Discussion of “Is TCS Revolutionary?”

Continuing the discussion from TCS and Coercion:

Topic Summary:

This is a discussion of David Deutsch’s article Is TCS Revolutionary.


My goal is to improve my understanding of problems with TCS as advocated by DD.

Why are you posting this in Unbounded?

So I can improve my understanding of the CF’s relationship with TCS and any issues arising from that, including any problems in my own thinking.

Do you want unbounded criticism? (A criticism is a reason that an idea decisively fails at a goal. Criticism can be about anything relevant to goal success, including methods, meta, context or tangents. If you think a line of discussion isn’t worth focusing attention on, that is a disagreement with the person who posted it, which can be discussed.)


David Deutsch wrote an article called “Is TCS Revolutionary?” attempting to explain why he thought TCS was not revolutionary. I think his arguments in this article for TCS not being revolutionary are wrong.

The first paragraph of the article reads:

TCS embraces fallibilism in a big way. Indeed, a radical fallibilism is essential to our reinterpretation of the centrepiece of education through the ages: the adult coercing the child for the child’s own good. That familiar tableau is conventionally understood as the action of one person, involving one theory, presumed true. But we re-interpret it as a difference of opinion between two people, involving two theories, of which either or both may be false. Once we have reinterpreted it thus, rejecting it is almost a formality if we are committed to reason (as opposed to force, faith or magic) as the most effective means of resolving differences of opinion. We know that any protocol for dealing with conflicting opinions that refers to the attributes of the source rather than the content of each opinion, is anti-rational. The conventional ‘mommy knows best’ rule is one such. So is any protocol that depends for its action on one party being physically stronger than the other.

It is true that rational decisions between ideas don’t depend on the source an idea comes from.

A rational decision-making procedure has the property that its outcomes are independent of the participants’ status and power; so a rational family is one whose behaviour would be essentially unchanged if the tables were miraculously turned and the children had all the legal rights, economic power and physical strength on their side.

This sentence doesn’t follow from the idea that a rational decision between two ideas doesn’t depend on the source of the ideas.

Children lack some legal rights and corresponding responsibilities. You have to take this into account when making decisions relevant to the child. For example, if you are living in a region where you are required to send a child to school or be punished it would be a bad idea not to take this into account. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should send a child to school, but ignoring the law isn’t a good option.

The phrase “economic power” is a misleading and nasty way to refer to owning property and money, and having the ability to earn money and acquire more property. If one person has the ability to acquire property and the other doesn’t this is also relevant to what decisions he should make.

Also adults are usually physically stronger than children and decisions should take that into account.

DD doesn’t explain what it would mean for the adult and child to change places. An adult has the ability to earn money partly because he has the knowledge required to do so. So a child can’t have the ability to earn money to the same extent as an adult because he lacks the relevant knowledge. And if a child had that knowledge he would be a very different person. There is a similar problem with specifying what it would mean for the adult and child to change positions legally. What would the law look like in that situation?

The idea that you just switch adults and children around or act like you’ve done it would involve a very large change in society that doesn’t even seem to make sense: it is revolutionary.

Alan’s quote of DD says:

(emphasis added).

I think “rejecting it is almost a formality if we are committed to reason” is an overstatement.

I could see objections along the lines of someone being committed to reason, but kids being too ignorant for reason to work reliably, or kids having insufficiently developed brains, or whatever. So you could concede there is a disagreement between adult and kid in some sense, and think you’re an advocate of reason in most cases, but think that kids, especially young kids, are a special case.

I would not agree with that line of argument, and think that people underrate the effectiveness of reason when dealing with children due to 1) being bad at reason themselves while overrating their abilities and 2) not having tried it enough to begin with. But I don’t think it’s a mere formality to reject this line of argument. I think “if we are committed to reason (as opposed to force, faith or magic)” is doing a lot of work here. It’s basically saying “you have to accept my argument if you’re a rational person and not a brute or a mystic.” I don’t think that’s a check you can cash (in terms of having laid out enough argument for that claim to be reasonable) in the first paragraph of an article that I think was at least partially aimed at beginners.

Yes that’s fair. The legal obligations the child faces are part of the situation that you have to address. To act in a manner consistent with the notion that e.g. a kid has a legal right to choose not to be getting educated (like an adult) would just be evading/denying part of the reality of the situation that you actually face and lead to bad consequences. It’d be better and more-reality oriented to accept and deal with the actual situation (which, if you and the kid want to avoid traditional state education, might involve home education, or some sort of alternative education program that is more acceptable and also legal, or moving to somewhere where a better alternative is possible).


We know that any protocol for dealing with conflicting opinions that refers to the attributes of the source rather than the content of each opinion, is anti-rational.


It is true that rational decisions between ideas don’t depend on the source an idea comes from.

I think some arguments about sources are reasonable. E.g. “What method(s) did you use to come up with that idea and to check it for errors?” It matters, to some things, whether an idea was created with an organized project with resources or was thought of 10 seconds ago. Popper himself criticized ad hoc arguments, but the ad hocness of an argument is an attribute of the source not the idea itself (DD also criticized ad hoc arguments).

