I’m slowly coming around to your letter. The first time I read it, I confess I didn’t understand it at all. The second time, which was earlier today, I understood about half of it, and began realizing how dense it was, which had been hidden by its lack of jargon. I want to unpack a couple paragraphs to get a handle on what was said.
You quote me quoting Morendil: “If I can tell you what I’m doing and it still works, it’s influence. If my telling you would make it ineffective, it’s manipulation.” You write:
Well if that’s the case, the goal [in sending me Morendil’s quote] was probably to manipulate me! It’s a bit strange to ask to what end, when it happened so many times, so one can only conclude that manipulation is often the purpose of the entire interaction in the mind of my interlocutor. If it’s so surprising that I would reveal it, then it is likely a form of mutually advantageous manipulation.
But we’ve talked before about Trivers and self-deception, the way our goals are opaque even to ourselves. I know you endorse a picture of optimization, in everyday interaction, that looks more like nudges in VagueSpace than clear “if X then Y” scripts towards a final Z. In this picture, our interaction goals aren’t immediately obvious, and there is an “openness” to following a conversation “where it leads,” but with the caveats of constantly nudging away from socially dangerous areas or interaction spaces into one which has higher mutual utility.
In this case, maybe my alerting you to the Morendil quote improves my own future insofar as it improves the chance that this piece of information—which I’ve chosen because I find it important—will “bounce back” to me. You might dwell on it, reference it in the future as you have here. You might critique it and update my model, you may endorse it and convince me it’s worthy of more thought, etc. You may run with it, and come up with a new model. And, insofar as our paths are positive-sum—we are allies; Britain is stronger when America is strong—all these futures are in my interest. As Levin & Dennett say in “Cognition All The Way Down” (2020), one of the central advantages of communication is increased access to information between coordinated actors. I trust our combined models more than I trust my own—not in every case, but in gross.
How does this fit with the picture you draw, where a speaker is motivated to hide what’s “under the hood” in an interaction?
My first thing would be to say, there are obviously reasons why we might not want to say what we’re doing even if we both know it. The most important one is probably that we tend to want to justify behavior to other people. Which I think is a causally underrated motivation for many of our actions. In public, you can imagine you wouldn’t talk about things the way you might in private, you might not want to offend someone. I got shouted at for making out in a burger restaurant, a guy said “Hey! This is a family restaurant!” So there are reasons why you might want to act in a way that’s justifiable to everyone here, and even if it’s not justifiable to everyone, the person who would make the case against me should be put in an uncomfortable position if they had to make the case to everyone, even if they dislike my behavior. That’s where this notion of commons and mutually acceptable ideas—the notion of society—basically exist.
But I think people don’t accept the fact that this comes up in privacy all the time. That I want to make a decision—you see this a lot in people breaking up with someone, where often they’re not willing to break up with them unless they have a reason they can go to their friends and say, “Look, this happened to me and I’m breaking up because of this, because how could anyone take this?” And it’s not just foolish, it’s not just fear: if they don’t have that there are two dangers. One, people can manipulate the story into misrepresenting them, or representing them accurately in a way that threatens future relationship formation, or they might even convince the person themselves: people can be convinced by rules, they’re not just optimizing blindly, because they don’t even have the ability to do that. They’re optimizing under certain assumptions they’re constantly building up and tearing down as certain things resonate. And in that case, if you’re in danger with disagreeing with a past self about a decision that’s unchangeable, you want to make a decision that’s justifiable to a future self. I think that’s a powerful mechanism to bind people to narratives that are unlikely to be regretted, even if that’s not what’s going on, and to make sure that narrative’s sustainable, to maintain plausible deniability.
Can you make explicit for me the connection—
Why are people weirded out by exposing their thoughts? Let’s say, if I say, “Hey, you wanna go swimming today? Because that boy you like is gonna be at the beach.” That’s why you really wanna go, but maybe you’re embarrassed that you like him because maybe you get to know him more and he’s a Nazi and you realize you have a crush on a weird Nazi.
And maybe you want to maintain that you want to go to the beach to go to the beach; beaches are fun, which is totally plausible! And you don’t have to take a risk of judging yourself deeply later, you’ll just have a nice memory of a day at the beach.
