What's in a name? That which we call a rationalist…

by badger1 min read24th Apr 200992 comments


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Who are we? I've heard a couple of comments about what Less Wrong members should be called lately. "Rationalist" is the word most commonly used, although use of that term might presume we are something we are not. "Aspiring rationalist" avoids that problem, but is awkward to use casually. Something unique to this site might insulate us from the rest of the world, however. 

What are your suggestions? Please make one suggestion per comment to facilitate voting.

Update: I think "Less Wrong reader" works well for referring to members of this site as members of this site, but what are we trying to be in a broader sense? Maybe my intent in asking for suggestions was unclear. Is there a word that could replace "rationalist" in the following titles:

or is "rationalist" just the least bad term?

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the most enduring group-member-name I can think of off the top of my head is "mason" -- can anyone think of better?

Now, masons don't actually cut rock. But it's a nice vivid handle anyway, so they use it.

So, in that vein, I'd like to promote the now-deleted suggestion "map-makers," or perhaps "cartographers"

College of Cartographers has a nice secret society ring to it. It's versatile as well. I can imagine it being applied to explorer-adventurers out to conquer terra incognita or a shadowy group governing the world.

I've always enjoyed Lewis Carroll's talk of maps:

"That's another thing we've learned from your Nation," said Mein Herr, "map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"

"About six inches to the mile."

"Only six inches!" exclaimed Mein Herr. "We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"

"Have you used it much?" I enquired.

"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

From Sylvie and Bruno Concluded by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1893.

7Kindly6yOnly a single mile to the mile? I've seen maps in biology textbooks that were much larger than that.
4pure-awesome6ySo much for "the map is not the territory", I guess.
4Jack12yThat name is really, really, cool. The only thing that gives me pause is this: Would we regret a cool, secret society-sounding name? Defending an -ism sounds professional and serious. Would you really feel comfortable explaining to a complete stranger or a skeptical family member that you're part of a group called the College of Cartographers? And that this has nothing to do with actual maps. I take it we want a name with which to engage the rest of the world– not a name that best refers to a secret society of rationalists in a science fiction novel. Still its a really cool name so if you want to start a secret society...
3MBlume12yTo quote [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ak/twelve_virtues_booklet_printing/6v6] our Master Cartographer:
6Jack12yFrom Roko's response So as not to make this an a discussion via dueling quotations let me add something of my own. In addition to not attracting the most sober, rational folk we want to not alienate people who think themselves rational, sober minded people. Such people might not recognize the truth if it bit them on their behind. They'll pay attention to form more than content and they'll take a serious form to be a sign of serious content. The reason to care what they think is two fold. First, everyone has family like this and I think recruiting is probably easier when your group is respected and without stigma. Second, these people sometime guard gates to influence- school boards, university department heads, etc. So if you have an agenda for a rationalist-type education system, strange probably hurts. No?
4MBlume12yI'm not so sure. Secret societies are considered strange right now, but the masons wielded power and influence for hundreds of years. It seems to me likely that secret societies aren't fashionable right now. And if we form an amazing, effective secret society, they could become fashionable. The question is, would the trappings of a rationalist conspiracy help or hurt us in the long run? Of course, it would be a lot more fun to do it this way.
5Jack12yEntering rationalist porn territory- but one option would be doing both. You'd have a respectable, serious organization that conveyed legitimacy to certain important ideas that are advocated in public. But the organization would really be a front for the secret society of cartographers.
2SoullessAutomaton12yOf course, any society being discussed on a public web site isn't terribly secret...

