Prologue: Lenses

Lately I’m thinking a lot in terms of what I call “lenses”. By lenses, I mean something quite similar to, but a bit mushier than, what Julia Galef and her colleagues call a “double crux“. In a nutshell, a double crux is a narrow point of contention that can be found to account for a broader disagreement. If we are arguing about, say, whether it is wise to permit construction of high-end condominium towers in increasingly unaffordable cities, we might find that we would agree with our opponent if we shared their view on the largely empirical question of “induced demand”. One party opposes permitting the towers, because she believes that building them will draw in new high-income residents from elsewhere, doing little for affordability as new supply is matched to new demand. The other party believes that demand conditions are not so much affected by high-end new construction, so the new units would be taken by current residents, allowing their older units to “filter” as new supply to lower income clienteles. The two agree that if they took the opposite view on this narrow question, they would switch sides on the broader question.

There are a lot of virtues in finding double cruxes, but the one I will emphasize has to do with a kind of intellectual charity. By identifying a narrow, relatively anodyne source of disagreement, the parties take what feels like a value-laden, almost tribal conflict and reframe the disagreement in terms of a judgment call people might understandably disagree about. Instead of the rival parties coming to see themselves as almost alien to one another — one virtuous, the other “bought” in some fashion, one reasonable the other impervious to logic — the two parties reframe one another as rational people with similar values who disagree over an unclear fact about the world.

In practice, in the context of a hot argument, I think it is pretty difficult to find clean double cruxes. Even when one has putatively been agreed, one or both sides is likely to accuse the other of being impervious to the evidence they can marshal on that new, narrower question, and so of being unreasonable or worse after all. For the most part, I think, the humans come to their judgments via a complicated miasma of personal perceptions, interests, and values, second-hand evidence (“scientific” and otherwise), communal identities, and idiosyncratic intuition. Syllogistic argument serves more as a backfilled means of by which we try to summarize and communicate all that than as the source of our views. Before we can actually be persuaded by syllogistic argument (sometimes we can!), we have to find a new equilibrium that reconciles and integrates the new views into the complicated psychosocial ecology that forms us and that we help to form. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It may often be the case that beliefs and perceptions that emerge from this complicated miasma are more functional, even more accurate, than those we produce trying to be evidence-based and rational. Formal rationality is limited by the scope of the tools we invent as forms of reason and the inputs we consecrate as admissible evidence. That is likely to constitute an almost infinitessimal fraction of the space of potential decision-making processes. Our messy ids were ruthlessly selected by natural and social selection to manage existential threats to our individual and small-group existences. There is no doubt that our “guts” can be very badly misled under circumstances — like the formalized, media-saturated, large-scale societies in which we presently subsist — that diverge from where they evolved. And even when our guts work as advertised, they may produce judgments that might in some narrow sense be functional but that fall ethically outside of contemporary norms (and so are no longer adaptive in contexts where those norms are socially enforced). Using physiognomic markers to discriminate between in- and out-groups may have been a functional strategy among warlike hunter-gatherer tribes, but represents a kind of racism most of us today hope to ensure is not adaptive to pursue in contemporary contexts. Nevertheless, I think we know of ourselves (and, more recently, of the “artificial intelligences” we now produce in our image) that restricting decision-making to what we can elaborate or justify using tools of formal rationality is simply inadequate to the task of producing decisions in real time that are functional in the world. The other stuff is unruly and sometimes awful. But we need it.

“Lenses” are my attempt to adapt the admirable charity of looking for double cruxes to this more naturalistic account of belief formation and decision-making. Rather than a specific conjecture, disagreement about which is sufficient to account for a particular dispute, a “lens” is a broad intuition that I think differs across social and intellectual tribes. Like double cruxes, these intuitions are more anodyne, more obvious to all as judgment calls about which people might understandably differ, than the bitter disputes they serve some role (I claim) in motivating. Rather than explain variation in positions on specific disputes, they help explain how and why we sort ourselves into communities of radically divergent and contending worldviews.

Identifying a lens isn’t the same as saying there is no right or wrong answer. Some broad intuitions about the world may be more factually supportable, and others plainly mistaken. More commonly, some intuitions are right in particular contexts and wrong in others, and much of our tribalism may be explained by extrapolating too universally from “guts” that were correct in some accustomed circumstance, but that fail when extended in time, over geography, or across social groups. Part of the fun of this project is identifying my own intuitions, and imagining how varying those might place me into different groups with different worldviews.

I hope that thinking this way can help facilitate a kind of cross-group empathy. Some of the social fissures and political conflicts we’re currently experiencing derive from differences in material interests or deeply-held values that no amount of empathy can bridge. But most of our conflicts are not that, I think, except indirectly in the sense that those whose material interests are threatened sometimes work to inflame conflicts among people whose interests might otherwise be reconcilable and opposed to their own.

I don’t, by the way, think there is anything original in this, and to the degree there is anything good in it I’m happy to attribute it to Galef et al’s project, which I’ve admired for a while. My “divergences of broad intuition” might be reframed as “different distributions of priors”, and could be identified as plain old double cruxes under a Bayesian rather than syllogistic rationality. “Lenses” are also perhaps related to Arnold Kling’s “axes“.

More than a thousand words have passed and I suspect that you, dear reader, still have no clue what I am talking about. Things may (or may not!) become clearer when I provide some examples of “lenses”. Let’s, um, see! Very soon, I hope.

Update History:

  • 27-Apr-2019, 12:35 p.m. EEST: “It’sIt may often be the case that beliefs and perceptions that emerge from this complicated miasma are more functional…”

4 Responses to “Prologue: Lenses”

  1. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    One good thing about the condo towers example is that it illustrates implicitly how, where values really do diverge, double cruxes get more difficult to find. Your example double crux relies on both parties taking affordability for existing low-income residents as their lodestar value. If someone believes that, for example, increasing the supply available to high-income residents is worthwhile in itself from a total productivity perspective whether or not it does anything for affordability, this is not a double crux that’s going to work. A fortiori if one believes that discretionary permitting criteria like “does it promote affordability or not?” are a morally impermissible infringement on the property rights of developers, and so permitting agencies simply should not get to make decisions on this basis. Sometimes people just have different visions of the good and the right.

  2. reason writes:

    “But most of our conflicts are not that, I think, except indirectly in the sense that those whose material interests are threatened sometimes work to inflame conflicts among people whose interests might otherwise be reconcilable and opposed to their own.” – what is the last phrase doing there? – It looks like something that should have been edited out.

  3. reason writes:

    Nicholas Weininger is right – eEfficiency as God is another example of a lense for a particular class of misanthrope. (The key here is efficiency in achieving what exactly?)

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