Solving puzzles and making decisions

I want to take the concept of paradigms—from the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn—and apply them to everything. And I think I can.

Kuhn himself does not define "paradigm", and explaining what exactly Kuhn meant is hard without a) retelling the whole book and b) having a lot of people disagree with me. So I will just explain what I mean by paradigms and how I apply them.

The cool thing is that the concept of paradigms reveals a giant fucking lot about how I actually lead my life. So I'm glad about discovering it, regardless of whether it turns out to be useful or not.

The core of my claim is that people really like solving puzzles and making decisions, and paradigms are very useful for that, and you can pry them out of their cold dead hands.

Let's get on with it.

"I won't be able to make any decisions at all"

As our first example, let's look at Kate. She is a team lead and she has just proposed a rule: "Our daily morning meeting must be no longer than ten minutes".

Here is her justification:

  • the purpose of this meeting is to share progress updates and not to discuss tasks;
  • and without a time limit people start discussing tasks anyway;
  • therefore let's have a time limit.

You are smart, and you object. "Things have on-the-surface reasons and hidden reasons", you tell her. "Do you understand why exactly people want to discuss tasks during the daily meeting? No? Then maybe you shouldn't change it. Have you heard of Chesterton's Fence? There is also a nice book, The Elephant in the Brain, if you're interested. And a great post about gay marriage. People thought it was very simple, but it wasn't. Maybe it's the same with the daily meetings. Maybe there's a good reason why they are long."

Every other person would start defending themselves and you would have an hour-long argument. However, Kate unexpectedly says:

You are right.

This is unexpected because nobody ever tells you that you are right. However, she continues:

But if I take all of this into account, I won't be able to make any decisions at all, so I will ignore all of it.

And this is where you are properly baffled. Like, "So you would rather keep using a method that you know to be completely wrong, simply because you don't have any other one? This is fucked up."

You don't say that, because then you want to make comparisons, and the only comparisons coming to your mind are the ones about homeopathy and astrology, which is a bit too much. You say nothing. But internally, you are feeling like you have met a.. slightly alien person. And you don't like it.

Full disclosure: the "you" is actually me, just in 2018 or so. And the story is made up. Nowadays I am Kate.

"Wait, did you know that nothing exists? It's fascinating, let me tell you"

A few more examples.

For about five years of my life, I was an absolute connoisseur of the kind of arguments below. I loved arguing that things are more complex than they are. I desperately wanted everyone to admit that the crude categories they employed were either "bullshit" or at least "pretty arbitrary":

  • Is there a notion of "correct" and "incorrect" spelling? Not really, you might say. People hear words, and associations spark in their minds. If a word feels like anything at all, it exists and has a meaning, by definition—similarly to how all objects have a taste. Dialects are a thing; there's no bright-line difference between a dialect and a widespread mispronunciation. Every person has a unique and constantly evolving language. Etc, etc, etc.
  • Does evil exist? Not really, you might say. Everybody thinks they are the good guy (maybe except for psychopaths). And in general, don't anthropomorphize humans. What you perceive when someone is "smiling mischievously" is in no way similar to what they actually feel. Etc, etc, etc.
  • Does gender exist? Not really, you might say. People have identities and feelings, but those feelings are complex and often change. People can be grouped into clusters, but those clusters have fuzzy boundaries and only partially overlap. If you want to make a decision based on gender, perhaps you should make it based on whatever you actually care about, rather than gender. If you need some furniture moved, you don't need "men"—you actually need strong people, so that's what you should filter for. Whether Pluto is a planet depends on how you are going to use the answer. Etc, etc, etc.
  • Does philosophy exist? Maybe philosophy is just psychology in disguise. Or maybe linguistics. Or both.

Side-note: both "gender exists" and "gender does not exist", etc, are paradigms. Both help with solving puzzles and making decisions. "Gender doesn't really exist but kinda does" is also a paradigm, but a weak one. "Nothing really exists" is a weak but very broad paradigm that can be applied to many things—but in a shallow way.

The hair dryer episode

Scott Alexander's post The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories explores this, but not far enough for my purposes.

Scott's point is "people create categories because they are useful to them, not because those are the Inherently Right categories". For example, if you divide animals into "fish" and "mammals", it might simply be because you want to have a functioning Ministry of Fishing and Ministry of Hunting or whatever, and you have to decide who is responsible for what. E.g. whale matters are better served by the Ministry of Fishing, so there is a pressure to give them the "fish" status.

So far, so good. However, then Scott mentions an episode that he does not analyse at all, and it is much more interesting than the whale discussion:

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

[...] So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

[...] She would be driving to work in the morning [...] so she’d look at the seat next to her, and there would be the hair dryer, right there. And she only had the one hair dryer, which was now accounted for. So she would let out a sigh of relief and keep driving to work.

And approximately half the psychiatrists at my hospital thought this was absolutely scandalous, and This Is Not How One Treats Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and what if it got out to the broader psychiatric community that instead of giving all of these high-tech medications and sophisticated therapies we were just telling people to put their hair dryers on the front seat of their car?

