Deciding on our rationality focus

byKaj_Sotala10y22nd Jul 200951 comments


I have a problem: I'm not sure what this community is about.

To illustrate, recently I've been experimenting with a number of tricks to overcome my akrasia. This morning, a succession of thoughts struck me:

  1. The readers of Less Wrong have been interested in the subject of akrasia, maybe I should make a top-level post of my experiences once I see what works and what doesn't.
  2. But wait, that would be straying into the territory of traditional self-help, and I'm sure there are already plenty of blogs and communities for that. It isn't about rationality anymore.
  3. But then, we have already discussed akrasia several times, isn't this then also on-topical?
  4. (Even if this was topical, wouldn't a simple recount of "what worked for me" be too Kaj-optimized to work for very many others?)

Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that we have a two-fold definition of rationality:

  1. Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory. The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible. This correspondence is commonly termed "truth" or "accuracy", and we're happy to call it that.
  2. Instrumental rationality: achieving your values. Not necessarily "your values" in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: "your values" means anything you care about. The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences. On LW we sometimes refer to this as "winning".

If this community was only about epistemic rationality, there would be no problem. Akrasia isn't related to epistemic rationality, and neither are most self-help tricks. Case closed.

However, by including instrumental rationality, we have expanded the sphere of potential topics to cover practically anything. Productivity tips, seduction techniques, the best ways for grooming your physical appearance, the most effective ways to relax (and by extension, listing the best movies / books / video games of all time), how you can most effectively combine different rebate coupons and where you can get them from... all of those can be useful in achieving your values.

Expanding our focus isn't necessarily a bad thing, by itself. It will allow us to attract a wider audience, and some of the people who then get drawn here might afterwards also become interested in e-rationality. And many of us would probably find the new kinds of discussions useful in their personal lives. The problem, of course, is that epistemic rationality is a relatively narrow subset of instrumental rationality - if we allow all instrumental rationality topics, we'll be drowned in them, and might soon lose our original focus entirely.

There are several different approaches as far as I can see (as well as others I can't see):

  • Treat discussions of both as being fully on the same footing - if i-rationality discussions overwhelm e-rationality ones, that's just how it goes.
  • Concentrate purely on e-rationality, and ban i-rationality discussions entirely.
  • Allow i-rationality discussions, but don't promote top-level posts on the topic.
  • Allow i-rationality discussions, but require a stricter criteria for promoting top-level posts on the topic.
  • Allow i-rationality discussions, but only in the comments of dedicated monthly posts, resembling the "open topic" and "rationality quotes" series we have now.
  • Allow i-rationality discussions, but try to somehow define the term so that silly things like listing the best video games of all time get excluded.
  • Screw trying to make an official policy on this, let's just see what top-level posts people make and what gets upvoted.
  • Some combination of the above.

I honestly don't know which approach would be the best. Do any of you?