Ancient Greek famously made a distinction between 3 kinds of knowledge: doxa, episteme, and gnosis.

Doxa is basically what in English we might call hearsay. It's the stuff you know because someone told you about it. If you know the Earth is round because you read it in a book, that's doxa.

Episteme is what we most often mean by "knowledge" in English. It's the stuff you know because you thought about it and reasoned it out. If you know the Earth is round because you measured shadows at different locations and did the math that proves the only logical conclusion of the results is that the Earth is round, that's episteme.

Gnosis has no good equivalent in English, but the closest we come is when people talk about personal experience because gnosis is the stuff you know because you experienced it. If you know the Earth is round because you traveled all the way around it or observed it from space, that's gnosis.

Often we elide these distinctions. Doxa of episteme is often thought of as episteme because if you read enough about how others gained episteme you may feel as though you have episteme yourself. We discover this is not true, though, when we actually develop episteme of something we previously only had doxa of episteme of, like when we try to teach another person something and discover we didn't understand it as well as we thought we did. Similarly, episteme is sometimes mistaken for gnosis because episteme may allow you to always get the expected answer the way gnosis usually lets you, but only so long as you put in the effort to reckon epistemologically.

Many rationalist thinkers focus heavily on episteme and the doxastic logic used to combine facts. This is fine as far as it goes: you need to be able to develop well-formed episteme from facts if you want to have much chance of winning. Humans are notoriously bad at episteme and it takes considerable training to become good at it, and episteme requires constant maintenance to remain accurate. We cannot hope to be rationalists if we cannot master episteme.

But there is something more if you want to walk the Way. It's not enough to know about the Way and how to walk it; you need gnosis of walking. And I know this (doxastically, epistemically, and gnostically) from listening to others describe their experiences, reasoning about epistemology, and remembering my own experience learning to walk the Way.

This would be a purely academic distinction if it weren't for the fact that I see many of my rationalist friends suffering and finding consistently that those who suffer the most tend to be those with the least gnosis of rationality. And this is further complicated because those with gnosis do not always have the most episteme, so those more skilled at epistemic rationality may reasonably ignore the doxa of gnostic rationalists as confused at best and self-deceptive at worst. And so I find myself between a rock and a hard place because I see my friends suffering and I know (epistemically) how they can be helped but I don't know (gnostically) how to help them.

All I know how to do is leave breadcrumbs for those without so much dust in their eyes that they can see the breadcrumbs well enough to keep following the Way when they find they are no longer walking it. This, however others may perceive it, has been the motivating goal, at least for me, with what we've lately been calling "metarationality". That is, to figure out how to help our epistemically rationalist friends learn to be gnostically rationalist. My writing and the writing of David Chapman, Kevin Simler, Sarah Perry, and others is a way to gain doxa and maybe even episteme of our gnosis, but other than maybe Chapman's proposed curriculum, we have not really found a reliable way to guide people towards gnostic rationality.

But maybe "gnostic rationality" is a better name than "metarationality", and one more people can get behind. After all, I already see primarily epistemic rationalists engaging in practices to develop gnosis through things like comfort zone expansion (CoZE) and using the double crux in their own lives when the stakes feel high, and gnostic rationality, by the very nature of being rationality, does not work without episteme enough to judge what may help you win and what may not. Thus it is not that anyone is seeking to go beyond rationality so much as fully engage with it, not just with our words (doxa) and minds (episteme), but also with our hearts (gnosis). This is the Way of gnostic rationality.


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I like the distinction between doxa, episteme, and gnosis, and the application to rationality and people attempting to walk the Way. Upvoted.

I don't understand the connection to metarationality. (This does not necessarily mean that you should try harder to explain the connection; another possible response is to just keep talking about things like doxa, episteme, and gnosis.)

Ultimately it's all about the same stuff, but explained from different perspectives as I develop a deeper understanding that lets me see it in different ways. I find I often knew things I didn't know I knew when I hope ideas up to different lights, and I view doing this as a key process for developing understanding.

