I’ve long been bothered by impediments to good-faith inquiry and difficulty of accurate information transmission. Positions seem disadvantaged by candor and sophistication. This tempts disillusionment, carelessness, and manipulativeness.
While some difficulties are inescapable, I’ve begun to feel that many are created or nurtured by outdated expectations and tools we bring to discourse. I am not yet confident that my thoughts coalesce into a coherent and achievable alternative, but they feel far enough along to attempt relaying.
I’ll start by briefly expanding on annoyances driving this. Next, I’ll diagnose the problem and sketch elements of the solution. Then, I’ll discuss components of implementation. I’ll conclude by touching on difficulties and objections. Finally, in an addendum, I’ll list potentially compatible efforts and tools.
If you approach complaints, requests, demands, suggestions, and pleas with an open mind you’ll look for truth and coherence in them. If you also approach them with compassion and optimism you’ll want aid them. If integrity is important, you’ll attempt to adjust personal and institutional action hierarchies to incorporate resulting truths, constraints, and goals. With enough effort and sacrifice you might make progress and feel more confident, driven, virtuous, and wise.
But each new request adds facts, constraints, and desires that make integration with previously assimilated requests increasingly difficult. Eventually, even the most resourceful and determined will relent and admit that demands cannot be reconciled. Desires, axioms, and constraints of independently reasonable requests conflict with each other; to make progress, one has to choose.
Such conflicts are too fundamental to be confined to overtly incompatible positions. Ostensibly sensible combinations of requests and positions hide incoherence. Usually, inconsistencies simply aren’t sought. Sometimes, they are obscured by seemingly innocuous justifications.1As W. V. Quine argued in Two Dogmas of Empiricism: “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.” Occasionally, consistency itself is downplayed. In one way or another, positions often end up depending on premises that are trivialized, denied, or disproved elsewhere.
Or maybe it just seems that way. Maybe there is misunderstanding rather than negligence, ignorance, or hypocrisy. After all, no one knows all the truths and constraints we are trying to balance. No one knows the amount of effort we’ve put into coherence or the sacrifices we’ve made to accommodate requests of others. No one understands the precise problem we are trying to solve. Perhaps, not even ourselves. Of course, no one knows all the mistakes we’ve made either.
But whether incoherence is real or imagined, it must be untangled to approach truth. Unfortunately, the responsible axioms and connections hide well.
Even with good faith, we talk past each other because we are solving different problems. We misunderstand because these problems aren’t adequately defined. We make logical errors because the same challenges apply within ourselves.
Repetitiveness and Verbosity
There is little new under the sun. Attempts to explain, prove, and understand involve an overwhelming amount of duplication. This duplication makes continued engagement difficult. Positions become cliches. Arguments become strawmen. Inquiries become annoyances. Adversaries become contemptible.
But careful attention, steelmanning, and avoidance of platitudes just leads to complex prose that duplicates in unique, verbose, error-prone ways. Instead of glossing over with compression and simplification, it obscures with volume and nuance. Instead of being countered with opposing platitudes, it gets countered with misunderstanding and pedantry.
To make progress, we need to discuss the same axiom or connection. Showcasing knowledge elsewhere just encourages more sophisticated talking past each other. And proving such knowledge only further endangers focus and inflates effort.
There are good reasons for quality content to retrace territory. It validates author’s understanding of the subject and of their interlocutor’s arguments. It makes the material a more complete work that can stand alone. It makes the subject more accessible to curious bystanders.
But reasons like these come from a time when knowledge was precious and difficult to access. They make less sense in a world of online resources, cheap publishing, and volumes of content optimized for every conceivable audience. Yet publications continue to retrace enough territory to bury their core point. Indeed, resulting discussion rarely ends up centered on anything likely to have been one.
Difficulty of Making Progress
Incoherence, repetitiveness, and verbosity wouldn’t be so bad if language was precise: we could retrace the argument with a bit of effort. Unfortunately, it is anything but.
