Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Taboo "rationality," please.

23 Post author: MBlume 15 March 2009 10:44PM

Related on OB: Taboo Your Words

I realize this seems odd on a blog about rationality, but I'd like to strongly suggest that commenters make an effort to avoid using the words "rational," "rationality," or "rationalist" when other phrases will do.  I think we've been stretching the words to cover too much meaning, and it's starting to show.

Here are some suggested substitutions to start you off.

Rationality:

  • truth-seeking
  • probability updates under bayes rule
  • the "winning way"

Rationalist:

  • one who reliably wins
  • one who can reliably be expected to speak truth

Are there any others?

Comments (42)

Comment author: mark_spottswood 16 March 2009 01:07:09PM *  9 points [-]

A good reason to take this suggestion to heart: The terms "rationality" and "rational" have a strong positive value for most participants here—stronger, I think, than the value we attach to words like "truth-seeking" or "winning." This distorts discussion and argument; we push overhard to assert that things we like or advocate are "rational" in part because it feels good to associate our ideas with the pretty word.

If you particularize the conversation—i.e., you are likely to get more money by one-boxing on Newcomb's problem, or you are likely to hold more accurate beliefs if you update your probability estimates based solely on the disagreement of informed others—than it is less likely that you will grow overattached to particular procedures of analysis that you have previously given an attractive label.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 16 March 2009 10:16:38PM 9 points [-]
* one who reliably wins
* one who can reliably be expected to speak truth

Yeah it must have been getting pretty bad if we got to the point that the word could mean two contradictory things. ;-)

Comment deleted 15 March 2009 11:57:31PM *  [-]
Comment author: gjm 16 March 2009 09:02:05AM 7 points [-]

What a ... convenient coincidence ... that we live just past the transition where perfect rationality becomes the optimal strategy. Doesn't it seem a little too convenient?

Comment author: JulianMorrison 16 March 2009 01:17:36PM 2 points [-]

It does make some sense - there is common cause.

Why are we here on this website? Because science got good.

Why is rationality a personal win? Because science got good.

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 12:31:20PM *  [-]
Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 03:00:44PM *  0 points [-]

I voted it down, and this is my reasoning:

  1. The post starts out by saying "me too". This is not helpful.
  2. The post admits that there's evidence of rationalization, and rather than reducing confidence in the conclusion, it merely reaffirms the original claim.
  3. The post throws very strong anthropic and singularity talk around incautiously and (in my opinion) inexpertly. These are controversial and nearly off-topic ideas, and discussion should admit the controversy and treat them cautiously.
Comment author: thomblake 16 March 2009 03:15:09PM 5 points [-]
  1. This point does not seem to degrade the comment.

  2. Rationalization is the standard method of generating explanations - first, one acts, then one comes up with a set of reasons why that happened, which are not necessarily causally related to the action. Wish I had a link to the relevant studies handy.

  3. it's ridiculous to expect a comment to even mention the controversy around the Singularity and the 'anthropic argument'. If you don't know what they are, then you can look them up in all their controversial glory. If you do, then you already know they're controversial. And if something is 'nearly off-topic' then by the definition of 'nearly' it's not off-topic, so I'm not sure what your point is there. And to find a singularity-fan in this crowd should not be a surprise to you; it's another perspective from which to approach the question, and it's clear that this is the perspective of the poster.

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 03:53:45PM *  [-]
Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 04:09:05PM *  3 points [-]

From About Less Wrong:

To prevent topic drift while this community blog is being established, please avoid mention of the following topics on Less Wrong until the end of April 2009:

  1. The Singularity
  2. Artificial General Intelligence
Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 04:57:53PM 1 point [-]

Nick Bostrom's introduction to the Doomsday Argument is an example of smart, cautious discussion of anthropic reasoning.

You should take the fact that the best argument that you can find for the proposition: "Rationality is optimal now, but it wasn't in 1950." is appealing to the Doomsday Argument, as evidence that your brain is in rationalization mode.

