(I instructed at three Atlas Fellowship summer programs, but this post is written in a personal capacity)
Of the principles, flags, cultural pillars, opening session tips, and tidbit-sized lessons I heard (and delivered) at the three Atlas Fellowship summer programs I worked at, here were my two personal favorites:
Big if True
During the program, the instructors sometimes described the content as guided by what’s “big if true”, to point to what’s most interesting and valuable to talk and learn about.
“Big if True” tries to separate the processing of novel-to-you, potentially-wild-sounding things - e.g. AGI, nanotech, the decline of democracy - into two stages:
- what would it mean for it to be true / how you would act differently if it were true
- evaluating whether it’s true.
What I like about it:
The two stage process explicitly flags that we haven’t yet figured out if the idea or claim is reasonable or true, and nonetheless lets the conversation continue, ideally creating a space for curiosity, playing around with the ideas and deciding how important exactly it would be if true, while still noting that we have work left to do.
For me, it also hints that there must be many such Big If True ideas out there and pushes me to think of more, and a bit it gives me a push to just spend more of time thinking about things that are going to matter and that a hundred or a thousand or more years from now we’ll be glad we were talking about. (I think the instructors’ goal in presenting this at the program was to have more of this latter feeling than I feel left with, a few months later, but writing this is a nice reminder that I’d like to find more opportunities for marinating in the long view).
This seems great for having a playful, exploratory attitude to the world, and noticing that there is so much that could be different, if we decided it should be, or even just if we wait a few decades or centuries. It also sets a tone similar to engaging with the Least Convenient Possible World, not squirming away from things just because they’re strange or sound fantastical.
What’s more complicated:
It ports in a lot under “how big” and “how true” - Christianity is also Big if True, but wasn’t likely enough to be true that I or I would guess most of the instructor staff would have included it in the Atlas curriculum (it's also not our comparative advantage for the most part, but that's a different point).
It also implicitly advocates for engaging with ideas in the order “consequences if true” then “true”, which I think it’s reasonable to object to, and it sort of gives someone else the power to decide when it’s “ok” to start evaluating for truth.
If using this frame, I want to be sure to be transparent about whether I have an opinion on the “true” part of “big if true”, or else I suspect I risk people feeling tricked. If I’m inviting someone into a “we don’t know if microplastics are bad, but we should figure out what to do if they are” space, I want to be clear about whether I in fact think microplastics are bad, which seems very doable!
I also worry it lives in tension with “take ideas seriously” - in general it came up in several conversations this summer that the mode of “intellectual playfulness, thought experiments, etc”, an excellent mode for generativity and exploration, was different than the mode of “how does this actually affect my life, how do I see things in near mode, etc”, and you might need to flag for yourself when you want to do which one and be able to switch (or maybe there’s a better synthesis possible).
There’s potentially also another necessary puzzle piece of “ok, now what’s actually true, what are our current key uncertainties, how do we go find out.” But it’s ok for one phrase not to communicate every possible necessary thing, that’s why you have:
(thanks to Max Harms for this, though I might describe what’s going on with it differently to how he would)
Or lenses, or paradigms, the frames frame invites a third option beyond “yes” or “no” but “let me pick this up for now and see what I can see with it.” Picking up a frame looks like “if I start to notice where I feel like I have agency and where I don’t, what might I do differently?” or “does thinking about things in terms of conflict theory and mistake theory make a bunch of things click into place, or does it feel pretty meh and categorizing things on that axis isn’t how I want to spend my intellectual time?”
As someone who finds totalizingness epistemically constricting, I really like the non-pressuriness of the frames frame, the feeling that I can always put down the frame if it’s not working for me. I have a resistance to worldviews I think will take me over, but if I can go in knowing that I’m always “allowed” to drop it later, I’ll be more open to more ideas.
Even more than “big if true”, it points at a collector’s mindset, rodenting your way through the world of ideas and hoarding different frames, more than you can possibly carry, to take back home with you and sort through and put your favorite ones on the wall.
A main way in which I’d like my epistemics to get better is to have more consistent access to more frames, to have the lenses of psychology AND economics AND history AND rationality AND AND AND come to mind equally quickly and easily to dissect what Putin will do next or whether value lock in is likely.
I think frames framing has some of the same downsides as Big if True, but is more robustly good, more of a bid than a prescription, and I’ve been using it consistently since I heard it, and even recommending it to others.
A list of other conversational moves I like for epistemics