The battlefield where arguments fight

February 2024

In different societies, different "types of facts" or different "types of arguments" resonate more or less. For example, in Chinese society, what the elders say carriers more weight than what the youth say.

If you imagine debates as playing out in a battlefield, arguments coming from the elders have the "high ground advantage". Elder arguments have an unfair advantage beyond other merits. The youth have the low ground and likely to lose.

The shape of this battlefield is itself arbitrary. Elders don't have to have the high ground and in other contexts, they don't.

If you were a young person in China, you might notice this and dislike it. How would you change society to change the battlefield and reduce the elders' high ground advantage?

Here is something you could say:

In the past, when we've listened to the elders we ended up in bad situations. X, Y, and Z are examples. In the future, we shouldn't listen to them anymore.

Or you could say:

We don't discriminate ideas based on whether men or women say them right? That is sexists and bad. Guess what? When we discriminate ideas based on the age of the person that says them. That is ageist and also bad.

Notice how neither statement describes the world directly. Instead it is reshaping the battleground in which future debates will play out. If this statement succeeds, future arguments matching "X is important because the elders said so" will have lower ground and be more likely to lose.

The battlefield is determined by our values

So far, I've used "types of arguments" to emphasize how this applies to debates. But "the types of arguments we prefer" is a drier way of saying "what we value" or "our values". "Respecting the elders" is a Chinese cultural value. In the example above, the young person is demoting that value in favor of other values (consequentialism or egalitarianism).

Beyond helping you win arguments, changing the values has many other effects. For example, after an egalitarian revolution, people might stop giving elders a seat in the subway. What we value affects a lot more than debates but focusing on "types of arguments" makes it easier to discuss.

The battlefield where we debated COVID

It was very complicated to talk about COVID in 2020 without stepping into a political minefield. Here is a seemingly factual statement:

There is a virus in China and it might make it to the US

But that statement can have important implications on future arguments:

If we say that there are bad things in China, we are conceding some high ground to people that want to say that China itself is bad and that Chinese people are bad. This is xenophobic and we should never give xenophobia high ground.

This article from Yale School of Medicine represents that point of view very clearly and goes further:

DO: Talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” COVID-19.

DO NOT: Talk about people “transmitting COVID-19,” “infecting others,” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame. Criminalizing or dehumanizing terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, and potentially fueling wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening, testing and quarantine.

Notice how the article prioritizes the effects of the words we use on future discourse ("dehumanizing terminology") over the facts ("COVID is not spread by people, it is simply acquired").

Moral progress is about changing the battlefield

Today we think "X is legitimate because people voted on it". But that is only because certain philosophers convinced others that "People voting on X gives X legitimacy." This wasn't the case that long ago!

Changing the battlefield so that we have democratic values had huge implications beyond getting the democracy political philosophers argued for. Many of them didn't envision egalitarianism towards women and minorities. But once you change the battleground to include

If X and Y are both white men, they should both have the same rights"

then it is easier for the next generation to change the battleground to:

If X and Y are both people, they should both have the same rights

Techniques to change the battlefield

People try to change the discourse battlefield in many ways. I am certainly not a master of this but here are some patterns I've observed.

With vibes

X arguments make me feel good. That is enough for us to elevate them

X arguments make me feel bad. That is enough for us to discount them.

At the end of the day, everything is vibes. So what follows are refinement on those vibes.

With association or equivalence

We agree that X is a good type of argument. Y is actually just like X, so Y is good too.

We agree that X is a bad type of argument. Y is like X, so Y is bad too.

With bullying

We find X to be a good type of argument. If you don't, you are bad and don't belong with us

Those we hate make arguments like X. If you use arguments like X, we'll hate you too.

With implication

When we use arguments like X, we reach conclusions that we already agreed we like. So, do use X arguments.

When we use arguments like X, we reach conclusions that we already agreed we don't like. So don't use X arguments.

Notice how none of the claims have "merit" in of themselves. And that is on purpose because merit itself is the thing being debated.

Scott Alexander, the battlefield terraformer

Scott Alexander often writes about the types of arguments that we should pay attention to (i.e. move to the high ground) or dismiss (i.e. move to the low ground). Here are a few examples:

Beware the man of one study refines the statement "We should listen to scientific evidence" with "We should listen to broad scientific evidence because individual studies are subject to all sorts of errors and statistical artifacts". And in particular, "Discount 'scientific' evidence from people that got the results they wanted to get".

