On this episode I use a recent episode of Sam Harris's podcast (#87 – "Triggered: A Conversation With Scott Adams") as a springboard for exploring a variety of topics related to critical thinking and persuasive communication.
When it comes to critical thinking and rational persuasion, half of my brain thinks like Sam Harris, and the other half thinks like Scott Adams. Each gets something right that the other doesn’t. I’m interested in identifying what each of them gets right, as a step toward creating something that is better than each of them separately, by integrating their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.
In other words … I want the super-powered love child of Sam Harris and Scott Adams.
In This Episode:
- (0:00 – 6:00) Introductory remarks
- (6:00 – 10:15) Introduction to Sam Harris and Scott Adams
- (10:15 – 15:30) Summary of Sam’s interview with Scott on the Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast
- (15:50 – 16:30) Why this is relevant to the Argument Ninja Academy
- (17:00 – 20:15) What I like about Sam: Intellectual virtues
- (20:15 – 24:50) What I like about Sam: Critical thinking values and democracy
- (24:50 – 30:10) What I like about Scott: The performative dimension of persuasion
- (30:10 – 31:55) What I like about Scott: The language of “filters”
- (31:55 – 39:00) Why both must be part of the foundational skill set for critical thinking and rational persuasion
- (39:10 – 45:30) The rhetorical triangle — ethos, pathos and logos
- (45:30 – 51:18) Speech act theory and communication strategy
- (51:18 – 58:00) Sam vs Scott: analyzing the conversation
- (58:00 – 60:00) Speech act theory and Scott’s defense of Trump
- (60:00 – 67:00) The accusation of “sophistry”: Sam Harris and the Very Bad Wizards (David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers) on Scott Adams
- (67:00 – 77:40) The philosopher-sophist spectrum, and the persuasion challenge that Scott Adams faces
- (77:40 – 90:00) Diving deeper: Scott Adams, the illusion of reality, and how persuasion masters can reshape the Matrix
“I’m interested in identifying what each of them gets right, as a step toward creating something that is better than each of them separately, by integrating their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses. In other words … I want the super-powered love child of Sam Harris and Scott Adams.”
“Persuasion practices are a kind of performance art, whether through speech or writing or non-verbal communication or some combination of these, and they take practice to master. This kind of mastery is very different from academic mastery of persuasion science or persuasion theory, no matter how sophisticated that understanding may be. There’s a vast difference between understanding how magicians do their tricks, and actually being able to perform those tricks.”
“The reality is that there’s a spectrum of views that range from the idealized Philosopher on one end — the rationalist, the truth seeker, the person motivated by logic and reason and evidence — to the idealized Sophist on the other end — the irrationalist, the relativist, the amoralist, the cynic, who is only interested in persuasion and manipulation.
Real people hold some combination of these orientations. Now, it’s clear that if you had to locate Sam and Scott on the spectrum, you’d put Sam closer to the Philosopher end and Scott closer to the Sophist end. But not at the extremes.”
“Scott sees the tools of persuasion as a means of rewiring not just our perception of reality, but reality itself, insofar as reality is nothing more than our perception. Masters of persuasion are those with an ability to manipulate the Matrix, whether or not they realize that’s what they’re doing. Scott sees Trump as one of these masters, and he sees himself in the same lineage, as a student of these tools, at least.”
References and Links
- The Support page for the Argument Ninja podcast
- My Patreon support page
- The Critical Thinker Academy
- Sam Harris podcast, episode 87 – “Triggered: A Conversation With Scott Adams“
- Sam Harris podcast, episode 89 – “On Becoming a Better Person: A Conversation with David Brooks“
- Sam Harris podcast, episode 92 – “The Limits of Persuasion: A Conversation with David Pizzaro and Tamler Sommers“
- The Very Bad Wizards podcast
- Scott Adams on the ethical implications of Presidential lying (Periscope TV)
- Scott Adams Blog: Science Proves Science is an Illusion
- Donald Hoffman: TED Talk: Do We See Reality As it Is? (YouTube)
- Donald Hoffman: The Case Against Reality (The Atlantic) (article)
- The Rhetorical Triangle (Google search results)
- Speech Act (wikipedia)
- The Dress Illusion (wikipedia)
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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 021.
Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante.
I cover a lot of ground this episode.
- What would it look like if Sam Harris and Scott Adams had a baby? What super-powers would their love child have?
- If you wanted to raise a critical thinker from birth, what skills would you have them working on at an early age?
- What’s the rhetorical triangle? What are “ethos”, “pathos” and “logos”?
- What do intellectual virtues have to do with democracy?
- What’s a speech act? Why does this concept belong in everyone’s critical thinking toolkit?
- What is a sophist?
- What is the main challenge that Scott Adams faces, if he really wants to persuade people that Trump is doing a good job?
- What is a Very Bad Wizard?
- And what does all this have to do with quantum mechanics, New Age philosophy, and skepticism about the reality of the external world?
All this, and more, on this episode of the Argument Ninja podcast.
Before we get started, you should know that I produce this podcast, yes, but I’m also working on a next generation learning platform, the Argument Ninja Academy, that will teach the art and science of rational persuasion, using teaching and learning principles drawn from martial arts instruction. Cumulative, incremental, skill-based, collaborative learning. Accessible to anyone with an internet connection and at a price that anyone with a sincere interest in learning will be able to afford.
I’m not doing this alone, this is a team project. But I’m the only one on the team who relies on crowd-funding to pay the bills while this work is ongoing. If you want to support my work and be a part of this project, please visit argumentninja.com or kevindelaplante.com to learn how you can become a monthly supporter.
One of the benefits of becoming a supporter is that you get access to all of the video tutorial content at the Critical Thinker Academy over at criticalthinkeracademy.com, where there’s over 20 hours of audio and video content, covering a wide range of topics related to critical thinking, including logic and argumentation, fallacies of reasoning, cognitive biases, reasoning with probabilities, and argumentative essay writing.
You can get access to all of this, and the pleasure of knowing that you’re helping to make this work possible, for the price of a cup of coffee, once a month. That’s a good deal.
My fans know that don’t often comment on political topics or take sides on partisan issues. Some of them find that very frustrating. But my reasons for this are strategic, it’s not because I don’t have thoughts to share.
The strategic reason is that I’m trying to build a platform, the Argument Ninja Academy, that aims to teach people how to think about such topics, not what to think about them.
And I want it to be a welcoming environment for anyone who is sincerely interested in learning to think more critically and independently for themselves.
This isn’t the usual situation, especially for those who are coming to this online.
A lot of prominent people who are strong advocates of critical thinking and scientific reasoning also happen to be strong advocates of particular positions on social or political issues.
There’s a large overlap, for example, between the critical thinking crowd and the rational skepticism/atheism crowd. Richard Dawkins, Larry Krause, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker … I’m sure you can add to the list.
They’re strongly anti-religious, and strongly anti-Trump on most issues. They see the world in a certain way, and a lot of their fans view them as champions of a scientific, secular worldview, defending Enlightenment values against religious zealotry and the dark forces of irrationalism.
And this is fine. They have important things to say, I admire a lot of what they do, and I’ve learned from all of them.
But if your goal is to get people from all political and religious persuasions, and all walks of life, to come to you for instruction and guidance on how to think about issues that matter to them, to trust you as a critical thinking educator, then you can’t be perceived as being an advocate for a particular political or religious … or anti-religious … ideology.
Because they won’t come. They won’t trust you. You’ll attract the people who you’ve signaled as a member of their tribe, and that’s it. Everyone else will stay away. They’ll assume that what you’re teaching is unfairly biased against the beliefs and values that they care about.
So as a strategic move — as a persuasion tactic, actually … as part of the Argument Ninja “brand” if you will — I need to maintain at least the perception of neutrality on issues that get people really worked up.