Which is exactly what we'll point out when we're accused of being a front organization for some secret society: "Absolutely. Here's our website about it. Sorry, I'm all out of pamphlets summarizing our conspiracy, but I can get some to you tomorrow." :)

1badger12ySome people have speculated that facetiously adopting cult features could help us ward off cultishness, but you're right that we don't want to advertise ourselves as that.
1Vladimir_Nesov12yCartography seems to be about trivia, like Cyc [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyc]. Doesn't seem to be the right connotation.
5badger12yThat reminds me of a scene from the Arrested Development pilot.
0byrnema12yCool! I suggested Map Makers, but I like 'Something' of Cartographers better. ... Love the self-deprecating Lewis Carroll/Borges association with creating a map that looks just like reality (same scale, etc).
4byrnema12yDriving some days ago, I realized I had mixed up my cardinal directions. I'll need to completely remake my mental map of that part of the city, and that that will take some work because I am quite used to thinking of it the other way. I think this is nicely analogous to my experience with trying to be more rational: it's a willingness to amend the map, even though it requires some effort. The map wasn't so bad, but can be better.
4Vladimir_Nesov12yCartography -- the science or art of making maps (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) A Cartographer is not just a Map Maker, but a Scientist and an Artist of Map Making.
0MBlume12yIndeed, I would not have hit "Cartographers" if you hadn't suggested it.

A week ago I would have thought this was a silly discussion. As I've thought more about LW's group nature, I've realized that this kind of cultural thing does matter.

It feels group-narcissistic to waste time on this, but the small difference this makes will be magnified over years and hundreds of thousands of repetitions. E.g.: at some point a major news outlet will do an article on OB/LW, and it will repeatedly use whatever the self-moniker is, and impressions of OB/LW will be slightly altered. (Parallel: I can't stop being marginally more negative on Google because their employees call themselves "googlers.")

The name will also subtly affect internal psychology and self-perception, and act as a slight magnet or a slight repellent over time.

It's worth taking the time to think about this and work on it, even if it takes a couple of weeks. Don't give up if the right answer doesn't show up in the next twelve hours.

I don't think choosing a convenient name for our community is wise. Doing so strengthens the separation between us and other communities, and brings along a lot of tribal instincts that we'd be better off without.

So "Less Wrong reader" will do fine. It works better in conversation, too: if you ask someone whether they're a rationalist, and they aren't, then they won't know what you're talking about; if you ask someone whether they're a Less Wrong reader, and they aren't, they'll at least know what you mean, and might visit the site later.

2badger12yOne advantage of using something unique to our community, like cartographer, is that it doesn't have any pre-formed associations in epistemology or science. If we use it consistently and well, there is always a chance it will catch on more broadly. To counteract the inclusiveness it might bring (e.g. Rattlers vs. Eagles at Robbers [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbers_Cave_Experiment] Cave [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/12/the-robbers-cav.html]), we can make an effort to honorarily induct others doing good work. Greg Mankiw did a good job marketing the Pigou Club [http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/10/pigou-club-manifesto.html] by identifying those with similar views to him.
-1[anonymous]12yIf we carry on as we seem to have begun, Less Wrong will be to rationalism as the Royal Society was to Natural Philosophy. "Less Wrong reader" will sound like "Fellow of the Royal Society". Not a bad epithet, I think.

"Optimizer" is the best all-purpose synonym for "rationalist" that I can think of. It applies to both epistemic and instrumental rationality, and captures the notion that all forms of "being really good at something" are subdisciplines of the general Art.

3badger12yI think we want to stay away from names that reference end results, instead of processes. Goal-based names can make it falsely sound like we have already achieved those goals. To me, "optimizer" is most likely to be interpreted as "one who makes optimal decisions", which would be presumptuous. It can also be interpreted as "one who optimizes (but doesn't necessarily succeed)", but this is the same ambiguity that "rationalist" has. For example, "rationalist should win!", but I don't think we should go by "winner". On the other hand, "evidentialist" stays away from most claims about what we are like by referencing a position on the justification of beliefs.
0komponisto12yTo be clear, I wasn't suggesting that we go around calling ourselves "rationalists" or "optimizers"; I was simply pointing out the near-synonymy of those terms as descriptions of what we aspire to be. Also, names for processes themselves probably had better make reference to underlying goals. Mentally separating the two is unhealthy: see Lost Purposes [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/11/lost-purposes.html].

