Third Order Thinking (Or: Is a Whale a Fish?)

Between 1:53:30 and 1:55:30, physicist and economist Eric Weinstein (to the right of his brother, Bret Weinstein, who I have a whole post about), asks a simple question: “Is a whale a fish?”


You might read that and think I’m an idiot. A whale isn’t a fish; a whale is a mammal. But let us step through the different levels of thought:

Dunce: A whale is a fish because it lives in the sea and looks like a fish and it swims like a fish so its a fish.

Educated position: A whale isn’t a fish because whales are mammals. It might share superficial traits a fish but it occupies a different place on the cladogram.

But wait. Let’s take a look at that cladogram again:


Third-order-thinking: All mammals, including us, are fish if we’re using expansive enough nomenclature.

According to Weinstein, the third-order-thinking is technically right. But, if each of these three answers had to be converted into either “yes” or “no”, the last one would sound moronic nonetheless.

Click the link; he explains it better than I can.

You may have heard about second-order thinking. That implies a the existence of first-order thinking. But what about third-order thinking? Eric’s fish analogy illustrates this concept

The problem is that third-order thinking often gets confuses for first-order thinking, because they can come to the same conclusion (but for different reasons). The second-order-thinker is the person who gets confused between the two.

ASAPscience released this video about monogamy. The video is harmless enough, so it wasn’t my intention to mean to rag on it. But I want to use it as a lens to talk about second-order-thinking. (I believe Vox’s video on monogamy vs polyamory is actually harmful, but don’t get me started on that).

With that said, I will have to rag on ASAPscience a little bit. They are just the type to engage in second-order thinking: people who are more educated than they are smart.

They start with this reasonable-sounding question: why are human societies monogamous in the modern era? There has to be some reason.

But they don’t know. They offer some plausible-enough-sounding reasons that seem to explain the virtue of monogamy, which they second-guess. They list off a bunch of fun facts. They also fiddle about, saying a bunch of intellectual-sounding sciency-sounding “smart stuff”.

If they were willing to sit down, set their biases aside, and think about the topic on a deeper level, they could be able to come out with a real defense of monogamy, because it would stare them in the face.

Here’s a true defense of monogamy. In theory, polyamory means “free love”. In practice, polyamory means “harems”. With polyamory, some men have harems. But sex retains exclusive status, and so statistically most men will not be able to mate. The inequality in history was so stark that, according to some studies, 80,000 years ago a shocking less than 6% of males passed on their genes. The result is a large number of bitter, desperate men. In history, times of increasing polyamory coincided with increasing civil strife, because desperate men start to get violent. Marriage is a non-coercive institution that promotes monogamy, protecting societies from the civilization-destroying effects of incels.

[Didn’t I say in my previous post that marriage had a different purpose? Yes, but some traditions can have more than one purpose.]

It’s not that hard to do some research and figure all of that out. But ASAPscience can’t explore it, because that says something deep and controversial about human psychology and institutions. Some topics are a sociopolitical can-of-worms to even mention. There is a wall of social acceptability that prevents people from reaching into serious thinking-space.

I have observed a definite trend where second-order arguments in a debate are left-wing, and the first and third tier arguments are right-wing. For example, different levels of thinking are present on the topic of Islam.

First-order-thinking: “Damn Muslims, they’re all terrorists, bomb the Middle East!”

Second-order-thinking: “You shouldn’t be racist and prejudiced against a huge group of people! You’re painting with a broad brush! Islam is a religion of peace! We need to be tolerant! All religions have their radical extremists. Terrorists don’t speak for the whole religion any more than the Westbro Baptist Church speaks for christianity!”

I have no question that most of the second-order arguments are made with good intentions, but ignorance is a dangerous thing.

Third-order-thinking: “You shouldn’t be prejudiced, but it shouldn’t be called as much to criticize bad ideas, even religious ones. A large percentage of Muslims, meaning at least a third, are what we in the west would consider fundamentalists, according to various credible polls. There are problems in the doctrine of Islam that are worse than in other religions. Further, the Westbro Baptist Church, a small hate group, is statistically not comparable to terrorist organizations.

Most of these third-order arguments are just stating that the second-order-arguments are false. But the second-order arguments superficially sound more like “rebuttals” in nature, because they are clear rebuttals to simple, obviously stupid arguments (to the first-order ones).

What I’m saying might be unconvincing to you if you disagree with the “third-order” arguments I wrote. If that is you, just imagine they are second-order, and imagine your own third-order rebuttals. Because the ultimate takeaway is to respond to best arguments you disagree with, not the worst ones.

But with that said, I maintain that second-order arguments are usually left-wing in nature. What explains this?

Conservatives tend to embrace traditional ideas more than left-wingers, who tend to criticize traditional ideas. This is a fundamental distinction because ideas can be designed or evolved, as I wrote about there. Traditional ideas are evolved. Modern ideas are designed, because they have not had time to evolve.

