Taboo "rationality," please.

Related on OB: Taboo Your Words

I realize this seems odd on a blog about rationality, but I'd like to strongly suggest that commenters make an effort to avoid using the words "rational," "rationality," or "rationalist" when other phrases will do.  I think we've been stretching the words to cover too much meaning, and it's starting to show.

Here are some suggested substitutions to start you off.

Rationality:

  • truth-seeking
  • probability updates under bayes rule
  • the "winning way"

Rationalist:

  • one who reliably wins
  • one who can reliably be expected to speak truth

Are there any others?

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* one who reliably wins
* one who can reliably be expected to speak truth

Yeah it must have been getting pretty bad if we got to the point that the word could mean two contradictory things. ;-)

A good reason to take this suggestion to heart: The terms "rationality" and "rational" have a strong positive value for most participants here—stronger, I think, than the value we attach to words like "truth-seeking" or "winning." This distorts discussion and argument; we push overhard to assert that things we like or advocate are "rational" in part because it feels good to associate our ideas with the pretty word.

If you particularize the conversation—i.e., you are likely to get more money by one-boxing on Newcomb's problem, or you are likely to hold more accurate beliefs if you update your probability estimates based solely on the disagreement of informed others—than it is less likely that you will grow overattached to particular procedures of analysis that you have previously given an attractive label.

Human psychology is so weird that having correct beliefs actually works against winning reliably. For example, having correct beliefs requires you to make a special effort to seek evidence that your beliefs are wrong, making you less certain than others and therefore less determined.

Re: Are there any others?

Well, yes. Rationality, the way I think of it, isn't about "winning" or "truth-seeking".

If you think of a cybernetic diagram of an organism - like this:

Sensory input -> Computations -> Motor output

...then I think "rationality" needs to be confined to the middle unit. It is a computational process. You might need some motor output in order to be able to detect it - but that isn't part of rationality itself.

Truth-seeking is a goal. It is one goal among the many possible that it is possible to rationally pursue. Rational agents often adopt truth-seeking as a proximate goal - whatever they want to do - but embracing false beliefs is sometimes rational too - it depends on what your goal is.

For me, rationality has a lot to do with the valid use of inductive and deductive reasoning in pursuit of a goal.

I think "probability updates under Bayes' rule" is very clever and highly accurate, and it gets to just what you're talking about. Also, since this thread is trending towards everyone defining (or at least characterizing) rationality for themselves, here goes: rationality is what happens when evidence is recognized by a consciousness, subjected to ordered thought, and used to form or modify beliefs.

That's as close as I can get to "correct" for myself with a few minutes of thought and natural language. It seems to fit with the notion of rationality as a computational process.

I think it's fine to use the terms if you say what you mean by them, and not especially bad to use them even if you don't. We can't define all our terms. Why single those ones out as problematic? More potential for confusion lurks in the words we're not watching as closely.

I will not cease using perfectly good words.

I will, however, ask that people be prepared to define and explain the words when they use them. Words are problematic only when they become empty signifiers, labels attached to nothing.

Words are problematic only when they become empty signifiers, labels attached to nothing.

this is precisely what I'm worried about -- that eventually we'll be using "rationality" to mean "things that LW readers like"

Y'know how we get around that? Insist on definitions. They're still pretty sparse on the ground, here. And the one that's had the most publicity is a very poor match for the generally-accepted meaning of the term.

Normally, people manage to communicate using our informal, muddly, complicated, natural language abilities. Sometimes this breaks down when we're discussing value-laden or highly abstract concepts.

Breaking words down into definitions doesn't solve the problem - the components that you define with need to be communicated, too. This lowest-level communication needs to be informal, non-defined primitives.

Tabooing words reboots the informal process of achieving communication, without the fuss of arguing about whether a definition is correct, or queries about which definition you are using.

"Normally, people manage to communicate using our informal, muddly, complicated, natural language abilities."

I think that, in actuality, they don't. Or rather, they communicate very little: mostly by indicating positions that the listener is already familiar with.

Ever try explaining a truly new idea to someone? With most people, I find that if they don't already have a referent, they simply can't understand, because they're not used to extracting complex information from natural language.

We're in agreement. The position that I was arguing against is something like: "People can't communicate unless they first define their terms." That would be an infinite regress; the only possibility would be that people never manage to communicate.

Okay, I'll accept that.

I offer a restatement: people can't communicate at a complex and abstract level unless their words are first defined in terms of words with already-accepted and -understood meanings.

If I begin to talk about gilxorfibbin without explaining what that is, it's unlikely the context will make it possible for you to know what I'm discussing.