Every sentence brings a possibility of mistaken construction or interpretation. Every simplification, metaphor, or example can be confused for the point itself or questioned on its accuracy and relevance. Possible interpretations multiply with every statement, repetition, ambiguity, and mistake.
Nor would it be so bad if we had perfect recall: we could return to potential conflicts together with context and when we did resolve issues, we’d remember how we did it. Unfortunately, all we get is a faint intuition of inconsistency.
It takes much error-prone effort to approach the state where we formed connections that now appear suspect. And we remain uncertain of its differences from the original. This can be true even within the confines of a conversation and only worsens with time. We progress by turning solutions into magic and the process is rarely reversible. Even when our magic is a result of exhaustive inquiry, after a enough time we might only be able to stare blankly at an interlocutor who questions it.
Positions as Computer Programs
Positions are comparable to computer programs: they encode beliefs into systems that provide answers to questions posed by incoming data. Like computer programs they are susceptible to flaws: from invalid assumptions to logical errors, from misprocessed input to unclear output. And computer programs demonstrate just how large, delicate, and complex the task of making positions explicit is.
But while software engineering has evolved to reduce the burden and risk, argumentation remains barely at punch cards. We continue to interact with positions through ancient approaches despite availability of modern resources, despite the variety and intricacy of modern positions, despite them arguably encoding more information than complex programs.
It is terrifying to imagine modern software without code reuse, side-effect management, automated testing, version control, interactive debugging. Every line of code in every program written from scratch: referencing the work of others, but always reinterpreting and rewriting it in unique ways. Haphazard jumps between program areas being modified. Little verification that changes leave working code. Loose, if any, tracking of the logic behind, or the content of, such jumps and changes. Limited ability to deterministically trace through running code.
Argumentation is worse than even that. It’s like we try to modify the same code base, but all insist on using separate evolving languages to implement different goals based on distinct assumptions while presuming that our beliefs and intentions are too obvious to be misunderstood. And we all feel entitled to change other people’s code at will. Incoherence, misunderstanding, repetitiveness, verbosity, and disillusionment indeed.
Essence of the Issue
The core of the problem is that we don’t store positions in an accessible manner. We develop them through a messy combination of reading, experience, thought, and interaction. Then we turn them into inaccessible magic or relay them using error-prone communication.
Original beliefs and goals become fuzzy. The ‘aha’ moments and their supporting circumstances – so crucial to the path we end up taking – lose their clarity. We feel evermore compelled to explain, but rarely end up feeling more understood. And we can’t truly understand positions of others without going through a painstaking, unique, error-prone process comparable to theirs.
Which is stupefying and infuriating because while the specific hierarchy of axioms, constraints, and goals that drives our action and understanding is highly individual, perhaps even unique, few, if any, of the parts are. Nearly every component has been extensively argued, researched, and experimented with. Each has been subdivided into nearly every possible set of coherent axioms, trade-offs, and conclusions. Many of these sets have been named. We should be able to build our positions simply by selecting canonical versions of components that match our beliefs.
The components aren’t beyond doubt or improvement. But as with code libraries and the DRY programming principle, we should reserve unique explanations and proofs for integrations, deviations, and extensions where we hope to add value. We should not attempt them unnecessarily en route to somewhere else.
The good news is that the work humanity has done over thousands of years to discover, cohere, elaborate, and name these different components is readily accessible. The bad news is that it is accessible in written form with all its imperfections. And many people have generated many words interpreting, reinterpreting, clarifying, embellishing, and confusing these positions so we can’t trust that use of same terms describes the same underlying beliefs.
Canonical positions exist, yet can’t easily be found. We add volumes of prose to explain ourselves. This only buries canonical positions deeper.
The issue isn’t primarily that of authority. From Wikipedia to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy we have accessible and trustworthy-enough sources that attempt to catalogue the world’s knowledge: that is, to describe, defend, and connect canonical positions. But they only end up being summarized, misunderstood, and reinterpreted like all the rest. I believe this fate awaits every text. What blocks modern discourse are focus and format more than content.