In general, absolutely anything is fair game to be used in an argument – the issue is only whether you came come up with an argument that makes something relevant. “I think you’re dumb, so your idea is probably wrong” is a bad argument for various reasons including how it precludes error correction or progress. But not all arguments that mention anything about a person, how an idea was created, or any other meta issue, are automatically bad arguments.

Some ideas are introduced into discussions dishonestly. We shouldn’t spend unlimited time engaging with bad faith arguments. (Nor should we silently ignore them with no transparency and no way to be corrected if we’re wrong.) This can require things like talking about a pattern in the arguments that Joe is making, rather than looking at each argument independently. Ignoring the common factor – Joe – obscures the pattern and the explanation of what’s going on (e.g. Joe is biased and tilted).

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conventionally understood as the action of one person, involving one theory, presumed true. But we re-interpret it as a difference of opinion between two people, involving two theories, of which either or both may be false.

I think this part is particularly important.

It’s partly correct and partly misleading.

I think “conflicts of ideas” is often a better viewpoint than “disagreements”.

Say the child is doing X and the parent thinks doing X is a bad idea. Does that mean they disagree? Not in the straightforward way. The child’s goal may be Y. The parent may well agree that Y is a good goal. The child is just wrong about how to get Y. If the parent explains to the child that X won’t work, that may be nothing like a debate. The child might just say “Oh I didn’t think of that” instead of disagreeing. And if the parent explains how action Z will work to get Y, the child again might not debate or disagree at all. He just didn’t know. Ignorance and error are common.

Put another way, there are different types of disagreements, and if you try to view every conflict of ideas using the model of a debate between two people with opposing intellectual positions that they have looked into and are advocating on purpose, you will misunderstand many parenting scenarios. Often children don’t purposefully intend the stuff the parent disagrees with. There’s still a conflict of ideas there because the child has some idea behind his error, but it’s not a purposeful disagreement. It’s different to “disagree” with something you don’t know about vs. disagreeing with something that you’re familiar with. Generally, I think the wording that my idea conflicts with an idea I don’t know about makes more sense than saying I disagree with it.

I think TCS sometimes suggested a naive, simplistic model of what children want and how to help them get what they want. It would sometimes assume if the child does X that means he wants to do X, and if he asks for Y that means he wants Y. But often the child really cares about Z.


The second paragraph reads:

Closely related to fallibilism is the rejection of any sort of utopianism or revolutionary strategy. Not only do we expect to be unable to design the perfect society or the perfect curriculum, we expect even our piecemeal attempts to improve society or to improve a particular child’s life and prospects, to be riddled with errors. We expect errors to be possible even, or perhaps especially, when we are most sure that we are right and that our critics (such as the child himself) are wrong. We understand, therefore, that our principal objective in setting up institutions must not be to identify the right policies and ensure that they will take precedence over all rival policies; it must be to ensure that bad policies, once implemented, can be abandoned as easily as possible. Choosing the right policies is a matter for persuasion and consent, under institutions that promote those things but do not pre-judge either what the answer is or whose idea it will be.

This paragraph states that utopianism and revolutionary strategies are a bad idea, but it doesn’t explain why and doesn’t refer to any explanation. The rest of the article doesn’t explain the problems either, which means it doesn’t explain how TCS avoids these problems.

Karl Popper explains utopianism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” Chapter 9:

The Utopian approach may be described as follows. Any rational action must have a certain aim. It is rational in the same degree as it pursues its aim consciously and consistently, and as it determines its means according to this end. To choose the end is therefore the first thing we have to do if we wish to act rationally; and we must be careful to determine our real or ultimate ends, from which we must distinguish clearly those intermediate or partial ends which actually are only means, or steps on the way, to the ultimate end. If we neglect this distinction, then we must also neglect to ask whether these partial ends are likely to promote the ultimate end, and accordingly, we must fail to act rationally. These principles, if applied to the realm of political activity, demand that we must determine our ultimate political aim, or the Ideal State, before taking any practical action. Only when this ultimate aim is determined, in rough outline at least, only when we are in possession of something like a blueprint of the society at which we aim, only then can we begin to consider the best ways and means for its realization, and to draw up a plan for practical action. These are the necessary preliminaries of any practical political move that can be called rational, and especially of social engineering.

Popper pointed out some problems with utopianism. Having a particular aim for society requires centralised rule of a few people who will force others to go along with some plan to reach that aim. Criticism of the plan will get in the way of achieving it. Some of that criticism may be wrong and some of it may be right, and there is no way to tell the difference in advance of having a critical discussion. And the leaders won’t necessarily be correct in their judgement of the criticisms. The leaders might allow some people to deviate from the plan, but that may prevent the plan from being enacted. Or they might suppress criticisms they think are wrong through force, in which case they will suppress some correct criticisms. Also enforcing a particular aim prevents criticism of the aim itself. The founders of TCS treated Elliot Temple badly. They may have done this because he was pointing out problems with their ideas, which got in the way of promoting those ideas.

