such behavior is not rational (SeekTruth). Worse, the fact that the person does not have his thoughts checked by other people entails that he may be saying things that are wrong (OpReal). If someone says things without caring whether they are true or not, this person becomes untrustworthy. This section will make proposals of how to detect and counteract non-receptiveness.
What non-receptiveness is notNon-receptiveness in the sense of this essay (NonRecDef) does not cover the following cases:
Talking in a persuasive wayRationality does not prevent people from trying to persuade others of an opinion. On the contrary: The goal of rationality is approaching truth (SeekTruth). If a person argues for something, then this might help approaching truth. We cannot say a priori that what a person believes would not be true, just because he tries to persuade us. The fact that he tries to persuade us just indicates his conviction, which can be a hint for what is true.
Arguing for one's own benefitsWhat the person says can be true even if the thing that the person advocates is beneficial to him. Therefore, it is legitimate in the sense of rationality to argue for something that is beneficial to someone.
Arguing for something we do not likeThe fact that we do not like a thing or that someone else likes a thing does not make it false (WrongRules).
Insulting the interlocutorThis essay assumes insults to be covered by the moral framework (Moral).
Using wrong argumentsUsually, the truth is not obvious. Also, it is difficult to argue consistently in a rationally correct way. Therefore, people occasionally bring forth false statements or false arguments. These can be countered in rational ways. This essay covers wrong arguments in the section on bad counter arguments (SecNonRatArg).
Interrupting floodingIf we keep talking without end, then we are ourselves non-receptive (Flooding). If our partner interrupts us, he is not non-receptive.
When to counteract non-receptivenessNon-receptiveness (NonRecDef) implies talking without the aim of speaking truth. In general, everybody is free to talk with whatever aim he wishes (if he follows his respective moral rules (Moral)). We are not obliged to change how a person is talking. We are also not obliged to help someone approach truth if he does not want to (Teach). Therefore, there is no reason to counteract non-receptiveness per se. On the contrary, we may decide to just listen (Listen).
However, we might wish to counteract non-receptiveness, if we have an interest in the other person's opinion. This can be because our own goals depend on the other person's opinion (Goals). It can also be because we feel challenged by the other person or because we feel the desire (Desires) to show that what he says is wrong. In these cases, we have to counteract non-receptiveness.
Know what statement you want to get throughNon-receptiveness is a state in which the other person does not acknowledge what we want to say (NonRecDef). If we want to counteract non-receptiveness, we have to know exactly what we want to say. If we do not know what we want to say, then, by definition, there is no problem of non-receptiveness. If we do not want to say anything, we can just listen (Listen).
Now assume that we want to say something. Then we have to know exactly what we want to say. This is not trivial, since non-receptive people often do their utmost to distract us from what we want to say. Therefore, before even thinking about counteracting non-receptive behavior, we have to be very clear in our mind about the message that we want to get across. It helps to repeat this message at the beginning of the discussion ("My main concern is that..."). It also helps to repeat this message from time to time — for ourselves and for the other person. We shall not let go of the message, and we shall not let ourselves distract to different messages.
How to counteract non-receptivenessThis essay proposes a strategy to counteract non-receptiveness (NonRecDef). This proposal is a theory (Theories), meaning that the strategy is not guaranteed to work. If the reader has his own strategies, he is free to use them (and invited to share them with me).
The basic strategy that this essay proposes is:
Identify non-receptivenessThis is not trivial, because not every argument that we do not like is necessarily non-receptive (NonRecNot).
Ignore its contentThis is often hard, because non-receptive talking still distracts us.
Repeat your argument until you get it acknowledged by your interlocutorGetting it acknowledged means: Having your interlocutor react to it.
As soon as our interlocutor becomes non-receptive, we are no longer bound to follow his arguments. We may require him first to acknowledge our point. The following articles treat specific instances of the general procedure to that end.
Missing acknowledgementA missing acknowledgement is a situation where we bring an argument, but our interlocutor does not react to it. More precisely: Our interlocutor says something that he could also have said if we had said the contrary. Here is an example:
Bob: The movie will be awesome, I have read so many good things about it!
Alice: We already have the tickets for the cinema.
Bob: The movie will be awesome, I have read so many good things about it!
Such behavior is non-receptive (NonRecDef) and thus not rational. It may be combined with distraction (Distracting) or flooding (Flooding). This essay proposes the following procedure to counter missing acknowledgement:
Identify the missing acknowledgement.You can do this by checking if the other person could have said the same thing if you had said the contrary.
Acknowledge what the other person said (Ack).Alice: Great, I am really looking forward to seeing that movie!
Repeat your pointAlice: But I still think we should get the tickets now
Point out the missing acknowledgementIf the other person is still does not acknowledge, point out that you are talking about different things. Then ask the other person to acknowledge explicitly.Alice: Bob, we are talking about two different things! I know the movie is great, but we do have to get the tickets now if we want to watch it tonight. Do you understand that?
- Ah! pardon, fit le petit prince.
Mais après réflexion, il ajouta:
- Qu'est-ce que signifie "apprivoiser"?
- Les hommes, dit le renard, ont des fusils et ils chassent. C'est bien gênant! Ils élèvent aussi des poules. C'est leur seul intérêt. Tu cherches des poules?
- Non, dit le petit prince. Je cherche des amis. Qu'est-ce que signifie "apprivoiser"?
Shooting downShooting down an argument happens by discrediting the other person's position without giving a proper counter-argument (ArgFalse). This is non-receptive behavior, because such a reaction does not depend at all on the other person's argument (NonRecDef). Examples for such shooting down sentences are:
- Yeah, I don't know.
- No, I don't think so.
- That is not the question.
- Well, let's see.
- Let the numbers talk.
- Yeah, whatever.
- Sure. Maybe, maybe not.
Such a phrase ends the discussion, but does not give due respect to the other person's view. To counter such behavior, we have (at least) two options:
If we would like to pursue our point, we can break the stop sentence by saying
So did you understand my point or not?
- If we are no longer interested in the discussion, we can just reply with any other stop sentence. This will end the discussion without our admitting defeat.
FloodingFlooding is the process of bringing so many arguments and saying so many things that it is impossible to answer them all. This conveys the impression that the original argument is definitively dead — even though it has not been given due attention. Flooding often follows missing acknowledgement (MissingAck) or shooting down an argument (ShootingDown).
Flooding is non-receptive behavior (NonRecDef), because it does not give due respect to the other person's argument. This essay proposes the following procedure to counter flooding:
Identify floodingFlooding is happening if you feel that your argument has not been given due attention, and the other person talks about so many other things that you could not summarize them in one sentence.
Ignore what the other person saidThis can be hard, because among the many things the other person said, there may be some that challenge you. Still, ignore them!
Point out the floodingYou can do this, e.g., by sayingNow you have said many things, but I am afraid you still have not answered my point. Could you please say why my argument is wrong?
Repeat your point
DistractingDistracting is the process of raising a point that is different from the original argument. Often, the new point is challenging, controversial, interesting or phrased as a question. The danger is that the participants of the discussion jump on the new topic, forgetting about the original argument. Distracting usually follows missing acknowledgement (MissingAck) or shooting down an argument (ShootingDown).
Distracting is non-receptive behavior (NonRecDef), because it ignores the other person's argument completely. This essay proposes the following procedure to counter distractions:
Identify the distracting behaviorThe other person is distracting you if he could have said the same thing if you had not brought up your point (MissingAck). At the same time, he brings up a new, interesting topic.
Ignore what the other person saidThis can be hard, because, by definition, distractive behavior aims at distracting you.
Destroy the distractionYou can do this, e.g., by sayingThat may be true, but you are talking about something different. Let's go back to what I said before.
Repeat your point
In email communication, distraction can happen if the interlocutor inflates one topic to 3 or 5 topics (possibly with provoking hypotheses or insults). If you respond to each of the topics, your interlocutor will inflate each of your answers into again 3 or 5 topics. This way, the original point suffers an exponential decline. In these cases, it is best to ignore all topics raised by the interlocutor, respond not inline, but above the interlocutor's text, and address only the topic that you raised, until it is acknowledged.
Slamming the doorSlamming the door means making a point and then ending the discussion. This can happen, e.g., by leaving the room.
Slamming the door is a very explict means of being non-receptive (NonRecDef). Therefore, it is worth considering whether the other person is possibly angry with a reason (ReasonBehind). Maybe we have been non-receptive ourselves (NonRecDef), or maybe we have offended them. In these cases, it is up to us to resolve the problem.
The reason may also be that the other person cannot counter our argument. In this case, we can consider the battle won. If we were just interested in showing that we were right, that goal is achieved (NonRecWhen). We can save our energy (StdGoals).
However, if we need an explicit acknowledgement from the other person, we will have to contact them again later (not necessarily in person). It may be that the other person already regrets having slammed the door, so we should generally assume good intentions (AssumeGood).
Staying silentSometimes a person does not reply at all to an argument, but just stays silent. This is non-receptive behavior (NonRecDef), because the argument is not given due weight.
Just like slamming the door (SlamDoor), staying silent is a very explicit way of being non-receptive. Therefore, we should ask ourselves whether the person is possibly angry with a reason (ReasonBehind). We can, for example, ask why the person is not talking to us.
If it becomes obvious that the other person simply does not want to admit defeat, we can say that we assume that the other person agrees. If the other person does not object, we can consider the argument won.
DownplayingIn this scenario, the other party simply says that the issue is not worth discussing. They will say, e.g.,
I don't think this is a problem.
So is this a problem?
Don't worry ("Mach dir keine Sorgen")
It might be true that the issue is indeed not worth discussing. Therefore, we should spend a second to think whether we really want to continue defending our point (ForgiveForget, TalkToArgue). If we agree that the issue should simply be abandoned, we should say so.
In general, however, the other party's behavior is non-receptive, because it ignores our original argument (NonRecDef). In this case, we should insist that the point is worth discussing:
Emphasize the importance of the point, e.g., by saying
Don't swipe it under the rock.
- Repeat your point
Accusing of overreactionIn this scenario, one party accuses the other party of overreacting. Instead of answering to an argument, they imply that the other party is taking the disussion way too serious ("Don't get your panties in a bunch!", "Hey, reg dich ab, Mann!"). Such behavior is non-receptive, because it ignores the original argument (NonRecDef). The behavior is particulary unpleasant, because the accusation makes you angry, but getting angry would be exactly the overreaction that you have been accused of.
If someone accuses us of overreaction, we should first verify whether that reproach could be true. If we have been insisting on a detail or if we have offended the other person, we should backpedal. There may also be some hidden reason behind the accusation (ReasonBehind).
If it turns out that the other person merely seeks to hide that they cannot answer our argument, we can simply ignore the reproach:
Repeat your point
DeflectionDeflection is a technique to react to a reproach (Reproaches). Instead of talking about the content of the reproach, one talks about the person who makes the reproach. This can take the form of a generalization about that person (Generalizations) or of an insult, so that the statement acts as a distraction (Distracting). Examples are:
Alice: You never do the things that you promise either!
Alice: You seem to think about that a lot.
Alice: You are not very good at shopping anyway.
Deflection can also happen preemptively by attacking the speaker already before he makes the reproach — to kill the reproach before it gets on the scene. A deflection is non-receptive behavior (NonRecDef), because it does not give any consideration to the reproach. It deflects the attention from the addressee of the reproach to the other person.
The main difficulty in countering a deflection is to ignore the deflection. This is difficult because the deflection is deliberately provocative in order to distract (Distracting). So one strategy to counter it is:
Identify the deflectionThe other person is deflecting your statement if you suddenly find yourself urged to explain or excuse yourself.
Ignore what the other person saidDeflection is a trick. Ignore it.
Destroy the deflectionYou can do this, e.g., by sayingThis is about you, not me.
You are just trying to distract from yourself.
Repeat your point
Accusing of disputeIn this scenario, one party accuses the other party of aiming for dispute. Such a reproach can take several forms:
- Why do we always have to argue?
- See, we just argue again...
- Man, why do you always have to argue?
When confronted with such a reproach, we should verify whether the other party is possibly right. Is the issue we are talking about really important enough to spend our time on it? Or are we just arguing for the sake of it? (TalkToArgue) It might also be that we already convinced the other party (DontAssumeRatStat). If it turns out that the other party merely seeks to hide that they have no more argument, we can react, e.g., as follows:
Break the accusationThis can happen, e.g., by sayingWell, if you understood my point, we would not have to argue.
Yes, if we have different opinions, we have to argue.
I am not arguing. I am explaining why I'm right [Global Secular Humanism Movement].
Repeat your point
What to do if you cannot counteract non-receptivenessThere may be cases where we just cannot get the other party to react to our argument. It may be that we have to give up on convincing our interlocutor (Loss).
If our goal was to convice the other person, we can say that we have the impression that the other person does not want to question his views. If that is indeed the case, then there is no use arguing (Teach). If that is not the case, we might be offered a chance to make our argument heard.
If we are in a dispute with the other person and cannot resolve it, we have the option of asking someone else to arbitrate. If there is an authority, we can consider asking that authority to arbitrate (Outsourcing). If the argument concerns work, the authority may be our boss (or theirs). If the argument is of legal nature and of significant importance, the authority may be the jurisdiction.
Goals and ProblemsThis part introduces the notion of a goal (SecGoals). It defines a problem as a goal that is not fulfilled. It goes on to cover different classes of problems (SecProb) and decision problems in particular (SecDec).
GoalsThis section defines the notion of goals. Goals give a purpose to rationality. They allow us to label things as "good" and "bad". They are also the basis for the study of ethics.
Statements about GoalsA goal is a long-term desire (Desires). For example, a goal can be to be rich, to have a dog or to visit Napels. In a rational argument, goals can be expressed for example by statements of the form "My goal is...":
Even though the concept of goals may sound egoistic, goals do not necessarily have to be selfish. For example, it can be a goal to make another person happy. Parents the goal of giving their children a good upbringing. A husband has the goal of having a harmonious relationship with his wife. A friend has the goal of comforting a friend. Goals can be altruistic.
We can assume that some goals are shared by most people (StdGoals).
There are also sufficient sub-goals, i.e., states that are sufficient conditions for a goal. For example, if giving somebody chocolate is sufficient to make him happy, then giving him chocolate is a sufficient sub-goal for achieving his happiness. It may not be the only sufficient sub-goal, though.
Problem StatementsA problem is a difference between the desired state or goal (Goals) and the current state of the world. Since different people have different goals, different people have different problems. Rationality expresses problems by saying "For X, it is a problem that...". For example, we can say:
Statements about good and badAn action is "good" with respect to a goal (Goals), if it pushes the state of the world closer to the desired state. An action is "bad" if it pushes the state of the world farther away from the desired state. (See [Thoughts on Ethics / Formalizing the World] for a formal model of states and actions.). For example, if it is a problem that there is no chocolate in the fridge, then it is "good" to go shop some chocolate:
The notions of good and bad are always tied to a particular problem. An action is never good or bad by itself, but only with respect to a desired state. If we say that ethical behavior according to some moral framework is a goal (Moral), then the notions of "morally good" and "morally bad" are special cases of "good" and "bad".
AdviceAn advice is a friendly instruction. Rationality allows expressing advice by statements of the form "You should". For example, we can say
Nothing allows us to prove that the addressee of this advice will follow the advice. Human behavior is unpredictable in this strict sense (FreeWill). Still, advice is a useful outcome of a rational argument. It is possible that a rational argument produces two contradicting advices. Then, these advices have to be weighted against each other (BestAdvice).
Best AdviceAn advice is a friendly instruction (Advice), telling someone that one particular action will bring the state of the world closer to one particular goal:
Moral LabelsThe question of what is right and what is wrong is one of the oldest philosophical conundrums. In the framework of rationality, we distinguish three types of behaviors:
morally wrong behaviorThese are immoral behaviors that we want to avoid and punish. For example, most people agree that theft is morally wrong.
morally obligatory behaviorThese are the things that we are morally obliged to do. For example, calling the police when we see a crime.
morally allowed behaviorThese are the things that we may do. For example, most people will agree that it is morally OK to eat chocolate.
There is no universal agreement on which behaviors are morally right or wrong. It cannot be proven from the laws of nature which behaviors are wrong and which are not (see [Thoughts on Ethics / Ethics and Nature] for a discussion). Therefore, the moral quality of a behavior is not an intrinsic property of the behavior itself. We cannot say that a certain behavior is objectively morally wrong. Such a statement would be unfalsifiable (Unfalsifiable). We can only say that certain people find certain actions morally wrong. These statements are what we call moral statements. Such statements are personal statements (Personal). Thus, "I find the invasion in Iraq morally wrong" is of the same type as "I find Alice beautiful". They express a valuation of an action by a person. Such statements are falsifiable (it suffices to ask the person about their opinion). Moral statements typically come in the form of moral frameworks (MoralFrame).
Moral FrameworksMoral statements are statements that attach a moral label to a behavior (Moral). Typically, moral statements come in the form of a whole package of moral statements. These packages are called moral frameworks. Examples for moral frameworks are:
- the national criminal law. The law says that certain behaviors are morally wrong.
- religious corpora. Religious books commonly tell people what is good behavior and what is bad behavior.
- commandments, such as the Ten Commandents or other lists of do's and don'ts.
- politeness codexes. These codexes can regulate, for example, that it is obligatory to cover your mouth while sneezing.
- philosophical frameworks, such as utilitarism or [Thoughts on Ethics].
- ...or any combination or subset thereof.
Moral frameworks label certain behaviors as morally bad, others as morally obligatory, and again others as morally allowed (Moral). For example, the national criminal law can say something like
Properties of Moral FrameworksMoral frameworks label certain behaviors as morally bad, others as morally obligatory, and again others as morally allowed (Moral). In a contradiction-free moral framework, all obligatory behaviors are also allowed behaviors. Both obligatory and allowed behaviors are disjoint from bad behaviors. Moral frameworks may also offer degrees of judgements, saying for instance that certain behaviors are desirable, but not obligatory. Most moral frameworks define only morally bad behaviors. They do not define what "morally good" behavior is. If something is not morally bad, this does not mean it is "morally good". For example, most moral frameworks are silent about the consumption of chocolate. Therefore, the consumption of chocolate is not morally wrong. But it is not explicitly "morally good", either. It falls in the class of morally allowed behaviors.