Arguments ultimately consist of four things:
- Evidence validating the premises
- Deductions connecting premises to conclusions
- Clarity and forcefulness of communication
Conflict between the relative importance of evidence and logic on one side and presentation on the other has existed for millennia. But with increasingly obsessive focus on these, we seem to have lost sight that premises are the essence of positions. To have your premises understood is to be understood. The content is overwhelmingly within them.
To engage in truth-seeking communication we must be clear on the premises before we question the evidence or deductions, before we apply rhetorical flair. Furthermore, imperfections in evidence, logic, or presentation do not necessarily invalidate the beliefs themselves – kind of like the quality of an attorney does not affect the underlying truth even when it changes the outcome of a case.
Our conclusions rely on premises. And our premises rely on evidence. But evidence itself relies on lower-level premises. While many premises are indeed disprovable, at the bottom of all premises lies belief. We cannot hope for a completely objective hierarchy. But we can attempt to accurately pinpoint the underlying beliefs.
Ideal formatting of positions focuses on the premises. It makes underlying beliefs accessible. It connects them to accepted evidence and chosen trade-offs. It traces a path to them from conclusions and constraints. It is naturally a graph and a database, not a description or a narrative.
For the premises to remain obvious, presentation must be concise and visual: like a diagram or an outline. The why and how, the evidence and counter-arguments, the alternatives and constraints should only present themselves when inquiry reaches their level. They must not overwhelm the axioms.
Argument structure is largely hierarchical. Each premise is an input into higher-level premises and a conclusion of lower-level premises all the way down to fundamental beliefs. Each node hides a hierarchy. These sub-hierarchies must be accessible when desired without distracting the rest of the time: as with expandable tree nodes or outline points.
Of course, positions aren’t pure hierarchies. They are graphs where premises and conclusions are shared among nodes. A fundamental belief can be a relevant premise to our positions on many levels and for many topics. To show correct connections the interface must be much more intelligent than that of a hierarchical diagram or outline.
The immediate benefit of such presentation is enabling focus on the right level when thinking or conversing. But to facilitate it, positions need to be defined by connected sets of premises rather described by prose. This structure brings other benefits.
Explicit definitions enable canonical positions to be used much like software libraries: large portions of action hierarchies can be built from trustworthy components without maintaining expertise in each piece.
An inference engine can validate that conclusions follow from premises eliminating much unnecessary debate over logic. It can find contradictions in seemingly unrelated positions or confirm that potential adjustments are coherent, again eliminating discourse that adds little value. It can identify areas impacted by changes to beliefs and canonical positions, easing restoration of coherence undermined by updated models.
Accessible, structured positions can free us from effort that duplicates rather than advances. We could finally focus on areas that actually lead to progress: improvement, discovery, and definition of canonical positions; connection of them in novel ways; and implementation of their conclusions to improve action, validate positions, and generate new hypotheses. Much like software libraries, they would unleash generativity.
Accessible, structured storage doesn’t just enhance understanding and advancement of positions, but preserves the history of such advancement. It leaves a natural trail, much like version control, and makes it easy to identify arguments or experiences that forced adjustments.
Similarly, and no less importantly, it enables understanding and advancement of ourselves. The traditional way to preserve growth in individual thinking has been to keep a journal, but this is both difficult enough that few persist and susceptible to the inaccuracy and inaccessibility of prose.
The product of this growth is an ever-improving, accessible presentation backed by canonical arguments and contextualized by belief-changing experiences: a memoir of us and a manual to our beliefs.
Arguments and Positions
Argument and position are distinct terms, but so intimately connected, and in many instances interchangeable, that I sometimes struggle with which to use. In conventional argumentation terminology, a position is the conclusion defended by argument.
For me, a position is a set of beliefs more than a conclusion. Conclusions do embody belief sets. And those beliefs are defended, connected, and extended with arguments. But while the objective of an argument is to answer a question, the objective of a position is to define a belief set.
