Rationality Dojo

by freyley1 min read15th Oct 201018 comments


Personal Blog

Last night, here in Portland (OR), some friends and I got together to try to start Rationality Dojo. We talked about it for a while and came up with exactly 4 exercises that we could readily practice:

  1. Play Paranoid Debating
  2. Play the AI-Box experiment
  3. Read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
  4. Write fanfiction in the style of #3

We also had a whole bunch of semi-formed ideas about selecting a target (happiness, health) and optimizing it a month at a time. Starting a dojo, in a time before organized martial arts, was surely incredibly difficult. I hope we can accrete exercises rather than require a single sensei to invent the majority of the discipline. So I've added a category to the wiki, and I'm asking here. Do you have ideas or refinements for exercises to fit within rationality dojo?

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Everyone pick an impossible task, and then do it.

We have competing feelings in our minds, and sometimes those feelings are stronger than our "rational sides". Facing our fears might be a good exercise. Facing legitimate fears (fears where the danger is real) might be useful too, but I'm specifically thinking about irrational fears.

Fear of "monsters" a la Bloody Mary in the mirror would be a good one. (Do it).

Fear of bad luck or divine retribution. (Break a mirror, step on a crack, say the forbidden thing).

Fear of the dark in your own house. (Walk around in the dark, make it fun).

Fear of social situations. (Purposefully put yourself in situations you are uncomfortable in but that won't hurt you).

Fear of heights (Safely).

Fear of failure. (Fail at something and make no excuses).

The goal of this exercise would be to acclimate yourself to these strong emotions so that they don't override your other instincts/thinking when it is important. Part of the challenge might be identifying fears you are unaware of.

Fear of failure. (Fail at something and make no excuses).

This reminds me of an idea to try failing on purpose to overcome this.

And I've just found a similar idea with Rejection Therapy via the Marginal Revolution blog.

That's interesting. I'd be worried about establishing safety and about unstable mental states in unknown new members. But I'm interested in trying to make an exercise out of this.

Some ideas:

  • try to develop social practices for helping each other be good rationalists, to identify each other's successes and flaws at being good rationalists, to improve the dojo, to admit your own mistakes, uncertainties, and limitations, and so on.
  • pick a relevant topic and have a conversation about it. The topic could be:
  • a public issue where there's disagreement
  • a personal problem that one of you has where applying rationality could be helpful
  • a subject matter (like dating, eating, investing, charity, or working productively) where lots of people could benefit from applying rationality
  • a relevant article that you all have read - either a LW post, or a published psychology article, or HPMOR, or one of the many things linked from LW

A different person could be in charge of each meeting - they might pick out an article and tell everyone to read it before that meeting.

One question is whether you want to focus your attention broadly on lots of skills & topics or narrowly on mastering a small number of skills or topics.

You could also approach one topic from many angles. For instance, with happiness you could first read some articles on the psychology of happiness (or a book like Jon Haidt's). Then have a meeting where you talk about happiness in your own lives: what makes you happy or unhappy, things you try to do to be happier, ways you might be irrational about pursuing your own happiness, changes you could make. Then each come up with a plan for improving your own happiness, and discuss & refine those plans so you're ready to carry them out. Then each try out those plans, and occasionally check in on how they're going and do group problem solving if they run into snags or you're ready to move on to a further plan.

Serious rationality training would involve:

  • Studying the relevant concepts that describe the process of reasoning, such as "argument", "reason", "definition" or "concept". This allows to talk about thinking, and to study what counts for rational or erroneous thinking (reasoning, arguments).
  • Studying the tools for making thinking more rational, recognizing or avoiding errors in thinking, evaluating correctness of thinking. For example, taboo a word (make sure you have an understanding behind it), focus on a question (while completely stopping from making arguments about the previously discussed question in the context of which the new question appeared), explain which specific reasons (assumptions) about the discussed concepts your argument used.
  • Having someone to point out errors in your own thinking. This is like learning language, or good manners: you make errors, they are pointed out, you learn not to make them in the future. As a bonus, the rules are not arbitrary, and serve actual goals, with understanding of this connection being part of the art. For example, you argue for a correct conclusion using a correct argument which in itself is not sufficient to come to that conclusion - this could be a very subtle error that needs pointing out.

The first two items of this process are reasonably accomplished by the Sequences, but of course the growth of cultural knowledge would be better facilitated by people creating actual curricula or ideally writing up their own lecture notes.

The last item, practice, requires a trained rationalist and a topic to discuss, any topic where we have sufficient wealth of concepts to trip over and insufficient understanding to have answers that are not already cached to correct values and need actual reconstruction.

Choose topics including some where you have a lot of experience, and some where you have little or none. Write about what you believe in those areas, and how much evidence you actually have for those beliefs.

Program something.

Although I have no idea whether programming actually is suitable cross-training for rationality, surely practice at analyzing a problem and breaking it down to bite-sized abstractions and interfaces will help form good habits. Those habits should become a standard tool in your mental toolbox.

All of the members last night were professional programmers, so I'm not sure that will help us, particularly, but I do think algorithmic thinking is useful to people who don't currently have it.

Perhaps they could program something specifically related to rationality.

One example: the activity leader gives everyone else a standardized input/output structure to move around a soccer field/gladiatorial arena/asteroid mining station/scene of the crime, then the group members write a program that they think will win whatever the game is. The activity leader throws the group's programs in a file together (maybe after writing some competitors obeying simple principles, so that the group leader has something to do and the players have a benchmark), and out spits a detailed analysis of what happened and who won. Then people get to apply their skills to understand why things turned out as they did.

You could also do it without the actual programming if the overhead of writing things gets in the way (it would for most people).

If it is a simple enough game, people could design their algorithm and then step through it manually with each other. The difference between this and strategy-based board games would be sticking to an explicitly written down strategy.

Similar to jasonmcdowell's idea, practice doing instrumentally rational things in the face of conflicting (preferably non-irrational) emotions.

Look at the recently posted reading list. Pick some stuff, study and discuss. If you have a good "fighting spirit" and desire to become stronger, don't waste it on writing fanfiction...

Fanfiction may not be the most rigorous kind of practice, but it exercises different mental muscles than more formal discussions. Writing fiction let's you exercise your creativity more than a formal discussion would, and it should be a great testbed for creating parables and becoming a better writer.

Well-crafted stories are much more accessible to people who are at the beginning of a learning curve. If your goal is to bring them with you, rather than exploring the unknown (alone or in small groups), then fiction is a great tool.

I've never written anything myself so I don't have the experience of how writing fiction affects the author, but I've loved reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It feels like part of a balanced information diet.

I'm actually a MoR fan, and I've found it both entertaining and (at times) enlightening.

But I think a "beginning rationalist"s time is much better spent if they're studying philosophy, critical thinking, probability theory, etc. than on writing fanfiction (even if it would be useful in small doses).

That sounds true.

How does one figure out the best order in which to learn these things? With math, there are some areas which depend strongly on previous studies (arithmetic before algebra). Simple geometry doesn't necessarily depend on either arithmetic or algebra though (does it?). I wish we had a breakdown of various sub-disciplines used for rationality.