TCS and Coercion

The following is tangential, but I think it will ultimately tie back into the YesNo stuff, so I won’t make it a new thread.

I have questions about coercion. By coercion I’m referring to the definition that the Popper people seem to use (as opposed to some of the dictionary definitions), which for definiteness I’ll take to be

A state of coercion is one in which a person has two active theories that conflict, and is being forced to enact one prior to resolving the conflict.

(from Fallible Ideas – Coercion). I’ve read the FI articles on coercion, and I’ve seen / heard it mentioned quite a few times in some poorly-explained Twitter threads and podcasts, but I don’t understand it. (By the way, if you can point me to anywhere that writes really comprehensively about it I would appreciate that).

Some basic questions I have:

  1. Why is coercion something that people do to each other or to themselves, and why doesn’t it make sense to say that nature/reality can coerce people? (Or does it)?

  2. The article I linked to above basically says that all suffering is coercion. If I stub my toe and I am suffering because it hurts, in what way am I coerced? What are the conflicting theories in my mind, and how can I use reason to stop suffering now?

  3. How do I tell when a theory is active or inactive? Is there an independent definition of this, or is the definition just something like “if I feel coerced about doing A vs doing B, then we say that A and B are both active”?

“Coercion” is from DD’s TCS, not Popper. There is no comprehensive writing about it. My writing is your best bet. I have other articles you may not have seen like Fallible Ideas – Common Preferences

The poorly-explained Twitter threads and podcasts are from people who don’t know what they’re talking about (including about Popper or philosophy, not just TCS) and also are involved in the ongoing violation of my rights. Also, none of them are willing to defend their claims in debate.

The TCS founders, and various others involved, have gotten bad results trying to actually deal with kids. They purposefully mislead people about those results. I advise being wary of TCS. In Objectivist terms, they’re rationalists. They’re impractical armchair philosophers who think they’re so much cleverer than everyone else, but they’re not. They don’t know way better than tradition, convention, and other parenting views, and their radical, revolutionary ideas are risky and have actually done significant harm.

I built on DD’s idea and developed coercion further as an epistemological concept. It means, in short, failure at problem solving and getting stuck with no way forward that is OK with you. So you see no solution. (That includes no solution about the issue itself and also no solution about looking for solutions more and acting later. You’re out of time.)

Coercion usually involves external reality (including other people), but is always at least partly a matter of your own attitude and mindset. Regardless of external circumstances, there is a truth about how to best proceed, and you could be psychologically OK with proceeding that way since it’s best (as usual, use the contextual truth about what’s best to do given your knowledge, which is also objective, instead of the perfect truth of what you could do in the same situation if you were omniscient). This is sometimes very hard (e.g. if you’re being tortured) but usually pretty realistically achievable if you act/think rationally and know some general stuff about problem solving and thinking methods.

Sometimes people don’t mind physical pain sensations or even like them. It’s a matter of ideas and interpretations.

People suffer when there is a clash of ideas, e.g. they want to not feel the pain but do feel it.

You can see this as a clash of ideas against reality, but it’s actually our ideas about reality that are involved in the clash. We may be confused about reality, in which case, as far as psychology goes, it’s our own ideas about reality that matter rather than reality. E.g. if you lose a bunch of money, but think that you didn’t lose it, then you won’t be upset (for now). Of course being confused about reality will quickly run into concrete problems and that can be psychologically upsetting (e.g. if you’re wrong about your wealth, you may try to buy a car but people refuse to give you the car because you can’t actually pay).

A clash of ideas is, philosophically, a problem to be solved. People dislike that when they fail at problem solving (sometimes about tangential or meta issues, e.g. they are lazy so they get upset before even trying to solve X because of a different conflict between their laziness and the need to use effort to solve X). They fail to rationally resolve a conflict between ideas (and also fail to buy themselves more time to figure it out later – we are often OK with not knowing answers or stopping to think before proceeding, but there can be time limits at which point we actually want to reach a conclusion about something and we aren’t OK with more delays).

Active basically means it’s loaded in memory and you see how it’s relevant, so it’s affecting your psychology right now instead of something you’ve forgotten about or failed to connect to the current issue. People have tons of contradictions in their mind that they don’t even notice, so those don’t coerce them (though the contradictory ideas may lead to bad results in reality that the person then ends up coerced about – not noticing your contradictions is not safe). People compartmentalize, they’re hypocrites, they fail to integrate ideas, they don’t think in terms of principles, they forget things, etc.