Positions usually include multiple, possibly unconnected, hierarchies of arguments and embody a larger set of beliefs than is necessary for any specific conclusion. They demand consistency over time and events while arguments are only concerned with truth and coherence within the scope of the question.
Positions are thus more a property of agents than of questions. Although they can provide answers and be defended objectively, their integrity is ultimately inseparable from the history of agent’s actions. Arguments, on the other hand, remain objectively valid even if agents deploy contradictory premises elsewhere. And connected premises unemployed by the argument are externalities irrelevant to correctness.2Minimally consistent (MINCON) arguments are, in fact, encouraged.
Arguments focus on inferences, choices, and evidence that defend conclusions with premises while positions focus on exposing and cohering the baggage of premises that conclusions bring.
Premises-centered communication is about positions.
The distinction between arguments and positions causes disconnect in conversations about debate. While many are concerned with barriers to the flow of arguments and opinions, I believe the main impediment to truth-seeking debate are insufficiently developed and transparent positions.
These positions don’t have to be complete, deterministic, or indisputable to be useful. Premises rooted in stipulations, probabilities, pragmatic trade-offs, or faith have their place. But such premises still create commitments, force commensurably lower confidence, and raise the threshold for dismissing similarly imprecise positions of others.
Explicit positions incentivize clarity, consistency, care, and improvement. Only interlocutors with them have much chance to advance cohering debate.
Accessibility and engagement can provide a survey of popular opinion, enlighten brainstorming, and perform valuable devil’s advocate-type stress-testing. But it is so easy to make premises without sufficient constraints outside the argument powerful that they are of limited use in pursuit of truth.
Adequately defined positions make much debate unnecessary. Sufficiently explicit positions enable computerized evaluation and merging. Abuse, confusion, and frustration fade when agents are tied to comprehensive positions.
The Manual of You
Difficulties aren’t limited to debates about wicked problems or complex philosophy. Every project entails development of coherent positions and management of repetitive inquiries. Product manuals, group policies, FAQs, quotes, blog posts, and books attempt answers. Service inquiries, forum threads, blog comments, and social media rants challenge them.
Such requests are overwhelmingly, but not entirely, repetitive. They occasionally center on legitimate flaws, correctable ambiguities, or coherent alternatives. But usually they are driven by brash ignorance, laziness, or entitlement prompting formulaic responses, passive-aggressiveness, and anguished cries to RTFM.
Similarly, when someone expresses concerns or offers solutions akin to “x, but without y” they’ve occasionally understood the constraints, thought through the consequences, and are presenting a coherent alternative. But usually they are just saying “I like x” and “I don’t like y.” There is no reliable method to tell from the inquiry itself and assuming either invites expensive failures.
If you surprise me with with a claim, I don’t want to choose between taking you at your word; assuming you are overconfident or self-centered; or trying a time-consuming, triggering-prone, improbable, and highly perishable task of merging action hierarchies with a single person. I want to see how you square that circle. I want to read the manual of you.
Position graphs are such manuals. They showcase sophistication of underlying thoughts, identify levels for productive conversation, and help agents reach stronger positions over time.
They enable the owner – who has maximal information, experience, and incentive – to bring accurate position state to discourse rather than placing the burden of fumbling in the dark to generate it anew on the lap of each interlocutor.
There are many aspects to advancing this vision: from alteration of common assumptions and craft standards to development of new tools and rethinking of existing ones. Fortunately, changes don’t have to come together or be implemented perfectly to aid progress and work is already proceeding in a compatible direction.
In writing we need to renew emphasis on premises and conclusions, create more modular text, and integrate visualization of content’s structure with the text.
On a basic level, clarity of premises and conclusions is par course of standard, albeit simplistic, advice on structuring paragraphs with topic and concluding sentences and essays with clear thesis and concluding paragraphs.
On a deeper level, evidence, arguments, anecdotes, metaphors, examples, and narrative have overshadowed premises, beliefs, and conclusions. In a world soaked with homogeneous superstitions countered by fledgeling faith in objective truth, this was progress. In a world soaked with contradictory evidence and opinion fueled by limitations of this faith, it is a distraction. Beliefs underlie all positions and premises must be understood before evidence can matter or rhetorical tools can be honorably deployed.
