Extreme Rationality: It Could Be Great

by badger 2 min read9th Apr 200911 comments


Reply to: Extreme Rationality: It's Not That Great

I considered making this into a comment on Yvain's last post, but I'd like to redirect the discussion slightly. Yvain's warning is important, but we're left with the question of how to turn the current state of the art in rationality into something great. I think we are all on the same page that more is possible. Now we just need to know how to get there.

Even though Yvain disapproved of Eliezer's recent post on day jobs, I thought the two shared a common thread: rationalists should be careful about staying in Far-mode too long. I took Eliezer's point to be more about well-developed rationalist communities, and Yvain's to be about our rag-tag band of aspirants, but I think they are both speaking to the same issue. All of this has to be for a purpose,  and we can't become ungrounded.

Near- and Far-mode have to be balanced. This shouldn't be surprising, because in this context, Near and Far roughly equate to applied and theoretical work. The two intermingle and build off one another. The history of math and physics is filled with paired problems: calculus and dynamics, Fourier series and heat distribution, least-squares and astronomy, etc. Real world problems need theory to be solved, but theory needs problems to motivate and test it.

My guess is that any large subject develops through the following iterative alteration between Near and Far:

    F1. Develop general theory.
    F2. Refine and check for consistency and correctness.
    F3. Consolidate theory.
    N1. Apply existing theory to problems.
    N2. Evaluate successes and failures.
    GOTO F1.

This looks like a close relative of our trusty friend, the scientific method, and is similarly idealized. In terms of this process, I think the Less Wrong community is between F2 and F3. We have lots of phrases, techniques, and standard examples laying around, and work has been done on testing them for conceptual soundness. The wiki represents an attempt to begin consolidating this information so we can move onto more applied domains.

Assuming this process is productive, how long will it take to produce something useful? If Newton invented undergraduate material in math and physics, as is often quipped, I think existing x-rationality theory and techniques are on a JR High level, at best. I'm not surprised x-rationality hasn't produced clear benefits yet. The commonly agreed upon rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a subject. X-rationality as a subject is around 30 years old, and OB was only founded in 2006. Most of the current experts should be coming from fields like psychology, game theory, logic, physics, economics, or AI, where the 10,000 hours were acquired indirectly over a career. I think rationality theory will count as a success once someone can acquire PhD level expertise in rationality by age 25 or 30 like in other subjects and can spend a career only on these topics.

I'd also like to reemphasize the comments of pjeby and hegemonicon, in conjuction with Yvain, on consciously using x-rationality. I know I need to do more work on integrating OB concepts into my everyday life. I don't think the material referenced in OB isn't going to produce many visible benefits, but I'd bet those concepts will have to come naturally before anything really useful could be learned, much less created. For example, if someone has to consciously think about what the Cartesian plane represents or what a function is, they are going to have a difficult time learning calculus.

I don't think the current lack of success is of too much worry. This is a long-term project, and I'd be suspicious if breakthroughs came too easily. As long as this community stays grounded, and can move between theory and application, I remain hopeful.

Is my assessment of x-rationality's long term prospects correct? How does my vision accord with everyone else's?