Debate, Rejection, Priorities and Endless Meta Levels

Table of Contents

Open debate policies involve more honesty than people are used to.

If you don’t ignore people with no explanation, then you have to explain when you don’t debate people. That makes your reason for not debating be transparent and open to criticism. But people often take rejection poorly.

It’s perfectly reasonable, in a debate, to ask someone if they believe they have expertise about the topic. If they say no, you can ask if they have some other way of contributing significant value to the debate. If they say no again, you can reject them – refuse to debate them – on the basis that (on their own account) they have no significant value to offer that would be worth your time. It’s also possible to use your own judgment and reach conclusions like this which aren’t openly admitted to by the person you’re rejecting.

If you refuse to debate someone, you can still offer them ways to make progress. Something other than a debate can happen, e.g. you can recommend some educational materials to them.

Typically, instead of stating rejection openly and giving real reasons, people do one of two alternatives. They may be silent and give no reasons, or they may lie and give fake reasons which are meant to enable everyone to save face. E.g. they say “I’m too busy”, and then the person being rejected doesn’t feel blamed or judged – even though he is being judged. The person claiming to be “too busy” is prioritizing some other stuff over this discussion. He’s judging this discussion as lower value or importance than some alternatives. This is essentially the same thing as saying, “I don’t want to debate you because I don’t think you offer enough value to be worth my time” but phrased differently – less honestly. And it avoids transparency: the reasons for the judgment aren’t given, so they can’t be discussed, analyzed and criticized.

Which debates I should participate in is itself a thing that should be open to debate. Being open to debate doesn’t mean I should participate in every debate. It means I should have policies that are pretty favorable to debating, which are designed with anti-bias mechanisms like transparency, and designed with anti-error failsafes. If I think a debate isn’t relevant to me, or that a debater doesn’t know what he’s talking about, those are ideas I have which may be mistaken. Those ideas should themselves be open to debate.


Some ideas have (logical) priority over others in debates. Understanding which claims have debating priority, and why, and focusing attention on them, is very important to debates. People often lose track of this stuff or don’t care or just want to focus on some topics that they’re particularly interested in. Let’s look at an example involving priority.

Suppose John wants to debate me about telepathy. He calls me a “denier” of the supernatural and starts telling me about how his sister’s friend’s cousin had a telepathic experience. I tell John that unless he has something new to say, I don’t care to discuss telepathy.

I’ve now rejected the original debate and given a reason (nothing new). My rejection reasons have priority over the original debate. It’d be unreasonable for John to ignore me and keep talking about the alleged telepathic experience.

By the way, John assumed or knew that I disagree with him about telepathy. He’s correct about that. I didn’t state it, but I do agree that if telepathy is correct, then I’m mistaken, and also that would be important information that I’d want to learn. If I’m wrong about telepathy, being corrected would be valuable to me. This topic is relevant to me, not irrelevant.

I basically have two beliefs:

  1. John has no substantial new evidence or arguments about telepathy.
  2. The telepathy debate has already reached a conclusion, so unless there’s something new, there’s no need to discuss it.

These are fallible claims which I’ve made with limited information. Maybe John has some great, new argument which he hadn’t gotten a chance to say yet. I doubt it, but I’m prepared to reconsider my position if necessary.

Conditional on both of my beliefs being correct, the telepathy debate should not be continued. Therefore, these beliefs have priority and should be addressed before the telepathy debate. Only one of them needs to be criticized in order to change my mind, not both.

If John has nothing new to say, and the debate is already settled based on current information and arguments, then talking about the cousin’s telepathy isn’t a good use of my time.

If John wants to continue debating me, he should dispute one of these claims, but he shouldn’t tell me more about the cousin. The topic I raised has priority over the topic he brought up.

John replies that the cousin’s experiences are new evidence. In fact, they happened just last month. This is a relevant reply. It’s responsive to my claim about the newness of John’s information. John has correctly switched to discussing my higher priority claim instead of sticking to his original topic.

I reply that by “new” I mean something that doesn’t fit into well known categories that have already been addressed in the literature. I’m not talking about merely a new instance, incident or example, but one which is different in some important way from past examples – one that fits into a new category.

