Telling more rational stories

by AllAmericanBreakfast3 min read17th Jul 202021 comments


Narratives (stories)RationalityCommunity
My composition teacher in college told me that in some pottery schools, the teacher holds up your pot, examines it, comments on it, and then smashes it on the floor. They do this for your first 100 pots.

In that spirit, this post's epistemic status is SMASH THIS POT.

Eliezer’s fundamental genius is that he is a profoundly original storyteller. From fables to fanfic, childhood recollections to water-cooler anecdotes, he has a keen eye for the firings and misfirings of the brain and how they operate in groups, conversations, and within himself. He gestures at scientific literature, references game theory, but narrative is the motor of his argument. His posts are replete with his ideals, visions, fears, and sheer force of personality, imbuing the world with his indelible stamp.

Stories are the motor of Eliezer's rationality, and they are at the same time the root cause of our insanity. You wouldn't cut off your right arm to cure your clumsiness, and so you shoudn't try to put your own story-telling capacity in a straight jacket. The only way to learn its virtues and capacity to lead you astray is to practice it.

I'm no master storyteller, but I motivate some of my music students by telling them tales in which they can go on adventures and earn rewards in exchange for doing what I ask of them. The locations, the events, the moral of the story is all for me. Through practice, I learn how to shape the story in ways that they will respond to. It comes more easily than you might think, but you need feedback and a willingness to take risks.

Somewhere in the effort to systematize rationality, I think the deeply personal nature of this effort got lost. We know self-help is idiosyncratic, and yet...

Maybe your rationality has a different motor that Eliezer's. And perhaps we as a community have moved on. So much of LessWrong's early writings are steeped in scientific findings that died in replication. I read Thinking Fast and Slow on a family vacation in Italy, in between visits to cathedrals in the capitals of ancient superpowers. I was already full of the mix of frustration and idealism that predisposes one to Effective Altruism long before I ever heard the term. Exposure to these ideas can be a catalyst when the reactants are already present, but what keeps the reaction self-sustaining?

To be honest, I never liked Eliezer's writings. The Biblical language, the cutesie fables, the self-aggrandizement. Then I starting asking what made him able to play such a huge role in focalizing a movement for rationality, a movement I think is both personally and globally important.

I started to see the bravery that is required to not only exposure your life, but draw general lessons from it, put forth in such a compelling way that others find it speaking to them. That's a form of identity politics, sure, but I'm a big believer in identity politics. Maybe half our insanity isn't from a failure to look out, but a failure to look within.

My fear about systematized rationality is that it supplies us with methods and expected conclusions, and is thus vulnerable to Goodhart's Law. I'm still a believer in the kind of art that undermines your confidence in the answers it provides. Self-defeating propaganda. The propaganda of doubt.

Still, there are artists who escape the systematizations of the academy, and artists who transcend it. Debussy was the former, Beethoven the latter. Or if you like musical theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Sondheim. Systematized rationality might produce its own genius practitioner.

Eliezer's drive for rationality manifests as much in his palpable distaste, even fear, of his own irrationality as in a sense of desire or need for clearer thought. It's the primordial disgust reaction, the childhood instinct that this seems bad, and I'd better avoid it.

Stories can have that effect. They can become impregnated with a tremendous amount of real-world experience. Like a painting that only becomes more beautiful as the viewer applies their own brushstrokes. You can only really add to a story when you learn to tell your own. Don't shy away from it. Lean head on into it. Storytelling is a political and potentially irrational act, but that's only toxic when there's just one story and it is mandatory. Eliezer put forth new stories, ones we hadn't heard before, and interpreted them in a new light. One way to fight poison is by dilution.

When I was in middle school, my social studies teacher had us simulate ancient Athens. She imposed a rule was that the women couldn't speak in our class debates. Only the boys could vote. What would we do?

I stood up immediately and gave a speech, boldly speaking out against this unjust system and calling on my classmates to vote for women's enfranchisement. The class was unanimously in favor, and that was the end of that.

My teacher found a way to draw us into a new story, to make it real enough for us. And I had an experience of my words having power. For the project could have gone another way. Maybe another boy would have stood and spoken in favor of humiliating the girls in the class. Perhaps they eventually would have rebelled against us.

There were more staid ways to present that lesson. A page out of the textbook, a written assignment. Despite having superficially the same content, I'd have forgotten them, but I never forgot that. A different teacher from 5th grade used to threaten us with textbook reading as a punishment when we got distracted from his genuinely much more interesting presentations.  The medium is the message.

If you wanted to get across the message of rationality through story, what would you disclose? Don't be shy. Just start telling the story that springs to mind. You'll find the reason for it as you go along if you practice telling it enough.