by Roger Koppl
Right in the middle of the book, Thing 1 and Thing 2 sat down to talk about a controversial topic. It might have been politics or religion. It might have been economics or, perhaps, global warming. I don’t know. Anyway, it was a Very Important Topic. Just like you and me, Thing 1 and Thing 2 think in models, though not necessarily mathematical models. Thing 1 thinks about the Very Important Topic with Model A and Thing 2 thinks about the Very Important Topic with Model B. These models are in their heads. Thus, Thing 1 cannot observe Model B and Thing 2 cannot observe Model A. Thing 1 cannot observe Model B, so it must get along with a model of Model B, which we may call Model Beta. Similarly, Model Alpha is Thing 2’s model of Model A. Trouble is brewing for Thing 1 and Thing 2 because Model Alpha is crude and simple compared to Model A and Model Beta is crude and simple compared to Model B. In fact, Model A and Model B are about equally sophisticated, which means that Model Alpha is crude and simple compared to Model B and Model Beta is crude and simple compared to Model A. The trouble is that neither Thing realizes that its model of the other Thing’s model is not the real thing. Thus, each Thing thinks it knows for certain that it is smarter and more sophisticated than the other Thing. Each Thing thinks the conversation will go well if and only if the other Thing learns how crude and simple its thinking has been compared to the Superior Wisdom of itself, the smarter Thing. But this result cannot emerge for both Things, so things will not well our for Things.
Thing 1 starts the conversation by noting that Model Beta implies X, which is clearly false. Thing 1 is right to say that Model Beta implies X and right say that X is false. But Model B does not imply X. Thus, Thing 2 denies that it ever thought X and why in world would Thing 1 think such a thing? Clearly, Thing 2 continues, Thing 1 needs some basic schooling. Model Alpha implies both Z and W, which is a contradiction. Thus, says Thing 2, Thing 1 had better work on its logic and think more clearly. Although Z and W are contradictory, Model A does not imply them both, as Thing 1 understands clearly. Now Thing 1 starting to wonder if Thing 2 has a screw loose or, perhaps, is dishonestly inventing supposed contradictions just to get the upper hand. Thing 1 thinks, “Thing 2 is just insulting me and not even trying to be reasonable.” Vexed by Thing 2’s complete stupidity, Thing 1 reminds Thing 2 that it has not countered the “proof” that Model Beta implies X, and lets Thing 2 know that it does not appreciate the smoke and mirrors trickery of trying to pretend that Model B implies both Z and W. From here things only go downhill. Each Thing leaves more certain than ever of its Superior Wisdom and Intelligence, and neither Thing has learned anything of value from the exchange.
How much better might it have been if Thing 1 and Thing 2 had put their objections in the form of self doubt and puzzlement! “My dear Thing 2, it seems I do not understood you, because your model would seem to imply X, which (wouldn’t you say?) is probably not true.” Thing 2 might reply that Thing 1 is clearly a moron to imagine the Model B implies X. But if Thing 2 thinks – or just pretends! — that Thing 1 is not a moron, it might offer a more constructive reply. “It seems I have not done a good job of explaining my model, dear Thing 1. I see that Model Beta does indeed imply X, but that is not quite my model. To infer X it seems necessary to assume Gamma, which I do not. My assumption, however, is G, which is differs from Gamma in several important ways . . .” Yes, Thing 1 and Thing 2 will have to sit longer, but at least something might come of it. And all it takes is a bit of etiquette, which may now start to look like something more than being “nice.” Etiquette is an epistemic virtue.
Etiquette always matters. At this moment a bit of good will and high etiquette might help libertarians and progressives communicate. We have both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And we have several voices calling for a Progressive-Libertarian alliance. (See here, here, and here.) Such an alliance might be able to do some good. It will come to nothing, however, if Progressives and Libertarians act like Thing 1 and Thing 2. No more name-calling. No more insults. No more presumptive superiority. From now on, let’s listen to one another respectfully and try, really try, to see where our model of their model is too simple. The stakes are high enough to give proper etiquette a chance to do its good epistemic work.