I have said a thing or two about rationality, these past months. I have said a thing or two about how to untangle questions that have become confused, and how to tell the difference between real reasoning and fake reasoning, and the will to become stronger that leads you to try before you flee; I have said something about doing the impossible.
And these are all techniques that I developed in the course of my own projects—which is why there is so much about cognitive reductionism, say—and it is possible that your mileage may vary in trying to apply it yourself. The one's mileage may vary. Still, those wandering about asking "But what good is it?" might consider rereading some of the earlier posts; knowing about e.g. the conjunction fallacy and how to spot it in an argument, hardly seems esoteric. Understanding why motivated skepticism is bad for you can constitute the whole difference, I suspect, between a smart person who ends up smart and a smart person who ends up stupid. Affective death spirals consume many among the unwary...
Yet there is, I think, more absent than present in this "art of rationality"—defeating akrasia and coordinating groups are two of the deficits I feel most keenly. I've concentrated more heavily on epistemic rationality than instrumental rationality, in general. And then there's training, teaching, verification, and becoming a proper experimental science based on that. And if you generalize a bit further, then building the Art could also be taken to include issues like developing better introductory literature, developing better slogans for public relations, establishing common cause with other Enlightenment subtasks, analyzing and addressing the gender imbalance problem...
But those small pieces of rationality that I've set out... I hope... just maybe...
I suspect—you could even call it a guess—that there is a barrier to getting started, in this matter of rationality. Where by default, in the beginning, you don't have enough to build on. Indeed so little that you don't have a clue that more exists, that there is an Art to be found. And if you do begin to sense that more is possible—then you may just instantaneously go wrong. As David Stove observes—I'm not going to link it, because it deserves its own post—most "great thinkers" in philosophy, e.g. Hegel, are properly objects of pity. That's what happens by default to anyone who sets out to develop the art of thinking; they develop fake answers.
When you try to develop part of the human art of thinking... then you are doing something not too dissimilar to what I was doing over in Artificial Intelligence. You will be tempted by fake explanations of the mind, fake accounts of causality, mysterious holy words, and the amazing idea that solves everything.
It's not that the particular, epistemic, fake-detecting methods that I use, are so good for every particular problem; but they seem like they might be helpful for discriminating good and bad systems of thinking.
I hope that someone who learns the part of the Art that I've set down here, will not instantaneously and automatically go wrong, if they start asking themselves, "How should people think, in order to solve new problem X that I'm working on?" They will not immediately run away; they will not just make stuff up at random; they may be moved to consult the literature in experimental psychology; they will not automatically go into an affective death spiral around their Brilliant Idea; they will have some idea of what distinguishes a fake explanation from a real one. They will get a saving throw.
It's this sort of barrier, perhaps, which prevents people from beginning to develop an art of rationality, if they are not already rational.
And so instead they... go off and invent Freudian psychoanalysis. Or a new religion. Or something. That's what happens by default, when people start thinking about thinking.
I hope that the part of the Art I have set down, as incomplete as it may be, can surpass that preliminary barrier—give people a base to build on; give them an idea that an Art exists, and somewhat of how it ought to be developed; and give them at least a saving throw before they instantaneously go astray.
That's my dream—that this highly specialized-seeming art of answering confused questions, may be some of what is needed, in the very beginning, to go and complete the rest.
A task which I am leaving to you. Probably, anyway. I make no promises as to where my attention may turn in the future. But y'know, there are certain other things I need to do. Even if I develop yet more Art by accident, it may be that I will not have the time to write any of it up.
Beyond all that I have said of fake answers and traps, there are two things I would like you to keep in mind.
The first—that I drew on multiple sources to create my Art. I read many different authors, many different experiments, used analogies from many different fields. You will need to draw on multiple sources to create your portion of the Art. You should not be getting all your rationality from one author—though there might be, perhaps, a certain centralized website, where you went to post the links and papers that struck you as really important. And a maturing Art will need to draw from multiple sources. To the best of my knowledge there is no true science that draws its strength from only one person. To the best of my knowledge that is strictly an idiom of cults. A true science may have its heroes, it may even have its lonely defiant heroes, but it will have more than one.
The second—that I created my Art in the course of trying to do some particular thing which animated all my efforts. Maybe I'm being too idealistic—maybe thinking too much of the way the world should work—but even so, I somewhat suspect that you couldn't develop the Art just by sitting around thinking to yourself, "Now how can I fight that akrasia thingy?" You'd develop the rest of the Art in the course of trying to do something. Maybe even—if I'm not overgeneralizing from my own history—some task difficult enough to strain and break your old understanding and force you to reinvent a few things. But maybe I'm wrong, and the next leg of the work will be done by direct, specific investigation of "rationality", without any need of a specific application considered more important.
My previous attempt to describe this principle in terms of respect bounded by a secret identity, was roundly rejected by my audience. Maybe "leave the house" would be more appropriate? It sounds to me like a really good, healthy idea. Still—perhaps I am deceived. We shall see where the next pieces of the Art do, in fact, come from.
I have striven for a long time now to convey, pass on, share a piece of the strange thing I touched, which seems to me so precious. And I'm not sure that I ever said the central rhythm into words. Maybe you can find it by listening to the notes. I can say these words but not the rule that generates them, or the rule behind the rule; one can only hope that by using the ideas, perhaps, similar machinery might be born inside you. Remember that all human efforts at learning arcana, slide by default into passwords, hymns, and floating assertions.
