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thomblake comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2012) - Less Wrong

25 Post author: orthonormal 26 December 2011 10:57PM

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Comment author: thomblake 27 December 2011 05:26:48PM 5 points [-]

That's just about right. Humans are massively irrational; but we tend to regard that as a bug and work to fix it in ourselves.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 02:52:21PM 0 points [-]

Hello Thomblake,

Thanks for the welcome! But I really can't agree with your statement.

Irrationality, which I would for now define as all human action and awareness that isn't rational thinking or that doesn't follow a rationally defined course of action, is not a 'bug'; rather it's most of the features that make us up and allow our continued existence. They make up a much greater part of what we are than those things/ faculties or moments/situations that we might call rational. And most of these deserve more respect than being called bugs. Especcially in an evolutionary perspective most of these traits and processes should definately be considered features to which we owe our continued existence. Often these things conflict with a rationality we hope to attain, but I think that at other times they are neccesary prerequisites to it. Emotions can be qualified, or 'legitimated' by reflexive rational thought, and we can try to purge emotions we deem to be personal hurdles, but still most of our lives take place outside the realm of rationality. Rationality should be used to improve the rest of our lives and to improve the way humankind is organised, how it organises it's sphere of influence. I think it's a mistake to think rationality could, or should, be everything we are.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 03:08:14PM *  2 points [-]

Irrationality, which I would for now define as all human action and awareness that isn't rational thinking or that doesn't follow a rationally defined course of action

Some of the disagreement is definitional. We define rationality as achieving your goals. Rationality should win. Any act or [ETA: mental] process that helps with achieving goals is rational.

There's a followup assertion in this community that believing true things helps achieving goals. Although not all people in history have believed that, it's hard to deny that human thinking patterns are not well calibrated for discovering and believing truth things. (Although they are better than anything else we've come across).

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 03:50:21PM *  0 points [-]

If 'effective' in the very loosest sense, is drawn into what is called rational, doesn't that confuse the term?

I mean, to my mind, having a diëtician for a parent ( leading to fortuitous fortitude which assist in the achievement of certain goals ) is not rational, because it is not something that is in any way tied to the 'ratio'. This thing that helps you achieve goals is simply convenient or a privilege, not rational at all.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 January 2012 04:23:14PM 2 points [-]

If I have a choice of parents, and a dietician is the most useful parent to have for achieving my goals, then yes, choosing a dietician for a parent is a rational choice. Of course, most of us don't have a choice of parents.

If I believe that children of dieticians do better at achieving their goals than anyone else, then choosing to become a dietician if I'm going to have children is a rational choice. (So, more complicatedly, is choosing not to have children if I'm not a dietician.)

Of course, both of those are examples of decisions related to the state of affairs you describe.

Talking about whether a state of affairs that doesn't involve any decisions is a rational state of affairs is confusing. People do talk this way sometimes, but I generally understand them to be saying that it is symptomatic of irrationality in whoever made the decisions that led to that state of affairs.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 04:49:13PM 1 point [-]

Talking about whether a state of affairs that doesn't involve any decisions is a rational state of affairs is confusing. People do talk this way sometimes, but I generally understand them to be saying that it is symptomatic of irrationality in whoever made the decisions that led to that state of affairs.

What do you mean? Whose irrationality? Isn't it more straightforward (it's there among the 'virtues of rationality' no?) to just not call things 'rational' if they do not involve thinking?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 January 2012 09:29:10PM 2 points [-]

Incidentally, you've caused me to change my mind.

http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/96n/meta_rational_vs_optimized/

Comment author: Kouran 05 January 2012 02:01:30PM 0 points [-]

Wow.... I'm surprised and glad. Thanks for being open to criticism.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 January 2012 04:57:11PM *  2 points [-]

Isn't it more straightforward (it's there among the 'virtues of rationality' no?) to just not call things 'rational' if they do not involve thinking?

I don't think so, since that would be a trivial property that doesn't indicate anything, for there is no alternative available. Decisions can be made either correctly or not, and it's useful to be able to discern that, but the world is always what it actually is.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 January 2012 05:51:31PM 2 points [-]

What do you mean? Whose irrationality?

It varies, and I might not even know. For example, if the arrangement of signs on a particular street intersection causes unnecessary traffic congestion, I might call it an irrational arrangement. In doing so I'd be presuming that whoever chose that arrangement intended to minimize traffic congestion, or at least asserting that they ought to have intended that. But I might have no idea who chose the arrangement. (I might also be wrong, but that's beside the point.)

But that said, and speaking very roughly: irrationality on the part of the most proximal agent(s) who was (were) capable of making a different choice.

Isn't it more straightforward (it's there among the 'virtues of rationality' no?) to just not call things 'rational' if they do not involve thinking?

Yes, it is.

For example, what I just described above is a form of metonymy... describing the streetsign arrangement as irrational, when what I really mean is that some unspecified agent somewhere in the causal history of the streetsign was irrational. Metonymy is a common one among humans, and I find it entertaining, and in many cases efficient, and those are also virtues I endorse. But it isn't a straightforward form of communication, you're right.