I don’t want to tell you what to think about the death penalty or immigration policy or feminism or religion. I want to help you figure out for yourself what to think about these issues, wherever that may lead you. And I need you to trust me that this is indeed my goal, that I’m trying to empower your will, not trying to bend you to my will.
That kind of trust is valuable to me, and important to what I’m trying build.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I can’t weigh in on any current debates. It just means that if I’m going to take a stand on a particular issue in public, the issue should in some sense be about what critical thinking is and why it’s important.
Sam Harris and Scott Adams
On today’s episode I’m going to weigh in on a current debate that does just that. It involves a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast.
Sam Harris, as most of you know, is a prominent figure in the atheism and skepticism movement. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape, among others. His podcast, Waking Up With Sam Harris, has become very successful over the past couple of years, and he’s been able to attract some really notable people to interview.
Sam’s been a strong critic of Donald Trump and the effect that the Trump presidency has had on just about every dimension of our civic and political lives. And he’s got a way with words that I certainly can’t match, especially when he tries to articulate how he sees Trump.
For example, on a recent episode of the podcast with David Brooks, they’re talking about virtue and the development of moral character, and in the last ten minutes they segue into Trump, and here’s classic Sam at his most eloquent and scathing at the same time:
[Play the clip]
So Sam has no love for Trump. But the episode that I want to talk about is a previous one, episode 87, when Sam had Scott Adams on the podcast, who was brought in as someone who could offer a more positive interpretation of Trump’s skill set, and a more hopeful vision of a Trump presidency.
Scott Adams, for those who don’t know, is the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, which is one of the most successful syndicated strips of all time. But he’s also the author of several nonfiction books, including The Dilbert Principle, God’s Debris, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and his upcoming book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
Scott’s also maintained a blog for a number of years, and during the 2015-2016 campaign season he blogged regularly about Trump and what he believed to be Trump’s impressive persuasion skills. And most famously, Scott predicted a Trump win a year before the election, and he didn’t waver in that prediction even until the end, when almost everyone was predicting a Hillary win.
Scott has talked a lot about his early training as a hypnotist back in the 70s, and how that’s influenced his understanding of the psychology of persuasion. I devoted a whole episode of the Argument Ninja podcast to hypnosis and Scott Adams on persuasion and Trump, back in episode 012.
I’ve followed Scott’s evolution on social media this past year, I’ve done some research on his back-story and some of the controversies he’s been involved in, watched interviews on other shows, so I feel like I have a reasonable sense of him by now.
So when Sam announced that he was having Scott on the podcast I reached for the popcorn, because I knew it would be a bit of a hot mess. And it was. Though I wish it had been an even hotter mess.
A Quick Summary of the Conversation
This is basically what went down.
First off, Sam invited Scott to talk about his notion that Trump critics and Trump supporters aren’t just disagreeing about the facts; in a sense, they’re living in different subjective worlds, they’re experiencing different things when they listen to a speech or watch the news.
Scott uses this metaphor of an audience in a movie theatre watching a movie projected on a screen. We think we’re all watching the same movie, but in fact half the theater is watching a different movie, and we don’t even realize it.
We see half the theater reacting in what seems to us like all the right ways at all the right places, and the other half reacting in ways that seem totally strange and mysterious to us, and we think they must be stupid or crazy. But the other half is having the exact same experience, where their experience makes sense and our reactions seem stupid and crazy.
These different movies are different interpretations of experience that are determined by our prior beliefs and expectations and conditioning, and a host of cognitive biases.
This is Scott’s model for how to think about how different groups respond to Trump’s behavior and his policies.
So, what happens for most of the interview is Sam trying to articulate his negative assessment of one or another aspect of Trump’s character or judgment or impact on our political culture, and Scott offering an alternative story or point of view where Trump doesn’t come off so bad.
Sam asks, what about Trump’s lies? Scott responds, well, most of the time what Trump says is “emotionally true” if not factually true. It’s emotionally compatible with what his supporters are already thinking. And this is part of Trump’s strategy of “pacing and leading”. Match the emotional tone and way of thinking of the audience he wants to persuade, and that makes them more likely to follow where he wants to lead them.
Sam asks, what about Trump’s outrageous claims about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants? Scott says well, he never really meant it when he said that. That was an initial first offer that anchored high, but that then gave him room to negotiate down to something more reasonable, and that would then be perceived as more reasonable even by his critics.
Then Sam pushes harder on the ethics of these over-the-top overtures, which on the face of them are patently immoral: separating immigrant children from their parents, torturing suspects, killing the families of terrorists. How does that read positively with anyone?
Scott’s response here is to switch to talking about the effectiveness of Trump’s pacing and leading on these issues, that he’s actually drawn the far right toward a more moderate position; that you just don’t hear people on the right calling for the deportation of all illegal immigrants anymore, because his audience trusts that Trump is working on their behalf and they feel satisfied that he’s taking some measures to tighten up borders and prosecute offending immigrants.
And it just goes on like this with Sam getting increasingly worked up, about the Trump administration’s lies about Russia, about Trump’s fawning over Putin, about Trump’s views on energy and environment and technology.
I say “worked up”, but for Sam this doesn’t amount to much more than a slight raising of the voice, it’s not “Alex Jones” worked up.
And Scott is pretty consistent throughout the conversation. He offers his Trump-friendly interpretations of all these scenarios, or, as was often the case, he redirects the line of questioning by asking a different question of his own.
For me, as someone interested in the deeper differences in worldview between Sam and Scott, I was listening for exchanges where these differences really came out.
And unfortunately this didn’t happen as often as I would have liked. That’s partly because Sam isn’t really as familiar with Scott’s philosophical leanings as he might have been, so he didn’t press him on areas that he might have otherwise.
It does get interesting toward the end where they’ve been talking about climate science and the intelligence reporting about Russia and collusion with the Trump campaign, and Sam notes, rightly, that Scott seems to be quite confident in second-guessing the judgment of expert bodies — the community of climate scientists on the seriousness of climate change on the one hand, the US intelligence agencies on Russian communication with Trump’s campaign and interference in the election on the other.
For Sam, the issue here isn’t whether the experts are right on these particular issues, but why Scott thinks it’s reasonable to believe that a lone person sitting at home doing a little computer browsing is in a better position to get to the truth than the organized bodies whose job it is to make informed judgments about these issues.
Now, Scott didn’t respond to this question directly before the subject changed again, but it does point to a deeper difference in epistemological attitude, about science and attitudes to authority, and about the cognitive division of labour that all societies must use to organize themselves.
I’d like to explore some of these differences here on this episodes, and the broader set of issues that have been raised in reactions to this interview. But first let me explain why I think this is worth doing and why it’s relevant to the Argument Ninja Academy and the themes that I’ve been talking about on this podcast.
Why This Matters to Me
In a nutshell, here’s why this matters to me.
When it comes to critical thinking and rational persuasion, half of my brain thinks like Sam, and half of my brain thinks like Scott.
These ways of thinking seem very different, and on the face of it they are very different.
But each seems to get something right that the other doesn’t.
I’m interested in identifying what each of them gets right, as a step toward creating something that is better than each of them separately, by integrating their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.
In other words … I want the super-powered love child of Sam Harris and Scott Adams.
What I Like About Sam’s Thinking: Intellectual Virtues
Let me start with the parts I like in Sam’s thinking.
And before we start, let me admit that I’m really just using Sam and Scott as characters in a story I’m telling about critical thinking and persuasion and intellectual virtues, which I could tell without talking about them, or anyone in particular. None of the skills or habits of thought that I’m going to talk about are unique to Sam or Scott.
Anyway, the parts that I like about Sam’s thinking have to do with intellectual virtues that I associate with a traditional conception of philosophy and the role of argumentation in philosophy.
And by that I mean that, even though Sam isn’t an academic philosopher, much of what he does in his writing swings back and forth between philosophy and science, and he does have many of the intellectual dispositions of a philosopher working within what we would broadly call the “analytic” tradition.
