Intuition and Rational Debate

Table of Contents

Previously I wrote Don’t Suppress Your Intuition and Intuition and Rationality. I’m now expanding on ideas in those articles. I recommend reading them first.

A key to not being bullied in debates is knowing how to say “I intuitively disagree with that.” If you won’t express intuitive disagreements, then you’re essentially bullying yourself. By leaving some of your own disagreements out of the debate, you make the other side win without addressing your disagreements. You make your ideas lose the debate, not by being refuted, but by non-participation. Then the debate concludes one way, but your ideas that disagree with that conclusion aren’t refuted, so you have a conflict. You can’t change your mind without knowing flaws in your ideas, but ignoring the debate conclusion seems irrational (as long as the other participants didn’t do anything wrong).

When you leave your disagreements out of a debate, you make it look like your side has no further objections or problems. That will pressure you to change your mind, contrary to your unexpressed intuition. If you really had no remaining objections or counter-arguments, then you should concede, change your mind, and act accordingly. You should accept and act on ideas that have no concerns, criticisms or problems at all (including intuitive concerns). There’s no downside to that. So if you suppress concerns, and keep them out of a discussion,, then you’ll feel pressured to adopt the ideas that appear to have no concerns. That pressure is you bullying yourself.

This problem comes up most commonly with intuitive ideas because they’re harder to say in words. But it can also come up even when you could easily state your idea in words. Sometimes you wouldn’t want to share an idea even if you know how. You could fear giving offense, want privacy, or want the discussion to end quickly. Also, some debates use time or length limits so you don’t get the opportunity to say everything that you want to say.

Other people may or may not be jerks in debate or intellectual discussion. They may be reasonable or unreasonable. They may be pressuring. They may mock you or attack your social status. They may be manipulative. But bullying yourself is generally worse and should be a larger concern. You can bully yourself more effectively than they can. You have more power and influence over yourself. Also, if you know how to stop bullying yourself, you’re in a much better position to stop being bullied by others too. (This comment applies to people being jerks in intellectual conversations where you still feel safe. If they would e.g. punch or threaten you, or cause dozens of other people to dislike you, that kind of bullying can be worse than bullying yourself.)

Similarly, if you don’t know how to be nice to yourself, then you aren’t in a good position to be nice to others or demand that they be nice to you. Figuring out how to deal with yourself tends to come first before expecting to achieve good outcomes with others. Dealing with others is more complicated. If you can’t succeed alone, why would you be able to succeed in a group? You’d have to hope other people make up for your weaknesses. That can work if you’re missing a specific practical skill that they have (e.g. their knowledge of cooking can help make up for your ignorance of cooking when you prepare a meal together), but it generally doesn’t work well with rationality or morality. Maybe with a skilled tutor it would work better, but with a peer you broadly shouldn’t expect better outcomes in groups than you can get alone.

Don’t Mention Intuitions at the Last Minute

In a debate or critical discussion, which arguments should you give first? You may assume you should say all your explicit arguments first, then bring up intuition after. That could be a way of trying to give your better arguments first. It could also be a way of doing what’s easier and leaving harder things for later. There are some problems with saving intuitive arguments for last.

If you give explicit arguments, and then the other person answers them all, and then you state intuitive disagreement, he may think it’s an excuse. As soon as you ran out of arguments, then you brought up intuition. If this is a real, important issue, rather than an excuse to avoid changing your mind, then why didn’t you mention it sooner? Maybe you thought you were going to win the debate before, but when your arguments didn’t work you made up an excuse.

If you tell people about your intuition earlier, they’ll know what to expect better. You can mention it without going into detail. Then they won’t expect that, as soon as they answer the arguments you said, then you’ll change your mind. They’ll know there’s another step for later. Your intuition won’t seem like it’s brought up at the last minute to move the goal posts with ad hoc claims. You could also focus discussion on your intuition earlier if it’s strong and seems really important to you. But if an intuition seems equally or less important compared to an explicit argument, then it’d make sense to go into detail on the explicit argument first.