It’s kind of like how if I make hamburger, that’s a new burger (that specific physical object didn’t exist before I made it) but not a new type of food. There’s no new information in my particular hamburger that should cause chefs to reconsider their views on food.

Now there are multiple relevant things John could say. He could dispute my understanding of newness. He could ask what literature I was referring to. He could accurately summarize the literature and the types of evidence it already considers, then specify a way in which his cousin-based evidence is different and new.

What John cannot (reasonably, correctly) do is ignore all this abstract stuff and stick to the original topic: sharing more details about the cousin’s telepathy. He may be really into stuff like what color the curtains were, what candles were burning, how the wind made the candles flicker without moving the curtains, etc. But his enjoyment of those topics doesn’t make them productive contributions to a discussion with someone else who gave reasons for not being interested in those details.

My claims (John isn’t saying anything new and the issue already has a conclusion) have logical priority. If my claims are correct, then John saying details would be a waste of time. So John should respond to my claims or drop the matter.

Best Use of Time

If you think some debate isn’t worth your time, that has logical priority. People who want to debate you are making claims about the subject matter and (usually unstated) claims about the debate being a good use of your time. If you have more important things to work on, then you shouldn’t participate in this debate even if it has some (more than zero) positive value. Debates don’t have to be worthless to opt out. You just have to have some other stuff to do with more positive value.

People reject a lot of debates because they’d rather do something else with their time. But they usually do this without giving any reasoning about how they prioritize or how they’re seeing the value of this debate. They may be misjudging the importance or relevance of a proposed debate. If they stated their reasoning, it might contain mistakes that could be pointed out.

Stating reasoning for opting out of a debate allows debate to continue via meta debate. It opts out of a specific debate topic but allows responses about your higher priority claims. And if you’re wrong, it’s possible that discussing your reasons for opting out will lead you to change your mind.


Would this result in an endless succession of meta levels? What if someone tries to debate you about whether to debate, and then you want to opt out of that? And then, whatever reason you give, they try to debate you about that reasoning, and then you opt out again, and they reply again, and you opt out again, and so on.

First of all, if you do a few iterations of this then stop, you’re doing much better at transparency than the status quo. That’d be a big improvement. It’d be good enough for now. By giving your reasoning a few times, you share it, let others potentially learn from it, expose it to criticism, and explain your decision. That’s all good.

If at some point you say “Look, I don’t have anything more or new to say”, it doesn’t invalidate the value of expressing the reasoning you already did.

Doing this a couple times is pretty reasonable and not too time consuming. If this comes up with many different people, you should write down whatever points you find repetitive in a reasonably polished, clear way, then start referring people to those pre-written answers instead of giving them fresh answers. This will make your reasoning even more transparent and exposed to criticism, since it’s been elevated from conversational replies to more like a blog post, essay or article with a permalink. Now it’s much easier for anyone to find it, read it and point out an error. That criticism is more clearly relevant to you, since instead of commenting on some conversation you had years ago, the critic can now comment on an idea you used several times and then wrote down for future re-use. You wrote a version you intended to be timeless, clear, polished, etc. It’s a better target for criticism because it’ll have fewer irrelevant mistakes to cause distraction.

Now let’s return to the potential problem of a single person endlessly trying to debate your reasons for opting out of the previous debate. That could potentially be an infinite regress. If you always give reasoning for rejecting a debate, and he can always reply to the reasoning, which requires you to give new reasoning, etc., then how can this ever end?

After a few iterations, you’ll reach very generic reasons which can be re-used repeatedly unless the other person comes up with something significantly new to say. So, basically, take what you keep repeating, write it down somewhere you can link to it, and re-use it instead of writing anything new.

What if they keep persisting so much that you get tired of sending them links? First of all, I think that’ll be fairly rare. Most people won’t do that. But you could have a policy that if you give the identical response three times in a row, then you announce you’re done unless some other person thinks you’re making a mistake, but you’re done responding to the same person you’re already speaking with. You should disclose that policy in advance and starting counting to three after they know about it. Also, let them respond to the third repetition as their last chance, then skim what they said to check for something new that you’d want to reply to.