He offers reasons for his positions in the form of arguments. You may not like them or his positions, but he does work hard to make his reasoning clear at least.
He’s concerned about misrepresenting other people’s views. If he disagrees with you, he doesn’t want to criticize the weakest version of your argument. He wants to criticize the one that most faithfully represents your actual views.
He’s interested in stress-testing his own views. He invites objections to his views, and he tries to respond to the objections given.
He’s concerned with epistemological features of positions, like falsifiability, that he regards as a virtue. If a position isn’t falsifiable because it’s too vague, or if the person holding a position is dogmatically entrenched and not responsive to reasons and evidence, that’s a bad thing; that’s a vice.
If he’s not confident about a position, he’ll say so. He tries to proportion his degree of confidence to the strength of the evidence, as he sees it.
He takes pains to distinguish features of an argument from features of the person making an argument. He recognizes that arguments can be good or bad independent of their origins, independent of where they come from or what motivates them.
Now, this list of epistemic or intellectual virtues that I’m running through here … these having nothing to do with Sam Harris per se. Obviously. This is a standard list of virtues that are taught in every critical thinking class, every philosophy class that aims at truth and wisdom through the presentation and evaluation of arguments.
One can also learn these virtues through an education in the sciences, and academia more broadly, though one tends to come at them in slightly different ways depending on the discipline.
Now, these virtues, these values, are actually quite demanding. No one lives up to them all the time. But these are explicitly recognized as ideals within a certain culture of philosophy, science and critical thinking. They’re values that we try to live up to.
And I recognize Sam’s commitment to these values, even if, like all of us, he may fail to live up to them.
And on this note, it’s important to say that one can be committed to these values and still have one’s judgment be clouded by bias and prejudice.
To think like a philosopher or a scientist, in this sense, is not to be free of bias. It’s to be committed to identifying and mitigating the distorting effects of bias on one’s judgment, when one becomes aware of it, and when one judges it to be important.
Again, this is actually a very demanding standard. None of us live up to it fully. I don’t. And there are many critics of Sam who will argue that he doesn’t, on certain issues. You might think that anyone who holds a certain class of views must be biased or blinkered in some important way.
My point is that even if this true, you can still be committed to these epistemic ideals, and the importance of reasoned debate and argumentation.
What I Like About Sam’s Thinking: Critical Thinking Values and Democracy
Another feature of Sam’s thinking that I like is his commitment to the importance of respectful, reasoned, and open dialogue, for healthy democratic societies. He’s been very vocal about this, and very critical of Trump and the effect that he believes Trump has had on the character of our political speech. Many of the guests he’s had on his podcast share this concern.
Now, in democratic theory there’s always been an overlap between epistemic norms of good reasoning, like we just talked about, and political norms of civil discourse.
In a democracy, government is the duty and responsibility of the people, and the aim of government is to serve the needs of the people.
In a liberal democracy you start with the assumption that you have a collection of people with differing beliefs and values, who want the freedom to pursue their own conception of the good life. All the people, not just a subset of the people.
When deliberating on the terms of the rules, or the social contract, that we’re agreeing to live by, in principal, every citizen of good standing gets a seat at the table; everyone has a right to have their opinion heard, and their interests taken into account, in the formation of laws and policies.
Now, if this is our goal, the only method we have to come to agreement on matters of law and policy is reasoned debate and dialogue, where we work toward a consensus whenever possible, but where all parties understand the necessity of compromise in order to reach the best outcome for everyone.
And afterward we have to respect the outcome of these decisions, even if they don’t always go the way we wanted them to.
Now, for a democratic system like this to work as it’s intended to work, we need to abide by certain norms of civil discourse, at every stage in the process.
These norms are designed to serve the goals of democratic governance, but to do this, they have to honor at least some of the intellectual virtues, the norms of good reasoning, that we’ve been talking about.
This is why liberal democracy is so often associated with the broader set of enlightenment values that puts the individual human person at the center of political life, as the primary subject and beneficiary of political life, where that individual human person is understood to be a being capable of independent reason and agency, and deserving of a special kind of respect and dignity because of that.
So if you believe this — and I think Sam does, and many of his guests do — that puts this issue of the propriety of norms of civil discourse in a different light.
If you think of them as nothing more than conventional standards of politeness, then there really isn’t that much at stake if you violate them. I’m rude to you, so what. I belittle you, so what. That’s how real people talk, get over it.
But if you think of these norms as part of the social scaffolding that expresses and reinforces our commitment to liberal democratic ideals, then there’s a good deal more at stake when you choose to violate those norms.
Now, whenever I talk about liberal democratic values in terms like this, people like to tell me that this is naive, or wishful thinking, that no modern state actually realizes these ideals. No modern state fully liberal or fully democratic.
Maybe it’s more accurate to describe the US, for example, as an oligarchy, where government power is concentrated in the hands of smaller groups of elites, or a plutocracy, where government is largely controlled by the wealthiest players and by money interests.
I don’t want to dismiss this kind of objection, but I don’t think it undermines the main point, which about the role that liberal democratic ideals can play in shaping a political culture, or a moral culture, or, if I may use the term, an epistemological culture.
At any rate, my commitment is to critical thinking values. The pursuit of truth and wisdom and independent thought. I believe these values require a great deal cultural scaffolding for them to flourish, to make it possible for individuals to pursue them with any hope of success.
And to the extent that this scaffolding is served by democratic norms and institutions, in my view, that makes these norms and institutions worth protecting, above and beyond the value of democracy itself.
What I Like About Scott’s Thinking: The Performative Dimension of Persuasion
Now I’d like to move on and talk about aspects of Scott Adam’s thinking that I like, or that I think are important to consider.
No surprise, if you’ve been following this podcast … what I like about the way Scott thinks is his focus on persuasion — both the psychological side and the technical side, what persuasive technique looks like.
Scott famously talks about what he calls the “persuasion filter”. This is the conceptual framework he uses to analyze and predict human behavior.
This is the persuasion filter: just assume that everyone acts irrationally, all the time. People talk about the reasons why they did such-and-such, and they’ll offer arguments why they did such-and-such, but you should treat this as post-hoc rationalization for behaviors that were actually determined by other factors.
Especially in areas like politics, our behavior is determined first and foremost by gut feelings and intuitions, and by how people feel about themselves, their identity. The way to actually persuade people is to target these more basic psychological dimensions of human nature.
Human beings are, to use Scott’s phrase, nothing but “moist robots”. Free will is an illusion. Our behavior is determined by a complex combination of physiological and environmental factors, programmed by evolution and conditioning, governed by mechanisms and responsive to cues that we’re not consciously aware of, and have no control over, for the most part.
But our behavior does follow rules — it is predictable, in many contexts. Persuasion experts understand these rules, or at least enough of them to allow for some degree of predictability and control.
And this is central to the persuasion framework. Human behavior can be manipulated, it can be influenced, by the skillful exercise of persuasive techniques that exploit the basic psychological mechanisms that underwrite our behavior. Not the psychology that we consciously identify with our own thoughts and reasoning. The hidden psychology of unconscious cognitive mechanisms and social influences.
This isn’t a new idea of course. Persuasion practices are as old as humanity, and there are plenty of academics who work on the psychology of persuasion.
One of things that is notable about Scott’s approach is the way he’s fashioned a simple conceptual framework that is relatively easy to apply in a lot of different contexts.
I say “simple” because, even though the academic literature on persuasion is large and diverse, Scott only ever seems to use a handful of principles. Pacing and leading, cognitive dissonance, associative priming of mental scripts through the skillful use of language, and a simple motivational hierarchy where appeals to emotion beat reasons, and appeals to identity beat emotions. That covers 90% of it.
If you read his blog posts, when he’s applying the persuasion filter to analyze some situation, he rarely cites more than two or three principles.