Similarly, if you have three major explicit arguments, it’s usually good to mention all three briefly then focus discussion on one. Suppose instead that you focus on one, lose the debate, then bring up the second one. The other person may be surprised or disappointed. He wasn’t expecting a whole new objection to deal with. And then if he argues with your second objection, and succeeds, and then you tell him actually there’s a third one, he may think you’re just going to make up an endless list of new arguments so that he can never win. If you tell him in advance that you have three main points, then he’ll see that it’s a reasonable number not just a set of excuses made up in response to losing. It also lets him decide at the beginning whether he wants to deal with three arguments or else decline to discuss.

In general in a debate, mention your important points (whether intuitive or not) early on so people aren’t surprised later. Then prioritize discussing them in order of most important to least important, regardless of whether they’re explicit or intuitive. There are exceptions but that’s a good default. Also, you do need to take into account what topics the other person thinks is important, not just follow your own priorities.

Idea Stability

Sometimes you may think of additional arguments during a serious debate, but that shouldn’t be very common. If it’s common, it’s a sign you don’t know much about the topic and your views are unstable. If it’s a topic you’ve thought about a ton, where you have stable views, it shouldn’t be that easy to think of multiple new ideas. Only stable views are suitable for a serious debate.

If you have unstable views, you should discuss them in a more casual, informal and exploratory way. The people you speak with should know that you’re a beginner about this, you’re just trying to learn, you don’t have strong opinions, you’re just trying to explore the issue, etc. (If you have both unstable views and strong opinions, you should reconsider.) Exploring issues where you don’t have stable conclusions is fine as long as you disclose it and don’t pretend to have already confidently reached conclusions. If you do have confident conclusions, then you shouldn’t change very much during a debate other than to concede points when the other person provides new information. During a debate, the other person is telling you reasons your initial ideas are wrong. If you learn something new, it should generally be one of the things he’s trying to explain to you – some sort of error in your views.

If you’re coming up with a bunch of new ideas on your side during a debate, that’s an indication that your views were half-baked. The other person wasn’t helping you do that, so you could have done it alone without him before debating. Half-baked views are fine in general – they’re part of the learning process – but they should be discussed more informally rather than debated. They’re different than stable, confident conclusions where learning anything new or changing in any way would be important, valuable progress for you. If your ideas have stood up to a ton of research and critical scrutiny, then finding any flaw or improvement is a big deal, which is what serious debate is for. If your ideas are pretty new, then finding mistakes isn’t a big deal, so corrections from other people have much lower value to you.

Debating ideas when you’re an expert or beginner are different things and you should be honest with people (especially yourself) about which sort of debate you’re offering. How serious and confident are you about this idea? Would you be surprised to find out you’re wrong about something or get a new idea? Do you expect to have the same ideas next year? Or would you be totally unsurprised to partially lose the debate or to change your mind next week?

Explicit Arguments Can Be Excuses

Another problem with doing explicit arguments first before discussing your intuition is that your explicit arguments might not be your real reasons. You might be coming up with explicit arguments because of your intuition. The intuition might be the key issue.

If you have explicit arguments which are independent of your intuition, and equally or more important, then typically it’s good to discuss those first. But how do you know if they’re independent? Often people think their explicit arguments are important and independent, but if they change their intuition then they find the explicit arguments stop mattering. It’s common that people’s most important reasons are intuitive, and that few of their explicit arguments are actually important to them.

People generally don’t know when they’re being biased. Not knowing that your stated arguments aren’t your real reasons – your intuition is – is the same kind of issue. It’s about as hard to recognize that as to recognize your own bias. It can be easier to see in retrospect. If you’ve come up with ten different arguments, one by one, and didn’t change your mind after each one was answered, then the arguments probably weren’t your real reasons. You have some other reason you aren’t saying. The real reasons you left out are probably intuitive reasons that are hard to put into words (unless you consciously know that you’re not saying something on purpose).

