CoZE 3: Empiricism

by alkjash Radimentary2y17th Mar 20182 min read2 comments

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This is part 25 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The boy on the right has gone places. The boy on the left has a map. Whom do you marry?
Whom

Sometimes, I think that most of the value of the CoZE experiment lies not in the expansion of comfort zones but in the experimental attitude it conveys. A good map-maker must constantly check the territory; the trick is to figure out how.

Day 25: Empiricism

The comfort zone is the region in the environment you understand. It contains the locations you frequent, the skills you have mastered, the people you know well. The farther away you get from your comfort zone, the more unknowns you have to prepare for. The boundaries of the comfort zone are designed to protect you from exactly these dangers: the unknown unknowns.

Overly Conservative Lines

The lines of the comfort zone is very conservatively drawn. In the ancestral environment, mistakes were often fatal: failing a hunt, losing a duel. Even nonfatal mistakes were reproductively so: humiliation in the front of your tribe lasts a long time, and you have no place to run. In this environment, it was reasonable to draw the lines of the comfort zone conservatively, since failure was too costly to test.

What does scientific progress look like in this danger-fraught world? Imagine that every time a scientific experiment fails, the experimenter pays with his life. Science would have progressed much more slowly, if at all.

But the world is no longer as dangerous as the ancestral environment. People live longer, are healthier, and are more mobile between communities. Equally, there are larger and richer positive opportunities outside our comfort zones. These are the preconditions for the viability of the scientific method, and the reason we can now use the power of empiricism, in the form of CoZE experiments, to test our boundaries.

Scientific Detachment

A key realization to make is that the comfort zone is part of your map. That is to say, it makes testable predictions about the territory. Your stage fright is making a testable prediction about how awful the experience of public speaking will be, and how much permanent damage you might sustain from a mistake. Your fear of heights is making a testable prediction about how likely it is for you to fall off a tall ledge unsupported.

Once you understand that the emotional aversions that form the boundaries of your comfort zone are built out of beliefs about reality, the logical next step is to design cheap, safe ways to test those beliefs.

I desire to believe what is true.

Usually, you’ll find that the lines of your comfort zone are too simplistic and conservative, and there’s obvious ways to tiptoe past it without getting in trouble.

Micro-Experiments

One of the core insights I gleaned from Inadequate Equilibria is that modesty, in the form of Status Regulation and Anxious Overconfidence, is one of the biggest fences around your comfort zone. In that post, Eliezer makes the following recommendation that can’t be repeated enough:

Don’t assume you can’t do something when it’s very cheap to try testing your ability to do it.

Don’t assume other people will evaluate you lowly when it’s cheap to test that belief.

The comfort zone is a set of beliefs about reality. Test those beliefs.

At very least, take five minutes and try to come up with a cheap experiment to test your beliefs. For example, my light novel Murphy’s Quest was a cheap way for me to figure out if it’s really true, as my System 1 emphatically stated, I’m terrible at writing fiction.

Design cheap experiments to test your fears.

You’re afraid your ideas won’t be well-received? Make an anonymous account and post the gentlest form of them.

Let me repeat Eliezer’s advice again.

Don’t assume you can’t do something when it’s very cheap to try testing your ability to do it.

Don’t assume other people will evaluate you lowly when it’s cheap to test that belief.

One more time.

Don’t assume you can’t do something when it’s very cheap to try testing your ability to do it.

Don’t assume other people will evaluate you lowly when it’s cheap to test that belief.

Exercise

Pick something you believe you can’t do but haven’t checked. Set a Yoda Timer and design a cheap experiment to test this belief.

Pick someone you trust who you believe will evaluate you lowly. Test that belief.

Daily Challenge

Share an experience where you radically underestimated or overestimated your own ability.

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