Suffering/coercion can also be viewed in terms of preferences. It involves

  1. X.
  2. I prefer not-X.

This is a clash of ideas. X is either an idea, or a thing in reality that I have an idea about. I have an idea like e.g. “Reality is X way.” And my preference is also an idea.

If no preference you have is violated, then you have no reason to suffer.

A “common preference” is a preference that multiple people all hold (so they have it in common). It is therefore a non-coercive way forward because everyone prefers it. Whereas if there is no common preference – nothing everyone is OK with – that means any way forward would violate someone’s preference and coerce them.

The usual thing to do, if you can’t agree, is leave each other alone. You should be able to all commonly prefer that. There are hard cases though, like when you disagree about what leaving each other alone entails or you’re parent and child so you need to interact so the child can keep getting help from the parent.

Also, basically the same issues apply to disagreements within one mind instead of between two people. In that case, there’s no straightforward way for the sides of the conflict to leave each other alone since they share a body.

I knew some of that but not all of that… Dang, that’s really depressing.

Did you post about the problems with TCS anywhere? I didn’t know much about TCS, but it was exciting to me because it’s super radical and it seems to follow naturally from the BoI ideas: children can learn language, so therefore they are universal explainers, so therefore they are morally equivalent to adults who happen to not know much.

As written, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for suffering: I don’t feel suffering when thinking about all the ways in which reality differs from my wishes. E.g. I wish I could magically flap my arms and fly like a bird on demand, but this doesn’t cause me to suffer.

My guess was that somehow this wish that I could fly isn’t active, but from the definition of active that you gave it’s not clear why this can’t be the case: It seems like I can load my desire to fly like a bird into the front of my mind.

I replied at David Deutsch Megathread - #55 by Elliot

I don’t think you have a preference like “I want to be able to fly right now, and any delay is unacceptable.” Your preferences are compatible with not flying right now, and I guess indefinitely. Maybe your actual preference is more like “Flying sounds fun and I’ll keep and eye out for opportunities and also do some daydreaming. But it’s OK with me that I can’t fly.”

You can look at it in terms of: what things are compatible with your preferences and what are incompatible? The incompatible ones are what threaten suffering – an outcome that you don’t see any way to be OK with – unless you come up with some kind of solution (including a way to change change your attitude/preferences).

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In general, it takes at least two problems for debates to fail to reach agreement.

  1. An initial point of disagreement that you don’t see a resolution to.
  2. Some methodological or meta issue which prevents progress.

Like people not only disagree about X, but also don’t want to talk about certain premises or lines of reasoning that could help resolve the disagreement. They start blocking solutions. Sometimes they start blocking anything that looks like it could lead to changing their mind. They feel threatened by the possibility of being wrong about a cherished value.

This applies to internal debates, not just debates with other people.

The issues with coercion are similar. Seeing some kinda problem or potential negative thing is condition (1). But then what you normally do is think about how to fix it. And if that’s hard, you plan to try more later, or you decide you have other priorities. You only get coerced when something goes wrong at the meta level, like you really want it and get fed up with waiting. People can only say to themselves “I’m working on it” for so long, about so many things, before they want some actual success in their lives instead of just plans to keep trying.

People get worn down eventually and give up on things like reason or their ability to get good results in reality by their thoughtful effort. Sometimes this happens after decades and sometimes pretty early in childhood. Once the coercion starts, it generally starts getting more common – things are going wrong all the time, reality seems unfair and incomprehensible, they never seem to get what they want, life is a disaster, etc.

What does it mean to coerce someone?

The archived TCS page defines the word “coerce” as

  • Intentionally or recklessly to place someone in a state of coercion (1); or
  • to behave in a way that is intended, or likely, to do this.

but I don’t find this definition to be helpful.

Why is coercing (by this definition) always wrong? I understand that being in a state of coercion is unpleasant, but as you say,

whether or not someone else’s action causes a person to feel coerced has a lot to do with the target’s cognitive context. It’s really easy to imagine situations where it is perfectly moral for me to do something that will cause another person to feel coerced, even though I know that my action will likely cause him to feel that way (e.g. if I employ some average lazy guy and I inform him that if he’s late again I’m going to fire him).

It’s not. Killing someone isn’t even always wrong.