I don't think we should call ourselves anything at all because labeling yourself ("I am X") is simply inaccurate.

Our interactions with the outside world should not take the form
"I've joined a cult"
but instead
"Did you know ?"
"Wow, where did you get this?"
"Follow this link."

8Vladimir_Nesov12yYou may as well stop thinking, because thinking of X with a map of X is simply inaccurate.
0Paul Crowley12yMuch of what we here appreciate that is not widely appreciated elsewhere is not a pick-and-mix collection of rationalist tips, but a coherent body of thought with complex interdependencies [http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~andwhay/graphlist.html], which in my opinion adds up to a coherent programme to set out what rationality is and how to achieve it, and a taxonomy of the ways you can think you've solved a problem when you haven't. We'll draw people in with the tidbits, but at some point we're going to have to talk about the meat of it, and it would be nice to have a name for that.

Aspiring rationalist

2Z_M_Davis12yI still like aspiring rationalist: rationalist, by which I understand one who behaves rationally, modified by aspiring, which I understand to imply the proper humility [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2006/12/the_proper_use_.html] of recognizing that none among us is truly rational, that there is always ever more we all must learn. (Following badger's update, I do mean we in the most inclusive sense, as most aspiring rationalists are elsewhere [http://lesswrong.com/lw/6g/most_rationalists_are_elsewhere/]: the reason this business of rationality is such a special endeavor is that true beliefs and effective actions are about the closest thing there can be to a universal ideal. The blog is but a device; the community we hope a mere conduit. See also the twelfth virtue [http://yudkowsky.net/rational/virtues].) I don't take seriously the objection that rationalist has been used to refer to other philosophies. I am given to understand that rationality is a standard term in economics and cognitive psychology, and if someone out there is that hellbent on confusing us with Spinoza, I'm inclined to just let them. All this said, of course people can and should call themselves whatever they like.
2[anonymous]12yThis implies to me that it can be achieved, and when it is achieved, it is a simple switch from aspiring X to just plain X.
2SoullessAutomaton12yThis is a good point. Rationalism, as we conceive it, seems to be more of a direction than a destination.
3Z_M_Davis12yBut I thought this was exactly what was conveyed by the word aspiring.
0SoullessAutomaton12yNot necessarily. It just means that we're reaching for a goal that we have not yet attained (possibly because the goal isn't fully attainable, in which case it does mostly collapse to what I said).
1steven046112yBut we're not aspiring rationalists, we're aspiring rational people (at least if "aspiring X" means "aspiring to be X"). Though on the other hand maybe "rationalist" means "one who wields rationality skill", sort of like how a "pianist" is not just someone who approves of pianos.

One reason against rationalist, though not a huge one, is that in philosophy it refers to an adherent of a particular theory of epistemology which is usually held in opposition to empiricism. See Rationalism. Since I'm pretty sure the vast majority of Less Wrong readers stridently oppose rationalist epistemology it could lead to confusion (though obviously only among the relatively small number of people who have studied epistemology).

