Progress Despite Emotions and Bias; Mastery of Sentences
If you try to think much, you will sometimes get upset, be biased, get tilted, get frustrated, be sad, be angry, etc. Maybe not all of those, but you’ll have some problems like that.
To deal with this well, you need some emotion-resistant and bias-resistant skills. You need skills that keep working despite emotion and bias. Then you can develop a way of dealing with emotion and bias, based on those skills, and it can actually work. Whereas any way of dealing with emotion on bias, which relies on skills that are not resistant to emotion and bias, won’t work.
Most plans to deal with emotion and bias are based on, basically, being reasonable anyway, somehow. Most ideas about how to deal with bias are basically “Try not to be biased.” Most ideas about how to deal with being upset are either “Even though you’re upset, think reasonably about the situation, recognize you’re upset, and then make the reasonable choice to take a break and calm down.” or “Just keep acting reasonably, in some respects, even though you’re upset.” That’s inadequately effective.
But you already have emotion-resistant and bias-resistant skills. You can walk while you’re upset! You can chew gum while you’re upset. You can talk, drive, workout, make food, read, speak words, or eat. Those skills don’t desert you when you’re biased, either. Nor do you lose your ability to read the hours a restaurant is open and judge whether it’s open or closed now – even if you’re really biased in favor of wanting it to be open now.
Emotion-resistant and bias-resistant skills are nothing special. You already have lots of them. They’re crucial to your relationship with reality. When you’re upset or biased, you don’t just live in a total fantasy world, where you think you can fly. You still, in lots of ways, live in the real world and deal with reality appropriately.
I’ll focus on emotion from here on, but all my comments apply to bias too.
To a decent approximation, emotion-resistant skills are skills you’re really good at. They’re often things you find so easy you don’t even think of them as a skill. But e.g. walking is a skill. You had to learn to walk and practice for years. It was hard at first and you fell down many times. Walking involves coordinated muscle movements and balance, which you consciously thought about in the past, but now you can do it without conscious thought. It’s become automatic because you have mastery over walking.
You also have mastery over reading individual letters. And you have mastery over a large vocabulary of words – you can look at a group of letters and figure out which word it is. And you have mastery over the meanings of many words, though fewer than you can read (there are some words which you can read, and you can pronounce it correctly, but your understanding of the meaning is vague or incorrect).
What often happens in intellectual discussions is people get upset and then their ability to deal with sentences and paragraphs starts breaking down and they make tons of errors. Many of the errors would not have been made if they had a better mindset. When emotional, people also get worse at logic.
Your skill with sentences is considerably worse than your skill with words. It’s something people commonly overestimate. They think they’re really, really good at sentences. But think about it for a second. How often do you misunderstand a sentence? How often do you misunderstand a single word? Even if you’re really good at sentences, you screw them up a lot more than individual words. So you’re not at the same level of mastery or skill.
Paragraphs are even harder than sentences but let’s focus on sentences. You make some sentence-understanding errors even when you’re not emotional. Emotion makes it worse, but your mastery over sentences lets you down sometimes regardless.
Why do you think you’re better with sentences than you are? First, because you’re used to easier situations than philosophy. Your skill with sentences usually isn’t really being tested. Many sentences you deal with are pretty easy sentences. Second, how would you find out if you misunderstood a sentence? People usually don’t tell you when they disagree with you. And you don’t tell anyone what you think most sentences meant in a book you read. Even if a book has hard sentences, no one is quizzing you on the details, so you can read them in an easy, sloppy way without much thought, and you won’t be challenged about that. So you don’t have enough feedback about your mastery over sentences to know how good it is.
So people think they have total mastery over sentences, and then they try to do philosophy, and they’re really biased against the idea of improving their mastery over sentences. But even when they’re not emotional, their mastery over sentences isn’t good enough, and when they are emotional it’s not even close.
People don’t understand what sort of mastery level is needed. Philosophy is complicated. There are ideas built out of ideas built out of ideas built out of ideas. There are many layers where ideas work together to create other ideas. If an idea is built out of 5 parts, each of which is built out of 5 parts, each of which is built out of 5 parts, each of which is built out of 5 parts, then there are 781 total ideas. If the ideas are one paragraph each, with an average of four sentences per paragraph, then that’s 3124 sentences. Understanding complicated stuff involves correctly understanding a lot of little pieces and understanding relationships between the pieces accurately too.
Most people who try to discuss philosophy make an error every few sentences. And that’s only counting errors related to misreading sentences, writing sentences that aren’t what they mean, and other issues that should be addressed by mastery of the English language and basic standards of reason that an educated adult ought to know. It doesn’t count errors on the specific topic being discussed like philosophy, architecture, or car repair. It’s just English errors not topical errors. This is such a high error rate that people usually make one or more sentence errors when trying to fix an error. Then when trying to fix those errors, they make more errors. So it spirals out of control and very few errors get fixed because the error-fixing process just ends up generating new errors.
People routinely write pronouns with unclear antecedents. They misread tenses, plurals, qualifiers, modifiers, and negations. They say “yes” when they mean “no”. These errors aren’t usually because they don’t understand the individual words. You can ask them about each word one by one and they understand it fine (usually, though sometimes they don’t know a word’s meaning, but think they do, which causes trouble). Things fall apart when they’re trying to combine the words into a sentence.