Another problem is that if you’re going to make a large change then you will have to get rid of currently existing institutions that got you to your current position. And since those institutions will have influenced your plans, then the plans themselves include references to the ideas you want to eliminate. For example, schools are coercive but lots of parents work 40 hour weeks and don’t have time to look after their children. So trying to get rid of all coercive education would cause a lot of economic problems. So changes away from coercive education would have to take those problems into account.

The actual implementation of any plan will expose mistakes in the plan whether anyone points them out or not. These mistakes will then require making small adjustments to see what will work. So all you have done is replace the current set of problems with a new set of problems that we don’t know much about. For example, Sarah Fitz-Claridge got into the position of having debates about age of consent laws. If you want to get rid of all laws that discriminate on the basis of age, that includes age of consent laws and so you have to come up with a replacement.

TCS as it was originally advocated provides illustrations of many of the problems of utopianism.

This is the attitude DD proclaimed to the world, taught me about … and absolutely refuses to use regarding his harassment campaign. (Unless he already knows he’s in the wrong.)

DD gave no credit to Popper for this!

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From memory, SFC did offer a replacement for age of consent laws: using existing laws and policies regarding informed consent in general. Isn’t that a proposed replacement (albeit an inadequate, bad one)?

She pointed out some legal principles that might be used to provide a replacement.

The third paragraph in the essay reads:

A thoroughgoing rejection of authority often leads to a contempt for tradition, but that is not the case here. We reject utopia and revolution partly because we expect to make mistakes when we try to improve upon existing ways of thinking and doing things. Another way of putting that is that we accept that tradition generally contains knowledge that is not immediately apparent to us. So although we reject the authority of tradition (that is to say, we refuse to hold any idea or practice immune from criticism or change), we value the knowledge that is implicitly or explicitly contained in traditions, and we expect any improvement to come about only through the piecemeal modification of existing ideas.

This paragraph is vague about the content of knowledge in existing traditions and problems involved in discarding that knowledge. It also doesn’t mention that problems with revolutionary change often involve really bad stuff like people being oppressed or murdered.

The fourth paragraph starts:

This brings us to an apparent paradox. For the idea that an adult’s greater knowledge, greater responsibility and so forth, do not confer upon him even the slightest authority to enforce his judgement upon an unwilling child, is itself a massive and radical departure from traditional ideas in education and child rearing. Inevitably therefore, TCS rejects outright large portions of traditional child-rearing practice, and advocates a whole new style that conflicts sharply with tradition.

If there is a conflict between two ideas, then the rational course of action is to reject one or both of them. The alternative is to try to think and act based on conflicting ideas, which will lead to more problems.

The paragraph continues:

Moreover, to make matters worse, non-coercive child rearing is by its nature difficult or impossible to implement piecemeal, for freedom is not conveniently divisible. Nor can it be implemented experimentally, for freedom granted conditionally is not freedom at all.

Restrictions on freedom prevent people from solving problems. If a parent tries to dictate a child’s bedtime, then the child might have trouble having discussions with people in other countries who have interests in common. A bedtime also interrupts whatever the child is trying to do at bedtime. When those problems come up you can try to hide them by reducing freedom. Or you can liberalise further to help people who are trying to solve the problem. If a bedtime creates problems for scheduling conversations with people in other countries a parent could ban the child from having discussions with people online. Or the parent could try letting the child go to bed when he wants to. Making people more free may make some unsolved problems more apparent. If a child can go to bed when he wants to, then he may be tired when his parents try to wake him up for school. He may also be tired at school and teachers might punish him for being tired. So the bedtime change reveals problems with the school system, like the fixed schedule and teachers being mean. Trying to partly restrict freedom means you decide whether to solve each problem by liberalisation or try to suppress it by tyranny. Such policies are inconsistent so they are more difficult to maintain and implement. If a child can stay up learning whatever he wants at night he might ask why he can’t leave school and pursue what he wants to learn during the day as well. The child might protest and spend time at school learning his favourite topic instead of schoolwork. And the parent has to make decisions about what to allow and what to forbid without a consistent set of ideas to help him. Whether granting a child partial freedom is a good idea or not it is possible. It is not the same as having a liberal policy and it creates problems but it can be done and most parents do this to some extent.

In addition, any pro-freedom policy is going to be partial because people disagree about what such a policy entails. Such disagreements can’t be solved by fiat by saying that one person is right and the other wrong. So like any other policy pro-freedom policies have to be implemented piecemeal. Some problems have to be solved as they come up because you can’t anticipate them in advance.

People often remark, when they first take the plunge, that TCS seems to turn all their old ideas upside-down. As William Godwin said of his own educational theory (a precursor of TCS): “This plan is calculated entirely to change the face of education. The whole formidable apparatus which has hitherto attended it, is swept away”. That does not sound very piecemeal, does it? So, if we are advocating a revolutionary change, how can we possibly expect to succeed?

So DD’s answer to the question “Is TCS revolutionary?” is “Yes”.