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 05:09:52PM [-]
Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 05:14:37PM *  1 point [-]

To falsify the conjunction "Rationality is optimal now" and "Rationality was not optimal previously", you only need to falsify one of the conjuncts. For example, "Rationality is not optimal now" or "Rationality was optimal previously".

EDIT: I said that awkwardly. To change your mind regarding "Rationality is optimal now and rationality was not optimal previously", you would have to change your mind regarding one of the conjuncts. For example, you could accept the statement "Rationality is not optimal now."

Robin Hanson has posted on the costs of rationality.

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 05:39:13PM *  [-]
Comment author: thomblake 16 March 2009 05:46:30PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, you're basically making the doomsday argument. Note that you could use the same reasoning about any question that you expect to come up from time to time, for instance "do I like cheese?"

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 March 2009 05:15:42PM *  0 points [-]

Are you asking an explanation for why anthropic reasoning is bunk?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 March 2009 02:20:46AM 1 point [-]

Thus the shift from a world where map-accuracy and winningness are not the same thing to one where they're identical a posteriori is a nonlinear shift, and in my mind this legitimizes the use of the term "rationality".

Where's the nonlinearity, and why does nonlinearity legitimize the term "rationality"?

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 01:40:13PM *  [-]
Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 March 2009 04:21:48PM 0 points [-]

Thanks; that explanation makes sense.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 March 2009 04:23:15PM 0 points [-]

I voted this up, just for the line "It is my opinion that the balance towards rationality-as-winning being rationality-as-accurate-map has only just tipped." This is plausible and interesting.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 17 March 2009 12:08:17AM 3 points [-]

Human psychology is so weird that having correct beliefs actually works against winning reliably. For example, having correct beliefs requires you to make a special effort to seek evidence that your beliefs are wrong, making you less certain than others and therefore less determined.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 March 2009 02:17:39AM 3 points [-]

I think it's fine to use the terms if you say what you mean by them, and not especially bad to use them even if you don't. We can't define all our terms. Why single those ones out as problematic? More potential for confusion lurks in the words we're not watching as closely.

Comment author: timtyler 16 March 2009 07:01:45AM 3 points [-]

Re: Are there any others?

Well, yes. Rationality, the way I think of it, isn't about "winning" or "truth-seeking".

If you think of a cybernetic diagram of an organism - like this:

Sensory input -> Computations -> Motor output

...then I think "rationality" needs to be confined to the middle unit. It is a computational process. You might need some motor output in order to be able to detect it - but that isn't part of rationality itself.

Truth-seeking is a goal. It is one goal among the many possible that it is possible to rationally pursue. Rational agents often adopt truth-seeking as a proximate goal - whatever they want to do - but embracing false beliefs is sometimes rational too - it depends on what your goal is.

For me, rationality has a lot to do with the valid use of inductive and deductive reasoning in pursuit of a goal.

Comment author: AndySimpson 17 March 2009 02:22:50AM 1 point [-]

I think "probability updates under Bayes' rule" is very clever and highly accurate, and it gets to just what you're talking about. Also, since this thread is trending towards everyone defining (or at least characterizing) rationality for themselves, here goes: rationality is what happens when evidence is recognized by a consciousness, subjected to ordered thought, and used to form or modify beliefs.

That's as close as I can get to "correct" for myself with a few minutes of thought and natural language. It seems to fit with the notion of rationality as a computational process.

Comment author: Annoyance 16 March 2009 01:38:24AM 3 points [-]

I will not cease using perfectly good words.

I will, however, ask that people be prepared to define and explain the words when they use them. Words are problematic only when they become empty signifiers, labels attached to nothing.

