Hypothetical Faith

Being able to talk about concepts without endorsing them is a powerful – and necessary – tool for advancing our common understanding. Analogies and shared frames of reference help us communicate, and the ability to create them is the ability to think together with other people.

There are two kinds of people (or perhaps, just two kinds of traits that some people have) that make this sort of shared communication extremely difficult. Some people use hypotheticals in bad faith, and some people accuse other people of doing that first thing.

Sometimes a hypothetical situation is obviously bad, but smart people still want to work through the implications of it because understanding is good, and that understanding can help in a variety of other situations. For example, I could posit the hypothetical of Ukraine losing the war to Russia and want to consider what that would mean. That doesn’t mean I want that to happen, and smart people have the ability to understand that.

But some people will sometimes use these questions in bad faith. For example, a racist might say “Let’s just imagine a hypothetical society with only one race.” They’re not really trying to refine their thinking; they’re trying to sneak an idea through the Overton window.

Because those people exist, people who aren’t very intellectually secure will often accuse anyone who even wants to discuss an idea of being in full support of that idea. So I might want to suggest examining what happens if we have a higher or lower minimum wage, and people will instantly decry that line of thinking as being in favor of a particular position.

The simplest solution is this: always think in good faith, and eliminate people from your intellectual circle who accuse you of doing otherwise anyway. The people who see hidden plots in critical thought are the same people incapable of it, so in a way that serves as a good litmus test of who is worth conversing with. Remember, when it comes to signal and noise, screeching is always the latter.

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