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Whining-Based Communities

60 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 April 2009 08:31PM

Previously in seriesSelecting Rationalist Groups
Followup toRationality is Systematized Winning, Extenuating Circumstances

Why emphasize the connection between rationality and winning?  Well... that is what decision theory is for.  But also to place a Go stone to block becoming a whining-based community.

Let's be fair to Ayn Rand:  There were legitimate messages in Atlas Shrugged that many readers had never heard before, and this lent the book a part of its compelling power over them.  The message that it's all right to excel—that it's okay to be, not just good, but better than others—of this the Competitive Conspiracy would approve.

But this is only part of Rand's message, and the other part is the poison pill, a deadlier appeal:  It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down.  Surely you would be rich and famous and high-status like you deserve if not for them, those unappreciative bastards and their conspiracy of mediocrity.

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.

But this is not how decision theory works—the "rational" strategy adapts to the other players' strategies, it does not depend on the other players being rational.  If a rational agent believes the other players are irrational then it takes that expectation into account in maximizing expected utility.  Van Vogt got this one right: his rationalist protagonists are formidable from accepting reality swiftly and adapting to it swiftly, without reluctance or attachment.

Self-handicapping (hat-tip Yvain) is when people who have been made aware of their own incompetence or probable future failure, deliberately impose handicaps on themselves—on the standard model, in order to give themselves an excuse for failure.  To make sure they had an excuse, subjects reduced preparation times for athletic events, studied less, exerted less effort, gave opponents an advantage, lowered their own expectations, even took a drug they had been told was performance-inhibiting...

So you can see how much people value having an excuse—how much they'll pay to make sure they have something outside themselves to blame, in case of failure.  And this is a need which many belief systems fill—they provide an excuse.

It's the government's fault, that taxes you and suppresses the economy—if it weren't for that, you would be a great entrepreneur.  It's the fault of those less competent who envy your excellence and slander you—if not for that, the whole world would pilgrimage to admire you.  It's racism, or sexism, that keeps you down—if it weren't for that, you would have gotten so much further in life with the same effort.  Your rival Bob got the promotion by bootlicking.  Those you call sinners may be much wealthier than you, but that's because God set up the system to reward the good deeds of the wicked in this world and punish them for their sins in the next, vice versa for the virtuous:  "A boor cannot know, nor can a fool understand this: when the wicked bloom like grass and all the doers of iniquity blossom—it is to destroy them till eternity."

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.

And in that unfair challenge, the art of rationality (if you can find it) is there to help you deal with the horrible unfair challenge and by golly win anyway, not to provide fellow bitter losers to hang out with.  Even if the government does tax you and people do slander you and racists do discriminate against you and others smarm their way to success while you keep your ethics... still, this whole business of rationality is there to help you win anyway, if you can find the art you need.  Find the art together, win together, if we can.  And if we can't win, it means we weren't such good rationalists as we thought, and ought to try something different the next time around.  (If it's one of those challenges where you get more than one try.)

From within that project—what good does a sense of violated entitlement do?  At all?  Ever?  What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame?  Is that the key thing we need to change, to do better next time?

Immediate adaptation to the realities of the situation!  Followed by winning!

That is how I would cast down the gauntlet, just to make really, really sure we don't go down the utterly, completely, pointlessly unhelpful, surprisingly common path of mutual bitterness and consolation.

 

Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Mandatory Secret Identities"

Previous post: "Incremental Progress and the Valley"

Comments (95)

Comment author: patrissimo 21 May 2009 06:15:05AM *  19 points [-]

One of the greatest benefits I've gotten from (westernized) Buddhism is the idea that a resistance to reality is at the root of much unhappiness.

It seems absurd to me that the human mind so constantly wishes that reality was different - I don't see how it serves our evolutionary needs. But while I don't have an explanation, it is amazing how often I find myself denying reality instead of "Immediate adaptation to the realities of the situation! Followed by winning!". For example, when I encounter bad, unexpected auto traffic, whining is such a horribly unproductive reaction that it still boggles my mind every time I do it. Yet in many moods (already tired, stressed) it is my default response.

I think many rationalists would get a lot more personal happiness out of working on this single concept, as well as improving strategy for our causes, than many of the narrower and more complex ideas presented on OB/LW.

Comment author: conchis 21 May 2009 02:26:03PM *  7 points [-]

I heartily endorse this sentiment, but it's important to remember that wishing reality was different can also be valuable motivator.

I'm pretty good at accepting the things I cannot change. The problem is that this sometimes generalizes too broadly, and leads me to accept things that I probably shouldn't. My emotional reactions don't always have the wisdom to know the difference.

Comment author: patrissimo 21 May 2009 05:54:58PM 5 points [-]

I'm talking about present reality, not future reality. Our mind doesn't seem to distinguish very well, as you mention w/ your emotional reactions. We imagine that the current context is different in the same way that we imagine the future could be different, even though the current situation is (tautologically) unchangeable.

The question of whether future reality can be changed is far from straightforward, but at least there's a shot. Whereas we know for sure that the inputs we are experiencing in the present moment cannot be changed. We can act in the next moment to change things in the moment after that, but nothing will change the fact that I've encountered an unexpected traffic jam.

Comment author: domesticatedzebra 11 April 2017 02:17:08AM 0 points [-]

"I don't see how it serves our evolutionary needs."

