On Seeking a Shortening of the Way

"The most instructive experiences are those of everyday life."  - Friedrich Nietzsche

What is it that the readers of lesswrong are looking for?  One claim that's been repeated frequently is that we're looking for rationality tricks, shortcuts and clever methods for being rational.  Problem is:  there aren't any.

People generally want novelty and gimmicks.  They're exciting and interesting!  Useful advice tends to be dull, tedious, and familiar.  We've heard it all before, and it sounded like a lot of hard work and self-discipline.  If we want to lose weight, we don't do the sensible and quite difficult thing and eat a balanced diet while increasing our levels of exercise.  We try fad diets and eat nothing but grapefruits for a week, or we gorge ourselves on meats and abhor carbohydrates so that our metabolisms malfunction.  We lose weight that way, so clearly it's just as good as exercising and eating properly, right?

We cite Zen stories but don't take the time and effort to research their contexts, while at the same time sniggering a the actual beliefs inherent in that system.  We wax rhapsodic about psychedelics and dismiss the value of everyday experiences as trivial - and handwave away praise of the mundane as utilization of "applause lights".

We talk about the importance of being rational, but don't determine what's necessary to do to become so.

Some of the greatest thinkers of the past had profound insights after paying attention to parts of everyday life that most people don't give a second thought.  Archimedes realized how to determine the volume of a complex solid while lounging in a bath.  Galileo recognized that pendulums could be used to reliably measure time while letting his mind drift in a cathedral.

Sure, we're not geniuses, so why try to pay attention to ordinary things?  Shouldn't we concern ourselves with the novel and extraordinary instead?

Maybe we're not geniuses because we don't bother paying attention to ordinary things.

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I called it an applause light last time because it makes you sound responsible, mature, and Deeply Wise without containing usable advice. I'd retract this if you could give examples of what in particular we should be doing.

If you consider mystical methods unlikely to bear fruit, and worse than a maximum ignorance prior, say it outright and justify it. But I can't tell if you're talking only about mystical "techniques" or also about psychological and Bayesian "techniques", and you think you're making a positive point instead of a negative one. I just can't figure out what that positive point is.

Yes, if there's something we know for sure increases rationality, we should be spending more time doing it instead of brainstorming new techniques. But first, there aren't many such things, and second, our inability to do them as much as we'd like is the akrasia complaint, which we've already flagged as something we need to work on.

Compare alcoholism. The mundane solution to alcoholism is to say "Just stop drinking so much" - this seems in keeping with your diet metaphor. This mundane solution very rarely works, thanks to a particularly nasty form of akrasia. The Alcoholics Anonymous program, various anti-alcoholism drugs, and other "gimmicks" are much more effective. We need techniques for an Irrationalists Anonymous program.

Everyone in the world is already having a lot of mundane experience, and it doesn't seem to have helped them much. We better do something different...and not just take more baths. Not necessarily some mystical ritual. It could just be learning a little more Bayesian math, studying lists of fallacies, or going to a philosophy class.

If your candidate for "do something different" is "pay more attention to mundane experience", then you need to define specific ways we can do that. If you literally just mean we should consciously try to elevate the level of mental attention with which we attend to daily tasks, then that's Zen. Hard Zen. Back during my Zen phase, I used to try this. Even a few minutes were unbearably difficult. It may be a valuable technique, but if it's really what you mean it needs more respect and rigor than you give it here.

If you want to continue this post as a series, please post some concrete examples of what we should be doing differently.

If your candidate for "do something different" is "pay more attention to mundane experience", then you need to define specific ways we can do that. If you literally just mean we should consciously try to elevate the level of mental attention with which we attend to daily tasks, then that's Zen. Hard Zen. Back during my Zen phase, I used to try this. Even a few minutes were unbearably difficult. It may be a valuable technique, but if it's really what you mean it needs more respect and rigor than you give it here.

For what it's worth, the bulk of my learning and improvement was from a more limited form of this: specifically, I decided never to force myself to do anything - i.e., never to override my natural impulses in order to get myself to do something. Instead, I vowed to always seek to understand what my resistance consisted of, and change that directly, instead.