Hi gworley! I've moved this post off the frontpage and back to your personal user blog. This post is an edge case as it has some fine and interesting ideas in it; the reason I've moved it is because it reads to me as a post for which being interested in and able to understand all of it requires having a social connection to the rationality community and knowledge of its history (in particular, the last two paragraphs of the post, and thus much of the discussion that ensued). In general the frontpage is for discussion of interesting ideas, not for things like news, recent events, social coordination, or announcements (check out the frontpage content guidelines for more info).

This essay seems perfectly clear until it reaches the phrase "It's not enough to know about the Way and how to walk it; you need gnosis of walking." I completely failed to understand it. I presume that "the Way" means "rational thinking" and we established that "gnosis" means "personal experience" (I would say "direct experience"), so what you're saying here is "you need direct experience of rational thinking?" What does it mean apart from just "you need to think rationally?"

The rest of essay did nothing to clarify this point and thus was mostly lost on me. Maybe it's only supposed to make sense for those familiar with so called "metarationality" and the other links? If so, it might be okay, but I wish you said it explicitly. On the other hand, if it's supposed to be an advertisement for "metarationality" and so forth, I'm afraid it does a very poor job. I finished the essay with no understanding of why those concepts are valuable, although it might be a reading comprehension failure on my part?

I think that's fair. I wanted to write this in one sitting so didn't take the time to develop the why here, only reference other places where I point at the why. I didn't write it to be an advertisement, although to be fair literally everything anyone writes is working to spread ideas, even if only weakly. Mostly it was that this connection to the doxa/episteme/gnosis categories became clear enough to me that I wanted to express it.

"Gnostic rationality" is a confusing name because the first association many people will have is Gnosticism.

I'm personally fine with this association and in fact even find it somewhat fitting, though only in a very tenuous way.

"It's not enough to know about the Way and how to walk it; you need gnosis of walking."

Could I have a less metaphorical example of what people need gnosis of for rationality? I'm imagining you are thinking of e.g. what it is like to carry out changing your mind in a real situation, or what it looks like to fit knowing why you believe things into your usual sequences of mental motions, but I'm not sure.

Yep, sounds like you got it. It's like when you quit grad school because you realize you were only staying for sunk costs, or start exercising because you believe in its benefits, and you don't have to go through the motion of explicitly figuring this out and then willing yourself into doing it. You knew it, maybe you double check your work to make sure the dark, unobserved processes of your brain didn't make a mistake, and then you just do it because it's the most natural thing in the world, like taking a sip of water when you're thirsty.

So a gnostically rational person with low epistemic rationality cannot figure things out by reasoning, yet experiences being rational nonetheless? Could you say more about what you mean by 'rational' here? Is it something like frequently having good judgment?

Mmmm, these aren't orthogonal dimensions within rationality. We wouldn't call a person who happened to win all the time because they made the right choices without being able to explain why a rationalist; we'd probably just say they are wise or have good judgement.

By "rational" and "rationality" I want to point at the same thing Eli(ezer) does, which he also called the "winning Way". It's something like "the ability to take action that you are happy with" although I'd probably describe it in technical terms as "axiologically aligned intention".

Rationality is an almost inherently epistemic notion because such alignment requires logical reasoning to judge, and in fact understanding how this works thoroughly rigorously seems to be the core of the AI safety problem. Thus even if someone could be accidentally rational without being a rationalist, this is something that is only interesting to those with sufficient epistemic rationality to assess it, and thus there's not really a strong sense in which you can have someone with lots of gnosis of rationality who doesn't also have episteme of it because they wouldn't know rationality in any sense well enough to have gnosis of it.

Ok I am now fairly confident I have understood what you mean, and I really like the name "gnostic rationality". there's still some weirdness in the possibility of gnosis and episteme even being different in the first place, but I think that even though the difference isn't particularly compressible, it's still worth making.

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