Incidentally, I suspect that most uses of 'rationality' on this site (as well as 'intelligence') could be replaced by 'optimization' without losing much content. Feel free to use the terms that best achieve your goals.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 04:56:02PM 1 point [-]

If there is no alternative, there doesn't seem to be a possibility of improvement. If improvement is impossible, what exactly are we worrying about?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 January 2012 05:00:06PM 1 point [-]

It's useful to know some things that are unchangeable.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 05:12:20PM *  -1 points [-]

I don't think so, since that would be a trivial property that doesn't indicate anything....

I think it would indicate that not every action is being thought over. That some things a person does which lead to the achievement of a goal may not have beent planned for or acknowledged. By calling all things that are usefull in this way 'rational' I think you'd be confusing the term. Making it into a generic substitute for 'good' or 'decent'. To me, that seems harmfull to an agenda of improving people's rational thinking.

.>, for there is no alternative available.

I would like to propose the alternatives of 'beneficial' and 'usefull'. Otherwise we could consider 'involvement in causality' or something like that.

I think the word rationality could use protection against too much emotional attachment to it. It should retain a specific meaning instead of becoming 'everything that's usefull'.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 05:40:49PM 1 point [-]

I think the word rationality could use protection against too much emotional attachment to it. It should retain a specific meaning instead of becoming 'everything that's useful'.

I'm not in love with using the word "rationality" for what this community means by rationality. But (1) I can't come up with a better word, (2) there's no point in fighting to the death for a definition, and (3) thanks to the strength of various cognitive biases, it's quite hard to figure out how to be rational and worth the effort to try.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 05:42:19PM 0 points [-]

Sure, but asking the rational decision to make when there is literally no decision to make is not a well formed question.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 January 2012 05:45:15PM *  1 point [-]

You use an invalid argument to argue for a correct conclusion. It doesn't generally follow that something that can't be improved is not worth "worrying about", at least in the sense of being a useful piece of knowledge to pay attention to.

Comment author: thomblake 04 January 2012 04:12:34PM 1 point [-]

I mean, to my mind, having a diëtician for a parent ... is not rational

Assuming for the moment that having a dietitian for a parent really does help one achieve one's goals, yes it is rational, to the extent that it can be described as an act or process. That is, if you can influence what sorts of parents you have, then you should have a dietitian.

Similarly, it would be rational for me to spend 20 minutes making a billion dollars, even though that's something I can't actually do.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 04:24:24PM *  1 point [-]

Whether a dietitian-parents could help you achieve all kinds of goals. Generally you'd be likely to have good health, you're less likely to be obese. Healthy, well-fed people tend to be taller, a dietician could use diet changes to reduce acne problems and whatnot. It is generally accepted that healthy, tall, good-looking people have better chances at achieving all sorts of goals. Also, dieticians are relatively wealthy highly-educated people. A child of a dietician is a child of privilege, upper middle class!

Anyway, my point is exactly that nobody can choose their parents.TimS said:

Any act or process that helps with achieving goals is rational.

I would consider parenthood a process. But having a certain set of parents instead of another has little to do with rationality, despite most parents being 'usefull'. In the same way, I would not consider it rational to like singing, even though the acquired skills of breathing and voice manipulation might help you convey a higher status or help with public speaking. To decide to take singing lessons, if you want to become a public speaker, might be rational. But to simply enjoy singing shouldn't be considered so, even if it does help with your public speaking. Because no rational thought is involved.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 04:53:32PM 2 points [-]

Ha, you caught me using loose language.

At a certain level, instrumental rationality is a method of making better choices, so applying it where there doesn't appear to be a choice is not very coherent. Instrumental rationality doesn't have anything to say about whether you should like singing. But if want skill at singing, instrumental rationality suggests music lessons.

As an empirical matter, I suggest there are lots of people who would like to be able to sing better who do not take music lessons for various reasons. We can divide those reasons into two patterns: (1) "I want something else more than singing skill and I lack the time/money/etc to do both," or (2) "Nothing material prevents me from taking singing lessons, but I do not because of anxiety/embarrassment/social norms."

Again, I assert that a substantial number of people decide not to take singing lessons based solely on type 2 reasons. This community thinks that this pattern of behavior is sub-optimal and would like to figure out how to change it.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 05:22:47PM 0 points [-]

Here I agree almost fully! My problem is that people aren't fully rational beings. That some of the people might want to take lessons on some level but don't can't be attributed only to their thoughts, but to their emotional environment. A persons thoughts need to be mobilised into action for something to take part. Sometimes this is a point of a person needing more basic confidence, sometimes a person needs their thoughts mirrored at them and confirmed. As in, speaking with a friend who'll encourage them. Thinking alone isn't enough.

I admire the community's mission to try and change people. But by the same line of argument I use above I think focusing only on how people think and how they might think better is not going to be enough. I think rationality should also be viewed as a social construct.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 January 2012 05:40:38PM 1 point [-]

I admire the community's mission to try and change people. But by the same line of argument I use above I think focusing only on how people think and how they might think better is not going to be enough.