Ever heard of the concept of group selection? Evolution does not just happen at the level of individual genes, it can also take place at the societal level. If we accept the axiom that human beings have been living in ethnic and tribal units since the beginning of our species' history-- a valid assumption considering that we evolved on the African savannah and had to compete with both apex predators and powerful herbivores-- then society will select for those traits that it deems most suitable for its continued survival, and groupthink appears to be one of them.

Am I implying that social conformity is the cause of most of our problems? There's actually quite a bit more truth to that statement than most people are willing to acknowledge, but the point of this blog post is that you can still make it in spite of all the barriers society puts up. I for one do not disagree.

Comment author: duckduckMOO 09 January 2012 11:23:31PM *  6 points [-]

disclaimer: the ranty part is not directed at yudkowsky

"From within that project - what good does a sense of violated entitlement do? At all? Ever? What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame? Is that the key thing we need to change, to do better next time?"

I dunno. I don't follow that many competitive endeavours but the people who cast about looking for excuses after a loss tend to be pretty good. Admittedly the people who go on about what a bitch you are if you make excuses also tend to be pretty good, as do the people who say stuff like only the results matter tend to be pretty good. (I'll also note I don't notice the middle group making any less excuses than average)

I also notice this among people I know.

People who are "bitter losers" don't tend to be very good but I expect the excuses are a product rather than cause of the problem. (and yes you can get into a bad self reinforcing system of excuses.) Of course being a bitter loser is something to avoid. But it's the loser part that's bad. The bitterness is never prior to the losing (and sometimes "fair enough).

But anyway, as to why casting about looking for excuses when you lose can be a good thing: if you're not really trying you're not going to care enough for there to be enough cognitive dissonance that you'll feel the need for an excuse. If you feel that losing is good enough, or that there's nothing to be done etc you won't need an excuse.

When losing It can be useful to feel like you should do better. If, to get that sense of should you have to cast about for something or someone to blame maybe you should do so.

If feeling entitled to victory makes you more likely to win, maybe you should feel entitled to victory.

And finally, if losing doesn't hurt you probably weren't trying at full capacity. One way to make it hurt less is to try less hard. Another is to make up excuses. Neither are optimal but one is obviously much more harmful and not everyone has the cognitive or emotional resources to react optimally (or more precisely, it's not optimal for everyone who doesn't to try to fix this due to oppurtunity cost as well as plain old normal cost)

Why write excuses off a priori? The important thing is to focus on winning.

Also, this is actually basically unrelated, but relevant to the same quote.

"What good does it do to tell ourselves that we did everything right and deserved better, and that someone or something else is to blame?"

If you really did do everything right and deserved better, and luck is to blame e.g. if you are playing tournament poker and make a bet at 60:40 odds losing shouldn't make you calibrate away from making those kinds of bets. You really, genuinely made the right decision. More generally doing things right does not necessarrilly entail winning. Don't become a responsibility fetishist (actually maybe do, but at least compartmentalise it), or a mystic that thinks lady luck bestows the winning cards on the player who deserves to win (hindsight bias.) Sometimes you need to defy the data (all this idiosynractic vocabulary is actually really useful. So much compression.)

Related to both of these points is I get really annoyed at people takeing more responsibility than they have earned. Taking responsibility for mistakes, fine, specifically stuff like "I could have done better, if I did this there wouldn't have been a problem" is probably healthy. Taking responsibility for everything that goes well, annoying and stupid: "I just went all in at 10 to 1 odds for a 50/50 payoff and won, clearly I cunningly outwitted my opponent" a great attitude for tilting (unsettling psychologically so as to cause suboptimal play) your opponents (and might be instrumentally useful to adopt sometimes, or even always, for that reason for some people) but as something you generally do, other than for this purpose (and/or used the same way as I described excuses could be earlier) is fucking terrible epistemology. Taking responsibility usually also means taking credit.

All of which was probably prompted by my hatred of people who, when they have a starting advantage, or get lucky, or just have more talent blame their opponents loss on self pity, excuses and so on. I forget where it was but there was an article about in which Eliezer claimed to have decided not to get anxious when doing public speaking after looking up at the crowd and not being anxious. A lot of this bitter loser stuff is self-fulfilling prophecy inflicted, in part, by this "making excuses makes you a loser" meme. Be satisfied with winning. You don't have to have the moral high ground as well as the actual win. especially when you make more excuses than the person you're robbing of them. This thing where every win has to be the product of cunning and outwitting, and anything the loser says is an excuse pisses me off. Just world fallacy?

But yeah there does seem to be something to all that positive thinking stuff. Specifically it can be easier to do something if you feel more confident, much like it can be harder to e.g. get angry at someone liable to punch you if you get angry with them.

I think the "only focus on winning" "there is no try" advice/attitude can be useful for bypassing anxiety problems. Don't give something any more space in your mind than is useful.

Comment author: CronoDAS 07 April 2009 09:07:36PM 11 points [-]

Well, I do have quite a bit of the "bitter loser" in me, but I don't go blaming other people for my failures. All I do is waste my time reading blogs on the internet and playing video games, so, as that other guy named Buffett put it, it's my own damn fault.

Comment author: Aurini 08 April 2009 12:05:03AM 2 points [-]

If he's so smart, why isn't he rich?

Comment author: outlawpoet 08 April 2009 01:12:16AM 3 points [-]

This raises the question of what positive attributes we can attempt to apply to this little sub-culture of aspiring rationalists. Shared goals? Collaborative action?

Some have already been implying heavily that rationality implies certain actions in the situation most of us find ourselves in, does it make sense to move forward with that?