He gets this pragmatic focus, of course, from his study of persuasion practice, the principles that hypnotists and magicians and con artists and salespeople learn to apply to real people in the real world.
When you treat persuasion as a skill, something you have to perform in real time, it makes sense to focus on a small number of foundational principles. The challenge is how to apply those principles in a skillful way.
For example, magicians and mentalists and con artists will talk about controlling the audience’s attention, and the art of misdirection. The principle is easy enough to talk about, but it can take months and years of rehearsing and practice to develop the skill to the point where you can successfully control an audience’s attention, in the way you want, throughout a performance.
And this is true of persuasion practices in general. Persuasion practices are a kind of performance art, whether through speech or writing or non-verbal communication or some combination of these, and they take practice to master.
This kind of mastery is very different from academic mastery of persuasion science or persuasion theory, no matter how sophisticated that understanding may be. There’s a vast difference between understanding how magicians do their tricks, and actually being able to perform those tricks.
I think that anyone who wants to master the art of critical thinking and rational persuasion, needs to understand that there’s a performative dimension to it. Yes, there’s a conceptual dimension, that you can master the way you master any academic subject. Read the books, learn the concepts, understand the principles.
But there’s also a performative dimension that you can’t learn from a book, any more than you can learn to do magic, or dance, or martial arts, from a book. Rational persuasion is a type of persuasion practice. It’s something you do; when it’s under conscious, intentional control, it’s something you perform.
The performative dimension of persuasion practices is something that Scott understands, and that’s one of the reasons I find his analyses informative, even when I don’t agree with him. He doesn’t linger on theoretical concepts very long, he likes to talk about performance, and on whether a particular performance is effective or not. That can be a very useful perspective to adopt.
What I Like About Scott’s Thinking: The Language of “Filters”
The other thing I like about Scott’s approach is this language of “filters”. We don’t see the world in its raw form, we see the world through different filters. This reminds us that the effects of unconscious cognitive processing are always present in our perceptions and our judgments.
But, he also talks about putting on different filters, or switching between filters, like swapping out different pairs of sunglasses. Scott’s “persuasion filter” is just one of many filters one could adopt.
When Scott describes how the anti-Trump crowd will respond to some news item, he’s trying to see the world through their filter. Then he’ll contrast that with the way a pro-Trump crowd will respond, by anticipating how things look through a different filter. And each of these are different from what he calls his “persuasion” filter, which is the higher-order framework he uses to anticipate how people in general respond to new information.
What I like about this language is that it suggests that we’re not condemned to view the world through only one filter. We can learn to see the world through different filters, and we can learn to switch between filters, when it suits our purposes to do so.
If you think of it like this, these filters can become tools in our critical thinking toolbox, that we can deploy for different purposes, depending on the task at hand.
From a teaching perspective, that’s an empowering message. It makes me wonder, if you were to develop a curriculum that tried to teach this skill set, the skill of gaining control over the filters we use to interpret information and interact with the world, what would that curriculum look like?
That’s a very interesting question.
Why Both Skill Sets Are Foundational for Critical Thinking and Rational Persuasion
To sum up, what I like about Sam Harris’s way of thinking is his concern with epistemic ideals, the intellectual values and attitudes that you need to cultivate if you’re really interested in knowledge, having genuinely good reasons for believing what you believe.
I also like his concern with democratic norms and institutions, which I view as part of the cultural scaffolding that supports the ability of individuals to think critically and independently for themselves. This is an enlightenment idea, and I think it’s an important idea that we don’t talk about enough. If we undermine these democratic norms and institutions, we undermine our own ability to think and communicate as free, rational agents.
On the other hand, I think Sam is prone to a way of thinking that is common to smart people with academic training who have an affinity for analytic reasoning. And that’s a tendency to see the world through the filter of reasons and arguments and explanations that people will consciously profess in their speech or their writing, and to seek to engage with people on this level.
It’s the most natural thing in the world, if you think like a philosopher. Give me your reasons for believing such-and-such, and let’s talk about those reasons. Let’s clarify what what you’re really saying, let’s articulate the hidden assumptions, let’s explore the logical consequences ….
This is a vital skill, especially if what we’re doing is some authentic version of dialectical reasoning — reasoning together, in good faith, to improve our beliefs, improve our arguments, and get closer to the truth.
The problem with this mode of thinking is that it rarely captures the full story, from a psychological standpoint.
When you’re in dialectical reasoning mode, your focus is on argument structure. You’re paying attention to the content of the claims that people are making, and how those claims combine to function as reasons for believing other claims.
But paying attention to argument structure can blind you to the psychological and rhetorical dimensions of human communication, that are also in play.
For the person you’re engaged in conversation with, these other factors may be where the real action is, in the sense that they’re the factors that more accurately reflect what the person actually cares about, what their motivations are, and what they’re trying to achieve in the conversation. So if you’re not paying attention to these factors, a conversation can become frustrating all of a sudden and you won’t understand why.
I think this can be an issue for Sam, who admits that he sometimes has a problem connecting with guests who think very differently from him. But of course it’s a problem for all of us.
Now, what I like about Scott Adams, as I said, is his focus on the psychological dimensions of communication and persuasion, which in general I think is a useful corrective to the tendency I just described, to focus too narrowly on the argumentative structure of our communication.
Of course, Scott pushes this to an extreme with his persuasion filter, where he intentionally tries to ignore the argumentative, dialectical mode of analysis, and focuses exclusively on the underlying psychological factors.
I think this is certainly wrong if you take it as a serious view about the role of reason in human psychology and human behavior. I’ll talk about this at length in a future episode.
But I also don’t think Scott is consistent in how he talks about it or applies it. That issue aside, as a heuristic device, as a critical thinking tool, trying to see the world through this filter, or some other persuasion filter, I think can be a very useful skill.
I will say that, one of the reasons why Scott’s views are hard to evaluate is that, after a while, especially when you see him on interviews like this, you get the sense that maybe he’s always performing. You never quite know if you can take what he says at face value, because he’ll often say things for persuasive effect, or with some persuasive agenda in mind. In this sense he’s often very intentional about what he’s saying. But it’s risky to assume you can read his intention from the surface structure of what he says.
I think attending to this performative element is also a helpful tool, for the reasons I gave earlier. All human communication has a performative element to it, and we need to pay more attention to performance, and train for performance, if we want to become really effective communicators.
So, the super-powered love child of Sam Harris and Scott Adams is someone who cares about facts and evidence, cares about the goals of critical thinking, cares about democratic norms of discourse, is skilled in dialectical reasoning … yet who is also not psychologically naive, someone who understands the psychological dimensions of persuasion and communication, and is able to bring that understanding to bear, in a skillful way, in their interactions with others.
The Rhetorical Triangle: Ethos, Pathos and Logos
I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Sam and Scott to get cozy and engineer a little miracle.
I’m interested, obviously, in developing a program of instruction that can accomplish this miracle the old fashioned way, through education and training. That’s one of the goals of the Argument Ninja Academy program.
One of the elements of this program that I’ve been thinking about is the distinction between foundational skills and more complex skills.
In sports training there are certain skills and drills that you never stop practicing because they’re foundational to the sport.
In basketball, this includes ball-handling, passing and shooting.
In baseball, it’s throwing, catching and hitting.
In tennis it’s the serve, forehand and backhand strokes, footwork, volleying, and so forth.
In a martial art like taekwondo, it’s your basic stances, blocks, punches and kicks.
In all these cases, more complex skills are built on top of these foundational skills, and as a practitioner you never stop developing these skills.
So, if what we’re talking about is the Argument Ninja skill set, the skill set of a rational persuader, what sorts of skills would you include in this foundational set? What are the skills that you need to keep working on, no matter how good you get?
This is a good question. I like this question.
Another way to think about it is, if you wanted to raise an Argument Ninja, like the way Tiger Wood’s dad raised Tiger to become a golf champion, how would you do that?
