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The Elegance of Free Speech
It is not the case that only falsifiable ideas can be true, but that means we are vulnerable to manipulation, conspiracies, and the like - we need a new tool.
Free speech is a space in which people can manipulate, hurt, insult, trick, and worse: if Iago, found in Othello, wasn’t allowed to speak freely, the State might have protected Othello and saved Desdemona. Do we really want to be vulnerable to Iago, a master of speech and manipulation? Satan is described in the Bible as basically powerless except for his power to speak—and that is all the devil needs. Are we sure then that we want free speech? The risk seems great.
But if society is to limit free speech for the sake of protecting us, who decides what speech to limit and what speech to allow? Power gains from worry, risking totalitarianism and manipulation. This problem is discussed extensively in a review of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch elsewhere in O.G. Rose (which also touches on John Milton), but here I want to expand upon “the epistemological role of eloquence” in helping us determine truth, a tool which is especially important where falsification proves inadequate. We could associate these situations with “conflicts of mind” and the like (as discussed in The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy by O.G. Rose), circumstances that threaten democracy and our globalized world if we don’t understand better how to navigate them.
We can’t fire a gun at someone; even if we miss, we’ll be in trouble (and for good reason). In an Information Age, it can feel like dialogue and information can be like bullets, and even if no one is hit, the very possibility of mentally wounding someone seems dire. There are arguably countless Iagos online now—are we really going to let them speak freely as we sit around, doing nothing? Isn’t that irresponsible? There are children online encountering people as brilliant as Milton’s Satan: the children seem destined to end up manipulated into a conspiracy. If we don’t censor, aren’t we dooming them? It can seem that way.
However, those who favor free speech like the organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) have a strong argument: once we begin limiting free speech, freedom is finished. Sure, perhaps people won’t be thrown in jail, but if people are afraid to say this or that because they might lose their job or platform, then though people have “legal free speech,” they will not have “social free speech,” and feeling like we can speak freely is just as important as being legally protected to speak freely (a point Christopher Hitchen once stressed). We have made a grave mistake in conflating “legal free speech” with “social free speech,” and as a result we have believed that as long as people are not imprisoned for what they say, they are free to speak. But this is not enough: if I will be punished for what I say by losing a platform or job, then I am not free. “Legal free speech” is not the freedom to speak freely.
But what is to be done? Should Iago be left free to ruin Othello’s life? Rauch makes the point that without free speech we will also lose knowledge and education, for the ability to exchange ideas is central to the formation and life of a democracy. We simply don’t know what good ideas are good “off the bat,” and so we need a process to test, try, and experiment with ideas in hopes that the best “rise to the top.” As already mentioned, Rauch makes this case powerfully in Kindly Inquisitors, a book I can’t suggest enough. Here though, I want to make a quick point on the epistemological role of “elegance” (as Michelle and I discussed notably in O.G. Rose Conversation #130).
“Occam’s Razor” is a famous “mental model” for intellectuals, which suggests that we should prioritize the theory with the fewest number of premises. If Theory A requires seven premises to be true while Theory B requires five, assuming the premises of A and B are (as far as we can tell) equally plausible, then it is more likely that B is true versus A. Not necessarily, but the point is that five things must be true for B, while seven must be true for A, and it’s just more likely that five are true versus seven. Thus, the more premises a theory requires to hold for the theory to follow, the less likely it is that the theory is true. The taller a building is, the more which must be upheld.
I personally associate “Occam’s Razor” with Eloquence (which I will now capitalize to signify its epistemic function), and though Eloquence is not a proof, regarding what cannot be proven or disprove, Eloquence can prove extremely useful. When conspiracy theorists are not allowed to speak because we are afraid they will brainwash people (like Iago), the conspiracy might actually be helped in that it never has to make transparent and clear all the premises which must follow for the theory to hold true. In other words, in my experience, the high majority of conspiracies are Un-eloquent, but the average person never gets to experience that Un-eloquence when conspiracy theorists aren’t allowed to speak. As a result, the conspiracy maintains plausibility and paradoxically more people are more likely to explore it.