Is success here just enabling the growth of strong rationalist individuals, who go forth and succeed in whatever they choose to do, or to shape a community, valuing rationality, which accomplishes things?

Comment author: dfranke 07 April 2009 11:46:33PM *  6 points [-]

I think American Atheists might be better than objectivists as an example of a whining-based rationalist community.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 April 2009 11:56:21PM 5 points [-]

I think American Atheists might be better than objectivists as an example of a whining-based rationalist community.

I'm not actually convinced that either are particularly rational, as a rule, except insofar as both have built communities around ideas that are mostly correct.

Comment author: Aurini 07 April 2009 10:53:26PM 8 points [-]

I always interpreted the 'Looters and Moochers' differently; a corollary to the 'It's okay to Win,' statement saying 'It's okay that others Lose - they did so by their own hand.' Rather than offering an excuse for Rationalists/Ubermenschs/Super-Geeks to say 'Nice guys finish last,' I read it as an indictment of that very behaviour. Only 'Looters and Moochers' make excuses, blame others, and fault circumstances - the Super-Geek Wins despite all of those.

I'd wager that Ayn Rand would agree with me if I said this to her (if she wasn't too busy denouncing me for being a Libertarian), but what she intended is irrelevant when speaking about the effects of her work; and along those lines I think you hit the nail on the head. The self-proclaimed Objectivists I've met have all given off a creepy vibe. I think it might be due to misinterpreting Rand in precisely the way you described.

They call themselves Winners, imagine themselves as heroic protagonists (far superior to plebs like you) despite never having actually Won anything; it's all society's fault.

They might as well say: "Oh, I was behaving as a good Rationalist, but my opponent was Irrational! It's not my fault!"

Eliezer FTW.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 19 February 2012 12:52:01AM 2 points [-]

The self-proclaimed Objectivists I've met have all given off a creepy vibe. I think it might be due to misinterpreting Rand in precisely the way you described.

They call themselves Winners, imagine themselves as heroic protagonists (far superior to plebs like you) despite never having actually Won anything; it's all society's fault.

They might as well say: "Oh, I was behaving as a good Rationalist, but my opponent was Irrational! It's not my fault!"

Did they say "I'm a winner" in your presence? How did you know what they imagined? That you felt a "creepy vibe" says more about you than them. Where else have you felt this "creepy vibe"? I don't see a lot of extensional facts in your criticisms of Objectivists. I just see that you clearly don't like them.

The Objectivists I have personally known have been fine, decent, fun people. A married couple that went off to be professors at the University of Georgia. I knew the husband better, and played tennis with him while we were both in grad school. Neither of us were very good, but it was exercise.

They invited me over to their house a few times to play bridge and have drinks with some of their other friends, all Objectivist leaning, if not Objectivists. I always had a good time. They never told me they were "Winners". The discussions were lively, honest, and interesting. They gave me quite a pleasant vibe, of honest, rational people who didn't have a lot of time for trying to getting ahead by snearing at other people.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 11:19:27AM 0 points [-]

''It's okay that others Lose - they did so by their own hand.'

Even if the winners cheated?

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 03:04:42PM 0 points [-]

When it comes to the real world rather than games, claiming that there is such a thing as cheating is a form of self-handicapping.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 03:20:27PM *  0 points [-]

There's no actual cheating?I guess we'd better free Bernie Madoff then.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 03:47:43PM 3 points [-]

Doing things other people don't like isn't cheating, but punishing people for doing things you don't like isn't cheating either, and doing things that other people don't like without taking the possible punishment into account isn't rational (= leads to not-winning).

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 05:38:38PM *  1 point [-]

In a perfectly acceptable sense of the word "cheating" Madoff cheated people out of their money.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 05:43:06PM 0 points [-]

What sense is that?

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 09:34:12PM 1 point [-]

Telling lies for profit. Financial fraud.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 08 June 2011 04:23:57PM 1 point [-]

This is an atypical definition of "cheating".

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 04:35:19PM 1 point [-]

Hm. *checks a dictionary*

The dictionary says you're right; apparently the standard definition of 'cheating' is that it refers to deceptive behavior. I'd been using it to refer to not abiding by agreed-upon rules, either explicitly or in spirit (e.g. munchkinism). I think this is a more accurate definition, given that there are some games where deception is an expected part of the game, and deception is not considered cheating in those cases (e.g. Diplomacy). In the real world, there are no agreed-upon rules to break (I never agreed not to murder anyone...), so 'cheating' doesn't apply.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 05:53:01PM *  -1 points [-]

I'd been using [cheating] to refer to not abiding by agreed-upon rules,

Anyone who is convicted in a court of law has failed to abide by agreed-on rules

Comment author: JGWeissman 08 June 2011 06:00:03PM 1 point [-]

Anyone who is convicted in a court of law has failed to abide by agreed-on rules

The point was that the convicted person did not agree to the rules. That some other people agreed on them is irrelevant to Adelene's point.

Also, not all people convicted in a court of law actually did the thing they were convicted of.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 08:42:12PM *  1 point [-]

The point was that the convicted person did not agree to the rules.

I don't think Bernie Madoff was making a principled protest against the inquities of the financial regulators: he was quite happy for other people to abide the rules. (Reliant on that: if everyone cheats, cheaters have no edge). I chose him as an example, rather than, eg Mandela for a reason.

Also, not all people convicted in a court of law actually did the thing they were convicted of.

