Reductionism Revisited

by alkjash Radimentary3 min read20th Mar 20185 comments


This is part 28 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The last three days of Hammertime, I’ll wrap up with some scattered thoughts to reinforce important principles.

Today, I’ll return to applications of reductionism to instrumental rationality.

Day 28: Reductionism Revisited

Mysterious Answers: A Brief Review

I had a conversation with a friend in which the topic of comedy popped up briefly. I will strawman his argument to make a point:

Friend: Well, there’s no step-by-step training drill to make someone funny. When I imagine a comedy coach, they probably just ask you to tell jokes and rate how funny they are.

Me: If you didn’t know math, would you say the same thing about studying math? That there’s no step-by-step approach to teaching induction. Instead, a math teacher just has to let the student try to prove things and rate how rigorous each proof is?

Friend: Point taken.

Irreducible and mysterious complexity, as we know, is a property of the map and not of the territory. It’s an easy cognitive mistake to make to believe that many skills, especially the ones you’re ignorant of, can’t be broken down with reductionism and must instead be learned organically and intuitively.

I think this is a symptom of a general cognitive error that can only be cured by rereading Mysterious Answers half a dozen times. It’s important enough to highlight again. The error goes like this:

In my subjective experience, my domain of expertise is concrete and gears-like, amenable to reductionism. I have a detailed mental model of how to go about solving a math problem or writing a blog post, step by atomic step. In my subjective experience, skills I don’t have are fuzzy, mysterious, and magical. Training them requires intuition, creativity, and spontaneity. From these defects in the map, I then incorrectly deduce that mysteriousness is an actual property of the territory beyond my competence, i.e. outside my comfort zone.

Mysteriousness is in the mind. Go forth with a Zeno‘s conviction that all of the territory breaks into infinitesimal pieces, each of which you can individually chew.

Build Form by Cleaning Your Room

One of the most important things to encourage in the early stages of a new skill is the development of good form. Once you have it, trying harder works, whereas if you don’t have it, trying harder just leads to a lot of frustration and discouragement. And of course, if you have bad habits right from the start, they’ll only going to get harder and harder to fix as you ingrain them through practice.

~ CFAR handbook.

One of the features of a reductionist approach towards instrumental rationality is this: hard problems break into small pieces. Small pieces are easy problems. Therefore, you can get better at solving hard problems by training your cognitive strategies on much easier problems.

True mastery starts with practicing cognitive habits to perfection on exceptionally simple tasks.

Counter-intuitive as this principle may seem, we already know it to be true. We know that students can’t move on to algebra until they have perfectly memorized their times tables. We know that before you practice writing you need to master typing or handwriting. In fantasy literature, this idea is ever-present: the novice must spend years levitating a pebble or kindling a flame with perfect control before he moves on to more ambitious magiks.

CFAR calls this principle building form, in the sense of physical exercise. (I’ve been told that) in the weight room, correct lifting form leads to better safety and muscle growth. Learning how to place your feet, tighten your glutes, and arch your back correctly are all important fundamentals to get down before you start benching several plates. All of these fundamentals are best trained on much lighter weights than your current maximum.

Jordan Peterson calls this principle cleaning your room. Start by solving the problems in your immediate domain of competence like dust bunnies and unwashed clothes (that reminds me … be right back). It you can’t the alignment problem of getting yourself to sleep and wake up on time, expect to hurt yourself trying to save the world.

Also, like the novice’s exercise of levitating the pebble, building form is not as simple as it appears. A friend of mine had plans to drop out and apply to work on AI at DeepMind. I told him to fix his sleep schedule first. Two months later, after numerous strategic meetings, he’s still working on this problem. At least he’s finally recognized its difficulty.

Incremental Progress

Reductionism vs. Procrastination

If you have a procrastination problem, here’s a simple cognitive shift based on reductionism that helps. It’s a variation on the only piece of “classic self-help advice” I ever found useful. Every time you catch yourself delaying a task to a future date, ask yourself the question:

How much of this task am I willing to do right now?

Answer it honestly. Then, do that much.

Maybe instead of getting exercise, all you’re willing to do is go outside for a minute. Maybe instead of filing your taxes, all you’re willing to do is organize the relevant forms in a folder. Maybe instead of writing that paper, you can at least tolerate typing in the title and section headers.

The discerning reader will notice this script is essentially a TAP to apply a microscopic CoZE experiment at every task aversion. That’s exactly right.

Continuous Grading

Despite how disappointing the project was, I really liked Duncan’s Dragon Army Retrospective. One of the tangential reasons for this liking is his use of grades instead of a cruder pass/fail system. Grades imply a smooth, continuous success function which is much easier to optimize.

Human beings are not built to make Fails turn into Passes. Human beings are built to make numbers go up [citation needed].

Score yourself continuously, and you’ll have an easier time measuring incremental progress and mentally rewarding yourself for it. Score yourself not for whether or not you did something, but for how much you did and how well you did it.

Daily Challenge

Just now I described a microscopic version of CoZE to apply at the five-second level. How many of the other Hammertime Techniques can you build TAPs to apply minified versions of?