Rapoport’s First Rule and Efficient Reading

Philosopher Daniel Dennett advocates following “Rapoport’s Rules” when writing critical commentary. He summarizes the first of Rapoport’s Rules this way:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

If you’ve read many scientific and philosophical debates, you’re aware that this rule is almost never followed. And in many cases it may be inappropriate, or not worth the cost, to follow it. But for someone like me, who spends a lot of time trying to quickly form initial impressions about the state of various scientific or philosophical debates, it can be incredibly valuable and time-saving to find a writer who follows Rapoport’s First Rule, even if I end up disagreeing with that writer’s conclusions.

One writer who, in my opinion, seems to follow Rapoport’s First Rule unusually well is Dennett’s “arch-nemesis” on the topic of consciousness, the philosopher David Chalmers. Amazingly, even Dennett seems to think that Chalmers embodies Rapoport’s 1st Rule. Dennett writes:

Chalmers manifestly understands the arguments [for and against type-A materialism, which is Dennett’s view]; he has put them as well and as carefully as anybody ever has… he has presented excellent versions of [the arguments for type-A materialism] himself, and failed to convince himself. I do not mind conceding that I could not have done as good a job, let alone a better job, of marshaling the grounds for type-A materialism. So why does he cling like a limpet to his property dualism?

As far as I can tell, Dennett is saying “Thanks, Chalmers, I wish I’d thought of putting the arguments for my view that way.”1

And because of Chalmers’ clarity and fairness, I have found Chalmers’ writings on consciousness to be more efficiently informative than Dennett’s, even though my own current best-guesses about the nature of consciousness are much closer to Dennett’s than to Chalmers’.

Contrast this with what I find to be more typical in the consciousness literature (and in many other literatures), which is for an article’s author(s) to present as many arguments as they can think of for their own view, and downplay or mischaracterize or not-even-mention the arguments against their view.

I’ll describe one example, without naming names. Recently I read two recent papers, each of which had a section discussing the evidence for or against the “cortex-required view,” which is the view that a cortex is required for phenomenal consciousness. (I’ll abbreviate it as “CRV.”)

The pro-CRV paper is written as though it’s a closed case that a cortex is required for consciousness, and it doesn’t cite any of the literature suggesting the opposite. Meanwhile, the anti-CRV paper is written as though it’s a closed case that a cortex isn’t required for consciousness, and it doesn’t cite any literature suggesting that it is required. Their differing passages on CRV cite literally zero of the same sources. Each paper pretends as though the entire body of literature cited by the other paper just doesn’t exist.

If you happened to read only one of these papers, you’d come a way with a very skewed view of the likelihood of the cortex-required view. You might realize how skewed that view is later, but if you’re reading only a few papers on the topic, so that you can form an impression quickly, you might not.

So here’s one tip for digging through some literature quickly: try to find out which expert(s) on that topic, if any, seem to follow Rapoport’s First Rule — even if you don’t find their conclusions compelling.

  1. That said, Dennett might disagree with my claim that Chalmers seems to embody Rapoport’s First Rule in general. And certainly there are consciousness experts who have a different view about Chalmers’ fairness and clarity than I do, e.g. Carruthers & Schier (2014). {}


  1. Gary Basin says

    I’ve thought about this concept off and on, usually when I get the subconscious trigger that I’m reading something that just feels too one-sided and “I wonder what the opposition argument sounds like.” Seems like a detection mechanism could be automated, or maybe just something that crawls concept mentions and citations in literature and maps the space such that you at least know when you are missing a big chunk of it.

  2. Anonymous says

    Also see Chalmer’s compilation “Guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion”

  3. Romeo Stevens says

    I wonder if being the sort of mind that finds constructing this (http://consc.net/taxonomy.html) to be interesting is causally related to the skill you mention. I was surprised when I stumbled upon this and then realized it was a project of Chalmers’.

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