Tiger’s dad had him working on his swing when he was a toddler. But he could do that because he knew what the foundational skill set is for golf.
For what we’re interested in, critical thinking and rational persuasion, it’s not so obvious what the skill set should be.
I’m going to talk about this more in a future episode, but let me offer this as an introduction.
I propose that within the foundational skill set for critical thinking and rational persuasion, we should include the three components of what’s known as the “rhetorical triangle”, taken from classical Greek and medieval approaches to persuasive speech.
In Greek, these three components were called “ethos”, “pathos” and “logos”. You might encounter these terms in an english composition class or a rhetoric class, but otherwise, you may never have heard them. But the concepts are all very familiar.
You can translate the Greek in various ways, but for our purposes I’m going to interpret “ethos” as “trust”, “pathos” as “emotion”, and “logos” as “logic”.
So, the rhetorical triangle is trust, emotion and logic.
With ethos, or trust, the focus is on how your audience perceives you. Do they trust you? Do you have a good reputation in their eyes? Do they view you as a reliable source of information? Do they believe you have relevant expertise and knowledge? Do they have any reason to think that you are biased or compromised in a way that would undermine your credibility?
Clearly, if you don’t have your audience’s trust, that’s going to make it very difficult to persuade them.
Now, when we we talk about pathos, or emotion, we’re talking about the way your message resonates emotionally, or intuitively, with your audience. Are they motivated to pay attention? Is the issue one that matters to them? Can you lead your audience to an emotional state, or tap into an emotional state, that makes them receptive to your message? In Jonathan Haidt’s “rider and the elephant” metaphor, which I talked about in episode 19, pathos is about motivating the elephant.
If you can’t do this, again, this makes it more difficult to persuade your audience.
The third component is logos, or logic. In Greek rhetoric this referred to the logical structure of reasoning, the use of logically valid forms of reasoning, the kind of thing that Aristotelian logic specialized in.
For my purposes I’m going to use “logic” in its broadest sense to mean “the art of good reasoning”. And the key here is the distinction between persuasion, and persuasion for good reasons. When you’re focusing on logos, you’re actually trying to present good reasons, good arguments, to your audience. Arguments where the conclusion actually follows from the premises, and where the premises are true, or at least plausible to your audience. Arguments where the dialectic — the give-and-take of argument, objection and reply between you and your audience — is on-point and relevant to your audience’s concerns.
Now, I think it’s clear that if your goal is to persuade an audience, and you’re strong on all three of these components, that’s a very strong position. You have the trust of your audience, your message is resonating with them emotionally, and it’s rationally compelling as well.
This framework also gives you a set of tools for analyzing situations, diagnosing problems and developing a persuasion strategy.
If trust is low, why is it low? What can you do to restore trust and credibility in the eyes of your audience?
If your message doesn’t resonate emotionally, doesn’t plug in to the intuitions and motivations of your audience, why not? Maybe you don’t understand your audience’s worldview well enough, and you need to dig deeper on this. Maybe you need to find away to tap into their value structure, their core commitments. Put on the right filter, the filter that your audience uses to interpret the world. Maybe you need to explore other rhetorical techniques, like using concrete examples and stories that your audience can relate to.
To make the logic of your argument more persuasive, you need to anticipate how your arguments will be received by your audience, given their beliefs and background assumptions. What’s the strongest objection from their standpoint? How would you know? Have you asked? How can you meet that objection, and present that in a compelling way?
Now, when we teach argumentation in critical thinking classes, or argumentative writing, I’m sorry to say that we spend most of our time on the last part, logos, and almost no time on the other two components, ethos and pathos.
This makes sense if you’re writing academic papers and giving talks at academic conferences, because those are contexts where logos dominates the discourse.
But in most other contexts — at work, in your personal life, in public settings, in online settings — logos doesn’t dominate. Ethos and pathos, trust and emotion, are often more dominant. They play a larger role in determining how your message is received and interpreted.
So, as wannabe Argument Ninjas, we need to learn this whole set of skills. And in the Argument Ninja Academy program, we need to teach it. And we need to teach people how to identify contexts where one component is more important than others, and how to adjust one’s persuasion strategy accordingly.
This is part of the core, the foundational skill set for rational persuasion. It’s not the whole set, there are other skills we can talk about it, but these are obviously central.
Do we teach this skill set in school? No. Do we teach it anywhere, in a structured, deliberate way? No. Not together, at least.
What we’ve done is split these into two domains that don’t interact much.
We relegate logos to philosophy, science, and academia generally. In this domain we construct social institutions and practices where discourse is organized around the presentation and evaluation of reasons, evidence and logical argumentation.
And we relegate ethos and pathos to the various schools of persuasion practice — how to get people to like and trust you, how to tap into emotions and feelings, how to establish rapport, how to manage your brand, how to get people to buy a product, or adopt a new habit, or vote for a particular candidate.
And the result is that, to the extent that people get any training at all, they get training in one domain or the other, but not both.
I want to change that. My supporters and my team want to change that.
Speech Acts: An Important Tool For Understanding Communication
Let me add one other concept to our persuasion toolkit, which I think is complementary to what we’ve been talking about here.
One way to remind us to look beyond the argumentative structure of our communication is to think in terms of “speech acts”.
In linguistics and the philosophy of language, what is known as “speech act theory” is an approach that emphasizes the practical uses of language, the various things we do with language, beyond simply asserting things.
That’s one kind of speech act, an assertion. If I utter the words “John went to the movies”, I’m asserting that this is the case.
But that’s only one kind of speech act. We do lots of different things with language.
Sometimes I utter words to request information. Or issue commands. Or make promises. Or offer apologies. Or ask for forgiveness.
These are all different speech acts, different actions we can perform with words.
In some cases the utterance doesn’t just accompany the act. In some cases the utterance IS the act.
If I’m being sworn in to testify in an American court, I put my hand on a bible and raise my other hand, and someone asks me “Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
And when I say the words “I do”, I’m not saying these words and also swearing to tell the truth. Saying “I do” is the act that constitutes swearing to tell the truth.
So, we use speech to make assertions, but we also use speech to perform a variety of other acts.
Now, a very important class of speech acts involves creating some effect on our audience. We say something for the purpose of achieving some effect on our audience.
For example, when you play poker you may say “I’ll hold”, meaning that you don’t want to draw a new card. But what you may be trying to achieve when you say this, and in the way they say it, is a bluff, to make the other players believe you have a better hand than you actually do.
Or, think of the speech that a General might make to his or her troops before a planned military invasion. The primary intent of the speech isn’t to make assertions, it’s to rouse the troops. That’s the primary speech act.
Or, think of a President giving a first televised speech in the wake of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Their primary intent may be to reduce fear and anxiety in the public. That might be the primary speech act.
To give one final example, imagine you’re hosting a dinner party at your house where not everyone knows each other, and you want to kick things off with an ice-breaker activity. So you throw out this conversation starter: “If you had a time machine that would work only once, what point in the future or in history would you visit?”
Now, how many different speech acts are you performing with this single utterance?
Well, on the surface level, you’re describing a hypothetical scenario. That’s one.
You’re asking your guests to consider this scenario. That’s two.
And more importantly, in presenting this scenario you’re trying to put your guests at ease and stimulate conversation so they’ll have an enjoyable time at the dinner party. That’s three.
And this last one is really the primary speech act. That’s what defines it as an ice-breaker. Whether it’s a successful ice-breaker depends on whether it has the effect on your audience that you intended it to have.
The upshot here is that when we’re assessing whether a piece of communication has been successful or not, we need to be clear about what the speech act is that we’re assessing, and the context of the utterance, because together these are what determines the criteria for success.
For example, Trump’s homey, sometimes incoherent speaking style has inspired dozens of articles by people trying to tell us how we should think about this. If you’re focused on argument structure, it seems a painfully unsuccessful form of communication.