I have striven for a long time now to convey my Art. Mostly without success, before this present effort. Earlier I made efforts only in passing, and got, perhaps, as much success as I deserved. Like throwing pebbles in a pond, that generate a few ripples, and then fade away... This time I put some back into it, and heaved a large rock. Time will tell if it was large enough—if I really disturbed anyone deeply enough that the waves of the impact will continue under their own motion. Time will tell if I have created anything that moves under its own power.
(Not to mention that—I hope—the thing with the karma will stop the slide into virtual entropy that has destroyed every community I tried to build earlier as soon as I tried to pull back my attention a little.)
My last essay on having a secret identity was not well-received, so let me try again: I want people to go forth, but also to return. Or maybe even to go forth and stay simultaneously, because this is the Internet and we can get away with that sort of thing; I've learned some interesting things on Less Wrong, lately, and if continuing motivation over years is any sort of problem, talking to others (or even seeing that others are also trying) does often help.
But at any rate, if I have affected you at all, then I hope you will go forth and confront challenges, and achieve somewhere beyond your armchair, and create new Art; and then, remembering whence you came, radio back to tell others what you learned.
This is strangely moving.
I almost feel like you're about to die, Eliezer.
Don't leave us hanging, what's going on? Are you cutting back on writing new pieces for LW? Does this mean work on the book(s)? Is that still happening? Are you cutting back to focus more on your, er, other project? Or am I misreading this post and nothing's changing?
In particular, it sounds like the wise-old-mentor-tells-protege-he-won't-always-be-around speech from (nearly) every fantasy novel/movie ever. "Master Eliezer, you can't die!" "Strong am I with the Way; but not that strong. Fortunately cryonics will let me come back as a glowing blue ghost."
Cutting back, yes. Not cutting back to zero. Not now, not yet.
I think you may be expecting too much from us. We're not mostly trained philosophers or psychologists or neurobiologists. We're not even self-trained supermen who can break holes in brick walls with sheer brainpower. We're mostly computer programmers who are looking for something else to read when we should be working.
The main danger for LW is that it could become rationalist-porn for daydreamers.
I suggest a pattern of counterattack:
Find a nonrational aspect of your nature that is hindering you right now.
Determine privately to fix it.
Set a short deadline. Do the necessary work.
Write it up on LW at the deadline. Whether or not it worked.
Edit: I added this as a top level post.
LW is largely rationalist-porn for daydreamers, and that's inevitable. However, even if we can avoid that a little bit, if we can be 95% porn and 5% actually effective, then that's still a win worth having. Better than that is worth thinking about but hard to imagine in practice.
I think we will get more useful results if we have a thread in which we can pre-commit to writing such a thing up by the deadline, for the same reason that there should be a registrar of medical trials: a private commitment won't be as effective in avoiding publication bias.
Actually, I don't think we do too badly. There are an awful lot of very smart people here, and I think we manage to have quite a few discussions at a usefully high level; people are also for the most part remarkably polite, which is no small thing.
I don't think it's implausible to hope that this site might achieve more than entertaining its members, and I think it's worth hoping and working for.
Trade some of your hours to those people from whom I am not expecting too much, then; and maybe even someday, in this era or another, it will not be too much to expect from you. You're right that not everyone can be my target audience for everything I try to teach - at least not in this moment of their lives.
Does this article imply that I missed the Golden Age of Eliezer's writing on Less Wrong?
I couldn't resist reading ahead, and yes, this does indeed deserve a top-level article: David Stove, What Is Wrong With Our Thoughts.
I strongly agree that people who try to improve on rationality usually jump off a cliff, but I strongly disagree with the claim that this is the first thing they do even if they are smart.
Seth Roberts is a great counter-example. He eventually jumps off a cliff, hey you have done so too on occasion, though you always recovered and he hasn't, but his criticisms of existing practice and proposals for improved practice remain valid.
Hegel is a grossly unfair example, totally unrepresentative the class "great thinkers in philosophy" and recognized as a fraud by very many within philosophy. Many great philosophers are more like Seth Roberts, or early Eliezer for that matter.
If you don't attempt to do something while you develop your rationality then you're not constraining yourself to be scored on your beliefs effectiveness. And we know that this makes you less likely to signal and more likely to predict accurately.
Articles longer than, say, 1000 symbols should be prefaced with a tl;dr (kind of like an abstract, but not quite). One fourth into the article and I still don't know what are you talking about.
There is a minimum amount of rationality you need to not flunk reason.
Humans don't have it by default but I've given it to you now.
I'm going to be busy for awhile.
Go be rationalists.
I like it :-) but I'd put it slightly differently myself.
The issue of racial imbalance on Less Wrong has gotten considerably less attention than gender imbalance. Is this because race is largely socially constructed, and thus not considered a meaningful division? Or is the issue of racial imbalance in this community simply too sensitive to touch?
I'd like to know why rationality is constantly referred to as an art instead of a science.
The defining feature which distinguishes one from the other is that arts don't have self-referential procedures to improve performance and eliminate error; there are supposedly no universal methods to guarantee the production of art.
Why isn't this forum concerned with developing the science of rationality?
The issue of racial imbalance has gotten considerably less attention than gender imbalance. Is this because race is largely socially constructed, and thus not considered a meaningful division? Or is the issue of racial imbalance simply too sensitive to touch?
All hail the glorious master! Your disciples hear you and obey!
You dare compare me to some pathetic little God?
He's actually just engaged in malapropisms. "Go forth, and create the Art!" "Shut up and multiply!"