Comment author: mark_spottswood 16 March 2009 05:30:45PM 3 points [-]

Words can become less useful when they attach to too much as well as too little. A perfectly drawn map that indicates only the position and exact shape of North America will often be less useful than a less-accurate map that gives the approximate location of its major roads and cities. Similarly, a very clearly drawn map that does not correspond to the territory it describes is useless. So defining terms clearly is only one part of the battle in crafting good arguments; you also need terms that map well onto the actual territory and that do so at a useful level of generality.

The problem with the term "rationality" isn't that no one knows what it means; there seems to be wide agreement on a number of tokens of rational behavior and a number of tokens if irrational behavior. Rather, the problem is that the term is so unspecific and so emotionally loaded that it obstructs rather than furthers discussion.

Comment author: MBlume 16 March 2009 01:40:35AM 4 points [-]

Words are problematic only when they become empty signifiers, labels attached to nothing.

this is precisely what I'm worried about -- that eventually we'll be using "rationality" to mean "things that LW readers like"

Comment author: Annoyance 16 March 2009 01:42:01AM 1 point [-]

Y'know how we get around that? Insist on definitions. They're still pretty sparse on the ground, here. And the one that's had the most publicity is a very poor match for the generally-accepted meaning of the term.

Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 01:54:07AM *  4 points [-]

Normally, people manage to communicate using our informal, muddly, complicated, natural language abilities. Sometimes this breaks down when we're discussing value-laden or highly abstract concepts.

Breaking words down into definitions doesn't solve the problem - the components that you define with need to be communicated, too. This lowest-level communication needs to be informal, non-defined primitives.

Tabooing words reboots the informal process of achieving communication, without the fuss of arguing about whether a definition is correct, or queries about which definition you are using.

Comment author: Annoyance 16 March 2009 06:49:49PM 5 points [-]

"Normally, people manage to communicate using our informal, muddly, complicated, natural language abilities."

I think that, in actuality, they don't. Or rather, they communicate very little: mostly by indicating positions that the listener is already familiar with.

Ever try explaining a truly new idea to someone? With most people, I find that if they don't already have a referent, they simply can't understand, because they're not used to extracting complex information from natural language.

Comment author: Johnicholas 16 March 2009 07:21:43PM 2 points [-]

We're in agreement. The position that I was arguing against is something like: "People can't communicate unless they first define their terms." That would be an infinite regress; the only possibility would be that people never manage to communicate.

Comment author: Annoyance 16 March 2009 07:36:38PM 2 points [-]

Okay, I'll accept that.

I offer a restatement: people can't communicate at a complex and abstract level unless their words are first defined in terms of words with already-accepted and -understood meanings.

If I begin to talk about gilxorfibbin without explaining what that is, it's unlikely the context will make it possible for you to know what I'm discussing.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 March 2009 02:32:47AM 4 points [-]

The problem is that definitions are not hierarchical, you never get to the lowest level, because there isn't one. You need to choose a way to the target concept that communicates it as unambiguously as possible. The words spoken by one person guide another on his own map, pointing to the deeper and deeper concepts that require nontrivial arrangements from the words to single out, or even build anew.

Some words are broken, and lead the listener in the swamps. We should avoid these words, and use other healthier landmarks instead. Sometimes it requires a lengthy detour to get around the swamps, but the road is not necessarily any bumpier or conversely more streamlined than what would be expected of the original one.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 16 March 2009 12:00:09AM 2 points [-]

Are there any others?

Eliezer's not saying the obvious so I will...

Hitting small targets in large search spaces to produce coherent real-world effects that steer reality into regions that are higher in your preference ordering.

Comment author: Liron 16 March 2009 06:44:20AM 4 points [-]

You're thinking of "optimization".

Comment author: MichaelHoward 16 March 2009 02:24:25PM *  1 point [-]

It's still a vital part of being rational, at least in some uses of the word, which is the point of the post - to point out the different meanings people might mean when they use the word.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 March 2009 02:17:26PM *  2 points [-]

There was a (tiny) movement about 20 years ago to get people to stop using the word "is". Usually, an "is" renders a judgement while concealing the reasons: "Cindy is sweet. The GPL is stupid and destructive."