I know. I hoped I could take all the side-conditions about fair trials etc as read.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 06:31:34PM *  0 points [-]

Yes, exactly this.

It seems reasonable to me to describe laws as "rules that the government acts as if all citizens have agreed to abide by", at least for values of 'acts as if' that apply to the judicial system. The government acting that way results in a system that works reasonably well as far as I can tell, and the fact that the government acts that way makes it generally reasonable to act as if one has agreed to follow those rules. But that's not the same as actually agreeing to follow those rules, and the most rational way of handling the situation is to keep that in mind and actually do a cost/benefit analysis when something illegal seems like it might be worthwhile anyway - and, such a cost/benefit analysis should take all the results of the action into account, including e.g. the possibility of the laws being changed to restrict further behavior of that type, or the possibility of getting a problematically bad reputation, or more subtle issues.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 08 June 2011 06:51:03PM 0 points [-]

Well if I say: "I will build a hot-air balloon" then it's reasonable to interpret that as agreeing to the rule "I have to build a hot-air balloon", so if I don't, I'm cheating.

And then it's reasonable to extend that to other kinds of statements, like "I built a hot-air balloon"

Speech in Diplomacy, it seems, is not quite real speech. The default position is that speech is true.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 08 June 2011 09:01:08PM 1 point [-]

Well if I say: "I will build a hot-air balloon" then it's reasonable to interpret that as agreeing to the rule "I have to build a hot-air balloon", so if I don't, I'm cheating.

That doesn't seem reasonable to me, actually. I interpret it as 'I intend to build a hot-air balloon', which is much weaker evidence about future world-states even if it's true. (It's also stronger evidence about current world-states.)

The default position is that speech is true.

This strikes me as naive. In my experience, most people don't lie without a reason to do so, but also most people will lie when they do have such a reason, and such reasons are fairly common. Our society is built on that assumption, in some ways, even - it's practically required that one make up an excuse to leave a conversation with an annoying person rather than tell them that you don't want to talk to them, for example.

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 09:03:56PM 0 points [-]

Well if I say: "I will build a hot-air balloon" then it's reasonable to interpret that as agreeing to the rule "I have to build a hot-air balloon", so if I don't, I'm cheating.

It doesn't, because rule contravention is not the sole sufficient condition of cheating. Cheating involved 1) breaking rules that 2) others are following for 3) advantage whilst 4) disguising the fact.

Comment author: Document 08 June 2011 09:27:13PM *  0 points [-]

The question isn't whether we should free Bernie Madoff; it's whether Ayn Rand would do so (if even that).

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 08 April 2009 12:34:54AM 4 points [-]

I think it's perfectly possible to maximize your outcome given current conditions while still being resentful that it is only a local maxima and there are much higher hills that you are being prevented from climbing.

Comment author: Aurini 08 April 2009 12:48:12AM *  5 points [-]

I have two objections:

Being resentful of inevitable reality (I'm not tall enough or fast enough to ever make it onto the NBA, no matter how hard I practice) makes about as much sense as being angry at the sky for being blue, or at your eyes for only having three colour sensors. Yes, it sucks, but reality isn't an entity which you can influence by yelling at. This sort of resentment is counter-productive.

In the second sense, bitterness can become an excuse for why you never cross over to the ideal Maxima. Are you sure this is the maximum of your potential? Really? Really? The only thing you can control in this world is yourself; assigning agency to outside forces detracts that agency from your own abilities. Even if you're right, and fate has it in for you, growing resentful will do nothing but make things worse.

Your maximum while being resentful is not as high as your maximum without it.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 08 April 2009 01:46:34AM 0 points [-]

you're speaking a little more concretely. I was more thinking "we don't have flying cars because NASA and the FAA suck".

Comment author: phane 30 April 2009 11:45:37PM 2 points [-]

"And if we can't win, it means we weren't such good rationalists as we thought, and ought to try something different the next time around."

This attitude, that somehow, every single obstacle to success or happiness is solved by rationality, is a mistake, I think. People are not in control of the amount of opportunity they have, and i don't think being supremely rational is a sure way to triumph. Victims of slavery and car crashes are extreme examples, but I think there's more subtle situations in which no reasoned plan of action can straightforwardly help you "win."

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 25 October 2011 04:39:04AM *  1 point [-]

The point, I think, is not that you can achieve arbitrarily large success no matter what your starting point. It's that you achieve the most success that is possible given your starting point.

In other words: yes, life is unfair. You now have two options. You can either:

1. Do the best you can with what you are given. This doesn't mean quietly acquiescing to whatever default fate is expected of you, or going the path of least resistance; it can mean doing grandiose, ambitious, seemingly-crazy things. Maybe you decide that your best option, given your starting point, is to try to change the world (or at least some relevant part of it). But at any rate, your strategy takes your starting point as given.

or...

2. Sit there and whine that the world isn't fair, while behaving as if the world actually did work the way you think it should work. This strategy will, of course, fail. It seems obvious to me that whatever external factors have conspired to keep you down, at least part of the responsibility for such failure is your own.

ETA: I think one source of contention in your comment is that when we talk about "triumphing", or "solving" an obstacle, what we mean is simply achieving the best result given the starting conditions, rather than achieving some given point on an absolute scale of success.

Comment author: Amaroq 05 September 2009 08:37:47AM 5 points [-]

I come hailing as a more learned Objectivist than I was before. This article actually caused me to go find an online Objectivist community for the purpose of observing them to see if your assertion was true. I've found that it is not. I have not met a single "whiny" Objectivist out of all of the Objectivists I now chat almost-daily with.

