Collaborative Truth-Seeking Starter Kit… or: Arguing on the Internet: You’re Doing It Wrong!

Are you frustrated by how many people believe or support something you think is harmful and wrong? Do you run into problems when you try to engage with them and persuade them to reconsider their position? Do such attempts often lead to hostile arguments? 

Would you like to more effectively represent your ideas to the world and garner more cooperation and support? 

In this article we will explore the basics of collaborative truth-seeking and how to help people work together on a shared understanding of reality. 

What’s going on?

If you’re spending time to try to get people to rethink their opinions, it’s safe to assume that there’s some sort of negative consequence to their current incorrect position, or a positive outcome that you need them to participate in. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be all that important to change their minds. Even so, many arguments end up being pointless, or worse, because they fail to achieve their objective. 

Let’s look at an extremely controversial topic to illustrate this point: climate change. The climate change debate has two extreme opposing positions. At one extreme are the environmentalists arguing that humans are causing catastrophic environmental damage and need to take immediate and drastic action to mitigate and attempt to reverse this damage. At the other extreme, we have industrialists arguing that no such action is necessary and that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. There are plenty of people with positions well between these extremes, but those people tend to get sucked towards one end or the other when they get into discussions with people they disagree with. 

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Anthropogenic climate change is not to be confused with anthropomorphic climate change.

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The latter is a purely Al-le-Gore-ical depiction.  …Wait, come back! I’m sorry!

At every opportunity, the extreme environmentalists and industrialists take cheap shots at each other’s ideas and reasoning. They play tug of war with the facts, triumphantly brandishing any scientific study that supports their side or refutes something on the other side, while reflexively condemning any study that does the reverse. Each side plays the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” card to intimidate people with similar beliefs into backing up anything they say. This behavior leads those who don’t fall in line to rally at the opposite end, and it goes back and forth until everyone is on a side and hates everyone on the other side for ignoring the obvious facts. Everyone becomes the punchline of somebody else’s joke. 

Climate change seems like it would be a question of pure science, though. Why does a topic that should be informed by dispassionate reason inspire such irrational hostility? Why can’t we agree on the reality of the situation and what to do about it? 

Part of the reason for the problem is that reason is only part of the problem. That is, no problem is ever defined by dispassionate reason alone. After all, a problem is defined by what “ought” to happen. Dispassionate reasoning is all about what “is,” and you can’t derive an “ought” from only what “is.” To get an “ought,” you also need to start with another “ought.” Every problem originates not just from objective reality, but also from people’s feelings about what ought to be. Our desires and fears lead us to judge some outcomes better than others, and anything that makes it difficult to get to the better outcomes becomes a problem. When people argue with each other about what ought to happen and what ought to be done to make it so, they can’t begin by tossing facts about what is at each other. They’re skipping crucial steps in defining the problem. 

Step one

Step one is to understand your own values and goals. It may sound trivial, but it’s vitally important. Without a clear picture of which goals are your end goals—what you truly care about—and which goals are just a means to those ends, you can’t engage meaningfully with other people. They won’t acknowledge your perspective of the problem if they don’t understand what’s at stake for you. Furthermore, losing sight of what you actually want will get you bogged down disputing points that you don’t really care about. You won’t have a way to tell when your adversaries are starting to agree with you and need more encouragement, or when you can safely concede a point to keep things moving. If they try to compromise and you rebuff their overture, you and your priorities will lose credibility in their eyes. 

Eventually you’ll find yourself instinctively opposing your ideological rivals as much as possible, regardless of whether it’s productive. You’ll recognize no options but total war or unconditional surrender. There won’t be any middle ground between “give me everything I want” and “take everything I have”. 

Unfortunately, many people get caught up in the conflict and forget their core objectives. If you want to succeed, you have to remember what success means to you. When you define your basic goals and values as simply as possible, you open up more opportunities for achieving them. The more accommodating you are when negotiating the methods of solving a problem, the more goodwill you can build and the more the discussion will benefit your real goals, one way or another. 

I recommend that before engaging, before the raw emotions of an argument, you perform step one by reflecting on your bare minimum criteria for an acceptable outcome. It becomes much more difficult to do that once the conversation has started. If you ever plan on discussing a divisive topic, first spend some time alone or with cool-headed allies to figure out your true feelings on it and prepare to explain why you may be passionate about it. 

Here are some key questions you can ask yourself to help identify your true goals and values: 

“What do I appreciate about the status quo? What do I wish were different? What would I consider an ideal change, ignoring the question of how we would achieve it? What would I consider an acceptable step towards that change? What is the worst case scenario that I fear? What do I think might lead us there, and why? How do the status quo and the good or bad possible changes affect my life and the lives of people I care about?” 

Step two

Step two is the mirror image of step one. It is to understand the goals and values of the person or group with whom you are arguing. If you don’t understand what they want, you won’t know how to satisfy their concerns, so what you say will not matter to them. If step one should be done before the argument, step two is the first thing you should do once it starts: listen, engage, and ask questions to understand more about the other person’s point of view, while suspending judgment. 

You don’t have to accept what they say at face value, though. If you don’t understand a person’s goals or what they consider important, by all means to continue to ask questions. You may also want to check out my previous article describing political inclinations in terms of fundamental liabilities, which lends perspective to the legitimacy of different concerns. 

If you think that someone might have lost sight of their own true goal, you can suggest what you think their true goal may be, as long as it doesn’t impugn their character or insult their intelligence. They will resist or reject a suggestion that reflects negatively on them, even if it could be partly accurate. However, there are almost always ways to present your sincere guesses in a respectful and sympathetic light. Understanding the different ways people respond to fundamental liabilities will help with that. 

Here are some key questions you can ask a person to help identify their true goals and values: 

“I suspect that the reason you’re concerned about X is that you think it would cause Y because of Z. Is that right?” “I can understand the importance of A. If there were a way to achieve A other than method B, would that be alright? Or is method B important because it also accomplishes C?” “May I ask what criteria you look at to figure out whether something is getting to be a problem? … Is criterion P a sign of problem Q? What if we used criterion R instead, to avoid false alarms?” “Am I asking the wrong question?” 

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Our volunteers demonstrate how not to perform step two. …In retrospect, maybe showing nude models doing something isn’t the best way to persuade people not to do it. 

Applying steps one and two

To see the first two steps in action, we’ll expand on our climate change example. What are the values and concerns of the two major extremes involved? We’ll unpack their concerns below in order to identify their values. 

Environmentalists are concerned that human activity is altering the environment in ways that are unsustainable in the long-term. They fear that the environment will become damaged and inhospitable to existing Earth life, including humans. In liability terms, they feel that industrialists are acting with wastefulness and negligence, and will incur scarcity of resources and a greater risk of natural disasters as a result. What the environmentalists want is for society to start trying to reduce the damage that industry does to the environment, so that humans won’t have to worry about being able to survive on Earth for the long-term and so that Earth’s ecosystems will continue to thrive largely undisturbed by human civilization. 

Industrialists are concerned that environmental regulations are hurting the economy and preventing people from overcoming poverty and becoming prosperous. They fear that the economy will suffer as a result of the jobs lost by increasing the cost or decreasing the consumption of artificial goods. In liability terms, they feel that environmentalists are acting with austerity towards the use of natural resources, but with wastefulness towards the funding of alternative technologies that are currently more expensive, and with negligence towards the effects of environmental regulations on the economy. The industrialists are concerned that these policies will worsen the scarcity of wealth for lower-income people, and increase vulnerability to economic disaster. What they want is for people to enjoy plentiful jobs and inexpensive goods and services, so that they don’t have to worry about having enough money to live decent, comfortable lives and so that society will thrive largely uninhibited by bureaucratic interference. 

Steps one and two reveal the values that inform what sorts of facts are relevant to the situation. By having a solid sense of what’s relevant and what isn’t, you can prevent unnecessary conflict and limit the time you spend on tangential issues. 

Additionally, after you complete step two, you can more easily explain your own values to others. They will be more receptive to your concerns after you’ve demonstrated you appreciate theirs. Once you both understand each other’s values, you can begin looking for solutions that address all of those values simultaneously. 

Step three

Understanding everyone’s different values leads us to step three. We already established that if you’re arguing about the truth, you’re actually trying to solve a problem. That means that collaborative truth-seeking is actually collaborative problem-solving. Steps one and two give you pieces of the problem description from the perspectives of the different stakeholders (you and everyone else involved), and the stakeholders’ criteria for an acceptable solution. Step three is to frame the problem constructively

Framing the problem constructively allows you to brainstorm solutions to fulfill the criteria of all the stakeholders. “Constructively” means thinking win-win, using creativity to avoid any group having to surrender their most important values. However, it also reflects that you may need to put in the effort to build solutions that go beyond what you or your erstwhile adversaries had imagined when you were only concerned with getting your own way. 

These solutions will usually be better for the work invested, though. After all, as we saw in the liabilities article, even those you consider your adversaries may have good reasons to be concerned. More fundamentally, whenever one group “loses,” society as a whole is harmed. If we have a system that ensures someone is always suffering or treated unfairly, we would all benefit to replace it with a better one. 

Here are some key questions you can ask to help frame the problem constructively: 

What assumptions are we making about the solution that are limiting our thinking? How can we fulfill this goal even if it’s not in the way we expected? What simple thing could I do to help you get what you want, or vice versa? Is there a way we could make a larger change together to accomplish both our goals, and to provide even more benefits? What can we do to establish and maintain a relationship of trust during this collaboration? 

Applying step three

Let’s see how step three plays out with the climate change debate. We want to protect the environment but also maintain the economy. We saw that the liabilities in play here are scarcity and disaster, which are counteracted by investment and exposure, respectively. If we can invest in anti-poverty measures to boost the economy without relying on unsustainable use of natural resources, then the industrialists will be happy. If we can develop a plan for decreasing the environmental impact of the economy within a certain time frame, giving the market enough time to adjust through step-by-step exposure, then the environmentalists will be happy. 

As it happens, when we examine the relationship between poverty and the environment, we find that the goal of eliminating poverty is inextricable from environmental concerns. Not only are impoverished people globally more directly affected by environmental deterioration (being less insulated from nature), but poverty itself contributes to said deterioration. People living in destitution around the world are more likely to dispose of waste improperly and exploit natural resources in unsustainable ways (such as destroying rainforests to expand farmland), because they can’t afford the luxury of worrying about sustainable practices. Reducing harm to the environment requires the alleviation of poverty, so any solution for the latter will be win-win. (If you want to dig into the nuances of the situation, you can search for the keywords “poverty” and “environmentalism” together and bask in the wealth of information that pops up. This example is merely to illustrate the application of step three. The economy alone is its own can of worms which I opened in the article Economies are Made of People.) 

As far as decreasing environmental impact goes, it turns out that green technology can actually be more profitable than regular polluting technology, but the polarized environmentalist/industrialist debate has persuaded the public that environmentally friendly manufacturing is inherently worse for the economy. As a perverse result, companies are afraid to openly implement sustainable measures, which only perpetuates the myth. This problem just goes to show that when people try to equate their victory with an enemy’s defeat and vice versa, it’s a lot easier for everyone to lose. 

Recap

To sum up, here are the steps: 

  1. Understand your own values and goals
  2. Understand the goals and values of the other person or group
  3. Frame the problem constructively

Disclaimer

Now that we’ve seen the benefits of these three steps, I owe you a disclaimer. It is entirely possible for some individuals and groups to have unethical or otherwise anti-social values. Their goals may be incompatible with constructive, win-win solutions. They will be reluctant to admit it, because they rely on appearing reasonable in order to garner support from people adjacent to their ideological position. However, you can recognize them and their true values by which solutions they accept. If you continue to listen to their concerns and propose solutions to address them, but they reject your suggestions for reasons you don’t quite buy, it just might be because they are hiding their true concerns. 

For example, an anti-social industrialist may value becoming rich and powerful. If you propose a solution that makes people in general more prosperous but reduces the income of the industrialist’s business, they may look for reasons to reject it. An anti-social environmentalist may value wiping out civilization and reducing humanity back to hunting and gathering. If you offer a solution that preserves the environment but leaves cities and farmland intact, they may contrive arguments against it. 

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An antisocial cat may decline your party invitation with the excuse that it’s busy licking its fur.

Worse, your own bias may lead you to mistakenly conclude a person is arguing in bad faith. You may dismiss them or accuse them of selfishness or malice instead of recognizing a misunderstanding. 

Luckily, if you use the three-step process to discuss policy and ideology, you don’t have to spend much time on figuring out who is genuine. As long as you engage with enough different points of view to represent the key stakeholder perspectives for a particular situation, you can choose to speak with only the people who are most enlightening, regardless of their potential ulterior motives, and ignore the people who are difficult to communicate with, sincere or otherwise. 

That said, if you hit a wall on any step, go back to the previous step. If you keep hitting a wall, you may want to find someone easier to talk with, so you can both figure out an agreeable solution to the situation. 

Conclusion

With practice, you’ll be able to use the three-step process with greater ease and with more different people. Most people out there really do want win-win solutions. As you learn more about people and what they value, and get better at coming up with constructive solutions that respect their values, you will find that more and more people are willing to cooperate with your goals and reject those who argue in bad faith or who have destructive goals. 

You may not succeed in persuading everyone, but once you start you’ll immediately see a dramatic difference in the quality of your interactions. The more you try, the more constructive your world will become. 

For more about how to listen to people and look at the situation from the same side of the table, check out Difficult Conversations. For more about how to think win-win, check out The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For an organization working to help more people engage in collaborative truth-seeking, check out Intentional Insights (full disclosure: I used to be on the board of directors). For an entertaining in-depth breakdown of how collaborative truth-seeking (and the absence of it) shapes human society and affects your own life, check out the The Story of Us article series from Wait But Why. For another article about constructive disagreement, check out Educated Minds Unite. For more of my opinions on modern politics, check out Politician Noises and the Overdue Fake News Article. To leave a message with your opinion, or suggestions for other key questions, enter and post a comment. 

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To read these options again, press 0.

Sources and links

Coburn, Cassandra. “Why industry is going green on the quiet.” The Guardian. September 8, 2019. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/sep/08/producers-keep-sustainable-practices-secret

Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, Free Press, 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Dev Bharadwaj, Niranjan. “The relationship between poverty and the environment”. Voices of Youth. November 5, 2016. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.voicesofyouth.org/blog/relationship-between-poverty-and-environment

Stone, Douglas, with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. London, Penguin Books, 1999. https://smile.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447/ref=smi_www_rco2_go_smi_g2609328962?_encoding=UTF8&%2AVersion%2A=1&%2Aentries%2A=0&ie=UTF8

Urban, Tim. The Story of Us: Full Series.” Wait But Why. August 2019. https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html

Images

Collaboration image by rawpixel from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/business-business-people-3421076/

Skull Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/spirit-ghost-person-nightmare-3058631/  

Al Gore Image by johnsanderson12 from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/illustrations/celebrity-caricature-al-gore-986833/

Win-lose image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/suppression-violent-victory-winner-3048645/

Cat image by Erika Varga from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/kitten-cat-shy-harlequin-hairy-3855519/

Phone image by succo from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/phone-communication-connection-351896/

Apoliticalypses: Liabilities and the Political Compass

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I used to think that the political compass was a sloppy way of describing political ideology. Most politically relevant issues, I believed, didn’t fit on the graph. Although the commonly accepted definitions of libertarian and authoritarian may be fairly straightforward, “liberal” and “conservative” are a bit more nebulous in a political context. People know what it means to give a “conservative estimate” or to apply a “liberal amount” of something, but what does that mean for actual policy positions? 

