Wise Pretensions v.0

by Eliezer Yudkowsky4 min read20th Feb 200923 comments


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Followup toPretending to be Wise

For comparison purposes, here's an essay with similar content to yesterday's "Pretending to be Wise", which I wrote in 2006 in a completely different style, edited down slightly (content has been deleted but not added).  Note that the 2006 concept of "pretending to be Wise" hasn't been narrowed down as much compared to the 2009 version; also when I wrote it, I was in more urgent need of persuasive force.

I thought it would be an interesting data point to check whether this essay seems more convincing than yesterday's, following Robin's injuction "to avoid emotion, color, flash, stories, vagueness, repetition, rambling, and even eloquence" - this seems like rather the sort of thing he might have had in mind.

And conversely the stylistic change also seems like the sort of thing Orwell might have had in mind, when Politics and the English Language compared:  "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  Versus:  "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."  That would be the other side of it.

At any rate, here goes Eliezer2006...

I do not fit the stereotype of the Wise. I am not Gandalf, Ged, or Gandhi. I do not sit amidst my quiet garden, staring deeply into the truths engraved in a flower or a drop of dew; speaking courteously to all who come before me, and answering them gently regardless of how they speak to me.

If I tried to look Wise, and succeeded, I would receive more respect from my fellows. But there would be a price.

To pretend to be Wise means that you must always appear to give people the benefit of the doubt. Thus people will admire you for your courtesy. But this is not always true.

To pretend to be Wise, you must always pretend that both sides have merit, and solemnly refuse to judge between them. For if you took one side or another, why then, you would no longer be one of the aloof Wise, but merely another partisan, on a level with all the other mere bickerers.

As one of the Wise, you are omnipotent on the condition that you never exercise your power. Otherwise people would start thinking that you were no better than they; and they would no longer hold you in awe.

Ofttimes it is greatly convenient, to pretend to be Wise. When any conflict breaks out, you can sternly chide both sides, saying: "You are equally at fault; you must learn to see each other's viewpoints. I am older and more mature, and I say to you: stop this pointless bickering, children, for you begin to annoy me. Ponder well the wisdom of having everyone get along!" You do not need to examine the dispute, nor wonder if perhaps one side does have more merit than the other. You need not judge between two sides, and risk having your judgment turn out to be embarrassingly wrong, or risk having your judgment questioned as though you were only another ordinary mortal. Indeed you must not ask questions, you must not judge; for if you take sides, you will at once lose your reputation for being Wise, which requires that you stand forever above the fray.

But truth is not handed out in equal parts before the start of a dispute.

And I am not one of the Wise. Even if I wished to be, it is not within my nature. I do not hesitate to place my reputation in jeopardy to aid the side I believe is right. Even if it makes me seem but an ordinary mortal, no better than any other in the fray. The respect I have earned, I have earned by other ways than by appearing gravely solemn; and respect has no purpose but what it can accomplish. Respect is not to be hoarded, but spent. Even when those pretending to be Wise chide me, saying: "Stop this bickering!" - yet I will not pretend to neutrality, nor rise above the fray.

For not all conflicts are balanced; indeed an exactly balanced conflict is very rare. Sometimes - indeed often - I have struck out against both sides in a dispute, saying: "You are both wrong; here is the third way." But never have I told both sides of a dispute: "It doesn't matter who started it, just end it." This is the path of convenience to yourself, and it comes at a cost to others; it is selfish. There are aggressors and aggressed, in wars. When some small nation is invaded by another, or is provoked endlessly, or when one nation provokes another and that other responds disproportionately; then it may prove convenient indeed to the Great Powers, to pretend that all violence is equally wrong and equally the fault of all sides, and selfishly seek a truce for this year, this election. The Great Powers have no need to take sides, when they can more easily tell the two edges of the gaping wound: "Oh, just stop fighting, you foolish children!" Ignoring the rottenness inside... but that is pragmatism to a Great Power, which only wishes that the boat should go unrocked, and does not truly care for the health of lesser nations.

And so too with those who pretend to be Wise: who pretend that there is no aggrieved, that there is no long-term problem to be addressed, that no side is ever in the right nor another in the wrong; that there are no causes for conflicts, only fools who are not Wise and who will spontaneously strike out at each other for no reason. It only takes one to start a war. But the Wise cannot acknowledge this in any particular case, for then they would be taking sides, and they would not be above the fray, merely another combatant. They would lose the awe, in which the Wise are held, and which they most earnestly desire.

I do not say that the Wise do this deliberately; but it is the constraint that settles around them, the invisible chain that governs their behavior. No doubt the Wise truly believe that the combatants are but spoiled children; for if the Wise ceased to believe this, they would have to act, and no longer appear Wise.

Have you not met them? the principal who cares not which child started it? the Chair who is above the mere fray of corporate politics? the Great Power who demands only an immediate truce? the priest who says that all alike are sinners and all must repent? the boss who sternly dictates that the conflict end now? have you not met them, the Wise?

To care about the public image of any virtue - whether that virtue be charity, or wisdom, or rationality itself - is to limit your performance of that virtue to what all others already understand of it. Therefore those who would walk the Way of any virtue must first relinquish all desire to appear virtuous before others, for this will limit and constrain their understanding of the virtue. To earn the respect of others is not hard, if you have a little talent, if that is the limit of your desire. But to know what is true, or to do what is right - that is far harder than convincing an audience of your wisdom. I am not Wise, and I will not be Wise, and no one can be Wise if they would follow the Way of rationality.

For the eye of the Wise is blinded, and it may sometimes miss the gaping obvious.

I prefer yesterday's post (which is why I wrote it).  But I also suspect that yesterday's post is more persuasive, signaling more maturity and deliberately avoiding flashes of eloquence that might provoke skepticism here... while containing pretty much exactly the same message-payload.

On the other hand, this version seems easier to read, and you might find it more persuasive if you had just encountered it on the Net - if you weren't used to a different style from me.

(Nowadays if I have something to say that sounds suspiciously eloquent, I'll create a character and have them say it in dialogue or fiction; this lets me have my cake and eat it too.  Though - important disclaimer - many of my characters are also there to say eloquent things that I disagree with, c.f. the Superhappies.)

What think you?  Criticism can be addressed to me personally, I guess; Eliezer2006 is still someone who I'd talk about as "me".

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