0Vladimir_Nesov12ySince it's in Philosophy 101 (or so I assume), you don't need to study that much. The meaning of the term shifted over time, it's like appealing to the etymology of some normal word in the already pointless definition debate [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/02/disputing-defin.html].
0badger12yI agree, but is there a good alternative? I've heard a couple of complaints [http://lesswrong.com/lw/co/fix_it_and_tell_us_what_you_did/9k3] that I agree with, but is rationalist just the least bad term?
2Jack12yYou don't like Less Wrong reader? Neither do I, really. I don't think the outcome of this thread will be to produce an agreed upon name by vote. Its sort of like the French trying to keep their language from being polluted by English words- this just isn't how things get named. There seems to be a lot of hesitancy in considering this community a movement with aspirations of anything but improving ourselves. If that's the case I suspect there will never be a standardized name. People will call themselves different things. If on the other hand this site leads to advocating outside the confounds of lesswrong.com the name we end up adopting will as likely as not be chosen by our opponents. Even if that isn't the case what we call ourselves will be decided more or less organically. If we people use rationalist a lot maybe that will be it. I'll likely not use among some of the company I keep. And to contradict the preceding paragraphs... is there something wrong with Bayesians?
4Eliezer Yudkowsky12y(a) Nobody can actually be Bayesian. Nothing made of quarks can be Bayesian. (b) This is such a good existing word that I would be afraid of contaminating it if something goes wrong, and others might not take well to anyone trying to "steal" it.
1Paul Crowley12yDo you mean that they can't use Solomonoff's prior? It's easy for a computer to be Bayesian about a very simple universe, no?
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yA sufficiently small, discrete universe with known physics? Yes. But not in real life. All real-world hypothesis spaces are exponential or larger.
1Vladimir_Nesov12yHmmm... What matters is the structure you can use to represent a hypothesis space for your purposes, not its size in some silly representation. If you can denote 3^^^^3 states as X and get away with it, it doesn't matter that the number of states is 3^^^^3 and not (horror!) 3^^^3.
-2stcredzero12y"Nothing made of quarks can be Bayesian." This could be the premise for a wicked good hard sci-fi whodunnit! (The mystery would be revealed by deducing that the murderer would have to have been a perfect Bayesian, thus revealing the one suspect who is not made up of quarks to be guilty.) Explain?
2outlawpoet12yThe best argument against it is that it isn't really a unique descriptor such that it can be falsified usefully. Most posts and comments on LessWrong would work just as well if the authors were frequentist statisticians, old fashioned logical positivists, or even people who couldn't really do the math. The epistemic viewpoint doesn't actually hang off of a uniquely Bayesian procedure.

My problem with Rationalism as a name would be a risk of confusion with the old 18th century Rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant), opposed to Empiricism (Hume, Locke, Mill), where most of us would probably agree with the latter crowd more.

Some time ago I thought "Bayescrafter" but this word seemed moderately awful then and sounds worse now. I think I actually like x-rationalist better.

(The term beisu-tsukai is what I think "Bayes-user" or "Bayes-crafter" would sound like in Japanese, but I haven't checked this with a native speaker.)

9MBlume12yeventually we're going to need to use these terms out loud -- x-rationalist sounds an awful lot like "former rationalist".
4SoullessAutomaton12yThere's always Bayesian Empirimancer [http://dresdencodak.com/cartoons/dc_059.html]... but that's probably getting a bit too silly.
3MBlume12yMy friend Amanda, who is studying Japanese in order to teach English in Japan, writes:
6SoullessAutomaton12yFor comparison, beisu would be pronounced roughly like "base". If the sibilant in "Bayes" is voiced, as I would expect, then beizu would be more accurate (this actually bothered me a bit when reading Eliezer's earlier stuff, but it seemed too petty to bring up at the time). However, I have seen a few badly-rendered loanwords imported into Japanese in a way that matches the romaji letters to the original spelling, rather than matching the actual phonetics. For extra fun, these would be written as ベイズ使い or ベイス使い (the latter using the unvoiced consonant).
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yHuh. The way I mentally pronounce this seems to be closer to bei-su-tzkai than bei-zu-tzkai, but when I say it out loud, it can come out either way. Does anyone know how "Bayes" itself is standardly written in Japanese?
5SoullessAutomaton12yApparently [http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%99%E3%82%A4%E3%82%BA%E3%81%AE%E5%AE%9A%E7%90%86] it's written as beizu. In hindsight it would have made more sense for me to just look that up in the first place rather than pontificating about transliteration in my previous post. Ah, well.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yWell now I'm torn. Damn it, in writing, "beisutsukai" looks far better than "beizutsukai" and it may even sound better.
3SoullessAutomaton12yCould always handwave something about the fictional world in which the beisutsukai exist as having drifted norms of English pronunciation such that a word-terminal "s" is never voiced, making "Bayes" sound like "base". Other than that, though, beizu remains more accurate, unfortunately.
0JulianMorrison12yYou've already coined the word. Too late to change it!
0PhilGoetz12yNot to me. z's are inherently cooler than s's.
0Eliezer Yudkowsky12yThe suffix applies beyond mahou, though; e.g. mizutsukai for watercaster.
0SoullessAutomaton12yAlso assorted words that are actually in dictionaries, e.g.: kozukai, janitor; zoutsukai, elephant trainer; ryoutoutsukai, two-sword fencer/expert in two fields; &c. Sounds like mahoutsukai and other related uses in fiction are much more common, though. Also note that, as with kozukai, sometimes compound words in Japanese will voice the consonant of the first syllable of the second word. My knowledge of Japanese is not extensive enough to recall when this is done, however, especially in the case of mashing something onto the end of a loanword like ベイズ.
0Pfft5yThe voicing thing is known as rendaku [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendaku]. Generally it's a bit of a mystery when it will and will not happen. This thesis [http://www.linguistics.pomona.edu/awards/files/Low_thesis09.pdf] lists a bunch of proposed rules, two of which seem relevant: * Rendaku is favoured if the compound words are native-Japanese (yamatokotoba). This might be the reason for kozukai vs mahoutsukai, ko is native-Japanese and mahou is sino-Japanese. So by analogy, one would not expect voicing for beizutsukai. * Noun+Verb compounds exhibit rendaku if the noun is an "adverbial modifier" but none if it's a direct object. In "using magic" 魔法を使う magic is a direct object, so no voicing. On the other hand kozukai ('little servant'?) is an Adjective+Verb, which explains the voicing. In any case, I guess the upshot is that we should expect beizutsukai, without rendaku,
0[anonymous]12y"member of the Bayes-based [or probability-based] community"?