Traditional ideas are able to self-propagate because they serve some utility. New ideas are sometimes better, which is why they also have their place. But old ideas have often survived because they provided some benefit to those who upheld them.

Sometimes, that benefit is obvious. Why do we believe murder is immoral? Because murder is bad for society. But in other cases, the benefit is less clear. Genetic patterns can evolve in response to unbelievably complicated systems. For this reason, sometimes ideas are beneficial for virtually invisible reasons. Either because of the extremely long time horizon, or because of the extreme interconnectedness of systems.

The problem is that if you ask the average person why traditional ideas have benefited them, they will not know. Most people simply accept the culture they were raised in. Most people will not be able to tell you why marriage leads to stable societies. If you ask them, they will say something like, “Marriage is an important bond between two people. It is sacred before God. It is a fulfilling lifetime of selflessness; a physical union”. People like ASAPscience are smart enough to know that those types of arguments are mostly sophistry. But they’re not smart enough to figure out the evolved benefit the tradition does have.

Let this be a lesson, that before criticizing tradition, one must figure out why it evolved, what purpose it served in the first place. Too many leftists are smart enough to refute oft-stated arguments for traditions, but not smart enough to know their true utility, much less refute them.

On Sam Harris’ podcast, Eric Weinstein described what would become this diagram:

weinstein diagram

It’s confusing at first. The X-axis represents agreement with some rent-seeking (parasitical) narrative. The Y-axis represents moral virtue, perceived or otherwise. Different groups occupy different quadrants on this graph.

Dupes: people who think themselves sophisticated, but are actually just useful idiots.

Troglodytes: people who behave exactly like the caricature-like straw men that the dupes imagine to be their opposition.

First principle thinkers / contrarians: people who arrive at their positions independently, using logic, not because they buy into any particular “side”.

Rent-seeking elites: people who advocate policies out of greed and self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

The red line is the media narrative. It represents the arena of belief that is displayed by the media. The media creates narratives to try to convince people that anyone positioned on the blue diagonal is actually positioned on the corresponding latitude of the red diagonal.

In other words: The rent-seeking elites trick the dupes that the first principle thinkers are troglodytes.

The troglodytes are first-order-thinkers. The Dupes are second-order-thinkers. The contrarians are third-order-thinkers. The rent-seeking elites are third-order-thinkers who benefit from second-order-thought, and for their own interests try to conflate third with first order thinking.

So, in the case of Islam, an example of rent-seeking elites is CAIR, dupes are people like this, the first principle thinkers are like Sam Harris, and the troglodytes are … you can probably think of a few in your personal life.

I don’t know who made this modification, but it portrays the phenomenon:

harris weinstein diagram

As another example, I will use the topic of immigration.

The troglodyte position on immigration is something like this.

The rent-seeking position will be something corporate, politically correct, buzzword-sounding, like, “As a nation of immigrants, we must recognize that newcomers enrich our communities and make for a more vibrant nation.”

They might also make a few economic arguments, like, “Face it: are an aging population, and immigrants form the backbone of our economy.” (Translation: We’re going to turn immigration into a pyramid scheme.) Or something more pragmatic, like, “Immigrants do the jobs that us spoiled westerners don’t want to do, because they’re jobs no one wants.” (Translation: As corporations we don’t want want a labor shortage because we don’t want to raise wages, so lets import destitute people because we don’t have to pay them as much.) I can play this game all day.

The dupe position is often name-calling, “You’re just a dumb racist bigot who hates people who don’t look like you are talk like you because you’re scared of anything different. Immigrants are better than the natives, if I can even call them natives because they have no right to the land anyway! You’re scared of being replaced? Well you are probably right to be worried!”

As you can see, the dupes aren’t so tactful.

The contrarians will make an argument seemingly insincere, “We are a nation of immigrants in a way, but now a combination of factors such as the welfare system makes that less viable. There is some utility in diversity, but there is also the feasibility of integration to be considered; if we take in too many people, it is difficult for them to all realistically integrate. They also pay less taxes than natives, which is why some economists place them as actually a net drain on the economy. Finally, immigration is not even good as a charitable system, because it helps more than it hurts by enabling brain drain from other countries.”

This might sound like a dogwhistle, a cover for what amounts to pure bigotry. It sounds that way because rent-seeking elites have built that association. Don’t be fooled.

I pick Islam and immigration as topics because the tiers of thought are pretty well laid-out and easy to explain. But this pattern exists almost everywhere in politics.

The correct position isn’t always the one that seems sophisticated, or the one that will make you sound clever to your friends. Sometimes, the correct position is the one that will make you sound like an ignorant dunce. This is especially true of politically incorrect positions.

So should you think for yourself? Both “yes” and “sort of”. Yes if you are questioning the narrative emanating from elite organizations. What about questioning traditions? Still yes, but you better be sure before you bring the axe to them. If you fail to anticipate the unintended consequences of destroying tradition, you’d be better off a troglodyte.


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