One level up, consider who does the focusing how. The goal may be to build a bridge, an tune an emotion, or correct the thinking in your own mind. One way of attaining that goal is through figuring out what interventions lead to what consequences, and finding a plan that wins.

Comment author: TimS 04 January 2012 05:35:57PM 0 points [-]

people aren't fully rational beings.

That's what we've been saying. Not all of a person's thoughts are rational. And I certainly don't assert someone can easily think themselves out of being depressed or anxious.

I think rationality should also be viewed as a social construct.

I think that the goals people set are socially constructed. Thus, the ends rationality seeks to achieve are socially constructed. Once that is established, what further insight is contained in the assertion that rationality itself is socially constructed?
To put it slightly differently, I don't think mathematics is socially constructed, but it's pretty obvious to me that what we choose to add together is socially constructed.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 05:43:19PM *  0 points [-]

That's what we've been saying. Not all of a person's thoughts are rational. And I certainly don't assert someone can easily think themselves out of being depressed or anxious.

My point there wasn't that people's thoughts aren't all rational, though I agree with that. My point was that not all human actions are tied to thoughts or intentions. There are habits, twitches, there is emotional momentum driving people to do things they'd never dream of and may regret for the rest of their lives. People often don't think in the first place.

Once that is established, what further insight is contained in the assertion that rationality itself is socially constructed?

I think that, when one's goal is to improve and spread rationality, a elementary questions should be: When, and under which circumstances does a person think? How does a social situation affect your thinking? So instead of just asking how do we think and how do we improve that? It could also be usefull to ask when do we think and how do we improve that?

At some point in the future we could then inform people of the kind of social environment they might build to help them better formulate and achieve goals. Like people with anger problems being taught to 'stop! And count to ten' other people might be taught to think at certain recognisable critical moments they currently tend to walk past without realising.

Comment author: thomblake 04 January 2012 04:29:22PM 1 point [-]

Yes, at this point we're just disputing definitions. But I think we're in agreement with all the relevant empirical facts; if you were able to chose your parents, then it would be rational to choose good ones. Also, one is not usually able to choose one's parents.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 04:44:47PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for your quick replies. Yes we are agreed in those two points. I'm going to try something that may come off as a little crude, but here goes:

Point 1: If every act or process that helps me is to be called rational, then having a diëtician for a parent is rational. Point 2: The term rational implies involvement of the 'ratio', of thinking. Point 3: No rational thinking, or any thinking at all, is involved in acquiring one's parents. Even adaptive parents tend to acquire their child, not the other way around. Conclusion; Something is wrong with saying that everything that leads to the attainment of a goal is rational.

Perhaps another term should be used for things that help achieve goals but that do not involve thinking, let alone rational or logically sound thinking. This is important because thought is often overstated in the prevalence with which it occurs, and also in the causal weight that is attached to it. Thought is not omnipresent, and thought is often of minor importance in accurately explaining a social phenomenon.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 January 2012 04:51:42PM *  2 points [-]

"Rationality/irrationality" in the sense used on LW is a property of someone's decisions or actions (including the way one forms beliefs). The concept doesn't apply to the helpful/unhelpful things not of that person's devising.

Comment author: thomblake 04 January 2012 04:51:25PM 1 point [-]

I'd prefer to reject point 2. Arguments from etymology are not particularly strong. We're using the term in a way that has been standard here since the site's inception, and that is in accordance with the standard usage in economics, game theory, and artificial intelligence.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 05:26:51PM 0 points [-]

You may be right in that the argument comes more from a concern with how a broader public relates to the term of ´rational´ than how it is used in the mentioned disciplines.

On the other hand I feel that the broader public is relevant here. LessWrong isn´t that small a community and I suspect people have quite some emotional attachment to this place, as they use it as a guide to alter their thinking. By calling all things that are usefull in this way 'rational' I think you'd be confusing the term. It could lead to rationality turning into a generic substitute for 'good' or 'decent'. To me, that seems harmfull to an agenda of improving people's rational thinking.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 04 January 2012 04:26:57PM 1 point [-]

If I have a choice of whether to enjoy singing or not, and I've chosen to take singing lessons, I ought to choose to enjoy singing.

Comment author: thomblake 04 January 2012 02:58:50PM 0 points [-]

See What Do We Mean By "Rationality".

Summary: "Epistemic rationality" is having beliefs that correspond to reality. "Instrumental rationality" is being able to actualize your values, or achieve your goals.

Irrationality, then, is having beliefs that do not correspond to reality, or being unable to achieve your goals. And to the extent that humans are hard-wired to be likely irrational, that certainly is a bug that should be fixed.

Comment author: Kouran 04 January 2012 03:41:07PM 1 point [-]

By that definition you might say that, but that still leaves the problem I tend to adress, that rationality (and by the supplied definition also irrationality) is suscribe to people and actions where thinking quite likely did not take place or was not the deciding factor of what action came about in the end. It falsely divides human experience into 'rational' and 'erroneously rational/irrational'. Thinkin is nog all that goes on among humans.

Comment author: thomblake 04 January 2012 04:07:38PM 0 points [-]

Thinkin is nog [sic] all that goes on among humans.

Uncontroversial, as far as that goes.