A simple way to emphasize is to remove as much of everything else as possible. Instead of restating or summarizing supporting arguments, evidence, positions, and examples writing should move towards referencing them. But less with copious bibliographies and footnotes found in academic books and more with inline links.
Academic books attempt to be self-contained works where the author covers territory in their own words. References credit influences, validate content, and provide paths to additional research whereas links naturally abstract details better covered elsewhere and encourage focus on unique contributions.
Linking generates more modular text than copying or retelling. Modules, libraries, functions, objects, and similar abstractions have long been used in programming to avoid duplication, reduce mistakes, aid clarity, manage complexity, and enable progress by specialization. It’s time for writing to do the same.
Modular writing creates text that is intended for integration with other text. It picks a narrow, linkable thesis, covers it well, and resists tempting tangents. Modules provide authoritative and clear answers to precise questions. They define a position, support a premise, provide an example, defend a claim. They link to modules needed for their goal and are linked to by modules that need them. They can theoretically combine to make an entire action hierarchy explicit.
Linkable modules naturally lend themselves to visualization with graphs, flowcharts, outlines.
Such visualizations can be intimately integrated with the text, especially in electronic mediums. Breadcrumbs can show reader’s path through content. A map of neighboring connections can appear next to the paragraph. Dependencies, like low-level axioms and important conclusions, can be presented in context.
But visualizations can clarify, connect, and expose not only content, but structure. With suitable tools, authors could encode premises and core ideas, topic sentences and conclusions, arguments and evidence. This metadata can help separate structure, content, and presentation. Readers could then hide, arrange, and format text to focus on specifics they need. And essentials could be visually distinguished from supporting text that has not, or cannot, be replaced by references.
Although electronic medium offers the most exciting possibilities, once structural information has been identified, it can also be used to clarify print with formatting, indexing, and supplements. There is much room to improve clarity of printed text if we accept the primacy of premises.3For example, Deirdre McCloskey brilliantly took the idea of topic sentences to its extreme in Bourgeois Equality. Each chapter is titled with a topic sentence to aid orienting. Furthermore, the sentences are structured such that the table of contents can be read as her argument.
Visualization needs to become a commonplace way to summarize content, model it, and engage with it in a structured manner. Visualizations need to allow interactive changes to focus and detail level, handle relationships that aren’t linear or hierarchical, link components with resources, and be searchable.
The primary purpose of visualization is to reduce content to its essentials and enable navigation. But what is essential depends on whether the focus is on what is believed, on why it is deemed important to believe, or on what justifies the belief. With a static medium like paper, this demands constraining context. Electronic mediums can achieve this goal with dynamic changes to detail level, focal point, and presentation format. They can produce visualizations that are as simple as possible, but not simpler: that neither overwhelm with the unnecessary nor omit the essential.
Zoomed out views and more linear perspectives can highlight the general structure or major components of the argument. Selecting a component can reveal details while restricting display to nearby goals and dependencies. Repetitive zooming can illuminate system function down to fundamental premises and supporting evidence. Zooming out can remind why each level is important.
Visualization not only aids understanding and discovery, but helps recovery from level changes. Dives into evidence or implementation details, climbs to goals or connections, and digressions into examples or general principles can be undertaken with less fear of getting lost: visualization can track and bookmark, leaving a thread to bring one out of the labyrinth.
Some visualization formats, like mind maps and outlines, are designed for hierarchical relationships and cannot accommodate non-linear connections. This restriction may be optimal for modeling linear processes like writing. It may aid clarity. Or it may be necessitated by interfaces that can’t emphasize connections effectively. But it is too limiting for general presentation of content. Visualization tools need to advance to enable a variety of connections while maintaining clarity.