If you say you’re going to the beach for the boy, it’s a lot harder to deny it to yourself or others. So maintaining a degree of mystery (or vagueness) is super useful for manipulating the past into what you want it to be in the present—keeping it malleable for future selves.
I’m trying to think if or how this ties into self-binding in the Thomas Schelling sense. That there are strategic commitments and strategic non-commitments and everything lies somewhere on that spectrum. Phil Tetlock notes that television pundits strategically stay vague about their predictions, so they cannot be assessed retrospectively or “calibrated,” which means very little mechanism for accountability. It seems like, in this view, we all engage in some degree of this behavior.
Right, it reminds me of Schelling’s scenario of buying a car. The thing about the past is it’s almost absolutely binding but your thoughts aren’t binding, because your thoughts go away. What’s binding are the things you and other people remember, and there are two things that are interesting: it’s pretty much absolutely binding but since what words means have give, and what is remembered has give, so saying something that is unmemorable or vague basically minimizes the self-binding, and since everything you do now is always binding you into the future, it’s good to generally only self-bind as a choice, which is why I think people tend to be like, “Keep it easy, keep it chill.”
That ties into two thoughts I’ve been having. For one, reading J.L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, it strikes me that many of his example phrases—the “performatives” like “I promise,” “I bet,” “I do” (as in marriage)—are examples of self-binding or “commitment.” That when you say “I will do X,” “I promise to do X,” “I swear on my mother” etc you’re offering gradated commitments to a specific future. And what you’re staking—there’s this great Will Newsom line about ritual that Sarah Perry quotes, that all rituals have sacrifices and the default sacrifice is time. I think similarly all commitments have stakes and the default stake is reputation. We have formal legal systems to enforce contracts, which is crucial for urban and corporate environments, but in most everyday, informal and ancestral interactions you stake your reputation. (This is true not just of presenting models of the future, but of presenting models of the present: Someone who consistently presents misinformation loses credibility as unreliable.)
That is, any declaration about your actions, or a future state of the world that is under you control, which is announced (signaled) to a listener (receiver), will cause them to change their behavior: because your futures are interdependent, signaling that the world will be a certain way allows them to optimize around this projected future. And what keeps this from being empty or “cheap” talk (“bullshit”) is that you lose reputation credits for not being reliable. This applies not only to breaking promises: if you say “I’ll call you later today” or “I’ll meet you after class” and don’t, repeatedly, you’ll be seen as flaky, you’ll end friendships, because people are changing their actions and plans around a reality you have projected and then diverged from.
This all comes back to the idea that “all communication is manipulation, but some manipulation is mutually advantageous.” We announce our intentions that we’ll be at a certain place at a certain time ostensibly so the other person can coordinate around it. By changing someone’s informational priors, we change how they act. If we did not want them to change their behavior—if our own future is better if they continue as if they were not aware of our intention, then we have no reason to share our intentions to begin with.
The second thought I’ve been having relates to a claim I’ve seen circulating lately in politics Twitter, around the presidential election. The op-ed claims that our expectations as voters for ideological consistency from our politicians (and by extension, our distaste for hypocrisy) is a uniquely Western prejudice. I don’t know the anthropology here, but I’m slightly dubious of this claim because the social technology for ensuring coordination seems so fundamental; without these kinds of implicit commitments to futures, you can’t coordinate futures, which is a basic building block of society. (Is perhaps even a prerequisite for a functioning one.)
I also don’t know the anthropology, but I could see how it could work and not deny your claim. Different cultures and subcultures tend to bind at different levels of abstractions, and I think there can be an idea of, oh this politician is going to represent this ideology, or this group of people, or this party, etc. And I think that’s somewhere I can see, in America people tend to bind toward an ideology, and if you ever change your mind about your values system it’s seen as more than hypocritical, as deeply wrong. Obviously that’s not how it works, when people profess a value system, they’re not only making an estimation they’re also binding their reputation to it, they’re going to say the thing that makes sense to bind themselves to. But people in America tend to treat this as literal, and say anyone who doesn’t is a shill.
I agree consistency is key, and keeping your word is the simplest kind of consistency, but in general people check consistency heuristically by various theories, are you consistent to liberalism or academic rigor or the ceremonies of a certain in-group.
