Previously in series: Selecting Rationalist Groups
Followup to: Rationality is Systematized Winning, Extenuating Circumstances
Why emphasize the connection between rationality and winning? Well... that is what decision theory is for. But also to place a Go stone to block becoming a whining-based community.
Let's be fair to Ayn Rand: There were legitimate messages in Atlas Shrugged that many readers had never heard before, and this lent the book a part of its compelling power over them. The message that it's all right to excel—that it's okay to be, not just good, but better than others—of this the Competitive Conspiracy would approve.
But this is only part of Rand's message, and the other part is the poison pill, a deadlier appeal: It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down. Surely you would be rich and famous and high-status like you deserve if not for them, those unappreciative bastards and their conspiracy of mediocrity.
If you consider the reasonableness-based conception of rationality rather than the winning-based conception of rationality—well, you can easily imagine some community of people congratulating themselves on how reasonable they were, while blaming the surrounding unreasonable society for keeping them down. Wrapping themselves up in their own bitterness for reality refusing to comply with the greatness they thought they should have.
But this is not how decision theory works—the "rational" strategy adapts to the other players' strategies, it does not depend on the other players being rational. If a rational agent believes the other players are irrational then it takes that expectation into account in maximizing expected utility. Van Vogt got this one right: his rationalist protagonists are formidable from accepting reality swiftly and adapting to it swiftly, without reluctance or attachment.
Self-handicapping (hat-tip Yvain) is when people who have been made aware of their own incompetence or probable future failure, deliberately impose handicaps on themselves—on the standard model, in order to give themselves an excuse for failure. To make sure they had an excuse, subjects reduced preparation times for athletic events, studied less, exerted less effort, gave opponents an advantage, lowered their own expectations, even took a drug they had been told was performance-inhibiting...
So you can see how much people value having an excuse—how much they'll pay to make sure they have something outside themselves to blame, in case of failure. And this is a need which many belief systems fill—they provide an excuse.
It's the government's fault, that taxes you and suppresses the economy—if it weren't for that, you would be a great entrepreneur. It's the fault of those less competent who envy your excellence and slander you—if not for that, the whole world would pilgrimage to admire you. It's racism, or sexism, that keeps you down—if it weren't for that, you would have gotten so much further in life with the same effort. Your rival Bob got the promotion by bootlicking. Those you call sinners may be much wealthier than you, but that's because God set up the system to reward the good deeds of the wicked in this world and punish them for their sins in the next, vice versa for the virtuous: "A boor cannot know, nor can a fool understand this: when the wicked bloom like grass and all the doers of iniquity blossom—it is to destroy them till eternity."
And maybe it's all true. The government does impose taxes and barriers to new businesses. There is racism and sexism. Scientists don't run out and embrace new ideas without huge amounts of work to evangelize them. Loyalty is a huge factor in promotions and flattery does signify loyalty. I can't back religions on that divine plan thing, but still, those wealthier than you may have gotten there by means more vile than you care to use...
And so what? In other countries there are those with far greater obstacles and less opportunity than you. There are those born with Down's Syndrome. There's not a one of us in this world, even the luckiest, whose path is entirely straight and without obstacles. In this unfair world, the test of your existence is how well you do in this unfair world.
I earlier suggested that we view our parents and environment and genes as having determined which person makes a decision—plucking you out of Platonic person-space to agonize in front of the burning orphanage, rather than someone else—but you determine what that particular person decides. If, counterfactually, your genes or environment had been different, then it would not so much change your decision as determine that someone else would make that decision.
In the same sense, I would suggest that a baby with your genes, born into a universe entirely fair, would by now be such a different person that as to be nowhere close to "you", your point in Platonic person-space. You are defined by the particular unfair challenges that you face; and the test of your existence is how well you do with them.
And in that unfair challenge, the art of rationality (if you can find it) is there to help you deal with the horrible unfair challenge and by golly win anyway, not to provide fellow bitter losers to hang out with. Even if the government does tax you and people do slander you and racists do discriminate against you and others smarm their way to success while you keep your ethics... still, this whole business of rationality is there to help you win anyway, if you can find the art you need. Find the art together, win together, if we can. And if we can't win, it means we weren't such good rationalists as we thought, and ought to try something different the next time around. (If it's one of those challenges where you get more than one try.)