Visualization components also need the capacity to reference information outside the presentation. Nodes might reference content that they summarize such as definitions, evidence, a section of content, another visualization, or the underlying position graph. Edges might reference relationship details such as type, evidence, or the underlying argument graph. This not only makes the visualization more useful for understanding, but enhances its role in content navigation.
Finally, the ability to search is important for large presentations to minimize duplication during entry and find indirectly connected content.
A focus on premises benefits greatly from premises-centered knowledge representation. Visualization demands may guide data storage design as much as presentation. But regardless of implementation, information storage needs to aid visualization and its integration with content, be accessible to computer programs, and enable sharing and interoperability.
Structured data allows programs that not only generate visualizations, but verify logic. Programs that can validate integrity of positions after changes, simulate scenarios, or perform updates to incorporate new evidence or changed beliefs.
And structured data enables sharing of information. To advance, we need the ability to reference and integrate portions of other positions. Even if formats are different, structured data enables a degree of integration that slows the tide of duplication.
Finally, we need to locate canonical positions, arguments, and examples; convert them into premises-centered, visualization-friendly, interoperable formats; and create accessible repositories enabling them to be found and referenced.
It feels too ambitious to be possible, but then so would a regular dictionary. Yet early versions were often completed by a single person and repeatedly expanded upon by motivated individuals – all without computers and online resources.
We have the benefit of many canonical positions being more or less refined and defined in resources like Wikipedia, with some already supplemented by limited structured data. We can begin by formalizing fundamental positions from fields like sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy.
We also have formal ontologies for many specialized domains thanks to machine learning projects. We can connect, extend, and refactor these towards the goal of a unified dictionary.
Argument maps are already used to structure debates and formalize arguments. They can coalesce into valuable dictionary entries despite remaining one step removed from foundations of disagreement by being argument-focused.
We can also attack the problem from the other direction by attempting to create position graphs for ourselves and our opponents in everyday debates. The double crux approach can help. The process illuminates and traverses interlocutors’ position graphs even when it terminates in disagreement over unfalsifiable beliefs instead of converging on a shared, testable hypothesis.
Finally, we can extract metaphors and examples into their own dictionary entries.
Eventually, portions of imprecise personal positions will connect to formalized foundations and become more expansive and solid. With time, comprehensive positions will emerge that connect foundational premises to everyday conclusions with canonical arguments, clarify them with canonical examples, and represent them by canonical graphs.
The task is overwhelming, but progress can be made if we accept a more modest goal than perfection: the goal of making future movement in this direction easier. Each fundamental position that is formalized is a gain. Every specialized ontology and improvement to ontology generation pushes us forward. Each piece of content that is refactored towards modularity helps. Every development in manuals of us is progress.
Chicken and Egg
Formalization and visualization are difficult and time consuming. And they are likely to end up ignored, outdated, or forgotten. It is hard to justify working on them without tools and repositories that lower barriers, enable accessibility, and assure relevance.
Tools exist for formal argumentation, concept and mind mapping, collaboration, personal information management, data storage, modeling and visualization, requirements management, modularized content, computerized interchange, ontology engineering, machine reasoning, and more. But such tools get built to serve specialized needs. While they implement parts of the puzzle, I haven’t yet found a combination that makes adding structured content obviously worthwhile.4See addendum for more on tools and promising efforts.
So we are in a classic predicament. It isn’t worthwhile to add content without the tools, there isn’t enough demand to make the tools worth building, and to grow demand we need more content.
Fortunately, perfect tools aren’t necessary to prime the pump. It may well be that such tools aren’t possible. What is necessary is the ability to input essential relationships and export them in a sensible format. We need confidence that our efforts produce something extensible and will not be lost.
Challenges and Objections
A major problem with this approach is effort it adds and competence it demands. But questions would remain even if tools eliminated such burdens.
There are challenges to the feasibility of the approach:
Can argument and position graphs encode the content? Can challenges of duplication and clarity be solved across massive ontologies? Natural language is not just less precise, but more expressive than formal logic and explicit ontology.