The question you should be asking is "why did the psychiatrists thought this was absolutely scandalous?".

My answer is "because it robs them of their ability to solve puzzles and make decisions".


A detour: paradigms!

Here is my claim again.

  1. People really like solving puzzles and making decisions.
  2. There is a notion of "paradigms", which are very important in solving puzzles and making decisions.
  3. People using paradigms are often unaware of them.
  4. Contrary to Kuhn, paradigms are not just a prerogative of hard sciences. Paradigms are everywhere.

This is the time to take a detour and discuss paradigms as introduced in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". For that you might skim the paper "The Applicability of Kuhn's Paradigms to the History of Linguistics" (SciHub):

Science is not, as has been widely supposed, a cumulative enterprise in which more and more successful generalizations are achieved on the basis of more and more successful measurements and calculations.

[...] Kuhn pictures things in a different way: if the progress of a scientific field is plotted on a graph, then the line of development, as he sees it, will show not only smooth upward curves, but also periodic quantum leaps. The quantum leaps are SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, and the smooth portions of the curve are NORMAL SCIENCE.

However, Kuhn views a scientific revolution not just as a break in the continuity of a particular scientific tradition, but (more importantly) as an event brought about by the striking achievement of a SINGLE scientific genius. His favorite examples of scientific revolutions are the theoretical upheavals associated with the names of Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, and Einstein. The role of the lone innovator is essential to Kuhn's conception of a scientific revolution.

As for the periods in between the quantum leaps, Kuhn contends that each period of normal science in the development of a scientific discipline corresponds to one and only one conceptual and methodological framework or PARADIGM. In a nutshell, paradigms are 'universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners'.

[...] It is precisely the possession of genuine paradigms and 'the relative scarcity of competing schools' which distinguish the sciences from the non-sciences, according to Kuhn.

In other words: hard scientists have a way to do things, and this way is broadly agreed upon in their field (otherwise it does not count as a paradigm). This way defines a) which puzzles/problems belong or don't belong to the field, and b) what would count as acceptable solutions to those puzzles. You might be interested only in a small subset of the puzzles—a subfield—but at least you agree that other people's puzzles are also important and valid, even if you have no personal interest in them.

Once a hard science has stumbled upon a paradigm, the paradigm will provide plenty of actual work to do—the boring "normal science" puzzle-solving process.

Eventually unsolvable puzzles will accumulate, and somebody will figure out a new paradigm.

Why does this "somebody" have to be a lone genius? Because a new paradigm will invalidate many of the old puzzles and solutions to them. It might also give worse answers to many puzzles. If I remember correctly, Kuhn talks about how at first heliocentrism gave worse predictions than the old geocentric model, and it took decades to fix it. You have to be persistent, you have to do a ton of work without the initial payoff, and you have to convince other people that you might be right. This is a rare constellation.

Kuhn cares about the distinction between "mature" and "immature" sciences. He grasps at something like "stages of scientific development", except that instead of clearly defined stages the book mostly has examples and examples and more examples. For him, it is important to point out that immature or non-scientific fields don't have a single agreed-upon paradigm, and maybe that's why he limits the definition of a paradigm itself. I don't want to do that, because I don't care about the things that Kuhn cares about. I am fine with taking "paradigms" as a thing that humans do, and applying it to everything.

Side-note: why do soft sciences not have a single agreed-upon paradigm? My guess is that hard sciences deal with a) immutable or mostly immutable things that b) are easy to study at scale. The harder it is to study something at scale, the more competing schools will spring up. E.g. politics are hard to study at scale, and so "political science" is barely a science. The study of animal behavior is more of a science than the study of human behavior. Mathematics and philosophy are also hard to study at scale, but for different reasons. Etc.

Solving puzzles and making decisions

Let's go back to the first part of my claim.

People like solving puzzles and making decisions. I will not justify this. Search in your heart, and you will find that you like solving puzzles and you like making decisions.

Next I say that the notion of paradigms, as in "ways to do things", is important for solving puzzles and making decisions. I will justify this.

Here is my reasoning for solving puzzles:

  • Solving puzzles is more fun together. (And more productive.)
    • For that, you need other people to agree on which puzzles are important.
      • This is why the most fierce arguments are not about whether something is true—they are about whether something is important. Whether something should be paid attention to, or should be ignored. Etc.
    • You also need other people to agree on what counts as a solution to a puzzle.
      • When some people have it way too easy, you might even purposefully restrict what counts as a solution. See Constructivism in mathematics.
        • Although you might not be aware that you are doing this.
  • You don't want to exclude yourself from the puzzle-solving process.
    • If somebody tells you "your solutions are incorrect", but you have more fun solving puzzles than using the solutions, you are under strong pressure to ignore that person.
      • Especially if your social life depends on the puzzle-solving process.
      • So good luck proving to someone that astrology doesn't work. Everything is working against you here.
    • Even if you care about using the solutions, though, you still don't want to lose the puzzle-solving process.
      • Therefore, if something works but is based on a false foundation, and somebody comes up and proposes a different thing that works just as well but the foundation is different, you are inclined to ignore them—you don't want to have to re-learn the foundation just to get the same results. Why should you?
        • Although if you really like learning, the incentives are the opposite for you—and so you will be jumping at every newest fad.
      • But if somebody says "you are wrong" and does not propose any alternative, this is even worse.
        • Because the point isn't to be right. The point is to be engaged in puzzle-solving.

