One thousand tips do not make a system

by [anonymous]4 min read30th Nov 201228 comments



So, I've been thinking. We ought to have a system for rationality. What do I mean?

Well, consider a real-time strategy game like Starcraft II. One of the most important things to do in SC2 is macromanagement: making sure that your resources are all being used sensibly. Now, macromanagement could be learned as a big, long list of tips. Like this:

  • Try to mine minerals.
  • Recruit lots of soldiers.
  • Recruit lots of workers.
  • It's a good idea for a mineral site to have between 22 and 30 workers.
  • Workers are recruited at a command center.
  • Soldiers are recruited at a barracks.
  • In order to build anything, you need workers.
  • In order to build anything, you also need minerals.
  • For that matter, in order to recruit more units, you need minerals.
  • Workers mine minerals.
  • Minerals should be used immediately; if you're storing them, you're wasting them.
(Of course, the above tips only work for Terrans.)

Okay, great. Now you have a command center and a bunch of workers. You want a bunch of soldiers. What do you do?

Why, let's look at our tips. "Try to mine minerals." Okay, you start mining minerals. "Recruit lots of soldiers." You can't do that, because you don't have a barracks, so you'll have to build one. "Recruit lots of workers." But wait, recruiting workers and building a barracks both require minerals. Which one should you do? I dunno. "It's a good idea for a mineral site to have between 22 and 30 workers." Okay, you have six; how quickly can you recruit sixteen more workers? What if you have too many workers? "Workers are recruited at a command center." You already knew that! "Soldiers are recruited at a barracks." You don't have one!

Aha, you say, what we need is a checklist of macromanagement habits. Maybe you should put all of those habits in a deck of flash cards, so then you can memorize them all. What if, despite knowing a hundred macromanagement habits, you realize that you're not actually using all of them? Well, that's just akrasia, right? Maybe you need to take more vitamin D or something...

But no, that's not what you need. The "big, long list of tips" is simply not a good way to organize information so as to make it useful. What you need is a macromanagement system.

So, here's a system for macromanagement in Starcraft:
  • If you have unused buildings, have them recruit units [which also uses minerals].
  • If, after the above, you have unused minerals, have your workers build buildings [which also uses workers].
  • If, after the above, you have unused workers, have them mine minerals.
This isn't a perfect system. It is possible that even though you have unused buildings, you will want to build new buildings instead of using your existing ones. And you have a limited amount of attention; it's possible that you will want to pay attention to something other than using your resources to make more resources. The thing is, these are very nearly the only flaws in this system.

What are the benefits of this system over a big list of tips? The system is all-inclusive: to macromanage successfully, you do not need to do anything other than following this system. The system is unambiguous and self-consistent. The big list says that you should spend your minerals on units, and it also says that you should spend your minerals on buildings; it doesn't tell you when to do which. The system does tell you when to do which. The system has three items, instead of eleven, so it's relatively easy to keep the entire system in mind at once. The system tells you exactly when to use each technique. The system leaves some questions open, but it's obvious which questions it leaves open—namely:
  • If you have unused buildings, which units should you recruit?
  • If you have unused minerals, which buildings should you build?
The system tells you when each question is relevant. And how can you answer these questions? Using more systems sounds like a good idea.

We do have a very useful checklist of rationality habits, which has six systems for dealing with things. Here's its system for "reacting to evidence / surprises / arguments you haven't heard before; flagging beliefs for examination":
  • If you see something odd, notice it.
  • If someone says something unclear, notice this fact, and ask for examples.
  • If your mind is arguing for a specific side, notice this fact, and fix it.
  • If you're flinching away from a thought, explore that area more.
  • If you come across bad news, consciously welcome it.
Okay, that's pretty useful, but there are some things I don't like about it. "Whenever such-and-such happens, notice it" simply doesn't work as part of a system; you can't apply such a rule unless you've already noticed that the event has happened. (That's not to say that "try to notice this" is a bad thing to try to do; it's just that it isn't something you can do in a system.)

More importantly, the list I gave simply isn't a "system for reacting to evidence". Suppose I read that a certain food is abundant in some nutrient. This new piece of evidence is not odd, it's not unclear, and it's not bad news. I do not flinch away from it, and reading it will not cause my mind to argue for a specific side. So what should I do with this piece of evidence? I don't know, because I have no system for dealing with it. Should I simply hope I remember it when I need to? Should I memorize it? Should I examine my diet to see if I should incorporate this food? The system is incomplete; it simply doesn't tell you what to do.

Rationality is about obtaining useful knowledge. It's about knowing what questions are worth investigating, and how to investigate them. So a rationality system ought to tell you how to do both of these things. A system for investigating a question might look like this:
  • If exactly one answer is obviously correct, then accept that answer.
  • If no answers are obviously correct, come up with an intuitive guess, and then consider the ways your guess could be wrong.
    • If you cannot think of a guess, then examine the question analytically.
    • If you can think of a guess, but it could be wrong, then ???.
    • If you can think of a guess, and it cannot be wrong, then accept that guess.
  • If multiple contradictory answers appear to be correct, then resolve your confusion.
This system seems complete (apart from that pesky ??? part), but it still raises some questions, namely:
  • How do you come up with good intuitive guesses?
  • How do you determine whether or not a guess might be wrong?
  • How do you examine a question analytically?
  • How do you resolve confusion?
So, it sounds to me like we need a bunch more systems.