But if you’re focused on the effects of his speech on his intended audience, that’s a different story. This is what Scott Adams is recommending we do. If we think in terms of the causal effects of Trump’s speech on various audiences, he may come across as very successful in some instances.
For example, that very incoherence, from an argumentative standpoint, may in fact be a mode that enables a certain kind of emotional resonance, with a certain kind of audience; that allows the audience to project their beliefs and desires into the vagueness and the ambiguity and the gaps in speech, like the way our brains fill in the gaps of an ambiguous image so that it doesn’t look ambiguous to us, it looks like a specific, well-defined image. An audience may interpret Trump’s speech as communicating something specific and meaningful to them.
So, my main point is simply that this concept of a speech act, and the notion that a single piece of communication can express multiple speech acts, with different criteria of success, should be part of every critical thinker’s toolkit, every Argument Ninja’s toolkit.
And when you combine it with the communication concepts from the rhetorical triangle — ethos, pathos and logos; trust, emotion and logic — you’ve got the makings of a very good “starter toolkit” for rational persuasion. They can shed light on what’s going when we try to communicate with other people, they can help us understand what successful and unsuccessful communication looks like, and they can help us to start planning our communication strategies.
Sam and Scott: Analyzing the Conversation
For the rest of this episode I want to turn our attention back to the conversation that Sam and Scott had on Sam’s podcast, and do some analysis that uses these communication concepts.
To start, let’s admit that when you’re a famous person, and you’re famous for holding certain views, no one really expects you to change your mind or reverse a position you’ve been defending for years, during a debate, or on a public media program with a large audience listening.
So we have to ask, why is Sam asking Scott on the show, and what does he hope to get out of the conversation, if not to get him to change his mind,? And why is Scott agreeing to come on the show, and what does he hope to accomplish here?
Well, beyond the obvious reasons, I think Sam was genuinely curious to see, up close, how a smart person could defend a man that he finds so obviously repellent and unqualified. Sam had read enough of Scott’s writing to get a sense of his views, but my impression is that he really wanted to see how Scott would respond to a variety of different points of criticism. That’s one way of coming to understand a position, by seeing how it handles a variety of objections. Under questioning you can really see the contours of a position better.
And I’m sure Sam expected that his questioning would reveal the weaknesses in Scott’s defense, even if Scott never admitted to any weakness.
Now, what did Scott Adams hope to get out of this conversation?
Scott’s situation is different. His public reputation is now bound up with his defense of Trump as a master persuader, and his political analysis, viewed through the lens of the persuasion filter.
It’s a counter-intuitive position for many people, obviously. But he’s taking every opportunity to present it and defend it; on Twitter, on Periscope, on his blog, on YouTube, on podcast interviews, on television interviews.
What does Scott want? He wants to grow his audience, and his influence, ultimately, I believe, to move social and political dynamics in directions that he genuinely thinks are positive. And if he can successfully manage a grilling in front of a critical audience, and come out unscathed, that increases his credibility and his influence.
Scott’s done a ton of these interviews by now, so he’s comfortable with his debate strategy and his talking points. Sam’s got a big audience, he’s confident that he can handle the questions, so what has he got to lose?
And that’s basically how the interview played out. Sam asked a lot of questions, and Scott gave answers that were quite predictable if you’ve followed him for a while. He’s rehearsed many of these answers on his blog over the past year and half.
Scott knows that these answers are satisfying to his audience, so he was confident that he would come out looking good in the eyes of his fans, at least. And I’m sure he was confident that most of the anti-Trumpers among Sam’s fan base would feel the opposite, because that’s part of his position — different political groups are watching two different movies on the same screen.
And that position was certainly borne out in the comments on the episode on Facebook and Twitter, where Scott’s fans scored him as winning the debate convincingly, and Sam’s fans scored Sam as winning convincingly. They were watching two different movies.
Sam admitted the point in his follow-up commentary in episode 92, where he talked about the interview with Scott with the hosts of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, psychologist David Pizarro and philosopher Tamler Sommers, who also listened to the interview, that during the interview.
Now, if we judge the exchange from Scott’s perspective, as an opportunity to reach a new audience, and defend his position in front of a smart, challenging interrogator, in such a way that he reinforced his credibility and status in the eyes of his audience, then we have to conclude the exchange was a success for him.
From Sam’s perspective, it’s more of a mixed bag. I know he thinks he was successful in revealing serious weaknesses in Scott’s position, and many of his fans thought so too. On that measure it was a win for Sam.
But Sam also admits that he was frustrated somewhat by Scott’s answers, and he was holding back just how dismayed he was by Scott’s seeming disinterest in judging Trump’s character, and his attitude to morality in general.
For me, as a listener, I would have liked to have seen Sam push Scott harder on this, on basic moral philosophy issues, because I think it is an area of Scott’s position that he hasn’t developed in the way that other parts of his view are developed, and it is a weakness. If Scott is seriously looking to persuade like Sam that this is a view worth considering, he needs to work on that.
And from what I can tell it got under Scott’s skin too, because he’s been talking a lot about morality and Trump on his periscope chats recently, and I can see that he’s trying to work out a coherent position.
I’ll link to the periscope lecture I’m talking about in the show notes for this episode. But basically Scott is arguing that when Trump lies, or gets the facts wrong, you can nevertheless say that his speech is what he calls “directionally accurate” — which is a terribly clumsy expression Scott, it’s going to cause a you a world of grief — but it’s directionally accurate in the sense that, if people are influenced by his speech in the way that he thinks Trump intended, the causal consequences would be positive for the country, would move the country in a positive direction, or at least in a direction that the majority of the people who voted for him want to see the country move. And in that sense, he’s fulfilling the mandate that his supporters, and the democratic process, granted him when they elected him.
Scott doesn’t use the term “speech act”. I wouldn’t know if he’s familiar with the term, it’s the sort of thing you’d only encounter if you studied the history of 20th century philosophy and philosophy of language, or linguistics. But this is exactly the concept that he’s applying. A single utterance can express more than one speech act. As assertions, Trump’s speech can be judged as misrepresenting the facts. You may even be justified in calling it lying, if you think it’s an intentional deception. But if you’re thinking about the causal effects of his speech on his audience, or on the world more broadly, then Scott’s argument is that those effects are positive.
Scott grants that lying, per se, is morally wrong. He says it half a dozen times. I think what he wants to say is that lying is prima facie wrong — wrong on the face of it, wrong at first glance — but to judge the whole speech act, you need to factor in the causal consequences of the act as well. And if we think these consequences have a significant positive impact, that should be a mitigating factor. That might be enough to render the act morally justified, all things considered.
So in the end, for Scott, everything turns on how you interpret the causal effects of Trump’s speech. I’ll give you a fancy linguistic term for this Scott, if you’re listening. The bare assertions that Trump makes, that’s what speech act theorists call the ‘locutionary act’. If you think he’s intentionally lying or deceiving when he says these things, that’s an “illocutionary act — lying or deceiving.
Now, if we look at the causal effects of Trump’s speech on the audience, or the world — that’s called the ‘perlocutionary act’. What you’re asking people to do is pay attention to the perlocutionary effects of Trump’s speech. And to use some kind of consequentialist moral metric for judging the morality of these effects — impact on overall happiness, welfare, preference satisfaction, whatever. And your claim is that the effect of Trump’s public speech is overall positive. Or at least, there’s a defensible interpretation in which they come out overall positive.
There’s a whole lot here that is contentious, to say the least. But at least it’s an argument. And the discussion with Sam pushed Scott to think harder about this. Here’s a clip from his Periscope session:
I know exactly how Sam will respond to this. He has a much more negative assessment of the perlocutionary effects of Trump’s speech, which is connected in various ways with his very uncompromising position on the wrongness of lying. So this isn’t going to budge Sam. But like I said, at least it’s an argument.
