site banner

Light Only Comes From Heat

The phrase "light only comes from heat" sounds so judicious. Who wouldn't want a pleasant, decorous argument where everyone respects everyone, no one's feelings are hurt, and plenty of light is generate, but no nasty heat.

Yet, if you think about it, where else does light come from but heat? Things that are very cold give off no light, yet everything that emits light will also be hot. If you don't like heat, you've no desire for light. If you want light, you musk risk heat.

Speaking from my own experience, it is the forceful, honest and clear arguments that have persuaded me, or have at the very least lodged the seed of doubt in my own mind, not those who argue by endlessly trying to flatter me, or search for middle ground, or who pretend to respect my argument more than they actually do.

All truth seekers should expunge this silly cliche from their vocabulary.

I end with the immortal words of John Milton:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat

-13
Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

this is probably an irrelevant tangent, but every time i see "we optimize for light, not heat" i think "isn't that the opposite of what that is supposed to mean?" i don't remember where i first heard the phrase "more light than heat", i thought it was poetry (emily dickenson?), google says it's from hamlet; my initial interpretation is that we're talking about a fire, and trying to keep ourselves warm or cook food, but the fire produces "more light than heat". ie, the "heat" is substantial and useful, the "light" is irrelevant, misleading, empty. but then you have communities like here where "light" means knowledge/insight, and "heat" means passion/emotion.

it's probably too baked into the community's culture at this point, but i'd recommend everyone abandons the metaphor completely.

There are finite resources. That's certainly true if the material universe. Conservation of mass and energy, etc. But in a metaphorical sense, there is similarly a conservation of rhetorical light and heat.

A "hot" statement that comes in strong with jabs against your opponents does little to illuminate them. Metaphorically like a damp torch that burns, but produces little light.

In contrast, an LED light is very bright yet produces little heat. It produces the most light per inputted unit of energy. Perhaps we should be more like an LED light and less like a smoldering damp fire in our attempts to illuminate relevant issues.

To the small degree that an efficient light produces heat, so shall we also produce some incidental heat. But let's not purposefully produce heat knowing that it comes at an unavoidable cost to light.

Have you read the linked article where the phrase comes from?

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/03/framing-for-light-instead-of-heat/

‘Light only comes from heat’ isn’t a Scott Alexander original… Has been around for a long time.

But that’s what the phrase “optimize for light, not heat” is referencing in the sidebar. That’s why it’s linked there.

I've never seen anybody use this phrase here. I don't think it's what people are thinking of with the "less heat, more light" idiom, or if so, it's so metaphorically removed there's no relevance.

You're getting downvoted but I absolutely agree with this. Bravo!

  • -10

I'm getting downvoted but I absolutely agree with my comment. Bravo!

heh, that's actually pretty funny

kind of interesting how fast reddit culture spills over to here

Without the metaphorical trappings I believe the principle is "Make whatever point(s) you may have without acting like an asshole to people even if you think they're wrong, outgroup, of presumable lower IQ, etc."

The problem is some people legitimately cannot fathom why this is necessary, and/or have been acclimated to assholery by years of online interaction, and therefore don't even realize what's happening.

Frankly this rule is one of the reasons I joined this sub (and followed it over here.)

Yes. This is the larger point. So many people trained on sneers and snide snark. They think their anti-productive meanness is actually a good thing.

So a venue that bans discussion-destroying sneers is valuable. Heat is available in hyper-abundance everywhere. Let's have one place where light is selected for.

Yet, if you think about it, where else does light come from but heat? Things that are very cold give off no light, yet everything that emits light will also be hot.

I would observe how over the past few decades we've moved from domestic lighting based off the blackbody radiation of incandescent (hot) filaments to high-efficiency LEDs producing (blue or UV) monochromatic light based on the engineered semiconductor band gap, illuminating carefully designed phosphors to re-radiate pleasant spectra with maximal efficiency. These are much more power efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are observably less hot, even if the light itself will (subtly) warm that which it shines on.

I don't think one can avoid some metaphorical heat (excessive emotional valence) with the light of sober discussion, but we can certainly strive to be more efficient about it.

The "heat" in the sidebar does not refer to "honest and clear arguments," it refers to arguments designed to provoke strong emotions that overwhelm the cold, rational part of our thinking that should have significant sway over our decision-making.

provoke strong emotions that overwhelm the cold, rational part of our thinking

Why are 'emotions' somehow separated from being 'cold and rational'? From evolution, important issues that are serious risks or opportunities should be cases of more "rationality", not less, right? If really is <genocide / degenerate / causing cataclysm>, that can't really be discussed without 'being emotional', yet it's important to address. Indeed, the more important or potentially ruinous or useful a topic, the more 'emotional' it will be, so ... what if the entire 'provoking emotion' thing is sort of a misleading way to try to prevent people from 'having conflicts' or caring too much so everyone can be nice and go about their day? And what do we lose by forgetting what causes those 'emotions'?

Emotions should reveal your preferences, they shouldn't guide your decision making.

I want to stop feeling angry. Anger would drive me to violence, which is usually irrational. The rational part of me controls my mind and tells me to separate myself from the situation.

what if the entire 'provoking emotion' thing is sort of a misleading way to try to prevent people from 'having conflicts' or caring too much so everyone can be nice and go about their day? And what do we lose by forgetting what causes those 'emotions'?

If you think someone is arguing in bad faith, walk away. There is no point in continuing that conversation.

That isn't generally how the phrase is employed. Heat, is not I think a synonym for rhetoric. I cannot think of anyone, save perhaps Noam Chomsky, who is not guilty of employing rhetoric and oratory to appeal to our emotions.

In my own personal experience, both as someone who has engaged in arguments and who enjoys listening to them, "heat not light" is used when someone is forcefully stating an unpopular or unfashionable opinion.

And by the way, why is reason "cold"?

I cannot think of anyone, save perhaps Noam Chomsky, who is not guilty of employing rhetoric and oratory to appeal to our emotions.

I get the rest of your post, but holding up the comical atrocity denier Chomsky is hard to take. He uses a neutral tone and series of seemingly sensible statements to justify his favored brand of horrific crimes against humanity. He was a shill for the Khmer Rouge in opposition to people correctly claiming that they were engaged in horrific mass murder.

Chomsky is the worst sort of apologist for mass murder.

Heat is a general pattern of provoking people. It tries to inflame people so they instinctively fall into old patterns or arrange themselves along tribal lines. It is invariably, deeply emotional.

Decisions and behavior driven by emotions are inherently irrational. There may be a rational argument to support the decision or behavior, but that is an after-the-fact rationalization.

Reason is cold because emotion is hot. They are opposite ends of a spectrum, and that carries through into the culturally accepted metaphor.

And by the way, why is reason "cold"?

In terms of etymology, I believe it's because when you're physiologically aroused (sympathetic nervous system, fight-or-flight) increased bloodflow to the extremities makes your skin warmer - "hot-blooded".

To do something "cold-blooded", therefore, is to do it outside a crisis, with time for forethought - "cold-blooded murder", for instance.

I think you're misunderstanding what "Bring light, not heat" means. Of course discussions can be heated and still productive, and "everyone respects everyone and no one's feelings are hurt" is obviously a ridiculous thing to aspire to.

In TheMotte, this is generally applied to posts that are mostly or only "heat": "My outgroup is soooooo bad!" "You are really stupid." "I would like to vent my spleen about this thing that has outraged me." Etc.

These are rarely "forceful, honest, and clear arguments."