I feel daunted by the question, "what are the big open questions the field of Human Rationality needs to answer, in order to help people have more accurate beliefs and/or make better decisions?", but I also think that it's the question at the heart of my research interests. So rather than trying to answer the original question directly, I'm going to share a sampling of my current research interests.
Over in the AMA, I wrote, "My way of investigating always pushes into what I can’t yet see or grasp or articulate. Thus, it has the unfortunate property of being quite difficult to communicate about directly until the research program is mostly complete. So I can say a lot about my earlier work on noticing, but talking coherently about what exactly CFAR’s been paying me for lately is much harder." This will not be a clean bulleted list that doubles as a map of rationality, sorry. It'll be more like sampling of snapshots from the parts of my mind that are trying to build rationality. Here's the collage, in no particular order:
There are things you’re subject to, and things you can take as object. For example, I used to do things like cry when an ambulance went by with its siren on, or say “ouch!” when I put a plate away and it went “clink”, yet I wasn’t aware that I was sensitive to sounds. If asked, “Are you sensitive to sounds?” I’d have said “No.” I did avoid certain sounds in local hill-climby ways, like making music playlists with lots of low strings but no trumpets, or not hanging out with people who speak loudly. But I didn’t “know” I was doing these things; I was *subject* to my sound sensitivity. I could not take it as *object*, so I couldn’t deliberately design my daily life to account for it. Now that I can take my sound sensitivity (and many related things) as object, I’m in a much more powerful position. And it *terrifies* me that I went a quarter of a century without recognizing these basic facts of my experience. It terrifies me even more when I imagine an AI researcher being subject to some similarly crucial thing about how agents work. I would very much like to know what other basic facts of my experience I remain unaware of. I would like to know how to find out what I am currently unable to take as object.
On a related note, you know how an awful lot of people in our community are autistic? It seem to me that our community is subject to this fact. (It also seems to me that many individual people in our community remain subject to most of their autistic patterns, and that this is more like the rule than the exception.) I would like to know what’s going on here, and whether some other state of affairs would be preferable, and how to instantiate that state of affairs.
Why do so many people seem to wait around for other people to teach them things, even when they seem to be trying very hard to learn? Do they think they need permission? Do they think they need authority? What are they protecting? Am I inadvertently destroying it when I try to figure things out for myself? What stops people from interrogating the world on their own terms?
I get an awful lot of use out of asking myself questions. I think I’m unusually good at doing this, and that I know a few other people with this property. I suspect that the really useful thing isn’t so much the questions, as whatever I’m doing with my mind most of the time that allows me to ask good questions. I’d like to know what other people are doing with their minds that prevents this, and whether there’s a different thing to do that’s better.
What is “quality”?
Suppose religion is symbiotic, and not just parasitic. What exactly is it doing for people? How is it doing those things? Are there specific problems it’s solving? What are the problems? How can we solve those problems without tolerating the damage religion causes?
[Some spoilers for bits of the premise of A Fire Upon The Deep and other stories in that sequence.] There’s this alien race in Verner Vinge books called the Tines. A “person” of the Tines species looks at first like a pack of several animals. The singleton members that make up a pack use high-frequency sound, rather than chemical neurotransmitters, to think as one mind. The singleton members of a pack age, so when one of your singletons dies, you adopt a new singleton. Since singletons are all slightly different and sort of have their own personalities, part of personal health and hygiene for Tines involves managing these transitions wisely. If you do a good job — never letting several members die in quick succession, never adopting a singleton that can’t harmonize with the rest of you, taking on new singletons before the oldest ones loose the ability to communicate — then you’re effectively immortal. You just keep amassing new skills and perspectives and thought styles, without drifting too far from your original intentions. If you manage the transitions poorly, though — choosing recklessly, not understanding the patterns an old member has been contributing, participating in a war where several of your singletons may die at once — then your mind could easily become suddenly very different, or disorganized and chaotic, or outright insane, in a way you’ve lost the ability to recover from. I think about the Tines a lot when I experiment with new ways of thinking and feeling. I think much of rationality poses a similar danger to the one faced by the Tines. So I’d like to know what practices constitute personal health and hygiene for cognitive growth and development in humans.
What is original seeing? How does it work? When is it most important? When is it the wrong move? How can I become better at it? How can people who are worse at it than I am become better at it?