Another concern about Scott’s position, that Sam and David and Tamler all shared, was their perception that Scott simply had no concern with what is true or false, that he only seemed to care about, and value, one’s ability to persuade others, and that this is just deeply problematic.
And here’s David:
The charge is that Scott’s admiration for Trump rests solely, or almost entirely, on his persuasive powers, his ability to get people to believe or do what he wants, irrespective of the means he uses, or the ends to which his persuasion is directed.
This is part of the charge that Scott seems to be pushing back against with his recent blog posts and periscope updates. Scott wants to show that he is concerned with the ends to which Trump’s persuasion is directed.
But he failed to adequately communicate that in the interview.
Now, let me use this to point to introduce another helpful concept from philosophy and the history of ideas — the concept of sophistry, and its relation to the classical Greek Sophists.
This distaste that Sam and David and Tamler expressed for being an admirer of persuasion as such, and valuing the skill of persuasion as such, irrespective of content, harkens back to an ancient debate between philosophy and sophistry, which I’ve talked about before on the podcast.
This charge paints Scott as a modern day sophist. The Greek sophists were professional teachers and intellectuals who frequented Athens and other Greek cities in the second half of the fifth century B.C. The sophists offered young wealthy Greek men an education in virtue, or excellence, for a fee. But what this often amounted to was instruction in the ability to influence one’s fellow citizens in political gatherings through rhetorical persuasion. They were teaching how one could be persuasive on any subject, on any side of a debate.
Plato reacted strongly against this kind of instruction, and this whole idea of admiring persuasive rhetoric for its own sake, because, (a) it ignored what he thought should be the primary goal of human reason, the pursuit of genuine truth and wisdom, and (b) it encouraged various forms of ethical and philosophical relativism which he found deeply objectionable.
You get a sense of this reaction from Sam and David and Tamler. Which is not surprising to me. The philosopher versus the sophist was one of the distinctions I had in my head when I was distinguishing what I liked about Sam and Scott, respectively. I think the philosopher needs more of the sophist skill set, and the sophist needs more of the philosopher’s orientation toward truth and wisdom and higher intellectual ideals.
And then there’s this interesting comment from Tamler, where he starts to question whether Scott is even playing the same language game as Sam, whether he’s actually engaged in an authentic argumentative dialogue at all:
That “bad faith structure to Scott’s game” that Sam is talking about is one way that a philosopher might characterize a sophist, a person who they thought was only concerned with persuasion and defending a position using any rhetorical tool at their disposal, and who didn’t believe that facts and reason matter in persuasion.
If you’re talking to someone who believes this, it’s reasonable to ask, how are you supposed to interpret what they’re saying to you right now? How can you have an authentic rational dialogue with such a person? This is the worry that Tamler is expressing; that this position, if a personal actually holds it, undermines the very possibility of a certain kind of rational communication.
I think this is really Scott’s biggest challenge when he’s trying to dialogue with people across the aisle.
Not the political aisle. I’m not talking about Scott as a Trump supporter trying to persuade a Trump critic.
I mean when he’s trying to persuade philosophers, in the broad sense in which I would characterize Sam, and David, and Tamler, as philosophers.
Namely, as someone who believes the world has an objective structure, that this structure is something we can learn about, that we can have knowledge of. Someone who believes that people can be motivated by reasons and argumentation; and that it’s important to support cultural practices and institutions that reinforce these beliefs, which seem to be fundamental to not only a scientific worldview, but any worldview consistent with enlightenment ideals.
Scott’s problem is that he’s made it easy for people to think that he, Scott, does not share these beliefs; that he is really an amoral sophist, a cynic and a relativist, whose only concern is playing the game of persuasion and manipulation.
This is the most common objection you hear from Scott’s critics on social media, and you hear it from Sam and David and Tamler. The perception is real, it’s genuine.
I personally don’t think this is a fair description of Scott. I think it’s an extreme characterization, I think it’s way too reductive. I don’t think Scott thinks of himself this way, and I don’t think he wants to be perceived this way. But like I said, he has made it easy for people to see him this way.
The reality is that there’s a spectrum of views that range from the idealized Philosopher on one end — the rationalist, the truth seeker, the person motivated by logic and reason and evidence — to the idealized Sophist on the other end — the irrationalist, the relativist, the amoralist, the cynic, who is only interested in persuasion and manipulation.
Real people hold some combination of these orientations. Now, it’s clear that if you had to locate Sam and Scott on the spectrum, you’d put Sam closer to the Philosopher end and Scott closer to the Sophist end. But not at the extremes.
Sam’s not naive about human psychology and the limits of reason, and he’s clearly interested in being an effective communicator and persuader.
And Scott does think that he’s latching on to objectively true features of the world, and of human nature. And it’s clear that he is motivated by reasons, and wants to persuade people with reasons and arguments, despite what he says about the ineffectiveness of facts and reason in politics.
Scott, if you’re listening, you need to rethink this talking point. You must see the problem with saying over and over that facts and logic never change minds, while you’re simultaneously presenting facts and arguments in an effort to change people’s minds. This is the only way to make sense of what you’re doing on your blog posts and Periscope lectures.
“I wanted to process it for a while and do it right.” What is it you’re trying to do right? You’re trying to give a rationally compelling defense of your position on Trump.
And you’re even trying to make your position accountable to the facts, vulnerable to refutation.
This isn’t what a person would say if they really believed that facts and logic make no difference.
So, the philosopher-sophist spectrum is a matter of degree, a continuum. Scott has an orientation farther toward the sophist end of the spectrum, but he’s not the stereotype of the pure Sophist, anymore than Sam Harris is the stereotype of the pure rationalist, the pure philosopher.
But the problem is that when these philosophical orientations become entangled with people’s political and cultural and moral identities, as they do in this case, they’re no longer free-floating. They’re vulnerable to the forces of tribal thinking, and they trigger the same mechanisms that generate the in-group/out-group polarization that Scott talks about so often. Confirmation bias takes over, and all we see is the stereotype we’re carrying around in our heads.
The irony for Scott is that the Sophist stereotype that he’s vulnerable to is one that shares a space with other forms of postmodern anti-rationalism. It puts him in company with elements of the anti-democratic, anti-modernist nationalists of the far right, and the radical feminists and neo-Marxists of the far left. Which is hilarious, given Scott’s anti-PC stance, his liberal and libertarian leanings, and his enthusiasm for modern science and technology.
These are not the bedfellows he wants. But if he keeps pushing the line he’s pushing, in the way he’s pushing it, I predict that this is the stereotype that he’ll constantly be fighting. He’ll be seen by people closer to the philosopher’s end of the spectrum — the majority of educated people, frankly, liberals and conservatives — as situated at the other end of the spectrum; as an amoral, anti-reason, anti-science, anti-democracy Sophist.
This is the hallucination, as he might say, that he’ll constantly be trying to dispel.
A Deeper Dive: Scott’s “Reality is an Illusion” Metaphysics, and How Persuasion Masters Can Shape the Matrix
To close out this discussion, I do think it’s an interesting question why Scott is as far down the Sophist spectrum as he is, and why scientists and philosophers have such a negative reaction to his views, and his mode of presentation.
I don’t want to get into mind-reading (I know he hates that …) but let me indulge in some informed speculation.
One thing that I never hear Scott’s critics talk about is the connection between Scott’s views on Trump and persuasion and the two-movies analogy, and his deeper metaphysical leanings, which are idealistic in the philosopher’s sense — nothing exists but minds and mind-dependent entities — and his epistemological leanings, which are hard core skeptical — we are profoundly mistaken about the nature of our experience and of reality.
Scott has written in many places about an intuition that he had as a young man, that reality doesn’t have a fixed structure, prior to conscious experience. That the world we experience may be an illusion of some kind.