When using a moral framework, we usually assume completeness. This means that we assume that everything that is not defined as wrong in the framework is morally allowed. For example, if we assume the Ten Commandments with completeness, then we can deduce that slavery is allowed, because the Ten Commandments do not condemn it. If we assume the Ten Commandments without completeness, we cannot say anything about slavery.
Moral frameworks typically require that the same framework be used to judge your own behavior and other people's behavior. They may also require that the framework used to judge your own behavior be stricter than the framework used to judge other behavior (Asymmetry). Yet, not all systems require equality of rights and duties. Societies that allow slavery, for example, have different standards for slaves and free people, as do societies that implement the caste system. Note that we do not discuss here whether one morel framework is "better" than another one. That is technically impossible anyway without a reference framework (Good). Here, we limit ourselves to the definition of moral frameworks. See [Thoughts on Ethics] for a deeper discussion of moral values.
Liberal moral frameworks, such as [Thoughts on Ethics], label only behaviors as bad that harm somebody else. There are other moral frameworks that go beyond this minimalistic liberal view. These are, e.g., religious sources or advice books. They aim to be more comprehensive and define "good life" in general. This may include the educational, social and political aspects of life.
Moral frameworks come into existence if someone defines them. This is done mostly by writing them up. The creators of the criminal law, for example, gathered and produced a document that contains rules with moral statements. Such a moral framework comes into effect if people vow to adhere to it. For example, the government of the country decides that from now on, it wishes to enforce its criminal law, and to use its jurisdiction and executive power to prosecute people who behave morally wrong according to this law. This does not make the law "true" or "good" in any sense. It just means that the law is enforced.
If a moral framework got approved by a government, it becomes a legal framework. The rules of such frameworks are called laws. Something is legal, if the legal framework deems it morally acceptable. The concept of legality is often opposed to the concept of morality. While the former refers to the laws of a country, the latter refers to the "natural" or "true" moral quality of actions. We have already seen that there exists no such "natural" or "true" moral quality of actions (Moral). All moral frameworks are just lists of human preferences. Therefore, when people criticize a law as "immoral", they usually mean that it contradicts their own personal moral framework.
Using Moral FrameworksIn rationality, a moral framework is a theory of rules that condemns certain behaviors as morally wrong (MoralFrame). This theory can serve as a proof assumption (Pasm) in a proof (Proofs). We can use inclusion to incorporate the moral framework into our proof (Inclusion). For example, we can say:
If X prays to more than one god, then X's behavior is morally wrong according to the Ten Commandments
In reality, people rarely know what framework they agree with. They just call anything "morally wrong" that goes against their interests. See [Thoughts on Ethics / Perpetrator's justice] for a discussion on the subjectiveness of moral statements. We can, however decide to explicitly agree with the moral framework, by adding as a proof assumption:
Once we have concluded that a certain moral framework (or ourselves) deems a certain action morally wrong, we can make a reproach (Reproaches). This does not mean that something would happen. If someone does something bad, usually nothing happens. Something happens only of some authority (be it the government, some activist group, or ourselves) decides to enforce the moral framework — and to impose a penalty or consequences on the perpetrator.
Social NormsA social norms is a behavior that is expected in a certain society. For example, the British society expects you to queue at a bus stop. Rationality can express social norms by a statement that says that a certain behavior is the social norm in a given society:
Stating that something is a social norm does not mean that the speaker appreciates this norm. A social norm is neither good nor bad by itself. It can be judged only with respect to a moral framework (Moral) or with respect to goals (Good). Some moral frameworks enforce social norms. In this case, not respecting the norms is a morally bad thing (Normal).
Classes of ProblemsOne of the main applications of rationality is problem solving (Problems). Every problem requires a different solution and it is hard to find generally applicable solutions. Still, there are certain classes of problems that appear again and again in life. This section will list some of them, together with proposals of what to do. The classes of problems presented here are patterns in the sense of this essay (Patterns), i.e., they do not necessarily happen in reality. The proposals are theories in the sense of this essay (Theories), i.e., they are not guaranteed to work.
Becoming aware of a problemThe most important step in solving a problem (Problems) is becoming aware of the problem. This is not always easy. We tend to ignore our problems, to distract ourselves from our problems, to burden the fault for the problems on someone else, to refuse to accept that we have a problem, or to assume that the problem is not where it is in reality. Another mistake is to assume that there is only one problem, while, in reality, there are several. If we want to solve the problems, we have to pinpoint them first.
To pinpoint the problem, we have to allow ourselves an honest analysis of ourselves and of the facts. This is a conscious step to take. It is also a very reasonable step to take, as we are arguably our most trusted friend. To find out where the problems lie, we can use self-analysis (SelfAnalysis): We imagine different situations, of the past and of the future, and note down the ones that make us feel uncomfortable. These are most likely those that define the problem.
Loss problemsA loss is a problem (Problems) where a desired thing or a circumstance is invariably no longer available. Specific instances of this problem are
- loss of an expensive or dear object
- rejection of a demand or application
- death of a close person
- end of a relationship
- illness or injury
Losses are among the hardest problems in life, because they correspond to a net decrease of life quality. Often, they cannot be "solved", i.e., often, the original state cannot be restored. Therefore, one way to deal with a loss problem is the following:
Check whether it's realCheck whether the loss really happened. In some cases, we are just afraid that the loss happened or we suspect it, but we are not sure. In such cases, it is not reasonable to act as if the loss had already happened (DontWorry).
Check whether it can be undoneCheck whether the loss can be undone at reasonable cost. Can the object that we lost be found? Can the injury be healed? If the loss cannot be undone, seek alternatives (Orange). Can we replace the object we lost? Can we send our application elsewhere? This is a how-to problem (HowTo).
Quantify the loss and live with itIf no alternatives can be found, we have to learn to live with the loss. We have to accept that life will not be as it was before. There is no use complaining. Rather, we have to make the best out of what we still have. For this purpose, we should quantify the loss: We should become aware of what exactly we lost and what we still have (LimitLoss). Then we should write off the part we lost. We should write off exactly the part we lost — nothing more and nothing less.
In addition, it is always reasonable to take care that the loss is not repeated (SeeMetaProblem). We can also decide to help other people avoid the loss. Such altruistic endeavors are often perceived as comforting. There are a number of other things that we can do to recover from the problem (PostProb).
How-to problemsA how-to problem is the problem (Problems) of figuring out how to transform the current state of the world into a desired state (Goals). Specific instances of this problem are:
- Cleaning up a stain of red wine from a carpet
- Getting a printer to work
- Proving a theorem
- Filling out a form
Generic approaches to how-to problems are:
Ask yourselfTry to figure it out by yourself. Try to remember whether you solved this problem or a similar problem before. See whether there is documentation available (forms often carry instructions; printers often have explanations printed on them; the stain cleaner comes with a manual etc.)
Ask the InternetSearch the Internet for a solution. It is often surprising to see how many other people have bumped into the same problem — and have proposed solutions for it.
Ask othersAsk someone who has experience. To be respectful, ask the person that is lowest in the hierarchy who can answer your question.
Once the problem has been solved, it is reasonable to take care that the problem does not appear again (SeeMetaProblem). For example, it can be reasonable to write down the solution we found. We can use this solution next time we have the problem. We can also be altruistic and provide the solution to other people who might run into the same problem — e.g., by posting a note on the printer or by publishing the solution in an online forum. This is one of the main strategies to pursue after a problem in general (PostProb).
Overstrain problemsOverstrain is a problem (Problems) where more things are demanded from an individual than he can deliver. Specific instances of this problem are
- large workload
In addition to the things that are demanded explicitly, there are always the natural needs of happiness, health and well-being (StdGoals). If these natural needs are not met, this will also lead to overstrain. Overstrain problems can be addressed, e.g., in the following way:
Become awareBecome aware of the overstrain (Aware). This is not trivial, because people often think that they can handle the situation when, in fact, they cannot.
Reduce obligationsIdentify items that are less important and that can be given up savely (DecProb). Give them up (Loss).
Postpone obligationsIdentify items that can be dealt with at a later time, if you know that you will have the necessary resources later on. Postpone these items. Postpone only if you know that you will have the resources later on.
Be more efficientOrganize your work and resources so as to be more efficient (HowTo).
For the rest: failFail on the items that you cannot deliver. Do so early (FailFast, Loss).
Remorse problemsRemorse is the problem of regretting that we have done something to someone. Examples are:
- Having sent an angry mail and regretting it
- Having said something without thinking twice
- Having done something that is morally wrong
In general, immoral behavior and remorse fall in the domain of the moral frameworks (Moral). Moral frameworks define what is "wrong" behavior. They also define what to do if such behavior has happened. A religion, e.g., can provide answers to remorse problems.
Here is a proposal of how to deal with remorse under a liberal moral framework [Thoughts on Ethics]:
Check whether there is a problemSee whether the thing you did was really as bad as you think it was (DontWorry). See whether damage occurred [Thoughts on Ethics / Damage]. Compare with previous similar instances (Normal). Check whether you can undo the damage you did. Can you still stop the mail or undo what you did wrong? If the damage is real and irreversible, the following process will be painful. Stay firm and go the painful way, there is a light at its end.
ApologizeFigure out who are the people that you made angry. Try to imagine what they feel. Present your apologies to the people you hurt. Apologize fully and whole-heartedly, with more than just set phrases (AckWrong). Compensate for the damage you did (Loss). Take care that the problem will not appear again. If this works out, you're off the hook.
If necessary, insistIf your apology is not accepted, try harder. Show that you feel remorse and that you are ready to make efforts. If the other person categorically refuses to accept your apologies and does not offer alternatives, then the other person does not want to resolve the issue. There is no use trying to resolve an issue against the will of the person affected [Thoughts on Ethics / Sulking , Way out] . If you did your best, then nothing more can be asked from you. You are free.
In general, an apology should be backed up by a compensation for the damage [Thoughts on Ethics / Compensation]. In addition, we have to take care that the problem is not repeated in the future [Thoughts on Ethics / Penalty]. (SeeMetaProblem). Without these two components, an apology is just worthless words.
If we find ourselves on the receiving side of the remorse, and if we want to accept the apology and make the other person happy, we should say that we know that the other person did not act with bad intentions. What people often fear most is that other people think badly of them. By saying explicitly that we believe in the other person's good intentions, we can destroy that fear. Remorse and forgiveness in tandem can even strengthen a human relationship. See further down for general ideas on what to do after a problem is solved (PostProb).
Fear problemsFear is the state of anticipating a severe problem (Problems). This can be, for example
- Fear to lose the job
- Fear to fail an exam
- Fear to spoil a performance
Find out what you fearWe should first formulate the anticipated problem clearly, possibly by writing it down. In particular, we should check whether the real cause of our fear is not something else than we think (ReasonBehind). Once we have established what we fear, we should estimate how likely it is that this event happens. We have a tendency to fear things, even if they are unlikely to materialize. This is counter-productive (DontWorry).
Take measuresIf the problem is real and likely to occur, we should take all possible counter-measures. This is a how-to-problem (HowTo).
Stop being afraidOnce we have taken all necessary counter-measures, there is no use fearing anymore. We have to wait patiently and accept whatever will finally happen. What finally happens may be a loss (Loss).
Social problemsA social problem (Problems) is a state where we entered into conflict or misunderstandings with other people. This may be, for example, in the following cases:
- We said something and possibly offended another person
- We fear that someone got a wrong impression of us
- We had an argument with someone
Check whether it is a problemCheck whether there is really a problem or whether you are just fearing there could be one (DontWorry). Check whether you want to solve the problem or whether you can actually live with the status quo (ForgiveForget). Check whether you are not assuming bad intentions without reason (AssumeGood). Also check whether the problem is serious enough to consider it at all.
Check whether you did something wrongCheck whether the problem is that you think you behaved badly with the other person. If so, treat it as a remorse problem (Remorse).
Talk it outTalk to the other person (MakeStep). Make your point clear (Clear). Make sure you act with the goal of finding a consensual solution (ConflictResolution, TalkMeHappy).
If the other person refuses to talk, the problem splits into two parts: First, there is your desire to talk. Check whether you really need to talk. Do you care about the opinion of someone who does not care about your opinion? If so, making a point with a person who does not want to talk is covered in a different Section (SecNonRec). Second, there is the uncomfortableness that the other person feels. However, as the other person shows no interest in resolving that uncomfortableness, there is nothing we can do about it. The issue can safely be ignored (MakeStep, Remorse).
Talking about the problem is just one way to deal with it. However, it has proven one of the most effective ones. If done rationally (Def), talking about a problem benefits from all the advantages that rationality offers (WhyUse). In particular, talking resolves misunderstandings, shows good intention and brings both persons closer to truth (SeekTruth). Doing the first step towards the other person can be very helpful in general (MakeStep). However, not all people prefer talking it out (DontAssumeRatStat, DontAssumeRationality). Note that your moral framework (Moral) may decide that if a person does not want to co-operate in resolving the issue, he loses the right to any claims [Thoughts on Ethics / Sulking].
There are a number of things we can do to recover from a social problem (PostProb).
Decision problemsA decision problem is the problem of choosing between different options. Such a choice may be painful, in particular if none of the options appears really attractive (BestNotGood). A decision problem may also induce insecurity or fear (Fear). Examples for decision problems are:
- Where to study or where to work
- Whether to end a relationship
- Whether to change jobs
- Whether to subscribe to a duty
It is not possible to give a general solution to these decision problems. Still, there are some general techniques that can be applied. This essay covers them in the section about decision taking (SecDec).
Post-Problem MeasuresAfter a problem solving process (SecProb), we do not necessarily feel good. There are several things that we can do:
- Develop safety strategies that avoid that the problem appears again (SeeMetaProblem). It will comfort us to know that at least the problem happened only once.
- Help others avoid the problem — e.g., by writing about it on the Internet. Altruism makes us feel good.
- Work. Work distracts us, gives us the feeling of being useful, and gives us appreciation. If we channel our anger, fear, or sadness into work, we can hardly do anything wrong.
Decision TakingDecision taking is the process of weighting the benefits of different options choosing one of them. Unfortunately, rationality cannot give a definite recommendation in all cases. This is because the perceived utility of an option does not necessarily behave like a numeric quantity. However, rationality can help rule out certain options and it can help assess them. Formally speaking, a decision question is the problem (Problems) of choosing the option that best satisfies our goals (Goals). Advice in this section (Advice) is to be understood with respect to this goal.
CriteriaA decision process is the process of assessing the values of different options. For example, if we are offered multiple jobs, we can use a decision process to figure out which job offer we want to accept. A criterion in a decision process is a property of the options that the decision taker is interested in. For example, the criteria in the job decision may be the prospective salary, the location of the job and the type of job. Technically speaking, a criterion is a goal statement (Goals) that can be fulfilled to a certain degree.
It is useful to think of the options and the criteria in form of a table. Here is an example table for the job search problem. The columns are the different options. The rows are the different criteria:
(= job offers)|
|Job type||Nice||Bad||Dumb (factory line)|
|Criteria||Life of Brian||Titanic||Inception|
In general, it is not trivial to weight the criteria against each other, because it is difficult to compare across different dimensions. However, there are some cases in which we can simplify the equations.
Undistinctive CriteriaAn undistinctive criterion in a decision process (Criteria) is a criterion that all options fulfill equally well. Such a criterion does not help in the decision process. Hence, it should be ignored.
In example with the job offers (Criteria), all job options yield the same salary. Therefore, the salary plays no role in the decision. Hence, it should be ignored. In the example where we want to choose a movie that makes everybody happy, a person that has the same opinion on all movies should be ignored.
This obvious principle is not always observed. Some people argue, for example, that nuclear energy is good, because the danger of a nuclear accident is minimal. Strikingly, this criterion is also fulfilled for all alternative sources of energy. Hence, it cannot count as an argument for nuclear energy.
Quantifiable CriteriaIn a decision process, we may be able to quantify some of the criteria (Criteria). A quantified criterion is a criterion that has a number associated to it. For example, the financial cost of something can be expressed by help of a number. The quantified criterion should come with a preference for small numbers (e.g., in the case of effort) or a preference for large numbers (e.g., in the case of financial gain). If all criteria are numeric on the same dimension (e.g., all criteria are financial), we can simply compute the benefit of each action and choose the most preferable one.
Killer argumentsA killer argument in a decision process is a negative criterion that is stronger than all other criteria combined (Criteria). That is, a killer argument is a problem that has to be avoided at all cost. If one of the options produces such a problem, while other options don't, then this option is no longer a choice.
In our example of deciding for a job offer (Criteria), we may say that a "dumb job" is a killer argument. Thereby, Moogle is out of the game — no matter how good the salary or location are.
Tie breakersA tie breaker in a decision process (SecDec) is a weak criterion (Criteria) in favor of one of the options that are otherwise equally beneficial. Quite often, the tie breaker may be a pure personal preference (Preferences).
In the example of choosing a job offer (Criteria), assume that all options score equally well on all important criteria: All jobs offer the same salary, are equally interesting, and are in an equally good location. Assume furthermore that your husband likes one of the options most. Even though this is surely a weak argument, it may become the decisive one if it is the only one.
Tie breakers serve no other purpose than tipping the scale if all other criteria are balanced between the options. Thereby, tie breakers allow making decisions even if all other criteria are deadlocked.