Yeah, this all boils down to really basic dynamics that are so well-trod to barely need repeating. For a signal to work it must be reliable, and the reliability of a signal is judged by the history of a signaler. But I’m going to run off to grab a lighter to light this spliff, and while I’m off you can think up IRL examples of what you called “no man’s land” in your letter, which you give Twitter examples of, but let’s get beyond that.
Take all the time you want, but I’m back.
There are probably better examples, but let’s jump in. Perhaps the most obvious is the idea of personal boundaries. Let’s say I miss an appointment, and you say, What happened, and maybe it’s something embarrassing, I got my dick stuck in a fleshlight, not something I really want to talk about. If your interest in finding out is high enough and you push for an answer, then we’re in a place where suddenly there aren’t really rules. There are a lot of things that could happen where we end up with a worse relationship, there’ll be a shot fired, there’ll be no ceremonial backing down. If you say “Oh, it was medical.” then we’re in this no-man’s land. I might say that’s an invasion of privacy, or if I’m honest with you it might be too explicit for your taste, and cross a line—it’s a private thing you’d make a point of not knowing about me, but by my making you aware of it, there’s been a kind of assault. There are these spaces in conversation where we enter the no-man’s land, with no ceremony that we established for our given relationship in some culture we’re embedded in. It’s like you’re orbiting around earth and there’s this problem with orbital junk, pollution, where it’s flying really fast in orbit and there’s no real way to collect them, and so this station gets hit by random crap and even small things have to be tracked, and I think this is the situation verbally you get in, where you cross a line and suddenly—uh oh—we’re in a region where our current social standards were specifically designed not to encompass, and now we’re here, we’re no longer using rituals that align us in a group way. We’re now passively orthogonal to each other in how we believe it can be handled in this region.
We’ve discussed in the past how linguistic slippages, in the stoner and Hofstadter senses, are a way to get insight into how the structure normally works. In your letter, you say, “You’ll know a definitive choice when you observe it, by the fact that it deviates from a counterfactual version that wouldn’t have drawn your attention.” I interpret this as saying that there are default choices people don’t so much (or “definitively”) choose as much as they’re running default ritual scripts. At some point, however, they may make a decisive and conscious choice to fork the path or jump into another script. These “no-man’s lands” (NMLs here out) are maybe places you can learn the rules better than situations where the rules are in place. Maybe this isn’t true.
(It also seems like ethical NMLs are the territory a lot of great art wades into. Situations where semiotic systems come into conflict, or see their normative purviews surpassed.)
I think that’s somewhat true, but that there are rules you can’t find out that way. It’s like any science, the reason it’s useful to be in an NML is because you have abstracted out everything, if you hit a rule it’s probably not interacting with other rules yet because you’re in a lawless land. That said, you’re going to deal with a lawless land differently than being at the sheriff’s office. You’re in a different situation and the level of coercion and the level of understanding about what’s gonna happen 10 seconds from now is super low. Uncertain situations necessarily make you act a certain way and that’s going to confound our understanding of what actions actually mean. That said if you hit a rule and can prove it, it’s definitely a rule, it’s a single rule, a real rule, that’s what I think of as a convex hull of rulespace and inside that hull there are more rules. It’s a maze of geometric surfaces and you’re describing the outer perimeter of it, which are strong rules, but because they’re the perimeter they’re the final line of defense, the most intense part of the rules rather than the subtleties that make you make tradeoffs between possible choices in more normal interactions.
In these lawless spaces, if you hit a rule it’s certainly a rule, but what you’re hitting is the perimeter of civilization. Rules are constructed by the group, so whatever the group collectively has feelings towards as “being true”, or if you have a strong enough majority willing to call you out on something, you’re hitting a rule. Some rules are just too low in magnitude or take too much prior context to be activated in liminal spaces.
One of the frustrating things about generating interaction examples is there are so many variables in play. You try to describe one example of a phenomenon, but then there are four other things happening that come to mind, you can only attribute a partial causal role to the phenomenon.
This issue was the nail in the coffin for me studying philosophy, I was in an interdisciplinary course reading Kant on the “Supposed Right to Lie”, and he argues you don’t have a right to lie, even if you’re a servant of the King, and an enemy comes at you and asks if the King is in the building, and Kant says even here you’re breaking the categorical imperative, and if you tell the truth maybe the enemy will fall down the stairs or be foiled or whatever. The problem is that philosophers think of counterfactuals, and what we care about is what’s happening in expectations, how expectations guide actions, and that’s not a logical thing it’s about the distribution of actual examples.