Giving up after repeating yourself three times in a row is not absolutely ideal but it’s pretty good – far better than current practice today. It also has significant advantages over giving up after three meta levels regardless of what was said, while still doing a reasonable job preventing endless meta levels or too much time use.

There’s room for innovation here. If people actually start approaching debate this way and run into these problems, I’m sure that better ways to deal with persistent-but-silly critics can be developed.

This can be easier to understand with examples, but real examples are messy (there are lots of misunderstandings and irrelevancies, and issues like people getting tilted and contradicting themselves and saying passive-aggressive comments). Hypothetical or fictional examples can be more focused but come off too fake or unrealistic.

Fictional Example

Here’s a fictional an example conversation with a very persistent but silly person. He’s unusually good at staying on topic and writes unusually clearly. This could be shortened if you use some of the lines from the end earlier. Writing it out at greater length gives more transparency and more examples of relevant meta issues, but makes it less realistic. Although I tend towards a lot more persistence than most people, and I have a lot of past experience in conversations and debates, this is still unrealistically long. Normally John would get offended and quit way earlier or make bigger mistakes with easily identifiable red flags that I could point out. I’m not actually very good at making up the sort of dishonest, illogical, unresponsive and off-topic stuff that people actually say. So I think this will help illustrate some points, but don’t take this example conversation too literally.

John: You’re not listening. Let me get to the good part. Then the lights flickered but there wasn’t a power outage and the flickering didn’t happen to the neighbors or in any other rooms.

Elliot: Stop. I don’t care. Summarize a piece of the skeptic literature and point out an error in it.

John: Which literature?

Elliot: If you lack the research skills to figure that out, then I don’t think this is a good use of my time.

John: How am I supposed to know what you consider good research skills?

Elliot: If you want to improve your research skills and other intellectual skills, I suggest going through my 100 hours of tutoring Max videos, available for free on my YouTube.

John: Sounds too long and too irrelevant to telepathy.

Elliot: I’m not seeing value in this conversation so bye.

John: I’m super valuable because I know evidence of telepathy that you don’t.

Elliot: Look, I’m not impressed. I don’t believe you. I already heard about the evidence and it isn’t new. You need to meet some objective standards to show skill and knowledge or I don’t want to debate. Send me links to your articles analyzing five of the most difficult philosophy books you’ve read where you offer some new insight.

John: I don’t have that but that doesn’t take away the cousin’s telepathy.

Elliot: You need philosophical skill to judge the evidence in the way I would. You aren’t a reliable narrator for me.

John: Point out a specific flaw in my story then. But you can’t since I didn’t even finish telling it!

Elliot: There are thousands of stories I could listen to. What differentiates this one so that I should expect it to have value to me?

John: I’m really sure this one is true.

Elliot: But I don’t respect your judgment.

John: You should. I’m really smart and basically always right.

Elliot: Look, I’m not impressed. You need to meet some objective standards to show skill and knowledge or I don’t want to debate. Send me links to your articles analyzing five of the most difficult philosophy books you’ve read where you offer some new insight.

John: No, I’m a uhh different type of smart than that.

Elliot: Look, I’m not impressed. You need to meet some objective standards to show skill and knowledge or I don’t want to debate. Send me links to your articles analyzing five of the most difficult philosophy books you’ve read where you offer some new insight.

John: Hold on, what if I get three people to vouch for me?

Elliot: Look, I’m not impressed. You need to meet some objective standards to show skill and knowledge or I don’t want to debate. Send me links to your articles analyzing five of the most difficult philosophy books you’ve read where you offer some new insight.

John: You said you were open to debate and error correction, but you’re not, you liar.

Elliot: Look, I’m not impressed. You need to meet some objective standards to show skill and knowledge or I don’t want to debate. Send me links to your articles analyzing five of the most difficult philosophy books you’ve read where you offer some new insight.

John: Just going to repeat yourself? I guess I win by default.

Elliot: OK, I’ll stop repeating myself now. You know my answer. You can remember it without me copy/pasting it again.

John: You’re so wrong and you don’t even know it. We actually read probably at least five of Socrates’ dialogs in school! You don’t believe me but I did.