That's a more narrowly-focused approach to studying "mundane experience", and it gave me immensely greater insight into what procrastination actually is. It also means that over the long haul I've spent less and less time fighting myself, and more time with my natural impulses being to do that which is "best" for me in some larger sense.

That having been said, I've recently realized that almost all of my work in this area has been focused on fixing "not doing what I should" and almost none of it has been on fixing "doing what I should not"... like, for example, reading and replying to LW comments and losing track of how much time I'm spending on it. ;-) So, I have a new area to begin research in.

Now this, I am interested in. Think you understand enough about how you did what you did to be able to communicate it? That is, to explain more clearly about how to find understanding of my resistances and change them directly?

Thanks.

Observe what your brain is doing before you experience the resistance. In other words, notice what your brain is predicting will happen if you do the thing you're about to do.

This handout gives an explanation of my "input-belief-prediction-feeling" model and gives some questions that can be useful in identifying the process by which you're creating resistance.

What I do is establish a "test" condition -- something I can think about in relation to the project or task that reliably reproduces the resistance response I'm trying to understand. Then, I can run the test repeatedly and try to see what images or sounds are flashing to my mind (the "prediction") before the feeling of resistance arises. Once you have the prediction, you can then ask what you must have to believe in order for that (unconscious) prediction to come true.

IOW, our emotions and (de)motivation are driven by unconscious prediction of expected outcomes, to which our body responds with defensive or aggressive postures. And usually the predictions are simply cached thoughts that no longer connect with the rest of your belief system.

When you get enough practical experience with this, you realize that belief system updating is a very hit-or-miss process for human brains. Updates have to be in context of a particular memory trace, and unless that trace is actually shared across your belief system, it's a one-at-a-time process. Sort of like having a subroutine in code vs. copy/paste -- our brains have a lot of "copy/paste", although there's also a lot of abstraction. You just never know going in what the effective scope of your changes will be.

The name of this applause light is "We need to get back to basics".

Actually, the whole point of LW is that we need to move on from basics and progress further.

We don't need to get back to basics. We've never been to basics. The basics are where we need to begin.

Because here, there's nothing beyond the basics. There are no more-advanced methods, no clever tricks to make things simpler and easier. There is only the application of the method.

"Yes, if there's something we know for sure increases rationality, we should be spending more time doing it instead of brainstorming new techniques"

We already know of a something. It is a very basic and rudimentary something, that we are all familiar with, and we all have the capacity to utilize. But most of you aren't doing it!

This has been discussed at OB repeatedly. We're carrying a lantern to look for fire.

"Compare alcoholism. The mundane solution to alcoholism is to say "Just stop drinking so much" - this seems in keeping with your diet metaphor. This mundane solution very rarely works, thanks to a particularly nasty form of akrasia. The Alcoholics Anonymous program, various anti-alcoholism drugs, and other "gimmicks" are much more effective."

Actually, no, they're not. AA is plagued by dropouts. What it's good at is getting the people who remain with it to believe it's helping them and say so. What it's terrible at is getting people off alcohol.

We already know of a something. It is a very basic and rudimentary something, that we are all familiar with, and we all have the capacity to utilize. But most of you aren't doing it!

I have no idea what something you are referring to. There are many things we already know about; what are you trying to point to?

One claim that's been repeated frequently is that we're looking for rationality tricks, shortcuts and clever methods for being rational. Problem is: there aren't any.

I strongly disagree with this statement. There are many techniques for being and becoming more rational. The reason I read this site is because I often encounter rationality techniques here that I consider valuable. All of the people who posted in The Most Important Thing You Learned seem to agree.

People generally want novelty and gimmicks. They're exciting and interesting! Useful advice tends to be dull, tedious, and familiar.

I disagree again. If advice sounds dull and familiar, then it's probably repeating something we've already heard. Advice is only useful if it contains some insight which is new to the person receiving it. That insight may support the familiar conclusion, but it has to be there. Familiar advice for familiar conclusions has no effect on beliefs or behavior, whether it ought to or not.