Recently, I have changed my mind about the relevance of the political compass, after realizing that its points line up neatly with certain concepts from the Four Apocalypses, also known as the four fundamental liabilities. Any obstacle or threat that stands in the way of any goal or value falls under at least one of these liabilities, and the political compass describes how people deal with them. Why is this important? Understanding how liabilities define the political positions that people live by is the key to reconciling opposing positions and accomplishing anything constructive. We can make it easier to change the shape of politics by making it easier to understand the nuances of the status quo. 

Below, I give my take on what the words on the graph really mean, and you can decide for yourself if these definitions are useful for describing people and the problems they care about. 

Libertarianism versus Authoritarianism

Starting with the vertical axis, both libertarianism and authoritarianism are approaches to the problems of stagnation (Age) and conflict (War). Libertarianism errs on the side of undercontrolling these liabilities (risking decadence and turmoil), and authoritarianism errs on the side of overcontrolling them (risking dogma and corruption). 

 

Libertarianism

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Libertarianism embraces free thought and freedom of choice. It expects people to pursue their goals independently and make their own mistakes. The libertarian ideal is that people will use their passions and intellect to improve society when left to their own devices. Under this assumption, people will build businesses and trades. They will educate themselves and become self-sufficient and strong of character. Thus empowered, they will be enlightened enough to keep the peace through their strength and pragmatism. They will honor the independence of others while protecting themselves and their neighbors from danger. Those people who make consistently bad choices will be held responsible for their own decisions, and left to fail until they start making good ones. Libertarianism believes that when people are free of restrictions and overprotection, they will learn and grow, build and create, because that is where they will find fulfillment. 

Galt’s Gulch from Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged provides a popular example of a libertarian ideal. 

The dystopia that libertarianism fears is easy to imagine because we have seen it depicted in innumerable works of fiction: an authoritarian nightmare with no freedom, no rights, and no privacy, in which citizens are brainwashed and those in power create and enforce laws for their own gain. Dogma leads to the suppression of creativity and individuality and the imprisonment of the mind. Laws are corrupted into weapons of oppression wielded by the elite. Companies edge out competition by influencing regulation, so consumers have no alternatives. If any semblance of choice remains, it is an illusion maintained by the ruling class to keep people complacent. 

George Orwell’s 1984 provides the quintessential example of what libertarians fear most. 

 

Authoritarianism

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

Authoritarianism embraces structure and certainty, regarding them as necessary conditions for humanity to thrive. It expects that society will work better when arranged in a hierarchy or system of rules, and prioritizes the health of the community as a whole over the preferences of any individual. In an authoritarian utopia, subordinates will conform to custom and obey their superiors, while the superiors will faithfully uphold moral standards and provide wise guidance to their subordinates. Authority figures and the laws they make will prevent behavior disruptive to the good of the group. When people are all following the same rules and working towards the same goal, they will be able to accomplish great things and avoid distractions and strife. Authoritarianism seeks to give people a fulfilling purpose in life based on service to the community and its own higher purpose, if it has one. By focusing on this purpose, people will maintain discipline and develop strength of character. Authoritarianism believes that given order and guidance, society will be stronger and happier. 

I wasn’t able to find a good fictional example of an authoritarian utopia, because most writers chafe under such rules, but authoritarian regimes produce copious propaganda explaining what their ideal world is supposed to look like, so you can look some up. (Edit 8/11/19: This article about North Korean propaganda has some utopian-looking posters, particularly this one and this one. Sadly, they are not even remotely close to accurately representing reality, but if they did, I’d be encouraged to do my part for the community. Source: Illmer, Andreas. “North Korean propaganda changes its tune.” BBC News. 23 June 2018. Accessed 8/11/19.

The dystopia that authoritarianism fears is one of decadence and turmoil: addiction of the mind and oppression through violence. Authoritarians are concerned that a libertarian world fails to instill discipline. As a result, people’s characters weaken until the world deteriorates into a violent anarchy filled with depravity. In such a world, people overindulge in vices without a second thought, forsaking any higher purpose and abandoning their potential in favor of tearing down the cultural principles that have sustained society up to that point. Sanctioned selfishness results in everyone struggling against everyone else in a cutthroat economy, or the remains of one. A few large companies will capture a consumer base by appealing to the lowest common denominator and exploiting their desire for instant gratification. Many end up addicted to drugs, stealing from each other, or parasitically exploiting the few in society who do useful work. Some embrace radical ideas that they only half understand because they see immediate benefit for themselves. Crime and barbarism will become the norm because people will know only how to destroy, not how to create. 

You’ve seen examples of this dystopia in many cyberpunk (and other -punk genre) works, or in post-apocalyptic works where society and community structures have collapsed. 

Liberalism versus Conservatism

Both liberalism (economic left) and conservatism (economic right) are approaches to the problems of scarcity (Famine) and disaster (Pestilence). Liberalism errs on the side of undercontrolling these liabilities (risking wastefulness and negligence), and conservatism errs on the side of overcontrolling them (risking austerity and susceptibility). 

 

Liberalism

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Liberalism embraces change in order to improve the status quo. As a political ideology, it pushes for technology, culture, and government spending to come together to solve people’s problems. Anytime somebody identifies a potential enhancement for a system, the change is made without delay and with no expense spared. Poverty, inequality, disease, natural disasters—liberalism firmly believes all of these problems and more can be solved if we put our minds to it. A liberal ideal is a future in which everyone can live comfortably, with all of their needs met and without fear of harm. People and communities will spend the resources they have in order to get what they want and enjoy existence. Anyone will be able to change their lifestyle and their environment as much as necessary in pursuit of fulfillment. Civilization will progress scientifically to solve all medical and environmental problems. Every so often, communities will fund massive creative projects for the edification and entertainment of their people. As people’s values evolve and they recognize new problems, society will regularly update the goals it optimizes for. 

This sort of utopia shows up from time to time in fiction, often as a happily-ever-after ending or an enlightened world threatened by something else. The United Federation of Planets from Star Trek (the original series, at least) is probably the most well-known version of this ideal, an enlightened society of science and cultural harmony, in which people explore space and hundreds of alien species live in peace with each other. 

The dystopia that liberalism fears is a conservative one in which people adhere rigidly to the old ways, halting social progress. Society builds no grand works of culture or architecture, instead hoarding its resources in case of hardship. People may labor under inherited duties and restrictions—not because they can’t imagine any differently, as in the case of dogma, but because they fear the consequences of relinquishing them. Terrified of incurring catastrophe, society has frozen technological advancement and is afflicted by self-imposed poverty and, ironically, vulnerability to the volatility of nature. Custom dictates the methods of running society even when those methods stop working or reveal problematic side-effects, because no one wants to test out new processes in case they make things even worse. Large changes to the landscape (other than traditional agriculture, of course) are right out. People are at the mercy of disease and disability and can do nothing against them other than hope. They try desperately to keep everything the same regardless of what opportunities for improvement they may be forgoing. 

This dystopia is typically illustrated by a hidebound village rejecting an idea that could make life better for everyone. Rather than an image of a possible future, it’s often a continuation of a time of hardship in humanity’s past, with each problem perpetuated and each outside threat prompting further withdrawal into the collective comfort zone. Alternatively, it could be a seemingly idyllic rural or suburban town with a dark secret to how they preserve their way of life. 

 

Conservatism

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Conservatism embraces established practices to prevent disruptions to the status quo. It believes that change is best implemented slowly, if at all, so we can keep from losing the good things we already have. A civilization following strictly conservative ideals expects that people will enjoy decent lives by sticking to traditions and tried-and-true methods. Everyone will have sufficient food and resources, because they save it for when they need it. By working hard at normal jobs, they will reap the standard rewards, and will be content with having a place in their communities. Society will remain safe by eschewing dangerous new technologies in favor of diligence and humility. People accept problems as a part of life, and endure them gracefully. Everything they need to live a fulfilling life is already with them, as long as they practice and uphold the ways that keep it running. In general, each year is much like the one before it. 

This sort of utopia is often shown as an arcadian village or a peaceful kingdom, usually threatened by an evil empire. The only major problems come from outside the realm and the narrative is focused on restoring the status quo. 

The liberal dystopia that conservatism fears is one in which people spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t really need, and they cause major problems by attempting to solve minor ones. Instead of accepting the world the way it is, they come up with ideas to change it that only cause them and others to lose what they already had. Technology causes terrible accidents, or it takes away jobs, while the government’s spendthrift policies drain money from the people who do things the honest way in order to support the people who don’t. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, as people upset the balance of the world in pursuit of the mirage of perfection. 

You can see glimpses of liberal dystopias in science fiction B-movies, where a breakthrough technology intended to help humanity invariably goes awry and threatens the world at large. On a less whimsical note, during the Cold War communist states like Soviet Russia frequently implemented sweeping agricultural changes for the glory and prosperity of society, only for them to fail catastrophically, with massive casualties from starvation. 

 

Recapitulation

Now that we’ve got the illustrations out of the way, let’s take another look at the “cardinal directions”: 

  • Libertarianism wants fewer restrictions on individual choice so that a single authority cannot cause problems
  • Authoritarianism wants more structure and stricter guidance in society so that the public at large doesn’t cause problems through ill-considered choices
  • Liberalism wants to implement change to solve problems
  • Conservatism wants to stick with the status quo to avoid causing more problems

Many policy positions can be classified as a combination of two cardinal directions, ending up in the corners: 

  • Authoritarian liberals want to make new laws and give commands that add structure to society
  • Libertarian liberals want to get rid of longstanding laws, to make laws that protect freedom from other forms of authority, or to change things without using laws or commands
  • Authoritarian conservatives want to preserve existing structures, or to return to laws we used to have
  • Libertarian conservatives want to preserve existing freedoms, to return to a state without so many laws, or to remove laws that force change

 

How is this definition different?

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay
We’ve got the bulb now—we just need to fill in a few bubbles before it lights up.

There are a couple interesting features to note about this version of the political compass. 

First, the points on my political compass don’t correspond to specific policies, which means people with the same political leanings are fully allowed to disagree on what policies they support. “Liberal” doesn’t necessarily refer to government control of the economy or to less restrictive social norms, nor does “conservative” mean the opposite. Liberal is simply defined as, “see a problem, try to solve it.” Exactly what a person considers a problem or how they try to change it are small details. Likewise, conservatives are defined by preferring to stick with (or return) to the tried-and-true, even if it has some flaws. What exactly they consider a familiar status quo depends entirely on what background the conservative comes from, but conservatives everywhere share the same general attitudes towards scarcity and disaster. 

On the vertical axis, libertarians like to let people do what they want without restrictions, but what they expect those people to do with their freedom may vary drastically from culture to culture. Authoritarians want people to be obedient to rules and leaders to make it easier to protect the communities, but the nature of the rules and the identity of the leaders is still up for debate. Two authoritarian people may try to impose mutually exclusive authorities. Thus, you can have two people from the exact same point on the political compass at odds with each other when they reach the voting booth. 

Conversely, we may see two people trying to push the exact same policy for two completely different reasons. A libertarian liberal may want to repeal a law because doing so changes the status quo to give people more freedom, but an older libertarian conservative may want to repeal it because they are old enough to remember how much freer people were before it was passed. From the latter’s point of view, repealing the law is a return to the status quo they once knew. Similarly, a religious person may be libertarian in their goal of reducing the reach of the federal government because they have an authoritarian belief that that influence should be in the hands of local cultural leaders instead. Knowing what policies a person supports doesn’t tell you the reasons why they are supporting those policies, but it’s knowing those reasons that will allow you to connect with them. 

With that in mind, the first lesson of my political compass is that all policy positions are based on the same basic concerns regarding fundamental liabilities. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all ultimately trying to solve the same problems. We differ only in how we prioritize them and what we think the solutions are.

Why do we differ in the first place, though? How do we know that the people claiming to have sincere disagreements aren’t trying to deceive people for their own gain? These questions bring us to the second lesson.

Risk assessment

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
These are the questions you must weigh against each other. (Not shown to scale.)

The second important aspect of my version of the political compass is that you can be at different points on the compass in different situations. 

Of course, your formative life experiences will calibrate your baseline assessment of which liabilities are most likely in different contexts. If you witness firsthand the dangers of drug addiction, you may consider it a more imminent threat than any damage to society done by the War on Drugs. Conversely, if most of the families you meet can survive illegal drug use but disintegrate when law enforcement and the judicial system step in to punish it, you may estimate that such measures do more harm than good, based on what you’ve seen. 

Granted, people’s risk assessments are often distorted by their limited experiences and rudimentary grasp of reasoning. Their political adversaries typically try to remedy this problem with aggressive and sanctimonious education. Such an approach employs facts and even statistics to assert that people’s sense of the scale and seriousness of a problem, drawn from their experiences, is wrong. It rarely works, but not because of intellectual stubbornness. The problem with this method of argument is that it ignores another key factor which contributes to a person’s political position. 

Above, we established that your political position is based on what outcomes you fear, but it’s more accurate to say it’s based on what you fear most. Even if you fear that someone’s political position will lead to a dystopia, it would be foolish to assert that they desire for that dystopia to come about. (Not that people don’t say it anyway.) It would be wiser to suspect that they consider a step towards that dystopia an acceptable risk if it prevents the dystopia they think your position will lead to. 

The risks you are willing to accept depend on your ability to effectively deal with different liabilities. If you think you can endure, mitigate, or resolve one crisis more easily than you can another, you are more likely to increase the risk of the former crisis in exchange for reducing the risk of the latter. Your resources at hand and your skills at applying them vary depending on the situation, and therefore so will your political position.

For instance, you will probably act much more conservatively with your money if you’re making $20,000 per year than if you’re making $100,000 per year. The negative consequences of wasting money are greater the less money you have. As another example, if you struggle to rein in your impulsive children but find the adults under your supervision reliably exercise good judgment, you may be more authoritarian with your children than with your subordinates. When imposing order is more difficult than disrupting it, removing free choice and inquiry seems a small enough price to pay. Your authoritarianism may temporarily increase when your children are around fragile objects (adding a bit of conservatism). As your skills and life situation evolve over the long term, your position on the political compass regarding your own lifestyle may shift to reflect which risks you are willing to incur to protect yourself from other risks. 

Both of these factors—what you consider likely and what you believe you can handle—will influence what risks you are willing to take in different contexts and therefore what your political position is in those contexts. 

You can apply this knowledge when observing or participating in political disagreements. In online discussions, people may make extreme statements in order to push back against perceived threats or to reaffirm their group affiliation. Despite this, they almost always have hidden nuanced feelings on the topic. Their more reasonable opinions surface when they confront a difficult situation in a safe environment.

People’s very real insecurities and weaknesses cannot be changed by a barrage of facts of any size. These weaknesses simply require different methods to address them. 