Objectivism holds a primacy of existence attitude towards reality, as opposed to a primacy of consciousness attitude. This means that reality comes before our wishes, and if we want our wishes to come true, we have to work for them. We have to affect reality to get what we want, not whine about it.

A real Objectivist would work towards his goals in a rational manner. A whiner is being irrational and is therefore not being Objectivist when they do it.

I find it interesting that all of Objectivism's attackers are people who don't even understand the philosophy. You can't just read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and think you know Objectivism. Atlas Shrugged shows Objectivism in action. Galt's speech gives you a summary of it. But to really understand it, you must pursue the non-fiction. I haven't seen a rebuttal of Objectivism yet given by a person who knew the philosophy they were trying to rebuke.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 19 February 2012 12:22:06AM 2 points [-]

I find it interesting that all of Objectivism's attackers are people who don't even understand the philosophy. You can't just read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and think you know Objectivism. Galt's speech gives you a summary of it. But to really understand it, you must pursue the non-fiction.

For the purposes of this discussion, I don't think that's true. Most criticisms of Rand can be effectively rebutted by showing their inconsistency with her fiction. No real need to get into her essays or The Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Comment author: David_Gerard 14 April 2013 10:28:19AM 0 points [-]

You can't criticise North Korea until you've read all of Kim Il Sung in the original Korean.

Comment author: Kawoomba 14 April 2013 10:45:35AM 2 points [-]

The more information from all sources you base your criticism on, the more you can rely on it being substantive and accurate.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 19 February 2012 12:17:09AM *  4 points [-]

I'm glad to see that many others have pointed out EJ's mistaken interpretation of Objectivism. To add a prototypical passage to demonstrate the error:

Ellsworth Toohey: There's the building that should have been yours. There are buildings going up all over the city which are great chances refused and given to incompetent fools. You're walking the streets while they're doing the work that you love but cannot obtain. This city is closed to you. It is I who have done it! Don't you want to know my motive?

Howard Roark: No.

Ellsworth Toohey: I'm fighting you and shall fight you in every way I can.

Howard Roark: You're free to do what you please.

Ellsworth Toohey: Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me in any words you wish.

Howard Roark: But I don't think of you.

Of course the looters make life worse. So does rust. Their evil has no significance to an Objectivist's moral worth.

I have my own disagreements with Objectivism, but I find it interesting how Rand plays the moral Bogeyman for a wide swath of US culture.

Comment author: Annoyance 08 April 2009 03:35:10PM *  7 points [-]

"But this is only part of Rand's message, and the other part is the poison pill, a deadlier appeal: It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down."

As lethal as I'm sure it will be to speak even faint praise of a person that is so widely hated that expressing loathing of her is a common 'applause light'...

That's not what Rand's message was. It wasn't even part of her message. One of her main points was, to use the classical phrase, that evil is ultimately impotent. The power of evil to harm comes entirely from the failure of good to recognize it and refuse to loan it its own power.

Rand's message was that people were keeping themselves down, that they had bought into ethical and ideological positions and accepted them without questioning, that they had accepted teachings which passed off poorly-disguised wolves as lambs long before they'd developed the critical thinking skills to evaluate the teachings. And that the teachings were that white was black and black was white, etc.

I am often struck that the people who declaim Rand's writings and ideas most vehemently, especially those that use their proclaimed disapproval to win the approval of others, almost always hold up crude parodies of what Rand actually said in the process, and rarely address her actual positions and their strengths and weakness (of which there are many in both categories).

Comment author: patrissimo 21 May 2009 06:24:07AM 8 points [-]

"One of her main points was, to use the classical phrase, that evil is ultimately impotent. The power of evil to harm comes entirely from the failure of good to recognize it and refuse to loan it its own power."

This is a defense of Rand? I agree it's one of her main points. Also completely false, to the point where I consider it a classic error of people trying to reform social systems. The idea that if you can just expose the evil of the system, that will fix the problems.

Intuitive, noble, and totally wrong when applied to a world where evil most often emerges from the behavior systems which are not easily understood or modified.

Comment author: Amaroq 26 June 2009 07:07:33AM 0 points [-]

Where do you think social systems get their power? People give it to them, then the population becomes ignorant and/or apathetic and allows it to run amok with no attempts to strip it of the power they gave it.

The idea isn't that you just expose the evil. You have to deny it power over you.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 April 2013 03:34:10AM 1 point [-]

If each individual denies it power, it will have no power. If half of them give it power, it will have a lot of power, whether or not you're one of the people giving power. You're just one person. You don't give it much power. But if you learn the system, and figure out how to meddle in it, you could weaken it, make it lean more towards doing good, or harness it for your own gain.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 08 April 2009 07:22:39AM 5 points [-]

I do think Rand was being a bit more complex than that. The whole point of "Atlas" is: the heroes are failing to win because they insist on acting as though they were in an ideal fair world, but those who who accept the status quo and work to win inside it will end up burned worse, because the system is structured to corrupt and consume them - meanwhile our heroes escape with virtue intact. "Atlas" constructs a spread of parasitic, beaten, adapting, fair-but-accepting, and fair-and-renouncing characters to illustrate this. Rand is trying to say "a rationalist who understood the rules of the game would decide not to play".

Really, the fault with "Atlas" is that it posits an awful world-spanning System that in factual reality, just doesn't exist. And without that premise it's two inches of wasted paper.

