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Should we stop using the term 'Rationalist'?

by Bob Jacobs1 min read29th May 202040 comments

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This might be an unpopular opinion, but I really dislike the term 'rationalist' for four reasons:

1) It makes you sound self-aggrandizing. The term gives the impression that you think you are already rational and therefore smarter-than-thou.

2) It's already a term used to describe a different group. In fact, that way of using the term is not only way older, but also way more common.

3) The people it describes are not only interested in 'rationality', but also talk at length about things like AI, Bayes-theorem, Utilitarianism, etc.

4) We don't even agree on what it means anymore. I'm not sure we ever did, but post-rationality has put the nail in the coffin.

I've toyed with introducing the term 'Aspirationalist', but maybe we should just split it into 'Lesswrongers', 'SSCers', 'Effective Altruist' etc?

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"Rationalism" has the baggage of having meant the idea of finding truth by pure reason, without needing to look at the world.

"Empiricism" has the baggage of having meant the idea of finding truth just by looking at the world, without applying reason to discern its inner structures.

"Bayesianism" is far too narrow.

"Baconianism" might be close enough, but too obscure.

There does not appear to be any word that means "finding the truth by reason and observation, not separate from each other, but different aspects of a single method, as described in the Sequences", however many of the individual ideas there can be found in sources predating them.

I have taken to calling myself a dilettante after someone called me that at an auspicious gathering of thought leaders. I don't actually know what it means but it sounds very French (that means sophisticated for those of you who don't know).

Who's "we"?

I don't use the term, and don't generally refer to the groups it might describe. When I need to describe something, I try to consider the specifics of what I'm trying to convey, and to whom - almost always there are better terms for whatever is under discussion. "philosophical techno-nerds" is my current go-to, but "LessWrong participants" is more precise.

[note: yes, that first question is intended to both be a dig at some assumptions AND as a pithy restatement of the primary question of community.]

I generally using "rationalist" as a short-hand catchall among people who will already know what i'm talking about, ie with my girlfriend or with ppl in ratsphere tumblr. i would never introduce myself to someone outside of the community that way, so maybe i'm also not the target audience for your question.

however, i feel like the minority of people who would self-identify as a "rationalist" to someone decidedly outgroup (hasn't heard of LessWrong/EY, isn't interested in EA, consequentialism, etc) is a different problem where the term itself isn't inherently the problem. people would probably be equally weirded out if you described yourself as a "utilitarian" or "effective altruist" just bc describing ourselves by our philosophies is not super common in the world-at-large.

i do really like the term aspirationalist tho. is it pronounced like aspir-rationalist or aspiration-alist ?

"LessWrongers" doesn't sound fancy and Latinate enough to be an intellectual movement. We need something like "error-reductionists".

  • Error-reductionism: the idea that error is inevitable, but we're trying to reduce how much. Probabilism, perpetual beta, and ambition/audacity/grit.
  • Error-reductionism: the idea that errors are reducible, i.e., explainable in terms of causes and parts such as cognitive biases and bad micro-habits.
  • Error-reductionism: philosophical reductionism (the world is physical, decomposable, lawful, understandable, not inherently mysterious or magical) combined with an error theory about non-reductionist ideas. We have Bayesianism as a principled (reductive) account of science; we don't need to call Thor mean names like "meaningless" or say he's in a separate magisterium from science. We're allowed to say those ideas were just wrong. We learn about the world by looking at the world and seeing what stuff happens and what methods work β€” not by applying a priori definitions of "what hypotheses sound sciencey to me".

Something like "Lesswrongers" would be okay for me; at least it is obvious for insiders what it refers to. (For outsiders, there will always be the inferential distance, no matter what label you choose.)

"Effective Altruists" is a specific group I am not a member of, although I sympathize with them. In my opinion, only people who donate (now, not in their imagined future) 10% of their income to EA charities should call themselves this.

"SSCers" on the other hand is too wide to be a meaningful identity, at least for me. It is definitely not a good replacement for what we currently call "rationalists".

About the objections 3 and 4 -- let's look at how we historically got where we are. There was a blog by Eliezer Yudkowsky about some ideas that he considered important to make a blog about. It felt like those ideas made a unified whole. Gradually the blog attracted people who were more interested in some subset and less interested in the rest, or in ideas that were related to some subset, etc., and thus the unity was gradually lost. We can still point towards the general values: having true knowledge about the nature of the world and ourselves, improving the world, improving ourselves by overcoming our cognitive shortcomings and generally becoming stronger, individually and also cooperating with each other. There are also people who like to hang out with the crowd despite not sharing all of these values.

To address 2) specifically, I would say that philosophical "Rationalists" are a wider group but they would generally include the kind of philosophical views that most people on e.g. LW hold, or at least they include a pathway to reaching those view.


See the philsophers listed in the wikipedia article for example:


Pythagoras -- foundation for mathematical inquiry into the world and mathematical formalism creating in general

Plato -- foundation for "modern" reasoning and logic in general, with a lot of ***s

Aristotle -- (outdated) foundation for observing the world and creating theories and taxonomies. The fact that he's mostly "wrong" about everything and the "wrongness" is obvious also gets you 1/2 of the way to understand Kuhn

René Descartes -- "questioning" more fundamental assumptions that e.g. Socrates would have had problems seeing as assumptions. Also foundational for modern mathematics.

Baruch Spinoza -- I don't feel like I can summarize why reading "Spinoza" leads one to the LW-brand of rationalism. I think it boils down to this obsession with internal consistency and his obsession to burn any bridge for the sake of reaching a "correct" conclusion.

Gottfried Leibniz -- I mean, personally, I hate this guys. But it seems to me that the interpretations of physics that I've seen around here, and also those that important people in the community (e.g. Eliezer and Scott) use are heavily influenced by this work. Also arguably one of the earliest people to build computers and think about them so there's that.

Immanuel Kant -- Arguably introduced the Game Theoretical view to the world. Also helped correcting/disproving a lot of biased reasoning in philosophy that leads to e.g. arguments for the existence of good based on linguistic quirks.


I think, at least in regards to philosophy until Kant, if one were to read philosophy following this exact chain of philosopher, they would basically have a very strong base from which to approach/develop rationalist thought as seemingly espoused by LW.

So in that sense, the term "Rationalist" seems well fitting if wanting to describe "The general philosophical direction" most people here are coming from.