You talk about how in these discourses a lot of the work comes down to “spinning” a situation. I’ve been reading James on pragmatism, I’m on the third of his lectures, “On the pragmatic method applied to metaphysical problems.” And he talks a lot about the problem of substance, how some philosophers claim there is a substance beyond an object’s attributes: that there is something chalky about the chalk beyond its whiteness, its material composition, its function, etc. What the nominalists (correctly) point out, James says, is that this picture reifies name as essence, comes out of a deep semiotic illusion that our categories are part of the territory (as opposed to “made for man” and semi-arbitrary parts of a map built largely on convention). In other words, what’s especially amusing or ironic is that this pictures casts as most real, least arbitrary, the “truest” or “purest” identity of an object, what is in fact just our symbol for it—the least real, the most arbitrary thing about it.
James then talks about the Eucharist, whose logic is premised on this concept of substance: it’s not that the wafer attributes change, it does not suddenly “feel” or taste like flesh; the idea, rather, is that simultaneous with the material attributes persevering the substance switches to flesh.
In parallel, Nico’s been reading Arthur C. Danto, who writes a lot about Warhol and found objects, conceptualism, conversion of everyday life into art. And Danto, in this essay—at least as it’s been represented to me by Nico—is trying to answer what makes, say, the Brillo boxes art. He makes a bunch of conceptual assertions: that these found objects are decidedly art, are decidedly not representational, etc, but in attempting to explain why, can do no better than saying, “well, there’s an entity known as the art world which has decided…” It’s a decidedly deflationist picture that he doesn’t seem to get properly deflated about: an arbitrary decision has been made by Authorities Vested With The Power to Consecrate. Like the Eucharist, a priest class is charged with supervising a reconceptualization or symbolic transformation of everyday reality. Conceptual art of this sort becomes essentially “religious”—it could, and sometimes attempts, to be pragmatic (advocates will say “Any object could be art, and it is the symbolic transformation which usefully defamiliarizes the ready-to-hand”). But the central conceptual “discovery” or “insight” of both these converted objects and the Eucharist (properly deconstructed) is set aside because it interferes with the religious worship of these objects. (This being the observation that those with power carry the power to classify. Some art critics mistakenly assert that it is the artist’s signature which classifies an object as art, but this is clearly untrue insofar as we correctly consider a classification’s extension to be what is socially agreed-upon within a subculture, and note that many works deemed art by their creators are not treated as such by relevant art subcultures.) Taxonomy is passed off as ontology.
I wonder how many of these intellectual or critical conflicts such as we’ve discussed in this letter series—being on these different teams in the Twitter “mansplaining” exhibit—are essentially cartographic conflicts about how to classify and conceptualize. As the capital we fight over, in contemporary society, becomes increasingly symbolic, the center of conflict becomes increasingly symbolic in turn. A “winner” is a person with the most convincing spin—the frame which wins over other interaction participants, whose joint and coordinated opinions are the interaction’s “authority.” Uncharitably, I would say that historically this kind of “reconceptualizing” work gets called “bullshitting”—is a species of marketing or public relations. Which makes sense given the choices a consumer is faced with, in picking between companies with nebulous advantages or attributes, is similar to the situation a social or moral “consumer” has in picking a team and binding himself to a political narrative.
I think this is true in part because the amount of things that can be done is rarely constrained as much by human labor as it is human organization. It used to be, if you wanted to plow this field, you needed ten strong men, and then there’s this whole plow vs hoe culture dimension of gender dynamics to show that labor structures are embedded in everything, but now, it’s not totally clear to me 100 coders will get 10x more work done than 10 coders, it’s very context dependent on what’s being coded and how you organize, and there’s this added weirdness that’s indescribable to people on the past, but how these people are incentivized is huge, a motivated startup of 10 people can get more done than 100 people at Google working 2 hours a day. The problem with making these specifications, there’s so much slack in the idea of the labor market, that you basically aren’t being constrained in my view by how many hours people work but in how positioned those hours are in actually producing products that sell for actual dollars, and that’s not an easy-to-compute idea, it’s very uncertain how that works and tech makes it very uncertain because one extra person on a team can make a product viable to appeal to a billion customers instead of a million.