Comment author: patrissimo 21 May 2009 06:19:53AM 4 points [-]

What Rand says is more like "An awesome rationalist who understood the sick twisted rules of the game would leave and start their own game and not stick with those awful losers who make the world suck."

So sure, Atlas explicitly encourages embracing the reality of an unfair world full of parasites - the heroes' character progression comes through that acceptance. But the characters of Atlas implicitly encourage whining and bitterness, which are symptoms of failing to accept the reality of an unfair world.

And I think the implicit message affects readers much more strongly.

Comment author: Annoyance 08 April 2009 03:40:59PM 4 points [-]

"Really, the fault with "Atlas" is that it posits an awful world-spanning System that in factual reality, just doesn't exist."

I can't agree with that. I don't believe there's some secret, scheming Conspiracy making schools stunt the intellectual development of children. Nevertheless, that is the overwhelmingly common outcome in my society.

There's no System trying to corrupt the world. Just lots of individual actors acting in accordance with that they perceive their interests to be.

There's no Invisible Hand, either. Yet markets self-organize.

Comment author: Amaroq 27 April 2009 05:48:12PM *  3 points [-]

It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down. Surely you would be rich and famous and high-status like you deserve if not for them, those unappreciative bastards and their conspiracy of mediocrity.

Any Objectivists who believe this have missed half of Ayn Rand's message and are doing Objectivism completely wrong.

Not only did they miss one of the main points of John Galt's three hour long speech in Atlas Shrugged, but people who level this accusation against Objectivism as a whole missed it as well.

The point I'm referring to is that it takes two things for the looters to keep the men of ability down.

  • Someone has a wish that their rationality should tell them they can never have, and they do not discard this irrational wish.
  • Someone who has the ability to give the irrational man his wish fails to deny that of him.

When those two things happen, the man of ability has allowed the irrational man to fake his desired reality, and everything spirals downward from there.

The self-proclaimed Objectivists who say "It's not my fault!" aren't much, if at all, better than the looters in the book who also proclaim "It's not my fault!" They want their lives to be better, but rather than using their minds to make their lives better, they wallow in mediocrity and blame, not the men of ability, but the men of inability for their problems. Which is way more pathetic, in a way.

Comment author: Jay_Schweikert 08 June 2011 04:12:46AM 1 point [-]

I agree that the "it's not my fault, it's everyone else keeping me down" sentiment is entirely antithetical to Objectivism. Indeed, one of the clearest distinctions between the good guys and bad guys in Atlas Shrugged is that the good guys are focused on getting things done, no matter what, regardless of whatever obstacles are thrown in their path by the villains, while the bad guys are always making excuses and looking to blame others.

However, I think it probably is correct to say that many individual members of the Objectivist movement did exhibit this kind of behavior, at least some of the time. Sadly, Rand in her later life and many of her closest followers were often decidedly poor exemplars of their purported ideas, and it's valid to criticize Rand as such. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the philosophy itself is naturally prone to this vice.

Comment author: arundelo 08 April 2009 03:44:52AM 2 points [-]

Let's be fair to Ayn Rand

Well, let's. Other than secondary characters like The Fountainhead's Henry Cameron (a great architect whose spirit has been broken), which of Rand's heroes are like this?

Surely you would be rich and famous and high-status like you deserve if not for them, those unappreciative bastards and their conspiracy of mediocrity.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 09:28:53AM *  3 points [-]

A fair question. But an old, bitter, un-achieving character isn't likely to inspire much heroic empathy and desire to emulate. So Rand didn't write John Galt that way; she wrote the villains that way.

The question is what happens when some real-world person takes John Galt as a role model. In the story he's not just a former great physicist, he's all buff and heroic and has his own little survivalist ranch and society actually falls down without him. But in reality...

Comment author: buybuydandavis 19 February 2012 01:17:18AM *  2 points [-]

So the answer to Arundelo's question would be "none of Rand's heroes are that way, while her villains are that way." Wouldn't such a choice by a writer generally indicate disapproval of such a trait? Particularly given Rand's theory of Romatic Art, I'd say that's a certainty in her case.

The question is what happens when some real-world person takes John Galt as a role model.

I have a rather limited sample of Objectivists that I have known sufficiently well to know that they in fact took Rand seriously. 3 people. They all turned out quite well.

What's your data?

I can't detect an actual case being made in your comments, though I think I see a lot of innuendo. Do you think you've made a clear and compelling case? Could you spell it out for me if you think you did?

Comment author: rufford 08 April 2009 07:27:58AM 0 points [-]

The first example to come to mind is Richard Halley from Atlas Shrugged, but I don't remember the book all that well.

Comment author: thomblake 07 April 2009 08:44:49PM 2 points [-]

You know, I hadn't noticed before, but the claim that rationality should make you win is isomorphic to a similar contention I have about ethics. I guess that shouldn't be surprising since ethics is tied to decision-making, and so is this definition of 'rationality'.

So I'll come out and say it - ethics specifies criteria for judging which (character|actions|outcomes) are the best.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 April 2013 03:42:12AM 2 points [-]

Rationality tells you how to achieve your goal. Ethics tells you your goal.

Comment author: roland 08 April 2009 05:36:26AM 1 point [-]

Another great post, thanks Eliezer! But, if rationality is for you to win, shouldn't you try to keep it a secret from others? Like if you knew a way to make money in the stock market would you spread it if that nullified your advantage?

