Individual Rationality Is a Matter of Life and Death

by patrissimo 2 min read21st Mar 200944 comments


On at least two occasions - one only a year past - my life was at serious risk because I was not thinking clearly.  Both times, I was lucky (and once, the car even survived!).  As a gambler I don't like counting on luck, and I'd much rather be rational enough to avoid serious mistakes.  So when I checked the top-ranked posts here and saw Robin's Rational Me or We? arguing against rationality as a martial art I was dumbfounded.  To me, individual rationality is a matter of life and death[1].

In poker, much attention is given to the sexy art of reading your opponent, but the true veteran knows that far more important is the art of reading and controlling yourself.  It is very rare that a situation comes up where a "tell" matters, and each of my opponents is only in an occasional hand.  I and my irrationalities, however, are in every decision in every hand.  This is why self-knowledge and self-discipline are first-order concerns in poker, while opponent reading is second or perhaps even third.

And this is why Robin's post is so wrong[2].  Our minds and their irrationalities are part of every second of our lives, every moment we experience, and every decision that we make.  And contra to Robin's security metaphor, few of our decisions can be outsourced.  My two bad decisions regarding motor vehicles, for example, could not have easily been outsourced to a group rationality mechanism[3].  Only a tiny percentage of the choices I make every day can be punted to experts.

We have long since left the Hobbesian world where physical security depends on individual skills, but when it comes to rationality, we are all "isolated survivalist Einsteins".  We are in a world where our individual mental skills are constantly put to the test.  And even when we can rely on experts, it is our individual choices (influenced by the quality of our minds) that determine our success in life.  (How long would a professor's reputation last if he never did any original work?)

So while I respect and admire Robin's interest in improving institutions, I believe that his characterization of the relative merits of individual and collective mechanisms is horridly wrong.  To have more and better rational collective institutions is a speculative, long-term goal with limited scope (albeit in some very important areas).  Learning the martial art of rationality is something that all of us can do now to improve the quality of our decisions and thus positively influence every part of our lives.  By making us more effective as individuals (hell, just keeping us from stupidly getting ourselves killed), it will help us work on all of our goals - like getting society to accept ambitious new social institutions.

In the modern world, karate is unlikely to save your life.  But rationality can.  For example, if one believes that cryonics is a good gamble at immortality, and people don't do it because of irrationality, then improved individual rationality can give people a shot at immortality instead of certain death.  And that's only one of the myriad decisions we each face in optimizing our life!

Which is why, while I spend my days working on better institutions, I also practice my rationality katas, so that I will survive to reach the new future our institutions will bring.

[1] I have a post about the more recent incident that's been written in my mind for months, and just hasn't fallen out onto the screen yet.

[2] Or at least, this is related - I freely admit to liking poker metaphors enough that I'm willing to stretch to make them!

[3] Yes, I'm sure a clever person can come up with markets to keep young men from doing stupid things with cars.  That's not the point.  Markets have significant overhead, and it takes high public interest for it to be worth opening, funding, trading in, and running a market.  They may have great value for large decisions, but they are never going to replace the majority of decisions in our day to day lives.