Often, it’s more effective to talk about the intuition directly rather than to debate with the explicit arguments that were formed to justify or protect the intuition. Answering those arguments can be ineffective at finding out what the intuition actually is, what it wants, what it believes about the world, what it values, what would enable changing it, etc.

Often, the explicit arguments people come up with avoid the key issues that would be persuasive to the intuition. This is a strategy that keeps the intuition safe from being effectively challenged. People do this strategy subconsciously without realizing they’re doing it. So to actually change your mind, you often have to talk about some other issue, not get distracted by your explicit arguments. Instead, you often need to figure out what things intuitively seem good or bad to you and analyze that. What does your intuition want to get or avoid?

A persuasive answer to something that seems bad will either explain why you’re looking at it wrong and it actually isn’t bad in that way or will agree it’s bad and explain how it can be avoided.

A persuasive answer to something good that you’re worried about not getting will either explain a different way to get it (or get a substitute) or will explain a different perspective that shows it’s not actually good.

Other Concerns Besides Intuition

There are other concerns people should express in debates but don’t. Then they try to concede without getting those problems addressed first. There are significant parallels between doing it with an intuitive disagreement and with other things.

Often, someone’s arguments seem right but you don’t know enough to use their ideas in your life. You need to learn more. As you learn more, you may run into additional problems and have objections. But if those issues are all addressed, then at the end of the learning process you could change your mind.

Sometimes the learning is something you can do on your own. You just need to read some books and do some practice. The full outcome of the debate needs to be put on hold while you do that. The temporary outcome of the debate can be that you thought he had good, logical points so you’ll look into it more. You’re willing to initiate a learning process that could lead to changing your life. But you won’t change your life yet. As far as your intellectual opinion, you can stop advocating your old ideas; instead, say you’re unsure. As far as actions, you’ll have to keep going with your old ideas until you have new ones ready for use, but you should try to choose more neutral and non-committal actions while you’re in the process of potentially changing.

Sometimes the other person who is trying to persuade you needs to give more detail. His initial arguments seem promising and maybe convince you that some of your ideas have flaws. But you don’t see how to think and live his way, and you also don’t know where to learn it. You don’t know of some good books and videos that’ll provide all the details you’d need. Perhaps his idea isn’t mainstream enough to be easy to find information about. The more his idea is unusual or unique, the more he’ll have to provide information about it himself.

By the way, it’s good to ask people in debates or critical debates if what they’re saying is unique or original, and roughly how popular it is. If it’s very popular, you should ask them to provide quotes and cites to some of the best thinkers who explain it in the most polished ways. Those are better quality resources than arguments that the person quickly writes or speaks in a discussion with you. He can help fill in gaps in the published literature, or provide some kind of summary or overview information, or give custom answers to your atypical concerns. But the more popular his view, the higher quality literature should already exist about it, including summaries and reviews, and including answers to all frequently asked questions, common objections, well known critical rebuttals, etc. (If an idea is very popular but doesn’t have high quality arguments already written down by anyone, that’s a warning sign. The group who like the idea may be acting irrationally. In that case, the more popular the idea is, the worse. If a dozen people like an idea and no one writes a good argument, fine, no big deal. If a million people do it, that’s really concerning.)

On the other hand, if your debate partner says stuff you couldn’t learn anywhere else, then they should take a lot of responsibility for explaining it in great detail. They should put a lot of effort into editing and being fairly complete. They should try to create some literature themselves since no one else is doing it (and they’re actively advocating the idea and recommending it to others). They should put stuff on a blog or other website. Or else, in the alternative, they could say that their unique ideas are just something they’re exploring but they aren’t confident they’re actually right.

The nature and methods of debate should change somewhat based on how popular ideas are, how much literature exists about them, how much they’ve already been debated by other people, and also by whether the person you’re debating is confident he’s right or is just exploring and learning.