From within that project—what good does a sense of violated entitlement do? At all? Ever? What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame? Is that the key thing we need to change, to do better next time?
Immediate adaptation to the realities of the situation! Followed by winning!
That is how I would cast down the gauntlet, just to make really, really sure we don't go down the utterly, completely, pointlessly unhelpful, surprisingly common path of mutual bitterness and consolation.
Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community
Next post: "Mandatory Secret Identities"
Previous post: "Incremental Progress and the Valley"
One of the greatest benefits I've gotten from (westernized) Buddhism is the idea that a resistance to reality is at the root of much unhappiness.
It seems absurd to me that the human mind so constantly wishes that reality was different - I don't see how it serves our evolutionary needs. But while I don't have an explanation, it is amazing how often I find myself denying reality instead of "Immediate adaptation to the realities of the situation! Followed by winning!". For example, when I encounter bad, unexpected auto traffic, whining is such a horribly unproductive reaction that it still boggles my mind every time I do it. Yet in many moods (already tired, stressed) it is my default response.
I think many rationalists would get a lot more personal happiness out of working on this single concept, as well as improving strategy for our causes, than many of the narrower and more complex ideas presented on OB/LW.
Well, I do have quite a bit of the "bitter loser" in me, but I don't go blaming other people for my failures. All I do is waste my time reading blogs on the internet and playing video games, so, as that other guy named Buffett put it, it's my own damn fault.
"But this is only part of Rand's message, and the other part is the poison pill, a deadlier appeal: It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down."
As lethal as I'm sure it will be to speak even faint praise of a person that is so widely hated that expressing loathing of her is a common 'applause light'...
That's not what Rand's message was. It wasn't even part of her message. One of her main points was, to use the classical phrase, that evil is ultimately impotent. The power of evil to harm comes entirely from the failure of good to recognize it and refuse to loan it its own power.
Rand's message was that people were keeping themselves down, that they had bought into ethical and ideological positions and accepted them without questioning, that they had accepted teachings which passed off poorly-disguised wolves as lambs long before they'd developed the critical thinking skills to evaluate the teachings. And that the teachings were that white was black and black was white, etc.
I am often struck that the people who declaim Rand's writings and ideas most vehemently, especially those that use their proclaimed disapproval to win the approval of others, almost always hold up crude parodies of what Rand actually said in the process, and rarely address her actual positions and their strengths and weakness (of which there are many in both categories).
"One of her main points was, to use the classical phrase, that evil is ultimately impotent. The power of evil to harm comes entirely from the failure of good to recognize it and refuse to loan it its own power."
This is a defense of Rand? I agree it's one of her main points. Also completely false, to the point where I consider it a classic error of people trying to reform social systems. The idea that if you can just expose the evil of the system, that will fix the problems.
Intuitive, noble, and totally wrong when applied to a world where evil most often emerges from the behavior systems which are not easily understood or modified.
I do think Rand was being a bit more complex than that. The whole point of "Atlas" is: the heroes are failing to win because they insist on acting as though they were in an ideal fair world, but those who who accept the status quo and work to win inside it will end up burned worse, because the system is structured to corrupt and consume them - meanwhile our heroes escape with virtue intact. "Atlas" constructs a spread of parasitic, beaten, adapting, fair-but-accepting, and fair-and-renouncing characters to illustrate this. Rand is tryin... (read more)
I'm glad to see that many others have pointed out EJ's mistaken interpretation of Objectivism. To add a prototypical passage to demonstrate the error:... (read more)
I always interpreted the 'Looters and Moochers' differently; a corollary to the 'It's okay to Win,' statement saying 'It's okay that others Lose - they did so by their own hand.' Rather than offering an excuse for Rationalists/Ubermenschs/Super-Geeks to say 'Nice guys finish last,' I read it as an indictment of that very behaviour. Only 'Looters and Moochers' make excuses, blame others, and fault circumstances - the Super-Geek Wins despite all of those.
I'd wager that Ayn Rand would agree with me if I said this to her (if she wasn't too busy denouncing me ... (read more)
Doing things other people don't like isn't cheating, but punishing people for doing things you don't like isn't cheating either, and doing things that other people don't like without taking the possible punishment into account isn't rational (= leads to not-winning).
disclaimer: the ranty part is not directed at yudkowsky
"From within that project - what good does a sense of violated entitlement do? At all? Ever? What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame? Is that the key thing we need to change, to do better next time?"