Can compartmentalization of pathos, ethos, and logos be effective? Can structured arguments and positions be understood and accepted? Can sufficient respect for tacit knowledge be retained? Formalization takes non-fiction to its extreme while fiction has a long history of successfully relaying complex concepts.
Can repositories be trusted? Can positions be reliably tied to agents? Can reputation be maintained? Can positions be safely exposed despite the power they grant competitors?
And then there are objections to its desirability:
Interactions are oiled with ambiguity. Compromises depend on inconsistency. Information diffusion and asymmetry have advantages. Constraints limit participation and hurt creativity. “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Explicit positions stifle appreciative, exploratory, connecting conversation. They endanger dignity and agency of people without such positions. They constrain optionality and competitiveness.
But as valid as such concerns are, they aren’t ultimately about the feasibility or desirability of the approach. They are challenges and objections to cohering itself. The dictionary only seeks to advance what cohering communication has always attempted to do. It is as possible, desirable, risky, and separable from conquering and connecting concerns as cohering itself.
Addendum: Tools, Efforts, Resources
Existing tools and efforts help make abstract ideas concrete, offer insights into challenges and possibilities, connect and motivate similarly-minded people, minimize duplication, and encourage action. Although it was tempting to integrate examples into the main text, they don’t all fit neatly and are too likely to become outdated. Instead, I’ve consolidated research on tools and efforts into this addendum which can be separately updated.
I have not yet found tools that make creating dictionary entries obviously worthwhile. But I found many that are tantalizingly close in some respects. And I was delighted to discover a number of projects pursuing broadly similar goals.
At minimum, I want tools to:
- Provide a way to link to every node and edge on the graph both from within the graph and outside of it. Basically, each component should have its own url.
- Every component must allow outbound links to resources like sources, details, expanded sub-hierarchy, related graph nodes. Internal note/wiki-style details are OK, but links to external info remain essential.5This makes link rot management an important subproblem.
- Optimized for name and/or type of the component being at most a sentence and often a word with details delegated to linked resources and connections.
- Axiom nodes without lower level premises should specify their final justification which may include concepts like axiomatic belief or stipulation or not yet researched along with actual types of evidence.6See Basis Boxes in Rationale argument mapping software for an example.
- Be able to export content and connections in a reasonable format.
This doesn’t seem too difficult. Many projects are based on sympathetic ideas and many tools have promising feature sets: from wiki software to the web itself, from concept mapping7Compare to argument and mind maps and topic maps to public debating, from ontology editors to argumentation software, from personal knowledge bases to the semantic web.
Yet I couldn’t quite find an obvious hit; each tool I looked at was missing something important. Granted, my search was guided by imprecise intuition rather than a clearly thought-through design. I likely over-optimized for having a single tool that does everything and obliges my preferences. Furthermore, specialized tools require domain knowledge for proper evaluation. Several tools became more promising after I understood them better.
So I would not be surprised if a solution can be assembled from existing tools – or even if a perfect tool already exists – and I just lack the vision or expertise to see it.
Wikis – with their automatic CamelCase linking, backlinks, tagging, and history – are so optimized around modular, interconnected content that I keep trying to find ways to shoehorn wiki software into a solution. They tend to have inadequate support for structuring connections, lack visualization tools, and don’t bias enough against long pages and verbose prose.
TiddlyWiki is a standout exception, with its emphasis on the smallest viable piece of content rather than on a page.8TiddlyWiki also emphasizes being a standalone server-less application which causes more confusion than benefit for our purposes. However, they now support running on a server. TiddlyMap adds connection management and graphical functionality using vis.js. It is a small project with limited ability to link from edges or export though being open source makes these limitations bearable.
The veteran MediaWiki may also be workable thanks to its mature ecosystem and wealth of extensions including ones for graphing and semantic data.
TheBrain information manager offers excellent visualization, search, and navigation. See their tutorial videos for beautiful examples of context-dependent presentation. It is weaker in handling non-hierarchical relationships, offers limited – though improving – export options, and is closed source.