How is this useful? 

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
This image contains its own pun.

How do we address the insecurities which lead people to oppose each other so vehemently, though? How does knowing any of this help? 

Firstly, the political compass will help you to understand other people from their perspective. If you think of someone’s policy positions in terms of the risks they are willing to accept in a particular context, you realize the person is a lot more reasonable and sane than you thought they were. You should also be able to imagine how people with different political opinions feel by imagining yourself in a situation that would prompt a similar risk assessment from you. (It’s a novel concept, I know.) By visualizing the circumstances in which you would accept or reject each different type of risk (i.e. the situations which would place you at each point on the political compass), you can learn to appreciate the validity of others’ fears. Even if you don’t think they should be sacrificing so much to prevent those fears from coming to pass, you can both agree that neither of you wants it to happen. 

Understanding the different perspectives of others enables you to communicate with them more effectively, because you know what they consider important and unimportant. Being willing to appreciate what others care about will encourage them to listen to and appreciate your values as well. Demonstrating and earning respect is much easier when you know how people might feel and why. Even if they don’t share your particular values, they will try and accommodate you if you do the same for them. 

Mastering the concepts of the political compass also allows you to frame political disputes in terms of what problems people are actually concerned about, and not merely in terms of what policies they favor for solving them. Knowing the difference between a person’s values (and fears) and their default responses to them lets you set the stage for constructive conversations where people are comfortable admitting the flaws in their proposed policies, because they know that even though you may disagree with their methods, you still want to help them achieve their real goals. 

When you are confident in cooperating and each person understands what the other wants, you can work together to come up with solutions that are more satisfactory for everybody, instead of merely pushing back and forth between two mutually exclusive alternatives in a false dichotomy. 

Applying the mindsets will help you come up with creative plans to assuage everyone’s concerns. Perception mindset is vital for understanding the nature of the problem and what resources you have at your disposal to resolve it. Communication mindset is indispensable for making sure that people understand each other and are on the same page regarding the situation. Facilitation mindset is especially useful for coming up with clever, robust policy approaches that are often more effective than the first idea that comes to mind. Finally, action mindset is necessary for implementing the solution effectively and efficiently. Don’t forget to practice strengthening all of the attributes of each mindset as well! 

What would a solution look like?

Defining political problems using fundamental liabilities will remind you to practice the four virtues in order to avoid the dystopias associated with your preferred positions. 

If you’ve read my earlier article on the liabilities you may already realize that I don’t consider any of the utopias I listed to be possible unless people learn how to make their different inclinations work together to mutual benefit. Such cooperation necessarily goes beyond mere political compromise. Arguing about where to draw the line of perfect balance will only waste time. Even if balancing two bad ideas worked, it wouldn’t be stable in the long term. There is no mystical criterion or calibration that will allow us to create prosperity, safety, vitality, or peace through policy alone.

As Albert Einstein may or may not have said, you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. Paradises are powered by people, not policy. In order to attain any utopia, people need to actively and continuously practice the virtues that counter each liability. 

To avoid all of the dystopias simultaneously, we will need all four virtues: 

  • Investment of effort, resources, and time, to counter scarcity. 
  • Exposure to new situations and hazards, to counter disaster. 
  • Transcendence of ideas and desires that ensnare and consume, to counter stagnation. 
  • Ethics to guide our treatment of others towards more compassion, honor, support, and dedication, to counter conflict. 

But that’s so naive! 

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay
It’s easy to be optimistic when you’re a giant fusion reaction that literally walks on rainbows.

I will end this article with a warning. 

The reason I am recommending the approach above to resolving political disagreements isn’t merely because it’s the most pleasant one. It’s because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only one that will ever work.

If we want people to push for less extreme positions, we must ensure that our own policy positions do not actively threaten them, that we are willing to work with them to deal with what they fear, and that our interactions with them are tempered with respect. If we take the initiative to address their worries, we can come up with solutions better than the ones they already have, and can earn their trust to implement our plans and policies by volunteering to be held accountable for results. 

However, many people don’t want to invest the effort to reconcile their differences the diplomatic way, so instead they spend their effort on trying to crush their opponents once and for all. When those who disagree with you don’t take the time to appreciate your concerns, don’t educate themselves in order to find a solution that works for everyone, and don’t even find a good solution for their own concerns, it’s tempting to try to steamroll them instead of taking the time to appease them. Why should you bother to reward their willful ignorance? 

I find, though, that punishing people for being wrong is pointless compared to inspiring people to change for the better. After all, people’s faults aren’t their fault. No one chooses to have flaws. If we can inspire people to see the value in learning, even if it is difficult, I would take that without hesitation over imposing a punishment that, despite what we tell ourselves, teaches nothing. 

Make no mistake, attempting to squelch people’s concerns cannot accomplish your utopia. It’s naivete and spite masquerading as pragmatism. Movements that smack down other people spend much more time and effort trying to overcome resistance from the those they’re trying to suppress than they would trying to build a mutually acceptable world. After all, if someone tried to coerce you into submission, would you put any thought into why they might be justified in doing so? Everyone thinks that they are right and those who disagree are wrong. There are methods to tell the difference, but they don’t work when you’re chanting slogans. 

The path of subjugation also makes it much easier for opposing politicians to get elected with the promise of “protecting” people from you. By attacking your ideological adversaries, you’re actually helping demagogues gather support. Demagogues need an enemy, and in order to profit off of that enemy, they will preach a position that is as antithetical to that enemy as possible. If you behave like an enemy, then demagogues who define themselves in opposition to you will comfort those you intimidate and win their allegiance, no matter how righteous you are and how misguided they are. The result is that your adversaries will become better organized and more extreme in their beliefs. 

Finally, even if you manage to triumph over all of the indignant ignoramuses and the rousers of resentment, every voice you silence brings you a step closer to one of the dystopias above. Every opinion you brush past is a guidepost along the path to making the world a worse place in one way or another. Your political adversaries aren’t insane, alien, or even fundamentally broken. Their minds may not measure up to yours, but their worries are just as worthy. If you can’t figure out a way to show them that you’re willing to work towards a world that’s less scary for everyone, you are probably steering the world towards your own preferred flavor of doomsday. 

Maybe you’re amenable to that, but I’m not. I stand against all of the dystopias. If we truly want to build a future we can all be proud of, we’ll need to do better than impeding those who are just trying to look after their part of it. 

I expect you to have developed some form of respect for your political adversaries after reading this article. If you reply in your head, “yes, but they’re wrong,” then you have missed the point, and I have failed. The point isn’t who already has the most accurate picture of a situation, or the best solution. The point is that before you can even start thinking of a solution, before you can even judge what needs to be included in your picture of a situation, you need to understand two things: what people care about, and what they’re willing to risk to protect it. 

 


 

Edit 8/11/19: Afterthought: There are other diagrams of political persuasions that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum.  I like my version at the moment, but the Ingelhart-Welzel cultural map of the world makes a lot of sense to me as well.  Then again, that one also seems to correspond to the fundamental liabilities, with the horizontal axis dealing with stagnation/conflict and the vertical axis dealing with scarcity/disaster.  I take that as a positive indicator that the fundamental liabilites really are useful for describing some important aspects of culture. What do you think? 

Averting the Apocalypses

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In this article, we’ll take a look at the four fundamental liabilities that threaten any project, from the smallest weekend plan up to the existence of civilization itself.

It may seem pointless to use only four concepts to describe all possible ways in which a project can fail. How could such a generic, high-level categorization be useful in solving real-world problems, in all their nuance?

The purpose of these labels is not to provide all the details necessary to solve the problem, but rather to make sure that people aren’t overlooking a huge aspect of the situation they’re dealing with. Even large groups of people or entire societies tend to address liabilities in ways which merely incur yet more liabilities. Moreover, people who are concerned about particular liabilities and have plans for averting them often clash with people who are concerned with other liabilities, and who fear the liabilities that the first group’s plan will create. These groups often default to labeling each other as stupid or evil, which prevents them from realizing that they both have important concerns.

As a constructive alternative, the fundamental liabilities offer a framework for mutual understanding and cooperation to develop solutions more acceptable for all involved. Rather than removing nuance, these concepts are intended to allow people to identify it in situations they had been treating as black-and-white.

For these reasons, not only will we be looking at the liabilities themselves and how to recognize them, but also the virtues that are required in order to deal with them successfully. These virtues will help minimize the cascade of side-effects that would otherwise come from trying to change the world on a large scale to fix one problem or another.

Before we start, it should be noted that any and all mindsets can be used to address any of the liabilities. There is no direct correspondence between any particular mindset or liability, except that some of the mindsets are more obviously useful in more situations related to a particular liability. The same applies to any attribute, which we’ll see after we go through the liabilities themselves. The major difference between the liabilities is that they represent the various aspects of a goal that reality can impede. 

The Four Apocalypses

The Four Apocalypses are derived from two dichotomies: material versus mental, and order versus chaos. 

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Yes, order and chaos are everywhere. Welcome to reality.

The dichotomy between material versus mental is fairly straightforward. The material side refers to physical or “natural” obstacles. The physical world can threaten goals with unexpected events that interfere, or by simply not allowing the goal to be possible in the first place. These obstacles may also result from people’s mistakes or malfunctioning technology; because those are unintentional, I file them under “natural”. The mental side refers to teleological (goal-related) obstacles, based on people’s choices (deliberate or habitual). Minds can threaten goals by having mutually exclusive desires leading to contention, or by simply not being able to encompass or attempt the goal in the first place. Any direct threat to a goal based on what objectives people are or aren’t targeting falls under mental or teleological threats.

In order versus chaos you can see once again the classic dichotomy that appears throughout conscious existence. From an existential standpoint, order is synonymous with “knowledge”. (See the first article on this blog for more details on existential order and chaos.) Order can foil goals by taking the form of a limitation or boundary on what can be accomplished in the current situation. These boundaries can be material or mental, based on what is physically possible or on what people can bring themselves to decide. Chaos is synonymous with “unknown”. Chaos can thwart goals by manifesting as an adversarial force of unpredictable timing, or as an unforeseen entity disrupting it. These misfortunes can material or mental as well.

In general, all situations have aspects of known and unknown to some degree, and liabilities are no exception. To be classified as a liability rather than as merely a regular situation, we have to know that a phenomenon will prevent us from getting what we want. On the other hand, we don’t know if we’ll be able to overcome it. The classification of a liability as orderly or chaotic comes from how much knowledge we have about the liability itself and how to deal with it, before it becomes necessary.

These two dichotomies intersect to produce the Four Apocalypses: 

Order (known): Chaos (unknown):
Material (natural): Famine (scarcity) Pestilence (disaster)
Mental (teleological): Age (stagnation) War (conflict)

Table 1: Derivation of the four fundamental liabilities/Apocalypses

Why the gimmick?

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Why add so much drama to something so mundane?

You may notice that these Apocalypses are themed on the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian lore (the popular culture version with Pestilence instead of Conquest). However, instead of “Death”, we have “Age”. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, Death is already an Element, as we’ll see in an upcoming article. (No, it doesn’t require causing humans to die. It is much more constructive than mere literal death.) For another, all of these liabilities already represent ways in which a project or civilization can die, so calling one of them “Death” is completely redundant.

We’ll see more about why the fourth apocalypse is more appropriately styled “Age” when we get to its section (although “Conquest” could also be a decent name for it).

Why is there a theme in the first place? I originally came up with these concepts in the first place because I thought the Four Horsemen theme was entertaining and had decided to figure out if these seemingly arbitrary anthropomorphic personifications could be used to represent something deeper. As it turns out, being able to know what forms problems can take is very important. Figuring out how to fundamentally categorize threats turned from a vanity project into a humbling experience. Ultimately, I kept the theme because for me it makes confronting life’s obstacles fun rather than a chore. You can choose to use the regular terms if you prefer. 

Why use the word “apocalypse”? As it turns out, the word didn’t originally mean the actual end of the world. It literally means “revelation”, as in “something that is revealed” or “the process of revealing”. The book of Revelations in Christian lore happens to be about the end of the world and is titled as such to represent the revelation of how things turned out; how it all ends. However, such a revelation can mark the end of anything, not just the whole world, so any conclusion, successful or not, is a miniature apocalypse. Also, referring to problems as “apocalypses” frames them as adventures instead of crushingly boring mundanities. If it’s too melodramatic for your taste, you can just refer to them as liabilities. The concepts are more important than the labels.

Famine

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The Apocalypse of Famine represents the risk of scarcity, a known inadequacy of the physical environment for supporting the goals you are pursuing. This includes both resource scarcity as well as general impossibilities.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Famine is is to picture a barrier of finite height. When you hit that barrier, you stop. Whether it’s running out of food, running out of gas, running out of time, lacking the right skills, or anything else, the barrier represents a known limit on what you can do. If you had more money, energy, information, technology, or some other resource, you might be able to make it over the wall. Otherwise, you’re stuck where you are.

In addition to resources, Famine’s constraints can apply to space (physical prisons), time (a deadline with a ticking clock), information (insufficient data), or state (being unable to turn something into something else). The constraints can represent mutually exclusive options, where you don’t have the ability to do everything you want to. For a more esoteric example, the inability to travel backwards in time is a type of Famine, even though any technology we might need in order to do so is purely hypothetical at this point. Any “known” obstacle is a type of Famine.

Extending the metaphor, you can visualize an entire landscape with mountains, valleys, pits, cliffs, and all manner of topographical obstacles. In order to climb over a mountain or escape a pit, you need a certain amount of energy. Without that energy, you’re stuck where you are, and will need to find a way around or wait until the landscape changes. For depicting time limits, these metaphorical barriers work just as well in time as they do in space. If you know that a barrier will appear at a certain time and you need to be on the other side of it before then, that restricts what you can spend time on beforehand. In addition, if you know when you will run out of energy, you are forced to find more instead of spending time on other things.

The fact that scarcity constitutes known barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of stability. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but stability is the material order that keeps objects solid and prevents them from flying off of the Earth, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that my constituent particles are starved of the energy they need to evaporate.

When a society’s approach to Famine is under-controlled, it results in scarcity through wastefulness, as people disregard a looming barrier and use up the resources they would need to cross it. They may spend all their energy on overcoming problems that aren’t actually important, or use it inefficiently when there was a more frugal way to achieve the same result. As a result, when they are confronted with a crucial obstacle, they have nothing left to surmount it. On the other hand, if they take efforts to hoard their energy in anticipation of this upcoming barrier, they may create the over-controlled version of Famine. The effort to avoid Famine through miserliness ironically leads to a different version of Famine, reached via austerity, which is a more managed situation but no less impoverished in everyday life. If you are sufficiently paranoid about wastefulness, life will become completely about surviving and be devoid of anything that actually makes it worth living. People will have everything they need and virtually nothing they want. Following from this, one of the most insidious things about Famine in general is that it can make it impossible to take steps towards long-term flourishing while also surviving in the short term, thus feeding itself. Poverty is a good example of this type of Famine.

