A few analogies to illustrate key rationality points

by kilobug 5 min read9th Oct 201152 comments



Due to long inferential distances it's often very difficult to use knowledge or understanding given by rationality in a discussion with someone who isn't versed in the Art (like, a poor folk who didn't read the Sequences, or maybe even not the Goedel, Escher, Bach !). So I find myself often forced to use analogies, that will necessary be more-or-less surface analogies, which don't prove anything nor give any technical understanding, but allow someone to have a grasp on a complicated issue in a few minutes.

A tale of chess and politics

Once upon a time, a boat sank and a group of people found themselves isolated in an island. None of them knew the rules of the game "chess", but there was a solar-powered portable chess computer on the boat. A very simple one, with no AI, but which would enforce the rules. Quickly, the survivors discovered the joy of chess, deducing the rules by trying moves, and seeing the computer saying "illegal move" or "legal move", seeing it proclaiming victory, defeat or draw game.

So they learned the rules of chess, movement of the pieces, what "chess" and "chessmate" is, how you can promote pawns, ... And they understood the planning and strategy skills required to win the game. So chess became linked to politics, it was the Game, with a capital letter, and every year, they would organize a chess tournament, and the winner, the smartest of the community, would become the leader for one year.

One sunny day, a young fellow named Hari playing with his brother Salvor (yes, I'm an Asimov fan), discovered a new move of chess : he discovered he could castle. In one move, he could liberate his rook, and protect his king. They kept the discovery secret, and used it on the tournament. Winning his games, Hari became the leader.

Soon after, people started to use the power of castling as much as they could. They even sacrificed pieces, even their queen, just to be able to castle fast. But everyone was trying to castle as fast as they could, and they were losing sight of the final goal : winning, for the intermediate goal : castling.

After a few years, another young fellow, who always hated Hari and Salvor, Wienis, realized how mad people had become with castling. So he decides to never castle anymore, and managed to win the tournament.

Starting from this day, the community split in two : the Castlers and the anti-Castlers. The first would always try to castle, the others never. And if you advised to a Castler than in this specific situation he shouldn't castle, he would label you "anti-Castler" and stop listening to you. And if you advised an anti-Castler to castle in this specific situation, he would label you "Castler" and stop listening to you.

That tale illustrates a very frequent situation in politics : something is discovered which leads to great results, but then is mistaken for a final goal instead of an intermediate goal, and used even when it doesn't serve the final goal. Then some people, in reaction, oppose the whole thing, and the world is cut between the "pro" and the "anti". I used this tale to argue with someone saying to me "but you're a productivist", and it worked quite well to get my point : productivism can lead to huge increases in quality of life, but if it gets mistaken for a final goal (as many people do now, using GDP and economical growth as ultimate measures of success/failure), it leads to disasters (ecological destruction, dangerous or very painful working conditions, disregard of fundamental research over short term research, ...). And people are either categorized as "productivists" or "anti-productivists". But it could apply to many others things, like free market/free trade.

The North Pole analogy

Well, that one isn't any new, I'm using since like a decade, and I'm probably not the only one to use it, but it does work relatively well. It's an analogy used to answer to the "But, what's before the Big Bang ?" question. When I asked that, I can't just start explaining about the mathematical concept of limit, about the Plank time, about theories like timeless physics or quantum vacuum fluctuation, ... so I just answer "What's north of the North Pole ?". That usually works quite well to make people understand that asking what is before the start of time just doesn't have any meaning.

The alphabet and language analogy

That's an analogy that I found very useful in making people understand about reductionism, single-level reality and multi-level map, the fact you can understand (more or less completely) one level without understanding another. It also works very well about brain scanning/mind upload.

Take a piece of paper, with writings on it. Do words exist, I mean, really exist ? They are just made of letters. There is nothing more than letters, arranged in a specific way, to make words. And letters are nothing more than ink. How can consciousness arise from mere neurons ? The same way that the meaning of a text can arise from mere letters. There is only one level of reality : the ink and the paper. And the ink and paper are made of molecules, themselves made of atoms. And we can descend down to QM.

Now, can we understand a level without understanding another level ? Definitely. We can recognize the letters, to be of the roman alphabet, without understanding the languages. We can know them, since we use that same alphabet daily. But if the text is in German and we don't speak German, we won't understand the next level, the one of words, nor the one of meaning.

And can we understand a higher level, without understand a lower level ? If we speak Spanish and the text is in Portuguese, we may understand most of the highest level, the level of the text, without understanding every single word and grammatical rule of Portuguese. So an incomplete understanding of a lower level can give us an almost complete understanding of an higher level. Or even more obviously : even if we know nothing about the chemistry of ink and paper, we can still understand the letters and the higher levels.

But what about mind upload ? « We don't understand the human brain, it's too complicated, so we'll never be able to upload minds. » Well... there are levels in the human brain, like in a text on paper. If given a text in ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, you won't get anything about the text, or won't know the letters. But still, you can duplicate it with a pen and paper, reproducing the exact drawing by hand, if you're skilled enough with a pen. Or, you can scan it, store it on a USB key, and give to an archaeologist. In both cases, you would have duplicated the meaning, without even understanding it. And if you know the alphabet, but not the language, like German for me, you can recopy it much faster, or type it instead of scanning it, leading to a much smaller file that you can send by email and not USB key.

The same way, we don't need to understand human brain at all levels to be able to duplicate it, or to scan it and have it digitalized. If we only know its chemistry, we can scan it at molecule level, it'll be long and require a lot of storage, like scanning the Egyptian text to a bitmap. If we know the working of neurons, and can duplicate it at the level of individual neurons instead of individual molecules, it'll be much easier to duplicate, and require much less storage, like the German text.

(There is a variant of this analogy for geeks, which is about hard disk, file system and file format. You can understand a file system without really knowing how bits are stored on the magnetic plate, and you duplicate a hard disk by doing a block copy even if you don't understand the file system.)

The Lascaux painting and trans-humanism

Speaking about trans-humanism with a fellow coworker, it reached the usual objection : « but it's death that give meaning to our life, just look at all that beautiful poetry that was written because of death and the feeling of urgency it gives ». I tried the "baseball bat on the head once per week" objection, but didn't really work well. So I let the issue go from transhumanism, drifted the topic to art in general, and then I asked : « Do you think we appreciate the Lascaux painting more or less than they did when they painted them, 30 000 years ago ? » and then he said « More ». And then I said « And for the same reasons, in 3 000 years, when the average life span will be counted in thousands of years (or more), they'll appreciate more what we wrote at the time of always near death. » Which partially worked, but only partially, because he admitted we would appreciate existing poetry as much, if not more, than we do now, but he still claimed that we wouldn't be able to write it anymore, and I didn't find anything as simple/strong to answer to that.


Arguing by analogies is very error-prone, but it's the most efficient way I found to cross inferential distances. I would like to hear your opinion and comments about both the principle of using analogies to try to break through long inferential distances. I would also like to hear what you think about those specific ones , and hear your own analogies, if you have some to share.

(PS : I'm still new to Less Wrong, I'm not sure about the exact customs for making top-level posts, if you think it didn't deserve one, please tell me, and accept my apologizes).