Coin flippingIf two options in a decision process fulfill all criteria equally well (Criteria), then there is no rational argument for one or the other. In these cases, one usually invents other, minor citeria to reach a decision between the two (TieBreaker). However, it may happen that there is no such tie breaker, because it is impossible to state a personal preference. Consider, for example, the choice between two wedding cakes that are equally expensive and equally nice. Or consider the decision of which movie to watch, if all people have the same preference for all movies (Undistinctive). It may also be socially inadequate to state a personal preference. Consider for example the decision of whom of your children may sleep in the upper bed.
In these cases, we may invent an artificial criterion: a coin flip. For this purpose, we associate one option to "tail" and the other option to "head". Then, we flip a coin. The criterion says that the option that corresponds to the coin face shall be preferred. Thereby, a coin flip serves as an artificial tie breaker.
- Be n the number of options.
Number the options from 1 to n
(in the job offer example (Criteria), we could say Macrosoft=1, Banana Inc.=2, Moogle=3).
See how often you can divide n by 2 until you get below 1. Be c this number.
(i.e., c=log 2(n), rounded up to the next integer)
- Flip the coin c times. For each flip, note "1" if the coin shows a head and "0" if the coin shows tail. We will refer to these numbers as f1, f2, ..., fc.
r=f1 * 1 + f2 * 2 + f3 * 4 + f4 * 8 + ... fc * 2c-1
where the coefficients are the powers of two.
- The coin flip criterion favors option r+1. If this option does not exist, repeat the process.
Dominant CriteriaThe killer argument (Killer) and the tie breaker (TieBreaker) are just the two extreme instances of a broader decision scheme. This scheme works if one criterion is strictly more important than a set of other criteria. If this criterion is fulfilled for one option and not for another, then the dominated criteria have no longer to be considered in the comparison of these two options.
In the job choice example (Criteria), we may decide that the location is more important than the type of job and the salary. If one option has a good location, while another one does not, then the type of job and the salary need no longer be considered when comparing these two options.
Dominant OptionsAn option dominates another option in a decision process, if it is better than the other option on all criteria (Criteria). In this case, the dominated option can be discarded.
In the job choice example (Criteria), we may find that one employer pays a higher salary, has a better location and offers a better type of job than one of the other options. In this case, the other option should no longer be considered.
- A free trip to Rome, including hotel and all food
- A free trip to Paris, including hotel and all food
- A free trip to Rome, including hotel and all food, but without breakfast
Certainty of CriteriaWe may not always be able to say whether a criterion in a decision process (Criteria) will be satisfied for sure (Uncertainty). In this case, it becomes very difficult to weight the criteria against each other.
If the criteria are quantifiable (Quantifiable) and if the probabilities of the outcomes are known, then the criteria can simply be multiplied by their probabilities to give an estimated value. For example, if we have the choice between two equally expensive lotteries, one with a prize of $10 and a chance of 50% of winning and the other with a prize of $1000 and a chance of 1% of winning, then the expected outcome of the first lottery (50% * $10 = $5) is lower than the expected outcome of the second lottery (1% * $1000 = $10). Therefore, we should choose the second lottery.
This calculus, however, does not take into account the risk associated to the options. The first lottery has a chance of 50% of winning and is therefore much "safer" than the second lottery. The second lottery has a higher expected gain, but it is less probable that this gain materializes.
This risk can be an additional criterion. This criterion cannot be weighted easily against the criterion of the expected gain. There may even be cases where there is an infinitely high expected gain for one option — but the option should still not be chosen [Wikipedia / St Petersburg paradox].
Assuming criteriaSome criteria in a decision process (Criteria) may be uncertain (Certainty). It is very hard to deal with uncertain criteria. It can be reasonable to assume that the criterion is fulfilled or not fulfilled (whatever is more likely). For example, if one criterion in the job search scenario (Criteria) is that we enjoy the work at our future employer, and if it is likely, but not certain, that we will enjoy work at Macrosoft, then we should simply assume that this will be the case. This makes the decision process more risky, but ultimately simpler.
We may also choose a conservative approach and assume that all criteria about which we are uncertain will not be fulfilled ("Hady's Law"). For example, if a good salary is promised, but not certain, we may choose to assume that the salary is bad. This may degrade the option and waive the chances for a better salary there, but nobody knows whether the salary would really have been as good as promised. By being pessimistic about the uncertain criterion, we can at least be sure to optimize the certain criteria.
Too many assumptions may lead into the fallacy of Decision Ducking (DecDuc).
Certain and Uncertain OptionsAssume that we have two options in a decision process (SecDec). Assume that each of them fullfills a criterion equally well (Criteria). If the first option is certain to fulfill the criterion, while the second option is uncertain to fulfill the criterion, then the first option is better than the second option for this criterion.
For example, consider again the scenario where we have to select a job offer (Criteria). Assume that both companies, Macrosoft and Moogle, offer a good salary. However, if Macrosoft has already made a written offer, while Moogle has just outlined possibilities, then Macrosoft dominates Moogle for the salary.
Analogously, if the first option does certainly not fulfill the criterion, but the second option could fulfill the ceriterion, then the second option is better than the first for this criterion. For example, if Macrosoft has definitively excluded a higher salary, but Moogle does not rule out this possibility, then Moogle dominates Macrosoft for this criterion.
Moral EvaluationOne of the criteria (Criteria) in a decision process can be (in fact: should be) its morality. For each of the options, we can construct a hypothetical scenario (Scenarios). For each scenario, we can make a moral evaluation (MakeMoral). If one of the actions turns out to be morally objectionable, this can be a killer argument (Killer).
Considering Alternative OptionsIn a decision process (SecDec), it may be useful to think of alternative options that have not yet been considered. Quite often, the choice in a decision process is not limited to the options that one first thinks of.
The classical example is as follows: Two sisters both want to have an orange, but there is only one orange left. It seems that only one girl can have the orange and the other one will get nothing. After some litigation, it turns out that the elder sister wants to have the orange to make a juice, while the younger sister wants the peel of the orange for a cake. The solution is obviously that the elder sister makes the juice and then gives the peel to the younger sister for the cake. This way, both are happy.
In the example of which movie to choose (Criteria), we observe that all guys prefer "The Life of Brian", while all girls prefer Leonardi di Caprio movies. In this case, it may be reasonable to split up and have everybody see her or his favorite movie.
In other words, we should not limit ourselves to the options that first came to our mind. Quite often, the best solution to a decision problem is a completely different alternative. We might have to backtrack (Backtracking).
Taking future benefits and disadvantages into considerationIn a decision process (SecDec), it may be useful to develop the hypothetical scenarios for the options further into the future (Scenarios).
For example, assume that a company has to decide whether to invest into a new generation of products. Given that this generation of products will be out-lived soon therafter, the company ponders whether to skip this generation and to invest directly into the next-next generation of products instead. Imagining the hypothetical scenario, though, it turns out that clients would turn to a competitor if they cannot find the next-generation products at the company. They might not come back when the company comes up with the next-next generation product. Therefore, it may be reasonable to invest in the next generation product, even if it will be out-lived soon thereafter.
Another example is the choice between working in industry and doing a PhD. While working in industry may yield a much better salary than a PhD position, the PhD may lead to a better job later. Thus, the PhD might ultimately lead to a higher living standard.
Making Personal Preference a CriterionPersonal preference (Preferences) should always be a criterion in a decision process (Criteria). The reason is that, if we ignore personal preference, we might not be happy with the option we choose. If we are not happy with the option we choose, the other criteria may lose their value.
Personal preference can even become a killer criterion (Killer). For example, in the job decision scenario (Criteria), we may discover that we have a strong aversion against the Banana Inc.. In this case, it is fully legitimate to note down this aversion and to decide against Banana Inc.
Admitting personal preference as a criterion will also allow us to see the other criteria more clearly. This is because, if we ignore personal preference, our inner preference will subconsciously distort the other criteria. By giving our feelings (Feelings) an appropriate place in the decision process, we make sure that we give every criterion its due weight.
It may also happen that, by consciously admitting personal preference as a criterion, and by consciously allowing ourselves to choose according to that preference, we may yet decide to override the preference and do what is better on the long run.
Taking repetition into accountIf we have to take the same decision (SecDec) multiple times, we can choose different options each time. This may be a way to satisfy all criteria on the long run, even if each instance of the decision satisfies only one criterion (Criteria).
In the cinema example (Criteria), where a group of friends disagree about which movie to watch, the friends may decide to watch one movie this time and another movie next time. This will make all of them happy. Or take as an example a group of colleagues who want to go for lunch. They have one Indian food lover, two Chinese food addicts and two Burger fans. The solution is to go to an Indian restaurant once a week, and to a Chinese place and a Burger place twice a week, respectively. This will maximize the group's happiness.
Using Self-AnalysisRational arguments may tell us which option to choose in a decision process (SecDec). However, if we secretly favor another option, then we should not ignore this feeling (Feelings). Rather, we should analyze our intuitive aversion or our intuitive preference. Maybe our preference is due to one of the following factors:
- Maybe we simply have a strong personal preference for one option (Preferences). Personal preference should always be a criterion in our decision process (PPcriterion).
- Our feeling can be a hint that we forgot one criterion in our decision process — a criterion that is there in our subconscious, but that we have not admitted into the decision process. In this case, we should ask ourselves what that criterion is. Then we should pay it due respect in our decision process. In the job decision example (Criteria), we might find out that we do have a preference for the Moogle company, because a (cute) friend of ours is working there. Then this criterion should appear in the decision table and be given due weight.
- It is possible that the option that we do not like comes with considerable effort. Effort should always be a criterion in our decision table.
- It may be that the unpleasant option means that we have to admit that we did something wrong. In the job search example, it may be that we have always told our friends that the Macrosoft company is a really bad company. Then we feel bad if we find out that Macrosoft would actually be the optimal choice for us. In such cases, it is usually worth to bite the bullet and to do what is right.
Imagining one optionWe can use our imagination to help with a decision problem (SecDec). For this purpose, we have to imagine that we choose an option. Then we have to see how we feel and, in particular, whether we spot feelings of regret. If we do, then we can use self-analysis (SelfAnalysis) to see whether we weighted our criteria correctly or whether we forgot a criterion.
In the job search example (Criteria), we would first determine which job we should choose under the current criteria. Say rationality tells us to choose the Banana Inc.. Then we imagine that we choose the Banana Inc. We imagine how it would be to work there and how we would feel about that. In particular, we would have to watch out for any feelings of regret. If we feel regret, then it is likely that our criteria are not weighted correctly.
Assuming equivalence of criteriaIt can be very hard to weight the criteria of a decision process correctly (SecDec), in particular if it is not clear whether one option really fulfills a criterion better than another option. For example, in our job search scenario (Criteria), one criterion could be that we want to minimize the likelihood of being laid off by our future employer. This criterion, however, is very hard to estimate.
In such cases, it can be reasonable to assume that all options fulfill the criterion equally well. In the example, we would assume that all candidate employers have an equal probability of laying people off. Thereby, the criterion becomes an undistinctive criterion (Undistinctive) and can be ignored. Thereby, assuming equivalence of criteria serves to prune the space of criteria. It ultimately simplifies the decision.
Out-Sourcing and Up-SourcingFor some decision problems (SecDec), we may not have the necessary knowledge to make a good decision. In these cases, it is helpful (or even obligatory) to have somebody else decide. This holds in particular if the decisions are important.
Here are examples for decision problems that are important, but where we might lack the necessary knowledge to decide by ourselves:
Emergency casesIf possible, we should call police or firefighters before taking decisions.
Problems with colleagues, the boss or the parentsIn serious cases, we should get help from ombudsman services, psychological advice services or arbitration councils.
Medical decisionsWe should get advice from a pharmacist or medical doctor before taking decisions.
Major decisions at workIf unsure, we should get advice from our boss.
Major psychological instability or drug addiction.We should get advice from counseling services before taking decisions.
Crimes and legal issuesWe should get advice from police and/or legal services before taking decisions.
In these cases, it can be unhelpful (StdGoals) or even dangerous if we decide on our own. Therefore, we should not hesitate to out-source the decision process to experts or to up-source it to senior people.
SatisficingIn a decision process (SecDec), satisficing means deciding for an arbitrary option that fulfills the most important criteria — without caring whether this option is really the optimal one [Wikipedia / Satisficing]. In our example of the job search (Criteria), we might decide for the Banana Inc., because this company fulfills the basic criteria of good salary and good location. If we satisfice, we decide to ignore certain other criteria (such as work environment etc.).
Satisficing may lead to an option that is not optimal. In our example, Macrosoft is better than Banana Inc. Still, satisficing may choose the Banana Inc.. The main advantage of satisficing is that is saves time deciding. It may well be that the time and resources used to find the optimal solution are so costly that it is inefficient to find the optimal solution. In these cases, satisficing is a good tradeoff between a good option and a fast decision process. Consider for example the decision of what places to visit in a city. The time spent to figure out the "optimal" places to visit might as well be invested in visiting these places. Or consider the decision of what train connection to take. We might well waste more time figuring out the best connection than we gain in the end by taking this connection.
As a general guideline, it can be reasonable to limit the time and effort spent on the decision process and take whatever option looks most reasonable after this time is up.
The best is not necessarily goodWhen we have to choose between several options in a decision process (SecDec), we hope for an option that satisfies all our criteria (Criteria). However, such an option does not necessarily exist. All of our options may have their downside. More likely than not, none of the options will be perfect. Hence, the choice we make is not necessarily a good choice. Still, it may be the best choice. Therefore, we should accept making a choice that does not satisfy us entirely.
In the job search example (Criteria), it may be that the only company that offers us an interesting field of work and a good location pays the lowest salary. If we choose this company, the choice may be a bad choice in the sense that it does not satisfy all criteria, but still the best choice in the sense that it is the optimal thing to do.
If one thing is bad, that does not make another thing good (GoodNoBad).
BacktrackingBacktracking is the process of re-considering assumptions that we made (LogBack). In a decision process (SecDec), backtracking means re-considering whether it is really necessary to take a decision in the first place. If a decision proves hard, it can be useful to think again why we have to take the decision and whether we can possibly avoid it altogether.
In the job search scenario (Criteria), backtracking could mean to re-consider whether we really need a job in the first place. Alternatives could be to spend a year abroad for a charity or to spend more time with our family instead. In the cinema example, backtracking could mean to choose a completely different joint activity with our friends, such as going for a drink or going ice skating. This way, backtracking can avoid the decision problem altogether.
AdviceThis part contains advice on how to become more rational (SecMore) or less rational (SecLess). It also contains advice on how to talk (SecTalk). The distribution of the topics across the sections is to a certain degree arbitrary. There is also overlap with the section on reasoning techniques (SecTec). In general, the section SecLess addresses readers who think they are rational. Section SecMore is intended for readers who are not particularly inclined to rationality as understood by this essay.
How to talkMuch of our social interaction revolves around talking. Talking with the goal to convince someone was discussed in a previous chapter (ChapDisc). Here, we discuss the general verbal interaction with our fellow humans.
Why we talkTalking consumes effort and time — both for ourselves and for our partner. Therefore, we should make sure that our talking serves a goal (KnowReasons). Unfortunately, we are often unaware of the goals that we are serving with our talking. To be rational, we should be aware of why we talk (Rational).
We can have different goals while talking. Here are some:
- We can talk to convince the other person of a viewpoint. This goal was treated a previous chapter (ChapDisc), and is briefly touched here again (Teach, TalkToArgue).
- We can talk to learn (Listen)
- We can talk to praise ourselves (Praise)
- We can talk just to talk (TalkToTalk)
- We can talk to make ourselves happy (TalkMeHappy)
- We can talk to make the other person happy (TalkYouHappy)
Talking for ourselvesWhen we talk, we usually assume that we are helping our interlocutor understand something. However, in many cases, the truth is that we are talking just because it makes us feel good. Put differently: In many cases, the only goal that we are serving with our talking is our own happiness (Goals). These cases are in particular
- Stating something in order to show that we know something.
- Telling something about ourselves or our own life.
- Correcting a minor detail in somebody else's discourse.
It is fine to do something with the goal to feel good. We do many things because we want to feel good (StdGoals). Then, however, we should not pretend that we are doing it to enlighten or entertain the other person. That would be wishful thinking (NoWish). In other words: When you are talking, be aware that you might be doing it just for your own pleasure.
If we want to become aware of why we talk, we should ask ourselves:
- Do we talk to find he truth? Or do we just talk to show that we are right? (TalkToArgue, OpReal)
- Do we talk to make another person happy? Or do we just talk to make ourselves happy? (TalkYouHappy, WhyTalk)
- Do we talk to contribute a solution to an issue? Or do we talk just to pretend that we are doing something or that we are knowledgeable? (Praise)
- Do we talk to learn? Or do we talk to impose our view? (Teach)
Talking to talkWhen talking, we can pursue different goals (WhyTalk). Sometimes, we talk just to talk. If we want to detect such cases, we can ask ourselves whether the other person has a role in our conversation. This role can be
- Providing information
- Providing empathetical feedback
- Providing support
- Providing an opinion
- Demanding information
- Demanding empathetical feedback
- Demanding support
- Demanding an opinion
The other person may also do us a favor by listening. He may also be morally obliged to listen (Moral). He may also be expected to listen in a discussion, if he would be non-receptive otherwise (SecNonRec). If we talk and the other person has no such role, then we are like a radio (Flooding): We produce noise without caring about the other person. This way, we are mainly consuming our friend's time. We are actually talking to ourself (TalkMeHappy).
Talking to praise ourselvesMost of us like it if we are appreciated. If we are not appreciated, we sometimes help a bit, by mentioning some good thing that we did or showing what we know. We hope that this generates a bit of admiration and then a bit of praise, which makes us happy.
However, if we overplay it, the effect may well be counter-productive. People who praise themselves a lot are usually not admired — on the contrary. People who praise themselves give the impression that they need the praise, which might be because they do not get enough praise, which might be because they do not have much to be praised for. For example, assume that a singer introduces himself as "the well-known Metal Bob". This raises suspicions: If Metal-Bob were really well-known, why would he have to say it? In general, people who praise themselves raise this suspicion. This holds in particular if people or organizations ascribe particular attributes to themselves. For example, those countries that carry the word "democratic" in their official name are usually the least democratic. Or, as Margaret Thatcher remarked for both the attributes of "being powerful" and "being a lady":
In contrast, People who do not praise themselves are considered modest — and thus praiseworthy. The thinking goes that people who have enough to be proud of do not need to long for other people's admiration.