I've been thinking "evidentialist" was a good label, and I finally just bothered to google it. Nothing on its wikipedia page looks particularly objectionable (and if the objections were minor, its small footprint suggests hostile namespace takeover is possible). Thoughts?

1badger12yI like this. It is a little awkward, but evidentialism appears to be very close to what we mean by epistemic rationality here. I'd be interested to hear if someone has an idea how Bayesian priors might fit in with evidentialism. My guess is that an evidentialist would say that pure priors are not justified, but gain justification as you incorporate more evidence in. However, we do generally have a sense that some priors are better than others. Is that belief justified by evidence?
0loqi12yThat sounds right to me, except that it's not really the priors gaining justification, it's the posteriors. Subtracting the prior from the end result wouldn't change the level of justification. A tricky question. Our belief about a prior is different than the prior itself. So we may have a justified belief about a prior (e.g., we have evidence that we live in an ordered universe, so Occam priors have a head start), but we can't exactly "use it" on priors, because that just generates a posterior. I feel a bit uncomfortable bandying about the word "justification" as if it's a useful primitive. As a label, I like "evidentialist" more for its immediate connotative value than for the final result of peeling through layers of arbitrary philosophical wordplay involving things like "justification" to see what we find. Evidence at least has a clean, useful definition under the Bayesian umbrella.
0Jack12yWell I'd reprise my objection to stealing the names of obscure-among-the-general-population theories of epistemology. And if you don't care about that objection then I think rationalist has the edge over evidentialist. It's also awkward sounding and I'm not sure it captures the feel of what we're doing. Our concern hasn't been with the evidence so much as how the evidence is processed.
1loqi12yI find both terms a bit awkward, neither completely satisfactory in a denotative sense (they don't hold a candle to "Bayesian" in that regard). I think rationalist comes off as a bit more hubristic. Naming ourselves does draw artificial lines, implying that we're "more of that" than others. So when we call ourselves rationalists, we imply that the other party is irrational. When we call ourselves evidentialists, we imply that the other party isn't paying enough attention to evidence. The latter seems less immediately offensive, and I would expect a less defensive reaction in turn.

