Acknowledging Rationalist Angst

by Hazard6 min read6th Nov 201710 comments

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EmotionsRationality
Personal Blog

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.

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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.

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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.

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10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:21 AM
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[Content warning: unpopular opinion.]

[I know that this is not the whole point of this post. I'm just responding to the part that is my personal pet peeve.]

I think it's in general harmful to make excuses for why rationalists are supposed to be weak. Because, you know, they really do wipe the floor with the competition, if they go far enough in the art. Why would you discourage yourself, and others, by saying that for this or other reason it's reasonable to expect rationalists to be unsuited for real-world combat? No it's not! It is painful to hold oneself to high standards, because then failure feels like failure. And yet if you want to walk the path, you won't go anywhere far by going around spending effort on making excuses for why these high standards don't apply to you. Even if the excuse is everyone else around is just the same, and even when this is in fact mostly what happens. Bah! You'll still do better if you can think I will not invent convenient excuses for failure, no matter how reasonable they sound.

I agree with you. Rereading my post, I do see a bit of a "rationalist apologist" vibe that I didn't want.

I could have been clearer by emphasizing, "Here's one particular reason why some of us were/are failing. Given that this could be your problem, here's how to overcome that problem and continue on your path to being able to wipe the floor with the competition."

I think I know what you mean by "rationalists really do wipe the floor with the competition." But in the interest of precision, what do you mean? I'm not convinced they do; I alluded to this in my post here: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/dPLLnAJbas97GGsvQ/leave-beliefs-that-don-t-constrain-experience-alone

It may be that the community already has a standard article on this; I'd be happy with a link. It may also be that I should read more rigorously about what exactly a rationalist is. If there is no standard article, I'm curious about your thoughts.

It's not something there are standard materials on, and I duly acknowledge that the bar to make you take off because of rationality is pretty damn high. If you never did, try to personally meet some of the handful of "recognized celebrities" of the rationality community, and take a close look at what they do.

I agree that we should always be very careful before we allow ourselves an excuse, but I also believe that rationalists don't seem to succeed as much as we might naively expect and that if we want to do better, we'll have to first identify the source of he problem. Hazard manages to offer a really interesting take on this: that we underestimate the difficulty of improving on social norms from first principles (I provided some examples of how normal thinking can be better than we'd expect in my recent post on De-centering Bias). Unless we fully recognise the benefits of normal person thinking, it is going to be very easy to come up with a plan of action that is actually worse. And, I feel that we often do fall into this trap, because normal people are doing what they are doing either unreflectively or just because that is what everyone else is doing and we assume that just because we have put more thought into it than them, surely we'll get a better outcome. Once we realise that this issue exists, we can be more cautious in rejecting social norms or in doing anything too weird and hopefully actually end up more successful than average. (As Elizier says, it is dangerous to be half a rationalist).

I'm reminded reading this a lot of my own angst experiences.

Maybe somewhere around 12 or 13 I discovered something fishy was going on. As a kid growing up in a secular Protestant household I never went to church and knew basically nothing about religion, and then all of a sudden my friends starting asking me how I felt about Jesus and if I went to church and what kind of Christian I was. And I was like "what's a Christian?". "Do you celebrate Christmas?" they'd ask. "Yes". "Okay, then, you're a Christian. Why don't you come to my prayer meeting???"

Well this all sounded like a lot of nonsense to me but I didn't really have any answers or know much of anything about religion, so it took until I was in college to really get a grasp on what was going on. In the mean time I found myself excluded from plenty of activities because I wasn't into talking about that Jesus dude, so I mostly felt resentment towards Christianity for making me an outsider to my friends.

So eventually I stumbled my way in to figuring out what was going on and realized I was an atheist back when that was a far dirtier word. And for maybe 4 years or so I was pretty pissed off about the whole thing. Why does what I think about this matter so much to other people? Why do they want me to do this thing with them that I don't want to do? Why are they judging me about this and why do I have to hide it? So it took a while for me to get comfortable with the reality of who I was and how others felt about it and how society worked and during all this time I was plenty angsty, knew it all, and really, really, really didn't want any religion around.

But now things are different. I've come to understand that religions are mostly about ritual and community and not very much about beliefs but instead use belief as a tool for constructing community through rituals. The Solstice celebrations felt a bit icky to me but I got used to them and eventually this got me to a point where I could look religion in the eye and see it as it is so much so that I was able to become a Buddhist and join a sangha when I saw that Zen practice was the mostly likely thing to help me continue my cultivation and personal growth despite very much having dismissed it and everything else religious as not really for me.

So now that I'm out the other side I'm happy I had all that angst, because it powered thinking that eventually led me to where I am. To me now it seems like angst and resientment are the right response to have to your situation, mine, and the general scenario you describe, and it's fortunate if we can provide someone in such a situation with an environment that holds their needs while giving them space to grow. Transhumanism and rationality were that for me, and I hope we can continue to provide such an environment to future feelers of angst.

This post seems to mesh really well with Zeroing Out Both are about how the status quo has a lot of valuable knowledge, and shouldn't be rejected entirely; in my case, reading one after the other helped both of them click..

I completely missed this link between these two articles, but they definitely both add to each other's meanings.

I'm going to write soon about how I don't care about existential risk, and how I can't figure out why. Am I not a good rationalist? Why can't I seem to care?

In one compound sentence: Personal demons made me a rationalist; personal demons decide what I think/feel is important.

I'm still angsty!

I've had this issue too. I feel a lot of frustration sometimes that the world is set up set inadequately. I actually became quite cynical. One thing that helped me was when I realised that I needed to both accept the truth of many of my cynical obervations, but also move forward. I called this being "Post-Cynical" and I shifted my identity to this. By tying this way of thinking to a particular word, I've found it much easier to bring my thoughts back into alignment and it doesn't worry me as much any more. (Part of the issue may have been that I couldn't deny the truth of cynical observations, but I also didn't want to be cynical because people tend not to like it when someone is being a downer. Adopting this keyword helped me figure out how to navigate this, especially since it ties into identity which is an incredibly powerful force).