Losing Track of Discussions

In philosophy discussions, people routinely lose track of the discussion. They forget or become confused about who said what, what replies to each statement were made, what replies to replies were made, what was left unanswered, and what the current evaluation (given the statements so far) of the conclusion is (and what key issues the conclusion depends on).

This also applies to debates or complex discussions on other topics.

People sometimes admit that they partially lost track of a discussion, although they often deny it, and they rarely admit the full extent of how poorly they’re keeping track of the discussion.

People often lose track of their own statements. They accidentally say things that contradict what they said earlier. They tend not to want to admit this, e.g. because they see it as unreasonable, embarrassing and incompetent, or because they don’t want to lose ground in the debate. They’re more willing to admit to losing track of what someone else said. (Contradicting yourself is also a sign you’re making up your opinions as you go along or don’t understand your positions well. You shouldn’t generally need to remember what you said earlier in order to avoid contradicting it. You should be able to independently state a bunch of your ideas without contradicting yourself.)

If your claims that are too complex for you to keep track of, you probably shouldn’t be making those claims. They’re presumably also too complex for you to have carefully thought them through. You presumably don’t actually use them in your life. If you had actually practiced with those ideas a bunch, learned them well and integrated them into your lifestyle, then you wouldn’t find it hard to keep track of them.

What should be done about the problem of people losing track of discussions?

Discussions can be kept more organized.

Discussions can be simplified. People can focus on smaller topics and exclude more complexity from their discussions.

People can use better tools and documentation to help them keep track of things. E.g. they can use notes, outlines, tree diagrams or summaries.

People can improve their skill at remembering what they read and filing it away mentally in the right categories so they remember it at the right times. People can practice debating or having complex discussions and gradually get better at keeping track of more and more.

People can reread and review frequently, and generally put in a lot of work, and focus on correctness, and only later focus on speeding up and having it be easier. (Just like when learning to type, you should prioritize correctness. You want to be typing correctly first, then make that fast and effortless. Don’t try to go fast while typing the wrong letters, then try to fix your typing accuracy while typing at high speed.)

One of the more concrete and effective places to start is discussion tree diagrams. The trees should contain short statements of the ideas in the discussion and specify what is a reply to what. If you understand the discussion, then making a tree like that isn’t very hard. If you can’t make a tree like that, it suggests you’ve lost track of the discussion.

Also, in discussions, people (including you) tend to say lots of stuff, not all of which is especially important. That is partially unavoidable and fine. While you should make some reasonable efforts to stay on topic, I don’t think you should try to be really strict about that. There are often some benefits to comments that aren’t focused on the main point. Instead of trying to remove everything extra or unnecessary from discussions, we need a way to stay focused and make it harmless to have some extra comments. Trees can help with this.

You can say whatever you want in a discussion, then only put the main, on-topic points in the tree. When someone says something, you can ask if they want it to go in the tree or not. When you say something, you can specify if it’s for the tree. Then you have two versions of the discussion: the full version and the more condensed, more focused, more on-topic tree version. And when someone says something unclear and a few clarifying questions are needed, those exchanges can be left out of the tree. Just the final, clear statement can go in the tree.

Having two versions of a discussion enables people to stop answering or arguing with everything that’s said. If it isn’t in the tree, it doesn’t need to be answered. People can speak more casually and only put things in the tree that they’re more confident about.

Note that there’s no gatekeeping here: each person gets to decide for themselves what they want to say in the tree. Your statement can’t be excluded from the tree due to other people considering it unimportant, dumb or heretical.

A similar approach with two versions of a discussion could be done without a tree. For example, you could just have a text document where you copy/paste in all the important statements. A tree is just a good way to organize the main points of the discussion. Discussions aren’t linear and tree diagrams handle that. Trees have statements as well as relationships between statements (they specify what replies to what).