If we want to follow this avenue of reasoning, and if we want to be modest, we should think, before each thing that we say about ourselves, whether this thing serves any other purpose than showing off. If the only effect of our statement is showing what good thing we did, we should consider omitting that statement.
Talking to teachRationality has the goal of approaching the truth (SeekTruth). This, however, does not mean that we have to help other people achieving this goal — in particular if the other person has no such desire (Desires). Teaching other people about the truth (or about what we think is the truth) can be a very strenuous enterprise. This is in particular true if our interlocutor is radio-person, focusing primarily on getting thoughts out of his head rather than into his head (Flooding).
Fortunately, in general, nothing forces us to change our interlocutor's mind. If our interlocutor is not interested in what we have to say, then there is no need to say it (WhyTalk). If our interlocutor makes statements with which we do not agree, and if we do not want to engage in a discussion, then we can say things like:
This is a point of view.
I do not agree, but I see that you are of this opinion.
I understand that one can be of this opinion.
Anyway, this is a soft topic.
If that leads our interlocutor to ask about our point of view, we have a reason to talk and may also expect our interlocutor to listen. Otherwise, if our interlocutor is not interested in what we have to say, then, under most moral frameworks (Moral), there is no obligation on our side to talk and none on his side to listen. We can just listen (Listen, NonRecWhen).
Talking to ArgueUsually, we may assume that a person who initiates a conversation is looking for feedback from the listener. If the speaker did not want to receive feedback from the listener, then it would be easier for him (StdGoals) to talk, e.g., to a teddy bear — or not to talk at all. Therefore, we may assume that the speaker aims at some kind of feedback (TalkToTalk). Usually, the person who initiates a conversation is looking for confirmation, information, admiration, consolation, attention or entertainment.
Many of these types of feedback benefit from rational thinking. Confirmation and information, for example, are much more valuable if thought through with rational means. Other types of desired feedback, such as consolidation, admiration or attention, may benefit less from rationality (NoUse). Worse, rationality may lead us to think that the speaker wants information, if in fact he is looking for admiration or simply for attention.
Therefore, if we want to serve the goal of making our interlocutor happy (WhyTalk), we should not automatically assume that he would be looking for advice (Advice), valuations or information. That is, we should not automatically
- start arguing about what he said
- evaluate the issue according to our view
- start giving advice
- explain what we think is the situation and the reason for it
- or draw conclusions.
Maybe our interlocutor is not looking for this type of feedback. He may be looking for confirmation, admiration, consolation, attention or entertainment. If we want to consider this possibility, we should consider giving deep feedback instead (TalkYouHappy, DeepFeedback).
Talking to make the other person happyWhen we talk, we can have the goal to make our interlocutor happy (Goals). Clearly, it is a purely personal choice to have this goal in a given conversation or not. Usually, however, making our interlocutor happy lays the ground for a harmonic interaction, which can also be beneficial for ourselves (MakeStep). It should be well understood at this point that "making our interlocutor happy" cannot mean just telling him what he wants to hear. Rationality in the sense of this essay remains committed to the principle of truth (SeekTruth). Rather, it can mean some of the following:
- Giving deep feedback (DeepFeedback)
- Giving confirmation (Ack)
- Listening (Listen)
- Answering a question he asked
- Inviting him to talk about what he wants to talk
If we want to make our interlocutor happy, we should talk only if we know that our interlocutor is interested in what we are saying. Lecturing our interlocutor, for example, or telling them stories, should happen only if our interlocutor expresses sincere interest in our discourse (i.e., interest that goes beyond pure politeness). If we are talking for a long time without being asked for it, then it is likely that our discourse does not serve the goal of making our interlocutor happy. In all likelihood, it serves more to make ourselves happy (TalkMeHappy).
Acknowledge what the other person saysWhen people talk, they usually aim for some kind of feedback (TalkToArgue). If that feedback is not received, the person is likely to repeat what he said, because he has the impression that the other person did not understand. Here is a sample discussion:
Bob: Oh, no, let's go, the movie will be awesome! I talked to a friend, he says the cast is fantastic!
Alice: It's raining like crazy...
In this example, Alice is concerned about the rain. Bob does not respond to her concern. Therefore, Alice repeats it.
Common expected acknowledgements are:
- For an argument, we expect an acknowledgement
- For a question, we expect an answer
- For something funny, we expect an appreciation of that
- For something surprising, we expect a sign of surprise
A special case of this phenomenon is a situation where two people each want to receive feedback from the other person, but no one is ready to yield such feedback to the other person. Therefore, both keep repeating their argument. In the sample discussion, neither Alice nor Bob got their concerns acknowledged. Therefore, the discussion is likely to continue:
Bob: Oh, no, let's go, the movie will be awesome! I talked to a friend, he says the cast is fantastic!
Alice: It's raining like crazy...
Bob: But the actors are just so good!
Bob: Oh, no, let's go, the movie will be awesome! I talked to a friend, he says the cast is fantastic!
Alice: It's raining like crazy...
Bob: Oh, that is true. Very nasty, in fact... I would still really love to see the movie. Would you come with me in spite of the rain?
Give deep feedbackThis essay argues that, for an effective communication, it is useful to listen to our interlocutor (Listen) and to acknowledge what he says (Ack, MissingAck). If, beyond this goal of effective communication, we also have the wish to make our interlocutor happy (TalkYouHappy), we can consider giving deep feedback.
Deep feedback is a reaction to our interlocutor's statement that shows that we grasp the factual and emotional consequences of that statement. Deep feedback is context-sensitive, in the sense that it is tailored to what the other person said. Crucially, deep feedback avoids changing the topic, withdrawing attention from our interlocutor, or playing down what he says.
To give deep feedback, we can, e.g.,
- say that we understand what the other person said (e.g., by paraphrasing what he said)
- imagine what this statement means for our interlocutor, and give emotional feedback (by saying that what he said is funny, sad or fortunate)
- say what this statement means for ourselves, if we are concerned (by saying that we are happy for him, that we thank him, that we are sad with him, that we are angry with him, whatever)
- ask a question, show that you are deeply interested in what the other person says (Listen)
- say something funny (if appropriate)
Here is an example:
|Alice:||I broke my leg yesterday!|
|Don't say:||OK.||(no emotional feedback)|
|Don't say:||Well, that's not so bad. Other people have their legs amputated.||(downplaying)|
|Don't say:||Oh, my grandma also broke her leg!||(withdrawing attention from Alice)|
|Don't say:||Yes, could you bring cheese when you pass by the supermarket?||(changing topic)|
|Say:||Oh, you broke you leg?||(paraphrasing)|
|That is aweful, I am so sorry!||(emotional feedback)|
|How did that happen?||(asking)|
Listen and learnOne goal of rationality is approaching the truth (SeekTruth). For this goal, it is helpful to learn what other people have to say. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to talk more than we listen. We have a tendency to be in radio-mode, concentrating on getting across our thoughts instead of concentrating on learning our interlocutor's thoughts (Flooding). For our own goal of approaching truth, however, this behavior is counter-productive. This is because we already know the things we say, but in most cases, we do not know what the other person wants to say.
To get to know our partner's thoughts, we need sincere listening. This is an art that few people master. It involves
giving the word completely to your partnerIf we really want to know what the other person thinks and knows, we should be prepared to give him the word for a long period of time — 10 minutes, half an hour or even an hour. During that time, it should be our only goal to get to know what our partner thinks. (For many people, it seems that listening to another person for an hour is an idea that has never crossed their mind.)
askingWhenever there is doubt, or, in fact, whenever our partner has finished talking about one aspect, we can ask a question. We can go into depth, asking for reasons for this aspect, or go into breadth, asking for related aspects. This will allow us to gain broad knowledge about the topic.
showing that we understoodTo show our partner that we are following what he is saying, we can send little signals: Nodding, acknowledging and paraphrasing what he said. This is called "active listening" [Wikipedia / Active listening]. This will encourage our partner to share his thoughts. Deep feedback is particularly helpful (DeepFeedback).
The following behaviors do not serve the goal of getting to know our partner's thoughts on a particular topic:
- Interrupting our interlocutor
- Changing the topic
- Talking more than we listen. In particular, using a gap in our partner's flow in order to elaborate on our own thoughts.
Apart from serving the goal of learning, sincere listening is also very likely to make our interlocutor happy (TalkYouHappy). This is because sincere listening is a form of expressing interest in our partner, which in turn is often perceived as a signal of appreciation. Thus, sincere listening can serve the goal of making our partner happy (WhyTalk). We should not, however, do sincere listening just because we want to make our partner happy. This is because listening without true interest means giving a false impression, which will make our partner unhappy. We should use sincere listening only if we are sincerely interested in his thoughts.
In general, it is hindering to the goal of exchanging knowledge if one party talks without end. If we find ourselves talking for more than roughly a few minutes in a row, it is likely that we are counter-acting the goal of exchanging knowledge with our partner in a balanced fashion.
The present discussion is not to be understood in the sense that we should always be interested only in our partner's thoughts. Obviously, it would be impossible to implement this simultaneously for both partners. Rather, the present discussion aims to make us more sensitive as to how to serve the goal of learning. Balanced discussions can have the partners listen in alternation.
To read about what subjective effect listening can have, see [TinyBuddha].
Be precise about your statementsMany conflicts arise because people make and defend vague statements, thereby allowing a margin of interpretation and thus inducing a potential for dispute. Consider for example the statement "Germany is a peaceful country". This is surely mostly true today, but it has not always been true. Saying that Germany is a peaceful country may raise objections concerning her peacefulness during the World Wars. It may also rise objections concerning her involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
If we want to avoid this, we should rather make a statement such as
Use plain languageIn order to transmit our message in the most efficient way, it is useful to use simple, straight-forward and matter-of-fact language. This style of language is called Plain Language. It is language that has no confusion about meaning, is free of cliché and unnecessary jargon, and is easy to understand. [Wikipedia / Plain English].
This implies making simple sentences with as few nestings as possible (Simple). It also means grounding our statements (Grounding), i.e., avoiding for example colored language (ColoredLanguage) and empty phrases (Empty).
Make your point clearIf we have the goal (Goals) of informing somebody else about something we intend to do or about something that the other party should do, then the following structure is helpful:
- state the relevant facts (Name). Be sure to use grounded statements (Grounding).
if you are making any assumptions beyond the standard assumptions (StdAsm)
- list your assumptions (Name).
- ask whether the assumptions are correct.
- if you have any goals other than the standard goals (StdGoals), name them (Name) .
- state in what way these goals are currently not fulfilled (Problems).
- explain which actions lead to the goals in the best manner according to your view (SecDec).
- say that you will perform these actions unless the other party proposes a better method or ask the other party to perform these actions.
- ask the other party for their view (Listen).
Be more rationalThis section will give advice (Advice) on how to become more rational (Rational). In all of the following, it is assumed that approaching truth is a goal (SeekTruth). It is also assumed that moral behavior is a goal (Moral). Different topics in this section will also presume different other goals. The section will propose techniques for achieving these goals in a rational way (Advice, Rational). Technically speaking, the techniques are theories in the sense of this essay (Theories), i.e., they are not guaranteed to work.
Make sure you know why you are doing somethingPeople sometimes find themselves doing something with which they are unhappy — even though there is no reason why they should be doing it. This unhappiness can be avoided.
The following are rational reasons (Rational) for doing something:
- We are doing it because we enjoy it (Preferences)
- We are doing it because it avoids a problem (Problems) or serves a goal (Goals) or desire (Desires)
- We are doing it because we want to make somebody happy or be nice to that person
- We are doing it to avoid greater evil (SecDec). See [Thoughts on Ethics /Imparative assistance] for a discussion from a moral point of view.
- We are doing it because we are morally obliged to by our moral framework (Moral)
If none of these items apply, then our action is not rational (Rational). The following items are not rational reasons for doing something that we don't like:
- We are doing it because we think one of the above reasons applies, but we do not know for sure
- We are doing it because other people want us to do it.
- We are doing it because everybody else does it.
For example, assume that someone on the street stops you to raise funds for animal welfare. After having talked with that person for 15 minutes, you feel that it would be ungrateful if you decided simply to walk away. Hence, you reluctantly sign a membership with the animal welfare group. Rationally speaking, the pressure you feel is fully your own. Unless you really want to support animal welfare, or you sincerely want to make the guy happy, none of the above justifications applies. You have every right to walk away, even if you talked for an hour with that person.
how charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Do not duck decisionsDecision Ducking is the fallacy of assuming that there is only one option in a decision process (SecDec). The option that one sees is usually only the safest option. This option may not be the best one.
One particular instance of decision ducking is mutual decision ducking, where each of the two partners in a joint decision process assumes that the other partner has a preference for the safest option. Therefore, the partners opt for the safest option, even though they would both have preferred a different option.
- We assume that we have so bad grades at school that we cannot go to university anyway. Therefore, we choose to do an apprenticeship without even applying at university. In fact, we could possibly have had reasonable chances there.
- Assume that a friend of ours has a tendency to say silly things. We assume that this is somehow his "nature". So we decide not to raise that point, because in any case he would not change. This is decision ducking because the possibility that our friend just does not know he is being silly is not given due weight.
- Husband and wife each assume that the other one does not want to go on an expensive holiday. Therefore, they choose a vacation in some place nearby. In fact, both would have liked to do the expensive holiday, but did not dare proposing it to the partner, because they assumed that the partner would not agree anyway. (Mutual decision ducking)
- Assume that we would like to study arts, but our parents prefer us to study law. We tell ourselves, that, if our parents want us to study law, we do not have the choice. Therefore, we study law. This is decision ducking, because the option of studying arts against the will of our parents is not given due consideration.
Be responsibleWe sometimes feel pressure from our family, our society, or our convictions to do a certain thing. Then we have the tendency to assume that we have no choice but to to that thing. That assumptions is nearly always wrong. In most cases, we have a choice. Here are examples:
- We would like to do a certain thing that our parents prefer us not to do. It is a fallacy to assume that we would not have the choice. We have the choice between doing that thing (and losing their respect), or not doing that thing (and losing the thing, but gaining their respect). Neither one of these choices fulfills all of our goals (BestNotGood). However, we have a choice.
- We adhere to a certain religion that tells us to do a certain thing that we do not like. It is a fallacy to assume that we would not have the choice. Adhering to a religion is a conscious and voluntary choice. If the religion is more important for us than doing the thing, we choose to conform to the religion. If we find that the religion is in conflict with our values, we can choose to question it.
- We ponder a certain option, but this option goes against a previous decision we have taken. It is a fallacy to assume that we would not have the choice. If the option appears more attractive than at the time when we took the decision, we may decide to correct our decision (OpReal).
- We would like to do something, but that something is immoral under our moral framework (Moral). It is a fallacy to assume that we would not have the choice. It is us who choose our moral framework. If we are convinced of our framework, then we follow it. If the framework turns out to be consistently out of tune with our conscience, with other people's moral frameworks, or with new insights that we have collected, then we can consider adapting our framework. This is a dangerous endeavor. However, moral frameworks are human artifacts. They deserve periodic review just like all other human thoughts and principles.
- We would like to do something, but this action is against the interests of other people. This may be our boss, senior colleagues, or our friends. So it seems like we do not have the choice. In reality, we do have a choice: We have the choice to abandon the thing. Thereby, we opt to conform to the interests of the other people. We also have the choice to do the thing. Thereby, we prioritize our own interests over the other people's interests.
There are cases where we do indeed not have the choice. One class of cases is physical necessity or inability [Thoughts on Ethics / Possible event]. This includes the case where the decision is in the hand of another person, and not in ours (such as being accepted for a job or not). There is no talk of choice here. The other class of cases is where we are forced by illegal or unethical means to do something. This includes threat by other people [Thoughts on Ethics / Threat], obstruction by other people [Thoughts on Ethics / Obstruction], mobbing, social pressure, or other types of manipulation. In these cases, our prime attention should be on (1) condemning the threatening behavior and (2) opposing it. If we find ourselves put under undue pressure, then we should become aware of this pressure, object to the person who manipulates us, and seek help. However, way too often, people do not condemn the threatening behavior, but they accept it. This leaves us to conclude that they did, indeed, make a choice.
If we have a choice, then we may opt to do just nothing and let things go their way. This is a choice. We may also choose to opt for one particular option. In both cases, we have to acknowledge that we made a conscious decision, and that we did ponder (or at least could have pondered) the alternatives. This entails that we have to take full moral responsibility for our choice (Moral). We may not blame our decisions on higher orders, if it is us who choose to obey these higher orders.
If we find ourselves repeatedly in such conflicts, then we should take this problem seriously (SeeMetaProblem). Maybe we should talk to our parents, to our friends, to our boss — or to ourselves. If it is a systematic problem, it deserves a systematic solution (EmTraps).
Give yourself the right to change yourselfWe have a tendency to assume that we should keep being as we are. We should not change our attitudes, habits, and way of being. After all, we should be the person that we have always been.
The past, however, does not define the future. It is a fallacy to assume that, just because we have been in some way, we have to stay this way (WrongRules). There is nothing that prohibits us from changing ourselves. Our habits, attitudes, and decisions are not God-given — they are given by ourselves. It is a mistake to assume that we could not develop other attitudes or habits (DecDuc). In fact, if we find out that our view of the world is wrong, then we should do our utmost to change it (OpReal). If we find out that what we are doing is suboptimal, then we should do something else.