Lorenzo Barberis Canonico discusses how “skin in the game” (plus probability markets) can help rehabilitate people out of conspiracies and cults (Ep #36), and here I want to add “Eloquence Tests” to the toolkit. No, Eloquence doesn’t necessarily disprove a conspiracy, but what an “Eloquence Test” can do is force a theory to make transparent that it requires an incredible number of premises to be true for the conspiracy to be the case. Perhaps all these premises are true, but when conspiracy theories are allowed to speak freely without censorship, there is a better chance for the average person to hear all of these premises be linked together and start to feel like it is implausible that the conspiracy holds. This is key: what changes a person is mostly a feeling before it is an intellectual ascent (for “the true isn’t the rational”), and where we cannot falsify something (like Qanon), what we must instead do is aim to change it’s “stickiness” to us (as discussed in “Compelling” by O.G. Rose), and that is primarily an emotional change.
It is often said today that nobody believes in facts or evidence to be changed, as it is lamented that people believe what they believe emotionally versus intellectually. Perhaps this is lamentable (though perhaps this as always been the case), but from another perspective there is hope in it, for if many things cannot be falsified, the only possible way to change people is through emotions. If people only could be changed from their views through intellectual argument and evidence, and if there were some ideas which couldn’t be argued out of or evidence provided against (or for), then people might be doomed. In this way, we might have hope precisely for reasons that often make us hopeless: people aren’t always convinced by evidence, and so people can be saved from situations where no evidence can be provided.
The question is how best to “use emotion” to direct people for or against worldviews, ideas, theories, ideologies, and the like, and this is where “skin in the game” and Eloquence can be such powerful tools. Again, Lorenzo speaks well on “skin in the game”: to focus on Eloquence, I must stress that this can only work if people are allowed to speak freely, which also allows people to hear and experience “the long chain of deductions” which must be true for the theory to be true. Listening to this, a feeling of implausibility can begin to creep in, and gradually and slowly people can just start reading a little bit less about QAnon, thinking about it a little less, mentioning it a little less…and then one day they realize they hadn’t thought about QAnon in a week. This is “practically changing views,” even if they might continue to verbally say, “I believe in QAnon.” The change has happened. The goal has been met.
Still, it is understandable that we are concerned about children encountering Iago—do we really want people just to talk freely? I personally do, but I also see value in a very focused and intentional event that puts “the Eloquence of a theory” on display. As discussed in O.G. Rose Conversation Episode #130, perhaps what is indeed are Congressional Conversations where the leaders of a conspiracy are brought to discuss their beliefs. They are not censored. They are asked questions that follow from the premises they present. The point of these focused meetings and conversions would be to determine if the theory or the like is Elegant. If not, people will emotionally change. Again, we likely will not be able to “certainly disprove” any of these theories, seeing as certainty is mostly impossible, but putting theories to “Eloquence Tests” have a chance of emotionally changing people once people directly see and encounter how Eloquent or Un-eloquent a theory is (where all sources of “plausible deniability” are removed). On the other hand, perhaps QAnon is incredibly Elegant—wouldn’t followers want a chance to prove it?
People often lament how “certainty is impossible,” which is to say we are stuck in an uncertain world where up is down and down is up, and though I think there are actually advantages to uncertainty (described throughout O.G. Rose), the sentiment is understandable. However, just because a theory is unfalsifiable doesn’t mean we are doomed to prove powerless before it: we can use Elegance and emotion to change people. This is a virtue of “free speech,” for when people speak freely people are able to freely experience the Eloquence or Un-eloquence of ideas to thus be emotionally moved toward or away from them. And yet ironically free speech is often violated precisely to keep people from falling into dangerous worldviews, whereas that lack of transparency can enable bad theories to conceal their Un-eloquence and thus prove stronger. What we fear is often what comes unto us.
The possibility of Eloquence in mind, perhaps we can approach a new question: instead of asking, “Is QAnon true?” we might instead ask “Is QAnon wise?” By this, I mean to say, “Is it wise to believe in QAnon?”—I believe this is better to ask, seeing as QAnon is ultimately unfalsifiable. Is it wise to believe something Un-eloquent? I don’t think so, and yet it could be true to believe the Un-eloquent, hence why asking “Is QAnon true?” can prove inadequate. Do we want to be wise? If so, then we should seek Eloquence and live amongst the free speech that allows us to feel it.