I think I can make as good a case for banning "is" as for banning "rationality". And if we should ban "is", what shouldn't we ban? Can you name any words that shouldn't be banned?

Maybe we should just point.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 16 March 2009 08:12:54PM 2 points [-]

For more on this sort of thing, see E-Prime.

Comment author: Nebu 16 March 2009 08:19:11PM 1 point [-]

There was a (tiny) movement about 20 years ago to get people to stop using the word "is". Usually, an "is" renders a judgement while concealing the reasons: "Cindy is sweet. The GPL is stupid and destructive."

I think I can make as good a case for banning "is" as for banning "rationality". And if we should ban "is", what shouldn't we ban? Can you name any words that shouldn't be banned?

I find your arguments a bit muddled and confusing: I can make as good a case for banning genocide as I can for banning pleasure (e.g. by making a very poor case in both cases). That doesn't mean I've established that either one should be banned; nor does it mean that I've established that they are equally "ban-worthy"; nor have I established that the reasons for banning one are in any way related with the reasons for banning the other.

It seems like your arguments for banning "is" is that it could be used to "renders a judgement while concealing the reasons". But if people think it's appropriate to render judgment without concealing reasons, then there's no reason to ban "is", correct?

Contrast this with the argument for banning "rational" in that people here are using it to mean different thing, and we're having a lot of confusion due to not knowing which meaning is intended.

Even if we accept that both arguments are equally logically sound, we might choose to ban one without banning the other based on our values (e.g. if we very highly value the non-concealing of reasons, but don't value lack of confusion, we may choose to ban "is" without banning "rational").

Comment author: AndySimpson 17 March 2009 02:13:26AM 1 point [-]

I think we should be careful of elegant variation, which can be awkward and introduce ambiguity. Rather than simply using sobriquets or synonyms like "truth-seeking", "lucidity", or "ratiocination", we might do better to interrogate each other on what rationality is, and make frequent, almost-repetitive reference to the essentials of rationality. This would work especially well for people with idiosyncratic definitions.

Comment author: billswift 16 March 2009 03:20:09PM 1 point [-]

Very good idea. Too many here seem to have idiosyncratic definitions of these terms.

Comment author: Annoyance 16 March 2009 06:48:06PM 4 points [-]

Wouldn't it be better if people with idiosyncratic definitions just made clear what they were?

Comment author: Sideways 16 March 2009 08:42:04PM 4 points [-]

That's exactly what tabooing "rationality" does--with the added benefit of bringing all definitions out into the open. The conventional definition of rationality should be as explicit as idiosyncratic definitions. Furthermore, people in general are bad at noticing when they have idiosyncratic ideas and tend to assume everyone uses words in the same way they do.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 15 March 2009 11:47:50PM 0 points [-]

Rationalist: one who seeks to only have contagious beliefs, that is, beliefs which are tightly correlated/entangled with reality.

Comment author: Nebu 16 March 2009 08:09:21PM 3 points [-]

Rationalist: one who seeks to only have contagious beliefs, that is, beliefs which are tightly correlated/entangled with reality.

Note that while I agree with Eliezer that "rational beliefs are contagious", I disagree with the claim that "contagious beliefs are rational". See, e.g., religion.

Comment deleted 16 March 2009 12:05:23AM [-]
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 March 2009 12:09:22AM 1 point [-]

When commenting (that is, while writing) you should see a link marked "Help" under the edit box. Click it.

Comment author: zaph 16 March 2009 07:41:36PM -1 points [-]

Error reduction?

Probability or possibility pruning?

Parachute venting? (The mechanism for letting hot air out of an air balloon to bring it back to the ground).

Comment author: Andy_McKenzie 16 March 2009 09:03:05PM 0 points [-]

I agree with this point generally but it is difficult to find specific examples because they will be heavily context-dependent. Ratiocinative is one probably underused word, as is lucid.