The problem is that definitions are not hierarchical, you never get to the lowest level, because there isn't one. You need to choose a way to the target concept that communicates it as unambiguously as possible. The words spoken by one person guide another on his own map, pointing to the deeper and deeper concepts that require nontrivial arrangements from the words to single out, or even build anew.

Some words are broken, and lead the listener in the swamps. We should avoid these words, and use other healthier landmarks instead. Sometimes it requires a lengthy detour to get around the swamps, but the road is not necessarily any bumpier or conversely more streamlined than what would be expected of the original one.

Words can become less useful when they attach to too much as well as too little. A perfectly drawn map that indicates only the position and exact shape of North America will often be less useful than a less-accurate map that gives the approximate location of its major roads and cities. Similarly, a very clearly drawn map that does not correspond to the territory it describes is useless. So defining terms clearly is only one part of the battle in crafting good arguments; you also need terms that map well onto the actual territory and that do so at a useful level of generality.

The problem with the term "rationality" isn't that no one knows what it means; there seems to be wide agreement on a number of tokens of rational behavior and a number of tokens if irrational behavior. Rather, the problem is that the term is so unspecific and so emotionally loaded that it obstructs rather than furthers discussion.

There was a (tiny) movement about 20 years ago to get people to stop using the word "is". Usually, an "is" renders a judgement while concealing the reasons: "Cindy is sweet. The GPL is stupid and destructive."

I think I can make as good a case for banning "is" as for banning "rationality". And if we should ban "is", what shouldn't we ban? Can you name any words that shouldn't be banned?

Maybe we should just point.

There was a (tiny) movement about 20 years ago to get people to stop using the word "is". Usually, an "is" renders a judgement while concealing the reasons: "Cindy is sweet. The GPL is stupid and destructive."

I think I can make as good a case for banning "is" as for banning "rationality". And if we should ban "is", what shouldn't we ban? Can you name any words that shouldn't be banned?

I find your arguments a bit muddled and confusing: I can make as good a case for banning genocide as I can for banning pleasure (e.g. by making a very poor case in both cases). That doesn't mean I've established that either one should be banned; nor does it mean that I've established that they are equally "ban-worthy"; nor have I established that the reasons for banning one are in any way related with the reasons for banning the other.

It seems like your arguments for banning "is" is that it could be used to "renders a judgement while concealing the reasons". But if people think it's appropriate to render judgment without concealing reasons, then there's no reason to ban "is", correct?

Contrast this with the argument for banning "rational" in that people here are using it to mean different thing, and we're having a lot of confusion due to not knowing which meaning is intended.

Even if we accept that both arguments are equally logically sound, we might choose to ban one without banning the other based on our values (e.g. if we very highly value the non-concealing of reasons, but don't value lack of confusion, we may choose to ban "is" without banning "rational").

Are there any others?

Eliezer's not saying the obvious so I will...

Hitting small targets in large search spaces to produce coherent real-world effects that steer reality into regions that are higher in your preference ordering.

It's still a vital part of being rational, at least in some uses of the word, which is the point of the post - to point out the different meanings people might mean when they use the word.

I think we should be careful of elegant variation, which can be awkward and introduce ambiguity. Rather than simply using sobriquets or synonyms like "truth-seeking", "lucidity", or "ratiocination", we might do better to interrogate each other on what rationality is, and make frequent, almost-repetitive reference to the essentials of rationality. This would work especially well for people with idiosyncratic definitions.

Very good idea. Too many here seem to have idiosyncratic definitions of these terms.

Wouldn't it be better if people with idiosyncratic definitions just made clear what they were?

That's exactly what tabooing "rationality" does--with the added benefit of bringing all definitions out into the open. The conventional definition of rationality should be as explicit as idiosyncratic definitions. Furthermore, people in general are bad at noticing when they have idiosyncratic ideas and tend to assume everyone uses words in the same way they do.

I agree with this point generally but it is difficult to find specific examples because they will be heavily context-dependent. Ratiocinative is one probably underused word, as is lucid.

Rationalist: one who seeks to only have contagious beliefs, that is, beliefs which are tightly correlated/entangled with reality.

Rationalist: one who seeks to only have contagious beliefs, that is, beliefs which are tightly correlated/entangled with reality.

Note that while I agree with Eliezer that "rational beliefs are contagious", I disagree with the claim that "contagious beliefs are rational". See, e.g., religion.

Error reduction?

Probability or possibility pruning?

Parachute venting? (The mechanism for letting hot air out of an air balloon to bring it back to the ground).