I think the 'identity' we're ascribing to the nascent community here is more complicated than any existing labels. Maybe we could build one, but I don't think there is one now.

I generally label myself contextually, in response to kinds of evaluation being made in the conversation or missive:

When I'm trying to emphasize my commitment to quantifiable, established knowledge or highlight my rejection of a concept of school of thought I feel falls outside that, I call myself a Scientist.

When the discussion centers on reflective beliefs, conceptual methodology,... (read more)

0outlawpoet12yOh, um, in case it wasn't clear, I think everybody would have their own array of negative and positive descriptors. I don't think we're that similar.


-2Mulciber12yThat sounds like someone who rationalizes, which is something we should be avoiding. It's weird that trying to rationalize something can go against rationality, but that's English for you. Edit: I assume this was downvoted so heavily because I failed do the constructive thing by providing a suggestion of my own. Sorry about that. How about something based on the name of the site? LWite, LWer, LWan? Or maybe a more pronounceable version like Lewite, etc.

Before you try to name it, don't you think you should try and set out what it is you're trying to name? It sounds like it's not just the habit of reading and commenting on this website, so what is it?

I've had a go at answering this in my post about spreading the word, but I don't know how much people would agree with my description; it's also worth people checking carefully to what extent what I describe sets out a distinctive programme and whether there are applause lights hiding in there.

Also: "Less Wronger" is ugly but memorable.

I love the word "aspiring." It feels...aspirational. Humble.

I don't like "Less Wronger" or other names that are about the affiliation rather than the thing itself.

The Mutual Admiration Society of Yudkowskyians.

If we're going for pejoratives, I prefer "epistemology fascist".

0Annoyance12yThe name isn't pejorative. It's the only thing that the non-critics here actually have in common. This is a social site for people to post funny stuff, signal that they accept certain non-standard positions such as radical Bayesianism or intended utilization of cryonics while receiving praise and attention for doing do, and entertain each other by creating things to read instead of doing work. If you want a descriptive name for this collection of people, the above is pretty much it. I don't like "epistemology fascist" for a variety of reasons, not least because it could accurately be applied to many people who would not post here because of profound ostensible-ideological differences. Also, I don't think most of the people here really have any clear ideas about epistemology.
2thomblake12ySo what are the critics here for then? Don't they have anything better to do? Is there any profit to be had in criticizing such a site?
[-][anonymous]12y 0

"Optimizer" is the best all-purpose synonym for "rationalist" that I can think of. It applies to both epistemic and instrumental rationality, and captures the notion that all forms of "being really good at something" are in effect subdisciplines of the general Art.

Or, what about "Bayesians"? The only drawback I see is conflation with the Bayesian Conspiracy of Eliezer's fiction.

2Alicorn12yWe could go ahead and identify ourselves with the fiction and call ourselves Conspirators, but perhaps that sounds too negative.
1SoullessAutomaton12y...will only serve to make us sound like weeaboos [http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Wapanese], even if Eliezer seems to be referring to the Book of Five Rings [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Five_Rings] as much as $ArbitraryAnimeSeries.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky12yWell yes I was assuming their Conspiracy was founded by Musashi readers rather than anime fans, though the alternative case certainly makes for an interesting suggestion...
0Vladimir_Nesov12yThere's also conflation with Bayesian superintelligences and the proponents of Bayesian interpretation of propability. Look at the disambiguation list [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian] on Wikipedia!

One label might not work so well for all of us, but one characteristic that we seem to prize is a quantitative approach to epistemology: not requiring airtight philosophical proofs and disproofs if strong evidence is in supply.

One suggestion is to call ourselves "quantitative reasoners", or something pithy along those lines.


I would suggest "utilitarian", but it seems to me that people here use this to mean something else. Does anyone care to explain the distinction?

6outlawpoet12yUtilitarianism is an ethical theory, put forth by John Stuart Mill. It's distinct from confusingly similar technical terms like expected utility, and is definitely not a unanimous ethical position around here.
[-][anonymous]12y -4

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