The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist

I did a similar experiment on myself when I went on an organized trip to Israel. When we stopped at the Whaling (Western) Wall, I decided to test out my rationality. As you know, you're suppose to write down a wish on a piece of paper and put it in the wall i.e. another way of praying. I decided to write down "I wish my family would die in 2 weeks," and put it in the wall to see if I can do it.

To my surprise, I did feel a bit weird, a little anxious, but after a while I was fine. It is hard to overcome the emotions induced by our biases, but can ... (Read more)(Click to expand thread. ⌘/CTRL+F to Expand All)Cmd/Ctrl F to expand all comments on this post

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I don't like this because there is an entity listening in on what you wrote: you (and now us, I guess, but we're less salient, not knowing your family).

Given that what we say influences how we think, I'm not sure it's a good idea as a rite of passage in general to voice a wish that indicates that you don't care about people you want to continue to care about.

2Multipartite8yThought 1: If hypothetically one's family was going to die in an accident or otherwise (for valid causal wish-unrelated reasons), the added mental/emotional effect on oneself would be something to avoid in the first place. Given that one is infallible, one can never assert absolute knowledge of non-causality (direct or indirect), and that near-infinitesimal consideration could haunt one. Compare this possibility to the ease, normally, of taking other routes and thus avoiding that risk entirely. ...other thoughts are largely on the matter of integrity... respect and love felt for family members, thus not wishing to badmouth them or officially express hope for their death even given that neither they nor anyone else could hear it... hmm. Pragmatically, one could cite a concern regarding taken behaviours influencing ease of certain thoughts: I do not particularly want to become someone who can more easily write a request that my family members die. There are various things that I might wish that I would not carry out if I had the power to directly (and secretly) do so, but generally if doing such a thing I would prefer to wish for something I actually wanted (/would carry out if I had the power to do so myself), on the off-chance that some day if I do such to the knowledge of another the other is inclined to help me reach it in some way. Given the existence of compensation, there is yet the question of what compensation would be sufficient to make me do something that made me feel sullied. Incidentally notable that I note there are many things that would make others feel sullied that I would do with no discomfort at all. ...a general practice of acting in a consistent way... a perception of karma not as something which operates outside normal causality, but instead similar-to-luck just those parts of normal causality that one cannot be aware of... ah, I've reached the point of redundancy were I to continue typing.
14gjm11yI like the idea, except that to me it seems somehow dishonest: to wish for something is (inter alia) to state that one wants it to happen, which I assume was not true in this case. And I think reluctance to be dishonest even when no one else is going to be deceived is a valuable emotion, to counter self-deception. This might just be rationalization (introspecting, it seems to me that I'd be reluctant to do as you did), but I don't think so because similar introspection suggests that I'd be (e.g.) quite unafraid to learn that some group of religious people were praying for my death, unless there were some risk that they or their friends might try to bring it about by natural means.

The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist

by Scott Alexander 2 min read8th Mar 200968 comments


Followup to: Simultaneously Right and Wrong

    "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

          - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

There is an old yarn about two skeptics who stayed overnight in a supposedly haunted mansion, just to prove they weren't superstitious. At first, they laughed and joked with each other in the well-lit master bedroom. But around eleven, there was a thunderstorm - hardly a rare event in those parts - and all the lights went off. As it got later and later, the skeptics grew more and more nervous, until finally around midnight, the stairs leading up to their room started to creak. The two of them shot out of there and didn't stop running until they were in their car and driving away.

So the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality. That happens all the time. Is there any reason to think this story proves anything more interesting than that some skeptics are cowards?

The Koreans have a superstition called "fan death": if you sleep in a closed room with a fan on all night, you will die. Something about the fan blades shredding the oxygen molecules or something. It all sounds pretty far-fetched, but in Korea it's endorsed by everyone from doctors to the government's official consumer safety board.

I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't believe in fan death. But my reactions to spending the night in a haunted mansion and spending the night with a fan are completely different. Put me in a haunted mansion, and I'll probably run out screaming the first time something goes bump in the night1. Put me in a closed room with a fan and I'll shrug and sleep like a baby. Not because my superior rationality has conquered my fear. Because fans just plain don't kill people by chopping up oxygen, and to think otherwise is just stupid.

So although it's correct to say that the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality, they wouldn't have those emotions unless they thought on some level that ghosts were worth getting scared about.

A psychologist armed with the theory of belief-profession versus anticipation-control would conclude that I profess disbelief in ghosts to fit in with my rationalist friends, but that I anticipate being killed by a ghost if I remain in the haunted mansion. He'd dismiss my skepticism about ghosts as exactly the same sort of belief in belief afflicting the man who thinks his dragon is permeable to flour.

If this psychologist were really interested in investigating my beliefs, he might offer me X dollars to stay in the haunted mansion. This is all a thought experiment, so I can't say for certain what I would do. But when I imagine the scenario, I visualize myself still running away when X = 10, but fighting my fear and staying around when X = 1000000.

This looks suspiciously like I'm making an expected utility calculation. Probability of being killed by ghost * value of my life, compared to a million dollars. It also looks like I'm using a rather high number for (probability of being killed by ghost): certainly still less than .5, but much greater than the <.001 I would consciously assign it. Is my mind haunted by an invisible probability of ghosts, ready to jump out and terrify me into making irrational decisions?

How can I defend myself against the psychologist's accusation that I merely profess a disbelief in ghosts? Well, while I am running in terror out of the mansion, a bookie runs up beside me. He offers me a bet: he will go back in and check to see if there is a ghost. If there isn't, he owes me $100. If there is, I owe him $10,000 (payable to his next of kin). Do I take the bet?

Thought experiments don't always work, but I imagine myself taking the bet. I assign a less than 1/100 chance to the existence of ghosts, so it's probably a good deal. The fact that I am running away from a ghost as I do the calculation changes the odds not at all.

But if that's true, we're now up to three different levels of belief. The one I profess to my friends, the one that controls my anticipation, and the one that influences my emotions.

There are no ghosts, profess skepticism.
There are no ghosts, take the bet.
There are ghosts, run for your life!


1: I worry when writing this that I may be alone among Less Wrong community members, and that the rest of the community would remain in the mansion with minimal discomfort. If "run screaming out of the mansion" is too dramatic for you, will you agree that you might, after the floorboards get especially creaky, feel a tiny urge to light a candle or turn on a flashlight? Even that is enough to preserve the point I am trying to make here.