ThinkWe have a tendency to bury past problems and to avoid thinking about them. We also have a tendency to avoid thinking about present problems. This might be because they remind of us something unpleasant, because we have a bad conscience, or because we want to suppress this issue as well as possible. Yet, thinking about a problem helps us understand it better. Thinking also often leads to a solution. In fact, rational thinking is one of the safest ways to arrive at a solution for a problem (Use).
Therefore, we should not hesitate to think about a problem. As Immanuel Kant put it, you should
The appeal to think may seem highly superfluous. Yet, people do not always think.
Reserve your right to thinkIt is very hard to find truth (Truth). Everything can be contested and questioned (LogBack), and everything we thought was true can turn out to be wrong (Contingency). Nobody knows for sure what is the truth. Therefore, if we want to approach truth, we should always continue seeking the truth (SeekTruth).
If a philosophy or ideology claims to find truth or to have found the truth, then it has to allow us to listen to other opinions, to doubt the ideology, to question it, and to change our mind about it. If the ideology is true, then it has nothing to fear: It will prove robust to all questions and doubts. If the ideology is faulty, then doubts and questions can help the ideology improve. Thus, the ideology should welcome the criticism. If the ideology does not welcome criticism, then this indicates that it fears being proven false. Its goal is probably not to find the truth, but something else. We should not adhere to such an ideology.
- Do not adhere to an organization that does not have an exit clause
- Do not adhere to an ideology that forbids questioning it, or that forbids listening to and debating other opinions
- Do not vote for a party that wants to abolish voting
- Do not trust a person, country, or organization that does not allow verifying its claims, for no good reason
is better than not to think at all
Do not commit logical fallaciesWe have a tendency to believe things that sound logical. Yet, not everything that sounds logical is logical. There are only few ways in which one statement logically implies another statement (SecRules). Other ways of deducing new statements are fallacious: They may lead to false conclusions.
There are many wrong ways of deducing a statement. This essay reproduces the list of fallacies as found on Wikipedia [Wikipedia / List of fallacies] here. Most of these fallacies are subsumed by the non-sequitur argument (NonSeq). Here is an example for such a wrong argument:
Therefore, you also have to bring it back
Therefore, I will bring it back
The only way that one statement logically follows from another one is through logical deduction (SecRules). In most cases, statements will not follow logically. Then, logic will not help us. In the example of the chair, we might decide to bring the chair back out of goodwill (MakeStep). We might also ask the other person to do that, if we are doing something else (SayIt).
Expect multiple reasonsWhen something happens, we have a tendency to assume one single reason for it. That is not always true. Many things have multiple causes that came together and amplified or enabled each other. Therefore, it is not rational to assume that, once we have identified one reason, there is no other (FalseDich). It is also not rational to start an argument saying that, since there is this reason, all other reasons must be wrong.
- People argue about whether natural disasters are man-made or not. Yet, it is possible that mankind is just partly responsible for the disasters. Human activities can amplify pre-existing natural tendencies. It is possible that both elements together (mankind and natural forces) shape the natural disasters.
- Our friend is annoyed about something and keeps talking about it. We assume that this thing must be very important for him. That is not always the case: There may be other things that annoy him, which are unrelated, but which reinforce his anger. These may be personal worries, or facts as simple as feeling hungry or tired.
- We are writing a computer program and the program does not do what we want it to do. So we check the source code and find a bug (mistake). We correct the bug and assume that the program is fine now. That conclusion is treacherous. There might be other bugs in addition to one we found. Therefore, we should check whether removing the bug really solved the problem.
Do not mix independent events.We have a tendency to have our mood influenced by bad events and then transfer that bad mood to other (unrelated) events. For example, if we get a bad grade at school, we feel bad and we have a tendency to see any following events that day also in a slightly darker light. This is not rational, because the other events do not change in their quality if we get a bad grade.
One example (from a Loriot movie) is a customer in a restaurant, who tries to eat a steak. Whenever he brings the fork close to his mouth, someone asks him whether the food is alright. He is obliged to answer and looses his bite. Different waiters and other customers all keep asking, so that the poor guy never gets a single bite of his steak. In the end, he is so unnerved that he yells at the waiter. Yet, each of the waiters and customers asked him only once, and so none of them can understand why the guy is angry. Difficult as it is, we have to separate different events.
A good thing does not make another thing badWhen we encounter two comparable things, and we like the first, we have a tendency dislike the second. Vice versa, when we dislike the first, we have a tendency to think that the second is good. This is not necessarily so: Both things can be good or both things can be bad.
Look at these examples:
- When we choose an option in a decision process (SecDec), and when we dislike it afterwards, we tend to think that the other option was better. This is also not necessarily so. The other option may have been just as bad.
- When we dislike the American invasion in Afghanistan, we tend to think that the Taliban regime was good. However, the Taliban brought a draconian regime to the country that caused much suffering, in particular for the country's women. Vice versa, if we dislike the Taliban, we tend to think that the American invasion was helpful. However, the American invasion brought higher levels of corruption and political instability. Both options are bad (with respect to Western values).
- When we enter a new relationship, we have a tendency to think that our previous relationship was not as deep as the new one. This is not necessarily so. The previous relationship may have been just as intense, but may simply not have worked out for other reasons.
Steer clear of general valuationsGeneral valuations are statements that assign a judgement to a thing, such as in "Bob is annoying" or "Life in Italy is great". As we have seen (Valuations), general valuations have no place in rational arguments. There is no point arguing about them (NoArgGenVal).
This obversation applies not just to arguments with others, but also to personal reasoning. Very few things are really completely "great" or completely "bad". If you do not like a person (Personal) or if that person has hurt you, then there is still no need to assume that everything about that person is bad. On the contrary, by assuming this, you close the door with that person (ConflictResolution). Likewise, if you do like another person, there is no need to assume that this person is totally "great". That person will have his weaknesses, too. Thus, instead of remembering that someone is "great" or "not great", we should be aware both his negative traits and his positive traits. If you ever find yourself admiring something or someone, be sure to find at least one not-so-great characteristics as well. If you ever find yourself hating someone or something, try also to find a positive trait of that something. This will help maintain a realistic picture of the world (SeekTruth).
One particular instance of this pattern is the fact that even an evil person can do good things, even a dumb person can say smart things, and even a bad ideology can have good aspects — and vice versa (DontId).
A general valuation is rarely true in its entirety (Valuations). Therefore, someone who defends a general valuation defends something that is partially wrong. Such a person becomes untrustworthy, because we get the impression that he says things not because they were true, but because he enjoys believing them. If, in contrast, a person presents both sides of the coin, then it becomes clear that he values truth more than his personal preferences. Thus, he will appear trustworthy.
Do not give a theory the benefit of doubtWe have a tendency to believe in supersticious theories (Theories) that claim to predict events or that suggest that we should do something in order to avoid harm. Such theories are for example astrology, clairvoyance, the theory that certain things should only be done during certain phases of the moon [Wikipedia / Moon astrology], superstitions or Internet hoaxes [Wikipedia / Hoax].
People are very vulnerable to such theories, because they see proofs that the predictive theories actually work. However, these proofs are rarely valid (SecProofs). This essay dedicates a section to true theories (SecTruth) and an article to good rules (GoodRules).
Here is a list of scenarios where a proof for a predictive theory is not valid. The first four scenarios appear to be especially frequent.
Postdiction onlyAfter the event, the theory is found to have predicted it. However, no one has ever successfully applied the theory to predict the event before it happened. If the theory cannot be used to predict the event before it happens, then the theory is useless. Technically, the theory is not predictive (Predictiveness)
Counting the hits and not the missesThe theory makes predictions, but these are sometimes wrong and sometimes right. For example, a theory might correctly state movement on the stock market, but previous or subsequent predictions have been wrong. If a theory makes true predictions and false predictions, and if it is impossible to determine a priori whether the prediction is true, then the theory is as good as having no theory at all. Technically, such a theory is incorrect (Confidence).
No improvementMany theories require us to do certain things (e.g., on certain dates or in certain ways) and promise us to prevent harm or bring fortune. However, if the people who follow the theory do not have significantly better lives than the people who do not follow the theory, then the theory does not work. For example, if following the predictions of astrology really worked, then people who followed its teachings would be richer, healthier and happier than the average person. However, this does not materialize.
UnfalsifiableThe theory makes only predictions that can never be proven wrong, even hypothetically. For example, consider the theory "If you believe firmly enough in yourself you will have success in life". This theory cannot be proven false, because if you do not have success in life, then we can alsways say that you just did not believe firmly enough in yourself. Such theories have no predictive value. They should be abandoned (Unfalsifiable).
Benefit of the doubtThe theory says that harm will be prevented if we do certain things, and the theory does produce the desired outcome, but it is not clear whether the outcome would not have happened anyway. Examples for this phenomenon are cures against the cold. A cold will always vanish after 10 days, no matter what cure is used [Wikipedia / Common cold]. Raindances fall into this category, too. We should not give such a theory the benefit of the doubt, because by adhering to the theory, we burden ourselves with assumptions and constraints that bring no benefit.
Vague predictionsThe prediction makes a non-specific claim. For example, it predicts a "disaster" of some kind but not what it is. Such a prediction can be massaged to fit any number of events. A prophecy attributed to Saint Malachy (but widely regarded as a 16th century forgery) claims to predict the succession of Popes by describing each one briefly. However, each description is so vague that it can be massaged to fit after the fact. This characteristics applies to most astrological predictions as well.
Catch-allThe prediction covers more than one possible outcome. For example, the Delphic Oracle's answer as to whether Croesus should attack the Persians: "If you attack you will destroy a mighty empire". Croesus attacked, destroying his own empire. A more obvious theory is the German weather lore stating "Wenn der Hahn kräht auf dem Mist ändert sich's Wetter oder's bleibt wie es ist" ("If the cock crows on the dung, the weather changes or stays the same"). Such theories have no predictive power.
Open endedThe prediction has a very long cut-off date or none at all and therefore runs indefinitely. Many of Nostradamus' quatrains are open-ended and have been postdicted over the centuries to fit various contemporary events.
ShotgunningThe prediction is in fact many predictions, designed to cover a range of events and claim credit even if only one of them happens. For example, claiming that a particular date is "unlucky" and then citing a dozen or so things that might happen on it.
Statistically likelyThe prediction makes a claim for something that happens with enough frequency that a high hit rate is virtually assured. For example, predicting terrorism on any day of the year, or particularly around national holidays, anniversaries (or similar events), or religious festivals.
AllegoryThe prediction resorts to tenuous allegorical explanations to turn literal misses into hits. For example the postdiction might explain that a famous person has suffered a "spiritual" death to explain why they are still walking around despite a prediction that says otherwise.
Theories that are "proven" by these means should not be considered valid. These theories are false. That is, they cannot predict reality and they cannot avoid harm (GoodRules). Therefore, believing in such a theory is not rational (Def). Furthermore, the problem with believing in such a theory is that the theory may cause us to do something that conflicts with our goals — and be it only to waste our time (StdGoals). Worse, such theories may lead us to believe that a certain person or ideology is trustworthy, leading us to follow even more of their teaching, while the person or ideology actually deserves no such credibility.
Do not engage in wishful thinkingWishful thinking is the belief that something is true because we like it to be true. Obviously, things do not become true just because we want them to be true (Desires). Therefore, wishful thinking is not rational (Def). It is a particular variant of mixing up independent properties (WrongRules). It is also a logical fallacy (DontFall) [Wikipedia / Wishful thinking]. By obscuring the truth, wishful thinking may actually prevent us from obtaining the thing that we wish for.
Wishful thinking deserves particular attention here, because people have a tendency to not just believe what they want to be true, but also to justify it with pseudo-rational arguments. That is, they use rationality to reinforce their wishful thinking. This usually happens through wrong reasoning (SecNonRatArg) or invalid assumptions (WrongRules). For example, you will hear people say "I am sure that the Bible prohibits slavery. The Bible is a good book.". This is wishful thinking, because out of the conviction that the Bible is a good book, the person deduces that it bans slavery (while it does not [Thoughts on Atheism / BibleMoral]).
The goal of rationality is approaching the truth — no matter whether the truth is what we want or not (SeekTruth). But our desires (Desires) have a tendency to influence our rational thinking. Therefore, we have to be particularly attentive with our rational arguments if we know that we prefer one outcome of the argument.
Do not let a small thing have a big effectWe have a tendency to take every event as a confirmation of our beliefs (NoWish). This is particularly misleading if we take a "small" event that was caused by chance as a basis for major decisions. If we want to be rational (Rational), we should thoroughly verify any circumstance that we base a major decision on.
Here are some examples:
- We are angry because our boyfriend never calls us and we decide to break up if he does not call us today. He does not call us, so we send him an angry mail and break up. Later, we learn that he tried to call us but that our cell phone was not charged. It was irrational to base a major decision (breaking up) on a minor circumstance (he did not call today). In fact, it is likely that our anger does not come from the fact that he did not call us. It is likely that there are deeper reasons (ReasonBehind).
- We send a mail to our highschool friends to ask if we want to meet up. They don't reply. We conclude that they are not really interested in a meeting. Therefore, we decide that they are not worth our friendship. A few days later, we meet them by chance at the shopping mile, decide to have a coffee together and have a really great time. It was irrational to base a major decision (they are not worth our friendship) on a minor circumstance (they did not reply to the mail).
- We learn that our friend let out all the life secrets we told him. We are angry and break off our friendship. Later, we learn that the friend did not say a single word. We have been tricked. Again, it was irrational to base a major decision on an unverified circumstance (AAP).
- We meet a person whom we did not know before and have a little chat. Based on what the person says, he seems to have a really silly personality. We decide that the guy is stupid and that we want to ignore him in the future. Later, we learn that the guy is a really nice person, but that he just lost his job and was in a difficult mood. Again, it was not reasonable to base a major decision (the guy is stupid) on a minor circumstance (our first impression).
Do not identify with bad or untrue thingsWe have a tendency to defend people, ideas or values if we feel close to them. That is unreasonable. To approach truth, we should defend truth, no matter where it is or who advocates it (SeekTruth). We should not identify with something that is morally bad or untrue (Moral).
We should not defend our country, if the country does something wrongWe can be a good American without identifying with the Iraq war, we can be a good Algerian without identifying with the dictatorship, we can be a good Indian without identifying with the corruption.
We should not defend our society or ideology in its entirety, if some of its values are in stark contrast with our own valuesWe can be a good European and still deplore Europe's xenophobia, we can be a good capitalist and still admit that we need a degree of social welfare, we can be a good liberal and still not like our daughter to become a prostitute, we can be a pious religious person and still agree that religion needs to evolve.
We should not defend our own position, if it is wrongIf we did something wrong, or defended an argument that turned out to be wrong, there is no use defending it. We should give it up (AckWrong).
To find truth, we must have a differentiated picture of reality — where things are rarely simply "good" or "bad". Most things have upsides and downsides. This is an appeal that repeats itself in this essay: GenVal, NoGen, NoArgGenVal, OpReal.
I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against.
I'm a human being first and foremost,
and as such I am for whoever or whatever benefits humanity as a whole.
Do not insist on subjective statements as if they were objective.Subjective statements are statements that cannot be proven from universally agreed facts. Examples for subjective statements are faith statements, personal preferences (Preferences) or desires (Desires).
We should not claim that subjective statements are the absolute truth. Most likely, they are not. Therefore, it is not rational to present subjective statements as objective truth (Def). We should also avoid entering into a dispute about subjective statements, because it is unlikely that we will come to a conclusion. We should save the effort (StdGoals). We have to be particularly careful with subjective statements that talk badly about somebody else. This is because, in many moral frameworks (Moral), statements that dishonor somebody else are insults unless they can be proven to be true (e.g. [Thoughts on Ethics / Insult]). Subjective statements, however, can never be proven to be true. Hence negative subjective talk about other people is always an insult in these frameworks. If we want to play safe, we should not say something about someone that we would not say if that person were present (QPerson, TalkWell).
In the interest of speaking truth, we should use subjective statements only
- as belief statements (Beliefs)
- as hypotheses (Hypotheses)
- as personalized statements (Personal)
- or as assumptions (Assumptions).
Do not try to contradict if there is no contradictionPeople often start arguing even though there is no contradiction in their views. As an example, take a discussion between a man and a woman on vacation in Paris. She says "Paris is full of dirt". He says "But Paris has wonderful buildings". She says "But look at all the rubbish in the streets." — and a dispute is on the way.
Objectively, though, there is no need for dispute, because there is no contradiction. The statement that Paris has dirt in the streets and the statement that Paris has wonderful buildings are both true. What causes the dispute is that the two squabblers assume that the woman defends defends the statement "Paris is horrible" and the man defends the statement "Paris is wonderful". These are the implicit statements that we hear (Implict) — and these statements are indeed contradictory. However, neither her nor him stated these claims. Therefore, the claims should not be assumed. Then, the cause of conflict vanishes immediately. Furthermore, both claims are general valuations (Valuations). Thus, they have no place in a rational argument anyway.
If we want to resolve such a conflict, we should first become aware of it. Then we should stop acting as if we were contradicting. We can acknowledge what the other person said, if we share their view ("Yes, indeed, Paris is very dirty", (Ack)). Then, we can say what we wanted to say. The magic words are
Do not say something that you do not knowSometimes, out of the desire to help or to impress, we sell things for certain that we do not know for sure. Saying things that are not sure counteracts the goal of approaching truth (SeekTruth). Particular instances of this problem are
- Saying something that one is not sure of in order to convey the impression that one is knowledgeable. On the long run, however, people whose claims are sometimes right and sometimes wrong lose credibility — and appear very unknowledgeable.
- Saying that something is true even though it is subjective truth that not everybody shares. Such claims will likely cause disputes. (NoSubjective)
- Making a generalizing statement (Generalizations). Such statements are likely to be wrong and cause disputes.
