My Conversion from LW to Pragmatism: Steelman

by hunterglennzero 7 min read12th Jul 20191 comment


Some think of humans as the "scientific species." But also as failures, because, well, humans mostly do just fail when it comes to thinking and acting scientifically.

It's a little odd, isn't it, that we'd be so bad at doing the thing we were built for?
So, maybe we weren't built for it after all. Because whatever we're really built for, we should probably be pretty good at it.

Actually, when you think about it, it doesn't really make sense that we would be scientifically-oriented. Science has only really been around for a few hundred years. If you could look at humans from 10,000 years ago, they wouldn't be trying to be scientists and then failing at it.
They just wouldn't be trying to be scientific at all. They had never even heard of the idea.

And it would really be kind of weird to look at a species that has never heard of science, and isn't trying to do it, and call them a "scientific species," wouldn't it.

So, what are we built for? What are we succeeding at?

I think it's more like magic and tribalism.

Tribalism has been talked a lot about, so what about magic?

What I mean by magic is *mental tools*. Ideas in your head that help you handle problems, even if they're not factual.

Factual ideas. That's the "scientific species" idea, right? They say that we're trying to have factual ideas in our heads, but most of us are pretty bad at it.
But what exactly is it that we have in our heads instead of facts? For we clearly have ideas in our heads, just not factual ones.
If we're not choosing our ideas so we can have factual accuracy, what are we choosing them for?

For magic. For their tool-like nature. For their ability to empower us to navigate the treacherous terrain in our life.

And that should sound a little familiar, because, after all, what is it that people cling to instead of to factual ideas? What kind of ideas do people protect from science and refuse to give up?
It's the ideas that help them get through the day, and it's the ideas that help them get through their fiery trials, and it's the ideas that help them get through life itself!

Useful ideas.

So, there it is. Humans are a species really good at finding ideas that work for them, "magic." In other words, humans aren't failed scientists, they're successful magicians. They discover and craft a set of ideas together like a suit of armor, and then, when they hold those ideas in their head and run screaming into the battle of life, they find their limbs strengthened and their fear is kept at bay. Just like magic. Giving up battle-readiness for factual accuracy will just get you killed. Result: now your brain holds zero facts.


And that's where the tribalism comes in. People gather together with people who will share their magical ideas.

For one thing, a lot of magic ideas don't do very well if people are questioning them. So you stay with people who won't question, and more, people who will agree with you and on top of that, who will share stories that strengthen your belief in the magic. They tell stories "Yes, this is how the magic has helped me too," and talk about how the magic of other groups is actually inferior and immoral.

And for another thing, if everyone has the same ideas, then you know how to deal with each other, because they're like you. Dealing with people with strange other beliefs is difficult and chaotic, because you never know exactly what they're going to do. And if you make a mistake, what ideas are in their head about how to resolve mistakes? Well, you don't exactly know, so you don't know if something is going to jump out and bite you, so you're always on your toes.

It's very nice to get back to your own group where you know what's up and down, and you can relax.

And thirdly, on top of that, it takes time to build social relationships, right? The people in your magic group are with you for a lot of time, so you naturally build your relationships with them. Changing your magic ideas drives a wedge between you all, and now you'll have to start all over again with new people that you can build relationships with. If you have time, and if they'll like you. No guarantees. Very risky.

So groups are important to us, and our magic ties us to our group.

All in all, humans are very good at protecting their magic, their mental tools, from being changed. And they're good at sticking to their groups and supporting each other in their groups.
That’s what we are.

We are successful magic families, not failed scientists.

And some of us are more scientifically-minded than others, and we assume that everyone else is, too. So when we see them not acting very scientifically, we just assume that they're failures. They must be aiming at science like we are, and they must be trying to succeed at thinking scientifically, but they're just not as good at it as we are.

But it's not all our fault we make that mistake. After all, people do say they care about truth. So we're just taking them at their word, right?. But if you look more closely...they also say "your truth and my truth," which shows that they don't really mean truth in the same sense as scientists, do they? Not in the sense of facts and accuracy and it doesn't matter what you believe and so on. They mean it in some other way...But we don't understand that, really.

So we try to help them find facts better, anyway. But then we're surprised that they don't appreciate the assistance. We'd certainly appreciate the assistance if someone helped us to aim better at science, so why don't these people appreciate what we're doing for them? And why are they so bad at science in the first place? And why aren't they interested in the ways we have discovered to augment and enhance our scientific thinking?

All of these questions disappear when you realize that people aren't trying to be scientists and failing, they're trying to be good group members, and they're trying to navigate life successfully with their magic, and...well, they're actually kind of succeeding, aren't they?
Maybe succeeding more than you. Yes, you might be succeeding more at science, at fact-finding, but they're succeeding more at sociability and accomplishment. Perhaps they are looking at you and wondering why you're the one so bad at everything except science.