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The true virtue allowing you to manage Famine is investment. By skillfully expending extra resources in the present (if you have any to spare), it’s possible to cultivate a greater yield of resources in the future. A typical investment may be aimed at greater production capacity—the ability to generate resources at a faster rate. For instance, they may spend a bit of extra time to build a tool that allows them to save much more time in the future. Investment is fundamentally different from both wastefulness and austerity, because it introduces the concept that resources wisely spent are not simply gone, but rather in their own way and up to a point can be more useful than regular expenditures of resources. Investment leads to the boon that is the opposite of Famine, prosperity, where you have enough resources to overcome a barrier if you so choose.

Here are some examples of the role Famine plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Famine applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how scarcity might manifest:

  • Shortages of raw resources
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Energy
    • Space
    • Time (including human lifespan)
    • Human effort and attention
    • Data
    • Money
      • Money is a medium of exchange for “real” resources and represents how much of other resources you are able to obtain
  • Predictable causes of resource scarcity
    • Wastefulness
    • Unsustainable agricultural practices
    • Pollution
    • Environmental destruction
    • Nonrenewable resources
    • Poor budgeting
    • Entropy
  • Other limits
    • Medical supplies and services
    • Skill
    • Technology
    • Processed information
    • Physical properties of matter and energy
    • Properties of time and space (e.g. no faster-than-light travel)
  • Stability
    • Molecular bonds keep things solid
    • Gravity keeps things on Earth
    • Energy storage doesn’t spontaneously explode (most of the time)

Pestilence

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The Apocalypse of Pestilence represents the risk of disaster, an unexpected divergence of the physical environment from the goals you are pursuing. It is the risk that the known foundations on which one’s efforts are based may be disrupted by factors that are beyond one’s ability to predict or control.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Pestilence is is to picture a barrier, like Famine, but one which you do not know exists. Alternatively, you may know it exists, but you do not know where or when you will run into it. When you do encounter the barrier, if you do not have the resources to pass through it, you end up failing at your goal. Depending on how fast you were going, you might pay a cost for crashing into the barrier. The extended landscape of Famine, with all its peaks and pitfalls, is not all known to us. The vast majority of it, both large and remote as well as small and proximate, is terra incognita. Pestilence is the result of the unknown making itself known in painfully unexpected and unexpectedly painful ways.

Accidents, mistakes, errors, misfortunes, et cetera, all fall under the category of Pestilence. Natural disasters, machines breaking down, injury, illness, or inaccuracy are all things which could theoretically be overcome with the right resources or avoided with the right foreknowledge, but by the definition of Pestilence, their occurrence is unpredictable with your current information. (Once you know when a physical problem is going to occur and are able to take it into account when planning, it falls under Famine. Any delay in finalizing plans because you didn’t yet know when a problem would occur is still attributed to Pestilence.)

The fact that disaster constitutes unknown barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of discovery. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but discovery is the material chaos that allows us to find new lands, phenomena, and physical laws, among other things. It also includes the hidden holes in known barriers that allow us to solve otherwise impossible problems. I, for one, am grateful that scientific discovery has allowed us to harness the power of electricity and semiconductors to store and transmit vast amounts of information, for example.

When a society’s approach to Pestilence is under-controlled, it results in disaster through negligence, as people disregard potential disasters and place themselves in dangerous situations. When you venture forth recklessly and ignore the unknown, you will eventually hit it hard, no matter how long it takes. However, some people go too far in the other direction, avoiding uncertain situations and shunning risks. They over-control Pestilence with the idea that they will be safe as long as they stick to familiar territory. This effort can ironically lead to a different version of Pestilence reached via susceptibility, which is a more managed situation but still quite risky. The material landscape may change even in the relatively safe area you inhabit. Even when it doesn’t, you have zero guarantee that the unknown will stay in its own territory and leave you alone. There may be little stopping the creatures that live in terra incognita from coming to visit. If you haven’t explored the world for yourself, that much less equipped to deal with it when it does finally come for you. Furthermore, if you stick to “tried and true” methods you may discover a huge weakness or terrible externality (side-effect) you never realized, as happened with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s United States. If you diversify and explore, you have something to fall back on if your original way is unsustainable or destroyed.

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The virtue allowing you to manage Pestilence is pioneering. By bravely venturing into the blank spaces on the map and exploring their features, you can make the unknown somewhat less so. Your new experiences will help you equip yourself to avert and overcome obstacles more easily than if you had hidden from them. Pioneering is fundamentally different from both negligence and vulnerability, because it introduces the concept that you can seek out and confront the unknown in a deliberate manner, rather than either brashly jumping in or hiding from it. Pioneering leads to the boon that is the opposite of Pestilence, safety, signifying that you are able to prevent or resolve a variety of disruptions to your plans.

Here are some examples of the role Pestilence plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Pestilence applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how disaster might manifest:

  • Natural disasters
    • Wildfires
    • Hurricanes
    • Tornadoes
    • Blizzards
    • Volcanoes
    • Earthquakes
    • Tsunamis
    • Meteorites
  • Anthropogenic accidents
    • Fires
    • Nuclear meltdowns
    • Oil and chemical spills
    • Computer bugs
    • Vehicle crashes
    • Hardware failure
    • Invasive species
  • Other
    • Epidemics
    • Genetic disease
    • Infection
    • Agricultural pests
    • Black Swan Events
    • Outside Context Problems
  • Discovery:
    • New continents
    • New planets
    • New species
    • New technology and medicine

Age

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The Apocalypse of Age represents the risk of stagnation, a known inadequacy of people’s inclination for supporting a goal, or their ability to even attempt doing so. If a person can make an attempt to achieve an objective, but is unable to succeed, the goal failed due to some other liability, and not stagnation.

(This fundamental liability is called “Age” instead of “Death” because all of these liabilities represent the demise of a goal or of society itself. “Death” is just redundant. Age is a more fitting theme because with age often comes ossified habits, complacent thought patterns, and the loss of the will to learn, on both the individual and cultural level. After you’ve survived long enough, you must know everything you need to know, right?)

Age represents the known inability of a person or group of people to make attempts towards a particular goal. It may be that people lack the will to pursue that particular objective, or it may be that they are enthralled with another target. Perhaps the people in question cannot even define the objective in the first place, because they lack the concepts to hold it in their heads. Whatever the case, stagnation describes restrictions on how people choose to direct their efforts. It represents no threat from the world, or each other, but the threat from ourselves when we stop being able to function outside our comfort zone.

The fact that stagnation constitutes a known limit on people’s choices makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of identity. When it works against your ultimate, deepest desires, it’s a threat, but identity is the mental order that keeps people and cultures consistent over time, and prevents them from spontaneously abandoning goals and developing random new ones, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that I know roughly who I will be when I wake up tomorrow morning.

When a society’s approach to Age is under-controlled, it results in stagnation through decadence, as people do whatever they want when they want, without the discipline necessary to attend to long-term necessities. They become addicted to various desires, and their identity is subsumed in their addictions. In effort to prevent such addiction, many cultures throughout history and the present day have decided to force people to disregard their desires and to encourage them to forget how to conceive of ever living differently. The effort to avoid Age has ironically led to a different, over-controlled version of Age reached via dogma, which is a more managed situation but no less dehumanizing. In order to avoid potentially addictive choices, people remove a great deal of choice and thought from society, and that denies everyone the ability to make informed decisions about their own lives, let alone about how society should be run. Many people have pieces of their very selves suppressed or cut out, because once you start thinking, you start dismantling the protective dogma that shielded society from decadence. What other option is there, though?

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The virtue allowing you to manage Age is transcendence. By rising above the assumptions people make about the world, you can conceive of ideas and options you never realized were possible. By moving beyond the limitations people impose on themselves out of fear of their own vices, you can explore the true relationships between good ideas and bad ones. By letting go of habits, you can resist temptation and live with temperance. (Epicureanism is a good start.) By surpassing rather than suppressing yourself, you can develop the discipline to expand your reach and aim for goals that are outside your immediate grasp. Transcendence is fundamentally different from both decadence and dogma, because it introduces the concept that desires are neither to be wantonly pursued nor submissively abstained from in self-abnegation. Rather, transcendence represents being mindful of how we respond to our desires. Transcendence leads to the boon that is the opposite of Age, vitality, where people’s individual and collective desires and endeavors develop and change over time as they grow as people.

Here are some examples of the role Age plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Age applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.

Examples of how stagnation might manifest:

  • Decadence
    • Hedonism
    • Degeneration
    • Lack of self-discipline
  • Dogma
    • Propaganda
    • Thought suppression
    • Creative sterility
    • Ossification
  • Despair
    • Hopelessness
    • Humorlessness
    • Ennui
    • Existential angst
  • Desperation
  • Ignorance
  • Complacency
  • Identity
    • Values
    • Commitment
    • Memories
    • Life goals
    • Culture
    • Tradition

War

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The Apocalypse of War represents the risk of conflict, an unexpected divergence of the goals and efforts of people. It is the risk that people’s objectives will oppose yours, or that your own objectives will oppose each other.

The threat War poses to any given goal is that even if people are able to start directing their efforts towards that goal, their efforts may be disrupted by the efforts of others with mutually exclusive goals, or by their own conflicting desires. In the case that the conflict is between different people, we don’t know how far each person is willing to go to get their way, or what skills they can bring to bear to overcome each other’s interference. Who will triumph depends on both of these factors. In the case where the conflict is within a person, we don’t know what the person will ultimately decide, because they’ve never had to choose between the two (or more) conflicting priorities in this particular situation before. They don’t know what they most value or what they’re willing to give up to attain it.

War also represents the fact that we don’t know when or how the environment will change to shift opportunity costs and force people to reevaluate their priorities, or how people and their desires will change over time. There will always come times when we must decide what we are going to work towards and what we must relinquish, and we can’t always know what those will be in advance. 

The fact that conflict entails unpredictable triumphs of some desires over others makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of choice. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but choice is the teleological chaos that, for instance, allows us to (from our perspective, at least) change our own and others’ minds, change culture, form constructive rivalries to improve ourselves, and find new dreams to chase, among other things. Choice means we don’t have to follow the thoughts and goals of those around us or of those who came before. If we are averse to our starting point in society, we can change it, even when that means disrupting the plans of other people. They may be forced to figure out a different method or goal because our choices interfere with theirs, and that’s an inherent part of the price of existence, just like the other liabilities. Their desires are not our prisons.

Choice also applies within individuals. It is both the freedom to challenge each others’ desires and the freedom to find and pursue new ones of our own. We may have educated guesses about our decisions, but frequently we don’t know what we will choose until we actually make the choice. The same applies to our skills. You have to actually try something to find out just how far you can go with it. I, for one, am grateful that I don’t always know which of my desires will triumph in a given situation, because it means that for every apparent limit to what I can put my mind to, there’s a chance I can overcome it. 

When a society’s approach to War is under-controlled, it results in conflict through turmoil, a state of lawless barbarism in which people take what they want by violence or deception when their desire conflicts with someone else. To prevent turmoil, people create and enforce laws (written or implicitly understood) which punish the use of force and falsehood. However, the enduring desires of people to achieve their own goals often leads them to take control of the processes by which the laws are made and enforced, and turn them against others. They use the laws themselves as weapons of subjugation, rather than tools of agreement to create order for the benefit of society. The more laws and the more situations the laws govern, the more weapons are available to oppress and harm people. No system of laws, no matter how well written, is sufficient to prevent the over-controlled version of War, reached via corruption. Corruption is a more managed situation than turmoil but still quite ruthless and unpleasant overall.

From an individual standpoint, inner turmoil occurs when a person is paralyzed with indecision, or wavers between multiple courses of action, each priority interfering with the others so that ultimately nothing gets accomplished and the person is slowly torn apart from within. It’s a tidy microcosm of what happens in a society in turmoil. Likewise, a person can be corrupted if they impose rules on themselves to control their behavior while in a forward-thinking frame of mind, but end up engaging in self-deception and rationalizations in order to excuse self-sabotage or the mistreatment of others, driven by more base desires. 

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The virtue allowing you to manage War is ethics. Both turmoil and corruption result in very little being accomplished by anybody. Everyone is too busy trying to get their own way in everything, and they get in each other’s way, like the proverbial crabs in a bucket pulling each other down and stopping each other from escaping. To make the world a more hospitable place for people in general to achieve their collective goals, we impose ethics on ourselves as a set of principles. We restrict ourselves from initiating aggression (not just violence) against each other, deceiving each other (not just employing outright falsehoods), or manipulating a generally established system in ways which advantage us at the expense of others. We know that even if it means we are unable to achieve some of our goals, society will be better off if we can all trust that our goals will be free from certain kinds of disruption by others. The more ethical society is, the more goals are available to us that would not be if we had to constantly take measures to thwart other people before they thwarted us. We must also hold each other accountable for abiding by ethical principles, even if doing so takes effort and may not benefit us personally.

Ethical behavior also applies to how you treat yourself. Generally speaking, it is important to fulfill the commitments that you make to yourself, else your feelings that change from day to day will pull you from one objective to the next without giving you any time to finish anything you start. Furthermore, you must be honest with yourself, so that you have an accurate picture of your options and your priorities. Otherwise, the commitments you make may not be helpful to you. If you don’t know what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it, your deepest desires may be denied in favor of goals which match what you think you should want based on your observations of other people, or your decisions in the past. Until you realize your true motivations and decide you’re not willing to give them up, you may feel torn between what you feel and what you believe is expected of you from others, or what you have come to expect from yourself.

Finally, you will need to cultivate the discipline to prevent short-term desires from gaming your mental reward system and seizing power over your choices to the detriment of your long-term goals. Many of your possible options are more immediately tempting and present themselves more attractively than those that further your overarching goals, but they are ultimately less fulfilling. In order to succeed at your most constructive objectives, you’ll need to prevent your short-term desires from rewriting your decision criteria to shut them out.

Ethics leads to the boon that is the opposite of War, peace, where people are able to resolve their differences constructively and benevolently. With inner peace, a person is able to consider all their desires when making a decision, acknowledge what they will give up, commit to their choice, and forgive themselves for mistakes. In this way they can live without regret.

Here are some examples of the role War plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems War applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.)

Examples of how conflict might manifest:

  • Turmoil
    • War (the literal kind)
    • Violence and slaughter
    • Ideological clash
    • Pettiness (e.g. “noise wars”; people do things they’re entitled to do solely to annoy each other instead of reaching an understanding)
  • Corruption
    • Rent-seeking and crony capitalism
    • Other unethical business practices
    • Conquest and imperialism
    • Oppression of human rights
  • Legal conflict
    • Crimes
    • Civil lawsuits and torts
  • Social conflict
    • Communication breakdown
    • Mistrust
    • Resentment
  • Choice and liberty:
    • Business competition
    • Sports competition
    • Academic competition
    • Political campaigns
    • Cultural rivalry
    • Sovereignty
    • Creative differences
    • Negotiation
    • Life choices

Recapitulation

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Can we get a replay on the highlights?

Here’s a table to review the key concepts.

