The Craft and the Community: Post 16 – 19

16. Selecting Rationalist Groups

Many rationality techniques are individualistic. And Yudkowsky also admits that his whole writing is skewed towards individualism.

But “group rationality” is also important. If you are only effective and rational when you’re alone you probably won’t achieve much in life. And there is rationality stuff that deals with more than one person like e.g. Aumann’s Agreement Theorem.

17. Incremental Progress and the Valley

At any given point in your life, it may be the case, that improving your rationality makes you less happy and productive. But, eventually, you’ll overcome the “valley of bad rationality” and things will get better (or so Yudkowsky argues).

…once you sort yourself out a bit and you aren’t doing quite so many other things wrong, striving for more rationality actually will make you better off.  The long road leads out of the valley and higher than before, even in the human lands.

The more I know about some particular facet of the Art, the more I can see this is so.  As I’ve previously remarked, my essays may be unreflective of what a true martial art of rationality would be like, because I have only focused on answering confusing questions—not fighting akrasia, coordinating groups, or being happy.  In the field of answering confusing questions—the area where I have most intensely practiced the Art—it now seems massively obvious that anyone who thought they were better off “staying optimistic about solving the problem” would get stomped into the ground.  By a casual student.

Yudkowsky is probably right, but sometimes I have the feeling that Lovecraft was right. Maybe, just maybe, knowing “was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält” will destroy your mind.

18. Whining-Based Communities

A somewhat Randian rant:

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.

…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.

I agree to a large degree with this, but please don’t make the opposite mistake and become a self-righteous asshole that has no compassion for the victims of this world.

19. Mandatory Secret Identities

Among the failure modes of martial arts dojos, I suspect, is that a sufficiently dedicated martial arts student, will dream of…

…becoming a teacher and having their own martial arts dojo someday.

To see what’s wrong with this, imagine going to a class on literary criticism, falling in love with it, and dreaming of someday becoming a famous literary critic just like your professor, but never actually writing anything.  Writers tend to look down on literary critics’ understanding of the art form itself, for just this reason.  (Orson Scott Card uses the analogy of a wine critic who listens to a wine-taster saying “This wine has a great bouquet”, and goes off to tell their students “You’ve got to make sure your wine has a great bouquet”.  When the student asks, “How?  Does it have anything to do with grapes?” the critic replies disdainfully, “That’s for grape-growers!  I teach wine.“)

Similarly, Yudkowsky argues that rationality teachers should excel also in real life, e.g. be a good programmer, university professor or something like that. I don’t know, Yvain makes a good counter-argument:

“What does this post even mean? I don’t have access to my own respect function, and I don’t know if I’d mess with it this way even if I did.

If you were to say tomorrow “I’ve been lying about the whole AI programmer thing; I actually live in my parents’ basement and have never done anything worthwhile in any non-rationality field in my entire life,” then would I have to revise my opinion that you’re a very good rationality teacher? Would I have to deny having learned really valuable things from you?

Or would I have to say, “Well, this guy named Eliezer taught me everything I know, he’s completely opened my mind to new domains of knowledge, and you should totally read everything he’s written – but he’s not all that great and I don’t have any respect for him and you shouldn’t either” when referring people to your writing?

Or to put it another way…let’s say there are two rationality instructors in my city. One, John, is a world famous physicist, businessman, and writer. The other, Mary, has no particular accomplishments outside her rationality instruction work. However, Mary’s students have been observed to do much better at their careers than John’s, and every time the two dojos go up against each other in Rationalist Debating or calibration tests or any other kind of measurement, Mary’s students do better. Wouldn’t it be, well, irrational for me to go to John’s dojo instead of Mary’s? Would the Bayesian Police have to surround Mary’s dojo and make sure her students don’t say nice things about her or pay her more money than John is making?”

Yeah, I agree with Yvain. Let’s formulate it this way: If somebody tries to teach you something about rationality, but totally fails at everything else you should at least become suspicious.



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