Act in a way where you’re significantly morally or causally responsible for someone being coerced or having a significant chance of being coerced.

I wrote “significantly … responsible” because you’re never 100% responsible for someone else’s mental states. But you can have significant responsibility for other people’s mental states. E.g. you can sneak up on someone and intentionally scare them, or threaten them with a gun to scare them. In those cases, you bear primary responsibility for their fear.

Causal responsibility comes from the laws of physics and can happen in ways that were unpredictable to all involved, so no one would blame you.

Moral responsibility comes from what is reasonably foreseeable to us, what actions are considered reasonable in our society, and also from other people being reasonable (rather than e.g. super psychologically fragile, which isn’t my fault).

So, in short, in most situations, you shouldn’t do things that would coerce a typical person in our society. E.g. a parent shouldn’t yell at his kid (in a mean way rather than e.g. a communicating despite noise or distance way).

If you know someone well, you should generally also avoid doing things which you know that particular person dislikes. (And you can also do things to them that would coerce a typical person because you know they don’t mind or even like it.) But if their preferences place an unreasonable burden on you, then it’s generally not your job to keep them happy, though when people interact enough – e.g. family members living together – they sometimes ask/negotiate special, ongoing favors of each other.

I guess I knew this, but I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote my question. I should have qualified the question more, but I don’t know how. I have a principle that tells me in what situations killing is wrong. It’s something like “killing is wrong unless it is done in response to or for the prevention of significant rights violations.” I have no such principle that tells me in what situations “coercing” is wrong.

Edit: edited the anti-killing principle to be more correct.

Let me describe the example I have in mind in more detail, so that you can explain why it doesn’t fit into “most situations.”

I think that the typical person who is at risk of getting fired from his job for consistently being late is going to feel coerced if you (the boss) threaten to fire him, no matter how nice you are about it. After threatening to fire him, he is going to have a new conflict between his preference to keep his job and his preference to e.g. stay up late playing video games. Furthermore, if you had taken a different course of action, e.g. if you decided to keep him on the job indefinitely even though his lateness is cutting into his productivity, then he would have no such conflict in his mind. You knowingly caused him to be in a coerced state, so you are causally responsible.

I guess you’d probably say that the boss didn’t coerce the employee here, because he isn’t morally responsible for the employee’s coerced state, since the employee brought it on himself by being unreasonable. But then in your definition, shouldn’t you have said “morally and causally”?

idk, maybe he’s late all the time cuz he really DGAF if he gets fired or not

Sure, good point. But at least there is one type of person who is at risk of getting fired because he’s unaware of or evading the fact that his tardiness is a problem.

It’s the evader or ignoramus who I envision in my example. The guy who dgaf probably wouldn’t even feel coerced if he was warned that he might be fired.

Edit: made what I say less ambiguous

Basically use your existing understanding of when not to do stuff to people that they dislike.

The term is flexible and can contextually mean either one or both. This is typical, e.g. it’s how “scare” or “help” work.

In typical circumstances, I wouldn’t think the boss did something (morally) wrong. But if the employee felt bad about being told about the problem, then I might say that the boss (or his action) coerced the employee, because it was the main cause (for a local, short-term analysis). It sucks to be in that position. It’s unpleasant to play a causal role in something negative even if it’s not your fault. Reasonable bosses are aware of it and try to be reasonably nice about it (avoid saying it in a mean way, but also avoid saying it in a way that the employee interprets as weakness that he can take advantage of).

You can imagine the boss himself posting on a forum “I had to coerce an employee today; I think it was the right thing to do, and it was his actions that led to this, but it still sucked.” and then asking for some advice about how to handle it in e.g. a firm but nice way, or how to better avoid the problem coming up again in the future with anyone (better screening when hiring, better early warnings, better incentives, better training, whatever).

It’s similar to what he might write about “upset” or “disappoint” or “make feel bad” rather than “coerce”.

In some sense, the boss did not “upset” the employee. The employee upset himself, both psychologically at the time and also more generally by creating the situation. But in another sense, the boss did “upset” the employee. He did have a role in it that can be talked about.

I think what I’m saying fits common sense and tradition fairly well, but does not fit some of TCS’s unusual claims about what parents should do. Although I like some parts, I’m not really trying to defend TCS in general.