We can make weaker statements instead, for example by
- saying only the part that we know for sure (Limit)
- saying our personal view of things (Personal)
- saying that we do not know (Unknown)
- saying that something is an assumption (Assumptions)
- saying that something is a possibility (Possibilities)
- stating a hypothesis (Hypotheses)
- elaborating a theory (Theories)
- making existential statements (Existential)
- saying that we believe something (Beliefs)
- just saying nothing at all (NoOp)
Say itMany problems appear because people do not say what they know. Rationality, with its emphasis on explicitness and clarity (Speak), favors saying what you know, if this advances knowledge. The following scenarios are cases where it is rational to say what you know, because it brings discussion participants closer to truth (SeekTruth):
- If there is a crucial piece of information and there is a chance that your interlocutor does not know about it, tell him about it. Many problems appear because people are too timid, polite or lazy to state what they know.
- If there is something important that is obvious to you, but that has not been mentioned, mention it. It may well be that the other people are not aware of it. State the obvious.
- Say what your goal is (Desires). It may well be that you and your interlocutor are sharing this goal.
For example, assume that a group of friends wants to go to a movie. Everybody thinks that the others want to go, and so everybody feels obliged to join in. If these people talked about their reasons for going, they might well figure out that everybody just thinks the others want to go — while nobody really wants to go (DecDuc).
(a person whom I rarely cite — but credit where credit is due.)
Say what you want and say what you don't wantPeople are often too shy or too complicated to say what they want. This may cause problems (Problems) when other people assume that they like something. These problems can be avoided if we clearly say what we want. Particular instances are:
- If we are asked whether we like something or not, and if we do not like it, then we should say so (Preferences). If we do not say so, people will assume that we like it and we will find ourselves doing it and being unhappy about it.
- When asked what we want, we should not say "I have no preference" if we do have a preference. If we say we have no preference, then other people will decide for us. The result may well be the thing we did not want. It may also lead to awkward situations when we make the other person feel that we are unhappy without saying so.
- When something that we do not like is about to happen, we should voice our concern. Otherwise, people will not know we are unhappy and the thing is likely to continue.
- When pressured to make a compliment, we should not make a compliment unless we really mean it. Compliments that are not really meant have no value. If we are not serious with our compliments, people will learn that they cannot trust us with our compliments.
He who speaks does not know
Do not say you are doing something for someone else, if it is for youSome people avoid saying what they want (SayWant). One particular form of this phenomenon is saying that one does something for the other person, when, in reality, one does it for oneself. Examples are
You look tired, I should maybe better go home.... when, in reality, the speaker is tired.
I did not book the cinema tickets, because it seemed like you did not want to go.... when, in reality, the speaker does not want to go.
I thought you liked pizza, so I bought us some.... when, in reality, the speaker wants to eat pizza.
Such statements misrepresent reality. Therefore, they are not rational, in the sense that they counteract approaching truth (SeekTruth). Such statements will put the other person into a defensive position, even though the burden of explanation lies plainly with the speaker. Therefore, it is more rational to make one's wishes explicit (SayWant).
Give reasons for your statementsNobody is forced to give reasons for his statements or behavior. However, in the following cases, it is helpful to give reasons:
If we have the goal of changing somebody else's mind.For example, if we are of the opinion that Marihuana should be legalized and if we want to convince our friends (or the government) of this hypothesis, then it is useful to back up our thesis with arguments. People are more likely to believe something, if they can see reasons for it.
If what we do or ask for has a negative effect on somebody else.If we do something that counter-acts the assumed goals of somebody else (StdGoals), and if we would like to stay in good terms with that person, it is helpful to explain to that person why we are doing what we are doing. Else, it is likely that the other person assumes we want to harm them.
If we are instructing somebodyIf we are giving an instruction and we do not give reasons for that instruction, then the other person might feel treated like a child. To avoid this, we should give reasons for the instruction. The person might even do a better job at it if he knows what purpose he is serving.
If we try to give reasons for our instruction, but find that we have none, we should simply not give the instruction, because an instruction generates effort for the other person.
If we are taking part in a discussion.In a rational discussion, the common goal is to approach truth in some topic of interest. This goal is best served by backing up opinions with reasons. This is because it does not advance the common knowledge if someone simply states his opinion. (The common knowledge will be enriched only by the fact that this person has this opinion.) For example, if we state that Marihuana should be legalized, then our interlocutors learn nothing more than that we have this opinion. If, in contrast, we give reasons for our opinion, then they learn also the reasons for our opinion and might even change their mind — knowledge advances. If we have no such goal, then we should not take part in a rational discussion.
If we are saying something negative about somebody.If we are saying something negative about somebody and we cannot give reasons for our statement, then our statement is an insult (assuming the definition of [Thoughts on Ethics / Insult]). Therefore, we are morally obliged to give reasons for such statements.
If we are causing damage.If we are doing something that is morally wrong, then most moral frameworks (Moral) will morally oblige us to give reasons for that behavior (if we have any).
Watch out for emotional trapsAn emotional trap is a pattern (Patterns) in which a person voluntarily tries to fulfill expectations of another person, group, or ideology to such a degree that he suffers continuous discomfort. The person is unaware of the misery that he is causing to himself, because he desires emotional rewards such as love, recognition, forgiveness, friendship, respect, or salvation in return for his behavior. Particular instances of this pattern are:
- A person with bullying friends. The person continuously suffers from mobbing, bullying, or emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, but continues to stay with his "friends" out of a desire to earn their friendship and respect.
- A person living in an unhealthy relationship. The person continuously faces unfounded reproaches, disputes, and humiliation, but sticks to his partner out of a feeling of obligation, out of a desire to prove his love, or out of the desire to gain his partner's love.
- A person following an abusive ideology. The person submits himself to constraints and rules that curb his freedom, dominate his life, make him unhappy, and take control of his family — out of imagined moral obligation, promise of salvation, or peer pressure.
Emotional traps are different from classical bullying or abuse, because the victim voluntarily sticks to the abuse. This entails, unfortunately, that liberal moral frameworks (MoralFrame) will not be able to protect the victim. The frameworks will point to the principle of "Volenti non fit iniuria" and thus not condemn the abuse [Thoughts on Ethics/ Volenti]. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for the victim's well-being to become aware of his misery. The safest indication for an emotional trap is continuous emotional discomfort. Should we become aware of such a feeling, we should immediately start asking ourselves whether we are in an emotional trap. Talking with friends can help us compare our life to what is normal (Normal, QPerson).
Do not assume that this period of life is specialWe have a tendency to assume that the current period of life is exceptionally stressful. We are tempted to take this as an excuse to neglect resolutions or to take less care of ourselves. Yet, every period of life is stressful in its own way (Fuzzy):
- High-school is stressful (studies report that young people feel most stress)
- University or apprenticeship is stressful (because it often goes along with moving away from your home town)
- Starting a job is stressful
- Starting a family is stressful
- Raising children is stressful
- Getting older is stressful
If a problem appears, also see the meta-problem of why it appearedIf a problem appears, it always means that there is a meta-problem as well, namely the problem of why the first problem appeared. For example, assume that you find a notification in your letter box that a parcel is waiting for you at the post office. This is a problem because the current state of the world (with the parcel at the post office) does not correspond to the desired state of the world (with the parcel at home) (Problems). This problem is easy to solve, it suffices to go to the post office and pick up the parcel.
The meta-problem, however, is that the parcel was not delivered in the first place. This may be because the letter box is too small for parcels. If this meta-problem is not solved, then the original problem will appear again and again. Therefore, it is useful to spend some time thinking how the meta-problem can be solved (e.g., by putting a note that asks the postman to deposit parcels in the court yard). Thereby, future instances of the original problem disappear. Usually, people avoid solving the meta-problem, because the effort does not seem justified if the original problem occurs only once in a while. However, the solution of the meta-problem often takes little longer than the solution of one instance of the original problem. Thus, the effort is justified as soon as only two more instances are expected.
This seems a very simple technique, but people do not always apply it:
- People click on the OK button in a message box again and again — instead of clicking once on "Do not show this message again."
- People throw away piles of advertising mail every week — instead of putting a sticker that asks the postman not to put direct mail.
- People go through a bureaucratic procedure again and again — instead of asking why this procedure is necessary or how it can be avoided.
- People keep using the office printer on the other floor instead of replacing the cartridge.
- People keep dealing with a broken thing instead of fixing it once and for all.
Limit the lossesWhen an endeavor does not work out as we want, we have a tendency to chuck the entire endeavor. We start believing that the endeavor failed and that there is no use continuing it. Yet, in many cases, only part of the endeavor failed. More often than not, it is possible to save and continue the part that did not fail. It might even be possible to rescue the part that we considered failed.
Therefore, it is not rational to abandon an entire endeavor when only part of it did not work out. The partial endeavor can still be more beneficial than no endeavor at all (by the Pragmatic Principle).
A similar observation applies to losses (Loss): When we lose something, we have a tendency to assume that we lost everything. That is not reasonable, in the sense that we should not assume it unless it is true (SeekTruth). It is more rational to be aware of what we lost and what we still have. This will also help us make use of the part that we still have (DontWorry).
Do not postpone if postponing it costs more effort than doing itWe have a tendency to postpone things that we do not like. In some cases, though, postponing a thing takes as much effort as doing the thing. In these cases, it is more reasonable (StdGoals) to do the thing rather than to postpone it.
Here are examples:
- Asking someone to do something, if asking takes as much time as doing the thing by ourselves. (Unless asking carries some other value, such as educational or social value)
- Sending a mail to say that we will take care of something, when sending the mail takes as much time as doing that thing immediately.
- Complaining about a thing that we have to do, when the time we spend complaining is more than the time that is necessary to do the thing.
If something is sure to get worse, get outSometimes, we find ourselves trapped in a situation that only gets worse with time. We should immediately head out of such a situation, because the longer we wait, the worse it will get. This is true even if getting out comes at some cost. ("cost" and "worse" are to be understood with respect to our goals (Goals).)
Here are examples:
- If we have to do something, and we know we cannot do it, we should say so immediately. The longer we wait, the less time other people will have to chip in (FailFast).
- If it becomes clear that a project cannot succeed, we should stop that project. The longer we wait, the more time and effort we waste.
- If we have a medical problem, and if it becomes clear that the problem will not disappear by itself, we should consult a physician. Otherwise, chances are that the problem will become worse.
If you can have a huge gain for a small effort, make the small effortIf we want to serve our goals efficiently, we should trade off effort with gain (Goals, Rational). Unfortunately, we have a tendency to avoid effort, even if the effort is small compared to the gain. In these cases, it is useful (Good) to force ourselves to make the effort.
- We should stop an endeavor that is sure to fail (GetOut)
- When in doubt about something, we should ask and clarify. This may cost conscious effort and awkwardness, but will ultimately be better than working under a wrong hypothesis (SayIt, OpReal)
- When we encouter a problem, we should solve it rather than postpone it (SecProb, DontPostpone)
Don't worryWhen we run into a problem (Problems), we worry. In most cases, our worry helps us take the problem seriously. It also tells other people that this problem is important to us. Worrying sends an implicit call for help to other people. In some cases, however, the worry just aggravates the problem. This happens, e.g.,
- if the worry itself produces higher discomfort than the original problem.
- if the problem is unlikely to appear.
- if the problem might appear, but if we cannot do anything until it does appear.
- if the worry produces so much stress that the problem is more likely to appear (by way of a self-fulfilling prophecy).
Specific instances of this phenomenon are:
- Worrying whether a flight is safe. Air planes do have accidents, but, in general, such accidents are so rare (per person) that there is no use worrying. (To see how small the chance of a lethal accident is in life, remember how often you wished that one of your foes had an accident. Did that ever happen?)
- Worrying whether we get a good grade in an exam. Once the exam is written, there is nothing we can do about it any more. Hence, we should not waste our time worrying.
- Worrying about a speech that we have to deliver. Our worries may well cause so much stress that this impacts the speech.
when you worry, you make it double.
- the fearful anticipation of that problem (Fear)
- the anger (NoAnger) or remorse (Remorse) after the problem
Be happyHappiness is a standard goal (StdGoals). Beyond that, happy people are likely to make other people happy. Folk-psychology teaches us that happiness triggers positive thoughts. It also teaches us that positive thoughts can trigger happiness. Therefore, if we want to be happy, we can contribute ourselves to our happiness:
- Let us not be sarcastic or bitter, unless we want to make a drastic point about it
- Let us not burden ourselves with anger or hatred against something, unless it propels us forward.
- Let's smile. Smiling contributes to happiness, and it makes people around us happy, too.
Happiness is not always the appropriate way to go (DontWorry, NoAnger). However, if we have no serious problem (Problems), we can sweeten our life by being happy. A particularly rich source of happy thoughts are positive experiences in the past. Nobody can take away our memories:
- Let us think of some nice achievement we made
- Let us of some great experience we had
- Let us think of how we made someone happy
- Let us be aware of what is good in life
Be responsiveBeing responsive means reacting to your interlocutors statements. A responsive person will acknowledge what the other person said, answer a question that is asked, and reply to a concern that is raised. If confronted with multiple questions, a responsive person will take each of them seriously. A responsive person will react swiftly and avoid any unnecessary delay in the response.
Being responsive is generally highly appreciated. So if we want to be nice to our fellow humans (StdGoals), being responsive has a good benefit/cost ratio. Being responsive is also highly helpful (Good) if we have a personal interest in the resolution of the issue at hand. It will also encourage our interlocutor to be responsive towards ourselves, which benefits us on the long run. Last, it will establish trust, because our interlocutors learn that they can rely on us.
Being responsive means in particular
- acknowledging what the interlocutor said to show that the message got across (Ack)
- acknowledging that an argument is understood and taken (AckWrong)
- answering when asked about one's opinion (SayWant)
- contributing a piece of information that was not explicitly asked for but that is essential (SayIt)
- answering quickly (DontPostpone)
- saying that one cannot answer if one cannot answer (NoOp, FailFast)
Do not reproach in hindsightWhen someone annoys us, we do not always feel ready to tell him that he annoys us. Rather, we have a tendency to accumulate the anger in ourselves. At some point of time, the accumulated anger comes out and we accuse the other person of all the bad things that he supposedly did to us. We might also consistently use sideswipes (Sideswipes) to hint at what angers us. This has the following effect: Our interlocutor learns that, even if we say nothing, we might still be tacitly accumulating anger against him. Therefore, our interlocutor can never be sure whether he currently annoys us or not. This induces a feeling of insecurity on his side. Our interlocutor cannot trust us if we signal peace, because he knows that if we are angry, we might not say so. This ultimately undermines his trust in us.
Therefore, for the goal of being a trusted person, it is more reasonable to speak out if we feel annoyed. We should speak out immediately if we feel uncomfortable (Sayit) — or forget the issue forever (ForgiveForget). This will allow the people around us to be sure that everything is alright unless we say so.
Do not talk badly about other peopleGossiping is talking about other people. As it is the case with every other behavior, our moral framework decides whether gossiping is morally acceptable or not (Moral). Liberal frameworks will most likely permit gossiping, if we do not insult or lie.
However, it can be in our own interest not to overdo gossiping. If we present other people in an unnecessarily bad light, if we judge them prematurely, if we do not seem to care about them, if we disrespect their interests, or if we behave badly towards them, then our interlocutor will assume that we will do the same thing to him when we talk to other people. This, in turn, will discourage him to trust us. Therefore, if we want other people to trust us, it is in our own interest not to talk badly about third parties.
If we want to guard against this kind of behavior, we can proceed as follows: If we do not like something that the other person did, we always talk first to the person himself, before talking to others. In many cases, this will eliminate the reason for discontent.
If you fear you cannot do something, say so earlySometimes, we are unable to fulfill our promises. Technically, this is a problem (Problems), because the actual state of the world is not the desired state of the world (the one we promised). This makes us feel uncomfortable. We have a tendency to avoid talking about this problem. However, ignoring the probem does not solve it. On the contrary, the longer we wait, the less likely it is that someone else can do the work that we cannot do. Therefore, we should tell people as soon as possible if we know that we cannot fulfill a certain expectation. This is the fail fast principle [Wikipedia / Fail fast]:
Here are examples:
- If we promised to visit a friend and it becomes clear that we will not be able to make it, we should tell the friend as soon as possible — instead of procastrinating this revelation until the very last moment. The reason is that the sooner our friend knows about the situation, the better he can make use of his own time.
- If we are expected to do some work and we estimate that we cannot do it in time, we should ask for an extension of the deadline as soon as we see that we cannot make it. The reason is that it is easier to extend a deadline early on than one day before.
- If we promised to do something, but something serious gets in our way, we should ponder whether we need to spend all energy on the serious thing instead. If this is the case, we should withdraw from the first obligation quickly so that maybe someone else can jump in. This is better than hoping that we can fulfill our obligation, just to find out that we cannot.
Failing fast also makes us more trustworthy. This is because people will learn that they can rely on us — and that we will tell them when they cannot.
As a corollary, we should aim to give reasonable time estimates rather than too optimistic time estimates. The reason is that it is easier to manage expectations upfront than to deceive them later.
Have a conflict resolution mechanismIn conflicts with other people, we have a tendency to insist on our view. We have a tendency to sulk, to hate the other person and to brand them as lifelong enemy. This is not a rational mechanism to resolve the conflict. The reasons are as follows:
- Sulking does not solve the underlying problem. The problem is likely to appear again with this person or with other persons (SeeMetaProblem). Furthermore, sulking prevents us from finding out the truth. It is non-receptive (SecNonRec) and thus irrational (Def). In most cases, branding the person as an enemy is an injust generalization (Valuations).
- The mechanism can only be applied once per person. However, it is highly likely that we will have to deal with that person again in life. This makes it nearly impossible to brand him as lifelong enemy. We risk looking ridiculous when, one day, everybody forgot about the conflict and we still want to maintain some degree of hatred. Last, hating someone for eternity is a very strenuous endeavor that requires constant effort.
- Sulking also makes us untrustworthy: It sends a message to our friends that they, too, will be branded as enemies should they ever enter into a conflict with us. This will decrease their readiness to invest in the friendship, because they feel that we are not ready to make an effort for our friends either.