Here’s a quote from one of Scott’s blog posts:
When I was in my twenties, I started seeing reality as probability and illusion. In my imaginary world – which is the only world I perceive – when you get an important email, for example, the message in the email is variable until the moment you read it. The email doesn’t become “real” to your mind until you observe its contents.
This sounds like a version of the consciousness interpretation of quantum mechanics, which New Agers appropriated in the 1980s.
Yes, that is actually how I observe the world and how I interact with it. I literally assume nothing is real until observed, and even then it only becomes the backstory to my movie that isn’t real either. And yet my world works just as well as yours, if not better.
Again, it sounds like a version of “you create your own reality” New Age philosophy. And if you’ve followed Scott you know he takes seriously the effectiveness of daily affirmations, and reorienting your psychology, as a tool for changing your reality.
For example, you probably thought you could not become a famous cartoonist and writer because you have no special artistic talent and you have never taken college classes in writing. That described my starting point too, and it would stop a rational person from even attempting the career I have now. But unlike rational people, I don’t see the world as an objective truth. I see it as a movie I am writing as I go. So I wrote some scenes in which I get rich and famous and develop six-pack abs.
I’ll turn 59 in June. How’s this level of fitness possible, you ask? Well, the 2D explanation is that I systematically replaced my need to use willpower with both knowledge and habit formation. I explain that simple process in my book that talks more generally about using systems instead of goals.
But the other explanation is that none of my reality is real. I just steer my imagination to the perception I desire, creating my own movie and then living in it. Under that worldview, affirmations – the act of writing down what you want 15 times a day – is nothing more than the user interface for steering your perceptions to the movie you want.
Now the view sounds like The Secret — through a disciplined practice of mindset and attitude adjustment, you can reshape your subjective experience, your experienced reality, and bring good things into your life.
Scott also likes to write about evolution not adapting us to be sensitive to the truth about reality, but only those aspects of reality that are relevant to “fitness” in the evolutionary sense, that are relevant to our ability to survive and propagate.
People who work in the field of so-called “evolutionary epistemology” will recognize this view, it actually has a long history in the philosophical literature.
But recently, Scott has been plugging the version of this argument that the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman has been promoting, which is a combination of evolutionary epistemology, a computational theory of consciousness, and a kind of digital metaphysics that entails that there are no public physical objects that stand outside of conscious perception. I’ll add a link to Hoffman’s TED talk in the show notes for this episode.
Scott resonates strongly with this vision. He writes ..
In my book The Dilbert Future, published in 1997, I predicted that Donald Hoffman’s description of reality (or something of that flavor) would replace our current understanding. I predicted that we would come to see time itself as perception and not reality. And by that way of thinking, nothing is real, including science itself.
So, what we end up with is a radically different metaphysics and epistemology than someone like Sam Harris, or Tamler Sommers, or David Pizzaro — or most ordinary academics — would sign on to.
In addition, Scott connects this quantum version of Matrix metaphysics, to his training in hypnosis and his testimonial experience of the power of daily affirmations. He believes that people can learn to rewire their own perceptual and cognitive circuitry, to fundamentally change the perceptual reality they experience. That’s how he interprets his own success.
He doesn’t always say this directly. He knows it sounds flaky to some people, so in most conversations he offers two different interpretations, one more consistent with people’s ordinary understanding of reality and science, and the Matrix-ey version I just described, and then he offers that there’s no way to tell the difference, so it’s really a matter of conventional choice which you choose to accept.
Putting it this way frames it as a skeptical argument, but I think this is an argument he deploys mostly for the sake of other people. I think it’s clear that Scott is personally, intuitively attracted to the “objective reality is an illusion” view.
Now, what’s also clear, once you see it through this lens, is that Scott’s fascination with Trump and the tools of persuasion is part and parcel of this worldview.
Scott sees the tools of persuasion as a means of rewiring not just our perception of reality, but reality itself, insofar as reality is nothing more than our perception. Masters of persuasion are those with an ability to manipulate the Matrix, whether or not they realize that’s what they’re doing. Scott sees Trump as one of these masters, and he sees himself in the same lineage, as a student of these tools, at least.
When persuasion is applied on a broad stage, in a way that affects lots of people, Scott likes to call that a form of mass hypnosis. This mass hypnosis manifests as people perceiving the world in radically different ways. They’re watching different movies, as he says.
But for Scott, there is no objective world outside the movie projected on the screen. It’s much closer to the view that we’re each living in our own digital simulation, a version of the simulation hypothesis (for those of you listening who are familiar with that). And there are degrees of agreement and overlap in our respective simulations, which makes it possible for us to experience the world as though we lived in a largely shared reality. But this is all still an illusion.
The election of Trump is such a notable event, for Scott, because it created two radically different perceptions of the world, and consequently, two different realities, that are experienced as shared worlds by millions of people.
It’s like the dress illusion. Do you remember the image of a striped dress that circulated in social media in 2015? Half the people saw the dress as white and gold, the other half saw it as blue and black. The effect is a result of some well known perceptual mechanisms, most notably what is known as ‘color constancy’ in the presence of ambiguous lighting conditions.
But what was so unusual about the dress illusion was that the perceptual differences between people were so sharp, and so stable and persistent. It was shocking to discover that the person sitting beside you was perceiving something so different from you. It was a stark illustration of a general truth, that what we experience in perception is always already mediated by unconscious cognitive processing.
Scott thinks of the polarization over Trump in a similar way. But it’s not just a perceptual illusion. With the dress you could pull out the original and show everyone that the dress is actually blue and black, it just looked white and gold for some people. There was an objective reality that stood outside our perceptual experiences, that we could collectively access and thereby judge the accuracy of our perceptions.
But fundamentally, Scott doesn’t think there is an objective reality outside of our perceptions.
Scott likes to say that the election of Trump challenged our understanding of reality; that his election “split the world”. Trump supporters who think he’s awesome, and Trump critics who think he’s terrible, are literally living in different perceptual worlds. And our brains sustain this reality; they’re actively working to reinforce these perceptions, rewriting the Matrix to fit the narrative we’ve come to identify with.
None of this came up in his interview with Sam Harris, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not a view that Scott advertises in his public interviews. He doesn’t view himself as an expert on the philosophical or scientific arguments for and against this view. He’s not going to talk about this on FOX news when he’s asked to comment on some political development. It’s a view that only comes into focus if you’ve read a little more of Scott’s work and you’re paying attention to what he says about these more philosophical topics, when they come up.
So I understand why Scott wouldn’t be anxious to volunteer this perspective in an interview with someone like Sam Harris. But I confess that this is the conversation that I would have really enjoyed listening to.
I would like to know, for example, how it’s possible to have an argument that assumes the truth of evolutionary science, and concludes that the objects of scientific investigation are themselves not real, that “science itself”, to use Scott’s own words, is not real. Doesn’t the conclusion undermine the assumption of the argument?
I’m sure that’s a question that Sam would ask.
But the main reason I’m bringing this up here is to add some context to the question that started this digression, which is why Scott appears to people Sam Harris and Tamler Sommers and David Pizzaro like a fairly extreme Sophist.
Scott’s preoccupation with persuasion and Trump’s successes makes him look like he’s valuing the skills of the con artist and the propagandist over the values of truth and honesty and intellectual integrity. But I hope it’s clear that, while his enthusiasm is real, it’s not because he values con artistry and persuasion for its own sake.
From Scott’s point of view, I think the enthusiasm has more to do with him sincerely thinking that he’s latched on to a deep truth that most people don’t accept, that is very counter-intuitive. But a truth that, once you embrace it, can change the way you view everything. And in addition, can give you practical tools for improving the quality of your life.
I’m not at all trying to defend Scott’s philosophical views, or his interpretation of Trump. I appreciate the opportunity to see the world through this filter, but I don’t personally share the intuitions that support it.
But I do think that this background helps to provide a more complete reading of where Scott is coming from, at least.