TCS material at times made it sound like all coercion comes from the malicious, intentional actions of other people. Or at least all initial coercion. Maybe once people have been coerced and become irrational, they may start coercing themselves, but they won’t coerce themselves the first time they’re coerced. And TCS further suggested basically that parents have all the power over their children, so all coercion of the child is the fault of the parents. Either they did it (usually it’s this, especially if you’re most concerned with when a child is first coerced so he’s not even 1 year old yet and his parents really dominate his life) or they failed to protect him properly (e.g. sent him to a coercive school – the parents bear a responsibility for exposing child to the danger of those coercive teachers without adequate help to deal with them safely).

This enabled TCS to claim, roughly, that if parents would just stop hurting their kids – stop punishing, yelling, frowning, and doing any other overt bad actions – then their children would never become irrational, coerced, etc. They could raise super kids without becoming particularly good people or thinkers themselves. They just had to stop doing bad actions that were mostly done on purpose.

I think this TCS viewpoint is badly wrong. Children learn tons of information from their society which contains tons of mistakes, so even if the parents avoid doing anything negative, and also protect the children from others being mean to them, the children will learn lots of regular attitudes to life and end up coerced. People coerce themselves all the time. This is not just because their parents were mean in the past. It’s also because they have bad ideas about how to live, think, feel, etc. Just being nice to your kids won’t protect them from errors about what goals to have in life, what methods to use for thinking, etc. So then they can just fail at stuff and hate it.

The only way people can be way better than typical members of our society, besides being a lucky outlier, is to get a lot of positive knowledge about stuff, not just to avoid negatives. So parents should avoid being cruel but if they want to do a great job they also need to develop a lot of high quality knowledge that can help their own lives and then share that with their children.

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Fine, but my existing common-sense understanding of when not to do stuff that people dislike conflicts with a lot of things that I have seen the CR / TCS people saying over the past few years that I’ve been following on Twitter, and that was part of why I was trying to probe into this definition. It has always seemed like they are onto something interesting but I can’t pin it down.

Yes, I am aware that the “or” in English is inclusive. Your definition was schematically of the form “we say that an action is A if it satisfies condition B or condition C,” and I thought I was describing an example of an action which satisfies condition B but is not A (which would contradict the definition).

Turns out (reading your next part) that I actually did provide an example of an action that is A.

To what extent is the goal of almost never being in a coerced state actually achievable for people who know this stuff well? How hard is it? The last sentence in this interview of DD makes it sound like he is never in a coerced state.

My general opinion is: ignore those people. If you have a specific thing someone said, which seems plausible to you, you could quote, link, summarize or paraphrase it and ask for comments on it.

EDIT: Many people on Twitter were never even members of the TCS email list. Only someone who found DD at least 5 years before BoI was published could have much actual experience with the original TCS community (before it became a lot more about me and philosophy, and a lot less about parenting). Most people on Twitter came years after BoI and just read a few articles and some tweets re TCS.

I meant that the term “coerce” is flexible re what type of causality or responsibility it refers to, like “help” or “scare” is flexible.

The sample size is way too small. I’m particularly good at avoiding coerced states but it’s hard to know what set of things is important to that and would work for many others. It’s hard to say with any confidence whether just my explicit philosophical knowledge + its implications + practicing/integrating/chewing would be adequate or whether some other things are required that I wouldn’t know how to share/explain. It’s hard to say how much background context, like childhood, is relevant and someone would have to address lots of issues they have from that (both negative active-problem type issues and also omissions of learning stuff).

What I can say is that most people seem to find it extremely hard to learn the explicit philosophy well. People tend to get stuck, feel bad, quit, etc. Often there’s some idea they can’t answer in debate but strongly dislike. Often they are worse at some stuff than they knew and want to maintain their current self-image. Often they want to lecture/teach/impress rather than learn. Often they want to social climb rather than learn. Often they aren’t very aware of what they’re doing or why.

Lots of the problems people have with learning are pretty generic issues that would come up with learning other stuff too, rather than being specific to CF material. Lots of other communities just give people credit for learning stuff when they still don’t actually understand it (similar to how people often pass school tests without understanding the material well), and try to be nice about everything and pretend things are going better than they are. They can appear to be more successful at teaching new members when they aren’t really. I try to challenge people more and seek out problems and errors instead of glossing them over and avoiding conflict.

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Coercion-free is hard but IMHO it’s very achievable to greatly reduce the coercion in your life and get much better at snapping yourself out of coerced states.

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