And so logistics not being constrained by human labor makes me think well what’s important is organization, but you look at organizations, why should one person be in this job instead of another person, or in this job vs another job, if we don’t have a measurement? So what do people end up doing?
They look for disqualifiers.
Right, and they look for systems that allow them to make decisions, I should do X because Y. You can also construct positions, we need diversity consultants, which didn’t exist before, but people convinced companies you need this to be viable.
Tell me if these are reasonable analogies, but it seems like you’d have similar situations in premodern governance. There are massive consequences to having a bad vs. good finance minister, but identifying and evaluating talent is incredibly even hard today; you go back to the 1700s you’re rolling the dice on personal connections. Similarly, human relationships, especially intimate ones, have massive consequence and totally unclear reasons to prefer one over another, other than felt desire. So unless you’re very good at being in touch with what you want, you need systems of heuristics that you pick up from the culture piecemeal, you talk to a friend and say “Oh, that’s not OK how I get treated.” or “Oh, that is okay, I like that.’ The lack of value clarity means reliance on others’ intuitions, and the emergence of runaway social realities, convergence around values that are semi-arbitrary (except historically).
I mean this is why there were traditions, if there weren’t traditions there’d be a fight. Why give it to the eldest child? Because it’s the obvious thing so just do it, otherwise they’ll murder each other, and they still murdered each other. With relationships, you were friends with the families of people your families were friends with, and if you weren’t, people knew. You had to coordinate around it and try not to have bad blood with that many different people. It would be really insane to people 100 or 200 years ago how little tradition we live in, they wouldn’t believe it they’d say: “Where’s your culture?” We’d say: “Oh, we have culture! We have memes.” They’d say: “What did your parents teach you?” We don’t have these guardrails, which were meant or designed to control our standards, which is now most of the dynamic of how we manipulate our environments.
You can even see in China today, people care a lot more that their children will be powerful. I don’t care if my children are powerful, I want them to be happy, give them a good start, that’s my duty, but it’s not my legacy or who I am. That’s somewhere where the idea of family structure as an inviolable relationship is incredibly strong, and it does solve some issues, of course it makes issues around personal coordination difficult, you want to stop nepotism but it’s basically impossible to do so.
To some extent what we’re talking about has to do with the contemporary world, where technological unbundling and rebuilding changes the rules so rapidly. I was reading an interview with 0 HP Lovecraft, and he offered the hot take that many of liberalism’s positions are directly enabled by the pharmaceutical industry—the pill, trans hormones, prescription drugs. Constant technological disruptions, or “clearcuttings” of a forest, results in weeds: it takes time for slower, stable, sustainable processes to evolve and outcompete (over long time scales) the more exploitative, “greedy” processes that flourish short-term.
But this divide is also about cultures, is the story of America and liberalism writ large. There’s a potentially hard tradeoff between tradition and freedom—the former limiting options, the latter exploding them. The idea that your destiny becomes uncoupled from your father’s is part of what’s unique about modern Anglophile culture, following America’s example, and as much as I understand current unhappiness around atomization, I’ve also benefited immensely from being able to build my own life.
It’s hard to imagine the other me’s that could have been, but you make good points. There’s a weirdness that a lot of the complaints that people who believe in freedom in America have now is that it’s unsupported, we don’t know how to create support, who should be supported and how and in what ways, no one can agree, people are frustrated it doesn’t exist, and it brings up the question whether this is a human need, whether modern life is really viable.
You write, “The result is something that starts to be bloody, as people start to apply standards they have only softly been coordinating around, harshly as if there were a real rulebook.” We’ve already talked a bit about NMLs, but I had a conversation about religious freedoms on a forum the other day, in the US—what would threaten religious freedoms, whether the state coming in and challenging what one poster called a “separate but equal doctrine,” e.g. being OK with civil union but not wanting to ordain gay marriages in one’s church proper. Or in gender composition of different religious roles and religions, whether it would threaten that freedom to pull tax exemption status from churches which didn’t comply with these things.