Apocalypse: Famine Pestilence Age War
Liability: Scarcity Disaster Stagnation Conflict
Classification: Order, material Chaos, material Order, mental Chaos, mental
Under-controlled: Wastefulness Negligence Decadence Turmoil
Over-controlled: Austerity Susceptibility Dogma Corruption
Aspect of reality: Stability Discovery Identity Choice
Virtue to counteract: Investment Pioneering Transcendence Ethics
Boon earned through virtue: Prosperity Safety Vitality Peace

Table 2: Compilation of the key concepts related to each liability

The initial concept of the fundamental liabilities was that they were the four possible obstacles to a goal. That’s true, but they’re also much more than that. They’re four aspects of reality and goals combined: scarcity/stability represents what we know about the world; disaster/discovery represents what we don’t know about the world; stagnation/identity represents what we know about what people want; conflict/choice represents what we don’t know about what people want.

It may sound trite when I lay out like that (it certainly does to me), but it’s important because a) these concepts cover everything that societies need to pay attention to, and b) human societies don’t yet know how to have intelligent conversations about such abstract ideas and how they relate to concrete reality. People need a framework to talk about how the big picture works and the different aspects of it that may result in tradeoffs. We can’t address what we don’t pay attention to and don’t realize may grow into a problem. 

The problems that fall under these four categories are old news. However, with the categories we can see what to look for in order to address, fix, and prevent such problems in the future. We can figure out how to address issues on all levels, from personal to global. We can put any problem into context to figure out why it is a threat and what can be done about it. 

Virtues and Boons

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There are 495 pieces offscreen. All of these pieces fit together to form a piece in an even bigger puzzle. And so on.

I’m going to pause here and make it clear yet again that I’m not purporting to have all the solutions to all the world’s problems.

You may have noticed that investment, pioneering, transcendence, and ethics are grand, sweeping terms that are very difficult to implement in practice. Of course they are. Dealing with the fundamental liabilities of existence isn’t easy. I’m not here today to give you advice on how to deal with any specific problem. 

Virtues are very large and complex in scope. My only purpose in this article is to help people frame situations in ways that don’t leave out any aspects of either the problems or the solutions, whether those aspects are positive or negative. The general theme of this entire blog is to set up a nuanced foundation for people to effectively construct a better world.

I describe a virtue corresponding to each liability, but merely knowing the concept of a virtue is not sufficient to solve a problem (though it may be necessary). The virtues aren’t nearly as simple as I describe them. They’re complex, nuanced, and open-ended. How could they be anything else? I’d be a fraud if I said that there was an easy way forward through any of this. 

There is no way to vanquish a liability once and for all. The liabilities are fractally recursive. Each one contains all four of them. Every attempt to avert a particular liability is a goal in and of itself, which means it is subject to all the liabilities all over again. A quest to avert Famine is subject to Pestilence, and the quest to avert that Pestilence is subject to Famine. The liabilities will always be with us.

As for the boons that represent triumph over the liabilities, they are not absolute. They cannot possibly be, since the liabilities are inherent in conscious existence. Prosperity, safety, vitality, and peace are always relative. The most we can do is improve how we manage the liabilities we have, take advantage of the fundamental aspects of reality that compose them, and aim to cultivate as many boons as much as possible for us and future society to enjoy.

Comparisons

To illustrate the Apocalypses and their contrasts with each other in the same situation, imagine the goal of sending humans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

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Well, the good news is, it’s a lot closer than we thought. The bad news is, it’s still getting closer. The other good news is that this image goes great with the apocalypse theme!

Here are the four things that can threaten that mission:

  • Famine/scarcity: We don’t have the money or technology to go to the Moon.
  • Pestilence/disaster: We tried to go to the Moon, but our equipment suffered a failure.
  • Age/stagnation: We don’t want to go to the Moon. Why would we ever want to go to the Moon?
  • War/conflict: We tried to go to the Moon, but some rival group either sabotaged the attempt or simply voted legitimately against continuing our funding. Alternatively, we got scared and backed out.

Interactions

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If you can see the cause-and-effect relationships between problems, you are in a better position to stop the chain reaction.

One of the most frustrating things about liabilities is that they chain. One liability can cause or exacerbate other liabilities. Stagnation can lead to disaster, which can lead to scarcity, which can lead to conflict. 

Below is a table of how liabilities can lead to each other. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Effect: Famine A group of humans lacks the tools to plant crops fast enough Blight on the crops We starve because we’re wasteful and short-sighted People refuse to cooperate and pool resources to accomplish something
Effect: Pestilence Things break because we can’t afford to maintain them Meteor randomly strikes Things break because we’re too sloppy to maintain or check them Fighting accidentally destroys important structures
Effect: Age Poverty keeps us desperate Bad things keep happening and people despair People naturally fall into impulsiveness, fundamental-ism, and addiction People possess a traditional hatred for another group
Effect: War People fight over limited resources An accident leads to blame and resentment People fight because they’re dogmatic or selfish War perpetuates because of cultural rivalry and desire for domination, or resentment from a previous conflict

Table 3: Random examples of how liabilities can feed each other.

 

However, liabilities can also prevent or inhibit each other. A conflict may be prevented or postponed because one or both parties doesn’t have enough resources.

Below are some ways in which these fundamental aspects of reality can interfere with each other in one form or another. Note that just because one liability is prevented doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems. Some of these situations may not be good on balance. This chart is not a guide on how to run the world. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Prevents: Famine Refrigerators extend the shelf life of food because chemical reactions happen more slowly at low temperatures We found a new technique for growing crops which has higher yields The fewer goals we have, the more we can focus our resources on the ones we are pursuing Companies invent more efficient technologies to compete with each other economically
Prevents: Pestilence Pasteurizing food kills harmful bacteria and prevents food poisoning It turns out penicillin is a great antibiotic The fewer goals we have, the less tempted we are to take risks Humans create new technologies for use in wars that are also effective for addressing natural disasters
Prevents: Age People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to grow enough food People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to fight forest fires The more we censor ourselves, the less opportunity we have to fall into addictive behavior Humans create new goals, like visiting the Moon, to get advantages in global rivalries
Prevents: War The need to produce more food leads people to learn to cooperate The need to rebuild after a natural disaster leads rival ethnic groups to learn to trust each other A strong bond of community and tradition can persuade people to resolve disputes with kindness and generously Uniting against a common enemy leads warring tribes to declare a truce

Table 4: Random examples of how liabilities can interfere with each other. 

Attributes of Apocalypses

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This is nothing. Wait until you see me make a crane with flapping wings!

The Attributes enumerated in the previous article are indispensable for describing all kinds of concepts related to human goals and efforts. 

These Attributes describe the Apocalypses in terms of what a person needs in order to avert them. However, if you’re feeling poetic you can anthropomorphize the Apocalypses by pretending that they themselves are entities with Attributes that are actively menacing society, and that the people responding to them need to match those Attributes.

(It should be noted that these Attributes don’t describe the actual effects of the Apocalypses. The effects are described and gauged in terms of what kind of goals an Apocalypse threatens. If it’s a particularly terrible Apocalypse, the goals it threatens would be very important to many people.)

  • An Apocalypse with high Initiative Attribute is one that has long-term consequences but no immediate threat, so it requires Initiative in order for a person to effectively address it.
    • When must you start? Before anything bad actually happens.
  • An Apocalypse with Resilience Attribute must be addressed continuously or at inconvenient times, so it requires Resilience to deal with.
    • When must you continue? When it’s most difficult.
  • An Apocalypse with Mobility Attribute may suddenly change its parameters, so it requires Mobility to keep up with. (Even a predictable liability like Famine may not give you time to relax, so even if you know what you will need to do, you’ll still have to learn fast.) 
    • What must you start? Something you may not be familiar with and might not be able to study in depth.
  • An Apocalypse with Intensity Attribute is very complex and nuanced, so it takes Intensity to resolve successfully.
    • What must you continue? Getting more skilled.

Conclusion: Why did I write this article?

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Affixing labels to things is often useful, but why these particular labels?

Why am I bothering to encompass and classify all of humanity’s possible problems into just four different categories? Isn’t that a little simplistic?

The purpose behind labeling the four liabilities is to give people the words to think about and express their concerns. It’s one thing to claim that a cultural or economic policy will cause a problem. That’s easily dismissed as a bias in the cultural attitude or economic interests of the complainer. This vocabulary I’ve designed allows people to describe what policy they’re worried about, what problems they think it will cause, why they think that will happen, and what they think should be done about it. Not only that, but it also allows them to understand other people’s concerns about their proposed solution. 

We have trouble recognizing and talking about big picture problems and differences in values. Liabilities describe everything that could go wrong, so all concerns can be addressed. People decide to err on different sides of threats, but erring is still dangerous. By thinking about situations in terms of the four liabilities, you can see risks in different aspects of reality as well as the dangers in more or less control. 

For instance, theocracies (such as many Middle Eastern countries) as well as single-party states (such as China) style themselves as such hoping to avert the liability of decadence (under-controlled Age). In doing so they incur the liability of dogma (over-controlled Age), with all its consequences. The United States decides to allow decadence in order to avert dogma, and that comes with its own consequences. Communication breaks down when each of these cultures assumes that its own way is causing no problems, and that foreign cultures are the only ones incurring liabilities. This failure of mutual understanding leads to conflict (i.e. War, and sometimes literal war).

In order to have an accurate picture of the situation, we all need to realize and acknowledge that our means of dealing with a problem often errs on the side of creating another problem, and that the reason other cultures do things differently is that they have legitimate concerns about the liabilities of our culture, whether it is wasteful or austere, decadent or dogmatic. That’s not to say that some ways aren’t healthier than others, but it’s dangerous to assume they’re better in every way. 

Why is it important to be aware of these abstract liabilities on a daily basis? Frequently, people don’t account for them, either on the big-picture scale or on the smaller, immediate scale. Many people are completely unequipped to deal with these fundamental threats and are blindsided when they occur. Furthermore, if you take measures against one liability and fail to address the others (or other manifestations of the same liability), there’s a good chance you’ll still fail, and you may even hasten your downfall.

If you finish this article having realized you were vulnerable to a danger you weren’t aware of, then the article has achieved part of its mission. The other part is accomplished when you take steps to learn how to address the problem in a balanced and healthy way. 

Existence can be perilous. Let’s face it together with our eyes open.

 

*The boon of vitality for overcoming stagnation and the aspect of reality “choice” represented by conflict were updated in this article from the old version on 10/24/19. The reference to “Death” being the name of a future Element has also been removed as of 10/24/19, because the Element has since been renamed. You can view the changes in the Changelog.

Attributes: Measurements of Mindsets (and Other Concepts)

In order to make sense of the world and figure out how to deal with it, we have a few essential concepts yet to cover. There are several more Elements (mindsets), as well as the Vices (motivations) in more detail, and the Apocalypses (fundamental risks). Before we get into all of those concepts, however, we should look at the different Attributes that each of them has.

These Attributes are dimensions in the original sense: properties that can be measured. Just as an object can have different values for height, breadth, depth, mass, electric charge, et cetera, so can concepts have different magnitudes of various Attributes when they show up in reality. In order to properly explain the concepts that we’ll get to in the upcoming articles, we’ll need to be able to explore their different aspects.

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We can derive the Attributes from the intersection of two fundamental dichotomies (pairs of opposing concepts). Each Primary Attribute is associated with one side of one dichotomy and one side of the other, producing four combinations.

The first dichotomy is cause versus effect. “Cause” represents the environmental factors that influence whether a process or event takes place. With the Attributes, the process usually refers to a person’s efforts. If you are working toward a goal or responding to a problem, the goal or problem are “causes” for your efforts. “Effect” represents the scope of change that a process or event creates in the world. If you succeed in achieving a goal or solving a problem, that achievement or solution is the “effect” of your efforts. An Attribute based on cause describes the conditions you require in order to use a mindset or respond to a motivation or risk. An Attribute based on effect describes how you are able to effect change in the world with a mindset, how you want to affect the world with a motivation, or how you need to deal with a risk. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “cause” or “effect”.

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Opposing concepts and the bringing together thereof will show up everywhere on this blog. That’s why it’s called the “Ginnungagap” Foundation. (Don’t let the picture fool you, though: Fire and Water aren’t quite opposites here.)

The second fundamental dichotomy is “start” versus “continue”. “Start” deals with what leads you to start making an effort, or what you are able to start building from scratch. “Continue” deals with what conditions are necessary for you to continue a process, or how far you can continue to push it. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “start” or “continue.”

The reason I use “continue” instead of “stop” or “end” is that ending a process can be expressed as beginning a process that stops a previous one. The reason “start” isn’t called “change” is because changes are what we are starting and continuing, and talking about changing changes would get gratuitously confusing without adding mathematical notation. You may recognize “start” versus “continue” as a variation of the omnipresent chaos versus order dichotomy. “Start” represents chaos because until something starts, we often cannot know what it will become, while “continue” represents order because it’s a continuation of a known process, which imposes a degree of certainty on the situation.

The four Primary Attributes are derived from how these dichotomies intersect.

Start Continue
Cause Initiative Resilience
Effect Mobility Intensity

To put the Primary Attributes into perspective with each other, picture a process that changes the current world to be more like a world that we want to live in. We’ll call the process “X”. X has a cause and an effect. The initiative of X is how easy it is to cause X. X’s resilience is how difficult it is to stop X once it’s started. Its mobility is how quickly X is able to start producing an effect and changing the world. Its intensity is the magnitude of the effect: how much it continues to grow from its inception. Since we’re using these Attributes to describe people’s character and use of mindsets, much of the time X is going to be a mindset used by a person.

However, motivations and risks can also be described by Attributes. Motivations are what you want. Mindsets are how you get there. Risks are what stand in your way. Attributes can describe all three of these types of concepts: they describe your motivations by what you will pursue, your mindsets by what you can do to pursue it, and the risks you face by what you must do to succeed.

Just so you’re aware of how important the Attributes are… do you remember when I said the Attributes were derived from two fundamental dichotomies? Unlike the Elements, where derived the fundamental mindsets to find out what was necessary to learn, I discovered the Attributes empirically. I found out the hard way that I was missing important aspects of the Elements I was using, and only figured out what those were by looking at the problems I was failing to solve. It was only after I identified the Attributes that I retroactively expressed them as the intersections of fundamental dichotomies.

As we look at the Primary Attributes, we’ll use a Water Element (operation mindset) skill as an example to illustrate how the Attributes are applied. Juggling is a particularly recognizable skill you can learn with operation mindset. The Attributes let you measure the various ways in which you can cultivate your ability to juggle.

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Primary Attributes

Initiative

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The goldfish leaves its comfort zone to seek a higher goal, demonstrating initiative. (The tank on the right is quite luxurious off-panel.)

Initiative Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “start”. It deals with starting a process despite a lack of encouragement from the environment. You may have to leave a place of relative satisfaction and journey through unpleasant places in order to reach a place of greater satisfaction. The incentives to act may be remote, and you may have to delay gratification. The more initiative you have, the more you can choose long-term goals over immediate rewards. People who practice initiative are called Drivers, because they drive change by providing an impetus based on their goals.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a new juggling feat or trick, even if the rewards are uncertain or far in the future.

Resilience

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These palm trees remain standing during a hurricane, demonstrating resilience.