DebateGraph is much better thought-through,9Their design metaphor of a cross-linked forest of individual argument trees is apt, to pick a small example. comprehensive, and sophisticated than it may initially appear as evidenced by the variety of presentation formats and extensive choice of link types. The main issues are lack of export, closed source, and a somewhat clunky interface.
There are a number of other argument mapping solutions. Most are academic prototypes for various formal argumentation frameworks. Many are focused on teaching critical thinking. Some were developed especially for argumentative fields like law. They tend to have limited, if any, ability to integrate external content and the argument graph: the argument is the content. Some, like Carneades, offer a window into research on low-level argumentation and the challenges of implementing it. Several, like Argunet and Rationale, have good help sections for understanding argument mapping.
There are also several less formal solutions focused on taming chaotic discussions including MIT Deliberatorium (defunct), Canonizer (defunct), TruthMapping, and Kialo.
And there are numerous efforts to help distill positions in prose such as r/NeutralPolitics, r/changemyview, and r/steelmanning subreddits; neutral point of view guidelines; and blogs/communities like Slate Star Codex.
Several efforts that broadly align with ideas in this post exist, or have existed:
- ARG-tech has several promising prototype-quality argument web projects, including a database of arguments, interchange format to convert arguments between software packages, and a tool to generate argument maps from text.
- Canonical Debate Lab is a nascent group uniting several complimentary projects and covering territory excitingly similar to this post in their discussions.
- Compendium was an implementation of IBIS that is no longer actively developed, but is available as open source.
- LessWrong has reviewed and considered development of tools to improve debate.
- MappingControversies (defunct) was an ambitious project initiated by Bruno Latour.
- WikiLogic Foundation looks promising, but does not appear to have made much progress lately. Their wiki has a review of other solutions.
It is noteworthy how many efforts are shut down or abandoned. I think the lesson is to prepare for thanklessness and cut scope to something minimally viable. For me, this is being able to record positions in a format that can be exported and improved upon.
A project that stands out for its ambition and perseverance is Cyc. Since 1984 they have been codifying the human web of belief to bootstrap artificial intelligence – substantially by hand. The result looks impressive: a deep knowledge base backed by a comprehensive ontology along with tools for ontology development and inference. It offers great insight into the challenges and possibilities of projects similar to the Dictionary of Arguments and Positions. Cyc is even more ambitious, but it seems likely that their knowledge and tools can be repurposed for dictionary creation.
There are other pertinent, though less striking, AI and semantic web efforts. Wikidata and DBPedia attempt to extract structured data from Wikipedia. FreeBase (discontinued) tried to crowdsource its creation. Many tools exist to aid ontology creation and there are databases of existing ontologies.
There are considerable gaps between low-level tools such as those for formal argumentation and knowledge representation and high-level ones like DebateGraph and TheBrain. From my layman perspective, the gaps seem more a result of different specialization than fundamental incompatibility and could be bridged with time. Or perhaps full bridging isn’t necessary for interoperability, much like it isn’t necessary for lower-level software libraries to be written with languages or methods understandable to higher-level users. Perhaps they just need an API.
|↑1||As W. V. Quine argued in Two Dogmas of Empiricism: “Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.”|
|↑2||Minimally consistent (MINCON) arguments are, in fact, encouraged.|
|↑3||For example, Deirdre McCloskey brilliantly took the idea of topic sentences to its extreme in Bourgeois Equality. Each chapter is titled with a topic sentence to aid orienting. Furthermore, the sentences are structured such that the table of contents can be read as her argument.|
|↑4||See addendum for more on tools and promising efforts.|
|↑5||This makes link rot management an important subproblem.|
|↑6||See Basis Boxes in Rationale argument mapping software for an example.|
|↑7||Compare to argument and mind maps and topic maps|
|↑8||TiddlyWiki also emphasizes being a standalone server-less application which causes more confusion than benefit for our purposes. However, they now support running on a server.|
|↑9||Their design metaphor of a cross-linked forest of individual argument trees is apt, to pick a small example.|