Understanding how words combine into a sentence – a coherent thought – is preferably done through the intermediate steps of combining words into phrases and then clauses, and then combining those to form a sentence. But most people don’t consciously know how phrases and clauses work, which shows how bad their mastery of sentences is.
Most people understand sentences intuitively and when that doesn’t work they get stuck. They don’t know how to consciously go through the steps, one by one, to understand a sentence. For example, they don’t know how to create a dependency grammar tree, a constituency grammar tree, or even do sentence diagraming. That indicates a serious lack of mastery. To learn about sentences, and how to analyze them step by step, start by reading my grammar article.
A strategy to deal with emotions better is to improve your mastery of sentences and paragraphs so it’s reliable even when you’re emotional. Getting better at sentences and paragraphs is also important for reasonably expecting to get anywhere with philosophy.
There are some difficulties with this approach. One is that people get emotional while trying to learn a skill, which gets in the way of learning that skill. Lots of people have negative emotions about arithmetic, grammar, reading, and many other topics. Most people don’t read many books, don’t like reading books, and have trouble improving at that. Most people are bad at math and find that really hard to change. Basic logic is connected with math and people who hate math usually struggle with it too.
Another difficulty is that people do get worse at mastered skills when they’re emotional. They bump into things more when walking while angry. People who are really upset are more likely to stub their toe or trip. Upset people are often worse, more unsafe drivers even if they have many thousands of hours of driving experience and their normal driving habits are reasonable. Upset people are worse cooks – they burn the food more, spill more things, and make other mistakes.
When people are really upset, sometimes they have trouble walking or even standing. They prefer to hear bad news sitting down. They’ll sometimes react to something really upsetting by sitting down on the ground if no chair is available. Sometimes they lie down and curl up, preferably in a bed with privacy.
People misread more when they’re upset. The idea is that if they were skilled enough, their skill would still work reasonably well when upset, even though they’re worse at it when upset. It’s like how people are worse drivers when upset but they still usually don’t get into an accident. Their driving skill is good enough that, even when they’re driving worse, they still usually do reasonably OK (especially for more experienced drivers who can drive in a more habitual, automatic way – relying less on conscious attention means that being upset is less of a problem because being upset particularly distracts you’re conscious attention).
In the 2021 world chess championship match, one of the players got upset after losing a game. He wasn’t able to keep it together psychologically. He started playing badly and lost more games. He made some mistakes that you wouldn’t expect him to make even in a very fast game. His chess mastery is so good at things like pattern recognition, and calculating moves quickly, that normally he can avoid most mistakes even when playing a move in 3 seconds. He can play when tired, on autopilot, without enough time to think things through, and still play well. But when he was upset from the game he lost, he made some moves that were worse than that, while playing slow games (that could easily take over 4 hours). His mastery didn’t work well. But on the other hand, plenty of other chess players have been really upset or distracted and still played pretty good moves, just as they can pretty routinely do when tired or playing very quickly. Their mastery often does work. It can fail but it can also succeed.
Another reason mastery fails is that people sabotage on purpose. If you want to fail, having good habits and automated skill won’t prevent failure. If you’re misreading things on purpose because you want to read some ideas and not others, being good at reading won’t save you. Although even when people are really upset, I never see them saying “the thing I’m sitting on is a stove not a chair” (when it is in fact a chair). Some of their knowledge is hard to sabotage or go against. They see the truth so clearly that it’s hard to oppose – or maybe it’s just that they are so sure of what opinion their social group would have. The errors people make, when upset or not, tend to be things that other people in their social group might also do. The errors they’re best at avoiding are ones that none of their friends would agree with, and they especially avoid errors that their friends would hate, mock, etc.
It’s hard to tell how much mastery of skills matters, compared with conformity, because the commonly mastered skills are also standard things that other people do too, so getting them right is a way of conforming. If you screw something up that everyone else in your social group is good at, you look bad.
People often want some particular outcome, that is wrong, and then they find errors to make to get there (since the truth won’t get to that outcome). It’s hard to tell how much mastery actually prevents that, how much conformity prevents it, and how much they’re just taking the path of least resistance. In other words, if you’re really good at math, it’s easier for you to make a different type of error instead of a math error, so you probably won’t make math errors even when upset because some other errors will suffice. Maybe people prefer errors that don’t contradict conformity or mastery, and can usually find those pretty easily, but if they had no other options they’d make a more inconvenient error. Being good at stuff, so it’s easier for you to get the correct answer (or do an action correctly), doesn’t actually help when success isn’t your goal. The underlying issue can be bad goals.
Emotions often aren’t the core issue either. People often create their emotions to fulfill needs. E.g. they want to punch someone, so they create anger to help justify and excuse their desire, or even to enable them to act on it.
I think the idea of using mastery to help with emotions and bias is worthwhile. It can help some. It’s a good lead on a potential way of approaching the problem. It’s a candidate idea worth being familiar with. But it isn’t a full solution. Mastery has other benefits, though. It’d be good to improve your skills even if that didn’t help with your emotions or biases at all.