Resilience Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “continue”. It deals with being able to maintain the quality of your performance despite stressful conditions and active discouragement. The ability to continue producing excellent work and taking pride in how you live is very valuable in a world of risk and hardship. Having great resilience doesn’t mean you never stop, but when you do it’s because you decide the tradeoffs are no longer worth it, not because you are afraid to continue. People who practice resilience are called Strivers, because they persistently struggle and push back against the world’s disruption and resistance.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, resilience describes how well you can maintain a feat even under stress.

Mobility

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Dandelions are able to pop up in new areas quickly and easily, demonstrating mobility.

Mobility Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “start”. It deals with how well you can start to generate change from scratch. Circumstances and goals can shift rapidly, and so you will often be required to begin learning or creating something new. Mobility relies on being able to take minimal information and calibration and quickly produce a useful effect, then start again by recalibrating to keep ahead of any changes that need to be made. People who practice mobility are called Shifters, because they can easily change what they are doing to work on a new process or task, moving and switching gears smoothly.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, mobility describes how well and how quickly you can pick up the basics of an unfamiliar feat.

Intensity

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A sequoia spends a long time building itself up to a grand stature in a single location, demonstrating intensity.

Intensity Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “continue”. It deals with the scope of the change you create expanding without stop. These changes includes changes in yourself as you become more skilled. With practiced technique, you can implement in-depth changes that would not otherwise be possible (as long as what you have learned remains true). When you integrate large and diverse collections of information and experience, you can finely-tune your calibration and pull off more sophisticated and impactful accomplishments. People who practice intensity are called Delvers, because they dig down and investigate nuances in detail, focusing on a particular situation, goal, or problem in order to cultivate advanced skill.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, intensity describes how well you can learn complex feats that build on what you already know.

Secondary Attributes

As with the Elements, there are Attributes formed by combining the four Primary Attributes. The four Secondary Attributes are formed by combining non-opposing Primary Attributes.

Mobility Intensity
Initiative Enterprise Industry
Resilience Adaptability Determination

Enterprise

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This ivy is extending itself to other locations to better catch sunlight, demonstrating enterprise.

Initiative combined with mobility yields Enterprise Attribute, dealing with setting and launching goals that take you in new directions. With enterprise, you move to fill needs and solve problems that other people overlooked. People who practice enterprise are called Leapers, because they see a distant place and move to it by choice.

Regarding our juggling example, enterprise describes how well you can spot and seize the opportunity to pick up a simple but unfamiliar feat, even when the rewards are uncertain and possibly remote.

Industry

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By taking time to sharpen a blade with a whetstone, you can benefit in the long term from increasing the quality of its edge. This process demonstrates industry.

The combination of intensity and initiative yields Industry Attribute, dealing with actively seeking out how to continue the spread of an impact. If you are devoted to a craft, you will likely work on perfecting your skills for their own sake. You may also be constantly raising your standards for advancing a particular cause or goal. Raising your standards increases the scope of change that you will try to create. Your reason for doing so doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a step up that you don’t immediately need for maintaining an acceptable status quo. People who practice industry are called Honers, because they sharpen their tools to improve their performance, and focus on calibrating a specific skill or creating an intense change of their own volition.

Regarding our juggling example, industry describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a complex feat that builds on what you already know, even when the rewards are uncertain and far in the future.

Adaptability

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Undeterred by the lower windows being closed, the cat finds an alternate route, demonstrating adaptability.

Mobility combined with resilience yields Adaptability Attribute, dealing with responding to stress and problems by finding new approaches to maintain effectiveness. When an unexpected obstacle appears before a goal, it’s often necessary to find a different approach or even an alternative goal. Adaptability is invaluable for a changing world, allowing you to learn to take a different path without missing a beat. People who practice adaptability are called Sliders, because they move and change direction smoothly and easily in response to the world’s problems and obstacles.

Regarding our juggling example, adaptability describes how well you can quickly pick up and perform simple but unfamiliar feats under pressure.

Determination

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Despite the layer of pavement in its way, this flower continues to focus its efforts until it breaks through, demonstrating determination.

The combination of intensity and resilience yields Determination Attribute, dealing with continuously expanding the scope of a change despite environmental stress. Stress can include pain, fatigue, boredom, fear, frustration, et cetera. When you need to accomplish a difficult task and look to be at an impasse, determination is what allows you to maintain focus and push through. People who practice determination are called Bucklers, for several reasons. Firstly, they cause other things to buckle, or give way. Secondly, to “buckle” means to fasten or bind, just as determined people “buckle down” and bind themselves to a goal. Finally, a buckler is a type of shield, which fits determination’s role in defending a goal against opposing forces.

Regarding our juggling example, determination describes how well you can learn and perform complex feats that build on what you already know, while under pressure.

Great Attributes

There are two Great Attributes formed by combining opposing Primary Attributes. As with the Great Elements, combining opposing Attributes leads to a larger range of nuance that you can handle with them. You can exercise either extreme, or any point between them, which means you have more freedom to deal with a whole spectrum of situations along the relevant axis.

Independence

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This lemon decided to learn to make pink lemonade, and is undaunted by the social pressure of its yellow lemon peers, demonstrating independence.

Independence is the combination of initiative and resilience. With independence, you can start and continue projects based on your long-term values. The environment doesn’t need to be favorable for you to do what you set your mind to. You do what you decide, rather than being intimidated by the world into not doing what you’re capable of. Independence is essentially the closest concept to willpower that exists in this entire collection of concepts. People who practice independence are called Striders, because they show confident, self-driven advancement and performance in defiance of hardship.

Regarding our juggling example, independence describes how well you can continue to maintain and improve your skills if it’s what you really want to do, even if nobody else cares about juggling, and even practicing is difficult and progress is slow.

Finesse

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The human on the left uses quick thinking as well as practiced physical coordination in order to perform an impressive kick, demonstrating finesse.

Finesse is the combination of intensity and mobility. With finesse, not only can you quickly start learning a topic, planning a project, performing a task, or responding to a problem, but you can also become extremely skilled at it over time. No matter what a situation calls for, you can find an angle and pursue it until you have a better one. Finesse lets you cultivate as much skill with a particular approach as you need, and then start learning a different one when it becomes more advantageous to do so. People who practice finesse are called Dancers because they combine agility with advanced skill, addressing situations with grace.

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how well you can pick up and master different aspects of juggling, both unfamiliar and complex.

Zeroth Attribute

Competence

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These are tools (which are handy for representing mindsets). Do you know how to use them correctly? If so, you possess competence.

If you don’t have much strength in any Attribute, but still know how to use a mindset, that’s the Zeroth Attribute of competence. Before you can strengthen the various Attributes of a skill, learning when to use it and becoming more familiar with its nuances, it is necessary to possess the skill in the first place, and know how to use it on command. People who practice Competence Attribute are called Users, because they display basic ability and prowess with a skill or technique.

It should be noted that just because competence is the “Zeroth Attribute” does not mean that you are automatically competent with a particular mindset or skill even if you have another Attribute with it. In other words, it is perfectly possible to use a mindset intensely, for instance, without using it correctly. You need to properly calibrate your skills to a baseline level to develop competence before the other Attributes will do you any good.

Regarding our juggling example, competence describes the degree to which you have implemented the basics of juggling.

Ultimate Attribute

Maturity

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This pilot decides to take the time to learn to fly, and must use practiced skill, quick thinking, and calmness under pressure in order to do so successfully, demonstrating maturity.

All of the Attributes combined is maturity. With Maturity Attribute, you can advance, maintain, and apply your skills under most circumstances. We need people with maturity in order to deal with the many problems that occur in the world. It won’t work if we all wait for someone else to do it. People who practice maturity are called Wielders because they display confident and masterful application of a skill or technique.

Regarding our juggling example, maturity describes how well you invent and perfect new feats while dealing gracefully with pressure.

Measurement and Nuance

As I mentioned before, these Attributes are (loosely) measurable dimensions of different concepts. Next we’ll take a look at an example of a person’s mindset measurements.

Figure 1 is a “radar” or “spider” chart showing a hypothetical person’s Attributes for Fire Element (synthesis mindset). This type of graph doesn’t require adjacent qualities to be related, but it is particularly useful when they are, as we would see if we added in the Secondary Attributes. In this case, we are only looking at the Primary Elements.

Fire Element attributes
Figure 1

High intensity means this person can come up with very creative and ground-breaking ideas if they focus on a particular topic. A lower resilience means their creativity suffers under pressure.  A middling mobility means that given a new topic and not much other information, they can come up with some decent ideas reasonably quickly. Low initiative means that they will usually only do creative things when it feels immediately rewarding.

What can we infer about a person’s Secondary Elements from their Primary Elements? Determination has aspects of both intensity and resilience, so we can guess that if a person’s Intensity and Resilience Attributes are high (for a particular mindset or other trait), then their Determination Attribute is also likely to be high. However, that may not always be the case. Their determination could be low if the person is not comfortable with using intensity in high-stress situations. Conversely, their determination could be higher than you’d expect based on their intensity and resilience levels, if they are only comfortable using intensity in high-stress situations and are only comfortable in high-stress situations when they can use intensity.

Likewise, although a person fairly strong in both industry and determination is likely to be very strong in intensity (because industry and determination are both based on and can bolster intensity), it may also be that while they are able to use intensity relatively well in situations where others people might falter (such as delayed gratification and stressful situations, respectively), in immediately rewarding, low stress situations, their intensity is merely average.

Moreover, maturity represents not just a high level in all Attributes but the ability to combine them as necessary. It’s also possible to have a relatively high maturity overall but to be particularly strong (or weak) in an individual Attribute.

It should be noted that it’s not uncommon for a person to have different Attribute levels for different mindsets and even for different techniques within a mindset. For example, notification mindset encompasses both conveying information to others and researching information for oneself. While it is likely that a person’s Attributes for learning the notification mindset skills related to explanation and research will be similar, it’s not guaranteed.

Demonyms

You may have noticed that each of the twelve Attributes has a word describing people who practice that Attribute. Such words are called demonyms, which usually describe someone from a particular geographical region. I’m coopting the term here because we don’t have a word that means “word that refers to people with a certain trait” and “demonym” literally just means “name for a person”.

Why is it important that we have more words to refer to the Attributes? Isn’t that redundant? Not quite. The Attributes are nouns, and while they are appropriate, they are rather abstract and uncompelling. The demonyms are based on verbs, and describe how a person exercising a particular Attribute “moves.” Using an Attribute means using the corresponding verb (e.g. “driving” or “shifting”). Knowing the movement associated with the Attribute helps you understand how and when to use it and why it is important. Visualizing the Attribute’s process may make it easier for you to practice it. If nothing else, they sound really cool.

Attribute Demonym/movement
Initiative Driver/driving
Resilience Striver/striving
Mobility Shifter/shifting
Intensity Delver/delving
Determination Buckler/buckling
Industry Honer/honing
Enterprise Leaper/leaping
Adaptability Slider/sliding
Independence Dancer/dancing
Finesse Strider/striding
Competence User/using
Maturity Wielder/wielding

If you want to remember these movements, you can put them in an order that rhymes:

Delver, Driver

Shifter, Striver

Buckler, Honer, Leaper, Slider

User, Wielder, Dancer, Strider

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Technologic… Technologic… Technologic… Technologic…

Conclusion

Now that we have seen the different qualities that a given concept can have, we can recognize that not only are all the mindsets important for dealing with the world as a whole, but effectively wielding even a single mindset can require the exercise of multiple diverse aspects of it. As I learned the hard way, having skill in one Attribute is not enough to accomplish all your goals.

However, now that we know what it takes, we don’t have to feel helpless. There’s no reason we have to keep falling short. We are empowered to take steps to practice and strengthen our Attribute levels bit by bit, until we can take on even the most challenging situations with aplomb.

Not only that, but we can examine the nuances of the other concepts coming up in future articles. A mindset, motivation, or risk is not simply present or absent; it has a shape defined by the Attributes. We’ll see more about these concepts in the next few articles. Stay tuned!

 

*The keyword for the attribute of industry in this article was updated from the old version on 10/24/19. You can view the change in the Changelog.

Overdue Fake News Article

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“At last” implies the newspaper or its readers had previously expressed expectations that Martians would visit Earth. “The Martians” implies anyone knew they existed in the first place. That’s fake news even if Martians are landing.

Having occasionally emerged from under my rock, I’ve noticed that most of the people and communities I know are concerned about fake news, and are beseeching others not to be fooled. It’s about time that I share my approach to dealing with the timeless phenomenon of fake news.

Over the course of this article, I’ll introduce three and a half major themes and some associated questions that I ask myself as a matter of habit. You can make a checklist of these questions to go through whenever you find yourself believing, disbelieving, or having emotions about any news you see.

Facts: Evidence Versus Inferences

You can start your checklist with these three questions:

1. What does the author believe, or want me to believe?

2. What invisible assumptions are present in this piece?

3. What other evidence or possible inferences are missing from this piece?

The answers to these questions are often easy to find if you look for them. Persuasive authors typically appeal to facts to support their own agenda, whatever it may be. However, there are two different concepts that are referred to as “fact”, and authors frequently blur the line between them, consciously or unconsciously.

One type of “fact” is raw data that anyone can experience. Sights, sounds, and structures are raw facts. The other type of “fact” is an inference or conclusion that someone has drawn from that data. A causal relationship between two events is an inferred fact: it is based on observation of raw facts. Inferred facts are just as important as the raw facts they are derived from, but they are not necessarily as obvious or universally agreed on. They are two different levels of observation.

The difference between a raw fact and an inferred fact is the same as the difference between symptoms and a disease. Symptoms are readily measurable. A disease is what we infer based on the symptoms. While diseases are real, and can and should be diagnosed accurately, it’s still possible for two doctors who see the same symptoms to legitimately disagree on what the disease is. Even though there is a single right answer, the practice of asserting that the symptoms make it “obvious” can’t help us learn to diagnose the disease more accurately.

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Pictured: blood pressure reading. Not pictured: invisible factors that may be affecting the patient’s blood pressure.

You see this happen often in politics. The “doctors” (everyone with an opinion) assume that their inferred facts (such as the character of a politician or the efficacy of a policy) are just as obvious as raw facts (a politician’s words and actions, or raw statistical data before and after a policy is implemented), and that therefore the other “doctors” are either incompetent or actively trying to harm the “patient” (society).

One doctor might accuse the other doctor of being either incompetent, or actively malicious, but that accusation is a consequence of the assumption that the first doctor’s diagnosis is more accurate. The accusation doesn’t establish that the assumption is justified. If the second doctor is sincere, they may feel the same way about the first doctor, and neither will discover they are wrong unless they actively look for it. Discovering the most accurate inferences is not easy, and it’s often made more difficult by confirmation bias.

Dealing with Confirmation Bias

Here are the next two questions I ask myself:

4. How do I feel about the idea that this statement may be true?

5. What evidence would lead me to conclude that I am wrong?

The habit of seeking out and interpreting evidence to support what you already believe is called confirmation bias.

Humans tend to be bad at testing their beliefs unless already trained. When given the opportunity to gather evidence that could falsify their assumptions (and which could lend credence to their beliefs if it failed to falsify them), people instead tend to seek evidence that is in line with their thinking, and which does not risk proving them wrong. This appears to hold even when there is nothing important at stake.