Before accepting ideas and trying to live by them, you should think through what that means and whether you know how to use the idea in all life situations where it will come up. And you should think through whether you know how to answer all questions and criticism about the idea. You need to be ready to advocate an idea yourself or else you aren’t ready to accept it. If you can’t act and talk similarly to the person who is telling you the idea, then you don’t have all the knowledge and skill that he has about the idea. If you can’t write an essay explaining and promoting the idea, then either you don’t know enough about the idea or about writing essays. Being bad at essay writing is OK if you aren’t an intellectual, in which case you should consider whether you could express the idea in whatever ways are normal for you (like chatting about it with other friends who don’t yet know about the idea and who will initially disagree with it).

Debate Partners as Helpers

Instead of feeling pressured by people in debate because of their powerful arguments, you should view them as helpers or resources. Whatever problems or difficulties you may have, if they want to persuade you then it’s their job to help with those things. Think about what would be helpful or make things easier for you and ask for that. They should help or else not expect you to be persuaded. They can either help directly by answering questions, explaining things, linking to resources, etc. Or they can help by suggesting ways you can help yourself. You may have to do some of the work yourself (e.g. reading and practicing) but they should at least offer a plan for that which seems good to you. If they have no plan for how you can get enough help, then you should not be persuaded and change – they don’t adequately know what they’re talking about and how to make it work in your life.

What if learning about their stuff is a lot of work even with their help? If it’s too much work, that’s a problem. Maybe you have higher priorities. Maybe you’re busy. Maybe you’re lazy (which will usually express itself intuitively not explicitly). Maybe you don’t want to do that much work because the outcome isn’t important enough. All of these are perfectly good objections to bring up in a debate. They are issues that must be addressed before you change your mind.

You can partially concede – e.g. that you don’t know a logical rebuttal to their arguments – while still having objections like these which mean you shouldn’t change your life or change your mind much unless these objections are addressed. Just because you can’t logically answer some idea doesn’t mean you understand the idea enough to use it yourself. Learning it enough to use in your life requires a process with effort, and you might have higher priorities, be busy, etc., all of which are valid reasons not to do it. So unless the other person has arguments that you should prioritize it higher, which address all your concerns and work in your life, then he should agree with you that you shouldn’t try to use his idea in your life. He should agree that you don’t know how to use it well enough, and you’re too busy to learn it, and there’s no super fast and easy way to learn it available, and it isn’t important enough to set your other activities aside.

If you raise issues like these, it will help you avoid being bullied in debates, and it’ll help you avoid having conflicts between your intuition and your explicit, conscious conclusions. If you try to accept an idea and live by it, but you haven’t learned how to use it, then your intuition will usually know this won’t work and object to it. You’ll find yourself just not doing what you meant to do and reverting to your old habits, policies, ideas, etc. Then you may think you’re irrational, which has some truth to it, but maybe not in the way you think. It’s not your intuitions or habits which are being irrational. They’re doing a good job. The rationality error is in your conscious attempts to change your life without enough learning and practice to make the change actually work well.

If you want to change how you throw a ball, you’ll need to practice the change, not just read it in a book or hear someone argue that a different method is superior. Even very abstract, intellectual ideas, with no direct bearing on your daily life, take some practice and study to integrate into your thinking. They should come up in your mind when you think about the topics they apply to. Forming those mental associations, so you remember them at the right times, is a skill that can be practiced. If you just try to believe the new idea is right, but don’t put the work into changing your habits and integrating the new idea into your thinking, then you’ll find you keep using your older mental associations instead. You’ll have to use a lot of conscious control and effort to use the new idea because you didn’t yet teach it to your subconscious mind.

Raising Side Issues

Some people you debate with will agree to some of these things – like that their idea doesn’t need to be a high priority for you – if you bring it up. Should they bring it up first, on their initiative? That can be hard.

