Detachment Examined

Originally published October 10, 2014

Prerequisites: Weak Men Are Superweapons, Detachment

Related to: When Truth Isn't Enough, The Worst Argument in the World, Arguments As Soldiers

The best people I know are all high-level syncretists. They also don't say much in public, opting to keep their ideas to themselves and their trusted epistemic peers. They don't adopt any labels and they don't affiliate with any groups. These facts are related.

Ideas are not independent but are atoms and molecules of partially-overlapping partially-mutually-exclusive large structures we call edifices or memeplexes. Edifices are very take-it-or-leave it. You can't pick and choose which parts to support. Not publicly anyway. In public you can't say a claim without also claiming everything else the audience associates with that claim. There's probably some communication theorem that sufficiently incomprehensible nuanced meditations on a subject are indistinguishable from demagoguery.

The clustering of ideas is not wholly unjustified. Some clusters take the form of conceptual frameworks, systems of thought, cognitive attractors, paradigms, or another set of styles of thinking resulting from, or bringing forth, a very large set of premises, inferences, and general baggage all of which must be taken as a gestalt because none of it makes any sense without its greater context. The baggage is the problem. Memeplexes vary widely in quality, but even the very best ones seem to be more noise than signal, vitiating the wheat by the chaff of wrong ideas, wrong rules of inference, inefficient heuristics, mandatory costly signaling, public relations, all the terrible things that happen to ideas when they are exposed to human brains, and even worse, optimized for virality rather than correctness. There is even negative baggage when ideas that should be in a memeplex are absent because they are unpalatable.

The clustering of ideas is mostly unjustified. Two tribes that dislike each other will instinctively decide that they differ along various unprincipled axes that coagulate into opposing memeplexes, each of which may have some good ideas in it forever invisible to the other, because no memeplex will tolerate any of its hosts admitting to any sympathy with its enemy. Arguments are soldiers; it is psychologically infeasible to do anything that feels like abetting the enemy.

Instinctual is what it is! Memeplexes must be a human universal; they're part of culture. It feels so natural to behold an enormous terrifying awesome bundle of ideas you can't possibly ever fully understand and jump in, immerse yourself, affiliate with it, make it part of your identity...

So "siding" with a bundle of ideas is instinctual, and doing anything else is infeasible for most people most of the time even when the instinct is noticed and then resisted. No wonder journalists round the truth down to the nearest cliche while the best people lack all conviction and hide away in secret treehouses, never to reveal their nuance lest it be misinterpreted and destroyed.

All this to say: it's not as easy as urticator says, to detach a meme from its bundle.

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