Beware of isolated demands for rigor refines "X doesn't have rigorous evidence, therefore X is to be discounted" with "But disregard people that have learned to weaponize rigor as a way to discount arguments they don't like and are happy to be unrigorous for arguments they do like".

The categories were made for man, not man for the categories diminishes arguments of the form "X belongs to Y category and therefore we should do Z" by pointing out that categories are meant to serve different purposes and maybe the Y category is not useful to Z.

Through this lens, the entire rationality community can be viewed as an exercise in reshaping the battleground in which arguments fight.

Day to day examples

So far, we've only considered the battlefield of Big Topics. Let's now consider more parochial battlefields.

Stripe is a payment processor and accepts many payment methods (credit cards, bank transfers, etc.). Before 2019, Stripe internally referred to payment methods that are not cards as "Alternative Payment Methods". When planning what to build next, Alternative Payment Methods were often deprioritized. Of course they were! The fact that they are secondary is in the name itself.

To fix this, Sophie Sakellariadis1 went on a crusade to rename them as Local Payment Methods. This was masterful. She changed the internal corporate discourse so that payment methods would have higher ground in prioritization debates. It worked! After that, Stripe committed to building many more local payment methods. I view this as a very positive intervention.

But this kind of speech can also be weaponized. Before performance reviews, one can start talking about "the types of contributions that are valuable" to get ahead of the performance debate. Then during the performance review, it turns out that the contributions your team made are exactly the types of contributions that we recently agreed are valuable2. This is equivalent to the war general approaching the battlefield from the hills to get the high ground.

Simulacra Levels

This post is inspired by the Simulacra Levels framework. If you haven't read that, go do it, otherwise the rest of this post is not going to make much sense. A quick review of the levels 1 through 3:

Level 1: You are describing things as you see them.

Level 2: You are describing things so that they have an intended effect on somebody else, regardless of whether they are true or not

Level 3: You are describing things to match what a group believes and thus make yourself belong to that group.

And those posts describe Level 4 as:

Level 4: It is speech that seems to have gone strangely meta or off the rails entirely. The symbolic representations are mostly of the associations and vibes of other symbols. The whole thing seems more like a stream of words, associations and vibes. It sounds like GPT-4.

Level 4: This person thinks that making this statement will advance their interests in some other way, perhaps indirectly.

Note that the Level 4 actor has in an important sense lost the ability to think or plan.

But I think there is a lot more to L4 than what that suggests. My definition would be:

Level 4: You are changing the battlefield so that your preferred future arguments and facts are more easily accepted.

The original post on this topic has the seed of this idea there:

Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

But that was not clear enough for me to understand, which is why I am writing this.

Why is L4 often word salad?

I see why the original Simulacra Levels posts describe L4 as word salad – it often is. This includes the original postmodern texts from where the term "simulacra" itself comes from.

But the fact that you and I perceive it as word salad doesn't mean everybody perceives it as such. Here are two alternative explanations:

It is not meant for you. They are using meta arguments that don't resonate with you. "Militarizing perestroika would be neo-Stalinist!" means nothing to me but that was Gorbachev's said to dismiss reforms he didn't like. Meta arguments depend on you agreeing about certain values (e.g. "neo-Stalinism is bad"). If you lack the necessary context, it doesn't work.

It is incompetent L4 speech. One can be incompetent at all levels of speech, including L4. For example, you can fail at L1, concrete facts, by saying "The Earth is flat because when you reach Antartica you can keep going forever". Maybe what you thought was word salad was incompetent L4 speech (and therefore it merits being labeled "word salad").

We are in L4 right now

The original Simulacra Levels posts, the post I am writing, and everything we say about Simulacra Levels is itself L4 language. By exploring these concepts, we are implicitly changing what kind of future arguments we want to value:

X is a good argument because it lets us see reality as it is and make accurate predictions about the future

Beware of speech patterns Y and Z meant to make you value other types of arguments.

If you like the idea of Simulacra Levels or this post, that simply means that it was effective L4 speech. But I bet many people that started reading this post, have already closed the tab thinking "what kind of word salad was that?!".


  1. Sophie is a long time Stripe. She was behind many important projects like the initial expansion to Asia, setting up the teams that worked on Local Payment Methods, and now works on the core payments platform. I saw her change how people talked multiple times in order to get large goals done.
  2. Another example: a friend who read this post said that in a Catholic non-profit they are familiar with, people will preemptively quote Bible verses that will give them the high ground in the upcoming conversations.