Elliot: [doesn’t reply]

There’s no need to reply further (or this much). A reasonable observer has enough information to judge us, and to offer me criticism if I was making a mistake.


It’s common to reject a debate because of a person rather than topic. I would want to debate the topic with someone who had interesting, novel things to say and high quality reasoning. But I don’t want to debate it with a sloppy writer who is bad at logic and has intellectual standards that I think are too low for reaching correct answers about the topic.

People get offended by this, so there’s an incentive to avoid transparency in order to avoid offense.

Offending people can be dangerous. Sometimes they get really upset. I’ve been stalked and harassed online. I think it’s likely that I would have been physically assaulted by now if all my debates had been in person instead of most of them being online.

Ironically, it’s the people who partially like and respect me who are the biggest concerns. If someone can decide I’m an idiot, then they can ignore me, so being rejected and offended by me doesn’t matter much. But if part of them still respects me, then trying to dismiss me as an idiot leads to inner conflict. The more they know I’m smart and have good judgment, the more rejection hurts them.

Some people read a lot of my articles before ever speaking to me, so in our first conversation they already respect my judgment a lot and are vulnerable to be hurt by rejection – and therefore there’s a possibility they’ll get angry at me, lash out at me, hold a lasting grudge, etc. In order to stop respecting me, some people make up false stories about me and convince themselves of these stories. They do this rationalizing to soothe their inner conflict and feel better about themselves. The goal isn’t to hurt me, but sometimes they also gossip about the stories after they convince themselves that their fantasies are true.

These kinds of problems happen to other people too, not just to me. They’re examples of generic issues.

Debates, criticism and rejection can threaten people’s self-esteem and/or social status. Avoiding open, rational debate is partly a protective mechanism to avoid those problems. Ignoring people without saying why (or giving a fake reason or excuse that they won’t mind) lets them save face more easily. But it’s bad for rationality, truth-seeking and human progress.

What can be done about this problem? Put conditions on debate to filter people out.

It’s very important that the conditions are not proxies for social status. For example, you might only consider debate requests from people willing to name the top five hardest philosophy books they’ve read and believe they understood well. Anyone can do that regardless of their social status. Most people will not do it though because they don’t have a good list of five that they’re happy to talk about. Most people will opt-out due to that condition.

If that filter isn’t powerful enough, you could add a second step designed to evaluate if the books they list are difficult and advanced enough, or designed to check their understanding of the listed books. For example, you might require them to have a blog post for each book that demonstrates understanding of the content and which shares at least one novel insight. If they have no new insights about philosophy literature to offer, then why are they trying to debate me?

Similar methods can work for other fields. If you’re a historian, then make it history books instead of philosophy books.

If you make rejection more impersonal, it’s less offensive to people. And if you post the criteria in public, anyone can read them and opt-out without a discussion where they’re rejected (that also might have audience that sees their rejection).

People can avoid being (directly) rejected by you by simply being silent and not trying. They can tell themselves that didn’t want to talk to you anyway, and it’s just too much work, and actually they could pass your criteria but they don’t want to … or whatever. They can tell themselves your criteria are dumb but then not write any essay to criticize the criteria and propose better ones.

The more popular you are, the stronger filters you’ll need. It’s also partly a matter of taste or prioritization about how much you want to debate. It’s important to have some openness to debate so if you’re wrong and someone knows it you can be corrected. But realistically I don’t think you need to have general willingness to talk with the people who don’t like reading books and who lack the skill or interest to read advanced books in your field. You could still talk with them if they get your attention in some other way.

Criteria for rejecting people which you write down in public in advance are more like the rule of law instead of the rule of man. They make rejection less personal and they give much more predictability to people who come to you. People are sometimes foolish and may be surprised by something predictable, but if you make stuff predictable then you’ll have fewer problems and the problems won’t be your fault.

Another way to make rejection less offensive is to use a “giving reasons policy”. It says you often won’t give reasons when you reject people (because the reasons could be unwanted and offensive), but you will give a reason if asked to. Then people can opt-in to receiving a reason for rejection, but many who don’t want a reason will not opt-in.


