This is post 7/? about the intersection of my decades of LW-style rationality practice and my several years of Zen practice.

In today's installment, I look at continuous practice from a rationalist perspective.

In Zen there is a focus on continuous practice (gyoji dokan in Japanese). The idea has some subtlety lost in translation: it's referencing practice of the Buddha Way that is maintained, preserved, sustained, ceaseless, and persevered through (likened to the need to continually sharpen a frequently used blade against a grinding stone) in a ring or cycle of ongoing change (this is both talking directly about the reality of practice and an allusion to the wheel of life).

Two common ways this shows up in Zen is as both an emphasis on continuing to train the same thing over and over because it's through doing "the same thing" that we come to realize impermanence, and a focus on maintaining one's practice after various "attainments" like kensho or enlightenment. The big idea here is that one is never really done learning and developing, so continual training and practice is necessary to prevent sliding into greater delusion. As a translation of the Bodhisattva's Vow puts it: "dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them".

Although rationality seeks somewhat different purposes than Zen, I think we find a similar current of thought running through rationalist writing, urging rationalists to continually practice the art. Some examples:

  • Scott Alexander wrote that rationality is a habit to be cultivated. As such, cultivation of that habit requires ongoing work, which he captured with the phrase "constant vigilance".
  • OODA loops are a technique for continuously reassessing a situation and updating one's response to it. They can be generalized to operate over different scales.
  • Many rationalists refer to themselves as "aspiring rationalists" in order to make clear that they haven't achieved the goal of being rational, but are instead always working at it.

And I think there's something in the ethos of rationality itself that suggests continuous practice. The idea that rationality is systematized winning carries with it the idea that winning, whatever that means for you, requires ongoing effort to actually use the system—the moment you stop putting in the work to reckon things is the moment you stop winning, even if only marginally. It's only through continuous application of effort that one can succeed, at least for a moment, at winning.

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Scott Alexander wrote that rationality is a habit to be cultivated. As such, cultivation of that habit requires ongoing work, which he captured with the phrase "constant vigilance".

I thought that showed up in the sequences first, though that might have just been methods?