I dunno. I don't follow that many competitive endeavours but the people who cast about looking for excuses after a loss tend to be pretty good. Admittedly the people who go on about what a bitch you... (read more)
I think American Atheists might be better than objectivists as an example of a whining-based rationalist community.
I come hailing as a more learned Objectivist than I was before. This article actually caused me to go find an online Objectivist community for the purpose of observing them to see if your assertion was true. I've found that it is not. I have not met a single "whiny" Objectivist out of all of the Objectivists I now chat almost-daily with.
Objectivism holds a primacy of existence attitude towards reality, as opposed to a primacy of consciousness attitude. This means that reality comes before our wishes, and if we want our wishes to come true, we hav... (read more)
I think it's perfectly possible to maximize your outcome given current conditions while still being resentful that it is only a local maxima and there are much higher hills that you are being prevented from climbing.
You know, I hadn't noticed before, but the claim that rationality should make you win is isomorphic to a similar contention I have about ethics. I guess that shouldn't be surprising since ethics is tied to decision-making, and so is this definition of 'rationality'.
So I'll come out and say it - ethics specifies criteria for judging which (character|actions|outcomes) are the best.
"And if we can't win, it means we weren't such good rationalists as we thought, and ought to try something different the next time around."
This attitude, that somehow, every single obstacle to success or happiness is solved by rationality, is a mistake, I think. People are not in control of the amount of opportunity they have, and i don't think being supremely rational is a sure way to triumph. Victims of slavery and car crashes are extreme examples, but I think there's more subtle situations in which no reasoned plan of action can straightforwardly help you "win."
This raises the question of what positive attributes we can attempt to apply to this little sub-culture of aspiring rationalists. Shared goals? Collaborative action?
Some have already been implying heavily that rationality implies certain actions in the situation most of us find ourselves in, does it make sense to move forward with that?
Is success here just enabling the growth of strong rationalist individuals, who go forth and succeed in whatever they choose to do, or to shape a community, valuing rationality, which accomplishes things?
I think my problem is that far too often I make decisions as if I am in the "should universe" described here:... (read more)
Any Objectivists who believe this have missed half of Ayn Rand's message and are doing Objectivism completely wrong.
Not only did they miss one of the main points of John Galt's three hour long speech in Atlas Shrugged, but people who level this accusation against Objectivism as a whole missed it as well.
The point I'm referring t... (read more)
Well, let's. Other than secondary characters like The Fountainhead's Henry Cameron (a great architect whose spirit has been broken), which of Rand's heroes are like this?
You're showing stellar advertising skills with this WIN thing. I'm nowhere close. Honest applause and upvote. Now we gotta prepare something for the inevitable moment when the masses come and ask us how to WIN.
"There's not a one of us in this world, even the luckiest, whose path is entirely straight and without obstacles. In this unfair world, the test of your existence is how well you do in this unfair world."
Of course shutting up and multiplying, always advancing forward and doing the impossible is the way to go. But as said, the test of instrumental rationality is whether or not you succeed at what you've set yourself up to.
If rationality is being signaled for intellectual honesty's sake alone, or maybe pride, then this signal may not correlate w... (read more)
Another great post, thanks Eliezer! But, if rationality is for you to win, shouldn't you try to keep it a secret from others? Like if you knew a way to make money in the stock market would you spread it if that nullified your advantage?
Winning isn't necessarily zero-sum.
Is it possible that humans, with their limited simulation abilities, do not have the mental computational resources to simulate an irrational persons more effective beliefs?
This would mean that the 'irrational' course of action would be the more effective.
Immediate [and optimal] adaptation to the realities of the situation! Followed by winning!
The first sentence is rationality as process; the second is rationality as outcome [winning].
Shouldn't a "rationality is ..." slogan communicate both aspects, and not just one or the other?
I realize that "systematized winning" sort of hightlights both aspects, but I think that it still seems to imply that it's primarily about winning, when it's about both equally.
I see your point and your purpose, but I have 2 caveats:
The whole issue resists analysis, because "m... (read more)
I would offer that rationality is not a winning strategy, it is a meta-strategy for identifying winning strategies.
I don't have anything to say but...