Obviously some limitations of religious freedom are already in place: you can’t ritually sacrifice a human being. But you can dodge a draft, abstain from a war that your neighbors are legally compelled to fight at penalty of prison time. You can take ayahuasca or peyote, and import Schedule I drugs into the US and then administer them to a congregation, which normally would get you a decade-plus in prison for narcotics trafficking and distribution. The object-level isn’t so important here, but in our conversation, we fell back on basically arguing over technicalities, trying to find a consistent hard line in the sand, between what is and isn’t infringement. And we couldn’t find one. There wasn’t consistency in court decisions, there isn’t consistency in government policy, and these things seem to run more on a general sense of convention, on what litigators think they can or can’t get past a judge, or what is deemed “reasonable” vs “unreasonable,” than any philosophic hardline you can apply to a given case.
This is markedly similar to language disputes, where values disputes—because they can’t settle their values—quickly descend into nitpicking over linguistic usage, or the definitions of words. But there just isn’t a hard set of rules about language use—words don’t work that way.
Then there’s the Heideggerian idea which seems related: that we only lean on formal reasoning when “reasonableness” fails.
I find this fascinating I’ll try not to go on since we’re running low on time, but the society any individual lives in is a combination of the societies they’re exposed to, and in America there’s a specific sense of being able to choose a number of those societies past government regulation. This is a specific design of America that’s not true in a lot of places, we can talk about China again. We can talk about Japan instead, it’s smaller. But there are cultural distinctions, but because it’s small enough, everyone knows who the groups are and if you don’t fit into them, there’s this notion that you’re out of balance. In America that’s not true, you can be part of a weird subculture with no name and people accept not being able to understand you and only debase you under certain circumstances. But those circumstances are constantly wavering especially these days with a social justice movement that basically believes, I don’t know how to say it, it’s conceivably on the level of genocide but it’s not genocide I don’t know what to call it, it’s more than disruptive, things about minority issues, how culture is construed, but there’s a massive event going on where culture isn’t as it should be, and if you believe that and people are allowed to organize in ways that are often violent, that’s something where the rules are now in flux. There was that study about the social justice movement, 93% of Black Lives Matters protests were without violence, but 7% is a lot in America that’s a different situation for people and there’s a notion of coercion against that, and a notion that you can embed a subculture in America and it’s nobody’s business, that creates a huge question if for any underlying rules it’s true, in any given place what the rules are. If you go to a random party in America you really don’t know what’s going to happen, which is an interesting situation to be in.
Right, people talk about social justice as a postmodern movement, but there’s something very modernist or colonialist about it, the interventionism from afar or above into local domains. At the object-level members think this is wrong to do, to meddle in foreign cultures imperially and impose a culturally-specific set of values on another culture, but at subcultural levels, this movement is performing this at mass scale.
The central question is what would it mean to save someone else, what’s your grounding for doing so. You can say you “saved” some culture from beheading women, but ultimately that culture didn’t think so. There’s a difference in grounding. There’s an idea we can all agree on in the modern world across America a majority but that’s all it is, and I want to hone in on the fact that shared grounding is a requirement for the enforcing of anything, but you can shift the grounding, you can conceptualize it differently to say no the grounding isn’t that way. That’s an interesting system, that’s how we got thw first Separate But Equal and then the overturning of Separate But Equal, varying interpretation of how laws and rights should be enforced.
We’ve run over time so I’ll round things out. Definition against: you write, “You and I are able to identify individual sub-groups by who they disagree with, as well as the style and topics they tend to use and address.” Post-rationalism, meta-rationalism, etc. Is identity basically a distinction against, that positive attributes matter meaningfully less? I don’t know how you would measure that, what scale you would use.
I think there’s a nuanced argument to be made, it’s a classic issue in philosophy of language as you know, whether words are defined by difference from each other or positive definitions. I think it’s true that groups are mostly defined negatively, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but the basic framework is, you can bring something new into a group and as long as it doesn’t hit a specific rule “no don’t go there,” members find this novelty invigorating. There are things that are off-bounds but everything else is good and fresh.
Maybe I could respond that there’s a domain space, an algorithm for possible acceptable things and people can feel out hypothetical inclusions from this algorithm, which is a positive notion of identity. A real question here, which applies to Phil of lang, is whether this is even a pragmatically meaningful distinction or whether we’re just fucking with its conceptualization.
The intuition shapes how you think about it, people who think things are defined negatively think that everything’s definable, you create boundaries and you can shift the boundaries, and I don’t think that’s true.