On how one should relate to their own ideas, how people tend to relate to foreign ideas, the practice and structure of critical thought, and my relation to named belief systems (“X-isms”).

How Not to Relate to Ideas

People who want to figure things out often adopt critical stances towards their own ideas. They put these ideas through the fire of critique, allow them to recrystallize into new structures, and then begin again, steadily purifying the idea until it’s reached its ideal form.

In practice, many good thinkers reliably preserve this critical stance towards their own ideas. However, these same people may, when given ideas developed by other people, take an entirely different approach, seeking to figure out whether the idea is basically right, or basically wrong, and accepting or rejecting it accordingly. The critical mode of thought with which these people relate to their own ideas is lost in their relation to the ideas of others, where it is replaced by a totalistic mode of thought.

This is problematic. If your goal is finding truth, then you ought to avoid this mode of thought, neither accepting nor rejecting ideas that are presented to you, instead analyzing them to see what you can take out. One might imagine this via the following hypothetical, upon encountering an idea which they wish to analyze: "If this were my own idea, perhaps from a long time ago, how would I improve on it now?"

It may be that this phenomenon — the adoption of totalistic thinking in response to seeing others express ideas — is downstream of some basic but understandable error in rationality, but I think that it’s ultimately social. To give feedback on someone else’s idea is to play a social game, making a statement both to them and to yourself about your allegiance, competence, or personal traits. Actually digging into an idea in order to give a useful critique is difficult, but rejecting it on some simple basis, e.g. by assigning a dumber interpretation to it which you can attack or by picking out a small mistake in a single argument, is not only easy, but serves your social goals more or less as well. Indeed, in my experience, you often can not get someone who is stuck in a totalizing mode of thought to leave it (this is a lesson I have been repeatedly taught the hard way), even if they’re entirely capable of being better. This suggests to me that if it was not present from the beginning it will not be present; even if they do believe themselves to be interested in discussing the idea, they’ve been hijacked by other parts of their brain, and won’t be of any use.

The Revision of Ideas

A further reason that this totalistic mode is so prevalent is that pretty much all ideas, let alone expositions of ideas, are flawed in some way or another, so there’ll always be opportunities for low-effort rejections. Tragically, it is precisely in the proper revision of these ideas that the usefulness of the critical mode over the totalistic mode is demonstrated.

Here, a thinker improving an idea might be compared to a tailor improving an ill-fitting suit. A suit may fit well in some areas and poorly in others, and a tailor neither throws out nor forces you to wear the suit, instead modifying those parts of it that need modifying until the suit fits. The original suit's fitting poorly in some areas may have been necessary to yield a specific aesthetic in the whole — for instance, maybe the suit needs to have large shoulders in order to create a certain look, but your pathetically tiny shoulders could hardly support a t-shirt; a good tailor will perceive this and, having modified those ill-fitting parts, continue to modify even those parts that fit well, so as to give the suit a new aesthetic continuity. In the same way, ideas may fit well or poorly to what they seek to explain, and expositions of ideas may fit well or poorly to the ideas themselves; a tailor of ideas must not only reform the idea so it fits what it is supposed to fit, but rework it so that it is internally coherent and natural at the same time that it fits. It is the critical mode of thought which allows the tailor of ideas to give such-and-such idea a new logical continuity.

Ideas can be consciously and intentionally progressed in this manner, thereby leading to rapid development. Meanwhile, the totalistic mode of thought, by either rejecting or accepting foreign ideas, killing off certain ideas near-randomly in a manner akin to natural selection, can only develop ideas at the slow rate of blind evolution. This is one reason that single individuals can often make more profound changes working alone than in groups, where totalistic thinking — largely social in origin, and thus amplified in groups — stultifies progress.

Bias and Honesty

Of course, even when the most obvious totalizing traps in multi-party discussion are avoided — people extend charity and good faith to others and seek to work together to “optimize for light, not heat” — there are still social concerns: since we’re not capable of judging with perfect accuracy when certain proposed revisions are good or relevant or etc., others who have agendas may manipulate us towards certain ends we wouldn’t’ve necessarily accepted without their manipulation. Since we even do this to ourselves, "covertly" trying to bend our thoughts towards some end, e.g. due to political bias, it’s clear that people may manipulate us without their intention or knowledge. As such, it’s incredibly important to learn to be honest with oneself: to know when we can’t clearly reason in an unbiased manner about certain topics, to learn to detect biases, and to learn to detach them from thought.

This sort of honesty is not directly developed through willpower, character, or neutrality per se, but through awareness, which allows one to recognize how their thoughts are being distorted (and the tendency towards which seems to be mostly innately determined and static in most people, but which can be developed through habit and meditation), and through some emotional factor which serves as an impetus to reject these distortions rather than embracing them. (For me, this emotional factor is a hatred of being deceived, whether by myself or others).

Note that the bias I’m discussing here isn’t necessarily political: we tend to reason in biased manners whenever we reason using emotion or identity. For instance, on an emotional level, I’m horrified by the moral implications of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and find myself intensely unwilling to entertain them; I realize that this causes me to think much differently about the the physical and metaphysical merits of MWI than I otherwise would, so I take special care when thinking about it so as not to let my emotions bias my thought. Sometimes it’s useful to let emotions enter your thought, such as when introspecting; for the purposes of finding truth about the external world, though, emotions are clearly irrelevant: how I emotionally feel about any idea, such as the MWI, the gender wage gap, or whether my dad could beat your dad in a fight, has no bearing on the capacity of that idea to accurately describe physical realities.

Navigating Webs of Thought

The frameworks developed by those who maintain such a critical standpoint towards the ideas they create and analyze will over time resemble complex chimeras, laden with many confusing aspects: terms borrowed from others and given slightly different meanings so as to fit into different logical continuities (e.g. frameworks), insights taken and remixed in entirely new ways, insights developed originally and then shaped by similar insights encountered later, and so on. The resulting structure will resemble that of a rhizome, in the Deleuzian sense: a mass of thoughts, shaped intuitions, etc., which connect to each other in a seemingly haphazard and random manner (though there may yet be unity in this disorder). I’ll just call it a web.

Most great philosophers, for instance, have spun their own webs: two different philosophers may have slightly differing interpretations of the same concept or term or work, their justifications for this difference fitting in a vast web of interlocking arguments, bridges from premise to abstraction to principle to conclusion. This is why it’s difficult to study e.g. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, without reference to the entire historical and philosophical context in which he was working, as well as his prior writing — to understand how the ideas interlock and what information they provide, we need to understand what they differ from and what they’re based off of.

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