Suppose someone hasn’t mentioned their personal life at all. They have said nothing about their schedule. You have no idea how much free time they have or how stressed they are. You have no idea if they have a bunch of big personal problems which distract them, e.g. that they fight regularly with their spouse and kids. You don’t even know if they have a spouse or kids. You don’t know if they have a job or what field they work in. They’re just a stranger on the internet. And they say nothing but impersonal, logical, explicit arguments.

After they give some on-topic, explicit argument, suppose you respond like this:

Look, if you’re too busy to study so you can understand it well enough to use in your life, that would be understandable to me, and I wouldn’t hold it against you. It’s OK to concede that I’m logically right but say you’re too busy with bigger problems to worry about this right now. Or if you just don’t know how to integrate my ideas into your life, I can help with that. I know a bunch of good articles with tips that you can learn from. If you needs tips on how to stop fighting with your girlfriend so that you can be less busy and start learning about rational ideas like mine, I know some good resources for that. If you need tips to get a girlfriend so you can stop being distracted by loneliness, so that you can then focus more on philosophy, I know some good resources for that too. If you just have intuitive objections that you can’t put into words, go ahead and say that, and then I can ask some questions to help guide you to understand your intuition better.

That statement would seem very arrogant, condescending and even mean. Someone presented themselves as a peer making explicit arguments, not as having any intuitive disagreement, lack of knowledge, lack of available time, relationship problems, higher priorities, etc. People would take this kind of statement as uncharitable, as refusing to take them seriously as an intellectual, as assuming the speaker is right, as being closed minded, as thinking the other person is inferior to you, etc. And it’s not an argument. It doesn’t even try to argue about whatever the topic was.

So it’s better to put the statement in a general, impersonal essay, like this one, rather than to say it to anyone in particular. Then people can read it and decide if it’s relevant to them. They can bring it up themselves, if they want to, without being pressured by having it said directly to them. If you’re ever debating me, and you wish I would say something like that statement, feel free to quote it from this article and then we’ll talk about it. You can also try it with other debate partners but be aware that they might be more confused than helpful (which can work out fine).

So if you want help with any of those kinds of issues, like your intuition or incomplete knowledge, or not being ready to use an idea in your life, then you should bring it up yourself. Ask for help instead of expecting others to offer it. Offering this kind of help risks being offensive and initiating unwanted, derailing meta discussion.

You shouldn’t expect other people to raise these topics, even if they’re happy to help, because if they try to bring it up they are risking being yelled at, being hated, and other negative reactions. People usually won’t try to helpfully bring these things up if they expect to be punished instead of rewarded for trying to be helpful and nice. They’ll be more willing to bring these things up if you’re actually friends with them and they know more about your life and what sorts of comments you’re open to hearing and may respond well to. Also friends – or at least people you have a lot of conversational rapport with – tend to take these kinds of comments better instead of interpreting them in a hostile way.

It’s a problem in our society that offering help like this is hard and people often react negatively to merely offering to help. Our culture is irrational about this stuff.

If you aren’t asking for these kinds of help, it’s a potential sign that you don’t want it. Either you’re familiar with this kind of help or not. If you know what it is, then you’re not asking on purpose, by choice, because you don’t want it (or else you don’t ask because you think the other person is bad in some way and won’t be helpful). If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of help, and that’s why you don’t ask for it, offering it runs a large risk of confusing you. It’s hard to offer something to someone which they’re unfamiliar with and which isn’t cultural normal. So, again, it works better to ask for this type of help than to try to offer it unsolicited.

Lots of people get upset if you bring up that they may be biased, even though bias is a widespread and well known problem. A rational person should be happy to hear about anything they said that looks potentially biased. They should want to review any evidence of their bias. They should be vigilantly looking out for their own biases, and be happy if someone else bothers to help with their project. But most people aren’t like that. Also, most people bringing up potential bias are mean, unhelpful or unskilled about it. The problem is even worse for bringing up dishonesty rather than bias.