Conflicts will always appear in life. They will appear with friends, with colleagues, with our partners, with the family or even within ourselves. It is impossible to avoid conflicts in general. Rather, we should have a way to deal with conflicts. The most rational way of dealing with conflicts is to talk them out (SocialProb). Talking about conflicts resolves misunderstandings, makes the problem more precise and allows both participants to learn.
Do not assume a reproachWhen we speak, we transmit much more than the content of the actual statements: We transmit connotations, appeals, valuations and information about ourselves. These are implicit statements (Implicit). When listening to a statement, we infer these implicit statements.
Two classes of statements are particularly prone to appear in the hidden layer rather than in the explicit layer: reproaches (Reproaches) and negative assignments. A reproach is a statement that someone else caused something bad according to some goals (Desires) or moral standards (Moral). The reproach also acts as an appeal to act. A negative assignment is a statement that says that a person has a trait that is commonly regarded as bad. Nobody likes receiving reproaches or negative assignments. Therefore, we often frame them in the hidden layer of our speech. As a result, we are used to spotting implicit reproaches and negative assignments in other people's statements.
The problem is that we might at times spot such an implicit statement even if it was not intended. For example, assume that a man and a woman are eating a homecooked meal together. The man says: "There is something green in the soup.". The woman reads: "I do not like what you cooked", "The soup is bad" or even "You cannot cook". Understandably, she gets annoyed [Wikipedia / Four sides model]. But if she starts arguing with him, he may say that he just wanted to draw attention to something green in the soup — without making any of these reproaches.
The solution to these kinds of problems is to ignore any reproach or negative assignment if it is not explicit. The rationale is that if someone wishes to make us a reproach, we may expect it to be explicit. If our interlocutor does not dare making the reproach explicit, he does not deserve our attention to it. We may also decide to uncover the implicit statement (Uncover).
- Use the principle of simplicity (Simplicity): Collect possible meanings of the statement, from the innocent ("There is some strange item in the soup") to the malicious ("You do not know how to cook"). Then, ask yourself whether there is any way to express these meanings in a simpler way. If one of the meanings can be expressed in a simpler way, then this is likely not the intended meaning. In the example, the reproach "You cannot cook" can be expressed in a much simpler way (namely by saying "You cannot cook"). Therefore, we may assume that it was not the intended meaning. The meaning "There is a strange item in the soup" cannot be expressed any simpler. Thus, if the man really wanted to state just this, then the way he did it was the best way to do it. Therefore, this meaning is likely the intended one [Thoughts on Ethics / Declaration].
- Once you have guessed an intended meaning this way, do not assume that the statement has any negative or reproaching content beyond what was said explicitly. Close your ears to what was not said. In the example, the woman would understand that there is something strange in the man's soup — and not draw any further inferences about her cooking.
- If you decide that the statement does carry a reproach or a negative assignment, ask whether this is the case (Uncover): "Do you mean, you do not like the soup?"
Uncover implicit statementsIn discussions, we sometimes argue against implicit statements (Implicit). This is always a mistake, because implicit statements are not rational statements. They may even trap us, as in this example:
- Our interlocutor says something, e.g., "This book did not even make it into the top 10!"
- We hear an implicit message, e.g., "This book is not worth reading"
- We contradict the implicit message ("Well, the book is not so bad!")
- Our interlocutor can insist that we did not contradict his thesis ("Whatever. It did not make it in the top 10")
In many cases, the best solution to this problem is to ignore the implicit statement completely (NoReproach, NoContradiction). In the example, we can simply acknowledge the statement (Ack) by saying "Yes, true...".
Otherwise, we can uncover the implicit statement, and make it explicit. This can be done by stating that the implicit statement is not implied:
Do not assume bad intentionsWhen other people do something that we do not like, we have a tendency to believe that they do so in order to harm us. This is not always the case. In fact, assuming that they want to harm us is in most cases an unsupported hypothesis.
It is more reasonable (and more beneficial to inter-human relations) to assume the more frequent case, namely that other people have good intentions. They may do something not because they want to harm, but because they do not know that what they are doing harm.
Assume good reasonsSometimes other people do something that we do not understand. We have a tendency to assume that these people do not know what they are doing. This, however, is not true in the majority of cases. Rather, in most cases, it is us who do not know the full picture. There may be some facts we do not know or some private reasons (Private) that we do not know. Therefore, we should assume that people have their reasons to act the way they do.
One example comes from a Karl May book. It is about a man and his son who climb up a church tower to repair the bell of the tower. The ladder they have to climb is several dozen meters high. Shortly before they get to the bell, the crowd sees father and son struggle with each other on the ladder. To the horror of the crowd, the father then kicks his son and the son falls off the ladder into his death. As the father returns, the crowd is ready to lynch him for murder. But the father explains himself: When they climbed the ladder, the son panicked out of fear of heights. He grabbed the leg of the father. The father tried to calm him, but instead, the son panicked more and more, threatening to pull both of them into their death. In order to save his own life, the father had to kick his own son off the ladder. The wise men of the village are consulted and confirm that, if someone panicks on the ladder, there is no way to save his life. The crowd lets the father go.
Be less rationalToo much rationality can be poisonous to human relations (NoUse). This holds in particular if rationality is applied badly or against its principles. This section will give advice (Advice) for achieving certain goals (Goals) that are usually considered "irrational". As usual, we assume the goal of approaching truth (SeekTruth). We also assume the goal of avoiding unnecessary dispute, and the goal of saving effort (StdGoals).
Ask if you feel offendedWhen we feel offended, we have a tendency to argue back. Yet, in many cases, the best thing to do in order to resolve the conflict is to ask a question instead. One standard question is
You are really irresponsible!Rather than arguing whether we are irresponsible or not, it is much better to askWhy do you think I am irresponsible?This will allow us to understand what the other person wants to reproach us.
Islam is not a good religion; it does not allow women to enter heaven!Instead of arguing about whether Islam is a good religion or not, it is fully sufficient to askWhy do you think Islam does not allow women to enter heaven?It will be hard for the speaker to justify his opinion, because there is no such rule in Islam.
Asking a question will allow us to understand what the speaker wants. Thus, it helps us approach truth (SeekTruth). It will also help take out the sting of disputes — if the speaker realizes he is wrong, or if we realize he is right. Thus, asking a question is usually a good reply for these goals.
Do not explain when you have no explanationIf it appears that we did something wrong, we feel inclined to explain ourselves. In most cases, this is useful. In some cases, it may even be morally required (GiveReasons). However, if the reason is mainly that we were mistaken, and if time is pressing, then we should save everybody's time and not explain (StdGoals). An acknowledgement and/or apology may do the job.
For example, assume that we are late for a meeting because we did not plan our trip well. There is no use explaining which buses exactly we missed because of which bad planning. An apology for misplanning will do the job (ReasonExcuse).
Extremes invite extremesWhenever someone has an extreme opinion, it is tempting to start arguing for the other extreme. It seems that an extreme opinion provokes us to defend the other extreme, because we feel that this other extreme is unfairly disregarded. In this process, however, we tend to forget that both extremes may be true to some degree. In reality, the truth is nearly always somewhere in the middle (GoodNoBad, NoGen, GenVal, FalseDich). By arguing for an extreme, we provoke needless conflict (NoProv) — and most likely we are as wrong as our interlocutor (SeekTruth).
This holds in particular for politically correct opinions. Since most opinions we hear in the media and in public are politically correct opinions, we have a tendency to fight for the opposite opinion. That desire is understandable. It is even in the interest of truth. However, but we should not forget that an opinion can have truth in it, or even be entirely true, even if it is politically correct. Here are examples:
- Politicians tell us that our society is multi-cultural and should happily welcome migrant workers. Information about problems with migrants are often not publicised or self-censored. This one-sided view can, surprisingly, contribute to the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, because people feel fed up with the biased politically correct view. They think that since this biased view is not true, the opposite must be true. This is a fallacy, of course.
- Charities tell us that people in less economically developed countries suffer mainly because the rich countries colonized them or treat them unfairly. This point of view brushes aside the factors such as corruption or a high fertility rate, which are local factors that also play their role. This one-sided view provokes the opinion that the people in these countries are mainly themselves responsible for their misery. This view, in contrast, ignores completely the role that the rich world plays with its land grabs, military interventions, and subsidies. In reality, a large number of factors contribute to the poverty in these countries — some are external, some internal, and many are simply both.
- On one side, religious fundamentalism proclaims sole moral superiority. This nurtures a radical and sometimes aggressive atheism on the other side, which aims to stamp out religion. In reality, neither extreme may be morally sustainable.
Do not get caught by the temptation to contradictSome people have a way to talk that is perceived as so provocative that we feel the urgent desire to contradict the person. This holds in particular if the other person is acting in a bluntly non-receptive way (SecNonRec), if the person makes general statements (NoGen, Extremes), or if he does not give you a role in the conversation (TalkToTalk).
However, contradicting makes only sense if the other person makes a statement to which we have a valid counter-argument (DontArgue). If we do not like the way the other person talks, we often think we do have a counter-argument — while, in reality, the other person may just be saying true things in an unpleasant way. Then, we have no foundation to attack the content, and hence we should not do it (SecNonRec). It may be more reasonable to unpack implicit statements (Uncover).
Don't argue about the meaning of wordsA great deal of cantakerousness finds its nurture in disputes about the right meaning of words. That is a pity, because language should be a tool and not an object of dispute.
Words acquire their meaning by convention (Language, Mean) and mutual goodwill (ReasonableMeaning). People can also use a word with any meaning, as long as they and their interlocutors agree on the meaning and as long as no reference to other sources is made where the word is used in another meaning (Definitions).
When interlocutors cannot agree on the meaning of a word, then it is more efficient for an argument (Arguments, StdGoals) to use another word in order to approach truth. For example, it is useless to argue whether the term "Europe" should include Russia or not. If the interlocutors cannot agree on whether "Europe" should include Russia or not, they should use the terms "Europe with Russia" and "Europe without Russia" instead. Then, it does not matter what "Europe" means.
Do not argue against personal preferencesAs their name suggests, personal preferences are personal by nature (Preferences). They can rarely be justified. In fact, they do not require justification (EmotionalState). Therefore, it is futile to argue against them. If someone likes Coca Cola with salt in it, then there is nothing we could say against it.
The only judgement we can make is pointing out that a personal preference is in conflict with moral standards or with someone's goals (Evaluations, Moral). For example, if someone has stated that he wants to start a healthy life, then this goal is in conflict with the preference of drinking Coca Cola (with or without salt). In this case we may bring this conflict to our partner's attention (WhyTalk). His culinary preferences, however, cannot be challenged.
Accept all arguments for a personal preferencePeople sometimes feel urged to justify what they do. They will come up with reasons in order to make their behavior or their decisions more palatable to others. In reality, however, they may just wish to behave in a certain way (Preferences) or they may have private reasons for their behavior (Private). If we suspect that this is the case, then there is no use asking for reasons. Instead, we should accept whatever unconvincing reasons our interlocutor enumerates — knowing that these reasons are just a silent request to accept a personal preference.
The classical example is the girl who is asked out for a date. If she does not want to go, she will come up with a stack of excuses. Instead of arguing about these excuses, we should accept that the girl just does not want to go for a date.
Understand proxy argumentsPeople do no necessarily always say what they want (SayWant). If they want something for a certain reason, they might keep silent about that reason and put forward a different reason instead. Then they defend this different reason. We call this different reason a proxy reason. Examples are:
- A girl asked out for a date invents a number of reasons why she cannot go, while the real reason is simply that she does not want to (AccAll)
- Someone tells you he would like to do something for you, when in reality, he wants to do it for himself (NoBecause)
- Your friend asks you for help with some work, when, in reality, he just wants to spend time with you
If we want to know the truth, we should be prepared for these kinds of proxy reasons. We should try to understand what people really want.
Do not burn the bridges behind youIt is embarassing to argue vigorously for a hypothesis, only to find out that one of our assumptions was wrong or that we did not know a crucial fact (OpReal). Therefore, in all discussions, we should always consider the possibility that we are wrong (PlanB). This means that we should
- state our assumptions clearly (Name) and repeat them from time to time
- ask whether our assumptions are correct (QPerson)
- talk carefully and not overly self-assured
Acknowledge when you are wrongRationality aims at discovering the truth. For this purpose, it is helpful to admit when we are wrong. It is useful to admit that we are wrong as soon as we notice that we are wrong, because the longer we discuss, the more we will lose face when we finally admit we are wrong (FailFast). We should admit our fault quickly, explicitly and wholeheartedly. Example phrases are
- Oh, I see. I think you are right.
- That is true.
- You convinced me.
- I see, I was wrong.
The same applies if we find a part or statement of our partner's argument convincing. Even if we have a general opinion about something (e.g., that the USA often act immorally), we can still acknowledge statements that go in the other direction, if they are true (such as the idea that the USA played a vital helpful role in the Second World War). We should not fight off these statements just because they go in a direction we dislike (DontId). Rather, we should acknowledge them if they are right. Acknowledging explicitly that a certain statement is right will get it off the table and avoids needless dispute.
In all of these cases, it is most helpful to acknowledge the facts wholeheartedly — i.e., without the "but" already at the tip of the tongue or in our minds. Spend a few seconds just acknowledging what is right. Acknowledging what is right will make you more trustworthy. That is because people will learn that you have the desire to discover and acknowledge the truth.
Be alright with not having an opinionWe have a tendency to think that we should have an opinion on everything. That is wrong. Nothing forces us to have an opinion on all issues. In fact, for the goal of approaching truth, having a wrong opinion is worse than having no opinion (SeekTruth). This essay proposes various ways to express that we do not have an opinion on something (DontKnow, Unknown, AvoidIKnow, Theories).
Not having an opinion may also avoid needless disputes. It will allow us to listen in an unbiased way to what other people say (Listen). This, in turn, may help us form an opinion.
Be ready to give up your convictionsIt has become quite fashionable to claim to be open-minded, tolerant and not attached to particular convictions. In reality, however, people are rarely ready to give up what they have been taught [Wikipedia / Confirmation bias]. If we want to approach truth, however, we should be willing to seriously question even what we think are constants in our world (SeekTruth).
Here are some examples for convictions that are upheld with great vigor, but that should be open to discussion:
Be ready to reconsider whether women and men should have the same role in society.If you are convinced they should, try finding arguments why or where they should not. If you are convinced they should not, try imagining how it would be if they had. Try seeing what would be positive aspects of it.
Be ready to reconsider whether Israel has a right to exist.If you are convinced that it does, read the opinion of people who think it does not. Replace the word "Israel" by "the country" and see if their arguments make sense. If you are convinced that Israel does not have the right to exist, do the same exercise in the other direction.
Be ready to reconsider whether God exists.If you are an atheist, imagine how it would be if God existed. Try being of the opinion that he existed. Find out how that would feel. Vice versa, if you believe in God, take for a minute the attitude that he does not exist. Under this assumption, look at your fellow believers with an atheist perspective and try to understand what the atheists think.
Make sure that what you believe corresponds to realityIt may seem obvious that we should take care that what we believe is true (SeekTruth). Yet, this is not always easy to uphold this principle.
The principle boils down to 3 components:
- We should not form a belief prematurely, but only if we have solid evidence for it (SmallBig).
- The strength of our belief should correspond to the strength of the evidence (AvoidIKnow, NoSubjective). If we are not sure of something, we should not believe we know it.
- We should be ready to reconsider, abandon, downtune or change our belief whenever we have doubts whether it still corresponds to reality (DontBurn, NegEv).
Even though it makes us reliable if we stick to our beliefs, it makes us unreliable if we also stick to false beliefs. People who always stick to their beliefs, no matter whether they are true or not, lose trustworthiness. This is because we learn that these people value consistency more than truth (SecNonRec). But our goal should always be to find the truth, and not to show that we are right.
Audiatur et altera parsSome statements seem true at first glance, but turn out to be false if additional information becomes known (Contingency, NegEv). As an example, consider the statement that introducing the minimal wage increased the gross domestic product by 2%. This makes the minimal wage look economically reasonable. However, if we learn that the gross domestic product has been growing by 10% per year in all the years before, we might want to reconsider our conclusion.
The most effective guard against this type of false conclusions is talking to people who have a different opinion. These people will be able to contribute the facts that we do not know. It is one of the principles of rationality to make our arguments open to verification by others and doing so is good practise (QPerson).
The same applies if our interlocutor tells us what bad things somebody else did. This is known as gossipping (TalkWell). Unless we have also heard the viewpoint of the other person, we are unable to tell whether that person acted right or wrong (Moral). Therefore, we should not adopt a conclusion.
In general, founding statements are safe and will not change with additional information (SecFounding). Likewise, logical deductions are safe over time (QTime). Basic statements by other people can also be considered safe [Thoughts on Ethics / Dixit principle] under common assumptions (StdAsm). However, the following statements are vulnerable to additional information:
- Morally judging statements (Moral)
- Conclusions about the usefuless or goodness of something (Good)
- Conclusions about a person's character (SmallBig)
- The truthfulness of a rule (Contingency)
Do not generalizeGeneralizations are absolute statements about a large set of people or events or a longer time (Generalizations). Examples for generalizations are "Germans are blond", "The postal service is slow", "Bob is not doing well in his job" or "Alice is unpunctual". Due to their generality, these statements allow a wide range of conclusions — some of which are almost certainly wrong. Furthermore, if the statement is pejorative, it may actually insult people (assuming the definition of [Thoughts on Ethics / Insult]). Therefore, we should avoid these statements unless we have solid evidence for them. The statements can be avoided, e.g., by
- talking about specific instances: "All Germans I know are blond" / "Whenever I had a meeting with Alice, she was unpunctual"
- saying that the statement holds in the vast majority of cases: "Most Germans are blond" (Guarded)
- making existential statements: "Some Germans are blond" / "Last time, Alice was late" (Existential)
- using bounds: "More than half of the Germans are blond" (Limit)
Do not argue against general valuationsAs we have seen, general valuations, such as "America is great" are not rational statements (Valuations). General valuations cannot be used in a rational argument, neither as assumptions nor as conclusions (Arguments). Therefore, we should not let our thinking be influenced by general valuations (GenVal).
