Not all advice can work for everyone, and not all techniques are universally applicable. That being said, here’s a post that would have been incredibly useful for me-three-years-ago to have read, and hopeful it strikes home for some people who read it. I’ll start with drawing your attention to a character archetype that you’ve probably seen before.
Blake lives in a textbook example of a dystopian totalitarian society. There is a cheery facade of being just and righteous, but secretly The Party does Really Bad Things. Blake has only ever known the world of The Party, and has always taken The Orthodoxy to be pretty much true. Well, sometimes it’s given him some weird feelings that he can’t quite pin down, but surely whatever faults the party may have, at least he doesn’t have to live in the anarchy of The Outside World. You know the story from here. Through a series of unlikely events, the lies of the party are revealed to him and he has to flee for his life. Blake’s entire understanding of the world has been shattered, and he’s alone, scared, and confused. Luckily, he’s picked up by a group of rebels, and is amazed to learn that there is a strong but small Underground Resistance. By now, Blake has had enough time for his fear and confusion to turn into feelings of betrayal and anger.
I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that the core feelings that Blake was experiencing are the same core feelings I experienced in the beginning of my journey into rationality, and I’d guess that there is a non-negligible subset of people in this community who might have experienced something similar.
Okay, yes, the example is a little bit grandiose, but let’s look at the core. (I’ll be talking in terms of my specific journey, and hopefully there’s some crossover for other people’s lives) For me, reading the sequences and “becoming a rationalist” was the tipping point of a slowly forming realization that there was a lot more to thinking/decision making/reality/everything then what I was being taught by those around me. There were definitely feelings of resentment towards to the general society and system that I was raised by. There was a feeling of thinking that most of the world was insane and wasn’t aware of its insanity. There were feelings of confusion as I tried to piece together what I believed and why I believed it. And although it’s not really accurate to compare myself to the protagonist of the sort of storyline described above, I think it get’s across the emotional gist.
I’m going to circle back around to this, after a bit of building up another idea. There’s going to be some over simplifications going on, and I’ll be using a fair about of air quotes, so bear with me.
It’s a questions that’s been asked plenty of times. Why aren’t rationalists wiping the floor with the competition? A lot of people have offered explanations. I think it would be fair to say that one of the things one takes upon themselves when deciding to “be a rationalist” is to anchor themselves to some sort of reasoning process, in order to hold themselves accountable. While this process may grow and evolve, there’s the core idea of being committed to at least having some sort of process, and not just making decisions willy nilly.
One problem with this sort of commitment is that using an intentional reasoning process and consistently arriving at effective strategies is really hard. It’s even hard in the abstract mathematical sense. Look at the difference between CDT and FDT. Now I’ll be honest, I’ve only read half of the FDT paper, but it seems like the takeaway is that Eliezer has finally found a way to create a clear, rigorously defined decision theory that allows you to one-box on Newcomb's problem (and other cool stuff). I’m guessing that was really hard to do, and most rationalists wouldn’t have had the intellectual firepower to figure that out. And in the realm of everyday applied rationality, we don’t have anything nearly as powerful and as clearly defined as FDT.
There weird thing is that there are lots of ideas, practices, and ways of thinking that aren’t strictly correct, yet they are useful and can produce very beneficial results. This isn’t a new idea. Fake Frameworks hit at this idea. Eliezer is currently writing a book about how to tell when it’s a good idea to just listen to people who say they know the answers. There are plenty of things where it’s reasonable to defer to humanity’s improperly theorized, yet empirically effective prescriptions. So while other people (or maybe you) work on developing the FDT’s of applied rationality, the rest of us can spend our time trying to figure out what are the quality practices to take from the collective pool of humanity’s knowledge. Even if you are going to be someone who works on hashing out the hard rationality, it’s probably a good idea to incorporate some of the well know “How to function well in society and be a decently happy and healthy human,” practices.
Now here’s my main point. If you’re a Blake, then adopting anything that even looks like a Fake Framework is likely to set off your bad epistemology fire alarms.
What I hope to do is open you up to the idea that there might be a bit more pain and emotional fire attached to what passes your personal test for “irrationality”. I was someone who had always had a bit of a rational bent, but I used to be religious and then had a strong turning point. At the time (unbeknownst to me), I had too much fire to be able to clearly look at myself and realize, “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of resentment towards the world for not teaching me this shit from the get go.” It was only two years down the road that I was able to diffuse the power which that pain had held over me. Despite my newfound rationality chops, this pain and resentment was making be prematurely reject a lot of incorrect-but-useful practices that could have greatly reduced my rationalist angst.
If you’re a Blake, your fire can easily make you optimize for scoring points against irrationality, and lose sight of winning the war and overthrowing the regime. If you’re a Blake, it’s easy to look at the other members of the rebel group and think that they are soft because they aren’t taking up arms and trying to overthrow the regime right now. And it’s definitely isn’t going to help you to have an older member tell you you’re a stupid upstart who doesn’t know the first thing about what real fighting is like. Being a Blake (to varying degrees) is a lot like being a Kantorovich in Soviet Russia, if we replace the danger of being killed by the secret police with the danger of passing up a lot of quality information on how to deal with the fact that you are stuck being a human.
If you’re a Blake, what you need is another member of the resistance to look you in the eyes and say, “That pain you feel, that fire? Yeah, I’ve got it too. I want to overthrow The Party just as much as you do, and that’s exactly why we aren’t charging in guns-a-blazing.”
So if you are a Blake, or know a Blake, consider this post a nod from one member of the resistance to another. Remember, you’re in this fight to win. Don’t let your fire trick you into fighting against irrationality by scoring points. Because that means letting the Party win.