For example, in a study published in 1960 by Peter Wason, people were given the sequence “2, 4, 6” and told to guess the secret rule it followed. They were allowed to provide other number sequences to test the rule. The participants tended to latch onto an overly specific hypothesis and guess sequences that followed it, such as, “middle number is the average of the other two,” or, “numbers increase by two,” rather than sequences that broke the pattern and could tell them if their rule was wrong. The answer was simply “ordered from smallest to largest.” The differences between the numbers were irrelevant, but you’d never figure that out unless you guessed a sequence that didn’t fit your hypothesis, to see if it still followed the secret rule.

Confirmation bias is infamous in rationality communities, but the mere knowledge of it does not inoculate a person against it. The habits necessary to counteract confirmation bias often rely on humility, a difficult practice.

Alternatively, you can do what I do and take great pride in seeking out your own errors and admitting them when they are pointed out to you. I push myself towards intellectual discomfort, because I’m not worried about having to change my beliefs or my behavior if I find out I’m wrong. Doing the legwork to correct myself cannot be worse than being wrong and not acknowledging it, and I find it’s always much more useful. When I find myself disagreeing with somebody, or even agreeing too much with them, I actively look for evidence that contradicts the position I find myself leaning towards.

For example, a few months ago I read an article about mercury in the Arctic ice cap potentially being released by global warming. I was immediately suspicious of this particular assertion, because I had read other evidence (that I consider credible) that some climate change activists have overstated the certainty of their inferred facts in order to convince the general populace of the seriousness of the situation, rather than convincing them by explaining the nuances of their discipline. The idea that “global warming will poison us all with mercury” seemed a bit too dramatic, too simplistic, and too convenient for the intended message of urgent action. It also didn’t match my assumptions about how mercury worked.

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This picture of Mercury with a twirlable turn-of-the-century handlebar mustache also challenged my assumption that Mercury wouldn’t tie me to railroad tracks while cackling.

Because I felt myself disagreeing with the article, I went looking for articles explaining the mechanism for mercury accumulating in the poles. Here’s one I found explaining that trace amounts of mercury exist as compounds in the atmosphere, and that plants absorb it and fix it into the ground, which can then leach into water, which becomes ice. (Yes, there are apparently sufficient plants in the Arctic). The mercury often leaves the ground again through chemical reactions, but those reactions take place much more slowly at cold temperatures, hence why mercury accumulates in the Arctic. I find this explanation of the physical mechanism satisfactory for accepting the assertion, or at least not rejecting it. Learning that my initial impression of the article was wrong was a pleasant reward for my anti-confirmation bias habit, and bolstered my self-image as a true skeptic.

(If I had found evidence that reinforced my initial impression of the mercury article as possible propaganda, I would have drawn no conclusions about climate change in general from that. The presence of spurious articles promoting a viewpoint is not hard evidence against that viewpoint, but it does call into question why people feel they have to resort to fraud if there are any good arguments they can use instead.)

If you want to get started developing your own anti-confirmation bias habits, you can go to Wikipedia and look at the “Criticism” sections of the articles about your favorite ideologies and public figures. To help you practice falsifying your hypotheses, I recommend everyone learn to play the game Zendo (or an equivalent), which is more or less pure deductive reasoning and logical thinking.

Another thing you’ll need to counteract confirmation bias is a heaping dose of nuanced thought.

Nuance

Here are two questions to help you think with nuance:

6. Is it possible that this statement could be partially true and partially false?

7. What other possible options are missing from this piece?

Confirmation bias is often powered by cognitive dissonance, the discomfort you feel when your beliefs or value judgments seem to contradict each other. If you believe that a policy is both harmful to some people but also necessary for society, it’s tempting to interpret the evidence to convince yourself that it is either harmless or unnecessary. However, doing so can be disastrous. Falsely believing a policy is harmless will lead you to avoid seeking better alternatives, while falsely believing it is unnecessary will lead you to neglect the needs of those you seek to protect.

Therefore, it’s essential to acknowledge that the vast majority of situations have both good and bad aspects. They are nuanced, not simple. To understand such situations, you need nuanced thought. You must admit that not everything an adversary does is wrong, nor is everything you and friends do right.

Moreover, it is vital that you take responsibility for paying respect to helpful deeds and criticizing harmful ones, no matter who commits them. Otherwise you do not stand for “right”, but rather, “your team.” If you’re worried that owning up to honest mistakes will cause people to desert you, you never had steadfast allies in the first place. You need people who will stand up for constructive goals rather than attaching themselves to strong or popular people.

If you’re concerned that people will not agree with a policy that has some flaws, do not try to convince them that it is one hundred percent good. If you truly believe it is a worthy cause, then work to convince people that the flaws are worth the benefit. Better yet, work with them to help mitigate those flaws. Otherwise you will face justified opposition for lying about the policy’s flaws and utterly disregarding the concerns of those who would be harmed. Nuanced thought will prevent you from fighting to hide your policy’s flaws from the people you are trying to help.

A lack of nuance also manifests in the form of a false dichotomy, where two approaches to a situation are presented as the only possible options.

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As Chip and Dan Heath point out in Decisive, if your options are either “do this thing” or “don’t” then you’re not comparing “this thing” to any alternatives. You’re really considering only one option.

Imagine two doctors have a very ill patient. One of them suggests doing nothing, while the other suggests bloodletting. One of these options may be strictly better than the other, but neither is actually helpful. A real solution would look different from both of those ideas, but it would be harder to figure out. The doctors can each make themselves look competent to their followers by only comparing themselves to each other and not actually focusing on achieving results. Authors and politicians seeking to persuade people often compare the positive aspects of their position to the negative aspects of a rival position (without acknowledging the reverse) in order to make themselves look better, so they don’t have to do the hard work of presenting a constructive solution based on the virtues of both.

Be extra suspicious of an assumed choice between two options, no matter who is presenting it.

If you want to figure out a constructive alternative to the choices given you, it’s often helpful to reserve judgment and form provisional conclusions.

Provisional Conclusions

Here are four final questions you can ask yourself:

8. What does the author expect me to do after reading this piece?

9. What would I do differently if the piece were not true?

10. What can I do constructively as a response that doesn’t require me to trust this piece?

11. What action can I take that gives me more information to falsify my conclusion?

I once had a fascinating conversation with someone who believed in ghosts, i.e. active spirits of humans whose bodies have stopped working. She recounted some experiences she had had that led her to believe these spirits were influencing the physical world. By the end, I concluded that I didn’t believe that her inference based on her experiences was the correct one, but I also didn’t disbelieve that the raw experiences happened. So far, I don’t believe in ghosts, but that’s a provisional conclusion, pending further evidence. I acknowledge that I won’t truly know for sure whether ghosts exist until I embark on a project that relies on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts.

(For the record, my most compelling argument against ghosts isn’t that it would introduce an aspect of reality our scientific tools haven’t detected yet. There have been hundreds of those—that’s how scientific progress works. No, I draw my current conclusion because as far as I know, none of the people who believe they can interact with ghosts has successfully exploited such knowledge to create ground-breaking, world-changing technology. I’ll elaborate on that in a future article.)

What makes me different from most people who don’t believe in ghosts is that my conclusion isn’t supposed to take me to the end of the line. It’s only supposed to last until I learn more or until someone else challenges me on it—though it admittedly will influence how much more data I actively seek out on this topic.

When people read political news, fake or otherwise, there is a typical pattern to what they do as a response. They form (or reinforce) a conclusion, and then they go out and act on their conclusion. Acting usually means complaining about the news to their friends, yelling at other people in real life or on the Internet, and voting a particular way. None of those activities is likely to result in them learning any more about their conclusion. (Well, except if they bother to listen to the people they’re yelling at. However, people being yelled at tend not to provide the best quality information, either.)

Below is a diagram of what is going on in their heads:

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Figure 1: Conclusion originates from a formative influence (e.g. family, a role model, or some inspirational event or work of fiction). News and updated data feed into the conclusion, but the conclusion itself continues in the same direction regardless.

This method is a terrible way to ensure you arrive at your destination.

Imagine a ship navigating at sea. As long as long-distance nautical ventures have existed, ships have relied on expert navigational practices to avoid getting lost. In the days before global positioning systems, they would use the stars (and accurate clocks, once those were invented) to determine their location and direction. By simple geometry, a tiny error in the initial direction amounts to a huge error in location over long distances. No self-respecting captain would set off in a direction and simply sail on until they ran into their destination. That, however, is what most people do when they hold onto a stale conclusion.

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Jenkins, you idiot! Lumbricus the Worm is supposed to be off our port stern! You’ve let Saturn’s tides lift us into the mountains!

To be sure, a ship’s navigator would try to save time by measuring and sailing on their heading as accurately as possible from day one. Fewer course corrections means less distance you have to travel. However, in addition the magnification of small deviations over large distances, the ocean waves and wind are constantly changing the course of the ship. The heading needed to be recalculated each night to be sure they were still on the right course. Likewise, since real life is also constantly changing, you will need to regularly reevaluate your own course.

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Figure 2: Note that each conclusion lasts as far as the next set of data, at which point it disappears and a new conclusion forms with a different direction.

Am I advocating that you yo-yo between different positions whenever you find a conflicting data point? Certainly not. There’s no reason to wholly commit yourself to a conclusion when the next batch of data might lead to a different one. On the other hand, it’s often necessary to be decisive based on the information you currently have, even though you know you don’t have the full picture. How can you effectively plan for learning you are wrong, while still taking real action?

Here are the steps you can take:

First, you form a provisional conclusion. This conclusion is a working understanding of reality that will last just long enough to for you to take the next step in whatever you’re doing.

Second, you decide on an action that is constructive even if your conclusion is partially wrong. This is often difficult, because the whole point of forming conclusions is that you need an accurate understanding of reality to determine what actions are useful in the first place. However, a ship can go in roughly the right direction even if it isn’t perfect. When it comes to politics, there are many constructive things you can do that don’t require you to trust or support any politicians or parties. For instance, as Daryl Davis can tell you, one of the most effective ways to deal with an adversarial group is to connect with and befriend them rather than trying to ostracize or legislate them out of existence. When in doubt, learn to understand and empower people to overcome obstacles rather than trying to unilaterally destroy structures that may serve some purpose, at least until you’ve learned more about their nuances.

Third, the action you take should also help you collect more data for your next conclusion. It’s important that you can tell whether the action you take actually helps accomplish your goals. You may even be able to figure out a better alternative from what you learn. That’s another point in favor of going out and listening to the concerns of people who disagree with you.

Fourth, after you take the action the conclusion expires and the cycle repeats again. If there isn’t enough new data, you can double-check the original evidence and your process for forming the conclusion in the first place. It also helps to get other people’s perspectives for the process of rederiving the conclusion, to make sure you’re not overlooking something. Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath also deals with setting triggers for reevaluating your course if it’s not working the way you expected.

If you find the previous conclusion no longer applies or was partially wrong to begin with, that’s okay. You score no points for the new conclusion being the same as the old one. The important thing is that the new conclusion is as accurate as you can reasonably make it for now. That’s why every conclusion needs to expire: to prompt you to form a fresh one at each important juncture.

The conclusion should also expire when someone challenges you on it. In order to find out the truth between the two of you, you need to walk through the steps that you took to get to your current conclusion. You’re not an expert if you can’t rederive what you know when seriously questioned. We’ll see more about that when we get to collaborative truth-seeking.

Conclusion

Usually when I see news organizations decrying fake news from their rivals, it comes off to me as a redundant and ad hominem message. “Don’t believe their lies, because they’re your enemies!” I infer an implicit corollary to that message: “Do believe our lies, because we’re your friends!”

The hardest thing about fake news isn’t finding out which path is righteous, but rather forging a worthy path yourself without having to trust the voices trying at all costs to get you to join a side against their adversaries. The propaganda surrounding contentious issues can be a noxious quagmire of arrogance and contempt.

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And the majority of those participating in the quagmire have feet of clay.

Nevertheless, if you develop the habits of recognizing raw and inferred facts, combating confirmation bias, applying nuanced thought, and forming and testing provisional conclusions and constructive approaches, you can be confident that you won’t be deceived into serving a destructive agenda, no matter how well-intentioned it may be or who else believes it.

Further Reading

For help with collaborative truth-seeking, I recommend literally every person read the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. It is one of very few books to which I give this distinction. This book both describes and shows how to establish understanding and effective communication on subjects which are tied to strong emotions and personal identities.

To get into the mood of nuanced thought and avoiding confirmation bias, I recommend listening to Angels or Demons? by the band I Fight Dragons (from their album DEMOlition).

Finally, if you want to join more people in holding sources and spreaders of fake news accountable, and showing politicians you value honesty more than lavish promises, you may be interested in signing up for the Pro-Truth Pledge, created by Intentional Insights. Full disclosure: I was on the Intentional Insights board of directors for a time and still work with them.

 

I hope you all find this article useful. Take care, and have fun!

 

An Introduction to Developing Powerful Skills

Hello. If you’re reading this article, you are probably interested in acquiring abilities which will improve your life. You may even be interested in making the world a better place in a major way. I’m here to help with that.

First, let’s take a look at the status quo. Do you ever find yourself despairing that you can’t do something that you want to do, maybe something that everyone else seems to be able to do? Do you ask yourself, “why can’t I plan ahead?” “Why can’t I use computers?” “Why can’t I save money?” “Why can’t I keep up with my peers?” “Why can’t I handle stress?” “Why can’t I understand people, or get them to like me?”

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Do you feel like this?

 

Do you want to accomplish something that only a few others have? If you’re particularly globally-minded, maybe you’ve asked yourself, “why hasn’t this problem been solved yet? Why does poverty still exist? What about war? Corruption? Oppression? Are these problems impossible? Are humans just too stupid or too flawed to solve them?”

I’ve got good news for you.

…Well, it’s not really news, actually. The knowledge and wisdom to help you build the life and world you want have already been discovered and articulated, in many cases decades or centuries ago.

The reason these issues still exist isn’t anything inherently wrong with you or humanity in general. The problem is we’ve all been forced to learn how to be people almost from scratch.

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The keys you need to succeed are somewhere in here. Good luck!

With the exception (if you’re lucky) of some basic guidance from family, friends, fiction, and mentors, most people grow up with only the skills they’ve picked up from dealing with their childhood environment.

Furthermore, one person may live decades without developing the skill to handle a situation they deal with every day, while another person learns the skill immediately from the experience. Why the difference?

The answer is paradigms.

(Pronounced “para-dimes”, because it was decided that a word should be spelled according to how it was pronounced in the original Latin.)

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You k’now, this mi’gh’t be a good time to ta’l’k about silent letters.

A paradigm is how you see the world. It’s what you notice and what you assume. It’s what you care about and how you fit everything together into a model that makes sense. You may have many different paradigms, each one for a different situation. Though you may not have words to describe it, a paradigm is how you think a situation works.

Why are paradigms so important? Imagine that at the beginning of your life you have a hammer. Maybe you’re born with it, or maybe your parents gave it to you, because they were given hammers by their parents. You go through life being good at pounding in nails and being terrible at driving screws. No matter how many screws you encounter, you’re not going to get better at it. Nails are all you can deal with.

