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Stable and Unstable Ideas

Debating or discussing people’s unstable ideas tends to be awful.

Stable ideas are believed over time. They tend not to change. People tend to consistently believe them in multiple contexts. People tend not to forget about them. There may be some special exceptions where they don’t realize it applies, but that’s the exception to the general pattern of applying their stable idea.

Stable ideas are more integrated into people’s thinking and have survived more self-criticism and often more external criticism too.

Unstable ideas are often ad hoc excuses or rationalizations made up during the current conversation. If you try to argue with them, you’ll often find them replaced with some other idea later in the same conversation. Since you don’t have a stable target to argue with, it’s hard to debate. The person often forgets or ignores their own idea, or changes their mind in the middle of trying to make a multi-step argument (often with no acknowledgement that they changed their mind, and no learning, they just start saying new things which are also unstable).

When you get an error correction for a stable idea, that’s useful. Without that error correction, you likely would have made the mistake next month and next year. You already have a history of keeping and using the idea over time, so it’s worth effort to improve. And you already had plenty of time to find the error yourself but you didn’t find it.

With unstable ideas, you could usually find an error in them yourself if you tried. They wouldn’t last a week even with no discussion or debate. They were never going to become integrated into your thinking and used for many things. They’re generally just temporary ideas made up to address specific local, short-term optima. They’re biased and unreasonable excuses and rationalizations. They come from e.g. starting to lose an argument and needing to find a way to disagree with some threatening idea. So you just carelessly throw out some opposing idea you just made up.

It can be tricky to figure out which ideas are unstable, ad hoc, half-baked junk you just made up.

When we have discussions, we always say some things which we didn’t think of before in that exact form. When you respond to someone else, who said something you haven’t heard before, then you have to think of a response which is partly new. Even if what they said is very similar to what you’ve heard before, and your response is similar to something you’ve said before, it will often be partly new.

So what’s the difference between a customized response that you just created and an unstable idea? The customized response is in line with your existing, stable ideas. It’s created by and implied by your stable ideas. It fits with your longer term thinking. It’s similar to things you’ve said and thought before.

It can be OK to share unstable ideas in discussions. They should be labelled as unstable in some way. Generally they’re suitable for less adversarial discussions, not for debates. The most common way to label them is brainstorming. You guys are cooperatively trying to come up with ideas about something, so you throw stuff out there which is lower quality and less thought through. You do brainstorming together. That’s fine as long as everyone knows what it is. You don’t want people to be misled that your brainstormed ideas are you actual ideas you believe and take seriously.

Only stable ideas are suitable for debating. To debate ideas, you need to actually have some ideas you favor which you can consistently advocate for over a conversation without contradicting yourself or forgetting about the ideas you’re debating for.

It’s common in debates that people make arguments and then seem to forget about them or drop them later. When you recognize people are saying unstable ideas, that they don’t take seriously, you should generally avoid debating with those ideas. They can create an unlimited number of unstable, unserious objections to what you’re saying. To make progress, the root cause has to be addressed.

The concept of unstable ideas is similar to ad hoc ideas and some other terms. But I think it’s a useful concept with some differences. Ad hoc means something is done for a particular purpose – e.g. having no answer to an argument so you make something up. Unstable ideas emphasizes that there won’t be any continuity. You can’t debate with it because the person who said it won’t be a consistent advocate of it. It has no consistent advocates. Ideas are often both ad hoc and unstable. Unstable contrasts with stable – ideas that you’ve believed over time and which have survived your error correction and which you’ve integrated into your thinking.

Another way to get unstable ideas is to tell people your ideas. Some people will then say they agree, but it’s a new idea to them which they haven’t thought through yet. Often, it won’t really last. They’ll forget about it, never take it seriously, never think it through, etc. This can cause a lot of trouble in discussions. If they would say their objections, you could explain the idea more. Instead they concede/agree and say no further argument or explanation is needed, but they don’t follow up appropriately, so they’re being dishonest with you (and usually, more importantly, being dishonest with themselves).

There are some ideas you can accept quickly. Sometimes you can change your mind rapidly and be confident right away that you’re going to stick to this new idea over time rather than drop it by tomorrow. Others require taking your time with and thinking over more before you decide whether you accept them. They need to spend some time as a “maybe”. Not giving them “maybe” treatment for a while is a way of sabotaging learning and refusing them the attention needed to ever adopt them as your stable idea.

Agreeing to ideas is a common tactic for changing the topic in a discussion. It’s often done because of disagreement, not agreement. Often the disagreement involves some dishonesty, confusion or problem, so it’s problematic to talk about, so the person desires to change the topic and doesn’t want to say why, so they pretend to agree with stuff so the discussion can move on to building on that stuff. Building on stuff you don’t really understand or agree with is not going to work, so now the discussion is a waste of time and gives misleading feedback and confusing results. The person maybe like “OK so you agree with X and Y … I’m really struggling to understand why you don’t accept Z.” It’s because you didn’t really agree about X. You gave them bad data which they’re now trying to understand.

Being suspicious of early concessions and fake agreement is socially problematic. People are often touchy about it. They tend to get upset if you suggest that, contrary to what they just said, they don’t really understand and agree yet, and we should continue with the topic further. They just said they’re done with it and that it’s settled, and if you don’t believe them that can be offensive. But improperly agreeing with things is widespread, so suspecting it could be going on and taking steps to check for it is not insulting or offensive – it’s reasonable. People should give arguments and analysis to convince you and themselves that their agreement is proper and complete, rather than just asserting it and expecting the assertion to be accepted.

This is similar to how bias is widespread, but if you see signs of bias in someone’s comments and raise the issue of potential bias, they often get offended. That unreasonable response is an indication you were probably right about the bias, though it’s certainly not definitive. You can have irrational attitudes to bias and be a touchy defensive person but not be biased about a particular topic. People like that are biased about some topics but not every topic. And they might communicate some red flags about bias even when they have an unbiased view.

Elliot Temple on September 4, 2022


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