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A concise version of “Twelve Virtues of Rationality”, with Anki deck

3 [deleted] 12 September 2013 02:38AM

In an effort to internalise the Twelve Virtues of Rationality, I created an Anki deck. It's already been done, so the reason I'm posting is to share a condensed version of the article (created as a side effect of my making the deck).

Hopefully it will make it easier to quickly refresh the concepts if you've already read the article.

If you're not using spaced repetition, you should. Don't believe me? Try reading Gwern's thorough review of the topic.

Then download the “Twelve Virtues of Rationality” deck.



The twelve virtues of rationality: Curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship, and the void.

The first virtue is curiosity.

Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer.

A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth.

To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance.

The second virtue is relinquishment.

P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”

If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear.

Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions.

The third virtue is lightness.

Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.

If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

The fourth virtue is evenness.

Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.”  

Do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.

To be clever in argument is not rationality but rationalization.

The fifth virtue is argument. 

Those who smile wisely and say: “I will not argue” remove themselves from help, and withdraw from the communal effort.

The part of yourself that distorts what you say to others also distorts your own thoughts.

Seek a test that lets reality judge between you.

The sixth virtue is empiricism.

The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction.

Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate.

The seventh virtue is simplicity. 

When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong.

In mathematics a mountain of good deeds cannot atone for a single sin. Therefore, be careful on every step.

The eighth virtue is humility.

To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors.

It is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. 

The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple.


The ninth virtue is perfectionism.

The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice.

If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors.

Do not be content with the answer that is almost right; seek one that is exactly right.

The tenth virtue is precision.

What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.

The narrowest statements slice deepest.

Do not walk to the truth, but dance. On each and every step of that dance your foot comes down in exactly the right spot.

The eleventh virtue is scholarship.

Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own.

If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. 

The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in The Book of Five Rings:  “The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy.”

Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement.

Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green.

All techniques are one technique.


The twelve virtues of rationality: Curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship, and the void.




If I've made any mistakes or omissions, please speak up!



Comments (17)

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 02:36:46PM 5 points [-]

Memorizing these seems like a greatly ironic method of how not to learn rationality.

If you were to come across some of these statements out of context, I'm willing to bet you would find them pretty mysterious, if not meaningless.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 09:16:27PM *  1 point [-]

The out-of-context statements are intended as a resource for people who have already read through and understood the post. If they have done that, then the statements won't be mysterious or meaningless, but instead act as triggers for entire concepts. See this excellent guide to breaking down knowledge into memorisable chunks.

Two questions, Phillip:

1) Do you think Eliezer's article has value? 2) How would you ensure that you'd learnt its key messages?

If you think there's no point, or if you have a better way, I'd love to hear about it.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 10:17:18PM *  8 points [-]

Okay, to know what I'm talking about here, I downloaded the deck and am looking at sample questions now. Here are the first 10 questions I got:

1) The sixth virtue is _.

2) _ wrote in the Book of Five Rings, "quoted stuff".

3) The sixth virtue (again)

4) The _ is humility.

5) _ thus more can be said about a single apple...

6) If _, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors.

7) [as I realize I can copy and paste from Anki] The [...] is relinquishment.

8) [...] seeks to annihilate itself; there is no [...] that does not want an answer.

9) [...] that distorts what you say to others also distorts your own thoughts.

10) The [...] is empiricism.

What do you gain from knowing whether empiricism is the second or the seventh in the list, or from memorizing pithy quotes word for word, without context? The important thing is to learn how to practice and apply the concepts, not to memorize them by rote.

[Edit: line breaks]

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 11:58:48PM 3 points [-]

What do you gain from knowing whether empiricism is the second or the seventh in the list,

Take a look at the list. Look at the last sentence of each item, and the first sentence of the next. Do you see how they flow into each other? Learning the order of the items helps me remember which virtues are connected to other ones, and how.

or from memorizing pithy quotes word for word, without context?

There is context, just not in the Anki card. It's in the article (which you would need to read before using the deck), and it's in your brain (the memories of the last time you read it.)

The important thing is to learn how to practice and apply the concepts, not to memorize them by rote.

