Examples of smuggled frames

I have talked about Smuggled frames — an application of paradigms to everyday life. I started editing that post for LessWrong, but ended up with a completely different post.

What's worse, I realized I am not using the notion of smuggled frames in real life often enough, and I don't want to use LW to think out loud. Hence I will put it here.

Recap of smuggled frames

In addition to focusing on facts — "what people claim to be true" — it seems useful to focus on a certain cluster of claims that are very often left implicit. These claims are related to the process of how humans make decisions in the wild, which involves mushy categories like "legitimacy" and "importance". I will call them "frames".

Those claims can be categorized as:

  • existence claims — by mentioning a thing or a category (e.g. "Supreme Court's liberal wing"), you are claiming that it exists and makes sense and can be used productively for thinking; How An Algorithm Feels From Inside is a post-length exploration of that for categories specifically;
  • importance claims — by mentioning a thing, you are claiming that it should be taken into consideration;
  • legitimacy claims — building on a premise that a certain authority is legitimate in some domain (thus automatically making it more legitimate);
  • and likely more.

For example, whenever somebody start talking about "the best way to solve a problem X", you might disagree with their solutions — alright! — but you will update slightly towards "problem X exists" and perhaps "problem X is important". These might be very contentious claims, but they get smuggled in without an argument.

(Unless you have a strong emotional reaction, in which case they might rejected wholesale. Think of anything from the domain of politics, for instance.)

Example: great works

Thought experiments along the lines of "what would happen if I didn't use category X exists?" are an easy way to get rid of otherwise unsolvable emotional patterns. Here is a longer example.

You are an aspiring filmmaker.

When you were growing up, your dad was constantly referring to certain movies as "great works" and others as "eh, it's a good movie". You heavily disagreed with him about which movies are great works and which aren't, but adopted the position that the category itself is valid — some movies are great and timeless works, and some aren't.

Naturally, you feel very bad about not creating great works. You don't start any projects that don't have any chance of becoming a great work.

Counterintuitively, you would even find some consolation if you successfully argued that no movies are great works — because it would free you up from the obligation to create great works, and you could instead do what you like. Filmmaking-specific nihilism, so to speak.

However, it is very hard to argue that no movies are great works, because the category does not have a good definition. But many other categories don't have good definitions either! You can't abandon all categories that don't have good definitions, because then you wouldn't know how to make any decisions at all.

This is where smuggled frames come into play. Once you clearly see where you got the notion of "great works" from, it is much easier to discard it without having to explicitly refute it, and think: "what alternative categories could exist, and which of them do I like?".

  • Is art a way to say old truths in a way that would be viscerally understood by a particular (and perhaps very small) group of people?
  • Is art an attempt to make the world a more diverse and interesting place?
  • Is art self-expression, useful for its own sake even if nobody else cares?
  • Is art's purpose to entertain people?

Note that here I am going slightly beyond Eliezer's How An Algorithm Feels From Inside. The point is not to decide "oh, okay, art is everything at once, I will just optimize some mix of these". Don't! Good things come out of choosing a definition and sticking to it, temporarily at least, even if this definition is "fake" in some way — see In praise of fake frameworks. You can always choose another definition later if you want.

Example: evil people

You might have grown up with a category of "good people" and "bad people". Then somebody told you: don't anthropomorphize humans. Everybody thinks they are the good guy. Evil behavior is caused by [reasons]. Etc, etc.

They have robbed you of a category. And it's good! You have been able to empathize with people more, and you've also had a blast arguing on Twitter about not anthropomorphizing people.

However, eventually you notice that this category was useful, so you consciously (or semi-consciously) bring it back. You say things like "I realize there are no evil people, but fuck you and I'm going to block you anyway". You are able to use "don't be evil" to guide your life. And so on.

"All frames are initially smuggled frames" does not necessarily mean "all frames are bad".

Other potential examples

  • Labels like "boyfriend"/"girlfriend"?
  • Treating posts as contributing to the body of knowledge vs treating posts as points for creating discussion?
  • There is an example about competitions in my Twitter: here and the continuation here.