If someone wants help with their biases, it’s much safer if they bring that up themselves instead of you suggesting that maybe they need help with their biases and you could help.

It works similarly with needing help using ideas in your life, or dealing with your intuitions, as it does with biases. If you bring it up to offer help, you’re suggesting that maybe they’re bad at something, so they’ll likely get offended, just like if you offered them help with their biases. If someone wants help with their biases or intuitions, they should bring that up themselves. If someone wants to offer help, they can more safely do it impersonally in an article rather than doing it in a discussion with a specific person.


If you bring up an intuitive disagreement, or a type of help you’d need before being fully persuaded and using their idea in your life, then people may be rude or mean instead of rational, helpful or even neutral.

A neutral response could be “It’s reasonable to have an intuitive disagreement, but I personally don’t want to deal with it, so let’s just end the conversation here.” Another neutral response is “I understand that it’s a lot of work to live by these ideas. I’m busy and don’t want to help walk you through the process. There are some books and blogs that may help. I understand that since I’m not actively participating in this work, then I can’t expect any particular outcome. Good luck with however things turn out for you.”

Jerks may try to call you irrational or unreasonable for having intuitions. But that just shows their own ignorance. You may want to link them to this article as a response. Or you could try to explain how intuitions, subconscious ideas and inexplicit ideas are part of a rational approach. Or you could try to explain how conflicts and problems needs to be solved and addressed, not ignored. If they know how to be fully conscious about everything and not use intuition, they should go ahead and share that in a way that’s usable for you. (And by the way, do they think that’s a popular idea with good literature, or their own unique discovery that makes them the greatest thinker alive, or what?) Do they know how to deal with intuition and resolve intuitive objections? If so, that can be part of the discussion. If they don’t know how, then they shouldn’t look down on you if you don’t know how either. Do they want you to use willpower to suppress your intuition? That’s just a way to end up with contradictory ideas in your head. Do they disagree and think suppressing subconscious ideas with conscious willpower is actually good? That issue could be debated if they actually have serious, stable knowledge about it.

Suppose you say rational things and bring up real, important problems, and then other people are mean and unreasonable. So what? That is their problem. That sucks for them. You shouldn’t feel bad. If you care a lot about other people’s opinions of you (no matter how irrational or unfair those opinions are), then it can be hard. Or if you care about your social status, and you say some earnest stuff that admits weakness, then they may use it to attack you socially. It’s common for people to dishonestly pretend they don’t have weaknesses that you admit to, and to try to make you look bad and inferior. People often pounce on any admission of weakness and then the group attacks that person (social stuff is mostly worse in group settings).

People often seem to think that weakness is only ever admitted to as a last resort when there’s no other choice due to huge problems, so admitting weakness is basically seen as an admission that your life is a disaster. People tend to assume that if things are so bad that you admitted anything was wrong, then your real problems are much much worse than you admitted to – even worse than theirs since they’re still able to keep hiding their problems instead of being forced into any kind of public admission.

Most people are pretty irrational and mean. That’s the world. I suggest learning to stand up to it some, and also only trying to have rational discussions with people who seem much more reasonable than average. It can be easier if you discuss under a pseudonym on the internet with strangers so it doesn’t threaten your social status with your friends and family. If things go really badly then you can change names.

If you don’t put yourself out there and bring up things like intuitive objections to ideas, then it’s very hard for anyone to be nice or helpful to you, even if they want to be. You have to try if you want to be treated better. Or you can be so scared of people that you stick to reading things by people who don’t know you personally and therefore can’t be mean to you as an individual (but impersonal writing can still manipulate you, can still contain propaganda, can still contain bad ideas, can still teach you to be mean to yourself, etc.).

It’s up to you what to do, what actions to take, what choices to make. My main goal is to explain how rationality works and talk about what people could do that would work better (especially if everyone involved did it).