You may not even recognize a screw or a screwdriver when you see one, until someone else points it out. After all, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. People with screwdrivers might look like magicians to you, except when they try to drive a nail, at which point you show them the superiority of a good, old-fashioned hammer.

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Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can turn nails or screws with a wrench. That’s nuts.

What if someone handed you a screwdriver and showed you how to use it, though? You’d still be bad at driving screws, at least for a little while. However, you would get better with practice. You’d become at least competent, if perhaps not a master. Importantly, you would also be able to understand and judge the skills of other screwdriver users, instead of being limited to saying, “that one is more powerful”.

As a more concrete example, imagine a little boy has fallen off his bicycle and skinned his knee, and the bike chain has come loose.

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Not pictured: Actual bicycle accident.

Someone with a person-oriented paradigm might notice the child’s emotions and comfort him. Someone with a health-related paradigm might notice the injury, inspect it, and want to apply disinfectant. Someone with a mechanical-based paradigm might look at the bike and know how to fix it. Someone with a social order paradigm might see that the boy was riding in a forbidden area and move to scold him. All these are valid approaches to dealing with different aspects of the same situation. These people are starting from different premises about what is important or relevant and different knowledge of how things work.

What happens when a paradigm meets a situation it doesn’t know about, though? Would the medic know how to fix the bike? Would the mechanic know how to comfort the child? Would the comforter know how to discipline him?

No, they wouldn’t.

But could they learn?

They say people learn from experience, but that’s not completely true. Watching television in another language or living in another country helps you learn the language, but mere exposure doesn’t work for just anyone. Being allowed to play around with a piano doesn’t mean that a person will automatically learn how to play music, but you won’t be able to play music if you don’t practice. Experience is necessary for learning, but it is not sufficient on its own. Paradigms are necessary as well.

If a person doesn’t have a paradigm to help them gather what is important about their experience, then experience won’t do them much good. That’s why people who are decades older than you aren’t necessarily any wiser about things you’d expect them to pay attention to. They never had access to the paradigms that would have allowed them to learn from their experiences, or they considered the paradigms unimportant.

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If that describes you, it’s never too late to start learning. Or to stop being so obnoxiously arrogant.

The paradigms exist, though. There are people out there who know how to interact with people, how to build good habits, how to learn technical skills, how to take smart risks and avoid stupid ones. Their paradigms even guide them in seeking out new experiences to learn from. There are a few reasons why other people haven’t been able to find useful paradigms, though:

  • They don’t know what they need to know.
  • They don’t know the paradigm exists or could help them.
  • There are just too many paradigms to sift through to find what they need.
  • They don’t know how to recognize a useful paradigm from a flawed one.
  • They think mere knowledge is the same as a paradigm. (Knowledge becomes obsolete, but a paradigm helps you keep up-to-date.)
  • They don’t know how to generalize a paradigm to solve multiple similar problems.

Often, people give up on looking for the paradigms they need and try to brute-force their way through life with the paradigms they already have. They are resigned to the idea that they’ve either got it or they haven’t. It may be true that some people take to a paradigm easily while others need more help, but there’s no reason to limit your learning to the paradigms that come naturally to you. Doing so cripples your learning in every direction, including what you do best—a paradigm can only take you so far without support from other key paradigms.

What does this all mean for our world, and for you in particular?

All the hard work in the world won’t help if you don’t have the right tools, but if you do have the right tools, you have a decent chance at almost anything. You can do things you can be proud of, and even change your world. Furthermore, you’re not stuck with the tools you already have.

Where can you find more tools? That’s where I come in.

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Useful for plying your trade.

I’ve identified and cataloged all the fundamental tools (more or less), and I can point you to some good places to pick them up and learn to use them. Many articles in this blog are and will be about what these tools are, how they work, what they can do, and how to obtain them. Once you have them, using them is up to you.

Take care, and have fun.

Elevated Echelon Elements

This article is the third in the series introducing the various Elements of Consciousness (or problem-solving mindsets, for the less dramatically inclined). It deals with four Elements that are more powerful and nuanced, known as the Great Elements.

You can find the basic Elements here and the peripheral Elements here.

Great Elements

The Great Elements are combinations of opposing Primary or Secondary Elements. They each deal with a single aspect of reality (in this case concepts, navigation, paths, and interactions), but balance the opposing processes of their source Elements in order to wield their aspect with tremendous effectiveness. To be able to use a Great Element implies being able to use either of the Primary or Secondary Elements that make it up, as well as the related Tempered Elements by logical extension. Each of those Elements is an aspect of the power of the Great Element, but being able to use them all results in a gestalt power, which is greater and more versatile than the sum of its parts (as usual for the Elements).

Although the case could be made that the Great Elements have two opposing pairs like the Primary Elements, in the interests of respecting their nuances and avoiding the creation of an infinite series of ever more complex Elements, there are no opposing pairs in the Great Elements. On a similar note, the Great Elements are all on the same level, despite two being composed of Primary Elements and two being composed of Secondary Elements, same as the Tempered Elements. We’ll see what happens when the Great Elements are combined in the article dealing with Cosmic Elements (coming soon).

Blood Element

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Blood Element (combination of Ice and Fire) is the Element of perception, and it combines analysis and synthesis in order to assess how well concepts fit together or whether they accurately reflect reality, and generate new concepts to test against the world. With these two processes working together, perception allows you to see both that which is and that which can be, and evolve conceptual models to accurately describe the world and how it can be altered. The contributing mindsets of science and design allow you to better get a much better idea of how a system works, and to imagine ideas for devices or systems that take advantage of that knowledge.

The major strength of perception is that by both examining reality and generating new ideas, it is the strongest source of paradigm shifts out of all the mindsets. The major weakness of perception is that shifting paradigms is all it does. Unless a problem can be addressed by increasing your understanding of a problem and devising some solution (and only devising it; logistics and implementation aren’t part of this mindset), then perception is not sufficient. In other words, although perception is a huge game-changer, it does not automatically confer the ability to actually play the proverbial game. Each time it changes the game, the other great mindsets soon master the new version and outpace perception.

Typically, a perception user who lacks other mindsets will evolve their paradigms into a unique understanding of the world—accurate or not—based on their own experiences, until they become estranged and alienated from mainstream society to some degree. Without action, they have no force with which to move things. Without communication, they appear eccentric or mad and cannot engage with others. Without facilitation, their decisions are ineffective and often even counterproductive. The only real power granted by perception alone is the power to make sense of one’s experiences, constructing a coherent model based on them. For many perception users, their only way to cope with the world is to understand it and themselves as best they can, figure out their apparent role in existence, and alter their own thought patterns to adapt to it as best they can. Unless they can learn the other mindsets, though, or successfully share their ideas with someone who has, their ability to make a difference in the world is severely limited.

Examples of perception mindset include the fields of philosophy, psychology, and science and design (obviously, since they’re the tempered mindsets that go into perception). Revolutionaries, ideologues, visionaries, and satirists use perception to figure out where things stand and where to go from here. It should be noted that perception mindset is the one that was used to come up with the theory of all of these mindsets.

Blaire is a perception user. She studies human psychology and culture. In her spare time, she writes humorous science-fiction stories that show how the world could be different with technological advances, while highlighting the current foibles of society that seem to be leading humanity down a path that people may not want to travel. Her stories raise important ethical questions and make the reader think introspectively about what they really want from the future and from their own life.

Perception mindset has a blood theme because blood is a good representation of a dynamic system, and perception’s role is to learn the workings of systems and use that understanding to be able to change them. Blood also has connotations of “identity” through its historical association with heredity, and thus serves as a dramatic-sounding stand-in for genetic material (even though red blood cells don’t contain DNA). As a representation of genetic material, blood represents the inner blueprints of systems and their capacity to evolve and adapt to their surroundings, or to be altered artificially. Effectively, it can be said that perception mindset allows you to perceive, understand, and redesign any system, due to its mastery of concepts.

Blood Element is represented by the color magenta.

Gravity Element

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Gravity Element (combination of Electricity and Water) is the Element of action, and it combines organization and operation to both optimize and internalize a person’s navigation of the world. With the ability to make and implement decisions at both the logistical and the immediate level, action is incredibly powerful at setting things in motion and keeping them moving. Furthermore, with the tempered aspects of orchestration and thoroughness, action mindset allows you to keep many different things moving together in a harmonious manner as well as getting the most use out of your resources.

Examples of action mindset include maintaining an active and productive schedule, keeping your life balanced while managing many tasks and events, running your own business, and in general getting more done than most people think is possible. Effectively handling many obligations and goals ranging from basic to complex is the hallmark of action. Self-driven people who are constantly working towards success in their chosen career or field are using action mindset to make the most of their time and energy. They put forth consistent effort to advance the items on their schedule and pace themselves to avoid burnout. Your own energy is, after all, a resource you can learn to skillfully manage and apply.

Graham is a high-level action mindset user. He is a high-powered project management consultant. He wakes up early, goes to work at his fast-paced and high-stakes job, works out after work, goes to other countries on vacations, does investing, and plays on an amateur ultimate Frisbee team. He is seldom idle.

Action mindset has a gravity theme because gravity remains reliable even as it influences the movements of innumerable objects. Like electricity (technically electromagnetism), gravity is a fundamental force of the universe. Like both electricity and water, gravity can produce gradients of force which can even fluctuate over time in the form of waves. Also, water is associated with gravity due to famously flowing downhill and being drawn into tides. Another aspect of the theme is illustrated by a common verb used to describe the use of action mindset: “juggling”, as in juggling priorities, evokes the image of a person successfully opposing the effects of real gravity on a collection of objects by applying force to each one at the appropriate time. Additionally, one might also say that the tasks and projects surrounding an action user are metaphorically “orbiting” them, though the process for sustaining the orbits is the same as same as the one for “juggling”. On a different note, if a person’s action mindset is brought to bear on a single goal, it creates a tremendous force that is difficult to resist. A person can move a large obstacle, or simply propel themselves, if they apply enough effort and resources.

Gravity Element is represented by the color cyan.

Sand Element

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Sand Element (combination of Earth and Wind) is the Element of facilitation, combining strategy and tactics to close and open possibilities by fortifying or repurposing paths through the thoughtful application of resources. With its power of combined opposites, facilitation can come up with a clever but risky tactic and then fortify it, or take a robust but obsolete structure and put it to a new use. By alternating between clever ploys and solid contingency plans (or using both at once), you can make extremely effective use of your resources and environment. With the contributing mindsets of salvage and overhaul, you can succeed despite having ill-suited resources and poor environmental conditions, and even remodel both over time to better suit your goals. One of the key words for facilitation is “leverage”. A lever is a tool for accomplishing more with less, allowing you to do things you couldn’t do with mere management of resources. The word facilitate itself means “to make easy”. If you want to accomplish a difficult goal in a difficult environment, facilitation mindset can likely furnish you with the plans you need.

Examples of facilitation mindset include military planning (which prominently features tactics and strategy specifically, although under different definitions), as well as less serious conflicts like games and sports (which also use operation mindset for intuition and smooth navigation). Facilitation is not just for conflict, though; it is used to plan purely constructive projects and investments of resources such as business ventures, revivals of towns and neighborhoods, or responses to disasters and epidemics. Any engineering project that has limitations on resources or environmental constraints (which means more or less all of them) will fare better by including facilitation mindset in the design process as well.

Shen is in charge of planning business ventures for an electronics vendor. She identifies applications and potential markets for new technologies. Because the market environment is always changing, she cuts losses (salvage) and helps the company move into new markets and fields (overhaul). A disciplined executive, Shen avoids investments that rely on too many contingencies and makes sure the company invests in advancement. Her hobbies include board games and video games that involve military command. When she goes out with friends, Shen prefers planned events and outings, but is ready to change her plans if options open up or disappear.

Facilitation mindset has a sand theme because of sand’s association with both earth and wind, as well as its qualities of being a non-Newtonian solid. Grains of sand are light enough to be blown by the wind, yet a bag of sand is still very heavy. Sand can sink under you or support you relatively solidly. It can erode things, or turn to stone; worsen a windstorm or construct a child’s castle. Although sand is not as exotic a theme as the other Great Elements, don’t let its mundane form fool you. Sand is a changing landscape, and whosoever can take advantage of its movements can shape it into the land of their choice.

Sand Element is represented by the color brown.

Script Element

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Script Element (combination of Light and Darkness) is the Element of communication, combining semantics and empathy to change how you interact with your environment to more easily engage with and influence it. Interactions deal with both information (semantics) and impressions (empathy)—in other words, content and delivery. Although pure communication cannot create paradigms from scratch and evolve them independently, as perception can, it can still enter the paradigms of other entities by individualizing interactions, and move within them fluently by simplifying the interactions. Its tempered aspects of translation and background allow information to be more effectively conveyed across paradigm differences, and impressions to be easily and reliably projected within familiar paradigms.

Examples of communication mindset include acting, disguising, endearing oneself to people from a variety of cultures, learning to intuitively read signs in nature, and mastering operation of systems, including but not limited to mechanical, computational, personal, animal, vegetable, and mineral. This mastery is limited by your understanding of the principles involved: if you lack the right concepts, you may have some trouble forming an accurate picture of who or what you are dealing with until you update your paradigms with knowledge derived from perception mindset. The interface between you and the rest of the world can be altered to let you move more easily through it, which often entails appearing and acting differently depending on the environment and the situation.

Scipio is a communication mindset user. He travels the world, immersing himself in different cultures and learning how to fit in. Through his travels he has become fluent in the languages and etiquette of six different cultures and can engage passably with cultures related to any of those. Anyone who has met him will describe him as charming and pleasant, through his specific demeanor varies from formal and subdued to boisterous and rowdy depending on who he is with. Not limiting himself to human interactions, wherever he travels Scipio spends time observing animals, plants, the land, sea, and weather, and learns how to read them, often helped by the local people he meets.

Communication mindset is themed after script (that is, written language) because it is the logical conclusion of combining the mindsets themed on ink and paper. Beyond the literal sense, translation mindset (Ink Element) deals with understanding and conveying information across paradigms, while background mindset (Paper Element) deals with understanding and conveying impressions within paradigms. Incorporating both, communication mindset deals with understanding and conveying both facts and feelings alike, within and between paradigms. People communicate meaning and reach understanding using the content, style, and context of their writing, speech, or other medium of communication. Written language just happens to be the easiest medium to represent as an “Element”. Furthermore, the word “script” also alludes to the instructions used by actors, who convey information and impressions such that they “transform” themselves from a person into a character with different qualities. Because communication users can play various roles in order to interact with their environment, Script Element has a secondary theme of changing one’s appearance. The major limitation to this ability is that a person does not have all the knowledge or skills of the character they are playing, though they may be able to quickly learn it or improvise explanations to fill in the blanks.

Script Element is represented by the color gray.

 

Conclusion

The Great Elements strike a balance between opposing forces in order to achieve more powerful results. There will of course be situations in which one Element is more useful than its opposite, but in general having both to call on allows you to use them to support each other and do many things with them that neither Element could do alone. This creative gestalt of incomplete opposites, combining yin and yang, is the phenomenon that inspired the Ginnungagap Foundation’s name.