DRMacIver’s Notebook: Notes on Disagreement

“If you are disagreeing with someone you don’t trust and don’t value (e.g. because you think they’re a jerk or out to get you), your disagreement is adversarial. Your goal is to manipulate them into a desired outcome, not resolve the disagreement per se. You don’t need them to agree with you, just to do what you want.”

—David R. MacIver, “Notes on Disagreement.” drmaciver.com. June 13, 2019.

Never quite thought about it this way before, but the questions of trust and value are central to every relationship.

There are many reasons to not trust someone. If someone is selfish, they will almost always put their interests above others. If someone is incompetent, you cannot trust them to do what they say they will do. If someone doesn’t like you, then you cannot trust them to pursue your best interests.

Most of us probably don’t think about it systemically. If we decide to trust someone and they habitually or seriously violate our trust, then we don’t trust them again. If we are in a low trust environment, where we have extended trust to different people and had them violate it, then we learn to be less trusting of other people in general. Same is true when someone we have extended trust to keeps that trust and when we live in high trust environments we learn to be more trusting.

There is also the question of instrumental value. Why spend time disagreeing with people of no consequence in your life? Why spend time in an adversarial relationship with someone who doesn’t add value to your life?

Trust and value can be a useful lens to think about not only disagreements, but relationships as well.

Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.