And here is my reasoning for making decisions:

  • Making decisions gives better results than not making decisions.
    • There are complicated reasons for that and I don't understand them.
      • One guess is that making decisions lets you explore the problem space and.. you know, generally explore. [Hand-waving.]
      • By the way, you are often shielded from the bad results of making decisions, because the situations in which we have to make decisions are often not arbitrary—they have evolved for us.
        • It's similar to how it's not a huge wonder that people can learn to play the piano and not make mistakes in complex pieces. There are many instruments/pieces that are impossible to play without mistakes, and so we have wisely avoided creating them in the first place.
      • But really, [hand-waving].
    • Regardless, the point here is that you want something that will let you make decisions when you can't go ahead and analyze the problem in its entirety, even if it means you would make crappy decisions half the time.
      • Because you are aiming for some combination of "many decisions" and "acceptable results", not for a 100% success rate at the expense of everything else.
        • Unless most of your decisions tend to be poor and not give you any benefits, at which moment you may decide that it's indeed better not to make any decisions at all, and become depressed instead.
  • Other people also want your decisions to be predictable.
    • Therefore you need something that lets you justify your decisions.
      • Like a framework.
        • Having any framework is better than having none. It's better to give slightly worse results but be more predictable.
    • People also want to be able to cooperate with you without having to ask you all the time.
      • So ideally your framework would be based on some easy notions that other people are good at working with.
        • Like values and "this is legitimate/illegitimate" and "this is not how things get done" and so on.
    • If all of this limits what decisions you can make—so be it.
      • In fact, it's even good.
  • You want to pass your decision-making framework to other people.
    • Because it makes them more predictable to you, and because it makes you more predictable to them, and for other reasons.
    • So, the more widely applicable this framework is, the better.
      • Cue "life wisdom lessons", cue religion, cue everyone and their fox going into politics. Cue therapy and stages of adult development. Cue philosophy. Cue utilitarianism.
  • A side-note: if you don't have to actually execute those decisions, it gets weird.
    • The situation can devolve into normal puzzle-solving.
      • E.g. a ton of people arguing about different brands of utilitarianism.
    • If you are unlucky, the situation can also devolve into a desperate search for someone who would—for starters—merely agree with you.
      • All examples from the beginning of this post fall into this category.
    • Finally, if you never have to execute any decisions (in some area), or never have to go through the consequences of those decisions, you can believe pretty much anything you want.
      • Especially if it somehow helps you otherwise.
        • Religion, antinatalism, far left, far right can all be in this category. (Those are all a mix of normal decisions and never-followed-through grand decisions.)

So, what do we get?

If you like solving puzzles, you want something that will let you cooperate with other people, and gives you a source of puzzles to solve, and compel other people to accept your solutions.

If you like making decisions, you will also want something that lets you make decisions more often, and justify those decisions to other people, and be predictable, and teach other people how to make decisions.

Note how "be right" and "do good" go together with these two. People want to be right and want to be solving puzzles. Those are not orthogonal, but neither can you substitute "solve puzzles" with "be right" and then wonder why people don't listen to you when you demonstrate they are wrong.

Similarly, "do good" and "make decisions" are not orthogonal, but you cannot substitute "make decisions" with "do good" and then pretend that people don't care about making decisions, and only care about doing good, and would be happy not making any decisions if you show those do more harm than good. They would not be happy, no.

P.S. How to change the world

People have ways of doing things. Those ways might be bad, but they let them cooperate, they let them achieve things, they let them have fun solving puzzles and making decisions.

If you want to change the world, you had better figure out a different—better—way for them to solve puzzles and make decisions (in a certain area). Then it might spread, or it might not. Shouting "you are wrong" is good as the first step, but not enough—and you should not be surprised that it's not enough.

So, here is a four-step checklist for any new thing:

  1. Is it somehow "more correct" / does it let people be right?
  2. Is it somehow "more moral" / does it let people do good?
  3. Does it let people solve puzzles? (And cooperate on solving puzzles, etc)
  4. Does it let people make decisions? (And cooperate on making decisions, etc)

This checklist is brand-new. When I apply it to something, I might write about that, too.

P.P.S. I would rather trust something than nothing

The same applies to trusting things. See my mini-thread.

Trusting things lets me make more decisions and live my life more. This is why I would rather trust something without sufficient evidence, than trust nothing at all. The path towards making good decisions is through making a lot of bad ones, not through trying very hard to only make decisions that are good.

P.P.P.S. See also