When filtering people/activities and deciding not to do them, it’s important to use filters which someone with valuable stuff to say would probably already pass or would be able to pass after taking some reasonable actions. E.g., I think it’s implausible that someone who hasn’t ever read five difficult philosophy books would have important philosophical ideas to tell me. It’s not impossible. But the kind of person who could correct me on philosophy could also just go read some books. That shouldn’t be very hard for them. That was probably on their todo list already anyway. If they actually would really struggle to read those books, due to some kind of lack of skill, it’s implausible that they’d have the skill to correct me on stuff.

There could be some special exception though. Another benefit of rejecting stuff for clear, specific reasons is that counter-arguments can be made. If my filter sucks, someone can tell me. If my filter is generally good but imperfect, and someone is one of the rare exceptions, they can tell me that and explain how they became an exception. For example, they could tell me how they got very skilled at philosophy without reading philosophy books, or how they came up with one important idea and know it’s important without being very high skill at philosophy in general.

The normal thing to do is basically catch up to existing knowledge before trying to do better, because if you don’t know the best current ideas how do you know what to improve on or whether your ideas are better? If someone wants to do it differently, they ought to expect some initial rejections and be prepared to say e.g. “I know why you want to reject me. It totally makes sense from your perspective. Let me state your viewpoint and then I’ll say why to make an exception this time…” And if they state my concerns correctly, then address them, that’s fine – that’s an alternative way of getting past my filter.

Filters that are useful but unrelated to social status are important so I’ll mention another one. I will opt out of some conversations because I think someone is low skill. They make lots of little mistakes. They’re imprecise. Their intellectual standards are too low. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to say this without offending them. But setting offensiveness aside, I can say things like, “I don’t think your knowledge about this is up to my quality standards, so I’m not interested. I’ll give you two examples.” and then point out two mistakes they made. If I’m wrong, there are ways for me to be corrected. I actually pointed out specific mistakes and I gave my overall reasoning too.

One way forward is they could work on their skills. I have a lot of educational materials which can help with that if they actually want to get better at precision, logic, etc. Most people don’t really want to work on that stuff, which is their life choice that they’re welcome to make, but it has consequences like then I might not want to debate with them. If they actually had something important to tell me despite being a sloppy thinker, they could go improve at thinking first or explain why they don’t want to but how they nevertheless got some important knowledge. I think those ways of making progress are reasonable enough and don’t just filter out large amounts of plausibly-valuable criticism like social-status-based filtering methods do (there are, in fact, low status people with good ideas).

Also, if they briefly mention their idea and it sounds promising to me, that will work too for passing my filters. I don’t emphasize that because basically anyone will let you past their filters, regardless of the filters, if your comments interest them.

Unless they’re filtering so much that they never even see what you say to them. Filtering so you just can’t be contacted is uncommon (for people who share ideas so that someone might want to contact them about their ideas). It’s mostly done by people who either dislike discussing ideas or have over 100,000 fans. For people with that many fans my suggestions in Using Intellectual Processes to Combat Bias can help.

Rationally, if you see what appears to be a significant weakness with a person or a problem with a proposed activity, it’s good to say so. Then, if you’re wrong (about the existence or relevance of the weakness), they could give a rebuttal. And if you’re right, they could learn something from the accurate feedback.


Rationality doesn’t allow ignoring critics. Some filtering is OK if it isn’t based on social status, you give reasoning that could be criticized, and there are ways you can be corrected if you’re mistaken.

But filtering and rejecting people can really offend them. To reduce offense, it helps to have generic, impersonal policies that are posted in public in advance. People who want to avoid rejection can see the policies and then decide not to ask for a debate with you.

Meta discussion – like reasons not to participate in a debate – have logical priority over a debate itself. To avoid endless meta levels, you could use a fixed limit on the number of meta levels or you could limit based on number of times you repeat yourself. If things get repetitive, you can also write down whatever you’re repeating and then just link to it without rewriting it. (If you’re popular and many people want to speak with you, you could also have fans or assistants link some of your repetitive points for you instead of doing it yourself.) These are large, practical improvements over typical current practices – they do better for rationality while limiting time use.