We've heard it all before, and it sounded like a lot of hard work and self-discipline.

Telling someone to be more disciplined tends to have the opposite effect. On the other hand, cognitive behavior therapy actually can make people more disciplined, and we have a cognitive behavior therapist (pjeby) posting here.

We talk about the importance of being rational, but don't determine what's necessary to do to become so.

There are quite a few posts here trying to specify what's necessary to become rational, albeit unsuccessfully, in my opinion.

we have a cognitive behavior therapist (pjeby) posting here.

I'm not a therapist, actually. I'm a mind-hacking instructor. But stuff that works tends to be universal; we're all hacking on the same platform, so to speak.

I spend quite a lot of time describing the drop-dead elementary basics, like "The Bottom Line" and avoiding deliberate self-deception. What do you consider to be the basics?

I would be more sympathetic to that question if I hadn't already answered it in the post defining rationality.

It might nonetheless be worth answering in context.

What is it that the readers of lesswrong are looking for? One claim that's been repeated frequently is that we're looking for rationality tricks, shortcuts and clever methods for being rational. Problem is: there aren't any.

If there aren't shortcuts, then that means there is only one path on the way to rationality. It means that there's not a roundabout way one could come in to it. It means that once one has become Mr. Rational, he won't ever look back and say "I wish I would've done this differently."

I would strongly suggest that people wanting to discuss Zen, or apply it to the study and implementation of rationality, take some time to find out what it is first.

I think this is pretty informative! I think we should focus on both mundane familiar stuff and more head-in-the-clouds stuff. I sympathize with some of your aversion to high-falutin' talk about why it's good to be rational more than practical techniques to do it, but it's important to realize that Eliezer has been writing a book on OB and he mostly focuses on the philosophical framework, not a nitty-gritty compilation of everyday insights. I'm sure he could produce the latter as well, but would probably consider it a waste of time. People have to figure out the low-level details for themselves, based on abstract motivation from "higher" arguments.

It actually does look like there can be little tricks to being more rational, like doing the math. If rationality were so easy, then it wouldn't require pioneers and geniuses to establish and contribute to fields like heuristics and biases. We would have recognized and corrected for the H&B long ago if "everyday experiences" were enough.

There are shortcuts. For example, when you hear someone speaking in emphatic generalities in front of a cheering crowd, it should tell you to be extra careful. When somebody pulls out the Bible as justification for something, it's reasonable to lower your expectation of that person being right. If a certain level of rationality is to become automatic, there had darn well better be short cuts.

If you go through life with maximum care, what does seeing the crowd cheering the emphatic generalities tell you?

Is this a merely rhetorical question?

I would guess that it tells you that he's very persuasive, and you'd better watch yourself around him.

How can you possibly say there are no shortcuts? On what evidence? The science only just got good enough to begin looking in the right places.

Also: discipline is a trick too, the way exercise is a trick - you're twiddling levers that were built by evolution to react to circumstances, not to intent. They're just both dumb slow tedious painful brute force tricks that work (to a strictly limited extent and far less than optimal). Better tricks would be better, don't you think?

I don't really understand your objection here - it seems that a few recent posts have been putting more focus on solving everyday problems than is the usual OB standard.

And your post doesn't seem to bring much new either in terms of solutions or new directions to explore. "We talk about the importance of being rational, but don't determine what's necessary to do to become so." is especially vague,

I don't think that this community is especially biased away from "ordinary things" and in favor of "flashy" things - we might have a slight bias in that direction but not much more than other humans (the tendancy to think in the "outside the box" box), and not in a way that can be easily and systematically countered.

So, basically, you're saying, "pay attention to ordinary things"? I think we do that already.

Or maybe I'm just a genius.

You are to the great geniuses as ordinary paying-attention-to-things is to Buddhist mindfulness.

One is a pale shadow, the other is a pure essence.

On which side of your shoes did you place your umbrella?

I am enlightened!

Wait, I don't have an umbrella.

Try looking up the relevant Zen story. You may find it useful if you weren't already familiar with it.

http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2007/08/30/where-is-the-umbrella/