Because maybe you're not trying but failing to be a good tribe member and you're not trying but failing to find good magic, instead you're trying to be a scientist and you're succeeding.

But why? Why succeed at that and fail at the rest? Well...because facts come first. Truth above all else.

And why that?


It must be granted, on a species-wide level, it has certainly worked for us to have science among us, to build us physical tools. Those physical tools have done far more for us than the mental tools of any tribe's magic.

But on the individual level? The most uber-scientific are plagued by procrastination and akrasia. Unmotivated.

It's sometimes said that, outside of the lab, a scientist thinks no more scientifically than a layperson.

Is that because they have failed? Or...have they got the secret? They are masters of both worlds, performing science for the sake of how it blesses humanity, but acting as normal magicians and good tribe members in their personal life. And they do it because it WORKS BETTER.

Has their scientific training failed to penetrate deep enough into it them? Or has it gone exactly far enough, far enough that they know how to operate the machinery of the idea factory, but not so far as to weaken their will, sap their motivation, or ruin their relationships. Not so far as to leave them as muggles without magic.

Of course, it's all on a spectrum, anyway. Nobody really has no magic at all, it’s just that some have less magic, or have different magic. Some believe in gods and ghosts, others in attraction and destiny, and others in rights and morals.

Wait, but do ALL of those really come from magic? Well...they don't come from science. If we meet aliens among the stars, we can be confident they will already know about and agree with us on science and math, but they won't agree with us on these things. Because these things don't come from science, math, or logic. We crafted them together like the good tribal magicians we are.

Yes, they are magic. There are certain differences between them, but they still belong to the same natural category.


And then there’s "truth above all else." Facts first. Intellectual honesty. Bearing the truth. Wanting to believe X if true and disbelieve X if false. What are these but one more kind of magic?

Ah, but they interact with reality in a certain way, and we know that that way is special because cars go and planes fly and it WORKS, bitches.

Yes, but that's a tool-based justification, isn't it? Science can't justify these ideals. We justify them because they work.

And they do. Sometimes, in some situations. But if they only work third-best in a certain situation? If there are alternative magics we could use to, for example, motivate or ward off akrasia. What then? You know, we used "because it works" to justify the rationalist rules, but by that very measure, the rationalist rules are to be set aside.

So, is there some other rule, which tells us to use the rationalist rule even when it is only the third-best for a certain task?

Well, yes. There's tribal loyalty. There's cementing an identity, there's ritualistically acting as if a rule is inviolable so that, as one of the few who do not violate it, the rule judges you and finds you worthy. One of the few worthy.

So, yes, acting like a rule is always correct and then obeying the rule allows you to create a feeling of validation, even if the rule doesn't produce maximum utility. That's true of rationalist rules and also of the other...magical...rules...

Which I'm not here to knock down. Validation and meaning are often in short supply, and we want all the tricks we have to generate them.

But if "it works best" isn't the justification, and "it works acceptably and validates me to make up for what it lacks" is sometimes picking up the slack, then the question is, why not just switch to treating the best rule as the sacrosanct one, and being validated by that rule instead?
Best of both worlds, right? Maximum utility and you still get to feel good about following the "real" important rules.

Of course, it might be hard to switch which rules you automatically feel good for following, but in principle, this would be a superior stance to adopt.

We want epistemic rationality and also instrumental rationality, but if what I've written is correct, then these two are so different that they are sometimes opposed to each other, no matter that they both have half of their names in common. Maximum epistemic rationality doesn't produce maximum instrumental rationality.

Or does it? I just don't know of any evidence, that's all. Is there some I don't know about?

The most instrumentally rational people don't seem to be maximally epistemically rational. Nor vice-versa. I see quite little overlap between the two groups, actually.

And anecdotally, it actually seems like the more epistemically rational you are, the more you start talking about akrasia, hmm...

So maybe you have to balance them, or outright choose between. So, wait a minute. What was the justification for holding factual accuracy as the supreme value again? Actually, how do you justify ANYTHING except on instrumental means?

And if the pursue-maximum-utility value system says to pursue pragmatism, but the facts-are-supreme value system says not to pursue pragmatism, how do you choose between them, if not by checking which one gets better results? Utility.

You choose according to utility...

and momentum. Momentum, as we hold on to the meaning we currently extract from following the rules that say to eschew pragmatism, but...which meaning we could also get if we just switched to valuing pragmatism.

And also obtain more utility besides. Find motivation and social flexibility. Pursue plans and not just make them. Learn to kick and not just to punch. Not to just believe in instrumental rationality, but to conquer it.