In another thread, Adam made a comment that I thought was fantastic. I typed to him, “That comment is fantastic!” As I did so, I noticed that I had an option about how to relate to the comment, and to Adam, when I felt a bid from somewhere in my mind to re-phrase as, “I really like that comment,” or, “I enjoyed reading your comment,” or “I’m excited and impressed by your comment.” That bid came from a place that shares a lot of values with Lesswrong-style rationalists, and 20th century science, and really with liberalism in general. It values objectivity, respect, independence, autonomy, and consent, among other things. It holds map-territory distinctions and keeps its distance from the world, in an attempt to see all things clearly. But I decided to stand behind my claim that the “the comment is fantastic”. I did not “own my experience”, in this case, or highlight that my values are part of me rather than part of the world. I have a feeling that something really important is lost in the careful distance we keep all the time from the world and from each other. Something about the power to act, to affect each other in ways that create small-to-mid-sized superorganisms like teams and communities, something about tending our relationship to the world so that we don’t float off in bubbles of abstraction. Whatever that important thing is, I want to understand it. And I want to protect it, and to incorporate it into my patterns of thought, without loosing all I gain from cold clarity and distance.
I would like to think more clearly, especially when it seems important to do so. There are a lot of things that might affect how clearly you think, some of which are discussed in the Sequences. For example, one common pattern of muddy thought is rationalization, so one way to increase your cognitive clarity is to stop completely ignoring the existence of rationalization. I’ve lately been interested in a category of clarity-increasing thingies that might be sensibly described as “the relationship between a cognitive process and its environment”. By “environment”, I meant to include several things:
- The internal mental environment: the cognitive and emotional situation in which a thought pattern finds itself. Example: When part of my mind is trying to tally up how much money I spent in the past month, and local mental processes desperately want the answer to be “very little” for some reason, my clarity of thought while tallying might not be so great. I expect that well maintained internal mental environments — ones that promote clear thinking — tend to have properties like abundance, spaciousness, and groundedness.
- The internal physical environment: the physiological state of a body. For example, hydration seems to play a shockingly important role in how well I maintain my internal mental environment while I think. If I’m trying to solve a math problem and have had nothing to drink for two hours, it’s likely I’m trying to work in a state of frustration and impatience. Similar things are true of sleep and exercise.
- The external physical environment: the sensory info coming in from the outside world, and the feedback patterns created by external objects and perceptual processes. When I’ve been having a conversation in one room, and then I move to another room, it often feels as though I’ve left half my thoughts behind. I think this is because I’m making extensive use of the walls and couches and such in my computations. I claim that one’s relationship to the external environment can make more or less use of the environment’s supportive potential, and that environments can be arranged in ways that promote clarity of thought.
- The social environment: people, especially frequently encountered ones. The social environment is basically just part of the external physical environment, but it’s such an unusual part that I think it ought to be singled out. First of all, it has powerful effects on the internal mental environment. The phrase “politics is the mind killer” means something like “if you want to design the social environment to maximize muddiness of thought, have I got a deal for you”. Secondly, other minds have the remarkable property of containing complex cognitive processes, which are themselves situated in every level of environment. If you’ve ever confided in a close, reasonable friend who had some distance from your own internal turmoil, you know what I’m getting at here. I’ve thought a lot lately about how to build a “healthy community” in which to situate my thoughts. A good way to think about what I’m trying to do is that I want to cultivate the properties of interpersonal interaction that lead to the highest quality, best maintained internal mental environments for all involved.
What is "groundedness"?
I built a loft bed recently. Not from scratch, just Ikea-style. When I was about halfway through the process, I realized that I’d put one of the panels on backward. I’d made the mistake toward the beginning, so there were already many pieces screwed into that panel, and no way to flip it around without taking the whole bed apart again. At that point, I had a few thoughts in quick succession:
- I really don’t want to take the whole bed apart and put it back together again.
- Maybe I could unscrew the pieces connected to that panel, then carefully balance all of them while I flip the panel around? (Something would probably break if I did that.)
- You know what, maybe I don’t want a dumb loft bed anyway.
It so happens that in this particular case, I sighed, took the bed apart, carefully noted where each bit was supposed to go, flipped the panel around, and put it all back together again perfectly. But I’ve certainly been in similar situations where for some reason, I let one mistake lead to more mistakes. I rushed, broke things, lost pieces, hurt other people, or gave up. I’d like to know what circumstances obtain when I get this right, and what circumstances obtain when I don’t. Where can I get patience, groundedness, clarity, gumption, and care?
I’ve developed a taste for reading books that I hate. I like to try on the perspective of one author after another, authors with whom I think I have really fundamental disagreements about how the world works, how one ought to think, and whether yellow is really such a bad color after all. There’s a generalized version of “reading books you hate” that I might call “perceptual dexterity”, or I might call “the ground of creativity”, which is something like having a thousand prehensile eye-stalks in your mind, and I think prehensile eye-stalks are pretty cool. But I also think it’s generally a good idea to avoid reading books you hate, because your hatred of them is often trying to protect you from “your self and worldview falling apart”, or something. I’d like to know whether my self and worldview are falling apart, or whatever. And if not, I’d like to know whether I’m doing something to prevent it that other people could learn to do, and whether they’d thereby gain access to a whole lot more perspectives from which they could triangulate reality.