When I'm in situations where I might want to apply these virtues (e.g. when having an argument), I often don't have time to deduce them from first principles. If I've got them memorised, I can at least do a quick check of “is my current behaviour in opposition to any of the virtues?”. This helps me apply them to everyday life.

So how would you “learn how to practice and apply the concepts” from the article? What concrete steps would you take?

I'm sure my method has flaws; I want to know of a better way. Can you help me?

Comment author: [deleted] 13 September 2013 04:07:28AM 1 point [-]

This post may be a better thing to internalize. I'm pretty sure there's other similar posts out there, but this was the most salient one for me.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 September 2013 07:11:02AM 2 points [-]

All techniques are one technique.

False. Is this a quote from the referenced source? If so, the referenced source is silly.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 09:32:08PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer quotes Musashi:

“Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.”

So I took “All techniques are one technique” to mean that the techniques share the same goal, and that it can be useful to think of them as a unified whole to facilitate moving between one and the other (see also his part about rationality being a “dance”.)

How do you interpret it? Is he just trying to sound cool, and not actually communicating anything of value?

(That's a genuine question, and I'm open to the possibility of it being true. I just need a little convincing.)

Comment author: Bobertron 12 September 2013 07:45:53AM 0 points [-]

If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”

There is this saying about the game of go, which states that as a beginer, all you see are stones. As an intermediate, all you see are tactics, shapes with specific names, etc. And as an expert, all you see are just stones again. I think the sentiment is the same.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 September 2013 07:58:24AM *  2 points [-]

There is this saying about the game of go, which states that as a beginer, all you see are stones. As an intermediate, all you see are tactics, shapes with specific names, etc. And as an expert, all you see are just stones again.

From what I understand of the neuropsychology and expertise research this saying is terribly misleading. The structural changes to relevant areas of memory and the observations of which aspects of pattern recognition are improved the perception of higher level abstractions rather than low level features is rather inherent to the achievement of high levels of expertise. Chess experts for example have a vastly superior ability to memorize chess board layouts that are of the kind that occur in actual games. On the other hand their ability to memorize randomized chess boards is barely more than that of amateurs. I would be shocked if this was different in Go players. This indicates that what the experts are 'seeing' can not be meaningfully described as advancing according to the saying.

I think the sentiment is the same.

I prefer this sentiment. "Deep" nonsense saying things are all the same when they aren't doesn't belong in a rationality tract.

Comment author: Bobertron 12 September 2013 02:57:39PM 0 points [-]

The saying can be seen as mystifying the abilities of stronger players. But I think there are also more charitable readings. I think the second and third stage in the saying might refer to the same as the “rigorous” stage and the “post-rigorous” stage in this article. Instead of saying that in the third stage on sees "just stones again" (I might have replicated that part badly), it might be more correct that one can see the stones again, because the formalisms aren't in your way anymore.

I prefer this sentiment. "Deep" nonsense saying things are all the same when they aren't doesn't belong in a rationality tract.

Well, I assume it was included mostly for poetic reasons. Which is not an excuse, of course.

Comment author: Tenoke 12 September 2013 07:17:22AM -1 points [-]

I'm sorry, but this is not really worth a discussion post, especially when the twelve virtues have been ankified before with the deck already on LessWrong (as you have pointed out yourself).

Comment author: [deleted] 12 September 2013 09:18:09PM 0 points [-]

I'd be interested to see the cost-benefit analysis you used to arrive at the conclusion that it's not worth a discussion post.

Comment author: Tenoke 13 September 2013 05:42:54AM -1 points [-]

As I said in my comment - the twelve virtues have been ankified before. A slightly different (even if it's better which I don't know if it is) version could potentially be useful to someone but is definitely not going to be useful to enough people (any?) to justify a discussion post. If you don't believe me then look at the comment section and see if people seem to be finding it useful.

Comment author: Pavitra 15 September 2013 07:10:30PM 0 points [-]

I don't think it's a good idea to do a formal memorization of something that's not based on any kind of scientific research.

Comment author: malcolmocean 28 January 2016 06:59:49AM 0 points [-]

Ehh, I've gotten a lot of value out of memorizing poems, and even definitions. I don't do many of the latter, but I've found that throwing a word in Anki usually causes me to have it available as a concept later, which is often helpful.