Comment author: loqi 08 April 2009 06:12:06AM 10 points [-]

Winning isn't necessarily zero-sum.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 08 April 2009 09:13:16AM *  6 points [-]

Two things:

  • Advantage over others is not the only thing people care about.
  • The "rationality" developed in secret is unlikely to grow more powerful than whatever technology a single farmer from Dark Ages could develop in a lifetime, that is to say not impressive at all.
Comment author: Annoyance 08 April 2009 03:42:01PM 3 points [-]

Regarding the second point: that's why Guilds were created, and they were quite powerful in their day. Why do you think they're called 'trade secrets'?

Comment author: Peterdjones 08 June 2011 11:30:23AM 1 point [-]

But modern technological civilisisation didn't take of until the guild system (keep it secret) was replaced by the patent system (publish it)

Comment author: JGWeissman 08 April 2009 06:43:25AM 5 points [-]

From Newcomb's Problem and Regret of Rationality (with emphasis added):

Don't mistake me, and think that I'm talking about the Hollywood Rationality stereotype that rationalists should be selfish or shortsighted. If your utility function has a term in it for others, then win their happiness. If your utility function has a term in it for a million years hence, then win the eon.

So yes, if for you winning means making money, and your best strategy to do that is to take advantage of irrationality in the stock market, then you will be motivated to keep your methods of rationality secret.

If, on the other hand, your utility function has a term for others, then you will want to teach them to be rational and win.

Comment author: DanielLC 14 April 2013 03:37:47AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer is trying to win by creating a Friendly AI. If he gets more people to help him, this will help him win. If he spreads rationality, this will get more people to help him. Thus, he is spreading rationality to help him win.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 April 2009 10:32:03PM *  0 points [-]

I see your point and your purpose, but I have 2 caveats:

  • The fact that it would be wonderful and inspirational if rationality was always the winning strategy, doesn't mean that rationality is always the winning strategy.
  • I think there are a lot of losers who handicap themselves by making excuses; and there are a lot of winners who believe that winning proves virtue, and not winning proves a lack of virtue. Both are wrong. But the winners are in the positions of power; and so their errors do more damage.

The whole issue resists analysis, because "my fault" vs. "not my fault" reduces to free will vs. determinism. As materialists, we kind of have to believe that nothing is anyone's "fault" or "accomplishment". At least, not in the old-fashioned moralistic sense.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 April 2009 10:36:17PM 14 points [-]

The fact that it would be wonderful and inspirational if rationality was always the winning strategy, doesn't mean that rationality is always the winning strategy.

I would offer that rationality is not a winning strategy, it is a meta-strategy for identifying winning strategies.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 April 2009 11:13:49PM 4 points [-]

I would agree but put "rationality" in quote marks, that is, it is the subject of the discipline named "rationality" to find rational strategies.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 April 2009 11:49:08PM 1 point [-]

I would agree but put "rationality" in quote marks, that is, it is the subject of the discipline named "rationality" to find rational strategies.

Did you mean "to find winning strategies", or are you using those synonymously?

Either way, I agree with the reference/value distinction here.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 12:18:15AM 3 points [-]

I guess I was trying to make a side point by using the two as though they were synonymous. Maybe the precise way would be that "instrumental rationality" is the study of systematically winning strategies, just like "epistemic rationality" is the study of systematically accurate guessing.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 April 2009 11:07:07PM 4 points [-]

I would offer that rationality is not a winning strategy, it is a meta-strategy for identifying winning strategies.

You have just passed the recursive buck. Identifying winning strategies and then using them is also a winning strategy, an adaptive one, which may make it stronger. It is this strength that matters, not the ritual.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 12:17:06AM 8 points [-]

That's a virtuous pass, not a vicious pass. Deriving instrumental utility on the reflective level from instrumental utility on the object level is just what we want. Defining truth on the object level by invoking a definition of truth on the meta-level would be vicious.

Comment author: Annoyance 08 April 2009 03:48:34PM 0 points [-]

I would go even farther than you: rationality is an infinitely-recursive process of evaluation whose fundamental principle is consistency.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 04:14:01PM 2 points [-]

I am interested in how this infinite recursion manages to complete in finite time.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 10:59:23AM 0 points [-]

Would you prefer "unboundedly recursive"? So on any given occasion it will only recurse to a finite depth, but there's no bound on the depth of its recursion?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 12:53:28PM 1 point [-]

That's fine, but I've never seen a "pass the recursive buck" scenario that actually did work by requiring only a finite recursive depth on any given occasion. It always degenerates into an infinite hierarchy of ordinals that you can't describe without creating a new hierarchy on top.

Well, I mean yes there are programming exercises for computing the Fibonacci numbers; I'm referring to when this trick is tried in epistemology or logic.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 01:17:10PM 2 points [-]

I have in mind a scenario something like what Dennett describes in Consciousness Explained: we imagine that our awareness of our own thoughts is in some mysterious way infinitely recursive, because when we go looking for a bound on how many times we can repeat the step of becoming aware of the previous level of awareness, we don't find one; but the bound arrives exactly whenever we care to stop looking. There's no bound on how often we can reflect on the way we're deciding a particular question and decide if that, in turn, is rational, but there will have to come a point at which you have to stop recursing if you want to actually decide the base question.

There again, it may be a mistake to look for a sensible meaning in Annoyance's usual vague crap.

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 April 2009 08:04:45AM 2 points [-]

As materialists, we kind of have to believe that nothing is anyone's "fault" or "accomplishment". At least, not in the old-fashioned moralistic sense.

