Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rationalizing Versus Reasoning

Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias seems like your typical autodidact in that he appears both very clever, and very prolix. But this is in contrast to formal academics, whose 50-page academic treatises don't seem as long because they follow a protocol. Both approaches have their plusses and minuses. The long-winded autodidact posts (eg, Razib over at GeneExpression) often meander, but the academic format only seems shorter because it is predictable.

Anyway, Eliezer has a neat post against the Devil's Advocate reasoning, which finds great value in being able to argue both sides of an issue:

I discovered that my mind could, if asked, invent arguments for anything.

I know people whose sanity has been destroyed by this discovery. They conclude that Reason can be used to argue for anything. And so there is no point in arguing that God doesn't exist, because you could just as well argue that God does exist. Nothing left but to believe whatever you want.

Having given up, they develop whole philosophies of self-inflation to make their despair seem Deeply Wise. If they catch you trying to use Reason, they will smile and pat you on the head and say, "Oh, someday you'll discover that you can argue for anything."...
I picked up an intuitive sense that real thinking was that which could force you into an answer whether you liked it or not, and fake thinking was that which could argue for anything.
Maybe there are some stages of life, or some states of mind, in which you can be helped by trying to play Devil's Advocate. Students who have genuinely never thought of trying to search for arguments on both sides of an issue, may be helped by the notion of "Devil's Advocate".
There is no expectation against having strong arguments on both sides of a policy debate; single actions have multiple consequences. If you can't think of strong arguments against your most precious favored policies, or strong arguments for policies that you hate but which other people endorse, then indeed, you very likely have a problem that could be described as "failing to see the other points of view".
a soldier who fights with equal strength on any side has zero force.

I know someone who lamented the moral emptiness of the lawyers he was facing, and a friend told him not to blame the lawyers, they were just doing their job, and a just one too, because every side needs an advocate. He thought this was silly. Surely every position has its arguments, but some positions are still, net net, indefensible. To be able to argue anything effectively is to merely be a tool for others. A powerful tool, but still a tool.


Anonymous said...

Your friend and the guy arguing with him are personifying a collective. Individual lawyers tend to argue the same side of most issues and come with, or develop, a disposition in favor of that side. Labor, employment, tax, criminal, etc. tend to have the same kind of client over and over.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I guess what I was trying to say is that I think its reasonable to make an ethical judgment about these advocates based on this pattern, even though they have a right to pursue this advocacy.

Anonymous said...

This is a side-show to the larger point you're making, but why not? If by "pattern" you mean taking positions opposite of their previous advocacy and by "advocate" you mean lawyers, what I said about the premise (its wrong) still stands. Most individual legal advocates take the same side in controversy, planning or what have you and generally believe in the positions they are taking.

The guys Eliezer is complaining about are, in my experience, academics, kids exercising their new found intellectual capacity, or people who are teasing for the sheer enjoyment of it. The professional class I deal, and I assume you do, generally have strong beliefs and consider devil's advocacy as a kind of circle jerk or for delivering justice to hubris.

Take your former employer's attorneys. If they're any good, they probably relish taking this case, they see you like all the other disgruntled employees they deal with, the kind who sign contracts, lay-off risk of your failure on an employer and trade for comfort and for experience in return for a promised wage and then when things turn out well, repudiate all of the foregoing in a spasm of self-entitlement and bad-faith. (Not saying its true at all, I don't know anything about it). Those kind of lawyers believe want to deliver your comeuppance because they believe you deserve it. Those kind of lawyers won't jump to the other side on the next case, they are business lawyers, not personal plaintiff lawyers.

Lots of speculation there, but I think its more accurate than the nonsense about lawyers arguing against the positions they took last week.