This observation applies also to arguments with other people. When someone makes a general valuation, we should not start arguing against it (TalkToArgue). This is because there is no hope that such an argument will prove the valuation true or false. Rather, we should ask for more details ("How do you mean that?"). We can ask, for example, for concrete reasons that make our partner believe in the general valuation (Listen). This will help us get to know his point of view. Thus, a general valuation should be seen not as a hypothesis (Hypotheses), but rather as an invitation for discussion.
If we find the general valuation too strong, and feel the desire to argue against it, we may paraphrase it into a concrete statement. ("You think America is great. Does this mean that you think it always acts morally right?"). Once our interlocutor accepts this more concrete statement, we can then argue against that concrete statement (Abstract).
Assume the most reasonable meaningMost statements in everyday discussions are ambiguous and can be understood in many different ways (Language, Mean). Many conflicts arise because people are being overly pedantic about the meaning of statements. These conflicts are not necessary. If we have the goal of advancing our knowledge (instead of the goal of being pedantic), then we should always take the meaning that seems most consistent with reality and with which we agree most (Abstract). For example, assume that our interlocutor states
If our preferred meaning seems to be not the intended one or if the preferred meaning deviates a lot from the actual statement, we can always opt to make our interpretation explicit (Grounding, Plain). For example, we can say something like "You probably mean that..." or "I agree that...", followed by the presumed meaning.
Assume that your interlocutor is rightUnfortunately, we have a tendency to think that what we believe is right and that what other people believe is wrong. This is counter-productive for the goal of approaching truth (SeekTruth).
If we really want to approach truth, we should
- give our interlocutor the benefit of the doubt, even if his hypotheses seem implausible to us (DontBurn).
- let our interlocutor elaborate his ideas (Listen)
- try to see in what way our interlocutor might be right (ReasonableMeaning)
Do not assume that people use rational statementsRationality favors making clear-cut statements (SecStat, Plain, Clear). While clear statements are useful for rational arguments, we may not assume that everybody makes such statements. Some people do not like making such statements, others see their benefit, but are too lazy to shoulder the effort, and again others do not bother (Sorry, Cannot). We have no right to expect that other people would talk the way we would like them to talk.
If our interlocutor does not make clear statements, but we need a clear statement, we can often enforce such a statement by paraphrasing what the other person said and asking for confirmation. Here is an example:
We can ask: "Do you mean that Alice does not understand your feelings for her?"
Things that are often said only implicitly are
- apologies or acknowledgements of wrong-doing (AckWrong)
- desires (SayWant)
- things that reveal a personal weakness
Even though it is rational (Def) to use clear statements, we cannot expect everybody to use clear statements.
Do not assume that people behave rationallyEven though rationality has its benefits (Use), not all people behave rationally (Sorry, Cannot). Thus, it is fallacious to assume that whatever our interlocutor says is meant in a literal and rational way.
Here are some examples:
- Someone tells us to "do as we wish" (in French: "C'est comme tu veux", in German: "wie du willst"). In many cases, our interlocutor may in fact want us to do one particular thing (Desires), but is afraid, too frustrated, too complicated or too polite to tell us (SayWant). Even though our moral framework may allow us to take him by the word and do as we please [Thoughts on Ethics / Dixit], we should keep this possibility in mind if we want to make this person happy.
- Someone is angry at us, insults us and reproaches us. Surprisingly, there are cases where this person does not really mean the things he is saying. Rather, it may be that this person is unhappy, has a problem in his life (Problems), fears something or regrets something. Such experiences can trigger angry or derogatory behavior, but this behavior is not really targeted at us. This observation makes the behavior no less reproachable, but maybe more understandable (ReasonExcuse, ReasonBehind).
- We ask someone whether he is angry at us. He might actually indeed be angry at us, but still say that he is not. The reason might be that he does not wish to talk about his anger. If he told us that he is angry, we would insist to talk about it. Therefore, saying that he is not angry might be his least complicated option. Even though our moral framework may allow us to take him by the word and assume that he is not angry [Thoughts on Ethics / Dixit], we should keep this possibility in mind if we really want to know his state of mind.
Find the true reasons behind someone's behaviorSometimes, people act in very irrational ways, insist on very irrational theories, make very unfounded reproaches, or get angry with apparently no solid reason. In many cases, such behavior is just a sympotom of the true underlying problem (Problems). Therefore, we should do the following if we want to help our partner: As soon as we are convinced that our partner's behavior is unfounded, we should stop fighting against this behavior. We should seek the true reasons behind it and talk about them. Talking about these reasons will likely be the best thing to comfort our partner.
Here are some examples:
- Your husband keeps getting worked up about his forgetful elderly parents. Yet, it is irrational to reproach somebody for forgetfulness that is due to age or mental condition. Therefore, you conclude that the true reason for his anger lies elsewhere. Maybe he is sad that he is loosing his parents to senility. Or maybe he is afraid of getting old himself.
- Your friend keeps pulling another friend into pieces. You try to defend the other friend, but as it never stops, you conclude that the true reason behind it must be something else. You could find that your friend is jealous of the other friend or that there is a conflict between the two that has not been resolved.
- Your girlfriend keeps telling you that you do not love her enough. You find that you are doing everything you can for her. So you decide that her reproach is irrational and that there must be some deeper reason for her behavior. You may find that she is unhappy because she expects you to propose to her; that she is unhappy because you live apart; or that she is not sure whether she loves you and she is looking for a reason to split up.
If a behavior is strongly irrational, then it often has a true reason behind it. There is no use fighting the irrational behavior. Rather, one should go find that true reason behind it.
Learn what is normalSome things are very normal in a certain society, while others are very normal in another society. If we happen to come to a different society, we can have a hard time estimating what is normal in that society and what is not. The same applies if we come to a different social community, a different age group or to people with a different background. Knowing what is normal is useful (Good) in the following cases:
- People will use the "normal" state of things as a point of reference for fuzzy properties (Fuzzy). For example, a German person will say that Berlin is a big city. This means that Berlin is big with respect to the "normal" cities in Germany. An Indian will say that Jaipur, which has the same number of inhabitants, is a small city. This means that Jaipur is small with respect to the "normal" big cities in India. If we do not know what is normal, we cannot make sense out of such statements.
- Whenever people deviate from the "normal" behavior, their behavior carries a message: People can be more polite than normal (meaning that they are friendly people), more dishonest than normal (meaning that they are dangerous) or louder than normal (meaning that they are angry). If we do not know what "normal" is, these messages are lost.
- The same applies the other way round: If we do not know what is normal, and if we do not behave in the "normal" way, our behavior may inadvertedly send messages to other people. For example, shaking the hand of a man, but not of his wife, is not normal in Western societies and considered impolite. The same behavior may be totally normal and thus appropriate in Eastern societies.
- Usually, normality defines social norms, and social norms define normality (SocialNorms). If we share the goal of obeying social norms (StdGoals), we have to know what is normal.
- Often, people find things morally acceptable (Moral) if and only if they are normal. It is a fallacy to assume that normal things would automatically be good things (WrongRules). However, it can still be useful to know that people think this way.
- Normality can also have implications in the moral framework (Moral). Some moral frameworks, such as national civil law or [Thoughts on Ethics], assume that agreements between people are made with respect to the "normal" understanding of words, goods, services and their quality. If we do not know what is "normal", we may run into trouble with such agreements. The moral framework may also declare that nobody has to expect the un-normal in everyday life [Thoughts on Ethics / Bad surprise]. Last, certain gestures, certain behavior or certain utterances can carry legal meaning, if this is "normal" in the society. If we do not know about these signals, we may inadvertedly send them or receive and misunderstand them [Thoughts on Ethics / Declaration]
Do not get angry.Anger is useful to make other people see the urgency of an issue. However, if our anger is directed against a thing, if no other people are around, or if the other people around have nothing to do with the issue, then our anger does not serve that purpose. It just portrays us as a violent-tempered person.
Anger may also underline our conviction in an argument. However, more often than not, anger is seen as an indication that we lack solid arguments. Thus, anger may actually turn out to be a weakness.
Anger may be also useful to motivate us to solve or to avoid problems [Wikipedia / Anger]. However, if the issue is minor, or if a solution is anyway on the way, then anger does not serve that purpose. In these cases, anger just consumes energy (StdGoals). Worse, it may hinder us to think rationally. Therefore, it is more reasonable to abstain from anger in these cases.
Be nice towards other peopleVery often, conflicts arise because one party assumes bad intentions of the other party. We should not assume bad intentions (AssumeGood). We can also help other people to avoid assuming bad intentions. We can show other people that we do not have bad intentions by being nice to the other people.
This can be done, e.g., as follows:
- If you did something wrong, apologize (AckWrong).
- If you received a favor, thank the other person.
- If you use intellectual property of someone else, credit the other person for it.
- If you do something that affects someone else, ask for their view (GiveReasons).
- If you do something that might require permission of someone else, ask for that permission.
- Talk well about other people (TalkWell). This makes it harder for them to talk bad about you.
- Acknowledge other people's contributions to a common task.
- If you want another person to do something for you, avoid implying that the other person would be obliged to help you. Acknowledge the other person's free decision, and appreciate their generosity. This will most likely convince the other person to help you.
Make the first step towards the other personIn many cases, conflicts arise not because there would be a fundamental incompatibility of goals, but because the other person feels misunderstood, not taken seriously or exploited. If we want to resolve such a conflict, it is useful to send a first sign of goodwill to the other person. The other person might then follow with concessions from his side.
- In a conflict in which both parties did something wrong, start apologizing for the things that you did wrong. Do so seriously and with good intentions (AckWrong, Remorse). In any case your moral framework will most likely force you to apologize (Moral). Often, this initial step breaks the ice and the other person will be readier to apologize from his side.
- In a conflict where both parties decided not to speak to the other party, be the first to break the silence. Talking about the conflict is the safest way to solve it (ConflictResolution). Once you show readiness to talk, and true good intentions to solve the problem (TalkYouHappy), the other person will most likely follow suit.
- In a conflict where both parties have to find a compromise and no one is ready to give up his position, be the first to propose a compromise. In any case, a stalemate makes it impossible to pursue your interest, so you might as well downtune that interest. Once you did so, it is quite possible that the other party also makes concessions.
In many cases, this first step is the one that gets things going. The first step also makes sure that no one can reproach you that you did not try (Reproaches). However, this magic "first step" should not be done just because we want the other person to do the second step. The first step is valuable in itself.
If nobody does the first step, then it means the neither of the parties is interested in resolving the problem. If nobody is interested in solving the problem, then, by definition, there is no problem (Problems). The moral frameworks may see it the same way: If the victim of an offense does not actively help resolve the offense, then he loses his right to concern [Thoughts in Ethics / Sulking].
Forgive and forget.When somone does un an injustice, we have the right to expect an apology. Moral frameworks regulate what constitutes an injustice and what is acceptable as an apology (Moral). An apology is usually perceived as humilating for the other person. Therefore, if we want to do the other person good, we can consider to refrain from insisting on an apology. This holds in particular if the three components that are commonly required for a proper apology are minor (Remorse) [Thoughts on Ethics / Resolutions]. That is the case if
- the actual damage is small or mostly ideational
- the other person has already shown signs of regret (DontAssumeRatStat)
- it is unlikely that the event will happen again
And man is called man because he empathizes and forgives.
Give more than you expect to be givenBy definition, it is good to follow good principles (Good). Depending on your goals (Goals), good principles may be moral principles, rational principles, or altruistic principles. At the same time, we may not always expect other people to follow the same principles. In fact, other people will not always follow the same principles (Sorry, Cannot). This, however, should not prevent us from still following the good principles (Pragmatic Principle). If we want to follow good principles without expecting other people to follow the same principles, we have to implement social asymmetry, i.e., the following policy (Policies)
This means in particular
- Apologize fully when you did something wrong (Remorse) but do not necessarily expect others to do so (ForgiveForget)
- Talk rationally (Def), but be able to deal with people who do not (DontAssumeRatStat)
- Behave rationally (Rational) but do not expect other people to behave rationally (DontAssumeRationality)
- Do not get angry (NoAnger), but be understanding with people who do (ReasonBehind)
- Listen to other people (Listen) but do not expect them to listen (Teach)
- Do not generalize (NoGen), but be able to deal with people who do (NoProv)
- Make the first step towards the other person, even if the other person does not (MakeStep)
AppendixThis concludes the philosophical part of the present essay.
Why do you think you can prescribe how people should think or talk?This essay lists a number of thinking techniques (SecTec, SecMore). It also lists a number of talking strategies (ChapDisc). This could be understood as if this essay tried to tell people how to talk or how to think.
However, this is not the case. This essay describes the tool of rationality. It does not request people to use it. Everybody is free to use or to disregard the techniques outlined in this essay. I do not expect people to do what I call reasonable.
This essay also describes a number of ways to achieve certain goals (SecLess). This does not mean that everybody would have to share these goals. Nor does it mean that the techniques outlined in this essay would be the only ones that lead to these goals. The essay just outlines some possible ways to achieve certain goals. Whether the reader has this goal or not, and which way the reader chooses to achieve it, is his own decision.
People are also free to use the term "rationality" in a different manner or in a different implementation (Definitions). This essay describes "rationality" in just one particular sense (SecDef). The methods outlined in this essay (SecMore) are helpful (Good) for achieving the goal of approaching truth. If a person has no such goal or if a person prefers another way to approach truth, this essay will not stand in that person's way.
Why do you always refer to Wikipedia?[Wikipedia] usually provides a good set of sources and justifications for its claims. This makes it a verifiable and trustworthy encyclopedia. Furthermore, it is constantly edited and corrected by thousands of volunteers. This minimizes biased descriptions.
Last, Wikipedia is freely and readily available to every Internet user. Everybody can contribute to articles in Wikipedia. If you disagree with some statement in Wikipedia, you can enter a discussion with the editors and even write an article by yourself.
This essay says nothing newSome people say that this essay says nothing new. To their mind, the essay just summarizes the viewpoint of any normal rational person. The things said here appear obvious to them.
I am very happy that there are people who think that the ideas presented here are obvious. They are not obvious, and even debatable, to a large number of people. This essay serves both to make the rational point of view explicit (SayIt), and to explain it to people who may not find it so obvious after all.
Does this essay make anybody happier?Yes. Several articles in this essay are directly concerned with making people happy (TalkYouHappy, Asymmetry). Other articles are concerned with solving problems, which usually also makes people happy (SecProb). These suggestions have a direct positive impact on us or our fellow humans.
Beyond these more concrete suggestions, this essay elaborates the theory of rationality in general. To certain readers, this theory gives intellectual satisfaction (thus making them happy). The theory itself has a number of advantages (WhyUse), and pocketing these may also make you happy.
Is this essay, together with your other ones, a religion?A religion is commonly defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power [Oxford Dictionary / Religion]. This essay is not concerned with the supernatural. Likewise, the essay on Ethics [Thoughts on Ethics] is not concerned with the supernatural. The essay on Atheism [Thoughts on Atheism] argues against the existence of something supernatural. Therefore, these essays do not form a religion. They are also not divine in nature. They have been written by a human. Unlike religious texts, they change whenever I discover that something can be improved.
However, the essays do offer some components that religions also commonly offer: A proposed approach to truth (this essay), a moral code [Thoughts on Ethics] and a view on the universe and the sense of life [Thoughts on Atheism]. In this sense, the essays can be seen, in a misuse of terms, as a religion without gods — or, more aptly, as a philosophical life stance.
Are you done with writing essays now?No, I am not done. My further plans are essays on
- Secrets and Privacy
- The Patterns of Life
I have read this essay to the very end, but I am not convinced of your approach.Thank you for reading this essay. Rationality, as defined in this essay, is nothing more than a tool. It is sometimes useful (Use) and sometimes not (NoUse). In general, people are free to use or disregard this tool as they like (Prescribe). Therefore, the purpose of this essay is not to convince you, the reader, to use rationality. Rather, the purpose of this essay is to inform you about my view on it. If you would like to learn more about this view, please keep on browsing the essay! If you would not like to learn more about rationality, please feel free to stop reading this essay at any time.
Cross-referencesHere are cross-references to the other essays, concerning
- general thoughts on ethics: [Thoughts on Ethics / General Thoughts on Ethics ]
- common misconceptions in the domain of ethics: [Thoughts on Ethics / Misconceptions]
- the concept of God and truth: [Thoughts on Atheism / Section on Truth]
[Wikipedia] The free online encyclopedia "Wikipedia"
[Thoughts on Ethics] Thoughts on Ethics
By Fabian M. Suchanek
[Thoughts on Atheism] Thoughts on Atheism
By Fabian M. Suchanek
[Algorithms] Algorithms and Calculi
By Fabian M. Suchanek
[URS] The Universal Replacement System
By Fabian M. Suchanek
[Toolkit] Toolkit for Thinking
[ORNLU] Ontological Reasoning for Natural Language Understanding
By Fabian M. Suchanek
[SocialTags] Social Tags: Meaning and Suggestions
By Fabian M. Suchanek, Milan Vojnovic, and Dinan Gunawardena
published at the CIKM 2008 conference
[The Matrix] The Matrix (a popular movie from 1999)
in the IMDb
[Ox] Oxford Dictionary
The Oxford Dictionary
[TinyBuddha] Tiny Buddha
AcknowledgementsThe following people deserve my thanks
- Hady Lauw for his ideas on decision making.
- Mouna Kacimi for her inspiration for many of the ideas presented in this essay.
- The people who acted (unwittingly) as inspiration for the sample discussions in this essay.
- The numerous volunteers of Wikipedia, who made this encyclopedia so wonderfully useful.