I find this one of the hardest and most enlightening disciplines of being a materialist. It certainly is the single thing that puts the most distance between me and most people in the way I think about the world.

I keep hoping to either write or read a top-level post about this.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 April 2009 09:21:28AM 5 points [-]

Causality and Moral Responsibility

(It's being reduced to parts, not explained away.)

Comment author: DanielLC 14 April 2013 03:41:04AM 0 points [-]

The whole issue resists analysis, because "my fault" vs. "not my fault" reduces to free will vs. determinism. As materialists, we kind of have to believe that nothing is anyone's "fault" or "accomplishment". At least, not in the old-fashioned moralistic sense.

The issue isn't whether or not someone who whines is factually correct. It's whether or not whining is a winning strategy. It generally isn't, so don't wine.

Comment author: infotropism 08 April 2009 01:08:24PM 1 point [-]

"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."

Of course shutting up and multiplying, always advancing forward and doing the impossible is the way to go. But as said, the test of instrumental rationality is whether or not you succeed at what you've set yourself up to.

If rationality is being signaled for intellectual honesty's sake alone, or maybe pride, then this signal may not correlate with real world results, and is pretty vain.

By that I mean, that, for instance, I'm not above self handicapping myself, playing possum, and using other similarly dirty tricks, when I think that it'll help me further my goals eventually. If lightly self handicapping yourself, and playing that card, helps you receive help or advantages in excess of the loss you incurred because of that handicap, then it is instrumentally rational to self handicap.

Doing so isn't risk free. You may end up believing your own lie http://lesswrong.com/lw/4e/cached_selves/

Comment author: marc 07 April 2009 11:51:30PM 0 points [-]

Is it possible that humans, with their limited simulation abilities, do not have the mental computational resources to simulate an irrational persons more effective beliefs?

This would mean that the 'irrational' course of action would be the more effective.

Comment author: pwno 08 April 2009 04:17:48AM 0 points [-]

Even if they can't model their behaviors like they do for normal people, that doesn't mean there is some systematic way of rationally predicting their behaviors.

Comment author: anonym 07 April 2009 09:04:53PM *  0 points [-]

Immediate [and optimal] adaptation to the realities of the situation! Followed by winning!

The first sentence is rationality as process; the second is rationality as outcome [winning].

Shouldn't a "rationality is ..." slogan communicate both aspects, and not just one or the other?


I realize that "systematized winning" sort of hightlights both aspects, but I think that it still seems to imply that it's primarily about winning, when it's about both equally.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 07 April 2009 09:24:29PM *  2 points [-]

"Systematized winning" shouldn't be about both equally, in an "A, and also B" sort of sense. It should be about a particular relationship between process and outcome: about using thinking techniques that help one win, whatever those turn out to be. "Rationality is using whatever thinking techniques actually help you build useful world-models", or some pithier re-wording.

Then, when you combine that aim with the empirical claim that in fact to attain unusual success in a domain it helps to follow particular processes (e.g., to accept that the domain works the way it works; to gather evidence as to what practices are actually most likely to help you succeed rather than defending your first hypothesis against all objections; etc.), you end up with "systematized winning" having some implications about process. But it'd be nice if the slogan captured that the processes "rationality" might advocate are a means to the end of accurate beliefs and/or winning (and that the specific notion of how "rational people" think should be changed, if it turns out that our processes don't help with accurate beliefs and/or winning), and that process goals have zero rationality-goodness in themselves, apart from their consequences.

Comment author: anonym 07 April 2009 09:39:07PM *  4 points [-]

It should be about using thinking techniques that help one win, whatever those turn out to be.

Absolutely. And rationality is the means by which we evaluate, implement, and update those techniques. The "means by which" in the previous sentence is what rationality is.

But the process stuff is here a means to an end (to be changed, if it turns out that our processes don't help), rather than a reified end in itself.

You're talking here about specific processes for achieving specific wins. I'm saying that rationality integrally involves the higher-level general processes by which we determine which techniques (low-level processes) to use, how to evaluate the results of using them, how to modify them based on experience, etc.

Comment author: someDude 30 December 2012 08:53:46PM 1 point [-]

I think my problem is that far too often I make decisions as if I am in the "should universe" described here:

One of the failure modes I've come to better understand in myself since observing it in others, is what I call, "living in the should-universe". The universe where everything works the way it common-sensically ought to, as opposed to the actual is-universe we live in. There's more than one way to live in the should-universe, and outright delusional optimism is only the least subtle. Treating the should-universe as your point of departure—describing the real universe as the should-universe plus a diff—can also be dangerous.

Upon realizing how often I have this failure mode I have become more cynical to the realities of the world. But this seems to have its own problems disscussed here a bit. Basically by being a cynic and acknowledging the flaws in the world I become a whiner and end up being perhaps worse off than if I pretended the universe is the way it should be.

What I ideally would do to win is learn to project optimism and "not-cynicism" while still remembering my cynical knowledge of how not ideal the world is. Basically don't whine in public but remember why you might whine. This is very hard to do without picking up some level of cognitive dissonance though since your actions don't really match your thoughts. For some people it may be useful to trick themselves that everything is "as-it-should-be" at times through art or drugs to exhibit the optimistic behavior needed to win. This is precisely I think why not whining is so hard; our actions don't seem to match our beliefs/thoughts.

Has anyone figured out how to reach the state of behaving public not very cynically when needed while still remaining very cynical privately?